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The Art of Writing Letters to the School
by Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

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When parents fire off a letter to the school, they are usually in the middle of a crisis that involves their child. At that moment, they want to DO SOMETHING. They may be trying to right a wrong or protect their child from harm. Some parents write angry "last straw" letters after a series of bad experiences or incidents that occurred over a period months or years. 

Before you put pen to paper, you need to STOP and THINK about what you want your letter to accomplish.

In this article, you will learn about the purposes of letters, two approaches to letter writing, the Blame Approach and the Story-Telling Approach and how to avoid the Sympathy Factor. You will learn the differences between business letters and therapeutic letters - and why you should never send a therapeutic or emotional letter to the school. 
woman thinking
(istockphoto)

Letter Writing and the Need to DO SOMETHING!

Before you send a strongly worded letter to the school, keep these things in mind.

First, after you send an angry letter, it is out of your hands forever. You cannot change a single word!

Second, your letter will be read by strangers. Since schools are bureaucracies, most important decisions are made by administrators who are a few levels above your contact person. These administrators donít know you or your child. They donít know the history behind your letter unless you include a summary of background information. 

Third, no one will wade through a long letter, hoping to find a nugget of gold. You have to capture the readerís interest within the first few sentences. If you donít succeed in capturing interest quickly, the reader will skim a page or two and put your letter away. 

Fourth, your letter is a personal statement about you and your situation. What are you saying about yourself and your impulse control if you give in to the desire to DO SOMETHING and write an angry, threatening, or demanding letter?

The decision-making strangers who make decisions in a school bureaucracy donít know or care that this was the last straw or the culmination of many negative experiences.

A letter gives you an opportunity to make a good first impression and tell your side of the story. Think about the impression you want to make on the stranger. Do you want the stranger to see you as an angry, negative, whiny complainer? Do you want the stranger to see you as a rational, thoughtful parent who is expressing valid concerns? 

Two Approaches to Writing Letters:  The Blame Approach v. the Story Telling Approach

The Blame Approach

Letís look at letters written by two dads. The first letter was written by a father after he attended an IEP meeting for his daughter.
angry man
(istockphoto)

Dear Dr. Smith: 

You asked that I describe my objections to the IEP that your "professional" staff of educators wrote for my daughter. Despite my own lack of training, I found that the IEP developed by your staff was absolutely preposterous. Let me share a few observations with you. 

Your staff FAILED to include anyone on the IEP team who thoroughly understands my daughterís background, including her current teachers. 

Your staff FAILED to perform any observation on my daughter before developing the IEP. 

Your staff FAILED to develop an appropriate IEP because they failed to include information from the new testing, and relied on outdated testing completed nearly a year ago. 

Your staff FAILED to develop an IEP that targeted her specific needs and unique abilities. 

Your staff FAILED to develop an IEP that includes objective criteria to measure progress or lack of progress. 

Your staff FAILED to develop an IEP that included any evaluation procedures to measure progress, as related to the annual goals and objectives that your staff wrote. 

(This list continues for several pages.) 

Given their years of training and experience, I would expect your staff to be capable of writing a simple IEP. Although I have no training whatsoever in how to write IEPs, even I can see how inadequate this document is. 

As I examine the IEP developed by your staff, I can only conclude that they are incompetent and inept. This IEP proves that your staff are incapable of teaching my daughter who is smarter than your entire team. 

Sincerely, 

Bob Bombastic

What is your first reaction to this letter? Do you understand why Bob wrote the letter? What does he want the school to do? Do you understand his position? Do you agree with him? Or, did you have a different response? 

When Bob wrote this letter, he was steamed. Previously, the district accused Bob of not advising school staff about his specific objections to their IEP. He was not going to let that happen again. Bob knew he had to give the school "legal notice" of his objections to their proposed IEP. He felt defensive so he included every conceivable objection to the IEP in his letter, from the serious to the trivial.  

Unfortunately, when a stranger (like you) reads Bobís letter, the stranger doesnít know about the background and history. Bobís letter elicits feelings of sympathy for the people who received the letter. Why is this? 

Most of us have seen people arguing in public. Youíve probably seen couples arguing or a parent disciplining a child. What was your reaction?

If youíre like most people, you felt uncomfortable. You may have had a stronger emotional reaction. You didnít like it. You felt sympathy toward the child or adult who was being confronted or humiliated.

People have the same reactions when they read letters. 

The Story-Telling Approach

Letís take a look at another parent's letter. The author of this letter is Jim, another dad who attended an IEP meeting.
pleasant man
( istockphoto )

 Dear Dr. Smith: 

First, let me thank you for letting me participate in the development of Carrie's IEP. I appreciate your willingness to meet so I could share my concerns about Carrie and her educational needs.  

At last week's IEP meeting, your staff was patient and answered many of my questions. Their kindness was especially appreciated since I had not met most of the people who attended this IEP meeting. I am sorry that neither of Carrie's teachers could attend the IEP meeting. I understand that one teacher was on a field trip and the other teacher had a medical appointment. 

I am concerned that we did not have enough time to develop Carrie's IEP. Although 25 minutes was allotted for the IEP meeting, we started more than 10 minutes late. I understand that several IEP meetings ran late earlier in the day. I know things get rushed at the end of the school year which makes scheduling IEP meetings especially difficult. 

Frankly, I was troubled that the IEP team did not have enough time to discuss the recent evaluation on Carrie. You may recall that I had an updated evaluation completed two months ago. After I received the evaluation, I provided you with a copy of this new evaluation. I shared my concerns that Carrie has not made any progress during the two years sheís received special education services from the district. She doesn't have more time to waste. 

Unfortunately, the results and recommendations from this evaluation were not included in the school's proposed IEP. The school psychologist did not have a copy of the evaluation at the meeting. He thought it may have been misfiled.

Perhaps this is why the team gave me an IEP that placed Carrie back into the same program. You will recall that I expressed concerns about her IEPs and their lack of objective measures and evaluation procedures so we would know if she is making adequate progress. 

Iím sure you can understand why I did not sign the IEP presented to me at this meeting. Given the confusion and rushed atmosphere with several parents waiting, I decided it would be better to schedule another IEP meeting later, when we have time to discuss these issues in depth. The other IEP team members need to review the new evaluation findings and recommendations before they attempt to write an IEP. Iíve included another copy of the evaluation with this letter. 

Please check with your staff and send me some times so that we can get together for a productive meeting. If you have any questions, please call or write. 

Sincerely, 

Jim Manners

What is your first reaction to Jim's letter? Do you know why Jim wrote this letter? Do you understand his concerns? Do you know what he wants?

When you read Jimís letter, did you realize that his letter dealt with the same facts as Bobís letter? These letters describe the same IEP meeting. Both letters mention serious violations made by the school when they developed the childís IEP. In both cases, the parent was presented with an IEP that pre-determined the childís program and placement. The parents had little or no real input into the IEP and were expected to sign it. In both cases, the child was tested by an independent evaluator. In both cases, the new evaluation showed that the child made little to no progress in the existing program. In both cases, the recent evaluation results were not included in the child's IEP. In both cases, the childís teachers did not attend the IEP meeting. 

Your goal is to write diplomatic "Mr. Manners" letters. List your concerns and issues that need to be resolved but keep your tone pleasant and businesslike. Jim lays out his facts without blaming or name-calling. If Jim needs to go further Ė to a mediation, a hearing officer or a judge, heíll be in good shape. 

If Bob decides to take his case to an outside decision-maker, heíll be in trouble. Bobís letter is filled with angry, blaming statements. He didnít include information that would help a stranger understand the background. The tone of his letter would alienate any neutral decision-maker Ė mediator, hearing officer, or judge. 

The "Sympathy Factor"

If youíre tempted to write an angry letter to the school, you need to realize that you may trigger the Sympathy Factor. This sympathy will not be for you or your child. When people read angry, sarcastic or threatening letters, they feel sympathetic to the person who received the letter. This is what happened with Bobís letter. 

"Why?" you ask. 

At some point in our lives, most of us have received an angry letter. The letter may have come from a jilted lover, an ex-spouse, an angry relative or neighbor, a creditor, or the IRS. When you read the angry letter letter, you felt threatened, guilty, ashamed, and angry. Later, you filed these negative emotions away in your emotional memory bank. 
woman reading sad letter
(istockphoto)

When you read a letter written by an angry person, you are likely to have sympathy for the recipient. Based on your own experiences, you will think the recipient didnít deserve to be attacked. Instead, youíll think: "Well, maybe the person made a mistake - but we all make mistakes. No one is perfect." From the perspective of the stranger, the fact that someone makes a mistake doesnít give you an excuse to attack. 

First Impressions are Lasting Impressions

When you write a letter to the school, understand that your letter will be read by people who donít know you. Most teachers, guidance counselors, and assistant principals donít have the authority to make important decisions so your letter will be read by a stranger in the school system who has decision-making power. 

In your letter, you will introduce yourself to this decision-making stranger. After reading your letter, the stranger will form an impression of you.

You have one chance to make a good first impression.

If the stranger forms a negative first impression of you, this person will have difficulty accepting positive information about you in the future. Youíll have a hard time rehabilitating yourself in their eyes. 

Remember Bob Bombastic? After Bob fired off his letter about how the school had FAILED, the school went into a defensive mode. From their perspective, if they gave Bob anything he asked for, this would be an admission that he was right and they FAILED to educate his child. The school staff viewed the issues differently. They did not believe that they FAILED to provide Bob's daughter with an appropriate education. What happened next? 

The school wrote a pleasant non-committal letter to Bob. They advised that they disagreed with him but were willing to meet with him to resolve their differences. They offered several meeting times. The tone of their letter was pleasant and businesslike. Bob didnít respond. The school filed his letter away. Nothing about his daughterís education changed. 

Later, Bob requested a Due Process Hearing. The school submitted several of his angry letters as exhibits in their case. Why?

The school wanted the Hearing Officer to see Bob from their perspective and conclude that he was a jerk. The school's theme was that Bob was a "difficult parent" but they were willing and able to provide his daughter with an excellent education. Their argument was successful.  

If you create a negative first impression, you increase the odds that you will lose the battle and the war. Strangers who read a negative letter you wrote are likely to write you off as a "loose cannon." They may feel sorry for your child: "That poor kid. No wonder he has so many problems. Can you imagine what it's like to live with such a crazy parent!" 

This is not the outcome you want. 

 Another Example

Letís look at another situation and decide how we should document the problem.

Background. Assume the principal wrote a letter advising that he is suspending your child for three days next week for being late to class. Earlier that day, you attended a meeting at the school to develop an IEP. After the principal wrote the letter, the school didnít send the letter until the day of your meeting. No one mentioned the letter during this IEP meeting. You didnít know that there was a letter. A day later, you receive a letter about suspending your child from school. Youíre extremely angry that no one mentioned the suspension during the IEP meeting. 

Donít say it! Do nothing until you calm down and have time to think.

Instead, use facts to write your letter:

Dear School Team: 

On XYZ DATE, we attended an IEP meeting for our son at the school. On ABC DATE, we received a letter from you, advising that you suspended our son for three days. This letter was postmarked the same day we attended the IEP meeting and was dated three days earlier. 

It seems that either the letter was misdated or the team decided against discussing the suspension with us during our son's IEP meeting.  

We are quite confused and not sure what make of this. 

Sincerely, 

Mr. and Mrs. Frank

Thatís all. You resisted the impulse to make judgments. You do not need to say anything else.

What happens next? When a decision-making stranger reads your letter, he or she will think "Good Grief! What jerks!"

You did not belabor the absurdities in how the situation was handled. You didn't make judgments. Instead, you laid out facts that provide enough information for a Stranger use their own experiences and imagination to fill in the blanks.  

The Story Telling Approach is far more powerful and effective than the Blame Approach. If you donít judge or attack overtly, you minimize the risk of evoking the Sympathy Response. 

"Therapeutic Letters"

Writing letters can be therapeutic. The writing process can help you get things off your chest and deal with frustration. You can tell THEM whatever you WANT! 

NEVER send "therapeutic letters!"

Thereís a big difference between a "therapeutic letter" and a business letter. In a business letter, you write to make a point, clarify an event, make a request, or create a paper trail. A therapeutic letter can form the basis of a journal or diary. People who are going through tough times often find that writing in a journal or diary is helpful.

You never send a therapeutic or emotional letter to the school. 

12 Rules for Writing Effective Letters

You write letters to request information, request action, provide information or describe an event, decline a request, and express appreciation.

Because you want your letters to create a good first impression, we urge you to read our companion article, 12 Rules for Writing Great Letters. If you follow these Rules, you will make it more likely that you will get the relief you want. 

1. Before you write a letter, think, then answer WHY and WHAT. 

2. First letters are always drafts. 

3. Allow time for "cooling offí and revisions. 

4. You are always negotiating for services. 

5. Never threaten. Never telegraph your punches. 

6. Assume you wonít be able to resolve your dispute. Instead, the dispute will escalate, a special education due process hearing will be held, and you wonít be able to testify or tell your side of the story. 

7. Make your problem unique. 

8. You ARE writing letters to a decision-making Stranger. You are NOT writing letters to the school. 

9. You ARE writing business letters. When you write business letters, you DO use tactics and strategy (your brain). You DONíT vent your anger or frustration (your emotions). 

10. NEVER make judgments.

11. Tell a story. Write your letter chronologically. Donít mention the primary issue in the first paragraph of your letter. 

12. Write letters that are easy to understand. Make your letters clear, short, alive, and right. 

Using Letters to Open the Door to Better Services

Do you want to open the door to better services for your child, or do you want to shoot yourself in the foot and damage your child in the process because your letter backfired?

We recommend that you read the original Letter to the Stranger by Pete Wright and Janie Bowman. In that article, you will meet panicked parents who wrote an angry letter to the school. After a cooling-off period, these parents wrote a very different letter. The original Letter to the Stranger teaches you how strong emotions affect people -- especially parents. You will also meet "the Stranger" and learn how he reacted to these two letters. 

Now that you have read our primer on writing letters, we hope you will continue your learning process. In Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy (FETA) read Chapter 22 "Creating Paper Trails," Chapter 23 "How to Write Good Evidence Letters," and Chapter 24 "Writing the 'Letter to the Stranger,'" and the Sample Letters at the end of Chapters 23 and 24. With a little practice, you will become an expert on how to write powerful, effective letters.

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Additional Resources

LetterExpert, a web site in Great Britain, offers a unique reference point on writing letters about everything to anybody. Whether you want to complain, send a fan letter, create a love letter, report a crime or deliver some news, this site will help you. Go to:

http://www.letterexpert.co.uk


Revised: 12/06/15

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