Wednesday / May 29

Build TRUST—Lessons learned during COVID for Special Educators

Years ago, when my Boston law firm hired me, Bob, the hiring partner, gave me a piece of advice: Return phone calls the same day, even if just to say that you got the call and will be in touch later.

It was excellent advice. Why? It helped me to build trust with my clients. No one likes to wait for their lawyer’s or doctor’s call, email, or text.  Everyone likes to know that they matter. Bob’s advice turned out to be an excellent habit.

I believe that a positive and TRUSTING relationship between school and family is also vital for excellent education. We need it at IEP or 504 Team meetings; in classrooms; with students, parents, colleagues—everywhere!

About trust: A few months before he died at age 100, George Shultz, the diplomat, reflected on advice he got when he first became Secretary of State— “Trust is the coin of the realm.” He carried that lesson with him for his whole life and wrote a book about trust and relationships. You can download it here: Trust

“When trust was in the room, whatever room that was—the family room, the schoolroom, the coach’s room, the office room, the government room, or the military room—good things happened.

When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen.  Everything else is details.”

The US is the only established democracy where the level of ‘social trust’ is falling. ‘Social trust’ means that people believe that they can trust most people because they’ll abide by established norms.  Ours used to be 50%; now it’s less than a third. Without trust, what’s left?


Let’s get practical. While we can’t fix the world, there are steps to take to build trust in our own sphere of influence.

Start with speaking plain language. Avoid acronyms and fancy words!

Words matter. If you’ve followed me over the years, read my books, blogs, or articles, or heard me speak, you know that I believe that the words we use–proper or improper—are key to building trust with people. Say what you mean and mean what you say! In plain language!

But many words are ‘doublespeak’—trust-busters. Many create an ‘honesty gap.’ Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “doublespeak” as language that can be used in more than one way and is used to deceive people. The term ‘honesty gap’ popped up in the public schools’ testing/achievement arena and refers to the gap between information parents receive and how students are actually doing.

Some oft-used terms that I believe kill trust are:

“Closing the gap” is a great goal, but is it real? What happens when we lower standards or expectations or provide invalidating modifications for some students?

Closing the gap is NOT part of special education. A FAPE is about one child, not about how peers are doing. If we must talk about gaps among students, how about aiming to “narrow gaps,” which may be more realistic and honest.

“All students can meet the same challenging academic standards.” What does this really mean? Is it honest?

“We want what’s best for your child.” While that may be what you want personally, it’s not what your job is under the IDEA. Your job is to provide an appropriate, not a best, education. Overpromising and underdelivering kill trust.

“Parents and schools are equal partners” in planning the IEP, at the Team meeting, etc. Not so, according to Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (US 2017). Parents and schools have two very different roles: Schools provide expertise and parents provide input. Calling it an equal partnership is misleading.

During COVID’s lockdowns and remote learning, some happy surprises emerged.  Some schools and parents of students with disabilities actually got along better than before and built trust between them.

What did they do and how did that happen? I believe we can take some of those COVID lessons and surprises forward to this school year.

  1. Because there were no formal in-person meetings, school personnel contacted parents directly—by phone, email, text—on a 1:1 basis—to set up services, a meeting, or review progress. Why was this important? The contacts felt personal. Parents felt more heard and valued and this led to fewer due process complaints.
  2. Schools had to level with parents. More than before, they treated parents as partners because of the crisis. They showed parents that the school was doing its best for their child under the most challenging circumstances. Many parents responded with understanding and appreciation—and better collaboration! The message was “we’re here for your child and you.” It reminded me of Bob’s advice.
  3. They “caught the students doing well” in very trying times and shared that good news with parents. Students are a complex combination of experiences, strengths, and weaknesses, and sharing the complexity helped to build trust.
  4. The at-home setting actually helped some students thrive. Schools were able to individualize learning more, highlighting the “I” in IEP.
  5. School personnel had to become more creative and explored new ways of teaching and assessing, worked with students, and engaged parents because the COVID situation was so challenging and unpredictable.


  • Keep parents in the loop. Return those phone calls.
  • Work with parents on a personal basis. Treat them like partners: Share the good, the bad, and the in-between. Be creative!
  • Focus on the whole student—strengths and weaknesses—and share with parents.
  • Highlight the “I” in IEP, as some students work better and learn more while at home.
  • Build upon some of the happy surprises during COVID to build TRUST.

Isn’t life amazing? Sometimes, even in the worst of times, happy surprises emerge to lead the way forward.

“Why are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other?” The Wall Street Journal, December 19-20, 2020.

Written by

A school attorney, Miriam Kurtzig Freedman is of counsel to the Boston law firm of Stoneman, Chandler & Miller LLP.  She provides clients and national audiences with lively and practical keynotes, training, and consultation—all in “plain English!” A former teacher, Miriam “gets” it—what school folks need to know and do. Miriam has authored eight books and had contributed articles to The Wall Street Journal, Education WeekEducation Next, the Journal of Law and Education, the University of Chicago Law Review on line, among other publications. She also contributes to Miriam co-founded the annual Special Education Day (December 2) to both celebrate the success of special education and to spur reform.  Among its reforms is SpedEx, the successful, voluntary, trust-building, child-centered dispute resolution model. A summary of her writing, speaking, and consulting is available at

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