(Reprinted with permission from the author)
What is a Letter of Understanding?
When people communicate misunderstandings can occur. Not everyone hears the same information in the same way. What we hear is often colored by our personal experiences, cultural influences, and our expectations. Administrators, special ed personnel, teachers, and parents can misunderstand what is being asked of them or what expectations the other party might have.
There is a very useful tool that can clarify your understanding of a conversation as well as clarify the other person’s position. It is called a letter of understanding. A letter of understanding becomes especially important when verbal communication does not seem to be working. Parents should develop the habit of documenting important conversations, and this letter is an important tool in the advocacy toolbox. Verbal conversations do not hold much credibility during a complaint process or a due process. It is the written word that counts.
Thank You Notes
On a more positive note, letters can be complimentary as well, following up on successes with a heartfelt thank you. Our children require innovative teaching strategies and sometimes require great energy of our teachers. Too often, teachers receive attention only when things are going wrong. It is very important for parents to recognize the importance of positive communication when things are going really well for their child. Teachers need those pats on the back just as much as a child does. They are absolutely thrilled to receive an attractive handwritten note of genuine thanks and recognition.
Our son had a teacher who received such a heartfelt note. She told him that in 23 years of teaching she had not received such a note. She was going to put it in her “special treasures box.” We also saw to it that such teachers were recognized in writing in front of peers and administrators. It is wonderful to see such efforts recognized by parents and a professional’s peers.
However, since most of us have the skills to write a heartfelt thank you note, writing a letter of understanding to resolve issues is a skill in itself. Our focus now turns to such a letter and the purposes it can serve.
What this letter accomplishes:
- Allows for true misunderstandings to be resolved quickly.
- Keeps a reasonable timeline, or if necessary, a deadline to resolve misunderstandings.
- Allows for clarification of the issues as you see them.
- Invites clarification of issues from the other person’s standpoint.
- Can keep the issues focused, not generalized.
- Shows you are keeping the lines of communication open for all participants.
- Gives you an excellent documentation record for your file.
- Calls for accountability of verbal conversations in person or on the phone.
- Lays out the problems as you see them, and places on record the date of your concern.
- Provides an excellent record laying the basis for more formal complaints if you should need to go on to the State Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, or U.S. Department of Education.
- Demonstrates that you have tried to resolve issues at the local level, and with whom you spoke.
- Gives you a written record of verbal conversations if the district did not keep a written record.
The letters should always be as brief as possible but polite. List individually your specific concerns. You cannot get specific answers for vague questions. Repeat what you heard the other party say that you believe was important. You give the other party an opportunity to correct any understanding; however, I do not recall any of the parents I have worked with being told they did not understand something correctly. How friendly the letter is depends on the circumstances. If this is a new situation you just want to be sure the appropriate individuals are aware of the circumstances. If an issue is of long standing, I would include a date by which you request a response. (Your child cannot afford to lose more time in building his or her education.)
The letter asks for answers, with a built-in timeline. It should not include irate words that bruise people’s egos. “Irate” shows a person is out of control and is never productive in the long run. If you feel a lot of anger I recommend a draft letter, let it sit 48 hours, then tear it up and start from scratch. With this approach, anyone can come on board and do what is needed without feeling they are in a win/lose situation. After all, we want everyone to be winners, especially your child.
A sample letter follows:
I appreciated your taking the time to visit with me on (date). I am still confused on a few issues and would appreciate your clarifying any points I might have misunderstood. I would like very much to see great communication and networking in addressing the needs of “Joanie.” The following is my understanding of our phone conversation:
You believe it is not possible for my child to change teachers because if she does it, others will want to do the same thing. If a teacher does not have the training and expertise to teach Joanie the way she learns, I believe a new teacher should take precedence over what other children may or may not think.
While Joanie is eleven years old and struggles to read her sister’s second grade books her reading comprehension tests show she is on grade level. We are concerned that perhaps her testing was not in depth enough to reveal her true abilities in the area of reading. If you have more objective testing methods we would like more evaluation using those instruments. If you feel the testing was sufficient we will ask for an independent evaluation at district expense by a specialist in that area.
You do not feel we should interfere with her lack of social skills. We believe her isolation from peers due to this deficit impacts her emotionally as well as socially. We are puzzled that the school will not consider a mentorship or a designated school job, because you feel everyone else would want the same thing. We do not think that the children all have the same thing now, since our daughter is illiterate and her peers are not. We understood the term “Individualized” meant Joanie’s education would be tailored to her unique needs? We would appreciate the district’s assistance in helping Joanie progress in nonacademic areas of need.
You see no problem with Joanie spending up to three hours on homework each night because you believe she needs to “learn responsibility.” I would like the district’s interpretation of the word “responsibility.” Perhaps we could try substituting the word “competent” for the word responsibility. Perhaps the focus would shift to her deficits which could then be addressed with careful consideration and planning.
That while my child has Attention Deficit Disorder her real problem is that “she doesn’t pay enough attention” and that she needs to try harder. I am really puzzled as I understood that the diagnosis in itself meant an inability or inconsistency in attention. I believe we may have differing interpretations of noncompliance and an incompetence due to ADHD. It could save time and prevent confusion if the team develops a written guideline regarding this subject.
If I have somehow misunderstood our conversation I would appreciate it if you would clarify your position on these points. I truly want to work in a positive way and in a team spirit. Please let me hear from you soon, hopefully within the next two weeks, if I have misunderstood you.
Again, thank you for the phone call. We look forward to working with you on Joanie’s behalf as members of the IEP team.
We can be reached at (phone) and our address is ___________________.
[Judy Bonnell is currently involved in advocacy work on behalf of all children with disabilities. Ms. Bonnell is a graduate of the ARC’s Partners in Policymaking program and has served as Secretary on the Board of Directors of the Parent Training and Information Center, Parents Reaching Out. Additionally, she has presented on behalf of Lorman Education Services. She continuously seeks new information that might facilitate a team’s efforts to teach a child in the way he or she learns. Her goal is to be a catalyst for positive change leading to a true team effort, focusing on the needs of the child and of the teaching staff. Ms. Bonnell has compiled a total of 38 years of working with educators on behalf of children, including her own. She has also worked closely with concerned and experienced educators who implement special education within the spirit and intent of the law.]