I remember the first time I was gaslighted at an IEP meeting. It probably wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time that I remember. I was working in a local district, and I had been there a lot.

This particular district had a horrible reputation regarding discipline issues, particularly with minorities and disabilities.

So once again, I found myself in a Manifestation Hearing with a client, the IEP team, and some school board members.

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Gaslighting at School

And, dammit, I was prepared. I had read IDEA and PA education code on discipline many times and had been through more of these hearings than I cared to remember.

Yes, Gaslighting at IEP meetings is a thing.
As if IEP meetings didn’t already feel like a battle, now we have to worry about gaslighting?

And once again, the school board members attempted to circumvent the law, doing whatever they pleased. I protested. Then I showed them the education code and what the discipline code says about kids with IEPs.

They didn’t care. I had two back-to-back hearings, and they pulled the same crap in each one. I remember longing for an attorney to be there.

I kept saying, “You can’t do this; it specifically states that….” They repeatedly told me I was wrong.

I started to doubt my knowledge, my memory, and my sanity.

After those hearings (and I got my concerns in the record, in writing), I immediately emailed an attorney friend who is well-versed in all of this and told him what happened.

He confirmed what I knew–I was right, and they were violating the law. In hindsight, I don’t think I could have done anything differently, but the experience stuck with me and was a learning experience.

It happened to me again this week, and an advocate friend said it’s been happening to her. So I thought, hey, let’s do a post on it.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting became a pop culture term in the 1940s due to the film with Ingrid Bergman. There was a play before her movie, but it became popular. She is being manipulated by a man who wants to drive her crazy, and one of the things he does is that he is constantly lowering the gas lights.

When she asks if the lights have been lowered, he denies it. He says nothing has changed, and it must be your imagination. In her mind, she is certain that the gas lights are dimming. But since he says they are not, she starts questioning her sanity.

Wikipedia defines gaslighting as: Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.

Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser to disorient the victim.

So, now are you starting to nod in agreement? It’s basically a situation when you know you are correct but are repeatedly told you are wrong.

Examples of Gaslighting that I’ve Experienced in IEP Meetings

  • If you get the child an IEE, the evaluator can never have met or worked with the child. (that is not true, IDEA says nothing about this)
  • Only “life skills” students are entitled to a 13th or 14th year. (um, no)
  • Everyone’s favorite, “He’s fine!” (Parents, go with your gut if things are not fine.)

Has this happened to you?

You’re in an IEP meeting. You’ve done your research, you’ve studied, you’ve read. And now you are being told something you are just certain is false.

Sometimes I do believe it’s ignorance. But sometimes, I can’t help but think that it’s deliberate and that they are trying to convince us to go along with “their way” even though they know it’s wrong.

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It’s maddening. It makes you question your sanity, knowledge, and confidence. It can happen to even the most seasoned advocate.

A former supervisor that I had, had decades of experience. But one time, in an IEP meeting, the team was so adamant about what pendency or stay put was, she started to doubt herself.

So, she excused herself, made a quick call, and confirmed what she knew was correct.

gaslighting at iep meeting

So what can you do?

I mean, short of standing up and mimicking the woman from this commercial, what can you do?

Avoiding Gaslighting at IEP Meetings

  • Go in prepared. You know what your sticking points are going to be. So have your data ready. If you are going to ask for an IEE, have that section printed off from IDEA. If you are debating ESY, print that off and bring it.
  • Ask them to prove to you their point. For example, I could not find anything about the IEE thing for the meeting I had on Monday. So I told the mom to email them: Please show us where it says that IEE evaluators must never have met the child before. Put the onus on them.
  • One common gaslighting topic is when to end an IEP. Read that link for more info on that.
  • As usual, don’t sign anything besides an attendance sheet. Follow up with data and documentation later with your after-meeting email. Whatever you need to look up–laws, testing protocols, etc., look it up and send it to them after the meeting.
  • Try to remain confident. This is why the IEP process must be a year-long process and ongoing. If you throw together a bunch of information the night before, you’re more likely to doubt yourself and fall for this.
  • Allow people to save face. They may genuinely not know. Be polite in calling them out on this. This is about getting your child what they need, not getting staff in a “gotcha.
  • Get a second opinion from an advocate in our group, or do more research when you get home.
  • Go with your gut. Too often, moms are talked out of their gut instincts. Nothing needs to be finalized in this meeting, right here, right now. Table it until you have time to research and regroup.

Gaslighting at Schools

It’s important to remember that too often, our kids are gaslighted at school. My professional opinion is that not all gaslighting students is done with malice.

Many times on the school’s part, it’s just getting through a day or situation. That doesn’t make it any less destructive to the child’s psyche or self-esteem.

Any time that a child tells you:

  • it’s too noisy or loud
  • it’s too bright
  • I’m hungry
  • I don’t feel good
  • it’s too hot/cold
  • smelly (smell sensory issues)

Believe them! How often do teachers and parents brush it off with “you’re fine.”

No, they are not fine! They just told you that they are not fine. You can validate a child and not have to rework your entire day.

Instead of “You’re fine!” when hearing the concern, what if instead we validated their feelings?

Some options are:

  • I’m sorry the noise is bothering you. We have to remain here for X minutes longer, and then we’ll go back to the classroom where it’s quieter.
  • You’re right; it is chilly out here today. Did you bring a jacket? Let’s see if there is one in Lost and Found for you to borrow.
  • I don’t smell what you’re smelling, but would you like to change seats? Did you bring a covid mask today? Maybe that will help.

If a child brings us a concern or asks for help, it’s our requirement as adults to acknowledge them and help them as best we can.

Kids who possess different sensory processing skills experience a lot of gaslighting.

Sensory issues are real and should not be dismissed.

Do not gaslight sensory issues.

I hope this has given you some insight into the giving and receiving of gaslighting tactics.

IEP Meeting Norms

Here are more things you might see happen at an IEP meeting. Some are legit and totally called for. Others….are not.

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