When school isn't working for highly gifted children, they suffer. Parents suffer too. Our immediate impulse is, "I'm going to go in there and tell that teacher/principal/superintendent exactly what I think."
But to create real change, advocacy requires something more.
As parents with three gifted children among us, we have been working with schools for years to create appropriate educational experiences for our children. We have found that the most common forum for advocacy is a meeting with educators who have the power to make things different for our children.
Different school environments call for different strategies. Here are the steps we have taken to prepare for, execute and follow up school meetings in our mid-sized, public school district. These steps have become, for us, the elements of effective advocacy.
Before the Meeting
For many parents of gifted children, assessment by a professional who is knowledgeable about the highly gifted is a helpful way of gathering information. However, many educators value their own observations more than they do a professional report. Therefore, it's important that you are able to talk about your child in the way educators do. For the most part, educators assess children by comparing them to other children, to benchmarks in their curricula, and to general stages of child development.
Many of us don't realize the degree of difference that exists between our highly gifted children and children of more usual ability levels. We mistakenly think, for example, that all five-year-olds have a keen interest in negative numbers, or that all kindergartners enter school reading. Developing a sense of where other children are can help you in your planning.
There are several ways to begin. Ask other parents what their children read, or what they do in their spare time. Begin to note ability levels, degree of motivation, intensity of concentration. Seek out your district's standardized test results (available at the Superintendent's office) to compare grade level scores. Join an Internet mailing list about gifted kids.
Now it's time to get informed.
Parents are the best resources for learning about district practices. Volunteering to help with a parent association-sponsored project can provide invaluable opportunities to hear what is really happening in the school.
Plan to state your proposals in terms of the priorities you see in the district; common practices. For example, if emotional and social issues carry weight, phrase your request for academic accommodations in terms of social/emotional benefits: "It is difficult for gifted children to develop self-esteem and self-discipline unless they are presented with challenging work." If necessary, you can challenge a practice which is not based on policy.
Distinguish between accommodations that require the school to do something new, and those that can be solved by granting your child an exemption in a subject he or she has mastered. Sometimes you can arrange to provide some of the academic material your child needs, or design activities to do at home, as long as the school maintains control over evaluation.
Note: Don't expect the school to create effective solutions-they may not even perceive that there is a problem. If they do, they may believe the problem is your child. Or, faced with an emotional response from you, they will happily shift their focus, and decide that the problem is you. This is why a needs-based plan is essential.
Arranging Your Meeting
Communication Is the Key
The way you communicate throughout the meeting is critical. There is no way to predict or prepare for the tone of a meeting; any unwritten agendas school personnel bring will reveal themselves as the meeting unfolds. Your job is to listen to the spoken words as well as the beliefs and emotions behind them, and to respond appropriately.
Anger and outrage are tools best used sparingly, and personal attacks should be avoided. That does not mean you should avoid direct comments. In general, keep the focus on your child's specific, individual unhappiness and the remedy you seek. Portray your parenting style fairly - most of us feel we are going flat out just to try to keep up. If socialization is raised as an issue, stress that with highly gifted children, appropriate challenge among intellectual peers generally improves social issues.
Listen closely to the teacher. What are the issues from her point of view? You'll find clues to her educational philosophy 'between the lines.' For example, "I always find the bright children do just fine in my classes" may mean, "gifted kids do fine on their own." "Does Jimmy play much after school?" may really mean, "This poor kid has such pushy parents, he probably has no time to play." "This is a heterogeneous class," may really mean, "Gifted children already have advantages, why should I offer your child more?" And, sometimes the bias is evident: "My classroom is so rich it is challenging and appropriate for all learners." "If she learns that now, what will she do in fifth grade?" You must be prepared to respond to comments like these.
After the Meeting
If educators are unresponsive, specific actions can further your cause:
In elementary schools, academic work is usually done in the morning. If your child dreads the mornings but doesn't want to miss lunch, do "learning things" at home, record what you do, then go in for the child's favorite parts of the day.
Consider home schooling until the problem is solved.
Change does not come easily to schools. Effective advocacy makes educators question what they believe, what they've learned, and how they work in their school or classroom. Educators who feel their authority, judgment, dedication, and professionalism have been challenged - which is what advocacy appears to do - can get very angry. This can be difficult for advocates. While we joke that the advocate's slogan is "Places to go, things to do, people to piss off," it is always painful to feel anger or resentment directed at you or your children. There have been times when we've felt ignored, insulted, deceived. We've been screamed at, gossiped about and avoided. No matter how prepared you think you are for this, when it happens, it hurts.
But then there are the results: Grade and subject accelerations where they have never happened before. Distance learning programs in lieu of in-school learning. New practices in cluster grouping. Best of all, children who sparkle once again.
It's important to care for yourself through this process. Find like-minded friends. join a listserve for parents of gifted kids. Create an outlet for your anger fear and disappointment. Love your children. Believe in yourself.
And never, ever give up.
Cathy Russell is a stay-at-home mom and PTA President. Karen LaBonte is a writer, mother and former teacher. Greg Russell is a computer scientist and father. Cathy, Greg and Karen are involved in advocating for gifted children on many levels. This article is adapted from a presentation.
Reprinted with permission of the authors. Originally published in Highly Gifted Children published by The Hollingworth Center.
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