Tips for Parents: Advocacy - Working with Your Child’s School
Shoplik, A.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development
2010

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik, Ph.D., Director of the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students. She provides numerous strategies on how to advocate for your gifted student in his/her school setting.

2010 Seminar TIPS

Obtain objective data and gather other information.
One of the most important things parents can do is obtain objective data, including achievement and ability test results, as well as information about your child’s learning preferences and interests. Anecdotes and examples of work your child has done at home are also helpful.

Another type of information you’ll want to gather is how to work within your school system. Learn who the key players are, and understand who makes the decisions. Find allies within the system (your child’s teacher or gifted coordinator may be an excellent advocate). Make a point of understanding how your local system works. Learn the appropriate educational jargon, including terms like differentiation, cluster grouping, self-contained classes, and subject-matter acceleration.

You are responsible for advocating for your child.
You can’t assume school personnel will initiate a change in the standard school program for your child. Although many schools do have systematic identification measures and systematic programs, many do not. Learn as much as you can about your child’s talent area. For example, if your child is especially talented in language arts, you’ll need to learn about options for students with those strengths.

Don’t depend on your child’s school to fulfill all of your child’s needs. Look into opportunities outside of school, such as weekend programs and academic summer camps. School personnel may or may not be aware of those programs. The website, http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/summer.htm, will give you a great start. Many programs offer generous scholarships to students needing financial aid.

Determine what your child's needs are.
You might decide to focus on one specific subject area. For example, if your child is really interested in language arts, you might decide to focus on that area this year and not focus on the math placement. We'd like to be able to do everything at once, but sometimes it's just too much for the school personnel (or the parent!) to handle.

At one point or another, you'll be asked what you want for your child. Go into a meeting prepared with an answer to that question. Decide what your goals are for your child. Reasonable accommodations for gifted students include: differentiation in the regular classroom, grouping with other talented students within the regular classroom, placing them in a separate class for high-ability students, participating in pullout programs, and moving up a grade for one or more subjects. Other options include working on independent study projects and participating in competitions and science fairs.

Decide what is reasonable to ask your school to do.
Know the limitations of your own school system. Some schools may be able to provide a mentor to work one-on-one with a student or provide supervision for a distance learning course at the appropriate level. Other schools may not have the budget or personnel for such provisions. Adjusting a child's schedule so he can move up a grade for math may be very easy in a larger school with multiple math periods. In a small school, there may be no way to work out this schedule change. Understand that school personnel have to work within budget and personnel constraints. Try to remain flexible as they suggest alternatives.

Perhaps one of the easiest steps to take in the elementary grades is to request a specific teacher for a child. Jim Delisle (2006) recommends requesting a “style” rather than a particular teacher. For example, you might tell the principal that your child works best when the classroom is structured or when there is a lot of flexibility in assignments.

Recognize positive developments and keep your interactions positive.
Write a letter telling your child's teacher how much you appreciate the differentiated work she has provided for your child in the regular classroom or telling him how much your child enjoyed a specific activity. Send a copy of the letter to the principal, if you like. Write a letter to the school board to comment on a positive experience with your child’s educational program. If this results in the teacher or principal being more willing to advocate for your child, that's a nice bonus! Also, consider volunteering for school activities, such as chaperoning field trips or helping to make bulletin boards.

After you have done a lot of research on your child’s strength area, you may be in the position of having more information than school personnel about appropriate educational options. You’ll want to share your knowledge in a manner that is non-confrontational and helpful. Think consciously about how you are perceived by personnel in your child’s school.

Join a parent group, or start one!
The National Association for Gifted Children (www.nagc.org) is a national organization for parents and teachers of gifted students. Their website offers many suggestions for advocacy. Consider joining an affiliated state organization or the local parent group. These organizations provide resources, annual conferences, and a way to meet other parents in similar situations.

Understand that your efforts at advocacy today can have a positive impact on someone else’s child in the future. It’s practical to seek changes for your child that can be accomplished in the near future. However, the changes made for your child help focus attention on the need in the school system for new programs or accommodations for other academically talented youth. As a result, the interactions you have with school personnel on behalf of your child can influence future programs for gifted students.

Tips for Talking to Teachers.
Sally Yahnke Walker (2002) gave some great suggestions for talking with teachers:

  1. Make an appointment. Don't just drop in.
  2. Document what your child has done, said, or read.
  3. Plan what you're going to say.
  4. Choose your words carefully. Try to start with something positive.
  5. Build a partnership and negotiate solutions. Work as a team.
  6. Be diplomatic, tactful, and respectful.
  7. Focus on what your child needs.
  8. Listen.
  9. Bring along your sense of humor.
  10. Summarize what you have discussed and a time line. Plan a follow-up meeting.

How do you handle the situation where your child isn't happy in school, and all your efforts at advocacy aren’t yielding results?

  • Make sure your child has at least one good friend. Your child doesn't need 100 friends and doesn't need to feel "popular" all the time. However, your child does need at least one peer who has similar interests. This other child might be a little older or younger than your son or daughter. Try to facilitate their time together.

  • How will your child find that one good friend? Try to get him or her involved in a variety of activities: a sport, a musical activity, something with church or scouts. Encourage your child to participate in a summer or weekend program for gifted kids. Many children blossom in those environments. Even if they end up going back to the same situation at their 'regular' school, they know there are places where they fit in better and where academic excellence is admired.

  • Try to find other adults to befriend and mentor your child. It doesn't have to be a weekly, formal session. Can your child chat with a high school teacher about a topic of mutual interest? Can the local Rotary or Kiwanis club match your child with an adult who has similar interests?

  • Participation in contests and competitions is another way to challenge the student while also giving him/her a peer group.
  • Keep reminding yourself that this is temporary. New teachers come along, schools change policies, and new programs are developed.

  • Above all, be your child’s chief cheerleader. Frequently remind your children that you appreciate their talents and accomplishments, and you value academic excellence.



2009 Seminar TIPS

Take responsibility for advocating for your child
Don’t assume school personnel will make adjustments in the standard school program for your child; although many schools do have established programs and protocols for exceptionally talented students, many do not. Learn about gifted education, and learn as much as you can about your child’s talent area. For example, if your child is exceptionally talented in math, you need to learn about options for math-talented students.

Research outside-of-school opportunities for students, too. Don’t rely on school personnel for this information. In addition, understand that your child may not be able to get all of the challenges he or she needs from your school’s programs. You may need to find other programs in order to meet your child’s needs.

Obtain objective data
Objective information is the best information you can share with school personnel. Although anecdotes and examples of work students have done at home are helpful, objective data (such as test results) are even more so.

You’ll need achievement test results to demonstrate what your child has learned plus above-level testing (using tests that were designed for older students) to give a clear picture of your child’s abilities.

Interacting with school personnel: Keep it positive
After you have done all of this research, you may be in the position of having more information than school personnel. This can be a delicate situation! You want to share your knowledge in a manner that is non-confrontational and helpful. Think consciously about how you are perceived by personnel in your child’s school.

Consider setting the stage for positive interactions with school personnel by volunteering for lunch or recess duty, offering to help with tasks like making bulletin boards, chaperoning field trips, etc. Also, remember that a little kindness goes a long way: consider writing notes to teachers telling them when your child enjoyed a topic or activity in school and write positive notes to principals and other decision-makers when you are pleased with something at school.

What should I ask the school to do?
Approach school personnel with a plan. This is your starting point, the point from which the discussion begins. Decide what your goals are. At one point or another, you'll be asked what you want for your child. Go into a meeting prepared with an answer to that question.

Reasonable accommodations for gifted students include differentiation in the regular classroom, grouping (within a class or placement in a separate class for high-ability students), pullout programs, and moving up a grade for one or more subjects. Independent study projects and participation in competitions and science fairs are other options. Some schools may be able to provide a mentor who can work one-on-one with a student or provide supervision for a distance learning course at the appropriate level. Other schools may not have the budget or personnel for such provisions.

Perhaps one of the easiest steps to take in the elementary grades is to request a specific teacher for a child. You can make that request even before the school has announced classroom assignments for the next year. You can talk to the principal about your child's needs and interests and try to find a match with a teacher who is compatible.

If issues arise during the year, it's always best to start by talking with your child's teacher. If you approach the principal first, that might be viewed negatively by the teacher.

Differentiation within the regular classroom may be a good starting point for many teachers and talented students. Susan Winebrenner has written a book that is popular with teachers, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom. The book is filled with practical suggestions, and it's written in a teacher-friendly way.

As you are advocating for your child, it's helpful to work with your school's gifted coordinator or gifted teacher. This individual will know something about gifted students as well as be familiar with the system at your school. He/she can be a good advocate for your child and can make suggestions for appropriate changes in the standard school program.

Making Decisions about Acceleration
Parents of many exceptionally talented students realize that their children aren’t experiencing a good ‘match’ with the current school curriculum. One of the most common ways to make a better match is through acceleration. Acceleration can be a scary topic, since society in general and many school personnel are extremely concerned about the impact of acceleration on social adjustment. One helpful tool in making decisions about grade-skipping or moving ahead in one subject is the Iowa Acceleration Scale. This tool was designed to facilitate the conversation between parents and school personnel. Rather than focusing on one aspect of acceleration (such as socialization), the IAS helps the parties involved think about all important aspects.

Beginning the conversation about acceleration may be very difficult; some schools even have anti-acceleration policies in place! The two volumes of A Nation Deceived (http://www.nationdeceived.org/) gather pertinent research on the topic and provide support for a well-reasoned argument supporting acceleration for exceptionally talented youth. They provide a good starting point for advocacy.

Can students be involved in advocacy?
When kids are young (preschoolers and early elementary), parents need to make decisions for them. They can certainly tell you when they are unhappy in a school situation, but they aren't going to be able to tell you how to fix it.

As they get older, students should take on more responsibility for advocating for themselves. Eventually, they can come with you to meetings with school personnel about their programs. Sometimes, a student initiates the discussion about modifying an educational program. For example, a 5th grader wrote a letter to her school principal asking very eloquently to be moved up to 6th grade because she wanted a challenge. She was successful in her request.

Get involved in parent organizations
The National Association for Gifted Children (www.nagc.org) is a national group for parents and teachers of gifted students. They provide suggestions for advocacy as well as for starting parent/teacher groups. Most states also have statewide organizations, and these often serve as umbrella organizations for local parent groups. They provide resources as well as annual conferences.

Parent organizations provide a real service. Not only do they help parents with similar concerns meet each other, but also they give them opportunities for education. For example, a local parent group might sponsor an information session directed at parents of gifted girls or a summer program expo.

What kind of an impact can I have?
It is hard to make changes in the “system.” Getting a school to develop a program for verbally-talented students could take years and it may not be a realistic goal to expect the program to be ready for your child. However, working with your school to make individualized accommodations for your child during the school day could happen as soon as next week.

It’s practical to seek changes for your child that can be accomplished in the near future. However, the changes made for your child highlight the need in the school system for new programs or accommodations for other academically talented youth. As a result, the interactions you have with school personnel on behalf of your child can influence future programs for gifted students. Be assured that your advocacy today can have a positive impact on someone else’s child.


      Resources

      Assouline, S. G., & Lupkowski-Shoplik, A. (2005). Chapter 2, Advocacy. In Developing Math Talent. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

      Smutney, J. (2002) Communicating Effectively with Your Gifted Child’s School. Parenting for High Potential. National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).

      Davidson, Jan and Bob (2004). Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting our Brightest Young Minds. New York: Simon & Schuster.

      Gilman, Barbara Jackson (2008). Academic Advocacy for Gifted Children: A Parent’s Complete Guide. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

      Parenting Tips on Educational Advocacy: http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10286.aspx

      Rogers, Karen. (2002). Re-Forming Gifted Education: Matching the Program to the Child. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

      Walker, S. Y. (2002). The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids: How to understand, live with and stick up for your gifted child. Minneapolis: Free Spirit.

      Winebrenner, S. (2001). Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom: Strategies and techniques every teacher can use to meet the academic needs of the gifted and talented. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Press.


      The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.

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