Tips for Parents: Advocacy - Working with Your Child’s School
Shoplik, A.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development
2015

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik, Ph.D. She provides numerous strategies on how to advocate for your gifted student in his/her school setting.

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, Achievement testing documents what your child has learned. Above-level testing (using tests that were designed for older students) helps to give a clear picture of your child’s abilities. Information about your child’s learning preferences and interests as well as anecdotes and examples of work your child has done at home are also helpful.

Gather information about 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). 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.

Research outside-of-school opportunities; don’t depend on your child’s school to fulfill all of your child’s needs. Weekend programs and academic summer camps not only provide excellent academic experiences, but also give your child a chance to meet other like-minded peers. 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.
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 and prioritize those goals in your mind. 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.

Decide what is reasonable to ask your school to do.
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.

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.

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.

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.

Interacting with school personnel: Keep it positive
After doing 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.

Set 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 emails to teachers telling them when your child enjoyed a topic or activity in school and write positive notes to principals, school board members, and other decision-makers when you are pleased with something that has happened at 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. 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.

Tips for Talking to Teachers.
Sally Yahnke Walker (2002) provides excellent 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 appreciated.

  • Try to find other adults to mentor your child. You don’t have to schedule weekly, formal sessions. 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? Volunteering (especially for older students) might also facilitate these mentoring relationships.

  • 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.

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 effective ways to make a better match is through acceleration. Acceleration can be an intimidating 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 report that will be released in April 2015, A Nation Empowered (www.nationempowered.org), provides up-to-date information about 60 years of research documenting the success of acceleration as an intervention for academically talented students. Additionally, the Acceleration Institute (www.accelerationinstitute.org, housed at the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa) provides extensive resources on acceleration. The evidence supporting acceleration for gifted students is clear and indisputable; however, teachers and administrators are not likely to be well-versed in the topic, since colleges of education do not always teach this information.

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. Think consciously about helping them learn the skills of advocacy. They can learn to approach a teacher and ask for more challenging work, for example.

What kind of an impact can I have?
Making changes in a “system” is difficult. For example, getting a school district to develop a program for mathematically-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 in the future.


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.


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