This Davidson Institute blog post offers parents tried-and-true strategies they can use to optimize their chances of changing the attitudes of teachers and administrators and find a solution that will optimize their child’s education. These strategies include the following tips: obtain an assessment; be prepared; schedule a meeting. Advocacy is an ongoing process and parents need to remember there are no perfect schools, perfect classrooms or perfect teachers. As a child grows, additional accommodations will need to be explored and implemented.
Unfortunately, most schools group students by age, not ability and make very few accommodations for students who think and learn differently. As such, parents of gifted children often find themselves serving as advocates. Although advocating for your child’s education can be difficult and stressful, it can also be extremely rewarding.
If you and your child are fortunate, you will have understanding and helpful teachers and school officials who are flexible. If that’s the case, as it was for Jill in Genius Denied (Chapter 4), your job as parent will be much easier. Jill’s teachers were interested in helping any way they could, and although they could not accommodate her abilities entirely, Jill was allowed the flexibility to attend pull-out programming one day a week while she homeschooled on other days.
However, teachers and administrators are not always open to accommodating the unique educational needs of the gifted. Daniel’s experience (Chapter 7) is an unfortunate demonstration of these obstacles. When Daniel worked ahead, his teacher sent home notes saying he “Must stay with class.” The school librarian refused to let him check out books because she felt they were too advanced for him. Even the district’s “best” middle school failed to accommodate his abilities.
As your child’s advocate, there are many things you can do to change attitudes and find a solution that will optimize your child’s education. The advocacy tips provided in this article are tried-and-true strategies parents have used to maximize results and minimize stress.
Obtain an Assessment
The first step in arranging appropriate services for your child is gaining a clear understanding his or her abilities. In addition to anecdotal information, the best tool you can have when advocating for your child’s education is a comprehensive assessment. A widely accepted IQ test (WISC-III or -IV, or Stanford-Binet 4 or 5) typically is not sufficient by itself. In fact, an IQ score by itself may actually prompt resistance from the teacher or the school. You will need both and IQ test and current achievement tests, such as those published by Woodcock-Johnson. These tests are generally administered by a licensed psychologist.
Before going to meet with your child’s teacher, you need to do your homework.
- Know your child – Beyond knowing what an evaluator has to say about your child, you need to be aware of your child’s interests, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses. Understanding your child’s behaviors – good and bad – as well as what prompts specific behaviors allows you to predict the outcome of particular proposals and be more persuasive in discussing their merits. Being realistic about your child’s strengths allows you to be fair in what you ask of the school and its staff.
- Know the teacher – Speaking with your child’s teacher in less formal settings, such as a parent-teacher conference, gives you the opportunity to get a sense of how flexible and accommodating the teacher will be to your requests. Remember to always thank the teacher for his or her time. We recommend doing so in writing; this little effort buys a lot of good will.
- Know your child’s school – Does the school have a gifted program? If so, how is it organized, and how are children accepted into the program? It also helps to know the hierarchy at the school. The first person you approach should always be your child’s teacher. Knowing whom to approach next can be more complicated. The school may have a gifted education coordinator, or the principal may be the next stop. Going directly to the top could undermine your efforts.
- Know the district’s policies – If there is a written policy regarding gifted education and accommodating highly intelligent children, find it and read it. If there is a gifted education administrator, know who that person is and get him or her involved if you need to. Make sure your child is being offered everything that the district policy describes.
- Learn the language – Education is riddled with jargon. Educate yourself on the tests, the various educational options and the research on highly intelligent children. The more you know, the more effective you will be in advocating for your child and the more prepared you will be to address issues, find solutions and propose actions to the school.
Schedule a Meeting
If your child has had a comprehensive assessment, the results may have already prompted some accommodations by the school. If this is not the case, or if you feel more needs to be done, it’s time to ask for a formal meeting. These steps can help you have an effective meeting:
- Have a plan – Having specific requests is more fruitful than asking for unspecified accommodations. Model the flexibility you are seeking by having more than one option to address your request. Understand that whatever the plan, it will likely take more than one meeting to get what you want for your child. When generating a plan, consider all of the factors including your child’s strengths, interests, and abilities; the amount of investment you are asking of the school; and what the school is required and able to offer – which are not necessarily the same thing. Keep in mind – and remind others when necessary – that you are looking out for your child’s best interest.
- Negotiate – Be open to suggestions from school officials and flexible in the timetable and implementation of the plan. You may not come to an agreement with your child’s teacher or school on every point, but that should not stop you from making progress. Bring ideas to the table, including possible compromises. Be flexible, and listen to the evidence and points that school officials are making. It may work to your advantage to ask for more than you think you can get. This will give you room to negotiate and give up some ground while still getting what you feel is necessary for your child’s education. Know which points you are not willing to concede – and be prepared to artfully defend your bottom line.
- Build consensus – Don’t approach any meeting, individual or group with an adversarial attitude. If you start the process with rigid demands, the teachers and school officials may be less likely to collaborate. Relationship building is key to effective advocacy. Keep in mind that the accommodations you are seeking will likely create extra work for the teacher and administrators. Put yourself in their shoes. Consider how someone could successfully approach you at your place of work and suggest that you make changes (that will create more work for you) to accommodate the specific needs of just one employee. That is the tact you may need for success.
- Create a paper trail – Document every meeting and communication that you have regarding your child’s education. Keeping a record of your communications and the plans to which you have agreed will make it clear to everyone what has been accomplished and who is responsible for providing which services and support. This encourages accountability from everyone involved in your child’s education – including you. Providing a copy of such records allows everyone the opportunity to clarify their points and confirm the accuracy of the impressions you have. Send thank-you notes to everyone involved, even when you don’t get exactly what you want. This will keep the relationship professional and the lines of communication open.
If you have taken the steps to prepare yourself and applied the proper tools in the meetings, you have optimized your chances for success. If you are still facing resistance, move up the chain of command at the school and at the district. Keep in mind that there is likely to be someone along the line who is sympathetic to your child’s needs. If nothing acceptable can or will be done by the time you have reached the superintendent, you may have to consider alternative schooling arrangements, such as changing schools, homeschooling or taking your child out of class for part of the day.
Advocacy is an ongoing process. There are no perfect schools, perfect classrooms or perfect teachers. As your child continues to grow and learn, additional accommodations will need to explored and implemented. We recommend accessing the Davidson Gifted Blog for additional information on Educational Advocacy.
- Four Simple Steps to Self-Advocacy
- How parent advocacy groups can make a difference: An interview with Christine Smith
- How parent advocacy groups can make a difference: An interview with Debbie Kring and Juli Moseley
- Rigor vs. Challenge: A Different Way to Look at School Advocacy for Gifted Students
- Testing Your Gifted Child: A Springboard for Effective Advocacy
- Tips for Students: The Power of Self-Advocacy
- Tips for Parents: How to Advocate for your Gifted Student at School