Author: Russell, C., LaBonte, K. & Russell, G.
Publications: Highly Gifted Children
Publisher: The Hollingworth Center
Volume: Vol. 12, No. 4
Year: Spring/Summer 1999
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
- Recognize that you are your child’s only advocate. Principals and teachers advocate for their school, their curriculum, and for “all” children, not your individual child.
- Believe that your child has the right to receive instruction appropriate to his or her intellectual needs.
- Know your child and his intellectual abilities.
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.
- Understand your child’s temperament and how he may be perceived because of it. A teacher’s perceptions may make all the difference in the accommodations s/he is prepared to offer. For example, a teacher’s response to an introverted child who is perceived as “nice” may be warm and positive, while her response to a child who is an energetic extrovert, perceived as “undisciplined,” or “demanding” may be the opposite. Misperceptions of temperament are often presented as problems in socialization, and concern about socialization can be a convenient red herring for avoiding academic changes. It’s also important to understand that inappropriate academic environments can have a negative effect on a child’s behavior Knowing your child’s temperament will help you separate issues and identify excuses.
- Understand your personality and communication style, and how you come across to others. If you have a direct or confrontational style, you may need to incorporate that into your plans or tone yourself down to get the results you want.
- Recognize that there is no formula for a “gifted education” Each highly gifted child has an individual set of strengths and needs, requiring an individualized set of responses. The more highly gifted the child, the more finely tuned the accommodations need to be, and the harder you will have to work to get them.
Now it’s time to get informed.
- Become familiar with characteristics of gifted children, research and common practices in gifted education. Educators have little training in gifted children. The more highly gifted your child is, the less likely it is that the educators will know what to do.
- There is an overwhelming amount of information to be processed. Don’t expect to accomplish everything at once. You are embarking upon an on-going self-education process involving a multiplicity of resources, including books, journals, contact with other parents and professionals and conferences.
- Become familiar with general educational trends and how they are reflected in your district. These form the context for the district’s practices with gifted children. For example, if your district interprets Multiple Intelligences theories to mean that all children are gifted, your strategies need to take this into account.
- Learn your school district’s policies and practices about gifted children. These are not always the same. Do policies exist about subject acceleration, grade skipping, grouping, teacher selection? Your district policy manual in the school district office is a good place to start, rather than asking the teacher or principal.
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.
- Learn your district’s “chain of command”, the names of the people who fill these roles, and their educational philosophies. The chain may look something like this: Teacher, Guidance Counselor, Principal, Assistant Superintendent, Superintendent, School Board, State Education Department, Chancellor or Commissioner of Education. Identify your allies in this chain, and cultivate relationships with them. Know also who will oppose you and how to challenge or side step them.
- Develop a plan to meet your child’s needs. Decide what issues need to be addressed, what accommodations will be required, and what resources or strategies the school district could use to implement them.
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.
- Timing is everything. Give the teacher several weeks to get to know your child, then ask for a conference. You may need to insist in order to get a meeting this early in the year. To create changes for the next year, late winter is not too early to start, particularly if the plans involve acceleration.
- Document your child’s need(s). Helpful documents include a professional assessment that includes out-of-level testing, a portfolio of your child’s past work or home projects that relate to your request. For example, if you are seeking a more appropriate reading program, a list of books your child has recently read at home provides a useful contrast to books used at school.
- Know the common arguments against what you are proposing; rehearse counter-arguments. Some of these may include:
“Horizontal learning is much better developmentally for a child than acceleration”
“We don’t see a problem at school”
“All parents think that their children are gifted” “We’ve never done that here.”
“Acceleration is harmful socially. What about the prom?”
- Start developing a multi-year plan, especially if radical acceleration is involved. Be prepared to change your plan as needed. You won’t be able to implement everything at once. Prioritize and offer it to the district a little at a time; let them develop some ownership of your ideas.
Arranging Your Meeting
- Always make an appointment
- Begin at the bottom of the chain of command, i.e., with the teacher. Sometimes, the higher up the chain you go, the greater the number of people who need to be involved, and the more complicated the politics (and ego involvements) become. If a teacher supports you, it may be easier to gain administrative support. However, if a teacher is reluctant or unwilling to help, don’t hesitate to escalate to the next level.
- When you call for an appointment, be specific about what you want, who you want to meet with, and how much time you will need. A meeting with the teacher is usually the easiest thing to arrange. If you want to meet with more than one person, ask who will be responsible for contacting each staff member Usually this will be a school representative, such as a guidance counselor, or psychologist; this person will be your contact. If the principal is assuming this role, be sure you are on good terms with his/her secretary State clearly who you will bring to the meeting (the professional who did your assessment, an advocate familiar with the system?).
- Offer several possible dates. If you want to make sure that your meeting will not be interrupted or cut short, try to arrange an after-school time.
- If you call in the morning, you should expect a response by afternoon. If you ask for an appointment on Monday, you should be able to schedule one by the end of the week. Exceptions include really busy times, such as kindergarten screening week, teacher conference weeks, the week all high school schedules are due, etc. Also, it is not unreasonable to expect a waiting period of two to three weeks if you are asking several people from the school to attend.
- Write an agenda for your meeting. Keep to one or two topics, and seek specific outcomes. Make bullets of points that can’t be forgotten. Script your arguments, deciding your main points and which advocate will say what.
- Organize your supplementary materials. These could include a portfolio, relevant research articles, etc. Short articles by authors who are respected by the staff are more likely to be read. A useful practice is highlighting the key points in each article. Try to offer no more than three articles at any one meeting.
- Sexism is real – fathers must attend meetings.
- Take control of the meeting. Open by introducing yourself clarifying names and positions of those present; use first names. State the purpose of the meeting, and hand out your agenda. Ask if anyone else has something to add, and then begin, sticking to the agenda.
- Be prepared to counter interruptions. Ask that phone calls be held. If that doesn’t happen, ask to reschedule at a less hectic time. Insist on respect for your time and needs.
- Describe your observations of the problem, make specific requests, and offer solutions. Don’t just request that “something be done”. And, at all costs, avoid the “B” word – many teachers believe boredom is a normal part of the educational process.
- Sometimes offering a specific method for solving the problem is effective, and other times it is seen as intrusive. Your approach should depend on a combination of factors, including the school culture, your track record with these educators, the degree of suffering your child is experiencing, and your own comfort level.
- Be prepared to compromise. The teacher or principal deals with many children. They may have limited resources. If you ask for something that is impossible you may get nothing at all. At the same time, it is important to start by asking for more than you want so that you have something to trade.
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.
- Immediately address unspoken agendas, especially when they bear on your key issues. “Our teachers are experts at providing experiences that will enrich his math education: means, “He’s in grade 2 and so grade 2 math is what he’s getting.” Your response needs to address the fact that any activities in grade 2 math will not only not meet the instructional needs of a child who is already competent on grade 5 level, they will cause him to suffer.
- Challenge misstatements. “She may be reading those books but she has no comprehension,” demands a calm correction, such as “No one, not even an adult, perseveres in reading what they don’t understand. If she is not comprehending a book, we have observed that she sets it aside.”
- Reframe unacceptable points. For example, “Your child is ahead in reading now, but the other kids will catch up by third or fourth grade”, your response might be, “Do you mean that my child will not be taught anything new in reading for three or four years?”
- Rephrase negative comments about your child’s traits in a positive light. Your child is precise, not picky; assertive, not stubborn. Never say anything negative about your child.
- Take notes throughout the entire meeting. On a separate sheet of paper keep a summary of actions, changes or accommodations that are agreed to. Try to identify time frames for implementation of each accommodation, and who will be responsible for each aspect. Near the end of the meeting, review your summary with the rest of the participants. If everyone agrees that the summary is accurate, ask the senior staff person to initial and date it.
- Identify when you will hold a follow-up meeting to assess progress.
After the Meeting
- Type up a summary of what you believe the specific plans/viewpoints are; indicate who is responsible for each point. Send it to the teacher and any other relevant personnel. This is critical to avoid misinterpretations. It also creates that all-important paper trail.
- Be polite; express your appreciation in a thank you note after the meeting. At least acknowledge the time the educators spent on the meeting. If you received some agreement about accommodations, be sure to acknowledge the time and effort the teacher will spend creating these.
- Keep a log of whom you talk to and when. Make a note of the topic of conversation and anything that was agreed to, tasks which need to be done, or direct quotes which indicate troublesome attitudes on the part of the educator. This log can also be used to note daily events – for example, your child’s positive and negative comments about classes, playground occurrences, etc. (Such a log can be started early in the process, as well.)
- Check to make sure that plans are being implemented as agreed. Call or drop in regularly until programs are in place. Sometimes, a parental presence can be intimidating. Know whether your presence helps or hinders your efforts to reach your objectives, and if you need to tone down your presence, do so.
- Be sure your child has frequent chances to offer input about school and what s/he thinks or feels. Often, if the child can express him/herself to the teacher, it makes a difference in the teacher’s willingness to help.
- Be persistent. It may take several meetings to get accommodations established.
- Once accommodations have been agreed upon, don’t let them slip away. If a child is exempted from grade level math homework, for instance, and some is sent home, send it back undone, with a note reminding the teacher of your agreement.
- Be generous with appreciation for ongoing sensitivity and genuine efforts to respond to your child’s needs.
- Build your reputation. Sometimes it helps to have staff know that you are not going to go away, especially if it becomes clear that it is less work for them to make accommodations than to have to keep dealing with you.
If educators are unresponsive, specific actions can further your cause:
- Substitute homework – If your child’s homework is inappropriate don’t make her do it. Write a note asking the teacher for homework at his level. You could also modify the existing assignment, or create an alternative and staple that to the actual assignment. Be sure the benefits of this strategy outweigh the possible costs. Do not do this if your child is not able or prepared to cope with a negative response from the teacher.
- Use strategic absences. Sign your child out for the problem period, then back in for the rest of the day. Some parents bring their child to the school library to do work more appropriate to their level. Others sit with their child in the school parking lot and drink milkshakes. Whatever you do, be polite, and direct. “Tanya will not attend this class until we have agreed to the appropriate level of work.”
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.
Disclaimer: The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute’s Resource Library does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational and archival purposes only. The Davidson Institute bears no responsibility for the content of republished material. Please note the date, author, and publisher information available if you wish to make further inquiries about any republished materials in our Resource Library.