Advocacy: Seven Steps to Success

Whether or not a child has been formally identified as gifted and talented, parents in Connecticut need to be the primary advocates for their gifted and high-ability learners. With more and more gifted programs disappearing from schools, it often falls on parents’ shoulders to ensure that their children receive an appropriately structured education.

  1. Learn! – Read about giftedness so that you can answer the question “Is my child gifted?” and can understand the special needs of gifted children. There are many characteristics of gifted students schools may misinterpret, and specific behavioral patterns that may develop when gifted kids are not allowed to thrive in appropriate environments. Certain populations of children—including those from culturally diverse backgrounds or who show giftedness in one area and face learning challenges in another area—are often likely to be overlooked for their strengths and talents.

  2. Understand CT – We live in an “identify, non-serve” state where public schools are required to formally identify gifted and talented students but are not required to provide appropriate educational services, and there are no statewide guidelines for how identification is to be performed. It is crucial to understand this when talking with schools, but it is equally important for schools to recognize that they have an obligation to appropriately educate every child… including the gifted and talented.

  3. Form a Plan – Gifted children have life-long specialized needs, both academic and social/emotional. Don’t reinvent the wheel every school year. Work with school- and district-level administration, psychologists, counselors, etc., to map out multi-year strategies to help your child thrive.

  4. Advocate – When appropriate school resources are lacking, parents become their children’s first, best advocates. Working proactively and constructively with educators is often necessary to ensure children’s needs are being met. Seek out allies within the district who understand your child and can speak on his or her behalf. Be willing to talk to everyone in turn, from your child’s teacher, to the school principal, to even the superintendent and school board, if necessary.

  5. Utilize Resources – In today’s Internet age, resources don’t have to be local. The web has a wealth of information for gifted students’ families from online learning, enrichment, independent assessment, and educational options, to information on advocacy support, social/emotional concerns, and meeting the needs of special groups like twice exceptional, lower SES, and gifted underachievers.

  6. Enrichment – Gifted children are often stimulated by areas of learning not typically provided as part of the traditional school day. Look for areas of interest that might only be found outside of the school walls. Clubs, hobbies, museums and nature centers, after-school classes, competitions, and teams can all provide outlets for gifted kids’ intellect and creativity.

  7. Support Groups – More than anything, parents often feel like they’re advocating in a vacuum. Just as gifted kids benefit from interaction with like-minded peers, working with others in similar situations can help parents not feel so isolated and alone against the system. Collectively—and at times with the help of professional counselors, coaches, and psychologists—parents can affect meaningful change in their school districts, neighborhoods, and homes. Network!

Advocating for your Child in School

Because Connecticut does not currently mandate services for gifted learners, there is no statewide uniformity to how gifted instruction is offered, with the delivery and quality of gifted-specific resources varying greatly from district to district, town to town... and even from year to year as funding for gifted programs often falls prey to budgetary fluctuations or changes in school priorities. That being said, educators across Connecticut are dedicated professionals with the best interests of their students in mind, and they want to provide a quality education for all their students... including your gifted child.

Without a uniform system in place, whether your child receives an appropriately tailored education may vary from grade to grade with each new year’s teacher. Because of this, it is crucial that you voice your concerns about appropriate instruction as often and insistently as possible. Start every school year by asking teachers what strategies they intend to employ to differentiate instruction in the classroom. Make sure you do this right away, especially if your school doesn’t schedule initial parent/teacher conferences for some time. If a teacher isn’t aware of the need to provide advanced instruction, offer to share some of what you have learned with him or her. Explain that you fully appreciate the additional work that comes with effectively differentiating in the classroom, and be sure to offer to help in any way you can. Be clear that you’re not trying to be pushy... just that gifted education is important to you and important to the future of your child.

Don’t be afraid to address your concerns to the school administration as well. The principals, vice-principals, psychologists, and counselors are also concerned about the education and well-being of all the children in their school, and at the same time they are interested in making sure that their teachers receive the support they need to make their classrooms run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. It is advisable to tell teachers you are going to talk to the administration in advance, so they don’t feel like you “went over their head.” It can help by couching your discussions in terms of understanding the burden it places upon a teacher to have to differentiate every single lesson to meet the needs of individual students, and that you are approaching the administration to make sure the teacher has the school behind her and has all the support and resources she needs.

Beyond the immediate year’s classroom, however, discussing your child’s needs with the school’s administration also serves to provide some context for your child across school years. Often you can request that your school test your child so they can assess his or her abilities at or beyond grade level. This can allow them to view your child’s abilities in context of multiple grades and plan accordingly, rather than just looking at one year’s classroom at a time.

You may also be able to request the PPT (Planning and Placement Team) make instructional recommendations in your child’s permanent records that will follow them from grade to grade. Keeping a brief portfolio of your child's work samples and notes about any advanced or creative work done in or out of school can also be helpful. By doing this, subsequent years’ teachers can be alerted to your child’s needs before your son or daughter ever sets foot in their classroom. What’s more, once the administration is aware of your concerns, you can discuss with them appropriate classroom environments on a recurring basis. Just as some teachers may be better at math than language arts, so too some teachers may be more adept at differentiating instruction in the classroom. Making sure your school’s administration is aware of your gifted child’s special needs allows them to plan ahead and place your child in a classroom that will best suit his or her abilities.

If at any point you are still dissatisfied, don’t be afraid to bring your concerns to the superintendent of schools, district personnel (e.g., director of student services, etc.), or even a member of the school board. Schools won’t necessarily make changes in their policies unless someone speaks up... and your addressing the problem could be the first step in your district providing better services for gifted students. Plus, the more people you talk to, the better your chances of meeting someone sympathetic to your cause who might be willing to help you out.

As you advocate on behalf of your child, it is important to always remember: You are not making waves, and you are not being a pushy parent. You are looking out for the interests of your own son or daughter, just as each and every other parent in the school should be concerned with the interests of their children as well. Too often school districts do not have effective advocates in place to automatically assure gifted learners’ well being. Until they do, it will continue to fall on the shoulders of parents to speak up and ensure that our gifted children receive the education they deserve.