How to be Your Child’s Best Advocate:
Collect, Communicate, Collaborate

By Mary T. McInerney, M.A.

January, 2014

As parents of twice-exceptional (2e) children, we are aware of their strengths and talents as well as the areas in need of support. Although there are always exceptions, we also know that our schools have difficulty making accommodations for either. Our children are not often recognized as students in need of support, and often their gifts and talents likewise remain unappreciated. The reasons are many. One is often insufficient staff training in recognizing and accommodating the gifted in our schools. Another may be a child’s ability to compensate for deficits with high performance in other areas in order to stay on grade level.

We know from often painful experience that much work needs to be done within our education system as a whole when it comes to properly educating this population. This endeavor is an essential one and should be our long-term objective; but how do we support our children now?

As parents of twice-exceptional students, we need to personally advocate for our children. To do this well, we need to gather clear information about who they are as learners, understand what their learning environment has to offer, and know what additional modifications to request. Following are suggested steps that parents can take in order to maximize their child’s school experience, plus useful resources and strategies for parent-based advocacy.

Step 1: Gather Information.

We come with a wealth of knowledge about both our child’s strengths and weaknesses, but gathering examples that tell the story of our child without overwhelming teachers can be tricky. Here are some tips for gathering information that can help both parents and educators better understand a child’s learning profile.

  • Focus on information that will support the teacher’s efforts to keep your child engaged in learning — the important indicators of your child’s abilities, interests, and learning preferences.
  • Create a portfolio that illustrates both your child’s particular strengths and areas of weakness. Include items that are short but will have an impact such as:
    • Brief write-ups of anecdotes or conversations that illustrate precociousness
    • One or two writing samples
    • Photographs of exceptional projects
    • Examples of mastered skills
    • Evaluations from programs in which your child has taken part
    • Summarized test scores.

As you gather information, try to remember the moments you found revelatory in terms of your child’s abilities. The more educators know about a student’s interests, strengths, and learning preferences, the more they can enhance the student’s learning experience. With that in mind, you need to be clear and concise but not overwhelming; think snapshots as opposed to steamer trunk.

For example, you want them to know that Michelle composes her own music but is also unable to focus with the slightest distraction. You want them to know that Jake knows every American president plus their political stances on most issues, but he has difficulty transitioning from one activity to another. You want them to know that, along with her strong verbal skills, Shana has a great deal of anxiety about writing.

Listed below are some tools that can be extremely useful in gathering good information about your child’s learning profile.

  • The Interest-a-Lyzer: Questionnaires that help identify a child’s interests and potential interests (primary, middle, and upper-grade levels), by Joseph Renzulli, University of Connecticut, www.creativelearningpress.com
  • My Book of Things and Stuff: An interest survey for the very young, by Ann McGreevy, www.creativelearningpress.com  
  • My Learning Print: An educational tool to highlight a child’s combination of interests, abilities, experiences, and learning preferences, by Robin Schader and Wendy Zhou, www.gifted.uconn.edu/mylearningprint/mylearningprint.html
  • Eclectic Learning Profile: An inventory that defines each student's best ways of learning, by Erica Warren, www.learningtolearn.biz

These tools offer a vocabulary helpful for communicating with educators about who your child is as a learner. This alone can be very helpful in getting school personnel to understand how your 2e child straddles both ends of the learning spectrum and struggles to see where he or she fits in the world.

Step 2: Assess the Learning Environment.

The next step is to assess your child’s current school experience. The most efficient way to familiarize yourself with the learning environment at school is to take a methodical approach, viewing each component independently with your child’s needs in mind. Doing so allows you to more easily identify what is presently being provided and what may be missing.

Make the following part of your assessment:

  • Physical space. Look at where students play, learn, gather, perform, etc.
  • Population of peers. Is there diversity in culture, ability, interests? Are there like-minded peers for your child to connect with?
  • Educational resources. These may range from the curriculum programs in place to computer labs and software programs made available, from art equipment to science equipment, from an occupational soft room to a hiking trail, and so forth.
  • Staff. Include classroom teachers; special education support personnel; specialized educators such as math, tech, art, reading, speech, and language specialists; school psychologist; etc. They all have expertise you may want to tap into.
  • Basic curriculum. Becoming familiar with the curriculum, standards, and expectations of your child’s grade level gives you a base to work from. You can either find these on your school’s website or request them.
  • Special programming. Examine the technology, art, and music classes; gifted and talented programs; and library offerings. Also see what clubs and enrichment programs are offered during and after school.

Step 3: Create a Wish List.

Once you have properly assessed your school for what it has to offer, you can begin to create a wish list of changes that you believe would be beneficial to your child. This task is not easy, but having a basic understanding of both your child’s learning needs/interests and the learning environment will make it easier to communicate realistic possibilities.

The purpose of your wish list is to help educators recognize the best and most easily obtained modifications that will contribute to a better learning environment for your child. These can be simple changes such as making a change in seating or providing more challenging literature. Some of your recommendations, on the other hand, may require more planning such as a mentorship with the art teacher or creating an advanced learning plan for math. A wide range of possibilities exist, given the abilities, interests, and needs of children and the resources that exist at a given school. However, it’s important to be realistic. The school’s resources and the staff’s abilities will determine what requests can be and will be considered. Furthermore, when dealing with teachers, administrators, and education professions, be patient; you will be asking them to change their ways, and being diplomatic will pay enormous dividends in the end.

Here are some examples of requests that might appear on a parent’s wish list.

  • Would it be possible for Marcus to stand while working?
  • Could you make sure there’s a place with little distraction for Michelle to work? She also may need reminders to stay on task.
  • If Tiana has mastered the “basic curriculum,” might she be given accelerated work or time to do an independent project?
  • Could the math/technology/science/reading specialist support the classroom teacher in accelerating Brian’s work?
  • If Isaiah has mastered the work, could he go to the library to do an independent project?
  • Could we possibly create a book club for students across grades based on ability and interest?
  • Could my son utilize the stage area for a drama club he wants to create?
  • Can the school psychologist run a social club for children who are in need of a more structured language experience?
  • Would the science teacher be willing to mentor my daughter in a project she’s interested in?

Learning the Language

Learning the following terms will be helpful in thinking about and collaborating on suggested modifications.

Acceleration: A student progresses through the curriculum at a quicker rate or younger age than the norm.

Alternative Choice Assignments: Students are given product choices to demonstrate their learning, to acquire information, or to determine a topic.

Competitions: These provide students with the opportunity and support to compete with others on a plethora of topics.

Curriculum Compacting: After showing a level of proficiency in the basic curriculum, a student is given the opportunity to exchange instructional time for other learning experiences: acceleration or enrichment.

Enrichment: The student takes part in activities that add or go beyond the existing curriculum.

Differentiation: Modifications are made to curriculum and instruction in terms of content, pacing, and/or product to meet unique student needs in the classroom.

Flexible Grouping: This strategy is used to group students in receiving instruction based on their ability, learning style, and/or interest.

Independent Study: The student engages in a self-directed project in which the teacher acts as guide or facilitator and the student plays a more active role in managing his or her learning.

Mentorships: A community member shares his or her expertise with a student who has similar interests.

Purposeful Placement: This approach to making an appropriate placement for an upcoming school year takes into account all of a child’s needs.

—MM

Step 4: Establish a Working Relationship.

Remember, what you have created is a wish list. You want it all, but the next step in the process is to meet, listen, communicate, and establish rapport with the professionals involved in your child’s education. It’s important to consider the teacher’s perspective here. Most teachers want to reach every student everyday in creative and challenging ways, but in most cases there are many students, there is a lot of curriculum to cover, and the district is constantly introducing new programs and initiatives that need to be mastered. Being a teacher in today’s classroom is an extremely challenging job.

What will work best for you is to establish collaborative working relationships at school as opposed to taking a “demand/blame” position. Here are some opportunities for relationship building at school.

  • Open house. View the school’s open house as an opportunity to listen carefully and get a sense of the teacher’s educational philosophy and personal style. Find out what subjects will be covered throughout the year and what the teacher’s expectations are for the students.
  • Parent/teacher conference. Listen carefully to find out what the teacher knows about your child and what suggestions the teacher might have for accommodating him or her. (I recommend taking notes.) Offer information about your child and ask any questions or raise any concerns you may have. Also be prepared to make suggestions, offer solutions, and recommend resources. Remember, this is an opportunity to establish a working relationship, not a time to focus on what the teacher may be doing wrong. For any issues that need further discussion, make a follow-up appointment before you leave in order to ensure on-going communication and follow through.
  • Principal/parent meeting. Some items on your wish list may require the principal’s support. If so, make an appointment and follow the same procedure as for a parent/teacher meeting. Listen carefully to get a sense of the principal’s philosophy, personal style, understanding of twice exceptionality, and willingness to work with you. If you sense a lack of willingness or flexibility, you may consider making an appointment with the superintendent of curriculum within your district. Again, follow the same procedure.

Step 5: Evaluate Your Progress.

After completing the four steps just described, you can pause to evaluate how effective your efforts have been. What support and opportunities are still missing? If you have achieved a large number of the goals represented by the items on your wish list, you’ll probably want to stay put; you’re in good hands. If on the other hand, your child’s school can meet only 70 percent of your child’s needs, or only 50 percent, or even less, you may want to consider other options. For example, you might think about hiring an advocate, changing schools, or homeschooling.

Conclusion

The academic and social experiences we have in the classrooms of our early years shape our lives for better or worse. By taking an informed approach and by building good relationships with teachers and other professionals, you can be your 2e child’s most powerful advocate in school. The end result can be the creation of the optimal environment for your child’s education.

Resources to Help You Become an Effective Advocate for Your Child

Here are some resources for learning about both the gifted and LD side of 2e:

  • The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) (www.nagc.org) is an organization of parents, educators, other professionals, and community leaders that addresses the unique needs of children and youth. Membership includes subscriptions to Parenting for High Potential, and Teaching for High Potential.
  • Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) (www.SENGifted.org) focuses primarily on the adults (parents, educators, etc.) in the lives of gifted children. SENG provides information, guidance, and effective ways to live and work with gifted individuals.
  • Advocacy for Gifted & Talented Education (AGATE-NY) (www.agatenewyork.org) is a non-profit organization of concerned parents, educators, and advocates that promotes the education and welfare of gifted and talented learners in New York State. The AGATE website contains interesting articles, educational links, archived newsletters, information on joining the organization, and much more.
  • Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page (www.hoagiesgifted.org and www.hoagiesgifted.org/twice_exceptional.htm) is a resource guide for the education of gifted children. It offers links to a wide range of gifted education resources available on the Internet.
  • Wrightslaw (www.wrightslaw.com and www.wrightslaw.com/info/2e.index.htm) provides extensive information on special education law, education law, and advocacy for children with disabilities. Also see the Wrights’ book Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide.
  • And, of course, 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter!
Mary McInerneyMary McInerney has earned degrees in elementary education and gifted education, and holds certifications in both gifted education and teaching literacy. She has taught both in New York’s elementary schools and at the graduate level for gifted education. She has extensive experience in consulting with numerous school districts as well as advocating for gifted and twice-exceptional students. In addition, she has traveled internationally identifying and accommodating for gifts and talents in students. For more information, visit her website: www.marymcinerney.com

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