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Tips for Parents of the Gifted

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In my last post (The Wheel Still Turns), Jane commented:

It is refreshing to hear of success in advocating for educating gifted children, but do you have advice for parents who may not have a dozen years to change the system? Do you have any effective advice for parents and children who need to learn in school TODAY?

Your question is important because I know countless parents across the country can relate to it, too. As parents, you see effects of a less-than-challenging curriculum that we who work in the schools sometimes don’t see. And of course, as parents you all rightfully want what is best for your children.

It can be an awkward and delicate position to be in.

The four suggestions that I posed in my previous post remain valid strategies that you as parents can use. Whereas those ideas were for teachers, parents, administrators, and gifted coordinators, I do have new info to add today that is geared specifically for parents of the gifted.

Karen Isaacson co-authored "Intelligent Life in the Classroom" with me, and as a mother of five gifted children (currently ranging in age from elementary school to college), she has a wealth of experience being in the boat Jane alluded to. Some of her parenting experiences were highlighted in her first book, "Raisin’ Brains", and others will be featured in her upcoming second book about parenting the gifted, "Life in the Fast Brain: Keeping Up with Gifted Minds", soon to be released from Great Potential Press.

Karen has helped many parents in Montana with a list of suggestions that she has titled “Working with Schools to Meet the Needs of Gifted Students.” She has given me permission to offer some of the list’s items here for you today. For the sake of clarity, her suggestions below are numbered and in italics while my comments on them follow each tip.

1. Be firm, but be kind. Stand up for your child without putting the teacher or the administration on the defensive. This is not you vs. them. This is simply a matter of you securing the best education possible for your child.

While I understand the desperation and emotion that fuels the parents who come in “on fire,” doing so only ends up creating more harm than good. It may yield some immediate results, but it also builds a wall between the parent and the school that may never come down. Additionally, the child finds herself in an awkward position if she witnesses the parent and any school personnel exchanging heated words. As school professionals, we desire the same things from you in this process that you desire from us: an open mind, honesty, respect, a willingness to give it a try, and communication. Parents & schools together: we’re all in it for the child’s best interest.

2. Be educated and informed. If you want the school to do more for your child, be prepared to tell them exactly what programs and opportunities will be of the most benefit, and be prepared to explain why. You must be able to support your position.

I know it’s counter-intuitive, but it is true that some schools/teachers are simply not aware of the many strategies that can be used to meet the needs of gifted students. In my opinion, this is largely due to the fact that most college teacher preparation programs teach future teachers nothing (or next-to-nothing) about gifted students. Consequently, most teachers are woefully under-prepared to deal with the challenges these kids present. That doesn’t mean the teachers can’t meet their needs, nor does it mean that they don’t want to, it simply means they’re still at the starting line in this process even though you as parents may justifiably assume that they should already be in the race. Most of these teachers secretly know they aren’t doing what ought to be done for their gifted students, and they do want to do what they can, but they’re not sure where to begin and some may just need a friendly nudge. Offering an idea or sharing a resource with the teacher can be all that it takes to get the process started. In my district, I’ve noticed that once a teacher gets started in the process of differentiating instruction (for example), he or she gets the hang of it and then does even more on his/her own, without the need for constant prodding/encouragement from parents or the gifted coordinator.

3. Remember that poor grades are not necessarily the teacher’s fault. While it’s true that some students underachieve because they are bored in class or because they haven’t been challenged enough, it’s also true that some gifted students will receive poor grades when they enter a classroom that finally does challenge their abilities.

Without adequate challenge, gifted students can learn it is possible for them to “skate by” on their smarts. They develop in their minds the myth that school will always be easy for them. Consequently, if and when they do encounter truly challenging curriculum, they are often unprepared to do as well as they could if they had been challenged all along. [Generally speaking. There are, as always, exceptions to the examples I give.] The child may struggle in an advanced course, and end up earning a B (or even lower), because he has never had to work that hard before and therefore doesn’t have the necessary work or study skills to earn the A’s he may be used to “earning” for little effort. I tell my students that a hard-earned B in a class where they are challenged and learning is a far greater badge of honor than any A for which they hardly had to do anything and didn’t learn much because the material was too easy. Learning is more important than the grade. Parents can help the child realize the difference between excellence and perfection by focusing on the goal of hard work and learning in a challenging environment, not a goal of straight A’s for the sake of straight A’s with no concern for whether not anything was actually learned.

4. Band together with other parents of gifted children to form a support group. This group will not only be able to provide emotional support and encouragement, but it will strengthen your ability to ensure adequate educational opportunities for your children.

A parent group doesn’t even have to be an “official” one. It could even just be a few other parents of gifted kids with whom you can share ideas, vent your frustrations, celebrate your successes, learn more about gifted children, and collaborate together with the school. “Official” or not, a parent group is an excellent source of support. Parents are often hesitant to admit they have a gifted child because they worry how their friends and family will react to the news. Parents of gifted children also know that parenting the gifted is not the piece-of-cake, golden, rosy path that parents of non-gifted kids can assume it to be. Gifted children can be VERY challenging to parent (and teach!). The myth is that those kids have everything going for them, therefore they present none of the ‘problems’ (challenges) that other kids often do. But the reality is that gifted children do present their own challenges, some the same and some that are unique. In talking with parents of other gifted children, you can learn parenting strategies and advocating techniques that have worked for them and – most importantly – you can learn that you are not alone in what you wonder about and struggle with when it comes to parenting your own gifted child(ren).

5. Be willing to make sacrifices of your time and energy to help out at the school or to supplement your child’s education. You can’t expect the teachers to do everything. This is your responsibility as well. Oftentimes, gifted programs are understaffed and under-funded. Volunteers are needed. This also demonstrates to the school the value you place on the gifted programs.

It’s a simple gesture - and it doesn’t even have to involve a complex project or a large amount of time. Whatever little way you can find to reach out to the school or to help is taken as a sign that you want to be a team player in educating your child, not an adversary who only shows up when you’re not happy with what’s happening in the classroom.

6. Do not be afraid to stand alone. Your child may often feel as though he is standing alone, and he will need your example.

Gifted children often feel sooo alone. They don’t always relate to kids their own age, making it hard for them to find friends who understand them. Even the ones who dumb themselves down (not the best phrase, I admit) and pretend to fit in still feel alone. Their peer groups tend to be limited to children born within one year of each other, unlike we adults who are free to chose our peer groups based on common interests, with age being of little relevance. Standing alone and showing your child that you can be strong and confident while doing so is a powerful example. You can show your child that there is no shame in being different.

As a gifted coordinator, I find myself in a similar position, too. It gives me a means of being reminded about what my students experience and go through. Here’s one example: A few years ago, someone brought a veggie tray with Ranch dip into the teacher’s lounge at one of our schools. Over recess, we teachers were re-fueling on broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower. The problem: the carrot strips were unusually long, literally about 10 inches. And everyone was being so polite – not wanting to double dip – that they were all ending up with 8 inches of carrot that couldn’t be re-dipped. I, on the other hand, snapped my carrots in half before dipping so that I could dip twice. The reaction was a fairly sarcastic “Well, sure, you’re the gifted teacher.” We may as well have been out on the playground with all the kids! I share these kinds of examples with my students so they know that I still experience the same kinds of things socially that they do. And as a parent, you can do the same. It helps the child realize that she’s not alone in feeling alone.

7. Remember that you are the person ultimately responsible for the well-being and education of your child. Nobody else can advocate for your child like you can. You are your child’s champion.
[“Working with Schools to Meet the Needs of Gifted Students,” © 2006 Karen L. J. Isaacson]

As a parent, you have every right to advocate for your child! Come into the school. Be a part of the process with us. We can learn about the child from each other. We’re a team whose aim is helping the child become his best.

In future posts, I plan on sharing information about acceleration and some differentiation strategies. Hopefully that information will be of benefit for all of you parents out there, too, not just the teachers.

Have a great week, everyone! :o)

12 Comments

Thanks for the great suggestions. I have to take exception with part of #5, however. Although volunteering one's time is a great piece of practical advice, it is not our responsibility to do so. It is the school's responsibility to meet the needs of all its students. No one tells the parents of dyslexic students that they had better be prepared to volunteer in their child's school if they expect their child to get special services to learn to read. No one tells them they "can't expect the teachers to do everything." Neither should it be expected or required of parents of gifted kids to volunteer in their child's school in order for their child to receive appropriate services. Volunteering is a good way to make friends and allies within the school. It helps schools that don't have the resources to meet all their responsibilities to do so. In practical terms, it can help to make things happen that would not otherwise happen. But, just because the school may not have the resources to meet its responsibilities to all children does not make it the parents' responsibility.

Thanks so much for the post. I read the exact comment from the last post that you referenced here, and I thought, I hope there is some sort of response to that! And here it was, much more than I expected. Thanks. I'll be putting these ideas to good use.

Thanks for a great article. I was wondering, though, if you had any suggestions for #4 Banding together with other parents. This is not a task that is easy due to confidentiality requirements. It's impossible to identify gifted parents in the school district as a result. Any suggestions? The PTA cannot do an open letter nor will the school district.

And, what do you do if you are a parent of a gifted child who is dyslexic? I hope you future books look at this.

Tamara, you mention that a hard fought for B is more a badge of honor than an easy A. I totally agree with this, but my sons' school continues to base who gets into (and gets to continue) in the gifted program on classroom grades. I was told if my middle son didn't get a B+ or better in 7th grade science (as a 6th grader) that he would have to repeat 7th grade science the following year, while the D- 7th grade student sitting next to him gets promoted to 8th grade. When I mentioned how insane this is, the gifted coordinator said there was nothing she could do. Policy is policy. Help!

HighSchool Parent - In many school districts, a parent group is created through the Gifted Coordinator (that person should have access to the information you are referencing) - therefore the Gifted Coordinator can play a key role in spearheading the genesis of a parent group. If your district has such a person (or even an AP Coordinator, seeing that you have high school children), try contacting that person to see about the possibilities of creating such a group. In the very least, perhaps that person would be able to put you in contact with a few other parents who share the same interest(s)/concern(s). Another idea is to ask your child which of his/her classmates/friends seem to have the same school issues and then connect with the parents that way. The kids probably also don't know who is specifically identified as gifted, but they generally do have good observation skills and are perceptive enough to figure out which of their classmates are more or less in the same boat that they are.

Beth ~ That would be a child who is "twice exceptional" (i.e. both gifted and _____, such as gifted and dyslexic, gifted and ADHD, gifted and learning disabled, gifted and bipolar, etc. I do have that topic on my list of topics to cover at some point during this year. In the meantime, you may want to check out this website: http://www.aegus1.org/ Although the title of that webpage only mentions gifted underachieving students, it does contain the means for you to access lots of information about twice exceptional students.

Princess Mom ~ Wow, that is ... Hmm. If it boils down to the policy being the issue, then perhaps the policy needs to be tweaked, changed, or modified. That probably wouldn't be a fun process to pursue, but it sounds like it may be your only option. I can say that when we subject accelerate kids here, we do expect them to still be able to maintain A's and/or B's in the more challenging class, although it isn't specified in a policy. The idea being that the student should be equally "successful" (grade-wise) in the more challenging course - the difference is the challenge level. Yet we also recognize that because it *is* more challenging, at times some of the kids we've accelerated may have B's or even C's. I think it's a matter of finding the "right" challenge level for each child. If the accelerated child is consistently earning *VERY* hard-won C's, then maybe the challenge level is too much. Yet for some kids, being in a class and earning very hard-won B's and C's is much more rewarding than being in an easier class and getting A's. On the other hand, for some kids, a C may not represent the *mastery level* that could be expected for that bright child. Ideally, it would all depend on the *child*, not on some policy. My opinion is that any policy should be flexible enough to accommodate what is best for the *child*. And that's not always convenient because they're all different! (To use a quote that Karen & I began our book with: “That students differ may be inconvenient, but it is inescapable.” ~Theodore Sizer) You pose an interesting question, and I would be curious to hear what other schools do in this situation. It just doesn't make sense that a child can pass a class and be forced to repeat it. It also sounds to me like part of what is influencing this situation is the fact that identification for the gifted program apparently requires (probably among other things) certain grades. Yet "gifted" is a *learning difference* (see my previous post here: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/unwrapping_the_gifted/2007/08/its_a_learning_difference_3.html); "gifted" is not straight A's. On the bright side, your district is subject accelerating kids who need it. Philosophically, that's really important because it means they recognize the need to move these bright kids on. Perhaps the policy just needs an addendum that says if the child is in an advanced (challenging, subject accelerated, whatever they want to call it) class, that a B (or even a C+ or C) is okay for remaining in the gifted program. Because grades can be a whole different ball game if the child is actually finally being challenged!

Beth, I am a third grade teacher of high ability students and am involved in our school screening for placement in our programs. We work to be sure we are recognizing students who are twice exceptional. A resource that has been very helpful in this process (I also attended a workshop by the first author) is Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties, Overcoming Obstacles and Realizing Potential by Rich Weinfeld, Linda Barnes-Robinson, Sue Jeweler, & Betty Rofman Shevits. There are sections in this easy read book specifically for parents. Topics addressed include ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, and various other learning issues.

What sources do you recommend for parents who want to supplement their student's "gifted education" at home, and where can these sources be purchased?

Wow! Too bad this discussion forum wasn't around when my own gifted kids were small.
Carole - is there a children's science museum or a university summer program for gifted kids near you? You could check out Lawrence Hall of Science and the Graduate School of Education's summer program - Academic Talent Development Program, both at UC Berkeley (www.berkeley.edu). I am sure that if you talk to the right person (i.e., it may take a phone call or 2 to find someone with the willingness to share resources) they can recommend materials for you. I also just found a website I'd never seen before, www.geniusdenied.com, that had a huge list of summer enrichment programs from all around the country for various interests and talents. Unfortunately, a lot of these summer programs are expensive and are SUMMER programs (when your family might be traveling or your kid might prefer to be swimming!) BUT Lawrence Hall of Science and the Exploratorium in San Francisco both have excellent book stores and I am guessing most selections are available on-line, or if you called the stores and asked for a specific topic, I'm sure they could give recommendations that would be age appropriate. For more language arts/history oriented kids, local theater groups often have workshops for kids (even during the school year) and the library and internet are great resources as well. Especially for the latter, obviously it is important to help your child evaluate the information they are looking at. I even worked on this concept with my kindergartners - when was a book published, is it true? Is this website like Wikipedia or someone's term paper (info is only as reliable as its source), or is it a university's website, etc. Travel is a great way to make history and geography come alive for your family. My kids learned a lot when we drove halfway across the country and saw a rodeo, Crazy Horse monument as it was being blasted from the mountain, Little House on the Prairie towns and museums, the Mississippi River (and where it had flooded), fields of sunflowers turning their heads to follow the sun, etc. They began planning routes we could take to add another state to the list of ones we had visited. Finally, don't underestimate the value of soccer/baseball/basketball/swimming for your gifted child. Kids benefit from the team sport experience. Also, music lessons. Good luck and have fun!
Mathmom - sorry, I have to disagree with you. One's child's education is ultimately the responsibility of the child and the child's parent(s), no matter where the child falls on the learning disability-gifted spectrum. Ideally there is a partnership between the parents, the teachers, and the students, where each does his/her part to help the student achieve his/her full potential. Actually, many parents of learning disabled kids ARE told they need to supplement what the school can provide, whether through extra tutoring, additional testing to pinpoint a problem, etc. Parents of ALL students are encouraged to read to/with their children from before they start school. And realistically it is not possible for any teacher in any school anywhere to meet all of the needs of every child in every class every year. Finally, as you noted, when a parent is involved with the school, it sends an invaluable message to the student that what happens at school is IMPORTANT; it gives the parent a chance to develop the relationships that will help him/her to be a strong advocate for his/her child's needs; it helps both parent and teacher realize that they are both working for the same thing and hopefully they gain a better understanding of the challenges they each face. (And, parents are the ones who pay the taxes that support the schools.)

I must say after reading #7 the tears started to flow. I am an advocate for my child. I have not been successful in having her placed in a school with an accelerated program. My daughter was accepted in the accelerated program in another school district, but they dropped her from the program after discovering she was out of district. The district my child should attend has no accelerated program. Do you have any tips on my situation?

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