How Do You Teach Parents to Advocate for their Child?

Todd Stanley

In the September edition of Parenting for High Potential, Jen Zatchey, a parent of three gifted children, provides advice on how parents can be an advocate for their child.

  • Assess the current needs and interests of your child first.
  • Research policies, programming, and processes in your district.
  • Craft your message.
  • Find effective ways to articulate your message.
  • Who are the decision makers and who influence those decisions?
  • Offer help to find a solution
  • Do your homework.

These are all great pieces of advice. Focusing their child’s needs and doing their homework can go a long way in bringing about change for the betterment of gifted students. I especially like how Mrs. Zatchey took the approach of involving the classroom teacher in the process. So much more can be done when working together than by putting people on the defensive.

This is great advice for those parents who know the system well enough to understand how to play it to their advantage, but what about the parents who don't have that foundation? What if a parent does not have the resources Mrs. Zatchey had after attending the NAGC convention and talking with experts about advocacy? How do you teach them how to advocate for their child?

I have always belived that parents are a teacher's greatest allies in the education of their children. No matter how unreasonable parents seem to be, when I look at it through the lens of they just want what is best for their child, it is difficult to find fault with their actions. After all, if you cannot advocate for your own child, who can you advocate for?

This brings me to the question of how do we as teachers and coordinators provide parents with the voice to act as their child’s advocate? This is especially relevant with parents who maybe do not know exactly what to ask for and thus remain silent. Parents can be your greatest influence in an educational system. Their voice holds a lot of weight with administration and the board of education. You want this voice to be well informed on how they can help. They need to be voices of reason, not of dissent. Like it is with your students, it is going to come down to relationships and how you form them with parents. There are three things you can be doing with parents to create these relationships.

First and foremost, it is important as the teacher to be proactive with your communication to parents of gifted. Communication can happen in many forms. As a teacher, every week, I sent a parent e-newsletter concerning the goings on of the class and any upcoming due dates as well as school-wide activities that might involve their child. This is an effective way to communicate information to a lot of people. One mistake I have seen a lot of educators make is that they place whole class communication on a site and expect parents to check this. That is placing an additional step in the way of communicating with parents and there are many who will not take it. Instead, I got parent emails at the beginning of the year and sent my communication directly to parents so they didn’t have to hunt for it. Now, as the district coordinator, I send out my email newsletter every month in the same manner. In this I communicate opportunities for parents and students to get involved.

The motivation behind all of this communication is to keep parents informed. When people are not informed, they begin to make stuff up, not because they are malicious, but because they do not understand. To minimize misunderstanding, you want to be sure you are controlling the message. I was amazed how many fewer emails and phone calls I received from parents once I began sending my newsletter. Parents just want to be informed and know how they can help their children. 

To encourage parents to become effective gifted advocates, help educate them. Parents don’t know what they don’t know and the land of gifted education can be very confusing even for those who have lived in it for several years. Parents need to know all of the services available in their district and school. They might want to advocate for something you already have or advocate for something you do not really need. Every year I invite parents to a meeting to make them aware of our services, many of which our teachers are not even aware of.

There are also common issues amongst gifted students about which you can offer parent education nights. Some topics I have covered in the past were underachievement, lack of executive function, over-excitabilities, or academic extra-curricular activities.

You can offer a book study. Every year I do a book club with parents of gifted students centered around a book written by an expert on how to raise a gifted child. We have used books by James Webb, Jim Delisle, and others written by psychologists. This activity is about having conversations and learning from one another so we can figure out together how best to meet the needs of these children.

Lastly, give parents space to share and have a voice. It can be something formal such as an advisory group. An advisory group meets to discuss not only what services the district or school offers, but what ones might be needed. Then a plan is created for what these services might look like, where they will be offered, and who will be offering them. I had the privilege of working with a group of parents who were helping to decide the shape of the new gifted magnet program the district was considering. As a team we looked at the pros and cons of different configurations of programs and in the end, I believe the advisory put forth an idea that was best for gifted kids. Because this idea came from the parent group, not just from me, it carried a lot more legitimacy and later on when I became coordinator, I was able to use this fact to protect the program when other administrators sought to dismantle or alter it. Being able to say to the superintendent, “this is what the parents asked for”, influenced her a lot more than if it just came from me.

Who takes part in these advisories? There are a few ways to do this. You could invite any parents of gifted students in any grade to participate. Doing this though I have found that typically you get mostly white women who are already involved in the school. There is nothing wrong with these volunteers but it might not give an accurate representation of all students in the gifted program. Or you could narrow the pool and only include parents whose children are in your class. Another route is to actively recruit parents to be a part of the group. Maybe identify parents that represent a crosswalk of students in the district both in race, religion, and/or socioeconomic status. Invite them to be a part of a smaller advisory and explain what the role would be. An invitation can be powerful. A third way is to label the advisory group advanced studies or something of the like and invite any parents, whether their child is gifted or not, to participate. No matter how you decide to set it up, the point is that you provide parents a space where they can voice their ideas as well as have their questions answered.

To take it a step further, you could help to form a parents of gifted booster group that acts as a separate entity from the school and yet supports gifted education and its students. I have seen some that are their own organization with officers who are elected, and have the authority to fundraise, put on special programming, and may even have a liaison who reports out to the school board occasionally.

It is just as important to educate the parents of the gifted students as it is the students. An organized group of well-informed parents can be of great use in advancing educaton for gifted students and can lobby for the betterment of them. Helping parents to find their voice and understand what their role can be will empower them to do so.

Todd Stanley is the author of many teacher-education books. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years and is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools (OH). You can follow Todd on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at where you can access blogs, resources, and view presentations he has given concerning gifted education.

The views expressed herein represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.