Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

Parent-Teacher Conferences: Advocating for Your Gifted Child

Advocating for the needs of your gifted child is not a conceited thing to do.

Well, there it is. 2011. Done. For many, this is a time to reflect on the past year ("Wow, can you believe it: we made that move to Hartford and got our son his first dog?!"). Others prefer to look forward ("Well, yeah, we survived that move... barely. Why did we decide to tackle house training a new pet in the Connecticut winter?!"). Still others take up well meaning vows for New Year's Resolutions ("I will respond more promptly to emails and phone calls.")... until they are rationalized away ("Well, Facebook is pretty much like email anyway, so....").

Of course, you don't need the occasion of a new year's arrival to become more introspective about family, relationships, work, or goals. But when it comes to reflecting on your gifted child's goings-on at school, it turns out that this is, in fact, a perfect time to do so. All across the country, in the month of January, school divisions will be holding mid-year parent-teacher conferences. And as the parent of a gifted child, one who has special educational needs, this occasion represents an opportune time for you to exercise your parental rights to touch base with your child's teacher(s). So, go ahead! Seize the day!

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And consider this "insider information" if you'd like-from a bonafide classroom teacher with more than a decade's experience-some essential tips to getting the most out of your conference time.

Begin by...

Scheduling the @#$% conference! This seems obvious, perhaps, but I am constantly surprised by how many parents never check in at all with their child's teacher. When that notice about school-wide conference day comes home, fill it out and send it back! Call the school secretary and schedule a time! Whatever protocol your child's school requires, follow it and follow up.

Contrary to popular notion, there does not need to be a "problem" in order for you to meet with a teacher. It is perfectly all right for you to meet with a teacher just to put a face with the name. (In fact, most teachers would like to do the same with you.) It is your right to ask questions about your child's strengths and weaknesses, regardless of the fact that he might very well have all A's. So don't miss that chance. The school has reached out. Do your part and make the appointment.

Good. Well done. Now it's time to prep, so before you go...

Formulate some questions. Create a list of questions you have about your child's time at school. For parents of gifted children, the most common question asked should be: "How are you differentiating instruction for my child?" Most schools are doing something different for their advanced students. You need to know what, so ask. What does the classroom teacher do to meet the needs of your child? Does she offer alternative assignments or alternative reading materials to better suit your child? Is there tiered instruction happening in some way? If so, what does that look like? Does your child have the chance to work with a resource specialist? What does that specialist do with your child when she is pulled out of the regular classroom? Are there higher level classes you could enroll your child in? What are the prerequisites for those classes? What does the school division's Gifted Plan say should be happening with your child? How can you know if that is happening?

You should also ask questions to see if there are opportunities for your gifted child that perhaps, just maybe, you have not heard about. (That important memo got left in the backpack or in the desk. Perhaps it never found its way out of your son's locker.) Are there any extracurricular activities (academic competitions like Model U.N., for example, or science/ math/ computer/ foreign language/ drama/ chess/ you-name-it clubs, perhaps) that your child could take advantage of? Does the school system offer field trips? How about job shadowing or professional mentorships? Could you offer to sponsor a club for others to take advantage of?

Prepare this list of questions and have them at hand when you enter the conference. Your goal should not be to dominate the meeting with a shotgun style Q & A assault; conversation is key, a give and take between you and your child's professional educator. Having a list of questions merely helps focus this conversation.

On the other hand, if you do have concerns, be sure to...

Do your homework. Perhaps you're getting leery that your third grade child who reads on a college level is still being asked to study words from the standard class' weekly spelling list. Or maybe you have internally questioned why he is still working on two-digit multiplication when he mastered that skill three weeks ago. Be ready to explain your concerns in a logical way. To help state your case, collect samples of work. Gather those last five spelling quizzes that he aced. Make copies of his reading test scores. Bring in that unit math test. Offer evidence and then ask the teacher to explain his reasons for offering instruction as he has thus far. In some cases, you might be surprised. Perhaps the exam you saw was, in fact, a preassessment only. Maybe what you have brought in to show is a required systen-wide benchmark test that all students must take, regardless of ability.

Your goal should be to help understand the teacher's approach/rationale and, if you are unsatisfied, offer compelling reasons why this level of instruction is insufficient. You want to be heard. To that end...

Be diplomatic. Don't attempt to bully, be passive-aggressive, or both. If you have listened to the teacher's point of view, if you have stated your case and offered evidence in a neutral tone, the logic of your concerns should be sufficient. Don't skip over the chain of command and go straight to the superintendent or principal. Neither of these individuals work with your child on a regular basis, so give your child's teacher the first shot at tackling your concerns. Don't be the squeaky wheel until it's necessary.

Of course, this is a two-way conversation and as you talk, your child's teacher might have information that surprises you, too. She might offer some well intentioned and meaningful criticism of your child's school performance. It's important for you to be as open to this as you expect that teacher to be with your concerns. With that in mind...

Be on guard against your own defensiveness. In truth, the vast majority of teachers want nothing more than to see their students be highly successful. This is the "thing" that, frankly speaking, makes the job worth it; it's the primary reason they entered the profession. In the process of talking your way through concerns you may have, be ready to hear concerns the teacher might offer as well. Your son earns high marks on social study quizzes, but his overall average is low because he rarely turns in his homework. Your daughter is certainly skilled at mathematical reasoning, but her computation is sloppy and inaccurate because she rushes and makes careless mistakes. Avoid making excuses for your child. "Well, he comes by it honestly: you should see his father's office. It's a mess!" or "I know, I had the same problem when I was her age." These comments do little to help address the concerns that your child's teacher has just offered.

The two of you are trying to get on the same page to help your child, so be sure that before the conference is over, you...

Leave with a plan. You've expressed your concerns and hopefully come to some agreement about what you and the teacher expect. If your child passes the pretest for the spelling list every week, then he'll be offered a different one to work on at home. If he demonstrates a sufficient level of mastery of the two-digit multiplication algorithm, then he will be given multi-step word problems in its place. Formulate and agree on a plan, making it as precise or as specific as possible. Write it down. Don't leave without a plan of attack. If it feels like your conference is running long, that your issues will take more time, reschedule or figure out another way to get this step accomplished.

When you get home, if you feel it's necessary, email a copy of what you agreed upon to the teacher. Having a plan that you both created provides a wonderful starting point for future conversations about your child's work at school and helps you feel more certain that you have been fully heard.

Some closing thoughts...

It's never too late. So you waited a while and now your kid is in high school. So? Just because you avoided conferences in the past or felt less of a need to attend them before doesn't mean you can't go now. Trust me on this: teachers want parents to be involved in their child's education. Really and truly.

Don't feel guilty. It's your job to advocate for your gifted child. You're not conceited by doing so. You know your child best so don't hesitate to speak to his/her strengths--or look for ways to build on weaknesses.

You, your child, and your child's teacher are in this together.

Now go. You've got this.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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