Sunday, September 28, 2014

Advocacy... the story of my life

Advocacy. I always said I wasn't good at it. I talk too much, I'm not good at being "politically correct," and I often put my foot in my mouth... at least when it's about my own kids. I get emotional. I'm not a good advocate for them, though I am persistent. That's a good quality for an advocate.

And yet, it's something I find myself doing time and again. Daily, it seems. A cousin who's second grader is facing the new school year having to "prove" himself again before he can get the enrichment that kept him sane in first grade last year. A friend who's 4th grader is going nuts with the mindless math homework, and needs something to encourage him to bother doing it... like harder homework. Another friend who's 9th grader isn't welcome in Sunday School any more, because the leader is suddenly uncomfortable with her being grade accelerated. Advocacy seems to be my middle name.

So what have a I learned over the years? What can I tell folks to help them make their own advocacy better accepted? And why couldn't I have thought of these things years ago, when I was advocating for my kids? Can't turn back the clock, so I'll focus on the future.

And honestly, that's good advice. Don't focus on the past. What can we do today to improve the gifted child's life tomorrow? There's no point in rehashing the past for minutes and hours. It doesn't help, but it does make folks feel bad; usually folks on both sides of the table. When advocating, let's start with today, and look forward.

Take the other person's perspective. That sounds simple, but often it actually is. Yes, the teacher is making life difficult for your child. But sometimes your child makes life difficult for the teacher, too. And then there's the rest of the things the teacher must be to the kids in her class: teacher, mentor, guide, disciplinarian, food provider, and lots more. All the while she may be worried about her own job, if her students' test scores aren't high enough.

But how can you help these things? They're not in your control. You can't do them for the teacher. Ah, but you can make her life easier, by advocating for options that don't require her to work harder. Like what, you ask? Like homework. It's easy to differentiate homework for one student, and when that student is your child, you're motivated to do it. You can even volunteer to share the differentiated homework with the teacher so she can use it with other children. No, she might not have any other 2nd graders who need 4th grade math homework, but hey, at least you offered!

Another important part of seeing things from the school and teacher's perspective is saying "yes." The teacher is concerned that your child might need more time to develop her social/emotion skills? Yes, I had that concern too. I look at the gifted literature, and found that there's research indicating that excess repetition can actually have a deleterious effect on the gifted child. Let me send bring you a copy (send you a link, whichever you'd prefer) to that research when we're done meeting. Now, I can help you with differentiating for my child by....

And how do you differentiate math homework? Easy! Take your child to the educational supply or the wholesale club, and let her pick out a math book from a grade or two (or more) higher, and buy it. When the homework comes home, replace the grade-level worksheets with similar topic worksheets from the higher level book. The second grade homework is simple subtraction? Replace it with multi-digit subtraction, then add borrowing as soon as your child can handle it. The homework is shapes? Replace with more complex shapes. Telling time to the 1/2 hour? Telling time to the 5 minutes. Easy.

This approach solves many problems. It makes the child far less frustrated with the below-level worksheets for homework. He learns that his parents are working on his behalf, trying to bring more learning into his education. At the same time, the teacher sees what the child really can do, what level he is really working at. And this is his level without any instruction!

For my kids, changing out the homework kept them happy for a year or so while we advocated for the next step: subject acceleration, in our case, in math. But these techniques work just as well in reading, writing, science or social studies. For subject acceleration in math, we advocated for several different options, presenting them as a selection for the school to pick from. Some of the methods were more labor intensive at the school (requiring work by the teacher), some required a little scheduling (allowing the child to go to a higher grade for the subject), while others had a cost associated (signing up for a complete online course). We suggested that the online courses would make the teacher's life easier, and our goal was not to make more work for the teacher, but instead, to make her life easier... while still meeting our child's requirements in education.

The next step in advocacy is often a much bigger step: full grade acceleration. But that's a topic for another post.

For more on Gifted Advocacy, visit Hoagies' Gifted: Advocacy page. There you'll find links to research and success stories, and everything in between. Gifted Advocacy guides, Myths vs. Realities, and more.

For more on creating your own Advocacy Support group, read The Care and Feeding of Gifted Parent Groups: A Guide for Gifted Coordinators, Teachers, and Parent Advocates by Wenda Sheard.

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