How to be Your Child's Best Advocate
There is a wealth of good information available to parents who need to advocate for their child’s educational needs. Many of you will have already researched the area of advocacy through web resources such as the Davidson Institute, Hoagies or SENG. However, from an Irish perspective some of the advice and strategies given may be difficult to implement. In Ireland, many teachers and schools have little or no experience in addressing the needs of Exceptionally Able pupils. As far as advocacy is concerned, many parents here will be starting right at the beginning, with the need for identifying these children in the first instance.
To begin, it is probably a good idea to familiarise yourself with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) Guidelines for Gifted and Talented Pupils. You may also be able to obtain a hard copy from the NCCA or your local public library. Written in conjunction with Northern Ireland’s Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), the guidelines give teachers and principals across the education sector a chance to identify Exceptionally Able students and cater to their needs in the classroom. There is a useful checklist for identification which might be a good starting point for discussion with your child’s teachers.
The two most important things to keep in mind when advocating for your child are firstly, to be well prepared before approaching the school for a meeting, and secondly, to emphasise the partnership that exists between home and school in finding the best educational outcome for your child.
- Do your homework! Be aware of your child’s abilities; their strengths, their weaknesses, their interests, their learning style. Write down the questions you want to ask and the issues you need to address before your meeting. This will help you if the discussion goes off track. If possible have another person come to the meeting with you and take notes so you can remember what was said or agreed. After the meeting, give yourself a little time to recap, and then write down your recollections of what was discussed about each issue.
- Read up on your child’s curriculum so you are aware of what is being covered in the classroom. (For more details see Curriculumonline.ie) You can engage better with the teacher on how to challenge your child more effectively if you can discuss the details of the subjects being studied.
- Be clear in what you are asking for in the meeting. Use the terminology in the NCCA guidelines as a reference. Acceleration, enrichment and differentiation are all possible strategies, but each option needs to be specific, i.e. “Kate has mastered the concepts introduced in the 1st class maths strands, so we feel we could use acceleration to have her work on maths for higher classes”
- Try to anticipate what the teacher’s response might be and think about how you might respond in turn. For example, when you ask for extension materials a teacher might say that all the children are required to read a book quietly when finished their work. You might respond by asking if it would be okay that you send reading material on the particular subject for your child to read quietly when finished.
- Acknowledge that your child might need to work on some skills (academic, behavioural, social) that may be an area of relative weakness for them. Share some things you are doing to address any concerns the school might have, but be careful not to let it deflect from the issues you are there to discuss.
Use a Partnership Approach
- Acknowledge the work of the teacher and let them know you appreciate the huge effort they put in to their work. Try to be clear from the outset that you understand the importance of the school-home partnership and that you see yourself working closely with the teacher for the benefit of your child.
- When our children are unhappy in school it is difficult to keep our perspective sometimes, but try to avoid getting caught up in the emotional as it will take away from the true focus of the meeting.
- Think about trying to advocate for all students, not just your own. You are more likely to get attention if what you ask for can be applied for the benefit of a range of children. For example, many enrichment activities that would interest several pupils within your child’s classroom.
- Be positive and persistent in your attitude. Change in policy and approach to providing challenge to exceptionally able pupils will not happen overnight. If a strategy does not work at first, be persistent in asking to modify it or change tack. Just because something doesn’t work first time, doesn’t mean we should give up! Let your child’s teacher know that you are willing to try several strategies until you find the best one, and that you are flexible and approachable.
- See if you can get any other parents or teachers on board. Sometimes more heads are better than one when it comes to finding solutions to complex issues. Strategies which are able to be applied widely are more likely to be implemented in a classroom setting.
- Lastly, as parents, many of us are reluctant to ask schools to provide more challenge for our children for fear of being labeled as pushy. It helps to remember that we are our children’s only advocates, we are their voice and we are their support. There are many good teachers who, with guidance, ideas and support, will be champions of exceptionally able learners given half a chance. Unless we look for them, we will never find them!
By Karen McCarthy