Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz mother daughter keyboard 150x150 Seven Tips for Being a Great Parent Advocate Without Giving Up Your Day JobQuestion: My daughter Aria is smart, funny, and curious, but she has trouble with reading, spelling, and writing. Her handwriting is illegible. The school tells me she meets their criteria for both giftedness and learning disabilities, but they can deal only with one special need at a time. They’ve chosen to deal with the learning disability. This is not working. Aria is unhappy and frustrated. How can I be the parent advocate Aria needs without giving up my day job?


It sounds like Aria does need a parent advocate. Kids who are pigeonholed into one area of special education can have other important learning needs ignored, at the expense of their motivation to learn, and their long-term learning outcomes. The sooner you help make sure Aria’s gifted learning needs are being addressed, the better.

Yes, being a parent advocate requires some preparation and effort, but it doesn’t have to take over your life. Here are some steps for streamlining the process:

  1. Become informed. Understanding the basics of giftedness and learning problems will help you be a more effective parent advocate. You might find Being Smart about Gifted Education helpful ( In that book, Joanne Foster and I discuss the issues you’re dealing with, and provide the information you need. Parent organizations that focus on giftedness often have a subgroup of parents who are concerned with dual exceptionalities like you’re dealing with.
  2. Talk with the teacher. Aria’s teacher is your best potential ally. Sometimes getting what’s needed is as simple as talking to the teacher. It’s important to go in with an attitude of respect for his or her professionalism, and of expectation that the two of you will be able to solve this problem together. Be patient, polite, and friendly.
  3. Find allies. Look for other parents with similar issues, parents who might have already figured out some of the issues and some good solutions. Even if you find one other parent advocate to work with, it will help. Ask Aria’s teacher if there are other kids in the class with similar profiles. Talk to the principal. Look for potential allies at parent forums at Aria’s school—a website, an online chat group, a parent/teacher association. You can also check organizations like the Association for Bright Children or a Learning Disabilities parents’ group.
  4. Be proactive at home. Look for extracurricular enrichments for Aria. Give her opportunities to become engaged in challenging activities she enjoys and values, activities she can succeed in. This could be music, art, dance, sports, debating, or something else entirely. Kids with the gifted/LD dual diagnosis can become frustrated and demoralized when they’re spending too much time on what they have trouble with, and too little time on what they enjoy and do well.
  5. Be flexible and open-minded. There are many possible solutions to every educational challenge. Don’t decide on one option (a gifted class placement, say) as the only acceptable one. Instead, be open to teachers’ possibly creative ideas for accommodating both of Aria’s special learning needs.
  6. Get professional help if needed. If you can’t find the allies and information you need, you can hire a psychologist or educational consultant to get you started.
  7. Be patient. Educational change happens slowly. Stay attuned and committed to Aria’s learning needs, as well as her psychological and social needs, and you will forge a path where she can enjoy learning, and thrive.

Congratulations on understanding the importance of becoming a parent advocate. The best learning outcomes are experienced by kids whose parents are involved in their schooling, and the best schools are those which welcome parents as advocates and partners in the learning process.

More on being a parent advocate:


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