"I can't read your mind," I told my son when he was a teenager, "so give me a little help here. What would make school better for you?" His shrug and blank stare told me that he didn't really know how to describe what he needed. So he slogged on through grades 7 to 12, sometimes challenged and interested, frequently not. Fifteen years later as a gifted education coordinator, I still get that blank stare from many of the young people with whom I work-who don't know how to ask, don't know what to ask for, don't even know that they can ask. Now, however, I have a plan to help them create a more successful, satisfying school experience. They learn to self-advocate, or to recognize and address the needs specific to their own learning abilities, without compromising their dignity or that of others. By definition, self-advocacy has to be the work of the individual. But as parents and educators, we have the role of teaching our high-ability children how to effectively communicate, negotiate, or assert their own interests, desires, needs, and rights.
The typical adolescent urge for less dependence on parents makes it particularly important for students in the middle grades to begin advocating for themselves. Each year I poll gifted middle schoolers on their comfort level in self-advocating. Not surprisingly, most are uncomfortable asking a teacher to modify something for them, and even less comfortable with their parents asking for them. Advice and assistance from parents is often shunned as teens transition into the greater independence of secondary school. But their naive attempts at self-advocacy frequently get them into trouble. Teachers react negatively to a whining "This is boring!" sometimes piling on more rather than different work. Less gifted peers often deride the student who is interested in more challenging work. Most students must be taught how to speak up appropriately on their own behalf Parents can help to guide or lead their children through the four simple steps of self-advocacy.
1. Understand your rights and responsibilities
Students need to believe that asking for an appropriately challenging curriculum is not asking for more than they deserve. It helps to know that state statutes, school district mission statements, and general educational philosophies convey the idea! that all students have the right to an appropriate education; everyone has the right to work hard to learn something new each day. A gifted young woman named Wendy is a good example of successful self-advocacy. When she saw that her school's mission statement included the phrase "a rigorous education for all students" she approached her algebra teacher about moving ahead at her own pace. Two years later she also asked for, and received, permission to study pre-calculus independently, ultimately earning eight credits of college calculus before graduation and finding the rigor she craved and deserved.
In addition to their rights, gifted students must be aware of their responsibilities including developing the attributes of good character toward which all students should strive. Being gifted doesn't preclude turning in work on time, treating others with respect, getting organized, or working hard.
What Parents Can Do To Help
2. Assess your learner profile
In order to self-advocate, students must understand as much as possible about themselves as learners, becoming more keenly aware of their specific abilities and interests, strengths or weaknesses, and learning styles or habits. There are many fascinating ways for gifted students to examine their own tendencies and to understand better how they are different from others.
Educational Data. Reviewing their school cumulative file with a counselor or gifted education coordinator can give students important insights on test scores, grades, and teacher perceptions. While some schools may be initially reluctant to share this information, parents do have a legal right to it and should be allowed access that can include sharing with their child.
Student Interest. Most school guidance offices have com¬puterized interest and career inventories for student use. The supplementary materials in Karen Rogers' book, Re-Forming Gifted Education, will also help them assess their interest and at¬titudes about specific subjects and school in general. More simply, students can rank their school subjects by interest and describe the best learning experience they ever had, listing the things that made it so enjoyable.
Personality. Introvert or extrovert? Morning person or night? Leader or team member? Understanding these ways in which each person is unique can shed light on student needs. School guidance offices frequently provide such assessments as career inventories and personality-type indicators. Less formally, Jonni Kincher's book, Psychology for Kids: 40 Fun Experiments that Help You Learn about Yourself, includes fun tests and good descriptions of many characteristics.
Learning Styles. There are several ways of categorizing learning styles: visual, spatial, kinesthetic, concrete, abstract, random, or sequential. Barbara Solomon and Richard Felder of North Carolina State University have posted an interactive learning style assessment at their website (http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html) and give students hints for adjusting class work to address their styles. Detailed information on learning styles research is also available in the parent section of the Hoagies' Gifted Education Page.
Just For Fun. For more informal self-assessments an internet search yields many free personality-type tests. As always, parents should help students evaluate sites for credibility. Non-profit educational organizations are often the most reliable sources. Published resources (such as the Mental Measurements Yearbook) are available in the reference section of many libraries; these are often technical, but they can help in evaluating instruments.
Taken together this information constitutes an individual's "learner profile," which can help students self-reflect on their personal learning goals. Through this type of analysis for instance, Wendy discovered that she was a "morning person," a well-organized, abstract, sequential thinker, a passionate mathematician, and an introvert who enjoyed working alone. With this knowledge she was able to identify the aspects of her daily schedule and regular coursework that needed to be modified - most difficult classes in the morning, faster pace in math, and more independent study.
3. Consider available options
Students must be aware of the opportunities that exist within the school district as well as the community at large. Many will be listed in the high school course-of-study bulletin or gifted education plan. Districts may offer Advanced Placement courses, classroom enrichment, acceleration, independent study, mentorships, summer programs, co-curricular clubs and teams, and dual enrollment. There are also distance learning courses, virtual schools, and online college classes. Together with their counselor or gifted coordinator, students should match the available options with their personal learning profile and educational goals. Sometimes it's as easy as changing a class schedule or finding a teacher whose teaching style aligns with the student's learning style. Other times it may be necessary to work within the system to create a new option. Frequently what begins as an alternative for one student evolves into an accepted route for other similarly gifted students. It's important to remember that while the typical path to graduation is right for the majority of kids, there are many alternatives that more appropriately address the individual needs of gifted students.
In Wendy's school, all advanced 8th-grade math students studied algebra with ninth graders, but there were no other options. Since the content was new but the pace was still too slow for her, she requested curriculum compacting. In high school she realized she could move more quickly than the pre-calculus class would allow. She contemplated curriculum compacting again, as well as independent study and online courses, but finally chose to work her way through the textbook during the summer and be ready for calculus in the fall. During her senior year she studied at a community college, paid for by the school district under state law.
What Parents Can Do To Help
4. Connect with advocates
Although self-advocacy is key, teens should remember that they are not in this alone. There are many adults who can help. Parents still playa substantial though less visible role. Supportive teachers and guidance counselors will go to bat for students, and consultants in gifted education can help schools understand and accept their role. Start by considering which options your teacher or the school might be willing to provide if asked. Galbraith and Delisle's "Ten Tips for Talking to Teachers" is a good place for students to begin, especially if a teacher is provided a copy of the tips (see box). Students who are guided through self-advocacy by caring adults are more apt to find success the first time around, generating greater independence and self-confidence.
Wendy's alternative path didn't just fall into place. She needed help coping with the frustrations of red tape, scheduling conflicts, inflexible administrators and teachers, and uninformed peers. But she was encouraged by her parents, some sympathetic teachers, her guidance counselor, the math department coordinator, the gifted education staff and other gifted students. Aware of her ability and motivation, they supported her efforts in navigating the system and creating the academic path that was right for her. One indelible image they all share is of upperclassmen hoisting Wendy into the air as they accept the first place trophy at the regional math championship.
It's never too soon to teach teenagers about self-advocacy. When students know they have the right to ask, they are empowered and will be able to use the four simple steps whenever they need them throughout their lives.
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Author Note. Deborah Douglas, of Newton, WI is an EXCEL Program staff member in the Manitowac Public School District in Wisconsin.
Copyright material from Parenting for High Potential, a publication of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). Reprinted with permission. Further reprints require permission of NAGC.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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