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Self-advocacy for gifted teens and tweens: How to help gifted teens take control of their classroom experience

Gifted Education and Support

This blog post from Ilana Teitelman focuses on how adolescent and pre-teen students can advocate for themselves.

Author: Teitelman, I.
Publisher: Gifted Challenges
Year: 2015

As students start to reach fifth and sixth grade, and enter into the world of middle and high school, they become more and more responsible for their own emotional and academic well-being. It is around this time that special needs students begin attending their own IEP meetings and being asked to listen and comment on their strengths, weaknesses, and accommodations. The ability to advocate for yourself can benefit all students, though, especially those gifted students who may have special needs or concerns in the classroom but do not have written plans and regular reviews.

Why should gifted students self-advocate? First and foremost, the ability to speak up for yourself is an important social skill (http://sengifted.org/a-case-for-affective-education-addressing-the-social-and-emotional-needs-of-gifted-students-in-the-classroom/) that all students, but especially gifted students, can benefit from learning. There are a variety of benefits to older students learning to communicate their own needs, rather than allowing their parents to be their sole advocates.

  • Gifted students who speak for themselves may get help and resources sooner. Students have regular access to teachers and administrators in a way that parents don’t. Especially for smaller, more immediate issues with simpler solutions, students may get what they need faster if they can ask for it themselves.
  • Gifted students are often great problem solvers. Why not let them put those skills to use helping solve the problems they’re encountering in school? While it is never solely the student’s responsibility to solve school problems, they often have unique insight into what solutions could help them. Even if their idea isn’t feasible (I had a student who wanted to install a pull-up bar in the hallway ceiling), it might lead to ideas that are workable (pull-up breaks on the playground instead?).
  • Self-advocating is a good outlet for the creative energy and passion for justice that many gifted students possess. Writing up a proposal to a teacher, making posters, or preparing a presentation on a school issue (in a respectful, professional manner) are real-life tasks that prepare students for the outside world. They also require hard work and academic energy. This work can help adolescents “own” their giftedness (http://sengifted.org/helping-adolescents-adjust-to-giftedness/) and hone academic skills in an authentic way.
  • Self-advocating is “cooler” than having your parents advocate for you. Gifted students in middle and high school are highly cognizant of peer perception. “Standing up” to a teacher (again, respectfully) can get you respect as a teen and tween (Wow! You got Ms. Gold to change her mind on the test policy?). Having your parents get those results does not garner the same respect, and may even be embarrassing for students (Wow! You had to have your mom call Ms. Gold?). This is not to say that you shouldn’t advocate for your older students- often they very much need you to. But it can be worth it to let them try to solve certain problems on their own, at least at first.

Self-advocating for gifted students can be a source of pride and an outlet for their intelligence and creativity. It also helps them learn important social skills that will help them beyond school (http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/eric/e632.html). And it empowers them to find solutions to make school more of a productive and positive place. These results carry over to other problems that may arise, in school and out.

So how can students self-advocate effectively? Here are my top four tips. Share these strategies with your child for a more successful negotiation with their teacher(s):

  1. Pick the right time.
    Most teachers don’t appreciate being interrupted in the middle of class, or bombarded in front of a group of students. While your points may be accurate (and your tone respectful), if you call out in class or when there’s an audience present, you may seem disrespectful. Try to find a time when the teacher is available to talk privately. After all, you want her/him to really listen and respond thoughtfully, right? The start of class may be good, or during a time when the class is engaged in seatwork independently. Even better, ask if you can have lunch, meet them after school, or schedule a meeting during your study hall!And if you’re worried about approaching the teacher, or they never seem available, try writing a letter. It gives your teacher time to think about and respond to your concerns on her/his own time, and it gives you the chance to organize your thoughts and express what you want to express.
  2. Know the classroom/school systems.
    Think about how your school and class are set-up and how you could make that work for you. Think of it as a big logic puzzle. If the first five minutes is always spent checking in and getting homework out, maybe you could arrange to be three minutes late to do push-ups in the hall before a big test. You can promise to come in silently, put your homework right down on the pile, and sit without interrupting. Or maybe Fridays are always spelling tests, and you’ve been acing them all year. Maybe you could arrange to instead spend Fridays in the library doing an independent research project. As long as you’re willing to make project contract with your teacher, and have a way to show your work (a paper or presentation, maybe?), your teacher may be fine with it.
  3. Identify Your Problem Areas (before you meet).
    This one is two-fold: you want to be able to say what the specific problem is, and you also need to be able to admit if there are problems you’re responsible or partially responsible for. In terms of the first part, make sure that you can point out the exact things that you’re having trouble with. This can be hard! But if you come in and say, “I’m bored,” your teacher may have no idea what you’re talking about. It even may seem like you’re just criticizing his/her teaching.If you can instead say, “I already know all my spelling words every week,” or “I can’t get my ideas out fast enough writing by hand,” or “the readings are a lot like what I did last year for my research project,” then the teacher can see a specific problem that she/he may be able to solve. It also shows that you’re being thoughtful and not just complaining.In terms of admitting your own problems, this can be tricky, especially if you know you have good reasons for what you’re doing. You may be ignoring your partners during group work because they don’t understand any of your ideas! Or maybe you’re calling out because you’re so frustrated that no one else has the answer and the teacher won’t call on you when you raise your hand! But being able to admit when you’ve been doing something that may be causing a problem shows that you’re really realistic about what’s happening in the classroom. It will make your complaints and ideas seem more realistic and legitimate.

    If you can say, “I know I’ve been having a problem calling out,” or “I need help not ignoring my partner during group projects,” you’re showing that you want to be a partner in solving classroom problems. Besides which, your teacher will really appreciate you taking responsibility, which will probably make her/him more willing to work with you and go the extra mile to help. Yes, it’s the teacher’s job to help, but they’re humans too, and most humans are more willing to do extra work if it’s for someone who’s kind and helpful. So use that to your advantage if you can!

  4. Come with (Realistic) Solutions Ready, but Keep an Open Mind.
    You’re a problem solver and you know how to look at something and make connections that other people may not see. You are also the closest person to the problem, so you have a unique perspective to share. It’s great if you have ideas about what might help! In fact, by thinking about the school and classroom systems, you may already have come up with some ideas. Just take a minute to make sure that they’re realistic.Not having to take math anymore probably isn’t an option, even if you feel your time would be better spent with extra writing class instead. And, unfortunately, schools have tight budgets, so asking for lots of special equipment or your own daily tutor might not be possible either. But there are often already resources at your school that you might be able to take advantage of. The library is often a good place to start. Or maybe there’s a teacher who could help you start a club? Or your study hall teacher could supervise a project with you twice a week?Separately, there may be small things that you could do on your own to make things better. Maybe moving your seat would help you tune out the person next to you who always sings under her breathe? Maybe you would be more willing to raise your hand from the back of the room, where you’re not front and center. Or maybe tests are stressful and you could bring a card to them that reminds you of breathing exercises or positive affirmations. Most teachers are happy to accommodate you when they can, especially if you’re not asking for them to do a lot of extra work!

    That all being said, make sure you keep an open mind. You have the right to expect to be listened to, especially if you’ve followed these strategies and stayed respectful. But make sure you take the time to listen as well. You teacher may have reasons why your ideas aren’t as do-able as you thought they were, or may need to talk with someone else for approval. She/he might also have some changes to make to your ideas to improve them. This is good! It means that you’re being taken seriously, and may result in a better end solution. Keep an open mind and you may be surprised what can happen.

    Of course, you may try all of these things and it still may just not work out. That’s unfortunate, but it happens. If you’re willing, try to go through the process again with a different person, like a guidance counselor or principal. At this point, you may want to ask your parents for help too. Often they can back you up and bring a stronger authority to your ideas.

In addition to all these strategies, try to find at least one adult at school who you can talk to. Even if they can’t help you with this specific problem, having connections at school can give you important insight and support.

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