Saturday, September 22, 2012

Teaching Advocacy

Advocacy is “the act of arguing in favor of something -- an idea, cause, or policy.”  (NAGC)  Each of us, then, is an advocate every time we stand up for our beliefs, hold our ground in a discussion, or express a point of view in defense of an issue.  So why is advocacy, in general, important for parents of gifted children, and why is it important to teach our children to be advocates?  According to the State of the Nation in Gifted Education (2011):

12 states require districts to hire gifted and talented administrators, but only 4 states require them to have certification in gifted and talented education.
Since the last State of the States report, 14 states have reduced state funding for gifted education.
20 states do not monitor district programs for gifted and talented students.
The only federal program for gifted students was cut in 2011, taking away every federal education dollar from the learning needs of our nation’s most advanced students.
Only 6 states require all teachers to receive pre-service training in gifted and talented education.
Only 5 states require annual professional development for teachers in specialized gifted and talented programs.
Only 7 states permit students to enter kindergarten earlier than the state cut-off age.
Only 8 states have state policies that specifically permit academic acceleration; the rest leave the decision to the local school district.

In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics tells us that the average elementary school classroom size in the United States varies from a low in Vermont of 17.0 to a high in Michigan of 25.1 with an average class size of 20.3 (2008)

Given all of these facts, it is clear that gifted children are not guaranteed an educational environment in which they can flourish.  It is imperative that both parents and children are able and willing to speak up for what is necessary for these children to receive an education commensurate with their abilities in a safe and nurturing environment.

When it comes to advocating for gifted education, parents may advocate for programs, for children’s inclusion in those programs, and for services. But, it is important also for children to learn to self-advocate rather than reporting every situation to the parent who then can step in to solve the problem.  Consider:

Rescuing your child repeatedly causes anxiety because it sends the message to your child that he is fragile and cannot advocate for himself. (Marano, 2004)
Children do not learn life skills like self reliance, sharing and conflict resolution when parents hover. (Strauss, 2006) If the child learns to rely on a parent to rescue him every time he is unhappy, he will not learn the skills necessary to develop a sense of self-efficacy and independence.
Parents are not always around when an issue arises.  Students are on the front lines.  If they know how to request a different book, explain what they know, and understand when doing so is appropriate and when it is not, they will probably be successful at navigating the waters of childhood.
It is a lesson that they will employ in a myriad of situations throughout their lives.  How many adults are unable to approach an employer to discuss a promotion?  How many adults are hesitant to tell a friend that something the friend is doing is hurtful?  How many young adults frequently call mom and dad asking for advice on issues they should be able to handle themselves?  Teaching children while they are young to know what is important to them and to respectfully fight for it is critical.

Teaching the gifted child to distinguish what is worth fighting for is not always easy.  Their sense of justice, their propensity toward overexcitability, and their ability to synthesize facts, analyze a situation, and arrive at a logical solution often before the decision-maker can be stumbling blocks.  Additionally, all successful advocacy depends, in part, on relationships built over time that engender trust.  Sometimes built-in credibility speeds the process, but generally it takes time to develop a trusting relationship between advocates and decision makers.  (NAGC 2011)   If a child is to advocate for himself, then, in academic or social situations, he first needs to establish a trusting relationship with those involved.  He can do this by employing a strategy that utilizes specific tools:

(1) know your facts;
(2) know your audience;
(3) know your preferred outcome, and;
(4) maintain a respectful attitude.

If we are going to teach our young children to advocate for themselves, we need to first teach them what that means.  It does not mean whining about homework because you already know how to do the work, or complaining about an assigned project being too simplistic.  It means knowing what you want, assessing the situation to ascertain whether or not your desired outcome is feasible, thinking about the best way to approach the person who can make the decision, and arming yourself with evidence to support your position. It means being careful not to let extraneous issues distract you from your intended outcome.  It means choosing your issues wisely rather than railing against every perceived injustice that is aimed your way.

Complain or Self-Advocate?

As a parent, you could role play situations in which a child would have a choice whether to simply complain or to self-advocate for a desired outcome:

The class is studying pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving.  The teacher has assigned The First Thanksgiving by Jean Craighead George.  Johnny has a real interest in pilgrims and has already read that book.

 (complaining) “I already read that book, teacher.”
 (self-advocacy) “I already read that book, teacher.  May I please go to the library and find another book to read on the pilgrims?”

The teacher begins a lesson on the basic needs of farm animals, including shelter and living spaces.  Susie has visited her uncle’s farm every summer since she was born.

 (complaining) “I know all about this already.”
 (self-advocacy)  “I know all about this already from visiting my uncle’s farm.  Would you like me to bring in some pictures and video to share with the class?  I could interview my uncle and ask him for some fun facts that aren’t in our textbook.”

David played baseball last season but wasn’t very good.  Wanting to get better, he attended a summer camp and really practiced hard.  The next season, disappointed to have him on the team, his new coach decided to bench him for the first game.

 (complaining)  “I hate baseball.  I never want to play again.”
 (self advocacy)  “Coach, I know that I didn’t play very well last season but I went to summer baseball camp and I have been practicing really hard.  Could I show you what I can do now?  I want to help the team to win, not sit on the bench.”

Julie’s younger sister is playing with Julie’s favorite toy and Julie doesn’t want her to damage it.

 (complaining)  “Give it to me!”  Julie grabs the toy, making her sister cry.
 (self-advocacy)  “You don’t want to play with that old toy.  Here’s another one that is way more fun.  Let’s play with it together.”  She then gently takes the toy and plays for a few minutes with her sister with the new toy.

Anywhere from 60% - 90% of students in the general population had been bullied, and around 20% of students were bullies. (Peterson & Ray, 2006)  By eighth grade, 67% of gifted students had been victims of bullying, 16% defined themselves as bullies, and 29% had violent thoughts.  11% of bullied gifted children respond with violence.  (AP/MTV, 2009)

(complaining) You call me names because I’m smart.  Well, you’re stupid.
(self-advocacy) You call me names just because I’m smart.  Well, I’m smart enough to know that the names don’t mean anything.

In some schools, adults (e.g. administrators, teachers) become the bullies by repeatedly telling children who are gifted that giftedness does not exist, does not matter, should not receive any special consideration, and children who are gifted should not receive any services. (Cross, 2001)

 (complaining)  “It’s not fair!  I know everything and school is boring.”
 (self-advocacy)  “I know that I have a lot to learn, but I do already know what we’re studying.  May I please go to the library and get a book on the subject to read quietly while the class learns about it?”

If we diligently model behaviors for our children that show them how to respectfully and politely express their needs, we will be leading them down the path to independence with the ability to achieve their dreams and fulfill their potential - academically, socially, and emotionally.


AP-MTV (2009). A thin line: 2009, AP-MTV digital abuse study. Retrieved from

Cross, T. (2001). The many faces of bullies. Gifted Child Today, 24, 36-37.

Fertig, C. (2008). Overprotection of gifted students. Prufrock Press Gifted child information blog @

Jacobsen, M.E. (2009). If only I had known: Lessons from gifted adults. Duke TIP, Digest of gifted research. Winter 2009.

Marano, H.E. (2004). The pressure from parents. Psychology Today. March 1, 2004.

NAGC (2011). Executive summary. State of the nation in gifted education: A lack of commitment to talent development.

National Center for Education Statistics (2008).   Average class size for public school teachers in elementary schools, secondary schools, and  schools with combined grades by classroom type and state: 2007-08.  Retrieved from

Sword, L. (2001). Psycho-social needs: Understanding the emotional, intellectual and social uniqueness of growing up gifted. Retrieved from

Strauss, V. (2006). Putting parents in their place: outside class. The Washington Post, March 21, 2006.  Retrieved from