By Deb Douglas, coeditor of Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students: Perspectives from the Field
Hani has headed back to school this fall with a spectacular new superpower . . . SELF-ADVOCACY!
She’s ready, willing, and able to speak up, ask for what she wants and needs, and follow her dreams.
But that wasn’t always true. As an unidentified gifted kid, Hani felt powerless and invisible for a long time. You see, Hani is one of those “special population” kids with additional circumstances that can interfere with the development of their potential. They’re some of our brightest learners, yet they are typically underrepresented and underserved in programs for gifted students.
According to the National Association for Gifted Children, special populations include learners who are:
- From cultural/linguistic/ethnically diverse backgrounds
- Gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/questioning (GLBTQ+)
- Twice-exceptional (2e) (gifted with disabilities)
- Highly and profoundly gifted
- Experiencing the impact of gender issues
- From low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds
- Impacted by geographic issues, such as students in urban and rural settings
Like all superheroes, Hani has an amazing origin story. In so many ways, she was not your typical grade schooler. Because she and her family spent years in a refugee camp before coming to the United States, everything about school was initially strange and confusing for Hani. English wasn’t her first language, and she’d never before experienced standardized testing. So it’s not surprising that she didn’t qualify for gifted programming when her school did the annual screening that was based solely on achievement and ability test scores.
Fortunately, Hani’s fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Washington, looked beyond test scores and grades to recognize Hani’s attributes of giftedness: deep curiosity, love of learning, excellent memory, fascination with puzzles, keen powers of observation, and vivid imagination. And because Mr. Washington is skilled at differentiating curriculum and instruction, Hani benefitted from acceleration, enrichment, and social and emotional support in his classroom. In that safe environment, she learned to tackle academic challenges, to explore new concepts, to think outside the box, and even to seek help when she struggled with difficult work.
But Mr. Washington knew things might be different when Hani moved into middle school, where the classes were larger and where she’d have several different teachers every day. She needed to carry her newfound confidence, self-efficacy, and security with her into the next school year and beyond. She needed the skills to take the lead in assuring that her educational needs were addressed. She needed the superpower of self-advocacy.
Although self-advocacy is generally thought of as simply speaking up for yourself, my colleague, Dr. Joy Lawson Davis, and I define self-advocacy for underrepresented learners this way: a dynamic process that enables high-potential students (like Hani) to claim their right to an education that addresses their unique intellectual, academic, psychosocial, and cultural needs without endangering their self-esteem or that of others.
It’s a compilation of culturally responsive and inclusive empowerment strategies that open opportunities for positive academic and life outcomes previously precluded for some students due to stereotyping, systemic biases, and limited access to resources.
In Hani’s case, Mr. Washington recognized that while there is value in all students’ learning self-advocacy skills, it is especially critical for underrepresented gifted learners like Hani who feel powerless when faced with obstacles such as:
- Faulty identification processes
- Stereotypes and myths regarding giftedness
- Limited familiarity with navigating the system
- Limited family/community/school connections
- Lack of opportunities (especially in rural and urban schools)
- Inequitable instructional and support services for diverse gifted learners
- Insufficient educator training in culturally responsive practices
For Hani to become Super Hani and break those barriers, Mr. Washington helped her acquire three types of knowledge: self-knowledge, system-knowledge, and support-knowledge.
Hani reflected on herself as a gifted learner. What were her cognitive abilities? Her strengths and weaknesses? Her interests and passions? Her learning preferences? How did her personal characteristics (introversion, perfectionism) affect her daily life? What were her short- and long-term goals?
Hani learned how the local educational system works . . . and sometimes doesn’t work. What opportunities were available for gifted students? How could she access them? What were her options if/when access was denied? What steps did she need to take to achieve her goals?
Mr. Washington worked hard to make sure Hani’s parents understood her needs as a gifted learner and felt comfortable supporting her in the school environment. He also introduced her to the educators who could help: the middle school principal, school counselor, gifted coordinator, and classroom teachers.
With all that knowledge in place, Hani had the information, strategies, and power she needed to self-advocate.
Odds are that you have a Hani, or two or three or more, in your classroom. Someone from a special population of gifted learners who is underserved because kids like them are underrepresented in gifted programming. The big question is, what can you do to help these students develop the superpower of self-advocacy, to break the barriers and learn to follow their dreams? I have a few suggestions.
First, you can ensure that their gifts and talents are recognized. In addition to achievement and abilities tests, identification systems should include nonverbal assessments as well as checklists of attributes of giftedness. All educators should be on the lookout for students who display those attributes in nontraditional ways.
Second, you can clearly communicate with learners and their families so they can readily partner with you. Help both students and parents appreciate what giftedness means and recognize the special needs of gifted children. Make multiple, varied attempts to reach out to parents and guardians on a regular basis and ensure that all communiques are available in families’ first languages.
Third, teach self-advocacy skills and strategies to students, directly and intentionally. Help them understand their right to an appropriately challenging education, as well as the social and emotional supports relevant to gifted learners who are frequently outside the norm. Be sure they are ready to be partners in their own education. Guide them in acquiring the communication skills that will allow them to successfully ask for and receive what they need to succeed.
And finally, find ways to make their self-advocacy “portable.” The lives of underrepresented gifted learners may be quite fluid, with you one day and gone the next. For them to take the power of self-advocacy with them wherever they go, help students create their own superhero “utility belt” (both digital and hard copy).
Hani’s contained the following:
- Mr. Washington’s contact information
- Letters of recommendation from Mr. Washington and her elementary principal
- Description of her attributes of giftedness
- List of in-class differentiation strategies that met her needs
- List of recommended future options and opportunities.
- Definition of self-advocacy and suggestions for supporting her self-advocacy
- Hani’s personal statement describing her best experiences and future goals
In short, self-advocacy has imbued Hani with superpowers. She now believes in her own abilities, has discovered her own dreams, finds support in achieving them, and continues to seek the educational path that is right for her. With our help, all “special population” gifted learners can be superheroes too!
Deb Douglas consults and advocates for gifted students, specializing in workshops that help students take charge of their educations. She is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences, and her original research on empowering gifted students to self-advocate has been published in The Roeper Review and Parenting for High Potential. Previously, she was the gifted education coordinator for the Manitowoc Public School District and president of the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Follow Deb on Twitter: @debdouglas52
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