Monday, September 9, 2019

Gifted advocacy is an education

Gifted advocacy is a mixed bag. It is also an education.

Advocacy, that unexpected, uninvited guest in the lives of a gifted child's family, is thrust upon them with little warning. Parents of gifted children find that they must educate themselves about giftedness - and that it falls upon them to speak up for their child's needs. They must grasp the enormity of their child's intellectual and social/emotional needs (and sometimes, twice-exceptional challenges); assess the local school's limitations, the community's resources, and the state's gifted ed regulations and laws; and decide how to proceed with their child's schooling. Parents of gifted children receive a fast-track education into the world of giftedness and quickly develop a surprising level of expertise. They never bargained for this, yet find that they must assume the role of advocate. Frustrating, demanding, eye-opening, disheartening - and occasionally rewarding - advocacy becomes an endurance challenge. They are in it for the long haul.

Advocacy sometimes receives a bad rap - especially when it relates to giftedness. Advocating for educational needs associated with disabilities, deficits, learning challenges, or disadvantages is justifiably applauded and much deserved. But gifted advocacy is often misunderstood and imbued with stigma, stereotypes and outdated perceptions of what gifted children need. Advocate parents are sometimes unfairly viewed as pushy, entitled tiger moms, eager to ensure that their precious snowflakes receive advantages beyond what "average" kids are allotted. Gifted children are often portrayed as hot-housed, test-prepped rich kids, who are merely high achievers striving to get ahead, and no different than anyone else. Even those who excel are disparaged by the media. Some disavow the concept of giftedness altogether.

Gifted education is not legally protected or mandated in many states in the U.S., depriving parents (and supportive teachers) of any authority to insist on an appropriate education. Even when there are legal supports, many school districts create roadblocks, or plead financial hardship. Some claim gifted programs are elitist or promote wealth inequality. Others recommend disbanding gifted education programs. Rather than identifying creative solutions for addressing inequity, the excellence gap, or underidentification of gifted minority and low-income students, advanced academic programming is sometimes slated for elimination.

Given the startling amount of misinformation, bias, and heated emotion that accompanies this debate, it falls upon parents to be advocates and educators. Yes, educators. You may not have signed up for the job, but you must take up this mantle. Wherever you go, and wherever your child goes - it will fall upon you to tactfully, assertively, insistently educate others about giftedness.

Advocacy may be necessary, for example, with teachers, administrators, school board members, classmates' parents, neighbors, family members, coaches, camp counselors, babysitters, music/dance/acting teachers, physicians, your religious community, counselors, and the person at the grocery check-out counter. Even if your child attends a school for gifted children, or you homeschool, biases and misunderstanding still persist within the greater community, and your insight is needed.

Advocacy education can include any or all of the following explanations and examples:

1. Gifted individuals have advanced intellectual abilities found among only 1-5% of the population, identified through formal IQ testing. This means that their thinking is different, and they grasp information with greater depth and complexity, and at a faster pace. This is unrelated to motivation or achievement. You cannot push, hot-house or test-prep yourself to be gifted.

2. Giftedness does not discriminate. Individuals of all ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds are gifted Some are not as readily identified due to flawed screening tools or impoverished early learning environments. Gifted education is not elitist and is not intended to only target wealthy families. Eliminating gifted programming will not create equity; it will merely abolish gifted education for all students who would benefit, including disadvantaged students.

3. Some gifted children struggle with emotional intensities, and react strongly to situations. They may be highly sensitive, possess a strong sense of fairness and social justice, and may question everything. Asynchronous development may affect their maturity level, and interfere with social skills, social judgment in the classroom, or fitting in with peers. (Your young child may talk a blue streak, and although that meltdown in aisle six might be a surprise to store personnel, you may need to explain that your child's intellect does not equate with his/her behavior.)

4. "Gifted" may be a controversial term, as the word evokes emotional reactions and stereotypical images. Unfortunately, we're stuck with it for now, and need to ensure that the educational/diagnostic term is distinguished from any lay terminology or assumptions. No, not every child is "gifted" - even though, hopefully, all parents view their child is a joyful gift. We all may possess certain gifts and talents; however, giftedness is a distinct label that reflects an intellectual difference from the norm. It is not a choice, and cannot be taught or achieved through hard work.

5. Gifted education is a right and not a privilege. It is not an elitist construct. Gifted kids are not "just fine" when they are relegated to tutoring their peers, or resort to reading novels at their desks while waiting for the class to catch up. Ignoring their intellectual needs can be destructive. Without an appropriate education, they act out, underachieve, feel disconnected from school, fail to learn executive functioning skills, develop a distorted view of "hard work" or what they might achieve, and their potential is wasted. They may become anxious, depressed, hopeless, and resentful toward authority. What is sometimes incorrectly labeled as "outgrowing giftedness" is often the result of inertia, underachievement, or the impact of an inadequate education.

You are not hovering or "helicoptering" when you advocate for your gifted child - or for the rights of all gifted children. Advocacy is not "bragging," trampling on other parents' and students' rights, eliminating your child's autonomy or need for personal responsibility, or "coddling" your child in order to avert any hardship. Gifted children's intellectual needs lie outside the norm and they deserve an appropriate education tailored to their abilities. They also deserve society's understanding and compassion, rather than disdain, envy and, at best, neglect.

You bear witness as your gifted child's intellect and sensitivities unfold, and can best educate others about these unique differences and essential need for services. Educate yourself through books, articles, online forums and parent advocacy groups. Challenge your own fears and hesitation about your "right" to advocate. Then, get out there and help educate others about giftedness!

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