Most parents of gifted children learn that advocacy is a necessary additional component of parenting. They didn't expect it. They didn't plan for it. But without their voice, gifted children often languish, deprived of the education they need. Parents not only learn to speak up at school, but must explain giftedness wherever they go - on the playground, at dinner with relatives, at the soccer field.
Unfortunately, parents who advocate for their gifted child, or for the needs of all gifted children, are often misunderstood. A range of critical comments have been lobbed against them. And yes, while you might encounter the occasional "pushy" parent - the one who thinks their child can do no wrong - these parents populate the neurotypical world as well. Most parents of gifted children are stumbling along and just trying to find their way. They navigate stereotypes, arcane philosophical views about education, and intolerance. Many are exhausted and settle for meager accommodations; the battles are just too overwhelming.
Here are a few comments in response to the misunderstanding parent advocates encounter:
1. Advocacy is not bragging.
When gifted children feel socially isolated, experience heightened emotional reactivity, or remain bored in traditional classrooms, parents struggle along with them. Advocating for an enriched education, ability grouping where gifted children may find like-minded peers, or merely some appreciation of the impact of asynchronous development does not imply that gifted children are in any way better or more privileged or more deserving. Parents must challenge misunderstandings and widespread myths - a task that is neither easy nor fun. Voicing concerns is neither boasting nor bragging. Gifted children deserve an education that meets their needs; this is a fact - not a badge of greatness.
2. Advocacy is not overinvolvement.
Advocating for a gifted child's educational and social/emotional needs is good parenting. It illustrates how parents look out for their child's best interests and try to ensure that their needs are understood and adequately met. While we should teach our children self-advocacy skills, there are times when grown-ups must speak up for them. Of course, situations arise where parents overstep their role - completing their child's homework assignments, demanding to know every detail about their child's friendships, contacting an adult child's professor about a low grade, or the extreme example of falsifying college application information. However, most parents of gifted children who advocate in the schools are not demanding special privileges; they are merely asserting what their child needs.
3. Advocacy is not selfish.
Those unfamiliar with gifted children may notice a gifted child's abilities, but attribute any accomplishments or talents to their parents' efforts. They may assume the child was pushed or "hot-housed" or prepped. They also might believe that gifted children neither require nor deserve additional academic support. These kids will do "just fine" no matter what. Their parents only care about themselves and their families, not the rest of the class. Giftedness is a choice, anyway.
Most parents of gifted children are just along for the ride. Their child's smarts catch them off-guard, and they eventually learn that problems quickly arise when their child is bored at school, or cannot find like-minded peers. Parents who advocate for their child's academic needs are no different from those who demand healthier cafeteria meals or seek accommodations for a learning disability. They are supporting the needs of their child, but also initiating policy and procedural changes that will positively impact other children. When accommodations for additional academic or health-based needs become commonplace, future generations of parents no longer will be expected to plead for changes. These changes then become the established norm - a routine consideration in academic and fiscal planning within the schools.
4. Advocacy is not elitist.
Anyone who claims that giftedness is the purview of the wealthy misunderstands the concept entirely. Yes, early childhood enrichment is beneficial. Yes, some test prep can temporarily increase a child's scores on some achievement tests. Yes, patient support and attentive encouragement allow children to blossom. But gifted children can be found among every racial, cultural, and socio-economic group. Assuming otherwise creates a racially tinged underestimation of a child's potential. Research on the excellence gap or underidentification of giftedness in minority or financially impoverished groups points to this problem.
Giftedness is not synonymous with wealth. Giftedness is not proportionally more prevalent among any particular racial or ethnic group. Poor kids are smart, too. And there are a variety of paths for achieving equity in education that do not eliminate the needs of the gifted. Parents who advocate for their gifted children are not claiming that their child is superior or more deserving or better in some way. They are merely requesting that schools meet their child's academic needs.
5. Advocacy does not overlook the needs of other children.
There is a misguided assumption that if gifted children receive an education consistent with their academic needs, other children will suffer. This assumption implies that neurotypical or at-risk children will be deprived of services if gifted children are offered a meaningful education; there is only so much funding to go around, and those most at-risk deserve the most. Yet, gifted education typically comprises only a fraction of most districts' budgets (see this commentary for a helpful perspective on the topic). As Wai has noted: "Talented but disadvantaged youth are most in need of our help, but unfortunately, research has also documented that funding at the federal level for advanced learners is tiny, at a ratio of 500,000 to their single dollar."
The belief that gifted education is inequitable or deprives other children has led some districts to reduce gifted education funding even further or even eliminate gifted programs completely. Concepts such as differentiated instruction (an almost impossible task for teachers), or elimination of honors classes are implemented as a salve for families who worry that their child will be emotionally scarred if gifted children receive enriched services. In reality, reducing or eliminating gifted programming in an effort to address equity serves no one. Benbow and Stanley aptly highlight the problem of pitting "equity against excellence rather than promoting both equity and excellence." It is a disservice to students from impoverished or minority backgrounds who can thrive in gifted programs, and fails to address real issues of systemic racism or meager funding for early childhood enrichment. Smarick offers a cogent summary and excellent overview of these issues, including the following:
"Americans' leveling impulse has unappealing consequences: In a perverted version of fairness, we knowingly neglect the special gifts of some kids in the name of equality. Each child must be seen as more than a component part of a political strategy to equalize social outcomes. Each child has a legitimate claim to the attention necessary to make the most of his or her interests and capacities.
Perhaps most important, when there's insufficient public investment in identifying and serving gifted students, the economically and socially disadvantages kids with special abilities are the ones who suffer the most."
What misunderstandings, resistance to advocacy, or barriers to gifted education have you experienced? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.