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The Superpower of Self-Advocacy

By Deb Douglas.

This fall, send your kids back to school with a new superpower --- SELF-ADVOCACY!!!

Self-advocacy is a critical skill that empowers students to speak up, set their own goals, and find support in realizing their dreams. “My favorite definition comes from Loring C. Brinckerhoff: Self-advocacy is the process of recognizing and meeting the needs specific to your learning ability without compromising the dignity of yourself or others.”

In an ideal situation, this year’s teacher has experience meeting the needs of gifted learners and is aware of your child’s unique strengths and struggles, interests, preferences, and quirks. But unfortunately, many of our brightest kids aren’t in the ideal situation. Still, when given the tools and insights they need, students can improve whatever situation they’re in. They can learn to successfully self-advocate – to tell the adults around them when, where, and how they want their education to be differentiated – without compromising anyone’s dignity.

Of course, you’ll still be their guide-on-the-side. But no one knows the realities of their school day better than they do, whether they’re interacting with peers and staff, sitting in class, walking the halls, or completing assignments. As their advocate, your job is to listen to their perspectives on how school is going and then to help them reflect on their abilities as a gifted learner, understand what their options are, and develop the skills to successfully ask for what they need and want.

As you’re well aware, gifted children are outliers--different from their age peers in many ways. And as outliers, they have different educational, social, and emotional needs than those peers. Sometimes things are just fine; sometimes they’re not. And when things aren’t going right, kids need to know what they can do to make it better. What are their options? Who do they turn to for support? What do they say? You can help them find the answers.

So where do you begin? Together with your child, gather information. To effectively self-advocate, your child needs to be knowledgeable about the nature of their giftedness and their personal learner profile, as well as their rights within the system and options for acceleration, enrichment, and social/emotional support. A great resource is The Gifted Teen Survival Guide: Smart, Sharp, and Ready for Almost Anything, by Judy Galbraith and Jim Delisle (2011). It’s still the best overview of giftedness written specifically for kids, but you’ll learn a lot too as you read and discuss together.

Next, consider options that match your child’s learner profile. Help them assess and reflect on their unique characteristics in five areas: cognitive ability, academic strengths (and challenges), interests, learning preferences, and personality traits like perfectionism, introversion, motivation, and intensities. Karen Rogers’ book, Re-Forming Gifted Education: Matching the Program to the Child (2002) is a golden oldie that details how a gifted child’s learner profile can help us identify the best educational alternatives. It also describes a wide variety of appropriate opportunities based on the child’s profile. Consider which options are already available within your school or district, which might be added, or where in your community you might find them.

Finally, create a plan for successful self-advocacy. Help your child take the lead in choosing a short- or long-term goal, something they really want to change, and creating a step-by-step plan to achieve it. I’ve found that student goals frequently fall into one of these four categories:

  • Finding a greater challenge (ex: accelerate in math)

  • Exploring an interest (ex: study Latin)

  • Spending more time with like-ability peers (ex: start a writer’s group)

  • Adjusting address personal traits (ex: become less perfectionistic)

The best way to move the plan forward is to work with your child’s school advocate. That could be a teacher, school counselor, gifted education coordinator, or principal. Make an appointment for you and your child to discuss the plan and support your learner in leading the conversation. Decide which steps are needed and who is responsible for each step. Then regularly assess progress. Recognize each successful step and revise those that are less successful.

And when that goal is achieved, celebrate your child’s accomplishments. Be prepared to hear about their new goals and begin the process again … and again and again, each time encouraging your child to take more and more responsibility.

No matter their age or situation you will continue to be your gifted children’s advocate-on-the-side. But you can set them on the road to personal fulfillment when you imbue them with the superpower of self-advocacy.


Deb Douglas, MS C&I, is the founder and director of GT Carpe Diem Educational Consulting, facilitating self-advocacy workshops for gifted students and professional development for educators. Her books, The Power of Self-Advocacy: Teaching the Four Essential Steps to Success (2018), and Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Learners: Voices from the Field (2021) co-edited with Dr. Joy Lawson Davis, are available from Free Spirit Publishing.

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