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Even more than most, twice-exceptional children can find themselves in situations challenging to them and the adults who care about them. Wanting to help, adults may look for solutions without including the very people most invested in the outcome: the children. Although particular challenges may change and skills can be learned over time, many of the complexities presented by giftedness and disabilities will be nevertheless present in some form in adulthood, too. Proactively addressing being out-of-the-norm is a valuable life skill.
As with other skills, self-advocacy is learned in small steps and won’t always be successful. However, it‘s an investment worth starting early and maintaining because too many challenges arise from breakdowns in communication or empowerment. Over the years, as a parent and advocate, I’ve come to feel that self-advocacy is likely the most important tool we can give children. While developing the ability to self-advocate is especially beneficial to twice-exceptional children, every adult needs proficiency in this skill.
How do we go about preparing our children to advocate for themselves? Here are some lessons we’ve learned in our family and some of the strategies we’ve developed regarding self-advocacy.
If we want to create an environment where children grow into ownership of their choices and future — into autonomous adults — then the kids need to know that if they speak, they will be heard and their contributions will matter. For the twice-exceptional, this is especially important. For them, the path of the typical student may not be the best fit. What may serve 2e students better is learning to present their unique perspective and ideas to adults and to partner with them for success. Some strategies for creating an empowering environment might include the following.
Start with Intentionality. Homeschooling had never been our game plan, and we felt at loose ends when we began. To help steady ourselves, we created a statement of our priorities which evolved over the years through thoughtful and impassioned discussions. Our priorities included:
Clearly every family’s list would vary, depending on the child and the year. Each of our kids proved different enough from their siblings that one’s path rarely suited the others. But the ongoing conversation about intentions and ideals has provided a baseline when considering how to address different situations. We would ask, “Does this solution fit our priorities?”
Encourage Partnership. Although we as parents retained final authority in making decisions, our listed priorities encouraged us to empower our children to propose their own recommendations for meeting challenges at home or school. Children know their experience firsthand; their solutions can be insightful and surprisingly comprehensive. Partnership reinforces that twice-exceptional children bring strengths, not only “deficits,” to the situation. Further, it’s exhausting for the adults to solve every problem.
We’ve found compliance and success much more likely with partnership or “buy in.” Some of our best IEP meeting results have come when our son spoke frankly about his own ideas. His ideas would never have occurred to the adults, but ended up being adopted. Further, identifying what he thought would not work for him made clear a poor use of resources or led to his better understanding why a particular arrangement was important.
Consider Unconventional Solutions. Invited to add their own solutions, 2e kids may offer some unusual ones. Don’t assume these won’t work. Some suggestions may be truly impractical. If so, help children work through feasibility and goals. Yet sometimes children’s ideas inspire everyone to think out-of-the-box. For example, my youngest son is dyslexic and dysgraphic. Imagine my surprise when he noted he’d be a teaching assistant for the English department. With an extra slot in his high school schedule, he realized he could earn a quarter English credit each semester, eliminating a required class by graduation. He’d gone into the English office and asked, “Who needs a TA?” When we asked our son if the teacher knew he was dyslexic, he replied, “He says he’s a bad speller, too. I’ll have a grading key. Plus, the class is covering mythology, which I know more about than the teacher.” My son took his unlikely responsibility seriously with no complaints about the work. Better, he learned grammar and spelling through the repetition of grading papers. Because he had chosen the work, we had no battle over these lessons, and he loved hanging out with teachers in the English office.
Thomas Edison said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.” Operating in a system built for different norms, 2e kids may find even the best-laid plans can easily go awry. However, with intention “failure” can be turned to strength and skill-building. It can become an opportunity to learn consequences of actions, the value of perseverance, and how and when to ask for help. Following are some strategies for making the most of seemingly unsuccessful situations.
Value Mistakes. Although it takes parental fortitude, sometimes not helping or “rescuing” a child from reasonably-scaled failure can be a gift. We all make mistakes, have weaknesses, and fail. Admitting, evaluating, and repairing these are powerful skills to model and teach, as is the ability to contend with others’ errors. Taking a cue from our kids’ Montessori preschool, we had no off-limits “good” dishes in our house. It was more important to me that the children clean up broken plates if reasonable care wasn’t taken. (I also made sure my immediate inclination on hearing a crash in the kitchen was to ask after the child’s wellbeing, not about the china’s.) Success deserves discussion, too. Asking children what they would/wouldn’t do differently can be a good opener.
Persevere. Life will always present challenges, now or in adulthood, perhaps more for the twice-exceptional. Learning good problem-solving skills, believing one can improve a situation, and practicing flexibility can go a long way. So, too, can adopting an attitude of synchronicity instead of despair. For example, when my daughter didn’t get into her preferred college, she handled it with far more aplomb than I, noting good things about her fallback position and believing that things would work out (and, indeed, they have). Although competition isn’t for everyone, my daughter learned perseverance through years of Scottish Highland dancing, a non-academic field where physical talents didn’t favor her. She learned that hard work paid off if she chose it, to lose gracefully, not to fear audiences, that even the best dancers have off-days, and that there are future opportunities for success. For her, the reward and pleasure of studying meticulous steps was dancing well at non-competitive events — something she still enjoys.
Ask for Help. While a state of learning requires any of us — students, parents, or educators — to feel challenged enough to be a little uncomfortable, there’s value to being able to recognize when a situation feels too much out of our depth. Then discomfort is no longer an opportunity for stretching or even “positive failure,” but requires reevaluation and support instead. Asking for help can be its own form of self-advocacy. Do you model this for your child? It’s important for children to feel that the adults in their lives are strong enough to offer them the support they need. However, we may miss useful opportunities to show kids how we deal with our own struggles, proactively seeking assistance or relief when we feel our own resources are insufficient.
Conveying one’s needs, thoughts, and feelings is essential for successful self-advocacy. Unfortunately, adults may take for granted that children will develop these skills on their own without mentoring them in seeking clarification, recognizing social expectations, and practicing application. Below are examples of strategies for avoiding miscommunication.
Check for Understanding. My youngest is a person of few words — except when he resorts to arguing. For the last 15 years, we have had an ongoing discussion at our house about how others aren’t necessarily psychic or might not have the same interpretation of what he has said (or thought he said). His dyslexia and tendency to word switch don’t help, nor does his sharp visual intelligence which gives a frustratingly different level of experience to his inner world. When things get tense between us, I need to remember to ask for clarity: “Help me to understand what you mean when you say_______”; or, “When you say______, what I think you mean is ______.” Asking often reveals we’ve largely had miscommunication and the escalating argument is unnecessary. Part of the lesson is also remembering that one can’t depend on others to request clarification, but must instead make certain to clearly convey one’s own thoughts and feelings.
Consider Others’ Likely Perceptions. Although no one can say with certainty how someone else feels, the more often we put ourselves into another’s shoes, the higher the likelihood for connection and a successful outcome. Coaching on how to present a positive social image and how to be diplomatic is invaluable. This type of coaching is often better accepted in the context of discussions of personality type (as revealed by assessments like the Myers-Briggs) or in terms of cultural and generational expectations. Such information provides demystifying revelation and relief for some 2e kids, affirming that homing in on word choice and body language, as well as social cues and conventions, can reduce misunderstanding or confrontation.
Practice Dialogue. Role-playing can help make choosing words easier. So can practicing listening skills and how to make suggestions and give feedback. “I-messages” can be useful in making requests or soliciting help by expressing one’s perspective or needs without making others defensive. It can start with: “I like it when we share the toys. I don’t want to play with you when we don’t, so let’s take turns.” Then it can grow into: “I hate my sloppy, slow handwriting so I don’t turn in my work at all. Can I explain my answers orally or type them?”
Although we may first think of advocacy in the academic environment, self-advocacy involves learning skills that are applicable and necessary in many venues. We must remember that 2e children grow into 2e adults; so when we teach and model accepting, practicing, and valuing self-advocacy to our kids, we are nurturing their healthy autonomous future as well. Some strategies for conveying these skills are:
Teach Kids Your Own “Tricks.” What are your strategies? Many younger children — and perhaps some older ones — feel certain that adults arrived in that state already competent. We can commiserate, note our own challenges, and share how we’ve dealt with them — perhaps even admitting that some things still don’t come easily. My children well know my rigid adherence to a calendar, timer, and written lists, lest I lose time and ideas (not to say I don’t struggle anyway). Further, I’ve found it valuable to ask my children for suggestions. They’ve shared some good ideas, and I think my openness has given me credibility when I volunteer suggestions to them.
Remember that Not All Challenges Are Academic. Sometimes self-advocacy doesn’t involve academics per se. This last year at college our very introverted daughter made an intentional effort to be more social and take on responsibility in a departmental club. She recognized that although exercising these skills isn’t especially comfortable for her, it becomes more so with practice and will benefit her in the future. Families and educators may be so concerned about getting educational or social/emotional needs met that these other abilities get lost in the immediate struggle, yet they are part of the whole picture of becoming an autonomous adult.
Recognize that Positive Action Is for Everyone. Self-advocacy extends far beyond disability or giftedness. Everyone needs to be aware of and responsible for meeting their own needs. For example, while many people should advocate for themselves in medical or legal situations when they have a right to ask for explanation or action, they may feel uncomfortable being assertive or find authorities intimidating. Yet, these same individuals will advocate for loved ones. We all need to learn and remember that although asking for help can be good self-advocacy, we can’t always depend on having a capable adult available. We need to be able to rely on our own knowledge and practiced skills and to have the gumption to use them for our own benefit, just as we would for our loved ones. When my children have balked at self-advocacy, I’ve asked: “If your best friend needed this help, would you do it for him or for her? What would you advise your friend to do? So why not do it for yourself?” This change of perspective is permission-giving and eye-opening, a reminder of the voice of wisdom and capacity for positive action available inside each of us.
Although genuinely considering the vantage point of others increases the likelihood of connection and consensus, ultimately no one can control what others think, say, or do. However, we have more choice regarding our own attitudes and behaviors. Even knee-jerk reactions are healthier if our overall mindset is positive, inclusive, and reinforced by good habits — if we present thoughts, feelings, and needs clearly, and if we find lessons in successes and mistakes.
As asynchronous as twice-exceptional children can be, self-advocacy must reflect a big-picture perspective. It must be developed over and for a lifetime; it must be learned and applied in many areas of one’s life; and it must empower the individual to find resources to navigate his or her own path long into the future.
Kathee Jones’ involvement in, and passion for, gifted issues began as the parent of three gifted children. To meet their individual needs and to find “fit,” the family has pursued a variety of educational options including homeschooling. Kathee is a board member of the Colorado Gifted and Talented Association, has been with CAGT’s local affiliate since 2001, and serves on the Colorado State Advisory Committee for Gifted Education. She has a BFA in painting and a MA in anthropological linguistics. Her blog is http://giftedjourney.blogspot.com/.