Last month I discussed Self-Advocacy and its importance for gifted students. This month I’d like to discuss Self-Determination. Often people ask me “Isn’t self-advocacy and self-determination the same thing?” The answer is no, it is not. While self-advocacy is a set of skills used by an individual to promote their needs such as learning needs, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD, 2018) accepts “…the view of self-determination as an empowered state in which individuals take charge of their lives, make choices in their self-interest and freely pursue their goals.” This applies to gifted students because they, too, are exceptional learners. Self-determination is a theory with a basis in psychology (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Take a look at the skills required to accomplish self-determination in the NCLD statement above. First, the person needs to be in an “empowered state” which does not always occur in the classroom. The classroom is usually led by one person-the teacher-with some choice given to students, but generally not empowering students to learn according to their needs. Next comes taking charge of their own life which in school means in the learning environment-again the classroom. Are students generally given the opportunity to be in charge of their life in school? Would they know how to do so if they were presented with the opportunity? Next comes making “choices in their self-interest.” Students make choices all the time; in school, at home, with friends. Do they know how to make choices “in their self-interest”? This does not mean in a narcissistic manner, but rather, to gain what is needed so they can learn their way, have autonomy, and set their own course. For most gifted students this usually means with a curriculum or approach that is different from the one the rest of the class is using and may even mean a different grade level. Finally, the NCLD view of self-determination requires students to “freely pursue their goals.” Are gifted students given the time and opportunity to do this? If so, do they know how to or do they need to learn ways to accomplish certain tasks, approaches, collaboration, or research?
All of these require critical thinking and problem-solving skills which students need to be explicitly taught, not in a rigid, rote way, but in an exploratory manner giving them freedom to explore and learn deeply and fail and learn some more. It is said that one is self-determined when using these skills to make “active and positive choices about the direction of their learning and their lives” (NCLD, 2018). Notice the words active, positive, direction. Learning how to be self-determined is an active, not passive process. It is controlling one’s future and destiny.
Self-determination can be more difficult than self-advocacy because it requires the person to direct their own life. This can be scary for many students, and many parents, teachers, and other adults who do not believe children and youth can do so. Too often adults believe children and youth will “mess up” and make wrong decisions. If one believes in the gifts and talents of gifted students, then one knows that from mistakes comes learning and growth, and with guidance gifted students can direct their own lives and practice self-determination. They just need someone to support them and stand by their side to help positively guide them through the journey.
Agents of Their Own Success: Self-Advocacy Skills and Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities in the Era of Personalized Learning, (2018), National Center for Learning Disabilities. https://www.ncld.org/archives/reports-and-studies/self-advocacy-skills-and-self-determination-for-students-with-disabilities-in-the-era-of-personalized-learning#utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=selfadvocacylaunch
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Here are a few resources related to Self-Determination. Many resources available are about students with disabilities which also applies to gifted and other students.
Self-Determination: Supporting Successful Transition
PACER’s National Parent Center on Transition and Employment: Self-Determination
Increasing Student Success Through Instruction in Self-Determination
Schools today approach teaching and learning in many different ways. That is usually why what works for a particular student in one school district does not work for another student. There are many reasons for this including individual student traits such as motivation, learning styles, and persistence; and district influences such as teaching and learning approach, education philosophy, and level of learning expectations. Sometimes gifted students attend school districts and are in classrooms where they need to make their own decisions about their learning and they need to make teachers aware of these decisions.
That is where self-advocacy comes in. The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), and the disability community has a long history of awareness and research on the topic of self-advocacy skills for students with disabilities. Recently, they have started sharing information that is applicable to all students. Their work certainly may apply to gifted students who are considered exceptional learners. The NCLD (2018) states that their “…definition of self-advocacy as a set of skills based on self-knowledge, including awareness of personal strengths and limitations, knowledge of one’s rights and the ability to communicate this understanding.” Gifted students who know and can implement these skills to advocate for themselves will be better able to make their needs known in school. When learning self-advocacy skills students learn other important skills also such as self-awareness, communication, and leadership among others. These are skills that will benefit the student throughout their life.
The NCLD suggests intentionally teaching self-advocacy skills to students to help them inform their teachers of what they need to learn. Teachers may not know what gifted students need or what they can do to help gifted students learn. It helps to be informed by the gifted student themselves rather than parents so the gifted student takes responsibility for their own learning, something that is expected in college.
Self-Advocacy skills are important for all students, but especially for students with exceptionalities including gifted students. Below are a few resources related to self-advocacy.
Self-Advocacy for Gifted Teens and Tweens: How to Help Gifted Teens Take Control of Their Classroom Experience
Teaching Strategies to Build Self-Advocacy
Empower Gifted Learners to Advocate for Themselves
Agents of Their Own Success: Self-Advocacy Skills and Self-Determination for Students with Disabilities in the Era of Personalized Learning, (2018), National Center for Learning Disabilities.
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