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
Ask the Doctor