Advocacy - A no limits approach to wellbeing


Professor Tracy Riley, PhD

Dean, Research
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand



Keeping our gifted mentally well is important if potential is to be realised. The World Health Organisation explains that wellbeing – also known as positive mental health or flourishing – is a state in which “every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”  


The New Zealand Mental Health Foundation supports this view of wellbeing, adding that high levels of wellbeing are evidenced when people are “happy, healthy, capable and engaged.” Wellbeing in New Zealand is measured on over 70 indicators, including, ability to be yourself; education equity and attainment;  engagement in cultural activities; hope for the future; knowledge, skills and competencies; and sense of belonging (StatsNZ). 


These concepts of wellbeing are developed and promoted for all people, not just those with exceptional abilities and qualities – yet, the realisation of these indicators will likely be experienced differently for the gifted than their peers. 


There is a wealth of knowledge and information on the social and emotional differences experienced by the gifted (e.g., SENG library). As Kate Bachtel writes, “Gifted well-being is an exquisitely complex and simple paradox.” Kate describes predicting wellbeing as a bit like predicting the weather – due to the complexities of the gifted and the nuanced contexts in which we live, work, learn and play. These complexities create what Kate calls, “layers of stunning chaos.” 


On the flipside, Kate writes about the simplicity of wellbeing, referring us to the WHO-5 Well-being Index which measures wellbeing against five simple statements related to feeling good, calm, active, rested, and interested. These predictors relate well to the ways of wellbeing advocated by the New Zealand Mental Health Foundationto connect, give, take notice, keep learning and be active. But is gifted wellbeing as simple as these indicators?


I think the complexities – abilities, qualities, relationships, and contexts – probably create a different lived experience of wellbeing. Being happy, healthy, capable and engaged as a gifted person or group requires a differentiated lens to be cast upon our activities whether in work, home, education, culture, religion or community. This differentiated lens, as many readers will know, is often dirty or broken due to the many myths, misunderstandings, pathologies and misgivings of others regarding what it means to be gifted. 


So who is it that cleans the lens, so the different experiences of the gifted can be seen for what they are, with clarity and understanding? That is the role of advocates, people like you and me. 


I have been thinking about advocacy lately and have come to realise that advocacy has two distinct purposes: the first is to speak on behalf of or in support of a group or individual to ensure their needs and rights are met, and the second is to empower that group or individual to have their needs and rights recognised. 


Empowerment uses “specific strategies to reduce, eliminate, combat and reverse negative valuations by powerful groups in society affecting certain individuals and social groups” (Payne, 1997). Empowerment not only enables the individual or group through personal development and self-understanding, but also aims to enable, in our case, the gifted, to influence the services designed to meet their needs. In other words, empowerment creates a two-way street between the gifted and those supporting them in their lives.


A no limits approach to advocacy for gifted wellbeing means that we must broaden our ideas around advocacy from simply speaking for the gifted to empowering the gifted. In my experience, the strongest advocates for gifted in New Zealand have tended to be parents and educators, typically speaking on behalf of our gifted children and young people, and often working hard to reverse negative valuations of the gifted. 


Many specialist teachers, counsellors and educational psychologists extend this advocacy to empowerment by developing self-understanding, possibly with an aim of enabling self-advocacy. And while I have been part of and respect our relentless advocacy, I also recognise our approach has been limited – an approach to advocacy that might result in some needs and rights met, some empowered gifted individuals and groups. We need a no limits approach.


How do we create a no limits approach to advocacy and empowerment centred on ensuring wellbeing for the gifted so they can realise their potential, work and live productively and fruitfully? 


We must begin by knocking down the barriers we have created as gifted advocates by working together, interprofessionally, across educational, health, social, cultural and familial supports and services. Empowerment requires dialogue with those we are trying to empower – and that means putting gifted people, of all ages, at the centre of our advocacy. Empowerment should aim to enable the gifted to gain greater control over decisions and actions by giving voice through social, cultural, psychological, educational and political processes. 


We are well-positioned to ensure that gifted learners in schools are empowered, as the increased Government support focuses on their educational needs and gives teacher advocates an opportunity to work with parents, health providers, social, cultural and community groups to develop self-advocacy. We need to continue to explicitly address social and emotional needs through our curricula for gifted and in our teacher education and professional development programmes. 


But, if we stop here, we will continue to restrict not only gifted potential, but also gifted wellbeing. Holistic, lifelong and life-wide advocacy may move us towards fulfilment of potential – with absolutely no limits.

About Professor Tracy Riley

Professor Tracy Riley is currently Dean of Research at Massey University, New Zealand. She is a leading scholar in gifted education and a strong advocate for gifted learners. Tracy is Secretary for the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, an elected Board member of giftEDnz, and a member of the New Zealand Deans and Directors of Graduate Schools and Australian Council of Graduate Research. Her research explores how teachers respond to giftedness, and she is leading a Teaching Learning Research Initiative applying gifted principles of differentiation in mainstream classrooms. Tracy was the recipient of a National Tertiary Teaching Excellence award in 2007 and giftEDnz’s Te Manu Kotuku award for exceptional service and contribution to gifted education in New Zealand in 2017.




Posted as part of the 2020 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

The views and opinions expressed in the Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of NZCGE, their staff, and/or any/all contributors to Gifted Awareness Week.


Advocacy - A no limits approach to wellbeing

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