Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Let's not call them "gifted."

It happens at some point in most school districts across the country. A parent, teacher, or curriculum specialist meets with the school board to propose a modest increase in gifted services. It could be a middle school accelerated math class, a fourth-grade pull-out science group, another high school AP class. After a few respectful nods, the questions begin. How would this affect the kids who aren’t identified as gifted? Wouldn’t that make them feel bad?  And aren’t all children “gifted,” each precious and unique in their own special way?

These questions have derailed gifted services for decades. Debate about the meaning of the term haunts the dialogue of administrators and teachers who scramble to educate gifted children while trying to also recognize the talents of those who are not identified. The argument against increasing gifted services frequently centers on the concept of giftedness, how gifted services might affect the rest of the school community, and whether children identified as gifted should be “entitled” to additional services. Some states have minimal guidelines or requirements for gifted education that are easy to circumvent. Educators can minimize the importance of gifted services and create few opportunities for gifted learning to avoid the appearance of elitism or favoritism toward the gifted and their families. If some kids are gifted, might that imply that the other students are not equally special?  Will that hurt their self-confidence?  Wouldn’t it be better to sacrifice a little enrichment for the gifted kids so that we can protect the self-esteem of the others?

Parents who grapple with the meaning of “giftedness” sometimes fan the flames of this debate, particularly when their child is not identified. Some parents view gifted education as a status symbol, a goal that their child must achieve. Why isn’t my child gifted? Does that mean others won’t think my child is special? Parents sometimes have their children tested and retested, and if they don’t meet the criteria, the gifted program may be disparaged. Maybe the psychologist didn’t know how to test. Maybe the tests were wrong. Maybe the whole concept is bad. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

In reality, giftedness is a learning difference. Like any other learning difference, it is identified through careful testing and evaluation. Although guidelines for identification and standards for the provision of gifted services differ from state to state, there is widespread agreement that gifted children and adults are different. They learn at a faster pace, absorb information with greater depth and complexity, have exceptional abstract reasoning skills, and are creative and innovative in their thinking.  And with IQ scores at least two standard deviations above the norm, they constitute about 5% of the population.  Yet that 5% deserves an appropriate and meaningful education that meets their unique educational needs.

If one of the roadblocks to providing gifted services is the name itself, maybe it is time to change the name. The term “gifted” incites conflict, engenders unrealistic expectations, and rouses feelings of envy among parents. It fuels debate, results in time wasted defending the merits of the classification, and fosters endless battles in school districts where even the most incremental increase in services can be denied. It leads to a false debate over superiority, resulting in bitterness and anger, or apology when none is due. And while parents and educators continue to dispute the merits of gifted education, children languish in classrooms that offer little stimulation or challenge.

In a world where perception can be everything, a new name for giftedness could remove some of the barriers to education. If children who met the criteria for identification received a different label, less time might be wasted fighting for services. Just as the term for mental retardation was changed to intellectual disability, in part, to create a more respectful public perception, the term “gifted” also warrants revision.  A variety of terms could be considered, such as “accelerated learner,” “high ability learner,” “accelerated learning ability,” or “high aptitude ability.” Any term that is descriptive, and emphasizes learning and aptitude rather than a presumed “gift,” might engender less of an emotional reaction among educators, parents, and the public in general.  If such a relatively minor revision in terminology could enhance the provision of gifted services, then it is clearly time for a change.

Let’s find another term, and not call them “gifted” any more.

Monday, January 28, 2013

What is this blog for, anyway? Giftedness explored

Gifted children and adults are different. They know it. Friends and family know it. Society knows it. But differences can sometimes foster confusion, suspicion and uncertainty, resulting in misunderstanding and wasted opportunities. Their needs, questions, quirks, challenges, and longings are often minimized, sometimes envied, and not infrequently mocked and belittled. Gifted children are stereotyped as serious, driven, and isolated kids, who eschew anything fun, and are pushed by hovering tiger-moms. Regarded as neurotic and socially awkward, they are nevertheless expected to be ideal students, requiring little assistance from educators. Parents who advocate for an education commensurate with their child's abilities are treated as demanding and ungrateful, and chastised for requesting resources routinely allocated for average or lower ability students with "greater" needs.

Gifted individuals have IQs of 130 or above, which is two standard deviations above the norm. In other words, they are outliers. Their minds work differently. They think with greater complexity and depth, acquire knowledge at a faster pace, and grasp new concepts more quickly. Whether considered a blessing or a curse, their "gift" is something they are born with and they have to grapple with a learning style that does not easily conform to the world around them. Until gifted children reach adulthood, though, parents and educators have a responsibility to shape their educational experience. Unfortunately, most school systems are woefully inadequate.

This blog will attempt to share ideas, insights, information and updates about gifted children and adults. As a clinical psychologist, I have worked with many gifted individuals, and have witnessed how one's intellectual strengths and learning style influence initiative, self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships. As a parent, whose youngest child is now a senior in high school, I have seen how at least one public school system has managed and mismanaged the needs of gifted children. As former co-chair of a parents advocacy group for gifted education in our school district, I have experienced the challenges, roadblocks, and occasional successes of advocacy. Although my personal involvement in the public school system is almost through, my work with gifted individuals is ongoing, and my learning and understanding of how giftedness impacts individuals and society is an engaging and evolving process.