Monday, January 8, 2018

Let's get real about gifted kids

Consider this for 2018: Let's stop wasting time debating whether giftedness is real.

So much energy has been expended arguing whether giftedness is an elitist construct, or a parent's choice, or if it exists at all. Debates have raged over the gifted label (admittedly, a controversial term), whether gifted children deserve "special" services tailored to their needs, and if gifted education is even necessary.

According to the critics, if giftedness does not exist, or if it is an achievement that anyone can aspire to with just enough hard work and perseverance (or a boost from wealthy parents), and if providing services for this non-existent intellectual construct deprives other, more deserving children of their education, then let's eliminate the concept - and gifted education along with it. Whew!

These debates appeal to those among us who don't understand gifted people - or envy them - or hold false stereotypes about them - or have been hurt or emotionally threatened in some way by a gifted person. It is easy to blame gifted education (which amounts to a fraction of the cost of special education) for depriving other children of the education they deserve. And after dismantling gifted education, critics clamor to eliminate ability grouping, claiming that it stigmatizes other students (whom these critics assumed were oblivious to their academic struggles until grouping was initiated).

Let's get real; let's accept that gifted children are different.

1. Gifted children possess advanced intellectual abilities

Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But there is push-back against this reality. Yes, we know that many gifted children are underidentified, especially minority and ESL children and those from impoverished schools. Yes, IQ testing is flawed, can miss some true gifts, and ignores talents such as creativity, leadership qualities and performing arts abilities. Nevertheless, those who receive an IQ score of 130 or higher account for 1-5% of the population. Just because we have more work to do within a flawed gifted identification system should not mean ignoring those already identified students. 

How is this push-back manifest?

One tactic is the false claim that anyone can become gifted if motivated enough and offered the right opportunities. This fallacy clouds the truth about giftedness and results in disappointment for many hard-working high-achievers. Gifted children's abilities are innate. Of course, exactly how these abilities are expressed depends upon and can be modified by environmental influences. A childhood filled with encouragement and creativity will enhance learning more than one plagued by poverty and neglect. But while sound nutrition, a safe and loving home, verbal stimulation, and learning opportunities give every child an edge, you cannot instill giftedness through hot-housing, flash-cards or prep classes. Gifted children's brains work differently, as shown here and here and here. Researcher Marcus Munafo points out how genetic denialism dismisses the influence of genes, despite evidence to the contrary, and reminds us that:

"We are born equal, but we are also born different - we should embrace that diversity and use it to understand ourselves."

A second assumption is that we can somehow "normalize" the gifted child by ignoring giftedness altogether. Yet, pretending giftedness does not exist will not tame the child's burning creative drive and intellectual curiosity, nor will it quell the often co-existing social and emotional complexities or asynchrony. It is time to stop debating whether we have a "choice" in the matter. We can choose to work with what we have - and encourage our children to utilize and improve upon their innate strengths and weaknesses. As I wrote in a previous blog post about choice:

"You don't get a choice. You don't get to decide whether your child is gifted any more than you can choose eye color or athletic ability. Giftedness is a mixed bag of strengths, multipotentialities, and social/emotional challenges that are far from easy. You might decide not to "label" your child as gifted: however, your child's academic and emotional needs will not magically disappear."

2. Gifted children have very real emotional needs

In addition to their aptitude, gifted children often exhibit asynchronous development, multipotentialities, and heightened sensitivities. As they are a minority in most schools, they tend to keep a low profile, and may struggle socially. Gifted children are not trying to stand out, become the target of others' frustration, or deprive anyone else of an education. Many "dumb down" their interests so they can fit in with peers. Others are bullied. Acute sensitivities, existential angst, and a heightened sense of fairness and justice color their views of the world around them. A recent study suggests that they are at risk for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities. According to lead researcher Ruth Karpinski:

"...individuals with high cognitive ability react with an overexcitable and behavioral response to their environment. Due in part to this increased awareness of their surroundings, people with a high IQ then tend to experience an overexcitable, hyperreactive central nervous system."

This overreactivity may leave some gifted children open to anxiety, existential depression, apathy, cynicism, and despair. In addition to coping with others' perceptions and misconceptions about their differences, and attempting to fit in to a social world that may feel alien to them, they must manage these intense feelings that affect their self-esteem and well-being.

3. All children are gifts; not all are gifted

Children are precious gifts to the families who love them, and each child possesses his or her unique traits. But not all are gifted. The gifted label unfortunately evokes controversy, as many misunderstand and bristle over the term, assuming their neurotypical child is somehow devalued if others are identified as gifted. For now, we are stuck with this term. But regardless of the label, gifted children are a small minority of students, and possess advanced intellectual abilities. They are not better than other children; they are just different. As one writer aptly noted:

"Children are not all the same and it does them a disservice to claim otherwise. Just like not all children have special needs, not all children are asynchronous and advanced.
Gifted doesn't mean special. It doesn't mean better than everyone else. Gifted is wiring. Gifted is a brain that doesn't think like the standard brain - that doesn't learn the same way, see things the same way, or act the same way. Gifted is different."

Another writer, Mohan Dhall, noted in a recent commentary:

"There is an oft-quoted educational maxim about students that characterises them as follows: 'All students are gifted - in their own way'... However, the actual statement is one of egalitarianism pushed to the point of educational idiocy. In one statement the needs of intellectually able students are wholly dismissed whilst simultaneously, the needs of all students are devalued.
All children are unique. They are gifts, undoubtedly. But only very few are academically gifted and these students should be understood, encouraged, supported and valued rather than disparaged, maligned, [or] ignored"

4. Gifted children deserve an education specific to their needs

The NAGC has highlighted research supporting the benefits of gifted education. Myths about gifted children's needs have been noted and debunked. But gifted services are often an afterthought, provided after other students' needs are addressed. Gifted education is underfunded and unregulated in many areas. Some claim that gifted education is disparaged due to anti-intellectualism, or stigma, or a refusal to appreciate their special needs. Others recommend eliminating gifted education and emphasize improved education for all children. While a lofty goal, most classrooms already serve those in the middle, not outliers like the gifted, and attempts at differentiated instruction in large heterogeneous classrooms are often cumbersome and futile. Gifted children will not learn on their own; many become underachievers and lose interest in school completely.

Some parents resort to homeschooling. Others opt for private schools, although choosing a school can be fraught with uncertainty. Some parents advocate for academic acceleration. Most try to patch something together to fill in the gaps - extracurricular activities, online programming, enriched learning at home. But many families (particularly those under emotional or financial stress) do not have the time or resources to provide this level of involvement or advocacy for their children. Without mandated services for appropriate resources within the schools, those gifted children will suffer the most.

Let's get real

Let's get real about gifted kids. and stop wasting time debating whether giftedness exists or if gifted services are necessary. Let's devote our energy toward ensuring that they receive the educational services, the encouragement, and the understanding they deserve. Just like we would want for any other child.