Monday, December 22, 2014

Ten best Gifted Education articles of 2014: Informative, controversial and enlightening

Whether aimed at defining giftedness, championing educational rights, or understanding what enhances or limits academic growth, the internet was flooded with powerful articles in 2014. The best of the bunch targeted advocacy and what it means to be gifted. I have selected the ten articles that I felt were the most meaningful and enlightening. Some were controversial. Others were straightforward and informative. Still others were heartfelt and moving.

Here they are (in no particular order):

Ending our neglect of gifted students
"It's time to end the bias in American education against gifted and talented pupils and quit assuming that every school must be all things to all students, a simplistic formula that ends up neglecting all sorts of girls and boys, many of them poor and minority, who would benefit from more challenging classes and schools."
Practice does not make perfect
"If we acknowledge that people differ in what they have to contribute, then we have an argument for a society in which all human beings are entitled to a life that includes access to decent housing, health care, and education..."
The poor neglected gifted child
"...among young people with off-the-charts ability, those who had been given special accommodations - even modest ones, like being allowed to skip a grade, enroll in special classes, or take college-level courses in high school - went on to publish more academic papers, earn more patents, and pursue higher-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn't have these opportunities."
The ultimate plan to help gifted education (and improve education for all kids in the process)
"Gifted education is not going to fix itself. No matter how many gifted people talk to each other about how much their children need different educational experiences, we still cannot move the mountains of politicians and corporations who stand in our way."
Too many kids quit science because they don't think they're smart
"When students thought of their intelligence as a thing that's just fixed, they were vulnerable. They were not willing to take on challenges that might test their intelligence, and they weren't resilient when they came into obstacles." 
Yes, IQ really matters
"...the bottom line is that there are large, measurable differences among people in intellectual ability, and these differences have consequences for people's lives."
Talent vs. practice: Why are we still debating this?
"They found that sheer amount of deliberate practice does not, in fact, explain most of the differences in expert performance. Additionally, there were huge differences between fields..."
Gifted men and women define success differently, 40-year study says
"Researchers spent four decades studying a group of mathematically talented adolescents, finding that by mid-life they were extraordinarily accomplished and enjoyed a high level of life satisfaction. Gender, however, played a significant role in how they pursued - and defined - career, family and success."
Where is the outrage about the pipeline to prison for gifted students?
"There is much indignation over the school to prison pipeline that funnels children into the criminal justice system, especially regarding the large number of special educaton students within this population... Lamentably overlooked, though, is the other at-risk population, gifted and talented students."
Smart is not a dirty word
"It's impossible to deny that persistence and hard work are important life lessons... But in the rush to add grit to the lesson plan, we risk leaping from anecdote to antidote, and making assumptions about the correlation, or not, between effort and intelligence."

There were so many great articles this year. I apologize for the many I may have overlooked. Please add your favorites in the comments section below. Thanks!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Being gifted is not a choice

Being gifted is not a choice.

Yet another article has been published implying that parents can determine whether their child is gifted. In "Why I won't call my daughter 'gifted,'" the author claims that "gifted children are as common as muck...hailing from the leafier suburbs," and goes on to pronounce, "I don't want a gifted child."

While the author later points out the importance of "grit," helping a child learn to fail successfully, and attribute success to effort rather than innate ability, his inflammatory headline and dramatic initial statements perpetuate misconceptions and stigma against gifted children.

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.

Giftedness is rare. Only 5% of the population have an IQ at least two standard deviations above the norm. Hardly "common as muck." While some schools may label advanced tracking as "gifted programs" and there is still a tired debate from some who claim that all children are gifted, the reality is that only a small segment of the population fits this criteria.

Giftedness is everywhere. It is not limited to wealthy suburbs, as the author proclaims. Probably the most offensive aspect of the article is how it perpetuates the widespread myth that giftedness is a middle class construct. It implies that privileged families shepherd their children into gifted education programs, serving as a badge of accomplishment. Perhaps if gifted education and identification improved in schools with lower socioeconomic populations, this myth would eventually vanish.

While the article makes valid points regarding the importance of hard work and effort, and taking risks rather than relying on innate abilities, its false assumptions and initial generalizations are misleading and damaging. Yes, it is important to help your child learn from failure (although other opinions exist on how to implement this in the classroom). Yes, it is necessary to explain giftedness to your child. However, denying that giftedness exists, or making false, flippant and classist statements is pointless and harmful.

Make the "choice" to call gifted what it is. Don't muddy the waters any further. And help your child and others get the education they deserve.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

There is life after high school - even for gifted teens

What can gifted teens expect after high school? Finally relieved of tedious routines and underwhelming classes, gifted students are no longer faced with the boredom of high school. They may be able to reignite the love of learning that vanished during their school years.

For gifted teens, getting into a college that is challenging and stimulating is critical. While not every gifted child must go to college, those who do will benefit most if they find one suited to their abilities.

I recently read a bio of Ashton Carter, nominated for U.S. defense secretary. I don't routinely scour reviews of every nominee, but was personally interested in this story because he was an alumni of my high school. Despite graduating from an overcrowded, suburban public school, he studied physics and medieval history at Yale, and then, as a Rhodes Scholar, pursued theoretical physics at Oxford.

As he writes in the article:
"High school in Philadelphia had left me hungry intellectually. I attended a large public school with thousands of students." He played sports, worked various odd jobs, and then, "rather unexpectedly was accepted into a good college, Yale..."
What might have happened if Carter had never gone to an exceptional college, one where he was finally challenged? With over one thousand students in each grade, his former high school did little to enrich its students' education, and it is likely that he languished in many of his classes, just like the rest of the students. Clearly, his talents and abilities opened the door for attendance at a highly respected university (although admissions is a much more competitive ordeal now than when he went to college).

What can teens and parents take away from this?

1. Yes, there is life after high school for gifted teens - one that is challenging, enriching, and intellectually creative.

2. Finding the best college fit is critical.

3. You can overcome a mediocre or even deficient high school education - if you apply yourself.

High school also can be difficult for gifted adolescents because of social challenges, as many gifted teens feel like outliers who don't quite fit in. Some "dumb themselves down" to be popular, but still may feel lost. College is a welcome opportunity to find like-minded peers where differences are accepted and appreciated.

Defense nominee Carter's example may be exceptional, but his trajectory from an unremarkable early education to an enriching experience in college is common for many gifted individuals. Discouraged high school students need to remind themselves that opportunities await them after graduation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college

Gifted teens typically receive little help with college planning from their schools. Efforts to improve gifted education tend to focus on what happens in class. And just as their learning needs are frequently ignored in the classroom (they'll do just fine; they’ll learn on their own!), it is often assumed that with their smarts, they will easily get admitted to the college of their choice.


With all of the competition, uncertainty and financial risk involved, gifted children need as much advice and support as any other child. And sometimes the stakes are even higher, given the potential for merit scholarships, and the importance of finding a college community of like-minded peers. But without sound advice, many miss out on opportunities that could give them an advantage.

The following are essential tips to keep in mind when planning for college:

1. Start early

Many gifted students and their parents don’t delve into the maze of college planning until junior year, a point when valuable time has already passed. Most high schools are busy helping students with class schedules and immediate goals, so strategic college planning gets delayed. What results is a vacuum of information, where parents are blindsided by their lack of knowledge, and students remain unaware of tools that could open doors for them later. It is critical to start early (even in ninth grade), learn about options, and develop a long-term strategy, 

2. Plan ahead for the PSAT's

The PSAT's, taken during junior year of high school, presumably as a prep for the SAT's, are frequently treated as an afterthought amid the extensive mandated testing students routinely endure. Parents are rarely informed of their significance, since they don't impact quotas, federal aid, or state regulations. Yet these exams are critical for gifted children.  When students secure a high enough score, they become National Merit Semi-finalists, and can qualify to become National Merit Finalists as long as they maintain good grades and meet a few additional criteria. With NMF status, not only are students eligible for additional financial scholarships, many colleges offer completely free tuition including room and board to entice them to attend. 

Achieving NMF status opens up an array of opportunities, particularly for financially strapped families. Without realizing their value, though, students often view them as one in a series of meaningless standardized tests, and exert little effort. And few study or prepare in advance. Many gifted children, who eventually achieve high SAT scores, would have scored just as high on the PSAT's if they had studied or taken them seriously.  Schools commit an enormous disservice to their high ability students by failing to inform them of this opportunity, one that could have a profound financial impact on their future. 

3. Don't forget the SAT Subject tests

These tests evaluate mastery in specific areas of knowledge. At least two subject tests are required by many elite colleges, but many students are unaware of this requirement until junior year. Unfortunately, waiting until junior year leaves few choices, since most students have no other option than to take subject tests based on junior year classes. This might not showcase their abilities, however, if their strengths lie with subjects taken in 9th or 10th grade. Ideally, they should take the subject tests immediately after completing those courses, before the material is forgotten.

Students need to see what SAT subject tests are available at the start of high school and decide which tests would best reflect their strengths. There are not a lot of choices available, and some of the tests may not even correspond with what is learned in school. For example, students who take AP Physics Mechanics may discover that they are not prepared to take the SAT Physics subject test because Mechanics is only one of three distinct areas of physics covered on the test. Most overworked guidance counselors rarely inform ninth grade students and their families about subject tests. Yet planning for the most appropriate test to take and when to take it is critical. 

4. You can take the SATs and the ACTs

These two tests each may offer a better fit for different students depending on their test-taking style. Most students benefit from trying both the SATs and ACTs and seeing which one results in a more favorable score. Also, scores can be strategically selected for submission to different schools. For example, some colleges allow students to submit the ACT with its writing supplement instead of the SAT subject tests. So if a student receives high scores on the SAT, but not on the SAT subject tests, he or she might choose to submit a slightly weaker ACT (with writing score) rather than the stronger SAT scores combined with weak SAT subject test scores. 

5. Practice guides really do help

Many gifted teens, accustomed to easily acing tests in school, assume the SAT's or ACT's require little preparation. However, they place themselves at a disadvantage if they don't prepare. Learning how to take these tests (e.g., how to pace yourself and approach reading passages), understanding how the scoring works (e.g., when to guess or leave a question blank), and practicing completing the exam under time constraints can make a dramatic difference.

6. SAT coaching and classes help some students.

While using study guides and preparation for the SAT's or ACT's is essential, some students also benefit from individualized SAT coaching or classes. At the very least, this provides structure, support, and targeted information. If there is a choice, gifted teens might benefit more from individualized coaching, since classes tend to be geared toward average ability students, where gifted children, once again, might be bored.

7. Take advanced classes.

Many gifted children thrive in high school, when they finally have access to more challenging classes. AP, IB, and honors classes not only provide an opportunity for intensive focus, but also permit interactions with like-minded peers who are equally engaged in learning. Colleges like to see that students challenge themselves by taking the most rigorous classes available. They are not particularly impressed by all A's from less demanding classes, when AP or honors courses are available. An overload of rigorous classes is not necessary; just a demonstration that students are willing to work hard. AP tests tend to be quite demanding, and are also good practice for those taking the SAT subject tests. And most colleges offer either full course credit or at least an option to place out of introductory courses, if students receive a score of 4 or 5 on their AP tests.

6. Dual enrollment.

Many schools provide an opportunity for students to attend classes at a local college. This not only boosts their resume, but more importantly, provides an opportunity to see what a college class is like. Many will feel more challenged by this; others may find that the classes are surprisingly less demanding than they expected, motivating them even more to pursue admission to a college that will truly challenge them. Online courses also may be available. 

7. Internships.

Gifted students can benefit from internships, mentoring, or opportunities where they shadow other professionals. This offers a great learning experience, teaches them about a real world work environment, and demonstrates to colleges that the student is interested in learning outside of the classroom. Internships may be found through the school, but sometimes students or parents may need to search on their own. Some families assume they must send their children on volunteer opportunities overseas for colleges to take notice. While this may be a great experience, don't expect that colleges will be overly impressed by this expensive venture. Most admissions officers are aware that students with fewer financial resources can just as easily volunteer at a local food bank or animal shelter.

8. Find your passion

Though it sounds cliche, gifted teens flourish when they find their passion, and engage their energy in what interests them most. College admissions officers are unimpressed when students pad their resume with a sudden burst of volunteer or school activities during their junior year. Students don't benefit from spreading themselves too thin. Colleges recognize when there is a meaningful pursuit of an activity, and when it is window dressing. More importantly, teens need an outlet for what they love, regardless of what looks good on a resume.

9. Don't bet on scholarships 

Unless a student is a National Merit Finalist, receiving a significant merit scholarship (one that makes a dent in the cost of tuition) is rare. Sometimes a scholarship may arrive from a college that is undesirable in terms of location, size or fit. Other options include honors programs at state universities, and the very generous need-based financial aid available at some elite colleges. Note the difference between need-blind and need-aware colleges, as need-aware schools take into consideration whether the student is seeking financial aid in their admissions decisions.

10. Set realistic expectations

With elite college acceptance rates at record lows (Harvard's rate was 6%, for example), it is clear that many students apply to some schools with little chance of admission. Sometimes this is due to high hopes and false assumptions; often it results from a lack of information about the highly competitive nature of admissions. Even valedictorians with almost perfect SAT's are routinely rejected from the most elite schools. Most colleges list a 25-75% range for GPA and SAT scores for accepted students. Unless your child has what is referred to as a "hook" (e.g., recruited athlete, underserved minority, geographically desirable, legacy status), assume that your child's stats need to correspond with the 75% and above range. Check Naviance, if your high school has it, as this will give you some idea of acceptance percentages. Colleges are in the business of risk-management. It is a risk to accept your child. They want to accept students who will matriculate, graduate, and go on to do great things. Colleges that describe "holistic" admissions strive to "build a diverse class of students" from a range of backgrounds, locations, and interests, and your child may not fit their vision.


Keep these tips in mind, get educated, read books, search the internet, and get support from other parents who have been down this road. Seek help from your child's school, but remember that guidance counselors may be overworked, have a limited perspective, and will never know your child like you do. Gather as much information as possible as you navigate this interesting, challenging journey. Best wishes.

You also might be interested in other Gifted Challenges blog posts related to college planning:

Monday, November 10, 2014

How (not) to praise your gifted child

I recall a debate years ago with an old friend who was in awe of a talented athlete. "He has so much natural talent - he's amazing!" My response was: "So what?" I tried to explain that you are born with talent, just like the color of your eyes, and it has nothing to do with your initiative or character. It's only what you do with your life that counts.

Of course, we went round and round about this. And yes, this talented athlete certainly logged many hours of dutiful exercise to get where he was. But the question still remains: Should we applaud people just for their gifts, talents and innate abilities? (And does this admiration eventually morph into the envy and bitterness that gets projected onto gifted children?)

A recent article in the Atlantic highlighted the problem of offering too much praise to children for their abilities. After years of self-esteem-building initiatives, trophies distributed at every soccer tournament, and rewards for essentially just showing up, experts are now suggesting that this trend has backfired. Many children, and adults, require an inordinate amount of praise, avoid taking risks, and never learn to accept failure as a character- and skill-building experience. Psychologist Carol Dweck, who is interviewed in the Atlantic article, recommends that you stop praising children for being smart. It can sap their motivation, and make them insecure.

So as a parent, how do you support and praise your gifted child without sending the wrong message?

1. Praise your child's efforts

Support any attempts to work hard, try something new, take risks. So many tasks come easily to gifted children, or are so intrinsically enjoyable, that they rarely learn to struggle with something difficult. Sticking with a difficult task may be their greatest challenge. Support this whenever possible. As Dr. Dweck noted in the Atlantic article, rather than praising a child's abilities, you can compliment the "process" your child uses to get results. This can include working hard, using a variety of strategies, learning from mistakes, staying focused, and showing improvement.

2. Encourage autonomy

Even at an early age, children benefit from learning to trust their own instincts and thinking ability. They can master this further if they understand how they make decisions. Encourage them to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, outline strategies, and ask themselves meaningful questions. If they make a mistake, ask them to review what happened, and to brainstorm alternative solutions. What is most important is not the outcome, but encouraging them to think for themselves.

3. Help your child set realistic, challenging goals

Some children are perfectionists who set unrealistically high standards for themselves. Others avoid risks and don't push themselves at all. You know your child best and can determine what he or she needs. But identifying a meaningful, challenging goal that your child can work toward and eventually achieve, will build resilience and true confidence. Set a goal together, encourage your child as he or she hits roadblocks, and praise your child's efforts.

4. Help your child identify what is praise-worthy

Most gifted children know when their efforts truly deserve recognition. Many feel uncomfortable when praised for something that came too easily or was beneath their abilities. While you can control feedback at home, you cannot account for what happens at school or out in the world at large. When your child receives recognition that seems unwarranted, you can lightheartedly discuss how both of you know it was unnecessary, even though many other accomplishments your child produces are worthwhile. Your child will appreciate your honesty and will feel understood.

5. Remind your child that abilities are an opportunity and a responsibility

Gifted children may have an easier time learning in school than the other students. Or they might be more talented athletes, musicians, artists or dancers. These talents offer gifted children more choices, but also greater responsibility to use them productively and not squander their potential. They know they are no more "special" than anyone else, and too much praise for being smart creates discomfort and unnecessary pressure. Some of the greatest challenges facing your child will not be academics, but overcoming self-doubt, fear of failure, narrowing choices from an abundance of options, and building resilience after years of easy academics.

Children know when praise is truly deserved and when it is false. Your child will welcome your loving support as you encourage his or her growth and development. Helping your child develop resilience and autonomy and learn how to make decisions can be one of the greatest "gifts" that you as a parent can provide.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Stress management toolbox: Nine tips for parents of gifted children

Just like every other parent, gifted children's parents also need tools for managing stress. Despite beliefs that raising a gifted child is a breeze, most parents of gifted kids would readily claim that it's no picnic. Weathering challenges like overexcitabilities, isolation from peers, asynchronous development, and boredom with school are heartbreaking for parents to witness. Advocacy efforts with schools can seem daunting, and decisions about extra-curriculars, possibly transferring schools, or even homeschooling can be overwhelming. And it's often lonely, since many other parents either don't understand or frankly dismiss these concerns.

Parents need a toolbox of strategies for managing stress. Here are some tools to try:

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:* An old standard, these exercises take effort, but offer tremendous results. Set aside quiet time (at least 15 minutes) each day, find a comfortable chair or lie down, and tense and relax separate muscle groups starting with either your facial muscles or your feet, and progress throughout your body. Tense and relax each group of muscles twice for five seconds, with a five second pause. As you continue this practice, you will become more aware of where you hold tension, and what your body truly feels like when it is relaxed. With practice, you can train your body to "just relax" without having to go through the exercises. There are many examples online, but here is a simple one you could try.

2. Deep Breathing exercises: A quick, effective and easy technique, deep breathing involves taking slow, deep belly breaths from your diaphragm (not your throat), and attempting to slow the pace of your breathing. When you are tense, you are more likely to take fast, shallow breaths, which increases anxiety even more. The easiest way to slow it down is to count while you breathe.

You could start by slowly inhaling to the count of four, holding that breath to the count of four, exhaling to the count of four, and then holding that breath out to the count of four. Experiment with the number counts (use a count of six, eight, etc.), but it is important to breathe from your diaphragm with your mouth closed, and make sure you hold your breath between inhalations and exhalations. This is an easy technique to practice. Set aside some quiet time, but you can even practice while waiting at stoplights or sitting through a boring meeting at work!

3. Visual imagery:* What you picture in your mind's eye can affect your mood. Close your eyes and imagine a calm, relaxing, safe, beautiful place you have visited. Use all of your senses to heighten your awareness. Remind yourself of how calm and peaceful you feel in this safe, relaxing place.

4. Mindfulness meditation:*  Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows you to focus on the present and avoid competing distractions. It can reduce stress and boost immune function. For a simple description of how it works, see this instruction. There are also some free mindfulness exercises online that you can try.

5. Exercise: Research has repeatedly shown that even small amounts of exercise reduce stress, improve memory and concentration, reduce fatigue, improve sleep, and boost mood. Find time to make exercise a part of your daily life.

6. Cognitive Strategies: "I think, therefore I am." Whether we realize it or not, our thoughts dramatically influence our feelings and behaviors. We may harbor unconscious expectations, assumptions and long-held beliefs that influence how we respond to situations. Cognitive behavioral strategies help you challenge entrenched beliefs that may hold you back.

For example, if you get nervous meeting with your child's teacher, it's not the teacher who makes you feel anxious; your underlying negative thoughts fuel your anxiety. Thoughts such as: "She will think I'm stupid" or "I can never express myself clearly" or "I know it's pointless because nothing will ever change" can create anxiety or feelings of hopelessness.

Some common negative thinking patterns include catastrophizing (assuming the worst will happen), mind-reading (assuming you know what the other person is thinking), or fortune-telling (thinking you can predict the future). A complete list of "cognitive distortions" can be found here and is worth viewing.

Once you recognize which thought patterns or distortions are most familiar for you, then you can work on challenging them. Ask yourself questions, such as:
"what's the worst that could happen?" and "what's the likelihood of that happening?" Seek out the data. Imagine that you are a scientist, journalist or attorney and need to know the facts. Just because you feel a certain way does not make it a reality. The more you can challenge irrational beliefs, the easier it will be to tame your stress. Sometimes it may be helpful to enlist the aid of a therapist with this task.

7. Have fun: Raising kids is hard work. You need to find time for the things you enjoy, even if life seems too busy. In fact, research has shown that pleasurable activities can reduce anxiety responses in the brain. Obviously, overindulging in food, sex, drugs or alcohol is not the answer, but finding healthy, enjoyable activities is critical to enhancing your well-being.

8. Social supports: Close friends and family can be essential supports when you feel stressed. Learning to reach out when you need emotional comfort is a necessity, as isolation can fuel depression. Research has shown that women, in particular, "tend and befriend" during times of stress. They instinctively take care of others, but also benefit from the support and companionship of friends. Even if you are busy, make time to nurture the friendships in your life.

9. Lifestyle management: This involves the basics. Getting enough rest. Eating healthy meals. Avoiding indulging in junk food, but not engaging in restrictive dieting either. Getting plenty of exercise. Managing your time effectively. Pacing yourself and delegating work tasks and household chores when possible. Finding time for pleasure and fun. Spending time with friends and your significant other. Oh, and of course, having fun with your kids!

*The above strategies are offered as suggestions, and are not intended as therapeutic advice. If your stress seems overwhelming, it is critical that you seek help from a licensed mental health professional, who can guide you with more specific tools for understanding and resolving the stress. Note: if you have a trauma history, please seek advice from a mental health professional before attempting any of the relaxation or imagery exercises, since they can occasionally cause distress.

Suggested Readings:

Bourne, E. (2011) The anxiety and phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New     Harbinger Publications.
Burns, D. (2008). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: Harper.
Carlson, R. (1996). Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff: Simple ways to keep little things from taking over your life. New York: Hyperion.
Davis, M., Eshelman, R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Emmett, R. (2008). Manage your time to reduce our stress: A handbook for the overworked, overscheduled and overwhelmed. New York: Walker & Co.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment and your life. Louisville, CO: Sounds True.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living (Revised edition). New York: Bantam.
Leahy, R. (2006). The worry cure: Seven steps to stop worrying from stopping you. New York: Harmony.
Stahl, B. & Goldstein, E. (2010). A mindfulness-based stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Wehrenberg, M. (2008). The 10 best-ever anxiety management techniques. New York: Norton & Co.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Self-Care. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:

For the next blog in the Self-Care Blog Hop, click the following link:

Monday, October 20, 2014

It's all in the wiring: Gifted development that doesn't fit the norm

It's all in the wiring

A recent blog post poignantly described the asynchronous development commonly seen among many highly gifted children. Striking differences in abilities make it hard to grasp what is going on. How can children who are so bright struggle so much? Why would such perceptive children have so many emotional blind-spots? How can a child be gifted and developmentally delayed?

Gifted children have been labeled non-neurotypical or neuro-atypical. And put simply, their thinking is atypical. They don't fit the norm. There is still much we don't understood about how they process information, how they view the world, and why there are so many contradictions in their development. Their wiring just seems different.

An Example of Wiring Differences

Years ago, I read an innovative and controversial book, "Late-talking Children"* by economist Thomas Sowell, which described a unique group of children who developed speech and expressive language much later than expected, yet who eventually caught up and often demonstrated exceptional intellectual and/or musical abilities as adults. His very unscientific surveys would make most researchers cringe, but were nevertheless eye-opening, and highlighted several striking trends.

The late-talking children in Sowell's survey had several traits in common: 1) they frequently went on to develop successful careers in the STEM or music fields; 2) they often had genetic ties to family members (parents or grandparents) who were mathematicians, engineers, or musicians; and 3) approximately 80% were boys.

Sowell theorized that these children had highly developed spatial skills that occupied much of their time and attention. In fact, it was assumed that they were so preoccupied with spatial interests (e.g., Legos, building forts), that their developing brain needed time to "catch up" in the verbal arena. Speech and language development would just need to wait. Sowell also suggested that the reason for the much lower percentage of identified girls might be due to the greater fluidity of communication across hemispheres in the female brain. This would permit verbal and spatial abilities to develop at an equal rate, even among spatially talented young girls.

How does this relate to giftedness?

Although Sowell did not use terms such as twice-exceptional, asynchronous or neuro-atypical,  his theories are worth considering. We know famous examples of brilliant innovators (e.g., Einstein, Edison) who did not speak until a late age. We know that many gifted children do not follow the expected developmental path. Many lag in motor skills and suffer from dysgraphia. Some do not necessarily read at an early age, despite eventually becoming prolific readers. Many are socially immature, and have meltdowns because their overexcitabilities, oversensitivities and intensity get the best of them. They cannot regulate their highly excitable emotions and lack the maturity to control their behavior.

Why is this important?

Many theories of gifted development are, well... theories. Useful, informative, even brilliant, but theories nonetheless. Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration, for example, includes a framework for understanding the emotional overexcitabilities gifted children (and their parents) have to manage, and emphasizes that giftedness encompasses much more than exceptional intellectual abilities.

What we don't understand is the reason.

Why are these children more excitable? Why are they more reactive? Why is asynchronous development a part of the package? Why, in fact, would a brilliant child, a future mathematician or musician, struggle with speech and language long past when appropriate developmental milestones should have been reached?

Clearly more well-designed, statistically sound research into the brain development of gifted individuals is needed. One blog post summarized some interesting research, but there is not a lot out there. Let's encourage and support research efforts that will unravel these mysteries and help us understand the complexities of gifted thinking.

Did your gifted child show any delays in development? What wiring differences do you think exist among gifted children? Let us know your thoughts!

*Sowell, T. (1998). Late-talking children. New York: Basic Books.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Stop misrepresenting gifted education research

Yet another study of gifted education is being circulated that lends itself to misinterpretation and sweeping generalizations. Even worse, its conclusions can be adopted as justification for denying appropriate educational support for gifted children.

In "Does Gifted Education Work? For Which Students?" economists David Card and Laura Giuliano investigated whether selecting students for gifted programs should be based on cognitive abilities alone, or on a combination of both ability and achievement. This is certainly a reasonable question to ask.  My concern is with the conclusions drawn from the study, how they may be interpreted by the media and public, and how this may translate into educational policy.

A report of the study in Vox boasts this provocative headline: "What makes a student gifted? This study says we're getting it wrong," and boldly asserts that assumptions about giftedness need to change. While this makes for a compelling read, stating opinion as if it is fact, recommending sweeping policy changes based on one study, and generalizing from this particular school to other schools is misleading.

Researchers in gifted education and psychology, Makel and Wai, challenged the conclusions reached in this and other studies conducted by economists who have evaluated gifted programs. They highlighted the problem of drawing conclusions from one study and making sweeping generalizations: "it is difficult to see other researchers investigate one instance of an implementation - in this case, evaluate one school district's gifted program - and then make broad generalized conclusions about the entire field."

So, let's look at the basics of this study:
Card and Giuliano studied three groups of 4th graders in a large urban school district. This particular district offers a separate "gifted program" starting in 4th grade, but since there are so few students who meet the 130 IQ criteria for giftedness, they needed to determine how to fill the remaining seats in the classroom. How would they go about selecting other students who would also benefit from a gifted education? 
Students selected for the gifted program in this study either: 1) had an IQ of at least 130; 2) had an IQ of 116 or higher, but were selected from an underrepresented, low-income minority population; or 3) were from an underrepresented, low-income minority population, but had received the highest scores on state-wide achievement tests. Improvements in standardized test scores were evaluated at the end of 4th grade, as well as in 5th grade.
Results from standardized reading and math scores showed:
1. A significant increase for the high achieving, low income students 
2. No improvement for the low income students with IQ's of 116 or greater 
3. No improvement (and even some negative findings) for gifted students with IQ's of 130 or greater
These were Card and Giuliano's conclusions:
  • It is beneficial if gifted programs include both high achieving students along with students identified as gifted (based on IQ testing) 
  • A separate classroom environment (i.e., gifted program) is more effective for students who are chosen for it based on their history of high achievement than those selected just because of their IQ
  • The definition of giftedness needs to be expanded to include scores from standardized testing and not just IQ, since students with high standardized test scores benefit the most from gifted programs
Despite the researcher's conclusions, there are some unanswered questions and different interpretations that should be considered. Here are some other perspectives:

1. This was not a study of gifted education:

The "gifted classrooms" in this school district were not specifically geared toward educating gifted children. They appeared to offer advanced or enriched instruction where gifted and bright, high achieving children were grouped together for more challenging learning. While more homogeneous than a regular classroom, an enriched "track" does not necessarily imply that gifted students were receiving an education compatible with their abilities. The fact that none of the gifted students demonstrated any improvement over the course of the year would certainly suggest that this classroom was hardly challenging enough to meet their academic needs.

2. The study actually addressed two separate questions, unrelated to improving education for the gifted students:
  •  What will boost achievement among bright, low-income, minority students?
  • What is the most appropriate way to fill the seats in an advanced class with students who will benefit most from it? 
These are important questions to research in their own right, but results from this study should not be interpreted as relevant to educating gifted children. The study never asked what methods best enhance achievement among gifted children, or even how to ensure that we are not overlooking identification of low-income minority children who are gifted.

3. We really don't know what defines a "gifted program"

What is a gifted program? What defines it? Is gifted education a "program" or is it instruction specifically tailored to the unique needs of a gifted child? There were no clear parameters in this study. It is unclear how the curriculum differed from instruction in the regular classroom. And the authors noted that the gifted teachers had some training in gifted education, but were "only slightly more experienced than other teachers at their school." We can guess, though, that the "gifted program" in the study was similar to an enriched or advanced class, given the small percentage (approximately 20% or less) of gifted students in the class.

4. High achieving average and above average ability children benefit from enriched education.

Low income, minority high achievers, in particular, benefit from and clearly deserve an opportunity to be challenged. Given evidence that gifted minority children are often overlooked and underidentified as gifted, it is promising that programs are available that can offer enrichment to high achieving students. Hopefully, this research can be used to motivate schools to provide greater educational challenges for underserved and minority students in particular, along with an impetus to improve gifted identification.

5. We don't know why the gifted children did not improve

The study failed to provide an explanation for the gifted children's dismal standardized test results. The researchers noted that the children and their families claimed they were happy with the classes, and suggested that perhaps teachers focused on content unrelated to improving test scores. They also suggested that the gifted students may not have shown improvement because their test scores were already high to begin with. But if the tests were so easy for them, at least some minimal improvement would have been expected.

Some possible explanations that were not considered include the following:
  • The "gifted program" may have been modified to meet the needs of the average and above average ability students. As evident in many classrooms, teachers often "teach to the middle" to accommodate a wide range of learning abilities. It just may not have been challenging enough for the gifted children.
  • The gifted children may have started on a path toward underachievement, having accepted that they don't have to work to achieve minimal results. If the classwork seemed easy, and they were offered minimal challenge, they may have decided not to challenge themselves further.
  • The gifted students may have masked their abilities, despite placement in a class of presumably similar students. Gifted students learn to "dumb themselves down" so that they can fit in. Even in a "gifted classroom," highly gifted students often feel they have to downplay their abilities to gain peer acceptance.
In conclusion, this is what we do know:

We learned from this study that
high achieving, low-income minority students thrive when challenged, and benefit from an academically enriched environment. Perhaps that is the most useful information that can be taken from this study.

We learned that gifted children did not flourish in the mixed ability classrooms in this study, even when they were joined by other high achieving and above average students.

We must careful when describing "gifted programs," always cognizant of the widely varying definitions that change from one school to the next. Until there is a reliable definition, any program should be described in detail and differentiated from what is taught in a regular or any other advanced classroom.

We must recognize the emotional connotations of terms related to "giftedness" and take care when labeling any classroom as a "gifted" program. It may create an unintended rise in feelings of envy and anxiety as families pursue "gifted placement" for their child. "Achieving" placement in a gifted class should not be viewed as a measure of accomplishment, like making varsity in a sport. Gifted education, like all "special education" practices needs to involve a specific educational plan geared toward the unique needs of the child.

Extreme caution is needed before generalizing from this study to the entire field of gifted education. It is absurd to conclude that gifted children cannot benefit and flourish when offered appropriate gifted programming, just because gifted children in this particular study failed to improve. Hopefully, this study can be a springboard for further research into what actually helps gifted children rather than used to marginalize and dismantle what few gifted programs exist.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

    Monday, September 29, 2014

    Fearless advocacy: A day in the life of a gifted child's parent

    Gifted advocacy

    What do you think about when you hear those words?
    • Meetings with school administrators?
    • Lobbying to get your gifted child identified?
    • Insisting on ability grouping, enrichment or acceleration?

    But battling with the schools is not the only place for advocacy; parents find themselves championing the needs of their gifted child wherever they go. Dismissive comments about gifted children are overheard as often at family reunions and the sidelines of soccer games as they are during parent-teacher conferences At first timid and uncertain, parents quickly learn that if they don't educate others about gifted children's differences, their own child will suffer.

    Most parents never expected to become spokespersons for gifted children. Yet by default, they become experts, educators and ambassadors, endlessly explaining facts about giftedness to those who don't understand. They confront misinformation, always careful to avoid the appearance of boasting, and seamlessly reframe their child's offbeat behavior in light of gifted intellectual and social/emotional complexities. Every day can seem like a new challenge.

    Here is a partial list of advocacy efforts that regularly occur in the life of a gifted child's parent:

    (How many of these fit for you?)

    1. Asking teachers for more complex, challenging, meaningful schoolwork (not extra homework or busy work)

    2. Overcoming reluctance to tell friends and family that, yes, your child is gifted, has unique needs, and deserves accommodations in school

    3. Explaining contradictory behaviors to others (why your child's immature or childlike behaviors do not negate her giftedness)

    4. Meeting with school administrators to explain your child's needs and how they are not being met in the classroom or gifted pull-out program

    5. Having to "apologize" for your child's "rude"  (blunt, uncensored) comments to teachers and other children ("So sorry he said the classwork was boring - I know he needs to learn tact. I guess he just wants something a little more challenging.")

    6. Commenting in online forums, blogs or articles to remind others that no, not every child is gifted!

    7. Explaining the difference between gifted traits and behaviors that warrant a diagnosis (high energy, intense curiosity vs. ADHD; detailed, hyper focus on an area of interest vs. OCD)

    8. Helping relatives, neighbors and other parents understand that your child's moods, quirks and intensities are associated with her giftedness (and are not behaviors she just does to be annoying)

    9. Speaking up regularly at school board meetings to request (demand) more appropriate and necessary gifted services

    10. Meeting with other parents of gifted children to form parent advocacy efforts (groups, lobbying efforts with the schools, collaborative meetings with gifted supervisors)

    11. Letting your young child's friends know that when he wants to play by himself, it's not because he doesn't like them; it's just because he really wants to play by himself

    12. Researching alternative educational options and presenting them to the teacher (online courses, subject acceleration, special projects, mentorships)

    13. Learning about state-wide and nation-wide advocacy efforts and getting involved

    14. Educating people you never thought you would have to inform about the complexities of giftedness: your child's teachers, pediatrician, coaches, spiritual leaders, trusted friends and family

    15. Defending any accommodations offered to your child at school when others question the need for them (explaining that additional challenging work or acceleration is not a privilege or honor, but a necessity)

    16. Advocating for yourself: asking for support and advice from those who understand, and letting those who don't understand know how hard it is for you

    You never planned for this. No one prepared you. Yet, you are the chief proponent, enthusiast, spokesperson, defender, and champion of services for your child. It just comes with the territory. Once you overcome your hesitation and fears about advocacy, you can move on to what is necessary.

    You can make change happen.

    Let us know what a day in the life of advocacy is for you in the comments
    section below.

    This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted Advocacy. To read more blogs, visit the Blog Hop at:


    1. "You never planned for this. No one prepared you."

      Nope. And that's a big reason I work with gifted support and advocacy. To help prepare parents and reach out with resources. Thanks for being a resource!


      1. Thanks so much. I know that for myself, even with training as a psychologist, it was an eye-opening experience learning the amount of gifted advocacy these children need. So glad you're also out there helping parents learn how to advocate!
    2. Gail. Your writing is always so clear and concise. This is a great list and a different way to look at the topic of advocacy. Very helpful for parents, I'm sure.


      1. Thanks, Paula.So much advocacy to do in so many ways! Really appreciate your feedback.
    3. I teared up when I read this. This is my life now and future.......

      Gifted education in Australia is yet to gain majority support in schools, the journey of advocacy is very lonely


      1. Gifted education is not supported very well in the U.S. either. Sorry you're feeling so alone. Maybe you can seek out others in the same situation, at home and online, who can share your struggle with you. Good luck.
    4. Cherry's right. Gifted education in Australia has very few resources or proponents in comparison to the US. It's really pretty dire. We gave up on educational advocacy and now homeschool. We were getting nowhere whatsoever, and our son was suffering.


      1. I wonder what can be done in Australia to get things going? Just curious, given how bad you indicated the situation is. Such a shame that it sounds so bad.
    5. This is the first time i am reading your post and admire that you posted article which gives users lot of information regarding particular topic thanks for this share.
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