Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When gifted kids get to exhale

Gifted students typically view school as easy. Much too easy.

And that's the problem.

While some kids might relish the idea of coasting though school, once classes become routine and simplistic, their school day becomes tedious, boring, and a waste of time. Complaining is pointless, and marks them as a whiner - or even worse - an overachiever. Many gifted kids give up, hold their breath, and wait until they might - eventually - find meaningful learning opportunities.

When gifted students finally experience a class that combines deeper exploration, creativity, an accelerated pace, and includes like-minded peers, they can breathe a sigh of relief.

One student's story:
Jonah* found that he could exhale once he started honors classes in 9th grade. In addition to the more intensive pace, he was finally grouped with like-minded peers, after years of placement in mixed ability classes.
"Finally, FINALLY, I can breathe again. It's like I've been asleep, waiting until I could learn, and the world opened up to me. I've been waiting so long and have been SO bored. And I've had to hold back in classes because the other kids - the kids who hate school - they would have laughed at me. So I kept quiet.
But now I'm in classes with other smart kids. And I can speak up. And we can talk back and forth with each other about interesting stuff, and no one is going to laugh at me if I say something that "sounds smart." And the teacher is amazing and lets us talk about interesting things. We don't just learn all the surface stuff - we go deep. School is finally fun again. It's like I've been holding my breath for the past few years... and I can finally exhale."

When there is neglect

Many schools have neglected the needs of gifted students by refusing to provide options such as ability grouping or acceleration. Sometimes this is based on assumptions about fairness, equity, and "what giftedness looks like," as well as misconceptions about the needs of gifted children. In contrast to these assumptions, a recent meta-analytic review from Steenbergen-Hu, Makel and Olszewski-Kubilius stresses that acceleration and ability grouping are effective educational tools for both higher and lower-achieving students.

Academic acceleration has been recommended for gifted and highly able children since publication of A Nation Deceived, and more recently in A Nation Empowered. It continues to be recognized (see NAGC) as a cost-effective tool that offers gifted students an opportunity to excel. Flexible ability grouping is even more critical, since it permits students to interact with like-minded peers, something acceleration does not always accomplish. According to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study, ability grouping improves academic scores for children at all levels. As Olszerski-Kubilius has noted:

"When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving - either up or down - during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student's readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time." 

When there is relief from boredom

While the start of ninth grade was a breakthrough for Jonah, that moment of relief might occur at a different point in time for others - during a particularly engaging and meaningful class, a challenging extra-curricular activity, or a camp for gifted students where they can explore their interests, unencumbered by pressure to mask their abilities. For some, though, their passion for learning is not unleashed until college or even later.

Another student's story:
Alyssa* easily coasted through high school. She took all of the advanced classes that were available at the small mid-western school she attended, along with a few additional classes online. Although valedictorian, and sporting exceptional SAT scores, she knew it was a long-shot to gain acceptance into an elite college, but her "geographic minority" status helped to boost her chances. She started college at her second choice school, and was thrilled to find that it was even more stimulating than expected.
"I never knew it could be this different. At first, I felt intimidated and worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up. But it was so incredible to be in classes with other students who were actually interested in learning - who weren't rolling their eyes or trying to get out of work. They also weren't trying to hide that they were smart and trying to fit in all the time. I was so used to doing what I had to do just to get the grade so I could get in to college, that what I was learning didn't matter. But now it does. I now get to study with amazing professors who like what they're doing and who expect us to care about what we are learning. Even though the work is hard, I am so relieved that I found a place like this."

The fallout from neglect

Neglecting gifted children by refusing to meet their educational needs - especially when there are cost-effective solutions - not only contributes to years of boredom, underachievement, and wasted potential, but can create social and emotional problems. Some gifted people develop nagging self-doubt, question their abilities, and view themselves as "impostors." Gifted children who coast through school may not acquire the resilience and perseverance that emerges after experiences with failureInman has also pointed out in "What a child doesn't learn" how children who are never challenged lack opportunities to develop a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and the capacity for sacrifice.

Gifted children should not have to wait, endure boredom, or hold their breath until they are challenged.  Just like every other child, they deserve the freedom to learn alongside like-minded peers in classrooms that will truly challenge them.

* Names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality