Why are some gifted kids' talents ignored? What happens when your child doesn't "look gifted" - when they don't conform to widely held notions of giftedness and high achiever stereotypes? What contributes to the under-identification of giftedness?
There is a widespread assumption that giftedness is readily noticed and that parents and teachers easily recognize when a child is gifted. However, giftedness remains unidentified and ignored among many gifted children.
Yes, there are some gifted kids who burst forth right out of the starting gate, displaying their precocious talents at a very young age. As they mature, their advanced abilities are so apparent that few could deny their giftedness. However, others are late bloomers, or their strengths are more visual-spatial than verbal, or their passions are skewed toward only one area of interest. Parents may doubt their perceptions when developmental milestones seem to zig-zag along a haphazard path. A child might be delayed with motor skills, for example, yet speak before their first birthday. They might be able to name every dinosaur or perform advanced math calculations, yet cannot tie their shoes.
This uncertainty about whether a child is gifted may persist for years. Parents may doubt the accuracy of their observations. They are especially likely to question their perceptions when their child is neither highly verbal nor an early reader. For example, Silverman and Golon noted that: “Children with advanced visual-spatial abilities may not be perceived as gifted by their parents or teachers unless they also demonstrate verbal precocity. When children develop speech later than their siblings, parents often worry that the children are developmentally delayed, even if they display extraordinary facility with puzzles, construction toys, creating things from odds and ends, disassembling items, and spatial memory” (p.3).
Just as some parents doubt their perceptions, overworked teachers (or those with little training in gifted education) often fail to notice gifted children who do not fit stereotypes of cooperative, high achieving, and highly verbal students. Gifted children who frequently remain unidentified may be found among students who are quiet or shy or rambunctious, who underachieve, who cannot adapt to the slow, regimented pace of traditional classrooms, or whose passions are skewed toward only one area of interest. A bored gifted child who constantly chats with other students or acts out in class may receive reprimands rather than a further investigation into what drives them. A shy gifted child may want to avoid any fanfare or attention and hide their giftedness so they can be like everyone else.
Complicating the picture even further, some gifted children display social and emotional delays where their maturity lags well behind their intellect. A five-year-old might possess the vocabulary of a teen, yet sometimes act like a toddler (often at the worst possible moments!). Asynchronous development is viewed by many as a hallmark of giftedness, and is described by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) as a “mismatch between cognitive, emotional, and physical development of gifted individuals.” These varying strengths and developmental lags confuse parents and teachers alike, and confound decisions regarding school placement or options for academic acceleration. Stephanie Tolan claimed that “gifted children are on a developmental trajectory that is outside of norms from infancy onward. They reach recognized milestones of development on a schedule that is unique to them, putting them out of sync with society's expectations. In addition, they may be out of sync internally, with cognitive, social, and emotional development on separate and sometimes quite different timetables.” (p. 2). She further commented that:
“The young gifted child may appear to be many ages at once. He may be eight (his chronological age) when riding a bicycle, twelve when playing chess, fifteen when studying algebra, ten when collecting fossils, and two when asked to share his chocolate chip cookie with his sister. This variability in behavior and perception is difficult for parents and schools to handle and difficult for the child as well” (p. 2).
Gifted identification also can be clouded by a variety of developmental, learning, and social/emotional factors. Gifted abilities can be overlooked when twice-exceptional concerns (such as anxiety, learning disabilities, speech or motor delays, or signs of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder) coexist along with giftedness. The intellectual strengths of an anxious gifted child, hesitant to speak up in class, may not be noticed. A gifted child with ADHD or a hidden learning disability might utilize their intelligence to compensate for distractibility or struggles with reading or math. Yet, their gifted abilities allow them to coast through school with average grades. As a result, their ADHD may remain hidden and untreated, and their needs as a gifted learner are ignored.
Gifted under-identification often occurs
among persons of color, children raised in impoverished environments, English
Language Learners, and those who are culturally different from the school’s
norms (as noted here and here and here). The failure to identify giftedness in underrepresented
minorities has sparked a call to action for change with how giftedness is
defined and conceptualized, how gifted children are selected for enriched
programming, and how gifted education is implemented (as noted here and here and here).
The under-identification of gifted children within these populations has contributed to an “excellence gap”, where potential is neglected, enrichment is not provided, and later accomplishments never materialize. These are the children who are most in need of gifted services, yet rarely receive it.
What can you do?
1. Educate yourself. Learn as much as possible about the intellectual and social/emotional needs of gifted children, as well as twice-exceptional concerns. Read books, articles, and research publications. Listen to podcasts, watch webinars, attend gifted education workshops, and join (or form) a gifted parents advocacy group. If your child has not yet received a cognitive evaluation, insist that testing will be provided. The more you and the school know about your child's strengths and challenges, the more you can advocate for the services they need. Parents of homeschooled children also benefit from the knowledge obtained through cognitive testing. The more you know, the more you can support your child.
2. Make a commitment to advocate for your child. You are launched into the role of advocate - something you may not have expected, and even might resent. Yet, you know more than most about the challenges gifted children face. Advocacy does not stop with addressing academic problems at school, though. It falls on you to tactfully and persistently educate others who hold misconceptions and stereotypes about the gifted. This might include friends, extended family, neighbors, teachers, healthcare professionals, coaches, babysitters, camp counselors, and anyone else who shrugs, glares, or rolls their eyes in exasperation when your asynchronous child acts out. Approach your child's teacher as an ally and as someone who shares your goals for providing the best possible education. Gather as much information as possible, and express your concerns. And if your child is not yet identified, learn about testing and educational options that may best meet their needs.
3. Speak up about giftedness. The "gifted" word may be fraught with controversy; it irritates those who assume the label implies that someone is "better" or more privileged. Our job involves educating others about neurodiversity, asynchronous development, and the complexities inherent in raising and educating a gifted child. Move past any possible ambivalence associated with speaking up about giftedness. Advocate for the gifted with the school administration, the school board, and state legislators (especially if gifted education is not a legally protected right in your state). Keep in mind that school policy not only affects academics but peer relationships as well. Even more, when the school faculty become more aware that gifted abilities may remain hidden (and learn how to notice those children who have been overlooked), gifted children will have more opportunities to receive the education they need.
Some passages in this blog post are taken from an upcoming book with Gifted Unlimited Press, "The Gifted Parenting Journey: A Guide to Self-discovery and Support for Families of Gifted Children."
This blog post is part of GHF Writer Collective's Blog Hop on "What people don't get about gifted."