Monday, November 7, 2022

Baseball, the World Series... and Gifted Education

Sports provide a metaphor for much in life. Such is true for the Philadelphia Phillies; over the years, their wins and losses have evoked joy and heartbreak for countless fans. Many stories will be written about their surge to win the pennant this year and play in the World Series. Underdogs who rose from the ashes. The persistence of the Phitin' Phils. The team camaraderie. How their undying fans careened from hope to disappointment... once again. 

Photo credit: Yong Kim, Philadelphia Inquirer

And while (as a Philly native) I am spotlighting the city's beloved Phils rather than the (gulp) World Series champions, the Houston Astros, few would doubt the drive, persistence, and raw talent found among both teams' world-class athletes. Some rose to fame despite poverty and hardship. Others received elite training that prepared them for success. Either way, their talent is astonishing. Stand-out Phillies player Bryce Harper, for example, was a prodigy, highlighted in Sports Illustrated at age 13. Many begrudge their exorbitant salaries; however, their dedication, commitment, and sheer talent inspire their fan base.


So, how does this relate to gifted education??? 

A sports team's success depends on a variety of factors -  excellent coaching, talented athletes, team chemistry, and a bit of luck. The Phillies' transformation from a team lagging far behind in the rankings to National League pennant winners has been attributed to a change in managers mid-season. Whatever occurred on the field or behind clubhouse doors can be attributed to leadership that nurtured and encouraged their success. The same holds true for gifted education; the right teacher, the right mix of students, the support of their "fans" (i.e., parents, teachers, and a supportive community), and competent leadership (from school administrators to state legislation safeguarding gifted education services) encourage gifted kids to engage their intellectual strengths. 


But as we know, this rarely occurs.


Gifted kids are sometimes encouraged to use their talents. More often, though, they are chastised to sit still and stop raising their hands or to downplay their smarts so they can fit in. Gifted education, unfortunately, is still controversial. Parents of gifted children are accused of bragging, or pushing their kids to achieve, or being elitist. In contrast, parents of a rising superstar athlete likely hear the following accolades: "Amazing." "You must be so proud." "Such dedication." It is doubtful that parents of a talented athlete would overhear any of the following comments:

"Let them just be a kid."

"They should be benched for a while so that the other team players won't feel so bad about their abilities."

"They'll do just fine without any coaching."

"They must not be talented; they struck out each time up at bat today, which just proves they are not the talented athlete you thought they were."

"They will need to play on intramurals instead of varsity for a while to encourage the other players and help them succeed. Besides, varsity sports are elitist."

"All children are gifted athletes."

 

Yes, the above comments sound ridiculous! Yet, they parallel the daily, lived experience of most gifted children and their families. As a beleaguered city embraces its team's unanticipated wins and losses, perhaps we all can learn a little more about how to support all of our talented kids - the athletes and the mathletes alike. 


These basic tenets of giftedness cannot be ignored:  

1. Gifted children can be found in every racial, cultural, and socioeconomic group. 

2. Gifted children possess an innate intellectual ability and are neurodiverse - their minds grasp concepts more quickly and with greater complexity and depth. Many exhibit asynchronous development where social maturity lags behind their intellectual strengths. 

3. Giftedness does not equate with achievement. Many high achievers are not necessarily gifted; many gifted children are underachievers.

4. Gifted kids need, deserve, and require a challenging education - just like every other child. The fact that their needs differ from neurotypical or struggling students does not diminish their right to an education suited to their intellectual level.

5. Parents of the gifted rarely push their children; they are just along for the ride, trying to keep up with their child's academic needs.

6. Some gifted children possess a co-existing "twice-exceptional" condition, such as ADHD or a learning disability. The presence of twice-exceptionality creates greater complexity when assessing and working with their gifts and challenges; without astute attention, their giftedness and their learning challenges may be overlooked or misunderstood.

7. Just like coaches and team managers select players with similar abilities to optimize performance, gifted children also benefit from a classroom of like-minded peers. They thrive when they can engage their curiosity and intensity alongside peers with similar abilities, and where they no longer must hide their strengths to fit in or avoid bullying.

8. Without a challenging education, gifted students will wither. They may underachieve, withdraw, rebel, or merely coast through school, and never fully develop their potential. 


Like the Phillies, gifted kids also fall short of expectations. They strike out at bat, or fail an audition, or miss out on that science fair award. Their talents cannot insulate them from the same setbacks, heartbreaks, rejections, and losses the rest of us also endure. What matters most is resilience, reasonable expectations, and the capacity to learn from experience. Even after the World Series loss, fans are resuming their daily lives. And the Phillies are recalibrating and looking to next year's season.


I must confess that I am a fair-weather fan, emerging only to cheer the Phils when they are on the larger stage. Sports have never been my thing. But I became entranced by their enthusiastic and quirky expressions of team spirit and their compelling rise to success this season. And the awe-inspiring artistry and power of a homerun hit, the satisfying crack of bat to ball, and the batter's expectant pause as he awaits the verdict (will the ball land in the stands, or is it just a pop-up fly?) are spectacles to behold. Those moments remind us all of what is possible. 


Let's offer those same opportunities and expectations to the intellectually gifted and not reserve them only for our beloved athletes.


** For more insights about giftedness, please see my new bookThe Gifted Parenting Journey. Available through the publisher and on the usual bookseller sites, this book addresses a previously neglected topic in the literature: the needs and emotional life of parents of gifted children.**