Gifted Children: Who they are and why we should talk about it

Parents bring their children into my office for a variety of reasons, but usually the children are there because somehow their cognitive, academic, or social-emotional needs are not being met by their current environment. Sometimes, after I get to know the child and conduct an evaluation, it becomes clear that the child is gifted, and that giftedness is part of the equation of this child’s unmet needs.

One 12-year-old boy told me his reasons for wanting to be evaluated:  “I want to find out how many people in the world have a personality like me, because I want to know: where do I fit in?”  He then poignantly added, “at lunchtime, all the boys want to talk about football, and I want to talk about physics!”  A 16-year-old I tested shared with me that middle school had been the hardest time for him, because that’s when he “had the most disagreements with teachers on the worth of what we were doing.”  A mother of a 6-year-old girl told me that her daughter comes home from school looking dejected, and described what she termed as her daughter’s “nerdy acting out.”  When the girl’s first grade teacher asked the children to write down different ways to make the number 6, the girl wrote “2×3” and “-1 + 7”. The teacher then told the girl that “that’s not what we are doing right now.”  After that incident, this child became even more disengaged from school.

When I share the results of the evaluation with parents and with the child, we discuss how being gifted is an important part of the child’s unique learning profile and of the unique way this child relates to the world.

At this point, it becomes important to clarify:  what does “being gifted” mean?

There is no universally accepted definition of giftedness, and there has been much debate among scholars, policy-makers, and educational professionals about how to define and measure this construct.  Some theorists define giftedness as a natural, untrained spontaneous ability, while others believe that to be considered gifted, a person must demonstrate outstanding levels of achievement in a certain domain.  Every parent wants their child to achieve their full potential, but the only way to ascertain potential is by measuring some form of actual achievement.  At the same time, it is also important to remember that some children with exceptional aptitude may not demonstrate outstanding levels of achievement due to environmental circumstances, physical or learning disabilities, or due to motivational or emotional problems (1).  In fact, there is a whole line of research on underachievement in some gifted students.  Thus, when talking about children, a definition that somehow encompasses both potential and achievement, seems appropriate.

The National Association of Gifted Children defines gifted individuals as “those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains.  Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).” (1).  In a similar vein, in a publication entitled National Excellence:  A Case for Developing America’s Talent, the U.S.  Department of Education described gifted children as “children and youth with outstanding talent [who] perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment.  These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields.”  (2).

It is estimated that there are approximately 3 to 5 million academically gifted children in grades K-12 in the U.S., which constitutes 6% – 10% of the student population (3).  If artistic talent were included in the definition of giftedness, this number would increase.  Although the U.S. Department of Education acknowledges that gifted students “require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools” (2), there is no federal mandate for schools to identify gifted children or to provide services that would address their unique educational needs.  It is left up to each state to decide whether or not they want to mandate the provision of programming for gifted students, and whether or not to fund this programming (3).

Some states, such as Georgia and Iowa, require that schools identify gifted children, provide guidelines for this identification, and fully fund gifted programming.  Other states might require that gifted students be identified and served, but provide little or no funding for the schools to do so.  The state of Massachusetts (where I practice), does not mandate or fund gifted education in any shape or form (4).  Therefore, each school district is free to decide if, and how, to fund and provide services for their gifted students.  Currently, out of 404 public school districts in Massachusetts, only 15 have some kind of structured programming for gifted students (5).

What this means for parents of gifted children that I see in my office, is that they are left to navigate educational decisions for their children mostly on their own, and through uncharted territories.  Can we get the teachers to provide more challenging work for our child within the regular classroom?  Do I try to convince the school to let my child skip a grade?  Do we leave our child to be bored during the school hours and load her up with advanced extra-curricular activities?  Should we put our child in a private school (and if so, which one)?  Do I home-school? These are only a few of the many questions that parents of gifted children are struggling to answer, as they try to figure out how to best meet their children’s needs.

Each child and family is unique, and there is no cookie-cutter answer to the questions above.  However, some of the struggles that parents of gifted children face are common.  In this blog series, I will discuss the unique cognitive, academic, and social-emotional needs of gifted children and provide parents with some resources they can access in their journey to address those needs.

References:

  1. Definitions of Giftedness. (n.d.). Retrieved September 2016, from http://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness
  2. Ross, P. O. C. (1994). “National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent.” An Anthology of Readings. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
  3. Frequently Asked Questions about Gifted Education. Retrieved September 2016, from https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/frequently-asked-questions-about-gifted-education
  4. Davidson Gifted Database. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2016, from http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entryType/3
  5. Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education – Gifted Ed in MA. (n.d.). Retrieved September 2016, from http://www.massgifted.org/education

Google Image: Spencer, B. P. (2011). Is Your Child Gifted? Retrieved from http://www.parenting.com/article/is-your-child-gifted

Acknowledgments

We want to thank all of the people who contributed to this blog series by sharing their experiences and offering valuable information on this topic.

This article was prepared with the invaluable help of:

Lindsay Rosen, M.A., a graduate of Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Deptartment of Child Study and Human Development, who had interned at Growing Minds, LLC in 2015-2016

Jolie Straus, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Jolie is currently interning at Growing Minds, LLC, where she assists Dr. Dashevsky in gathering research-based literature on clinical issues and topics that arise throughout Dr. Dashevsky’s work with children and families

Mrs. Sarah Dorer, a gifted and talented coordinator and enrichment specialist for the Bedford Public Schools

Dr. David Henry Feldman, Professor and Chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University

Parents who have agreed to be interviewed for this blog series about their experiences navigating the educational system and continuously working to meet the needs of their gifted children

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