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|August 21-27, 2008
Head of the class
Talented and gifted children need special help in the classroom
by Pamela White
Alex, a first-grader, didn’t want to go to school. Each time his parents tried to drop him off, he cried, begging to stay home. In the classroom, his performance was, at best, average, and he seemed uninterested in the activities that his classmates found fun. Of perhaps even greater concern was the fact that he couldn’t seem to connect with the other children, keeping to himself in class and standing alone on the periphery of the playground during recess.
The situation perplexed Alex’s parents, who thought of their son as a cheerful and outgoing boy. An early talker who’d always been full of ideas at home, he had a quirky sense of humor and seemed to enjoy learning. But despite his teacher’s best efforts to engage him, he was not thriving at school.
A routine grade-level screening test, administered to all children in his class, offered the first clue. It showed that Alex was reading far above grade level and, at the age of 6, had the vocabulary of a senior in high school.
It was then that Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) tested Alex to determine whether he was eligible for special support through the district’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program. Gifted and talented students are those whose demonstrated or potential abilities are so outstanding that it becomes essential for educators to provide them with individualized educational programming. About 10 percent of BVSD students fall into this category of special-needs students.
Little Alex tested off the charts in all subject areas. And his problems in school became clear. He was so far advanced above other first graders intellectually that each day in school meant struggling with intense boredom — and the very scary feeling that he didn’t fit in. He wasn’t performing well because the work couldn’t hold his interest, and he wasn’t spending time with his peers because he simply didn’t know how to relate to them.
Identified as a TAG student, he began leaving his classroom each day for an hour or so of special instruction, and his problems at school slowly resolved. By third-grade, he had friends — mostly other TAG kids — and loved going to school.
Educators say Alex’s experience isn’t unusual for a TAG child. They say the key to helping children like Alex get the most out of school is the same as it is for students with learning disabilities — identifying them as early as possible and providing both an appropriate educational environment and support for them and their families.
When most people think of “special-needs” students, they think of students with learning disabilities, kids with physical or developmental problems that make it difficult for them to keep up with their peers. But kids who are unusually intelligent need extra help, too.
“Gifted and talented students are special-needs kids,” says Jennifer Barr, coordinator of the school district’s Advanced Academic Services.
There are more than 3,000 TAG students enrolled in BVSD schools — about 10 percent of the district’s students.
The school district works to identify gifted students, using input from parents and educators as well as information garnered through grade-level screenings and CSAP tests. A child can be nominated for TAG testing by an educator, a parent, a peer or another adult familiar with the child’s abilities. Students can request TAG testing themselves, as well.
Once a student is identified as talented or gifted — gifted children are talented across a variety of subjects and areas whereas talented students show a special aptitude in a single area — parents and students work with their school’s TAG committee and TAG Educational Advisor (TEA) to create an advanced learning plan for the student, Barr says. This learning plan serves as documentation of the student’s special programming and their goals.
The district also works to provide support to the parents of TAG students, offering them a variety of resources, including access to parental support groups, called SENG groups. That’s short for Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted. Facilitators offer this to parents of gifted and talented students so that they can begin to understand some of the nuances of giftedness.
“Parents love these SENG groups,” Barr says. “First of all, they’re around other parents who have students who are like their students. When they bring up issues, they can talk about them in the group and people will be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I totally get it,’ instead of, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They’re also getting educated about the needs of gifted and talented students. It gives them some background in gifted education that they may not have because a lot of them are going to base their experiences with their student on their own experiences in school.”
One of the biggest challenges parents face raising a TAG child stems from the fact that gifted children often demonstrate asynchronous development. This means that some aspects of the child develop faster than others.
For example, a young child might have an adult’s grasp of the issue of global warming, understanding the consequences in an adult way, and yet not have the emotional skills necessary to cope with their fears about what will happen to the world. Because gifted children are often possessed of an atypical degree of emotional depth, their feelings are often unusually intense, further complicating the problem.
Understanding this kind of asynchronous and emotional development can be tough for parents and teachers, who might not understand that their gifted 5-year-old will still act like a 5-year-old at times or who might react in the opposite way, not fully understanding the child’s abilities because the child is so young and so small.
“As a general kind of challenge, that one really covers a lot of bases, not only for parents who are struggling, but also within the school district as well,” Barr says. “It can be hard to acknowledge that students are all over the place developmentally.”
Fitting in can also be a huge challenge for TAG kids, Barr says.
Because of this, the school offers not only academic support for gifted kids, but also social and emotional programming. Counselors and teachers facilitate groups that bring gifted kids together helping them to discuss a variety of topics. What does it mean to be gifted? What does it mean to think differently from other people? What does it mean to be the only student in the fifth-grade whose taking math at the nearby middle school?
Without this kind of support and the right kind of emotional and academic stimulation, TAG students may grow uninterested in school, seeming disorganized and absentminded or performing poorly in their classes. Some may even develop behavior issues, misbehaving out of frustration, boredom and anxiety. Still others may withdraw.
Girls and boys may face different issues. Studies show that girls who are gifted often end up trying to hide their abilities by middle school in order to fit in or because they believe they won’t find a boyfriend if they’re too smart. Boys, on the other hand, might face stereotypes that tell them smart boys can’t be good athletes. Oftentimes, gifted boys’ energy in the classroom is misunderstood and misdiagnosed as attention-deficit disorder, when in truth they are simply bored.
The state of Colorado is making an education push to meet the needs of gifted and talented students, largely ignored by No Child Left Behind. In 2007, the General Assembly passed a bill, which was signed into law, that required Colorado school districts that weren’t already serving the needs of TAG students to do so. In 2008, another bill was passed addressing the needs of 4- and 5-year-old gifted children who may be underage but are ready to start school.
The 2007 bill didn’t change any practice that we have in Boulder Valley School District, because BVSD was already serving gifted students.
The risk in not identifying gifted students on time is very much like the risks associated with failing to meet the needs of any other student, special-needs or otherwise. Students lose interest in school and their talents languish rather than develop. An individual approach is essential. After all, no two students — even among gifted kids — are alike.
Three kids, three approaches
Kathy Young has three children enrolled in BVSD schools, and all three of them are gifted. Her oldest, Courtney, has never had to work in school to get top-notch grades. She’s currently studying at Fairview, where she’s enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program.
“She has to work a little bit harder,” Kathy says. “It’s still not super-challenging.”
Kathy’s youngest, Kaylie, is about to start sixth grade. Out-going and talkative, she has enjoyed the TAG program at her grade school.
Kathy’s son, Jeffrey, is gifted, too — so gifted, in fact, that even for an experienced mother of two other gifted children, he provides some challenges. For starters, he’s so intuitively smart that he forces the adults around him to keep on their toes, sometimes asking questions they struggle to answer.
“When my son came along, he was 3 years old asking questions like, ‘Why does a telephone have to run through wire but a radio doesn’t?’” Kathy recalls. “We had a nanny one time who said, ‘Help! I don’t know how to answer these questions.’ You could explain [these things] to him, and he would understand. When we’re out hiking, he has to be right next to me, and it’s non-stop: ‘What about this? And what about that?’ Luckily I’m a scientist, so I can answer some of his questions or say, ‘We can look it up.’”
Kathy, who has a doctorate and works with remote-sensing satellite imagery, says she considers herself lucky that Jeffrey doesn’t act out when he’s bored at school.
“He always keeps his own mind busy at all times,” she says. “Even if they’re doing stuff in school he already knows, he either reads a book or keeps his mind busy thinking about something else. So it’s never really been a problem.”
It’s always been Jeffrey’s tendency to turn inward, she says.
“When he was fairly young, I remember saying something to him like, ‘Jeffrey, if you won’t listen to what I tell you, who do you listen to?’ and he said, ‘I listen to my own head,’” Kathy says.
Although he’s off the charts academically, socially he’s introverted, preferring his own company to that of kids his age. At lunch, rather than hanging out with other kids, he goes to the library to read. Though he plays tennis, he doesn’t actively seek to involve himself with the other kids. And apart from the relationship he had with an older child when he was very little, he’s never had a close friend, Kathy says.
Kathy takes comfort in the fact that this lack of friends doesn’t seem to bother him, and she wonders if he’s so busy thinking that he simply he doesn’t need companionship.
Meeting Jeffrey’s academic needs has also been challenging. Twice, they considered having him skip a grade, but met resistance from teachers.
“I don’t know if that was a mistake or not that we didn’t do it,” she says. “In some ways it was; in some ways it wasn’t.”
Rather than having him skip grades, they enrolled him in courses at higher grade levels. When he was in 5th grade at Douglas Elementary, for example, he studied 7th-grade math at Platte Middle School. While enrolled in 8th grade in Summit Middle School, he took 11th-grade math at Fairview High School. Transporting him to the other school and back again in time for the rest of the school day wasn’t always easy.
One of the other challenges of raising so gifted a child is the fact that academics come so easily to Jeffrey that he becomes frustrated whenever he can’t do something perfectly.
“He wanted to take up the piano, but he couldn’t just do it,” Kathy says. “He had to practice. But he couldn’t deal with the fact that that he couldn’t sit down and do it perfectly. We’ve had a little bit of challenge with the perfectionism.”
Perfectionism — the tendency to be hypercritical of one’s self and others — is another common trait among gifted children. Because so many things come instantly to them, they don’t necessarily cope well with activities that challenge them.
Because most of Kathy’s friends are scientists and very educated, most of them are sympathetic and understanding when she needs to vent about the frustrations of raising three gifted children. But occasionally, she encounters people who don’t react with understanding.
“When you talk about it and you talk about how he has to go up to the high school for math, I think [some people] do kind of think you’re bragging rather than trying to vent the frustration about the logistics of it,” she says.
At times like that, contact with parents of other gifted kids is helpful.
In addition to groups provided through BVSD, Boulder is home to Boulder Valley Gifted and Talented (BVGT), which encourages parents and educators to come together for the benefit of gifted children. BVGT provides parents and teachers with the chance to learn more about giftedness and about parenting and educating gifted kids.
Now that Jeffrey is about to start high school at Fairview, Kathy wonders if he’ll find school more challenging — and whether he’ll find friends among the other gifted students that attend the school.
And although she knows Jeffrey is aware that he’s different from others — even his parents and sisters — he’s shown no sign that he thinks he’s above anyone else, she says.
“I can still answer a lot of his questions, which is good,” Kathy says. “There will be a day, I’m sure, when I can’t.”
For more information about identifying and raising gifted and talented children, go to www.bvgt.org.
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