By Stephanie Newitt
I would like to share with you my own journey to discover the importance and criteria of good and appropriate gifted education. Along the way, we will dispel a common myth.
I graduated from college over 15 years ago with bachelor degrees in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. As I reflect on my undergraduate studies, I do not remember a single class addressing the needs of gifted learners. Then I was blessed with children of my own. All four of my children are identified as gifted, though they are gifted in different ways with different strengths, intensities and yes, even deficits.
Myth: Gifted kids will do fine on their own.
Can gifted students really achieve their potential without the mentorship of someone who understands their intellectual, social and emotional development?
Truth: Gifted children need highly qualified teachers who not only can take academic subject matter to new depths and breadths, but also teachers who understand that gifted children do not develop intellectually, socially and emotionally as typical students do.
The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) poses this question –
Would you send a star athlete to train for the Olympics without a coach? Gifted students need guidance from well-trained teachers who challenge and support them in order to fully develop their abilities. Many gifted students may be so far ahead of their same-age peers that they know more than half of the grade-level curriculum before the school year begins. Their resulting boredom and frustration can lead to low achievement, despondency, or unhealthy work habits. The role of the teacher is crucial for spotting and nurturing talents in school. [i]
It is not appropriate for a teacher to say to a gifted child, “When you finish your worksheet you can attend your gifted pull-out class.” This was a true experience and it sent the message that gifted services are not needed, but are optional for gifted students - a fallacy. Exceptional learners who are gifted learn and process information in an atypical fashion. Worksheets do not promote learning, especially if the worksheets are about material that the gifted student has already mastered. To achieve their potential gifted students require teachers and environments appropriate to their learning needs.
About four years ago I withdrew my children from my neighborhood school because there was a lapse in teachers with training in gifted education and my children were struggling. Where was I to send my children, ages six and ten, to school? I began asking questions. I began visiting schools. I had a degree in education, but in so many ways I felt lacking. I began attending local conferences sponsored by the Arizona Association for Gifted and Talented (AAGT).[ii] I began reading.[iii] I learned that I too am gifted and that my husband is gifted, but we felt we were lacking in our ability to serve our children’s gifted needs.
By the end of the summer I found a public school in Gilbert that had highly qualified teachers. There was no bussing. I began driving my children 25 minutes one way to school each day. Some thought I was crazy, but I had to follow my gut. At the beginning of my child’s 6th grade year, I was concerned about his adjustment to a new school with all new friends. It did take a few months, but academically he was being challenged by teachers who held him to a higher standard. They understood his “Need to Read” and channeled it, directing him to appropriate literature for his high reading level. They understood his struggles as well.
As we – the teachers and I – worked together to consistently hold him accountable to this higher level of learning of which he was capable, I saw unexpected growth. Naturally more of an introvert, he began growing socially. He was feeling more confident in himself. As he rose to the appropriate academic standards that were commensurate with his intellectual abilities, he did more than just fine. He thrived. For the first time in his elementary school experience he thrived. Socially he felt more confident than ever before. Emotionally he was more at peace.
Was the drive worth it? To me it was. I knew that my attitude would make or break this transfer experience. I worked hard to keep a positive outlook about this transfer and it helped my children with their transition. I had not fully understood how my older gifted son would grow in every area when his academic needs were met. I was amazed. And my younger son? He had a phenomenal Cluster teacher who absorbed the training she received and worked with her gifted students. My youngest son did well also. The three of us look back fondly at our Year of Adventure.
After one year at this far away school, my oldest finished 6th grade and moved on to junior high. I had learned the questions to ask and so for my younger child I found another GPS school closer to home. Would I have kept my younger son at this school? Yes, if it had been 15 minutes closer to home compared to 25. The new school is only a ten minute drive.
When I look for educational opportunities in which my gifted children can succeed, I ask the following questions:
- Are teachers of gifted education students highly qualified in their field with training in gifted education? I learned that the more highly gifted a child is, the more training the teacher should have.
- Does the school principal understand the reasoning behind gifted education and support its appropriate implementation and teacher training?
- Is there a means for teachers to document and communicate to parents that the student is receiving gifted services commensurate with his/her strengths and weaknesses?
If all three are in place then I know there is a very high chance for growth – beyond academics. But I have learned that academics is the key. If the academic or intellectual needs of the gifted child are not being met, all other aspects of their life will also be impacted. Gifted students need highly qualified teachers who have been trained in gifted education.
[i] The National Association for Gifted Children - http://www.nagc.org/commonmyths.aspx#don%27t_need_help
[ii] Arizona Association for Gifted and Talented hosts two conferences per year – one in February and one in the fall. Find out more by visiting their website - http://www.arizonagifted.org/conference/
[iii] A list of books that have helped me understand the needs of gifted children –
- Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Successful Children. James R. Delisle, Ph.D
- Academic Advocacy for Gifted Children: A Parent’s Complete Guide. Barbara Jackson Gilman, M.S.
- Living with Intensity. Susan Daniels, Ph.D. & Michael M. Piechowski, Ph.D.
- You can find additional helpful books listed on our website: http://gilbertgifted.org/gifted101.html#10