Category Archives: Gifted Education

Gifted: Who You Are or What You Do? Part 2

Nature Vs NurtureIn part 1, I outlined the two broad models of giftedness; gifted as child development and gifted as achievement/talent development. Now to air my views!

I can’t help feeling that the move to talent development is partially politically motivated. The term “gifted” comes with a perception of elitism and all sorts of negative baggage. It is very difficult to describe the child development concept to people who have already decided that you think your child is somehow better than theirs and everyone else’s. It can come across a bit woolly and vague.  How much easier and more palatable to sell it as a concept whereby anyone can be gifted, if only they have the right environment? Not only that, but look: we can clearly demonstrate the giftedness and, we will produce the future saviours of the world to boot. That might not only make the educational powers-that-be sit up and take notice, it might even attract funding.

As a parent, I have several issues with this.

1. Where, in this talent development model, is there any recognition for the asynchronous development of my child? Of their inescapable feeling of not fitting in, of being somehow out-of-sync? No matter how you try, you cannot escape this issue. It is one of the first topics that parents will bring up at support groups meetings. And, no harm to all the academics, but we live with these kids. We know how they feel.

2. I absolutely, 100%, believe that each and every child should be encouraged and supported to develop their talent to the full. That, to my mind, is not a gifted thing at all. I would love this approach to be taken in school as a whole and I’m sure my children would have benefited. However, it would not have addressed their different social and emotional needs and it is the lack of awareness and understanding of those which caused most of my kids’ difficulties.

3. I take issue with the idea that it is only the gifted who will be the future leaders and cancer-curers of the world. No doubt, some of them will. But you don’t need to be gifted to do that. You need a certain level of intelligence coupled with drive, motivation and hard work. Many gifted kids don’t have that and may never achieve as highly as we might hope. And, why should they be obliged to save the world anyway? Why can’t they just be perfectly happy, productive and non-eminent members of society? What’s wrong with being a great teacher, paramedic, stay-at-home mother? Why is eminence the be-all-and-end-all of everything?

4. Is the talent development model not, paradoxically, more elitist? In a system where we are cutting funding to education right, left and centre, how much funding will be available for talent development programmes? Will it not be the children of pushy parents with money, who will be most likely to be identified because their parents can afford the extra classes and the best equipment and will do whatever it takes to have their children noticed? Where does it leave the less financially and socially advantaged?

5. Where do the twice exceptional children fit in? Gifted children with a learning difficulty may not be able to perform to the standards required for inclusion in talent development programmes. That’s not to say that they are particularly well provided for as it is, of course.  Just as I finished writing this, the NAGC released a new position statement on recognising 2e children.

Dr James Webb, who is indeed an eminent individual in the field of giftedness, says of the new NAGC shift to talent development, hold on there a minute, you may have missed some of it. It’s not all about talent development. Social and emotional issues are not left out, there just wasn’t room to discuss them in the summary of the paper. Well, to me, the priority was summed up in that statement: “the goal of gifted education is eminence”.

In The Phenomenology of Giftedness , Linda Silverman discusses the child development model of giftedess and outlines its importance and fairness. She warns against “the child being missed completely in [these] performance-driven conceptions”. In this rather scathing article To Be or To Do? Is A Gifted Child Born Or Developed?,  Jim Delisle wonders if, in striving to be politically correct, have we diluted Gifted and Talented education too far.

Most parents of gifted children want nothing more than for their children to grow up happy, fulfilled and independent. Eminence would be nice, I guess (let’s be honest), but it is certainly not our goal. We, like our children, are frustrated by the lack of intellectual challenge offered in school and we believe that it is this lack of challenge which often leads to behavioural difficulties. However, we also recognise that, within the current system, it is extremely difficult for a teacher to meet these needs. I personally feel that, if there was more widespread understanding of the child development theory of giftedness, our children might be less likely to be damaged by being forced to conform to a system that treats all children alike. There is definitely interplay between the two and both aspects are needed,  but I would prefer the emphasis to be on my child’s psychological well being with talent development coming second. 

In Ireland we have no official recognition for gifted children in our education system. We have not adopted any model of giftedness. In other words, we have a clean canvas. In the absence of any central organisation or association, this may be a challenge, but we really do need to get our heads together, assess what has been done elsewhere, decide what would work best here and come up with a plan. If we sit about for long enough, we run the risk of someone else’s model being foisted upon us by some committee on a box-ticking mission. We need input and perspectives from parents, teachers, students and psychologists. Any volunteers?

Gifted: Who You Are or What You Do?

Nature Vs NurturePart 1: An outline of the models. Part 2 will be my own analysis.

Ask ten experts for a definition of “gifted” and you’re likely to get eleven different answers. It seems that no one can pin it down. Which doesn’t help us much in our quest for support for gifted students. We’re not off to a great start when we can’t even explain clearly what we are talking about!

Broadly speaking, it seems we have two concepts of giftedness: a. Gifted as child development and b. Gifted as talent development/achievement. These almost divide along the lines of nature vs nurture in which the nature side says that gifted children are born with different wiring and undergo asynchronous development; gifted is who you are. The nurture side says we are all born with pretty much the same potential and, with the right environment, almost anyone can become gifted; gifted is what you do.

First, let’s look at the concept of giftedness as a difference in child development, the psychologist’s viewpoint:

The development of a gifted child is described as asynchronous, meaning that their intellectual development is advanced but their physical and emotional development is not. These aspects are out-of-sync and a gifted child may be “many ages at once”.

But hold on, it’s not as simple as that! They process information differently, often seeing the bigger picture very quickly and appreciating depth and complexity beyond what would be expected for their age. It is also a widely held view that gifted children have a higher likelihood of having several of the over-excitabilities as  described by Dabrowski. They experience the world around them differently and more intensely than others.

You cannot separate out the emotional, intellectual and physical into distinct parts of a child’s development. They are all intertwined. So, while a gifted six year old may have the intellectual ability of an average twelve year old, they do not have the emotional capacity of an average six year old. They perceive and process the world around them differently to the average child, but they are only six, with the life experience of a six year old. It’s all quite complicated!

In Asynchrony: A New Definition of Giftedness, Linda Silverman  describes it as “ being out-of-sync within oneself (uneven development), out-of-sync with age mates and the expectations of the classroom, having heightened emotions and awareness, and being vulnerable, due to all of these developmental and psychological differences from the norm.” The Columbus Group came up with this definition of giftedness back in 1991:

“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”

Stephanie Tolan, in Giftedness As Asynchronous Development,  describes how, no matter how we come at it, we inevitably use the externals, performance and achievement, to identify giftedness and to measure it. We then tend to go on to use these external measurements to define the child, so that achievement becomes giftedness. However, she maintains that giftedness is an internal reality and that achievement is merely an expression of it. “Whether or not it finds expression in achievement or unusual performance, the internal difference remains…When we focus only on what gifted children can do rather than on who they are, we ignore vital aspects of their developing selves and risk stunting their growth and muddying or distorting their sense of themselves and their worth”.

Now to the concept of gifted as achievement, the educationist’s viewpoint:

This concept maintains that giftedness is all about talent and its expression. Identification is centred on identifying talent by means of rating scales, checklists, tests, portfolios or auditions. A recent position statement from the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the US, defined giftedness as follows:

“Gifted individuals are 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).”

This view is further described by John Feldhusen in Talent Development in Gifted Education. In summary: “The ultimate goal of talent recognition and development is to help students understand their own talent strengths and potentials, to know how to pursue and engage in the best talent development activities, and to commit themselves to the development of their talents”

In Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education by Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius and Worrell,  it is stated in conclusion that “Eminence should be the goal of gifted education”

In the UK, they also seem to be heading down the talent development road, with the NAGC/UK having recently rebranded itself as Potential Plus UK . It is all about support for children with “high learning potential”, although they do continue to recognise and address the unique social and emotional issues.

In Ireland, where the needs of gifted children are barely recognised at all, any model at all would be a good start!

Organising the Gifted but Scatty

I wrote this post for Dazzled and Frazzled at the start of the new school year back in 2011. The same issues come up time and time again at support group meetings, so I felt it was worth re-posting! 

Do you have one of those kids who lives in a world of their own much of the time, completely oblivious to the passage of time; who needs constant reminding to “put the other sock on and finish getting dressed”; to “never mind that the dog’s water bowl is empty, you have five minutes to eat your breakfast and get out to school”?

Does the start of the day go something like the version on the right below?

Getting Ready for School Flow Chart

llustration by Buck Jones, used with the kind permission of Allie Golon of Visual-Spatial Learners

You finally get them out the door and are just recovering when you spot the Irish homework that was slaved over for hours the night before, sitting on the table. Or the text arrives to say “I’ve forgotten my maths book”, “forgotten my lunch”, “forgot there was P.E. today”…and so begins that inner battle: if you constantly bail them out they’ll never learn, so you should let them suffer the consequences of not planning ahead and paying attention, versus the gut feeling that they really can’t help it and will be devastated to turn up in class without all the right things. 

In my experience there are some kids who, by suffering the consequences of their actions or lack of them, will quickly learn to be better organised. However, there are some who really do have genuine organisational difficulties related to what are known as executive skills deficits. No matter how hard they try, they always struggle to be organised. They know this and it frustrates them, causes them distress and makes them feel useless.

Sometimes the issue is just delayed development of executive skills, sometimes it’s ADHD, sometimes it’s that your kid is a visual-spatial learner. Whatever the reason, recognising for themselves the tasks with which they struggle and learning how to best to work around the problem is something that will stand to them forever. Plenty of scatty, disorganised people go on to lead productive, creative and fulfilled lives. For them to be left to constantly mess up or to have you forever picking up the pieces for them is hugely damaging to their self esteem and will delay their independence. The trick is to get the balance right between being supportive and allowing to learn by failure.

As a parent, I have found it helpful to avoid comparison of my children’s progress in this area with that of other children of the same age. My goal is to ensure that, by the time they reach adulthood, they have learned to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible and are ready to leave the nest. In the meantime, they may need a little more support than their peers, but it’s not a competition. It can also be helpful to discuss the problem with your child’s teachers so that they understand and can work with you. It is absolutely vital that your child is included in the process so that they take responsibility for their own progress and learn to advocate for themselves as they get older.  

Here are some tricks which help them to cope better.

Getting out in the morning:

1. Mornings are usually hectic and full of distractions, so pack your schoolbag and look out all your clothes before going to bed the night before. Use the school timetable to check off what is needed.

2. Set a timer in your bedroom to go off when it really is time to be dressed and ready to go for breakfast. (To begin with, mum may need to pop her head around the door at intervals to make sure progress is being made. Don’t bite it off!)

3. Follow a routine and do everything in the same order so you don’t leave anything out.

4. No TV or other distractions!

5. Have a mental checklist of the essentials and go through it before you leave. Schoolbag, lunch, money, bus ticket…whatever you need, but keep it short or you’ll forget items. My own list, which I automatically recite on my way out the door, is “keys, money, phone”. (and now also glasses :-()

In school:

6. If you have a homework journal, USE IT. If you don’t have one, get one. Write in, not just the homework given, but when it is due and any other special announcements. eg If the teacher tells you there is a test or you must bring in a particular item next Wednesday, write a note in next Tuesday’s slot to remind you

7. Colour code your books. You can buy sheets of coloured stickers in various shapes and allocate one to each subject eg red circles to maths, blue squares to English etc. Stick these to the spine of all your books, copybooks included. Then, when you look into you locker, you will see quickly which books you need for each class…provided you take the time to keep your locker tidy.

8. Colour code your timetable to match the book system.

9. Make lots of timetables. Stick one where you do your homework, one in the kitchen, one inside your locker. Make a small one, laminate it and keep it in your pocket.

Most importantly:

10. Accept that this is not your fault and, once you are doing your best, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you keep working at it, after a while, these habits become automatic and you will find life much easier. Some of us spend our whole lives using to-do lists and little tricks to keep us on track.

Further reading for the frazzled: 

School and the Gifted Child: A Blended Solution

This is an account of the school experience of one member of our community. Unfortunately, it will resonate with many. Happily, they have found a novel solution which works for them and we thank them for sharing it with us.

Goldfish jumping from small crowded bowl to larger less crowded oneThe biggest favour the school ever did us was to tell me my child was “retarded”.

Sorcha was six and a half and I had been short-listed for a job that would see us moving abroad. The school I wanted her to attend had sent a form for her current teacher to fill in. (In the end, I didn’t get the job, but the insight I eventually got into my child was far more valuable). On this form, Sorcha’s teacher highlighted her concern with Sorcha’s ability in the areas of maths, language and social skills. According to the teacher, Sorcha was ‘markedly developmentally delayed’ in these areas.

Two things about this shocked me; firstly, this was Sorcha’s third year in primary school – and she’d spent a year in a reputable Montessori preschool before that. Why, if she was so profoundly unable to cope, had no one brought it to my attention earlier?

Secondly, this issue was brought to my attention a month after Sorcha had figured out how to do division in her sleep. She woke up one morning and said ‘Mum – you know the way multiplication is just adding, but loads? Well, there must be a way of doing take-aways like that as well, because….’ and she proceeded to tell me what she’d been doing in her sleep – which was division.

How, I wondered, was it possible for a child who had that capability to be worryingly weak at maths? Then, I thought, that maybe ‘normal’ children were able to figure division out when they were only three or four years old.

Feeling guilty for failing my child, I decided it warranted further investigation. Somewhere, I had heard about the CTYI‎ and I learned, from their website, that were testing children a fortnight later. I decided to book Sorcha in for testing so I could determine how far down the scale from ‘normal’ she was.

When the test results came back, they indicated that Sorcha was, actually, highly intelligent and she was invited to take part in CTYI classes. Armed with this information, I decided it was time to have my daughter more comprehensively assessed.

I contacted Nicky O’Leary who ran a series of psychological tests and conducted an assessment based on feedback from both Sorcha’s teacher and myself. Dr O’Leary confirmed that Sorcha was at the high end of gifted and made a number of suggestions with regard to how Sorcha could best be helped. The school, unfortunately, refused to engage. The principal refused to honour her promise to carry out the recommendations of the educational psychologist ‘to the letter’.

The final straw was when my daughter confided that going to school made her want to ‘make myself die’. I removed her from school and registered to home school her.

We spent a marvellous year together working from home. I was lucky – I was doing an MA myself, so was able to devote the time and energy necessary to Sorcha. Quickly, I found out that she is a a very independent learner and all she wants to is to be allowed to learn.

Part of the reason that homeschooling was such a success for us is that I knew it was only for a year. I had already secured her a place at the John Scottus School. Very candidly, the school principal cautioned me that there are certain children for whom school is not the answer – that certain children need to be educated outside the formal structure of an establishment. Still, Sorcha had a trial day at the school and loved it.

We were delighted when she started school in September. It’s a 50km round-trip, but its worth it. My daughter’s confidence has increased to the extent that, as one of my neighbours said, ‘it’s like someone has turned a light on inside her’.

Sorcha, however, only goes to school three days a week. For the other two days, she attends The Rye Institute in Maynooth. There, she is tutored – at her own level – in science, maths, English and Spanish. The difference this has made to her is immeasurable. It is a perfect solution. For three days a week, Sorcha is with children her own age, and with whom she can talk about all the things that interest nine year-olds. The other two days of the week, she is working on her novel, reading Shakespeare, learning a new language, working her way through the junior certificate maths curriculum and figuring out how to do things like extract DNA from a cell.

My child is the happiest I have ever seen her. She is receiving a properly rounded education; Her intellect is being stimulated and she has friends of her own age to talk about her love of pugs and recent movies. She is confident and engages with life in a way I never thought possible – full of mischief and joy in equal measure.

Bright, gifted or creative…does it matter?

By Karen McCarthy. Originally published on on 29th August 2010

I was thinking recently about how fast the summer holidays have disappeared and half-dreading half-welcoming the back-to-school rush which is upon us already. That got me thinking, as usual, on whether I should ask to meet my children’s teachers right away in September to explain their learning differences. One (more!) challenge for teachers is identifying gifted learners and distinguishing them from bright high achievers. So how can teachers figure out who is bright and motivated, and who is gifted? And more pertinently, why does it matter?

This useful checklist will help determine bright from gifted learners, but doesn’t help tell us why schools should make the distinction. In fact, in our current educational system, where rote-learning is rewarded with high marks in State Exams, there may be no way to distinguish gifted students from bright students. And where there are likely to be a good cohort of bright children in every school, the same cannot be said of gifted learners who form a much smaller number of the population.

So, who are the bright, high achievers? They are the ones whose school reports read: “a pleasure to teach”. They are motivated, conscientious and hard-working. They fit in well in the school system, present good work, are motivated and committed to getting good results. They do well in exams and leave school with awards and prizes under their belts. They may be sports captains, head boys, head girls or prefects and are often among the most popular members of the student body. They are seen as having much to contribute to their communities. These children still need adults, parents and teachers to support them in continuing to add to their achievements, but as they are adept at working within the system they usually have little difficulty maintaining their high standards. In short, these children are the ones teachers and parents don’t really have to worry about.

What of the gifted learners then? The common myth is that these are the children who “have it all”, the easy path to academic success. Surely if the bright, high achievers have little to trouble them, the same would be true of the gifted learners? Not always so, unfortunately. Of course, it must be said that there are many gifted learners who are consistent and high achievers, who fit happily in the system and thrive as much as do bright hard-working students. Others, however, look at learning from a very different perspective, one that can cause huge conflict and difficulty between student, school and parent. They question, notice inconsistencies and injustices, they go off on tangents, they challenge, they often irritate! At primary school, some may correct the teacher…loudly.

By secondary they may have learned not to do that any more, or may have learned to at least keep it quiet! Some may under-perform in State Exams to the frustration of their parents, teachers and even themselves. They may start to question their abilities when they don’t fit into the exam success box. They may follow their passions which may not “count” in the future points race. They might even question the “point” of the points race before they get to the Leaving Cert! Along the way they may show flashes of brilliance and excellence in certain subjects or areas. They can demonstrate erratic performance in school, from complete mastery to average or mediocre levels, depending on their interest, their teacher or their passions. The creative among them often sing from a completely different hymn-sheet, some may not even see the point of school at all in the pursuit of their dreams. They may have a different vision of their future than the one mapped out by their parents or teachers. They may be right, but the adults in their lives may think they should have a Plan B in the form of formal educational qualifications!

So, why does it matter? Two groups of learners, one for whom the system is a good fit, the other, well, they’ll come into their own at third level. Or will they? Without going down the road of heralding the potential of gifted learners as if they are mere fodder in the pursuit of economic growth and a return to the Celtic Tiger (God forbid!) these young people, as much as any other, do have the potential to make real and significant contributions to our future society. I’m not one who likes to describe gifted children as the future cancer-cure scientists or business and political leaders because I’m uncomfortable with the implication that only gifted children hold this potential. We all know the reality is that children across the intellectual bell-curve can grow into adults just as accomplished as those with the highest IQs.

However, these exceptionally able children, for whom the educational system is an uncomfortable fit, are at risk of having their potential snuffed out by it. Whether their chosen path is at the top of academia, as a carer, a teacher or an accountant, they have a right to fulfill their personal potential. In this, gifted learners are poorly served by the Irish educational system in its current form. The inflexibility of rote-learning, the volume of prescribed material to be covered and the lack of opportunity for creativity, problem-solving or innovation in our exam system greatly reduces the chances that these young people will reach that potential. The risk is that they will be switched off learning by the time they have spent 13 or 14 years within a system that does not accommodate their needs.  The result will be that their career and life-choices may be reduced. And that is why it is important that teachers are able to accurately assess who among their pupils may be gifted as opposed to bright. From there, educators may be able to support the differences in their learning needs.

So, back to whether I should have that chat with my children’s teachers? Truth is, we’re into the first week of school now and I still haven’t decided. I don’t want to be labeled as a pushy parent in the first week of term and I don’t want unreasonable expectations placed on my kids either. On the other hand, nor do I want to short-change them by ignoring the fact that they are seldom challenged by classroom work. Maybe by the time they are heading to college I’ll have an answer to my dilemma. I’ll let you know!