A friend of mine called me up a while ago and said “the principal at my daughter’s school just told me that she’s gifted. What does that mean?”
I remember a similar experience with my eldest. In my case, a permission slip came home for my daughter to attend “in school challenge class” one afternoon per week. I searched the District website for “challenge” and was taken to a “gifted” education page. Did this mean my child was being labeled as gifted? And the same question came to mind – what does that mean? And what do I do next?
In hindsight, the term “challenge” is pretty darned appropriate!
Now, I’ve had seven years of the challenges and joys of learning to understand and advocate for my gifted kids within our public school system – two of them are officially “labelled” and the third is on his way there. My middle child is “twice exceptional” – meaning he is both gifted and learning disabled. I’ve come to understand that I’m also a gifted learner. So is my kids’ dad. And so are my brothers. And many of my friends. And their kids. Hmmm… We’re not such rare creatures, it seems…
What have I learned about understanding and supporting gifted learners?
Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist, nor do I lay any claim to formal training in the identification of gifted learners. I’ve learned through experience and necessity – to be able to understand, parent and advocate for my children. Hard won wisdom, that I share openly. Please feel free to disagree and comment – that’s how we all learn!
I’ve learned that there are many misconceptions about the gifted learner, including:
- being labeled as gifted is desirable, an honour, prestigious;
- gifted means special;
- gifted learners are all high achievers/performers;
- learning is easy for these kids;
- gifted learners are smart in every way, good at everything;
- the worst that happens to gifted learners is that they’re bored in school;
- all that gifted learners need is more (of the same kind of work);
- gifted learners will be “fine” even with no supports.
The biggest truth I’ve learned is that there’s a reason why “gifted education” is a part of special education – because these kids learn significantly differently from the “normal” range of learning addressed within a classroom, and this difference can result in what looks like a problem (learning difficulties, behaviour issues, poor self image, problems making friends, bullying, defiance, etc…) Learning is not a spectrum where we range from “learning disabled” to “normal” to “gifted” along a linear path, and can give less or more of the same kind of learning/support to all kids. Our “special needs” learners (including gifted) need different kinds of learning/teaching/assessment in order to be successful.
I’ve learned that the “labels” used in education should be seen as simply a kind of systemic shorthand for a cluster of traits/tendencies/needs that often occur together and respond well to a common set of strategies and supports. That being said, this shorthand should never be assumed to be absolute or the same for each child – it’s merely a starting point for further understanding. Each child is unique and we still need to make the effort to get to know them as individuals, even when they come “pre-packaged” with a label. In other words, you can say “oh, this child is a gifted learner (which means this cluster of possible traits). Now, what unique combination thereof does THIS child possess/exhibit?
I’ve read and researched (and lived) a lot about gifted learners. I’m determined to raise my children (with all their gifts and challenges!) as whole, healthy human beings – and that takes work! And yes, how I have to parent is different than how most people around me have to parent. That’s for one key reason: gifted children are AWARE of so much, at unexpectedly young ages! My kids are aware of and internalize my frustration or stress – they think they’ve done something wrong, they try to figure out what that is or how to fix it, and they form their sense of self based on the reactions of the people around them (particularly the adults).
Understanding gifted learners and consciously acknowledging/addressing their needs on a daily basis is not only a matter of helping them to learn and achieve their academic potential, it’s absolutely critical to their fundamental view of themselves (I guess you might call that their “identity”). Gifted children are particularly vulnerable to depression. Why? Because expecting them to be like “normal” children gives them the continual message that there’s something “wrong” with them.
Therefore, the first step is to understand! And the traits that consistently arise and stand out for me are:
Gifted learners are intense. About everything!
The chief complaint directed toward the gifted is that they think, do, say, imagine, or emote “too much.”
– Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, from “The Gifted Adult”
I distinctly remember realizing that my eldest was “different” from other kids around her when she would have meltdowns about (what appeared to be) the silliest little things. Words like “drama queen” came to mind! And one of the first things I had to do was learn to ignore the “looks” from other parents (like they wanted to say “what’s the MATTER with her??”)
A gifted learner “reacts more strongly than normal for a longer period than normal to a stimulus that may be very small. It involves not just psychological factors but central nervous system sensitivity.”
– Stephanie Tolan
This statement resonates deeply with me! It’s easy to look at gifted learners and think “Quit making such a big deal about everything!” Honestly, the drama is exhausting! But, as the statement above points out, they’re not “making” a big deal about everything – they truly feel things that deeply and intensely. It’s a physiological difference!
Treating gifted learners as if they “shouldn’t” be so intense, and the resulting internalization and shame, does enormous and long lasting damage. But that’s another post to be written…
What I’ve learned is that gifted learners are intense in more ways than one – it’s not just their emotional reactions. Dabrowski described five realms of “over-excitability” – ways in which we may see this intensity manifest itself (these points adapted from Stephanie Tolan’s post “Dabrowski’s Over-Excitabilities: A layman’s explanation”):
- Psychomotor: This means the person needs to move a lot. In my experience, this is needed to disperse excess energy generated (could be emotional energy, excitement, anxiety, etc…) Might mean they find it difficult to calm down their minds to fall asleep. They might pace while thinking or walk while reading. They tend to talk fast and/or loudly, they move a lot, may also include nervous ticks.
- Sensual: All senses are heightened – lights are too bright, sounds are too loud, a touch feels like a punch, bad smells make them feel like vomiting, they love or hate every food. I’ve noticed some kids love this and can’t get enough (want intensity), others find it overwhelming. That may have to do with whether the child is also an introvert or extrovert – which would change how they react to stimuli.
- Imaginational: My son’s teacher once said “I can remove all distractions and move him to a space all by himself and he’ll still be distracted by the ideas in his own head!” This over-excitability refers to the tendency to dream, imagine, create, build, come up with unique solutions or ideas, think out of the box. Often seen as “space cadets” or disruptive (off beat comments, quirky, etc…)
- Intellectual: I see this as how the stereotypical gifted learner looks – insatiable curiosity that drives the child to excel and advance quickly through academic levels (Doogie Howser MD, child prodigies). Loves puzzles, big questions, complexity, learning, reading. Often manifests as very focused (and unexpected) areas of expertise (for example, my daughter can talk for hours about Greek mythology).
- Emotional: Oh, the drama! This refers to not only the depth of emotion, but also the range of emotions expressed. It is the end of the world or the best day ever! Also a need for deep connections with others – people, animals, imaginary friends, stuffed animals.
I find this model helps to explain a lot about gifted children’s behaviours and needs, though it’s important to remember that not every child will show all over-excitabilities to the same degree.
This model fits the wide variety of gifted kids, when you consider which of these over-excitabilities each child “leads” with – which one is an individual’s central driver. For example, a child whose core or strongest over-excitability is emotional needs social-emotional security before being able to perform academically or express his/her ideas. Whereas, a child who leads from the intellectual over-excitability thrives when he/she can ask questions and delve into complex learning situations (which in turn, builds confidence that helps him/her deal with peer relationships in healthier ways).
Meeting each child’s needs is equally necessary for their healthy development and growth, but how to meet those needs can be very different!
More information about Dabrowski’s Over-Excitabilities: http://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/overexcitability-and-the-gifted
Gifted learners make frequent and often unusual connections. I consider it heightened creativity – that ability to see how things relate or are similar, as if life were just a big huge exercise in “compare and contrast.” A conversation with a gifted learner often moves quickly and changes topics frequently, as they think of questions or make connections between seemingly dissimilar topics. It’s not unusual to get strange looks from others, like “where did that come from??”
This can also show up as a quirky sense of humour or as unusual observations about the world/people/situations.
Gifted learners see complexity – sometimes enjoy it, sometimes need it, sometimes just can’t help but pursue it! Trying to “make” gifted learners focus on one topic can be a frustrating experience (for everyone involved) – to the gifted child, they ARE focusing on one topic because they can see how things are related! But to others, it looks like they’re randomly jumping all over the place!
This may also look like an inability to focus, attention difficulties or a tendency to start too many things at once. Particularly for introverted gifted learners, this ability to see ALL possibilities can become overwhelming or result in paralysis (not knowing WHICH path to pursue).
Rote tasks are often difficult, if not even painful, to complete – mostly because they seem so pointless. Why complete a whole page of math questions when you understood the concept the first time? Why in the world would you want to complete a word search for science vocabulary when what you really want to do is talk about these words/concepts in more depth? There is an important balance needed to honour a gifted child’s learning needs/desires and to also help them learn strategies for completing the sometimes necessary (but more mundane) details of life. It’s important to remember that time and maturity are required to develop the self-awareness and focus needed for the second part.
Heightened Sense of Justice
Usually, when I say this to parents of gifted kids, I get hoots of recognition and rapid head nodding! Although these kids are capable of embracing all of this complexity and making creative leaps, when it comes to what’s “fair” or “right” – they are VERY black and white!
They will argue into the ground about what they believe is “fair” or “equal.” The difference between those two (i.e. that fair doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same – but that everyone gets what they need) has been a continuous conversation in my house and I make a point of reminding them of the complexity of life and social justice.
This tendency often shows up as a great dedication to making a difference in the world, since their intensity combines with their ability to understand the consequences of poverty, pollution, violence, animal cruelty, etc… I often see gifted learners joining student leadership or groups like Me to We, in order to help others.
This can also look like “bossy” behaviour and result in social challenges with their peers. Since they see (so obviously!) what should be done or needs to be done, they will often jump in and start telling everyone what to do (or how others are doing everything wrong!) The resulting backlash from their peers results in (or contributes to) gifted students being excluded or not “fitting in.” It takes patience, growing maturity and lots of coaching to help gifted learners temper such bossiness into valuable leadership. Again, conversations about complexity, other perspectives, history, etc… are required to help them value their passion and drive, yet turn it into positive and healthy directions.
Gifted children are highly likely to notice and point out hypocrisy or inconsistencies, so they can be our greatest guides on our journeys as parents or teachers, if we let them! It took a very concerted effort on my part not to get defensive when my kids pointed out “but Mom, you’re doing exactly what you told us NOT to…” – but it has been the most valuable learning opportunity for all of us (since my kids are learning to welcome feedback, by my example)!
High Standards, Drive, Perfectionism
I often have to remind myself “hold on, he/she (a gifted learner) is still only a child…” Because these kids are so capable and mature in some ways, it’s easy to expect them to be that mature in all ways. No matter how advanced their capabilities or knowledge is in some realms, they are still children who need support in other ways – particularly in areas like dealing with their (intense) emotional reactions, handling frustration, or understanding relationships and different perspectives/capabilities.
However, because they are so capable of understanding, gifted children tend to have very high standards for themselves and others. I have often seen young gifted children express frustration that they “did all the right things” (i.e. used their words, offered alternatives, used negotiation techniques, etc…) and yet the other child wouldn’t listen or cooperate!
These high standards can result in an intense focus and drive to figure something out or learn something in depth. This drive results in high performance and amazing work, when gifted learners are encouraged and allowed to pursue their interests and passions. This drive rarely results in students who perform highly on tasks/learning that don’t make sense or interest them, though. One teacher said of my child “I could make molasses flow uphill easier than I could get your child to do something he/she doesn’t want to do!”
I’m not saying that gifted learners should always be allowed to learn only what they want. I am saying, however, that it’s extremely important to get to know these kids, understand their interests/passions and to take the time to explain the logic behind a request, not just expect them to follow instructions. It’s critical for gifted learners to be allowed to ask questions and understand the “why” of what they’re asked to do. Really, (like many special needs strategies) this is good practice for ALL kids – but it’s an absolute necessity for gifted learners.
Perhaps because of the expectations that adults and/or peers put on them (i.e. You’re smart – you should be able to do that…), or due to their own high standards, gifted children can become paralyzed by perfectionism. It’s common for these learners to have assignments 90% done, but not hand them in since they don’t think they’re perfect yet. One of my daughter’s teachers would “dare” her to allow herself to make mistakes or to hand in a “good enough” assignment.
Gifted learners (both children and adults) often find it easy to “over” intellectualize or over-think things. Much frustration arises from the acute awareness that you understand something, but haven’t put that into action for some reason.
Many gifted programs use some sort of intelligence test to screen for (and help identify) gifted learners. In my school district, every Grade 2 or 3 student takes the CTCS (Canadian Test of Cognitive Skills) as an initial screener, followed by individual gifted checklists completed by the teachers (to look for gifted traits) for those students scoring in the top percentiles on the screener. (Note: the BC Ministry of Education guidelines also allow for both self and parent nominations.)
I believe it’s important to dispel the myth that gifted learners are all high performers – they often aren’t the students who get the top marks in class. And there are important differences between “bright” and “gifted” students. Bright students perform well in our current school system – they often work hard and get high marks. Gifted students have high intellectual capability, but also have a “cluster” of traits that puts them at social-emotional and/or academic risk in a “normal” classroom environment.
So, intelligence is certainly a part of gifted identification. But what I notice is their ability to quickly learn and understand new concepts. I once heard intelligence described in terms of “hooks” – that when you can understand how something new is related or similar to something you already understand, then you can use that “hook” to learn the new thing faster. And the better you are at using these hooks, the more intelligent you are.
In this sense, a gifted learner’s creativity and ability to “see” connections helps them use “hooks” constantly. Usually, you only have to explain concepts to gifted learners once. They have a capacity to understand concepts at a shocking rate – though they still need time and practice to put those concepts into practice and to achieve mastery (or translate “knowing” into “doing”).
I actually look for opportunities to allow my gifted children to experience frustration and coach them through. Whether that is learning something new, frustration over a homework assignment, or providing games (like Rush Hour). My kids’ favourite playdate ever was when I gave them (and their friends) some old computers to take apart – they worked for hours and I can’t tell you how often they thought they couldn’t do it! But they did! Because so many things come so easily to these kids, it’s important for them to learn and practice persistence.
It’s very important to remember, though, that gifted learners aren’t always equally capable in all areas. This “relative” difference in capability can appear as a source of frustration, a learning difficulty, or a learning disability – depending on the severity of the gap. The highly visual-spatial thinker who struggles with reading/writing is one common profile. Or learners who are highly capable with math reasoning and complex problems, but struggle to remember the basic math facts (times tables, addition tables, etc…)
Areas of Unexpected High Performance or Capability
Gifted learners consistently surprise you with their insight, vocabulary and/or knowledge, considering their age. Sometimes it’s an unusually insightful observation, showing an understanding of relationships or concepts that you didn’t expect. Or it can also be areas of expertise: a common one is early (self taught) reading or advanced math expertise. But it can also be a deep understanding of any area of passion: the 3 year old I met who could list and describe dinosaurs, by period; the 5 year old who loves identifying patterns and recognizes literary patterns, visual patterns, speech patterns, etc; the 11 year old at the Science Fair who wanted to be a pilot and could describe the aerodynamics of various types of aircraft in detail!
The irony is that gifted students may show poor performance in school and, therefore, not “look” like the stereotypical gifted learner. In my opinion, these are the kids we need to reach the most – because their self perceived “failure” in school can have deep and long lasting effects. It can result in low self esteem and low performance throughout life. Or schools see behaviour and social/emotional issues: problems with peers, acting out, intense emotional outbursts, bullying, being bullied, etc… But then you talk with parents or family, and they can describe the child’s intense interest and self-taught understanding in out-of-school situations.
My middle son couldn’t read in Grade 3, yet could take anything apart, figure out how it worked, and put it back together. As we recognized his high visual-spatial ability and applied that to helping him learn to read (less sounding words out, more high-frequency visual recognition of words), he rapidly came up to (and passed) grade level.
My eldest couldn’t think of anything for her science fair project at school. Yet at the same time, wanted a puppy and produced an in depth analysis and report for me that detailed which breeds were child-friendly, had the least health problems, had temperaments best suited to city living, etc… She set the criteria and then delved into areas like genetics, veterinary costs, and much more.
So, what does this all mean? As I mentioned at the beginning, our first step is to understand. Gifted learners are some combination of these traits and abilities, in my experience. But what unique combination is each student (if you’re a teacher) or child (whether you’re a teacher or a parent)? And where is this child struggling or needing support?
Our gifted learners can do amazing things, contributing enormously to our classrooms, families and communities! Our world needs these creative, intense, driven young learners to be self aware, supported and active. Their potential must not be lost!
Is that a bit dramatic? Perhaps. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t have simple, straightforward problems in this world of ours – we have complex, difficult and world shaking issues we need to deal with. And we can’t afford to lose ANY of our leaders, thinkers and contributors!
Please, add your thoughts and comments below!
There are lots of websites, blog posts, books, etc.. that discuss gifted learners. Some that have resonated with me (and greatly informed my understanding of myself and my children) are:
(NOTE: click on each image to get more info or to go to the site)