The Ultimate Plan to Help Gifted Education (and Improve Education for All Kids in the Process)
by Kathleen Casper
Gifted education is not going to fix itself. No matter how many gifted people talk to each other about how much their children need different educational experiences, we still cannot move the mountains of politicians and corporations who stand in our way. We can have all the gifted education conferences that we want. We can publish magazine articles and counsel gifted families and teach gifted children and beg our school districts and states to change policies. Sometimes they throw us a bone. But mostly the states and federal people take bones away from education in general these days. Or, if they are giving things to education, usually it is tied in with things like standardized testing, standardized teaching, standardized everything… which we all know do very little to help gifted children in schools.
What would we ask for if we had the support of our state and federal governments for gifted education? Well, the things the gifted support organizations like NAGC and SENG and others ask for — teachers who understand gifted children; flexibility in teaching so that kids with gifted traits can achieve and learn every day, no matter what their skill levels (as all kids deserve); schools that are able to work with families to support gifted kids with social and emotional needs; time for students to explore and invent and create; socialization opportunities for gifted children to find peers (be it other children of all ages, or adult mentors); to have gifted education recognized and students identified well and supported on a daily basis with activities that enhance their strengths and build up areas of weakness.
How do we get to these goals when education in general is moving away from flexibility and individualized learning and towards standardized testing and standardized curriculum and “standards” that do not support thinking outside of the box? How do we help those who hold the funding and the rule-making roles in our education society to break away from misunderstandings and to move forward in ways that are healthier for children and that help kids enjoy learning so that cramming their heads full of facts to be tested on is only one little piece of the bigger puzzle of education?
Here are some ideas of where we can start:
Educate gifted children about giftedness. It amazes me how many adults grow up never truly understanding what makes them so different from other people…how many gifted adults never even knew what gifted was, or that they were gifted themselves. Many gifted education programs identify gifted children and group them in classes but never actually teach them about the social-emotional traits that they possess, that can make life easier for them, or harder, depending on how well they are supported or how well they understand and embrace and work with those traits themselves.
There are multiple books on gifted traits. Many are written for parents and teachers, but parts can be used with children of all ages. Read them and then share them with your children as parents and as teachers. If gifted children understand the reasons their minds react in different ways than how their friends may be reacting, or the traits they have that make them more intensely interested in some things than in others, they are more likely to speak up and request support for their needs than if they feel like they are just “odd” and try to fit in or dwell on the things as if they are negative traits.
So many gifted children get lost in the shuffle because they try to blend in or because they do not raise the red flags that other students wave when they need assistance. The high intellect that gifted children have makes them smart enough to evaluate whether it’s even safe for them to talk about their gifted traits. They can tell who is going to be receptive and who will make fun of them or use the information later to harm them, even if the harming is not intentional. Gifted children need to know about their strengths and about their weaknesses so they can work on their weaknesses while buoyed by their interest areas and strengths.
It is hard for gifted children to acknowledge weaknesses, but when they realize they have the power to overcome those weaknesses with hard work they can get through the tough spots. That brings us to the issue that gifted children are often not taught to struggle, as academic skills usually come easy to them at first while other kids are catching up with what they already come to school ready to do. So if they are not taught about the need for learning to struggle, when they hit their first hard project or concept they are likely to shut down and begin to slip academically behind academically other students because they are afraid to fail or because they do not want to have to work very hard. By teaching gifted children about their gifted traits and recognizing the tendency to rely on things being “easy,” we can help gifted students achieve when the going gets tough.
When gifted children know more about giftedness and can effectively communicate about giftedness, they become our best spokespeople for gifted education. By teaching gifted students to ask for things they need and then who to go to for help when they aren’t successful at getting the support they require, we give the whole field of gifted education examples in the world on a daily basis. Teach the kids who they are and what they need to do to strengthen their own abilities and make them their own best advocates early. Lead by example by being your own best advocate and show them that they will use self-advocacy throughout their lives. Give them tons of hugs and as much support as you can, because being a gifted kid is hard and until the education system changes to support them better, they will need as much love and support as they can get from us at home.
Educate gifted parents. Wouldn’t it be great if as soon as gifted traits are identified in children, their parents were given a resource list and access to parent groups so they were surrounded with support? Some schools provide information to families about gifted characteristics and needs when they identify students, but not every school does. And many doctors and other care providers are not equipped with enough resources themselves to adequately support parents of gifted children. In order to help parents help their children and the teachers and administrators who work with their children, the parents themselves need more knowledge.
Many parents do not even know enough about giftedness to know that their child is different than other children. This happens a lot when raising young kids. As new parents, we tend to think since we have never parented before, that maybe we just don’t know how to deal with the unique needs of our own children, when really our kids are different from others and may need additional support throughout their educational lives. Often, we don’t always know to ask for it. If we are not prepared to advocate for support for our gifted children early and often then our children lose ground quickly and the schools are not always going to catch on and step in like we would hope they would. Gifted children are sometimes lost in the shuffle and parents are the ones who can call the attention of the schools to the needs of their child better than anyone.
We need to find new parents and mention giftedness when we hear about things their little children are doing that sound like gifted traits. We need to reach out in parenting organizations and in parenting publications and blogs and mention gifted support resources, both locally and nationally. If there are events going on in your community such as trainings for gifted education or speakers that parents can attend, or just gifted issues that are affecting students in general, ask the local newspaper reporters to cover these events and issues so that giftedness is not a foreign word to your neighbors. When you visit your children’s doctors talk about gifted issues, when you see the dentist, talk about gifted issues, and ask them if you can leave articles or other resource lists for them to share with other parents.
Don’t forget the local foster care agencies and other organizations working with families who are traditionally left out of the information exchange. We have so many gifted children who are underserved by gifted education programs in the schools because their parents have no idea the programs even exist. The parents often don’t realize they need to be advocating for their child because the teachers and administrators do not understand gifted traits themselves.
We need to help other parents know what they can ask for and where to go for help We need to continue to educate ourselves so we can stand strong when we ask others to support our children.
Educate teachers and administrators in schools about gifted children. Even teacher preparation programs spend very little time on the topics of giftedness when they are training the next generation of teachers. But those who were trained years ago were given little if any training at all on giftedness. Many of the teachers and administrators that children encounter in the school systems now have no idea how to really identify gifted children and are stuck on misunderstandings and stereotypes and biases that have no basis in real gifted education theory or research.
Several states do not require gifted education endorsements for teachers who work with gifted children, and the states that do require the endorsements often leave out the educators who work in general education classes. Ironically, they are the very ones we have to rely on to identify and refer the students in the first place in many school districts. We need to reach out to more educators, but we are competing with so many other important issues right now, especially in light of the push for lower achieving students to pass standardized tests.
But this is exactly where we need to be coming in and educating the teachers and administrators about what gifted children look like, because often gifted children are often underachieving too. Sometimes the behavioral issues that slow student progress down have a lot to do with gifted traits- gifted children often misbehave or refuse to work for teachers who do not understand them, or when their abilities are under-estimated due to misidentification, or when their need for complexity is not fulfilled and they find it is much more interesting to get a rise out of the teacher or their other classmates than do the work. Many gifted children have social emotional issues due to being misplaced in classes that do not have other gifted peers in them, or because they need additional support to communicate with children who are not on the same thought waves as they are. Gifted students with a strong sense of right or wrong or emotional intensities may be so wrapped up in needing help resolving social and emotional issues that they cannot effectively concentrate on academic skill building in a classroom without further support.
The more we help teachers understand gifted students, the more time and energy they can devote to the other students in the class when our children are effectively engaged in true learning opportunities that stretch their minds.
So how can we help? We need to reach out to districts and request that they provide their teachers with resources and educational opportunities and offer ourselves as a way for them to receive these support systems. We need to ask our local teacher colleges if they are focusing on gifted education issues and ask student teachers to advocate for more gifted education in their programs. We should talk with parent teacher associations and school board members. A good place to start may be taking individuals out to coffee to talk with them about our children’s individual needs and then slip them a few articles to help them understand the need for supporting other kids like ours. We can work with other gifted organizations like state gifted associations and national organizations to bring in trainings for the community and then make sure we market the event very heavily to teachers with flyers, emails, whatever works!
If we are already on the outside of the district’s network, perhaps because we’ve hit their last nerve with trying to reach out to them, we need to find other local allies who have positive relationships with the people who lead our schools and inform them, so they can go forward for us. We do not always have to be the spokespeople or the face of gifted education in our communities if we are not as effective as another person may be. Knowing when to take a back seat and work from the sidelines is a very important advocacy skill.
We can bring in gifted speakers such as book authors and researchers to speak to community groups and invite important school personnel to attend with us as our guests. Keep in mind that sometimes the secretaries and the custodians are just as important to network with as the principals and teachers and school board members because they also interact with the kids every day and can influence the way the children are treated in the schools on a daily basis too. The more we flood the schools with gifted education in positive ways, the more likely teachers and administrators will be open and receptive to hearing the messages. If they can take ownership, the changes are much more likely to take place than if we try to force it.
Educate others outside of the education systems about giftedness. It isn’t sufficient to talk only with those inside the system in order to make permanent changes. Unless our communities also understand the realities of giftedness rather than believing the stereotypes (such as “every child is gifted,” or “gifted children are top performers,” or “gifted children don’t need as much support as lower level students”) then we are never going to gain any real ground. And it isn’t really just the politicians who need to hear the messaging because politicians come and go based on the voting public. If we have community members who believe all children should learn every day, rather than just focus on those with lower intellect or abilities, then they will support gifted children in all their walks of life. Gifted children in sports teams will be better understood and supported; gifted children at their doctors’ appointments will be better served and families will be treated better (and misdiagnoses based on gifted traits will be limited); and gifted children at the local parks and libraries will have better interactions with other children and adults.
Imagine back before people understood Downs Syndrome as well, or understood Asperger’s even as much as we do now (which is still a developing area of understanding even now,) people did not know how to interact with children who had these characteristics and often those children were excluded and treated poorly by the public. With increased education of our national population we can see an increase in understanding these children and that has created a more welcome environment for children with issues such as these. Imagine how much education could help others to understand our gifted children in society.
But even more importantly, it is our communities who elect and place our leaders who make decisions about education. And those leaders often come from within our neighborhoods and our local businesses and nonprofit organizations. If we start by educating others in general, then we grow our army of soldiers who are willing to argue for stronger supports for gifted children in our schools.
If we inform them about the underserved ethnic and cultural populations then we can impact the support for multicultural gifted programs and create advocates who are willing to refer kids in local sports clubs and afterschool care programs for gifted support in their schools. We can change the way whole communities think about children by helping them understand that underperforming kids could be much smarter than they ever imagined but their abilities are untapped. We can help bring communities together by showing advocates for groups of kids what we have in common with them rather than the differences that stereotypical views of giftedness usually emphasize. We can help special education advocates understand twice exceptional (2e) kids, and help promote culturally aware education policies.
There are so many ways we can impact the way the wind blows in education by merely educating the masses and then asking them to help with this journey too. It will likely surprise you how many people will use the information that you gave them when they are discussing education with other people in the future. This information is like wild fire- spread it everywhere you go.
Encourage gifted children to be advocates. Gifted children have so much intellect that many politicians could only dream of having, that they can focus on changing the world if they only knew how to use their intellect to effectuate change.
This is not a dig on politicians, because there are many brilliant politicians out there. But many gifted adults shy away from getting involved in politics for multiple reasons- some of them are naturally introverts who do not enjoy being in the limelight; some of them have other interests and never really cared much about politics in general; and some of them (I would argue, many of them,) never got involved in politics at young ages so they grew up believing politics and politicians were just not accessible or that politics in general did not make sense because civics was not stressed in school and their families weren’t involved so they never got involved either.
“Getting involved” in politics may not have been explained well to this latter lot of individuals- perhaps they believed that to be involved you had to run for office, or work at the Capitol, or donate tons of money. Maybe they felt that politicians did not do things the way they should do things, so they wrote politics off as being a negative thing. But if gifted children are taught early that getting involved is a positive thing… that their voices mean something… that they can bring change in multiple ways and influence others with their knowledge… then perhaps gifted children can grow up to be strong advocates for education and other things that influence the lives of gifted children and adults, and eventually our world would shift in a more supportive direction for the goals of gifted advocacy in general.
So how do we encourage this? By helping all students realize their worth in their communities- connecting them to organizations, local leaders of all types, and providing them with knowledge of the processes and the interactions that bring forth decisions that impact everyone on a day to day basis.
We need to teach them civic, economics, and history of the world the United States. We need to teach effective communication by helping our children build strong vocabularies and make effective word choices. We need to teach them to engage in debate supported by speech-writing and presentation skills and effective letter composition. Reading comprehension is crucial not only to understanding innuendo and literal expression, but to formulating effective and reasoned responses.
We ought to teach them to look at governmental decisions across history and evaluate them based on their own moral codes and society’s ethics and the goals of their regions and their neighborhoods and the country as a whole.
We can connect them with leaders who will welcome their voices in discussions by bringing in speakers to talk with classes of children and bring lessons to them from real life, to discuss current events that impact their own lives and interest them- to help them craft letters to ask politicians to change things to help their families or improve their playgrounds or their families’ transportation options.
We need to bring them to the places where decisions happen, both in the bigger governmental picture; i.e., courtrooms and legislative chambers and city council meetings and parks district meetings, as well as in the smaller, more detailed picture; i.e., nonprofit board meetings, neighborhood council events, meetings with school administrators and PTAs, and other groups of people who care.
We have to show children how to contribute and get involved in issues they care about so that they feel like they have an impact as youngsters. By doing this, they can put their gifted intensities to work on things that help others and make things better for themselves and those they care about. When they have questions or doubts, we need to show them where to go to learn more and adjust their sails and move forward even through hardships. Because struggling for something that is bigger than just a classroom assignment is often much more worthwhile and larger life lessons come out of those moments than anything teachers can create in a text book.
Once we teach them how to harness their knowledge from history and the skills they need to interact effectively with others in society, they are like arrows going forward into society, finely tuned to create change and create other leaders along their path by infecting them with their excitement and passion for their causes.
Imagine how much more effective we could be as education advocates if our children knew even more than we did about the topics we are interested in fixing, how much more powerful the masses would be if they understood how their actions can be used to effectuate change for the better. Think about how many negative gifted traits such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, etc. can be turned around by teaching children how they can use their talents and natural desires to make a difference, to be heard by people they otherwise may never believe would listen to them, and to help them actually give back in ways that can change things for so many others.
This is a work in progress. Some teachers are already pushing forward in these areas. There are multiple places you can go to get information about educating children, parents, community members, advocates and others on gifted education needs and gifted characteristics. Start with reaching out to your local schools and ask them about the resources they have. If they don’t have resources or only have limited resources, send them more information as you find it and become a team in your search to improve access to resources for their staff. Look online for local advocacy groups and parent support groups. Check the SENG and NAGC resource lists and libraries. Look at websites like Hoagies that list multiple sources. Get involved with parent organizations like gifted home school groups and parenting gifted children groups that have blogs and Facebook pages and keep up on local research and education opportunities by attending state and national gifted education conferences- parents are often welcome and appreciated at those events.
As individuals we are only as strong as our arms can reach and our voices can be heard, but by reaching out to others who share our concerns for education in general, we are much stronger. Use the networks you have and create new ones as you go and together perhaps we can see education change to better serve all children by leading with our example of asking the schools to differentiate, to understand every child better, and to help every child learn, every day. Thank you for all that you do for these kids, and all that we will do for them as we continue down this path together.