Advisory Programs: Improving the Social-Emotional Needs of Gifted Students

By Joanna Simpson and Kelly Bragg.

As two educators who have worked in an inner-city high school with nearly three decades of combined experience, we’ve seen quite a few curricular programs come and go. We’ve seen several programs help our struggling students. Read 180 was tested to see if it would assist struggling readers and ELL students. The Cambridge Curriculum was adopted to see if it would aid our general education students. Writing labs and tutoring centers were opened for our students who needed some additional help. The population that was often left to fend on its own, however, was the gifted population. It was wrongfully assumed that this population would succeed just fine without intervention. Gifted = self-sufficient, right?

In a faculty of more than 200, there were two teachers at this school in the inner-city that had gone back to school and completed the necessary steps to get a gifted endorsement (12 credit hours on gifted education from an accredited university and two plus years of verifiable direct work with gifted students). One of those teachers taught the enrichment course that was an elective for all students but was written for gifted students. The other gifted endorsed teacher acted as the gifted facilitator, which meant she was the liaison between the school and the district and was primarily responsible for testing and labeling gifted teens. That was the extent of the gifted expertise on this particular campus of 5,000 students, with about 150 gifted teens. Both teachers advocated for the gifted population by hosting parent nights, offering professional development, and trying to filter in as many gifted kids as possible into the enrichment course where they would have individual time with those students. However, to change the perception that these kids were self-sufficient, there needed to be a change in philosophy of the faculty. That change would only come with the faculty building personal relationships with these kids.

Some common questions emerged on this campus: How could we inspire those kids who were meeting all the standards to exceed them? What could we do to help our students who seemed so self-sufficient reach their true potential? At the same time, one educator, who did not have any training in gifted education, saw a connection between the testing data and the personal relationship that teachers needed to have with their students. Students who had made this personal connection with an educator on campus—one who understood their needs and coached them—consistently exceeded the expectations of their teachers. She wanted to increase this personal connection with all students, regardless of their label. It was at this point that this teacher decided to start an advisory program.

Advisory Programs

Advisory programs have been in place in secondary schools for decades. In 1989, Simmons and Kiarich1 indicated that Advisory programs had a positive effect on school climate, particularly related to an increase of belonging and security. Since this research, advisory programs have been cemented in secondary education as a way for students to learn to work together and develop a caring school environment. This was it! This was the way to establish that personal connection. Research has proven the success of advisory programs in both high and low socioeconomic status schools, as well as schools in the inner city, the suburbs, and rural areas. With this program being so adaptable, what benefit might it add to the gifted population?

Advisory programs are often offered for one class period a day and act as a homeroom for the students. The curriculum is tailored to the population but can offer teachings on character education, relationship building, curricular enrichment and productive citizenship. The purpose of the Advisory program is to build relationships and to continue those relationships throughout a student’s time in high school. The principal drive behind advisories is to create a custom-made environment for learning and encouragement provided by a significant adult figure.2 An advisory program offers the opportunity and time for teachers and students to develop a relationship that gives students the support they need and improves achievement on all levels of emotional, social and cognitive development. Each year, the student returns to the same advisory, further building on the relationship with the teacher and peers in that course.

Advisory and Gifted

For our gifted population, that meant gifted students would now be in a position to connect with educators that didn’t know much about the gifted label and would have the opportunity to know them on a personal basis. The advisors (teachers) were able to tailor the curriculum to those specific 30 students. As such, advisory became an opportunity to combat some of the negative behaviors that affect the socioemotional side of being gifted3 – behaviors that many teachers had little experience with. Those students, once thought to be self-sufficient, were exhibiting certain socioemotional characteristics such as perfectionism, lack of self-confidence, difficulty forming relationships, disorganization, isolation, and narcissism.4 Advisory teachers, and other students, were now developing relationships with these gifted teens and were witnessing these difficulties.

Beane and Lipka (1987)5 indicate the advisory programs could help adolescents deal with relationships with peers and aid in their socioemotional development. This was proving to be true for those 150 gifted students. Suddenly, teachers were approaching the gifted endorsed faculty with questions about how to help their students. What kinds of coping strategies could they teach that might combat perfectionism? How could they help their students deal with overexcitability? Teachers who were not gifted endorsed and had no formal training in gifted education were reading journal articles and blogs on what could be done to help these students. There was an awakening that was the philosophical change the gifted teachers knew needed to occur, and it was all started by the third teacher who wanted to connect with her students.

A Need for Relationships

In secondary education, the socioemotional support that an advisory program may offer is often sorely lacking for gifted students. No longer are these adolescents a part of a pullout program, and rarely are gifted students participating in a curricular option that allows for their specific socioemotional needs to be met.6 There are courses to meet their academic and creative needs, from advanced courses to competition courses and courses in the arts. However, which of those courses meet the gifted students’ socioemotional need to belong? Their need to develop positive relationships with both adults and peers? Where are they learning to cope with some of the socioemotional effects of being gifted?