By Dr. Sylvia Bagley.
Greetings, SENG community! As SENG’s newly appointed Education Chair, I was asked to share with you how I came to join this organization and my experiences, more broadly, with gifted education.
I’ll begin by sharing that I am the parent of three gifted kids, and I am a gifted adult. I am also an education professor passionate about ensuring that all children receive the educational opportunities they need and deserve. I approach giftedness from many perspectives and resonate deeply with SENG’s vision of empowering “gifted and talented individuals to reach their goals: intellectually, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually”. This multi-faceted view of giftedness honors the rich needs and challenges members of our community face.
I first learned about SENG when I joined an SMPG parent group back in 2018, an experience that was affirming and transformative on many levels. I’d learned a lot about parenting over the years, but talking with other parents of gifted kids was by far the most validating and helpful approach I’d experienced. I suddenly realized that traditional parenting books – as useful as they were in many ways – simply didn’t account for the unique challenges I was seeing in my own twice-exceptional kids.
I also began exploring what I went through myself as a gifted kid from a new lens of compassion and insight. When I was designated as gifted in first grade, no formal programming was available; instead, I was simply given the next grade’s math book and more advanced reading and writing assignments to work through at my own pace. I quickly developed the (false) belief that I should be able to easily understand anything and everything put in front of me, which eventually led to deep insecurities when material became more challenging. In fourth grade, I started participating in our district’s formal, once-a-week gifted pull-out program, which was a welcome reprieve – but by sixth grade, I was spending most of my schooltime simply finishing my required work as quickly as I could and then burying my head in a novel to get through the day. I had some good friends but was also bullied, cried easily, and struggled with existential angst and various mental health challenges – all of which intensified during adolescence. I was eventually disillusioned enough with formal schooling that I dropped out.
After a few years of being a self-proclaimed “autodidact,” I realized I wanted to return to formal schooling to learn more about what had gone so wrong for me. I started taking classes at a local community college, completed my bachelor’s degree, and earned a multiple subject teaching credential in California. Within a few years of my new teaching career, I was eager to return to school and keep exploring the field of education in more depth – so I earned my M.A. and Ph.D. in the philosophy and history of education. Now, as a university lecturer, I “teach teachers” while overseeing a master’s degree in instructional leadership – work which allows me to engage with schooling from a much more empowered and inclusive stance and to continue to advocate for the type of personalized learning all students deserve.
When I had kids of my own (now ages 9, 11, and 13), I was initially reluctant to think much about their giftedness, given how traumatizing that label had been for me as a child. I didn’t want my kids to experience the same kind of isolation I did, but I also couldn’t ignore their gifted profiles – and I eventually realized that placing them in our district’s HiCap program with accelerated academic experiences would probably help them adjust more easily to the constraints of formalized schooling. So far (knock on wood), things are going reasonably well; they each have unique challenges, but with so many resources now available to parents of gifted kids, I feel well-placed to support them along each step of their journeys.
Speaking of journeys, I’ve come to learn that the circuitous educational path I took myself is actually quite normal. It turns out that “school refusal” is surprisingly common among gifted kids. Indeed, many gifted kids struggle far more than we’re led to believe; as educational consultant Austina de Bonte puts it, “smart is not easy.” She writes, “Whether it’s perfectionism, sensitivity, intensity, existential angst, imposter syndrome, multipotentiality, or more, there’s a lot for gifted kids to manage that goes far beyond academics.” SENG’s very name reflects this reality, from acknowledging the primacy of emotion and affect in our lived experiences to validating that gifted individuals need support to thrive.
Meanwhile, it turns out that twice-exceptionality – that is, experiencing giftedness alongside other learning challenges such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, autism, and/or dyslexia or dysgraphia – is far more common than one might expect. My three kids are all differently twice-exceptional, and success in school doesn’t come automatically to them; they require scaffolding and support far beyond anything I knew was possible when I was a kid and simply expected to excel on my own.
I’ve also learned that gifted kids don’t outgrow “being gifted.” In recent years, I’ve done deep dives into research and support for gifted adults and discovered that I have a Rainforest Mind and am a “multi-potentialite.” Acknowledging my identity as a gifted adult has allowed me to better accept my intensities as “normal” and to seek out a community who can relate to my never-ending quest for knowledge and intellectual stimulation. I started a blog to share my experiences, wonderings, and reviews of books related to twice-exceptionality and giftedness, and I regularly attend SENG’s conferences and mini-conferences. I became trained as an SMPG group facilitator, and co-facilitated my first parent group last spring. As a gifted adult and parent, there is nothing quite so ideal as getting to learn new things while connecting with peers.
Even more important, I’ve come to understand the need to situate my own experiences as a gifted white female within the broader context of persistent racial and socio-economic inequities in gifted education. While I struggled a lot as a kid, I was nonetheless privileged to attend a school where my giftedness was at the very least seen and acknowledged; far too many students don’t experience even this basic validation, let alone the rigorous and personalized schooling opportunities that will allow them to thrive. Indeed, the underrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in gifted classrooms – and our collective failure to ensure they are authentically welcomed and supported each step of the way – remains the most pressing concern facing the gifted community. Unless or until we acknowledge the harm caused by racist and exclusionary practices in under-identifying and underserving gifted kids across racial and linguistic subgroups, we can’t with good conscience advocate on behalf of the work we know still needs to be done for gifted education in K-12 spaces and beyond.
More specifically, we cannot continue to offer gifted services exclusively to those who fit culturally dominant paradigms of giftedness. If we are unable to equitably reach all gifted kids across diverse settings, we are at very real risk of losing gifted education services altogether – and it is students farthest from educational justice who will inevitably suffer the most if this happens. To put it bluntly, parents with resources to send their kids to private schools will do so, leaving behind a public school system that will struggle even more to build and maintain quality services for gifted learners.
The need for reaching under-represented gifted students early in their lives has been especially clear to me during my work as a volunteer instructor for the non-profit organization University Beyond Bars, which serves incarcerated students in Washington state seeking post-secondary degrees. Many of the men I’ve worked with in this program clearly demonstrated a brilliance that had been lost, squashed, or misdirected at some point in their lives; ironically, in their own words, it was by coming to a confined space where they could safely surface their intellectual gifts that they finally began to thrive and map out the education-driven path they wanted to take next.
Obviously, it should not take ending up in prison or other dire life circumstances to offer gifted and underserved students the services they need. So, the question remains: what can we do to disrupt the inequitable systems that continue to fail our gifted students, particularly those most in need of support?
Thankfully, recent research has shown that by shifting to use of local norms to universally identify gifted students, and using culturally responsive practices to serve and support gifted students, we can begin to address the disparities that threaten the viability and perception of our work. I’m especially encouraged and inspired by the recent publication of C. Matthew Fugate et al.’s Culturally Responsive Teaching in Gifted Education: Building Cultural Competence and Serving Diverse Student Populations (2021) – and one of my specific goals as SENG’s Education Chair is to help bring conversation around this text to teachers through our home study course offerings.
Speaking from my parenting hat, I believe guardians of gifted children across diverse socio-economic, racial, and linguistic groups must advocate on behalf of all gifted students – not just their own. While I understand and relate to the need to put one’s own family first, our long-term collective goals as a gifted community will only be met by joining forces and thinking more broadly about what we now know is necessary for gifted kids.
We must present a reasonable, research-based, culturally responsive argument on behalf of gifted services for all those who need them – including a nuanced acknowledgement of how the term “gifted” (while relevant and operationalized in research literature) has been and continues to be misused for exclusionary purposes. We must be able to explain how gifted educational opportunities fit within a vision of equity for all students, and support teachers (and schools more broadly) in making sustainable shifts that meet all students at their unique nexus of talent and need.
We know it makes a profound difference to help each gifted child or adult find their niche and soar: when sufficiently supported and nurtured, gifted individuals are uniquely poised to make the world a better place (yes, we still very much need that!) while serving as crucial support for the next generation of kids.
There is so much more I could say about giftedness, but I’ll end with an invitation to join me in helping to transform SENG’s educational offerings so that we are extending meaningful and ongoing support to teachers, parents, counselors, and gifted individuals across the globe. I’m excited to hear your ideas for how SENG can continue to make a difference, and would love to hear from you: email@example.com
Sylvia S. Bagley, Ph.D., is a gifted adult co-parenting three twice-exceptional kids between the ages of 8-13. Dr. Bagley earned her Bachelor’s degree in Literature and Music from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and her multiple subject teaching credential from California State University at San Marcos. She received her masters and doctorate degrees in the Philosophy and History of Education from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). She is currently director of the Instructional Leadership Masters Specialization in the College of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, and was previously the Fritz Burns Endowed Chair of Instructional Leadership at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on helping teachers and administrators create collaborative, collegial schools where all individuals are supported and nurtured through rigorous, culturally responsive, differentiated instruction. Prior to this, Dr. Bagley was an elementary school teacher, instructional math coach, and teacher’s assistant across grade levels and subjects. Dr. Bagley is a SENG-certified Parent Support Group facilitator, and was a former Board Member of the Northshore School District HiCap Parents Council. She occasionally blogs about being a “rainforest-minded” parent of 2E kids at http://halfofthetruth.org. Her many enthusiasms include volunteering as an educator and advocate for post-secondary educational opportunities in prison settings, and maintaining a blog about 4,300 “must see” classic and cult movies. She and her family reside just outside of Seattle, Washington.