The Search for Shangri-La: Finding the Appropriate Educational Environment for Gifted & 2E Children

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

By Dr. Michael Postma.

They laughed, they cried, they clapped, sang, and danced in the aisles. Well, sort of. There certainly were some tears and a standing ovation. What, pray tell, am I talking about? The encore of an outstanding concert? The premiere of a particularly moving movie picture? The closing speech at a political convention? No, I am referring to a regular Public School Board meeting in Minnetonka Minnesota in the spring of 2009. A School Board Meeting? Really?

Yes. This particular meeting, a special information session, was designed to allow parents of the newly constructed Minnetonka Navigator Program, a specialized magnet school for students with high intellectual potential (including twice-exceptional students) to voice their questions and concerns after its inaugural year as a ‘school within a school’ Program to meet the needs of students with extreme intellectual, social, and emotional needs. As the principle designer and director of the Program, I along with my two colleagues, teachers Ms. Sandy Katkov and Mrs. Alison Alowonle (we started with just two classrooms) sat for almost two hours listening to the parent body expressing their gratification for the opportunity to finally see their children thrive within an educational environment. It almost seemed that they had collectively won the lottery and while there may not have been singing and dancing there certainly was much laughter, applause, and a not a few tears shed.

So, why does this matter? What was so significant about this scene? Well, it matters because scenes like the one described above have become far too infrequent at the national level, perhaps even internationally. In the modern era of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) with it’s emphasis on ‘bringing up the rear’, locating an appropriate setting dedicated to the holistic (not just academic) needs of the gifted, and especially, twice-exceptional child is akin to finding the Holy Grail. Far too often parents are forced to ‘choose’, sometimes in error, what they believe might be the best ‘fit’ for their non-typical learner. Regrettably, even with the best of intentions, most schools cannot properly accommodate the educational needs of the gifted or 2e child, much less provide for them an avenue to build the solid emotional foundation needed for meaningful growth. So, what is a family to do? By far, this question ranks as the most common query I receive in my consulting practice and thus, deserves adequate answers. In my twenty plus years of working with gifted and twice-exceptional students in a variety of public school environments, I have learned a few strategies that just might help the frustrated parent to navigate a convoluted system called public education, and ultimately, find the appropriate educational environment for their child.

Before we delve into these strategies it is important to understand that this advice has to be taken with the knowledge that every child, every family, and every situation is different. Having worked with hundreds of gifted and 2e students, I have yet to find a singular systematic strategy that works on a universal level. Each child is unique. Each child requires a distinctive approach to teaching and learning based on his specific learning style and cognitive makeup. In short, each child must be matched to a suitable learning environment that understands and embraces her individual needs. Perhaps, this is why it is so difficult to find a school that can accommodate this reality. To be sure, I am not sure such an educational Eden exists, but I do know that there are some that come very close by adhering to some of the principles outlined below.

Asking the Right Questions

While this may seem very basic, asking good questions is a strategy that most parents do not employ when seeking out an appropriate educational fit for their child. Many assume that the school will have the best interests of the child in mind once the student is enrolled. In all honesty I do not know of a school or District that deliberately abuses this assumption, but I know many that are ill prepared to accept the fact that the gifted and/or 2e child requires a specialized educational plan in order to experience success. Additionally, many School Districts just do not have the resources in place to be able to provide the type of environment conducive to the exceptional learner. It is therefore essential for the parent to be armed with the right questions before making decisions in regards to enrollment.

Now, I do understand that many parents, due to budget constraints or other factors, may not have the privilege of being able to make a school choice however, they still retain the right to ensure their child is receiving the best possible education within their designated school system. I am hopeful that this information will be of assistance for them as well.

Proper Identification Procedures

Identification of both the gifted and 2e child is of immense importance to the success of any properly maintained gifted program. Controversial? Yes. Avoidable? No. The point of comprehensive identification procedures is to make sure that the right student is in the right seat, and while that may reek of inequality to some, it is actually the most impartial methodology for ensuring student success. No parent wants their child in a classroom that is too difficult or too rigorous. This incongruity will only lead to frustration, anger, and low self-esteem. Similarly, the same is true of a classroom that is too slow or too easy. Again, the discrepant nature between the classroom and the child leads to boredom, irritation, despondency, and behavioral problems. In the life of the intellectually gifted child, this description is often a reality. Even within schools designated as those serving the needs of gifted children I have witnessed the slow demise of academic integrity due to the misunderstanding and misuse of proper identification techniques resulting in enrollment of students who struggle to keep pace thereby affecting the learning of the entire classroom.

It is, therefore, essential for parents to ask the right questions about identification procedures for both fully inclusive gifted programs and part-time programming. Here are a few useful questions to ask:

1. What are the identification procedures? Programs designed for intellectually gifted programs should require standardized intellectual assessments such as the WISC-V (Weschler Scale of Intelligence) or the SB-5 (Stanford-Binet) in addition to other forms of evidence such as student portfolios, classroom simulations, and even parental interviews. The Navigator Program required all of the above (with the exception of the SB-5) before making decisions on student enrollment and while this may seem like too much we found it essential to ensure the harmony of each classroom. One caveat in identification is the dilemma faced by the twice-exceptional child. Twice-exceptional children are often missed by standardized approaches due to weaknesses in one or more areas of the assessments. For the parent of the 2e child it is essential to ask about the use of discrepancy models (those identifying large discrepancies between scores on the sub-tests within the standardized assessment) or lack thereof. The lack of proper identification procedures for 2e children is rampant across the nation (See: Gilman, Lovecky, Peters, Postma, et al, 2014) and parents must understand what is at stake.

2. Does your identification policy match your programming? Many a gifted program has floundered on this particular question even though the answer is quite simple. If you are running a program for high achievers then it is not necessary to use a standardized assessment approach. A high IQ score does not always mean high achievement. In fact, many high IQ students struggle to achieve due to a variety of factors including stress, classroom environment, social/emotional issues, etc. A good program for gifted and 2e students will take into account these factors and thus insist on a proper standardized approach to assessment as these same assessments can reveal much information about the child beyond academics.

3. Are your identification procedures culturally competent? Much has been written about the issues surrounding standardized testing and cultural relevance (Ford, 2004 and others). For parents of gifted children from non-white populations it is essential to ask for supplemental assessments that can identify students using a variety of approaches (creativity assessments, visual assessments, other non-verbals etc.) in addition to those already in place. Similar to the twice-exceptional child, minority children are too often ignored or misdiagnosed and thus are not identified for the right programs.