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.