Giftedness. More than a bright mind.
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
Giftedness. This has become a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Many of my favourite students over the years were quirky and extremely creative or challenging and intense. The boys in particular, had been cast off as troublemakers until I helped them see what I already saw: that they were incredibly bright, talented and incredible humans. I believe that many of these students were likely Gifted but had never been diagnosed or adequately supported.
As you may already know, there is a distinct special needs code assigned to students in Alberta who have been assessed as gifted from the results of a psycho-educational assessment. Every Province and State in North America has a special needs designation for this category of student because it has been proven (in a multitude of studies, including longitudinal ones) that Gifted students do indeed require unique supports and adapted programming.
Surprisingly, I have faced many challenges when trying to advocate for these students with other teachers and principals. However, in their defence, the word ‘Gifted’ needs to go. The word just has too many connotations and stereotypes associated with it for the range of abilities and challenges these students have. I believe Asynchronous Cognitive Development is a much more accurate term to describe both the perks and challenges these students can face.
It is true that a Gifted student will typically be profoundly ahead of their same age peers in one or several areas. This might look like talent in music or drama, the ability to digest a history textbook at the age of 8, or it might look like genius in math or coding. It may just look like they are bright and eager to learn. More often though, their increasingly painful feeling of boredom and frustration can lead to socially inappropriate behaviours. However, I would argue that the distinguishing feature is not where these students are advanced, but rather where they might in fact be behind in comparison to their same-age peers in the other areas.
Some researchers and psychologists are starting to argue that it is this asynchronous development that defines Giftedness. Despite their many strengths, gifted students are usually significantly behind their peers in social-emotional maturity and occasionally even in other academic areas. Often gifted students have increased anxiety and depression, they struggle with their intensity of emotions and with self-regulation and are more prone to being the victim of bullying. As a result, gifted students may struggle to make or keep friends or feel alone and isolated even with a vibrant social life. These features, especially when paired with boredom, can sometimes lead to very challenging behaviour at school and at home. Sometimes a student’s giftedness is completely masked by the outward behaviours, anxiety, hyperactivity, or another special need (currently labelled as ‘twice-exceptional giftedness’). Gifted students, particularly gifted boys, are rarely the students at the front of the class who teachers might consider ‘bright and easy to work with’ because as many researchers have suggested the greater the ‘gifts’ in one area, the greater the deficits in another.
As an example, imagine a student in grade 3 who can converse, read and write at a grade 7 level but has the impulse control, social skills and patience of a Kindergartener. You would not ask a Kindergarten-aged child to sit quietly at a desk or at the dinner table for an hour, but you might expect a grade 3 student to try, especially if he actually presents as being more advanced than his peers. Similarly, you would not expect a typical junior high student to happily follow along at the pace of a grade three lesson. However, the Gifted child's brain is not in sync developmentally and we need to understand that their academic, social and emotional needs do not fit nicely into a standardized age-specific system. Without understanding and accommodations for both the strengths and challenges, we risk that child believing he is simply the 'bad kid' that "chooses" to disrupt the class by squirming and distracting others. We also risk serious mental health consequences.
The following website shares a little more information including research and some suggestions for adapting programming for gifted students. As an educator and a parent of such a student, I would emphasize that in addition to accelerated learning opportunities and working in multi-age groups made up of other gifted students, your child’s teachers should also be prioritizing and monitoring the mental health of these students as well as supporting active development of social-emotional skills. As with all children exhibiting challenging behaviours, seeking to understand the root causes of behaviour and having empathy is an essential part of the process.