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 erroronously, 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:
There may be much about identification and assessment that deserves a more thorough coverage than what I have provided; a simple reference search on gifted and assessment will afford the curious parent multitudes of research, opinions, and advice. Nonetheless, it is essential to understand the basic premise that proper identification for the proper program is paramount to the success of both the child and the program itself.
An Empathetic Staff:
This might be a difficult question to ask a public school official given the potential number of teachers any given gifted or 2e child will see during the course of his school career, but it is an important one. In my experience, the number one predictor of success for the gifted/2e student is the classroom teacher. Those teachers that both understand and empathize with the daily experiences of these children provide them the opportunity to achieve great heights, and at the same time, avoid the deep valleys that to often characterize their school experience. As an administrator I have hired many a teacher responsible for the instruction of gifted children have always looked for empathy first, even before experience. If the potential candidate could not express the subtle intricacies that can define the 2e child, relate to their emotional fragility, speak with knowledge on the importance of building trust relationship with each child, or the need for flexibility and complexity, I was forced to move on to the next candidate. In fact, I have turned down a number of candidates with years of experience who lacked the above qualities. So, what kinds of questions can a parent ask of both the school and, hopefully, the teacher as well? The following outlines a few basics:
There are many more questions that can be asked but a few pointed questions can reveal the schools approach to gifted and/or twice-exceptional learners. Practice developing a few good questions related to your child and you will glean much from the answers you receive.
Proper Social/Emotional Programming/Support
Adequate social and emotional support just might be the most critical challenge facing parents of gifted and twice-exceptional children. I have always maintained that without a solid foundation in these two crucial zones, our children will always struggle to adjust to the complex arena that is life. Without proper training and support at both the school and the home-front, the gifted and twice-exceptional child will struggle to cope. In an upcoming article on the development of the twice-exceptional brain (this applies to gifted children as well), I explain the delayed development of the limbic system (responsible for emotional regulation) and its effect on social/emotional control. We sometimes call this effect asynchronous development; a fancy term whose meaning can be described as follows: while our kids appear advanced cognitively, they lag behind their peers in the areas of social and emotional development and appear socially and emotionally delayed. It is this asynchronous state that demands the need for simultaneous programming in both academics and social/emotional growth. One cannot thrive without the other and vice versa. In fact, I firmly believe that without that social/emotional basis, our children will struggle to maintain the consistent learning curve that they are capable of. Within the design of the Minnetonka Navigator Program we deliberately set aside time to teach social and emotional skills using Art Costa’s Habit’s of Mind along side other practical tools such as situational simulation. I know of other gifted programs that incorporate physical exercise regiments aligned to emotional stability. Each morning the students participate in these exercises before being introduced to the academic exercises for the day. It is programs that support the idea of social and emotional development in combination with a rigorous academic syllabi that can provide the holistic approach to instruction that will pave the path to your child’s success. Therefore, in the process of seeking a educational institution for your child, it is good at add this piece to your repertoire of questions:
The Right Curriculum:
Over the last couple of years curriculum has, once again, become one of those hot topic buttons. Most recently it is the idea of the Common Core that has seen its share of wide-scale opinions. Unlike many, I am not opposed to the idea of a common core as a standardized approach to what our child need to know and be able to do, yet I do take umbrage with the belief that it is good for all children. That simply is not true. The fact is that our intellectually gifted youth need more, much more. To expect them to be satisfied with the curricular norm is absurd. They have the innate capability to digest enormous quantities of information, the inherent curiosity to learn all aspects of an idea, issue, or topic, and the need to explore materials at a greater depth using differing perspectives. So why are we preventing them from doing so? Why do so many schools continue to teach a lock and step approach that inhibit its students from exploring interests, gleaning data, or reaching their cognitive potential? The fact is that gifted (and 2e) kids need to sate their natural curiosity to learn. They need to experience the love of acquiring knowledge; not the dread of rote mechanization, or the drone of mundane oration. To borrow a phrase from the Scott’s adman ‘you need to feed their brains’. I understand the pressure many schools and teachers feel to ‘follow the curricular map’, nevertheless, there are ways to do just that and still teach the gifted mind. Strategies such as curricular compacting, use of formative assessment to determine pre-existing knowledge, use of a thematic approach to teaching and learning (our kids love this), and other such strategies can alleviate that pressure and actually move the class closer to the end goal at a quicker pace. One size does not fit all…it never has.
Use of the following queries may assist the parent to determine what curriculum is being employed and if it is suitable for the gifted/2e child:
An Appropriate Curricular Approach (planning, staff develoment)
Perhaps more vital to the success of the gifted/2e learner than the actual curriculum is the curricular approach, or, how the teacher instructs her students. A knowledgeable teacher will use whatever tools are necessary to ensure that the students attain maximal growth in the classroom setting. One such tool is the use of formative, or ongoing, assessments. In a classroom that is partially or even fully comprised of gifted or 2e students it is essential to be able keep tabs on their growth through each unit taught. This begins with the use of diagnostic assessments that can determine what a student already knows, what they may partially understand, or if they need to be instructed in all aspects of the unit. As the unit progresses the use of formative assessment becomes valuable in gauging the rate of student growth and understanding. These formative (non-graded) assessments allow the teacher to then plan an instructional path for both the group and the individual. This is known as differentiated instruction. While some, such as my good friend Jim Delisle, believe differentiation is not as effective due to a lack of training, resources, and the reality of highly heterogeneous classrooms (Delisle, 2015), it is nonetheless still an effective tool in teaching the gifted given the teacher has enough time to plan sound units and is provided with ongoing staff development.
Another strategy to look for is the use of thematic units. Thematic units allow the child to contemplate multiple approaches to the understanding of a larger concept that is tied to one or multiple standards. For example, studying the cause and effect of conflict could be used to learn about America’s involvement in different wars rather than the standard chronological approach.
I also believe that allowing our children to engage in exploring the depth and breadth of study rather than simply ‘covering the curriculum’ can be extremely effective in engrossing students in learning at a high level. In fact, I believe this approach is more effective than grade or subject advancement, given the classroom can accommodate for this strategy.
Other strategies to watch for include appropriate pacing; gifted and 2e children can absorb information at a rapid pace especially in their areas of strength or interest; systematic grouping, learning centers, hands-on instruction, the adherence to essential questions to drive understanding and much more. To be sure, volumes could be written on the numerous teaching strategies that serve to enhance the instruction of both the typical and non-typical learner. These are just a few.
While formulating questions on teaching approaches may seem fairly self-evident I have provided a few poignant questions for those interested:
Finding the ideal educational environment for your gifted or twice-exceptional child can be taxing and difficult. There are few schools that are able to embody all the ideas and ideals that I have presented, however, there remain a number of good schools that, at the very least, able to partially equip your child with a decent educational experience. In addition, I know that there are thousands of teachers that truly have the best interests of your children at heart and will go to great lengths to protect them. Nonetheless, you still have to do your homework. Gifted and twice-exceptional students are complex learners requiring specialized approaches to teaching and learning and they deserve nothing but an educational environment that not only accepts their differences, but embraces them. It is my hope that you and your child find your educational Shangri-La; I know they are out there somewhere, if you do your research.
Delisle, James (2015). Differentiation Doesn’t Work. Education Week, 34, (15).
Ford, D. Y. (2004). Intelligence testing and cultural diversity: Concerns, cautions, and considerations (RM04204). Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Gilman, Bobbie, Lovecky, Deidre, Peters, Daniel, Postma, Michael, et al. (2013). Critical Issues in the Identification of Gifted Students with Co-Existing Disabilities: The Twice Exceptional. Sage Open, 3 (3).
Permission to reprint this article was granted by Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) http://sengifted.org/.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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