Educating the Gifted and Talented

“People should be free to find or make for themselves the kinds of educational experience they want their children to have.” -John Holt-

Friday, March 31, 2006

CO SB 73: Compulsory Schooling till seventeen

Under what circumstances will a student be eligible to graduate? What about the highly gifted student who has skipped one or more grade levels during the elementary years and enters 9th grade at age 12 or 13? Will this student still be forced to stay in school until 17, even if he or she has exhausted the curriculum by age 15 or 16?

It is of grave concern to me that this bill will turn education even more into the "one size fits all" kind. I believe the risk is high that some students will incur enormous mental damage if they become unmotivated, unable to efficiently function and learn, or suffer from depression that goes unrecognized or untreated.
When I mentioned this proposal to my then 18 year old son (ready to drop out at the start of his last semester in high school) and my sister, they both said "I imagine some kids may want to kill themselves!"

School is indeed hellish and torturous to some students who have special learning needs or who are teased and shunned by peers. One gifted student shared the following with me:

"I've never heard of half-time schooling, and I'm a Junior at Thompson Valley. I don't think it has really ever been an option, but I haven't ever discussed that sort of thing with any adults or counselors. I don't know of anyone who's only there half the time physically - plenty of us are there only half the time mentally!"

At least, do not force juniors and seniors to be in school for 1056 hours! That is a full course load each and every day, not counting homework! The measure would then also negate the possibility to enroll half-time, robbing students of mixing high school with work or college, and in some case that could literally be a life saver. It would have been for our failing daughter in 10th grade, but school thought it ridiculous for her to only attend school for the classes she could still muster motivation for.

The result? She dropped out at age 16 and it took her four years (with depression) to recover her self esteem and academic self confidence. Still, with only the equivalent of 9 grades under her belt, she excelled once she started junior college at 20. She is now 22, in her last year at UNC, majoring in philosophy and excelling still.

This fortunate outcome will not happen to all or even most discouraged students and in my advocacy work I've met too many. If only you could see these bright students who are so crushed! I feel strongly you should see these gifted underachievers during CAGT's Legislative Day as well! They are the face of education at its worst due to lack of understanding by schools for their special needs.

Many of them could have been helped with dual enrollment just to be away from tedious schoolwork and to be among mental peers, but many school districts are not eager to promote it. My son was cheated out of that opportunity. Our district was going to let him take two classes, even wanted proof of that for CDE, yet was not willing to pay for his classes, even though my son qualified for reduced lunch.

It aches me to think of the negative impact this bill will have on some of the brightest students who will be stuck in a system which does not understand, or care for, them.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Perfectionism hard wired into gifted individuals

Not all students who excel are intellectually gifted, but along with a drive for high accomplishment usually some other characteristics of giftedness surface as well. Many gifted individuals have an urge to do things perfectly and can obsess at length over making even the smallest mistakes. They tend to minimize accomplishments and maximize their flaws.

Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, author of the book The Gifted Adult, says perfectionism, intensity and drive are traits that are hardwired into gifted individuals. Their strong sense of how things should be all too often translates into a personal fear of falling short and can lead to procrastination. An example is when students barely study or when they can not bring themselves to hand in homework that's incomplete, even if it means zero points are factored into their grades! The reasoning that they could have done better if only they had spent more time or effort, helps save face. It’s painful and embarrassing for them to try their best and then getting a grade that’s below their expectations.

Praise in a gifted child’s young years for easily "earned" A's rather than for learning more difficult material can lead to disillusionment and failure in school. It confuses these children to receive compliments for something they themselves do not consider to be extraordinary. Constant praise makes them think that when real effort is required to learn something new they must not be as capable as they thought. Research has shown that gifted students who do not receive any academic challenge do indeed lose self confidence and self esteem!

Many gifted students of all ages want and need school work that’s more intellectually demanding but quite a few do not choose accelerated classes in high school. They fear such courses are difficult and could result in a lower grade point average. When grades are average teachers and parents all too often begin to think the student is lazy. Worse, they may even wonder if the student is gifted!

As long as giftedness remains equated with genius and excellence gifted kids are robbed of the right to simply be human and to make mistakes. The reality is that very few gifted individuals develop into genius and it’s a big misconception that gifted kids always excel or learn without problems. Just as other students of more average intelligence gifted kids should receive support and understanding when they falter or fail. Along with academic adaptations they especially need support and guidance to deal with their concerns and perceptions regarding learning and living.

Gifted individuals often experience intense anxiety and impatience. Their minds may stay so active that falling asleep can be a problem, especially when intensity translates into vivid imaginings of all sorts of worry. In school they may seem uninterested and bored, something which often stems from lack of proper mental input. It's difficult for gifted kids whose brains are literally "geared" for faster processing to adjust to a slow pace of instruction or to a curriculum that offers them no interest or real life relevance.

Stephanie Tolan, author of young adult and children's fiction, compares gifted children to cheetahs, the predatory mammals built for speed. She says a cheetah in a zoo is still a cheetah even though it’s kept from moving fast. So it is with gifted students whose minds do not get opportunity to kick into high gear because the material is too easy.

Rejection can lead to depression

If a student is in any way different, or has the courage to have opposing ideas, others may taunt, tease or ignore that individual altogether. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." As a result affected teens may become rebellious or turn emotional pain inward by cutting themselves, using alcohol or drugs, and sometimes even committing suicide.

Surprisingly, rejecting those who differ may be biological. In her book "The Nurture Assumption", Judith Rich Harris writes that "When a chimpanzee was stricken with polio and returned to his group as a cripple, the members of the group attacked him. Dislike of strangers, translates very easily into dislike of strangeness. If you are different you are not one of us." It takes courage to be a non-conformist, or, as Robert Heinlein writes in his book Gulf, being a pink monkey among brown monkeys is a fatal mistake. And so, most children will adapt.

Having or not having a group to identify and socialize with is indeed of great importance to school children. According to Harris --more than having a friend--it is peer acceptance that predicts life fulfillment in adulthood. A survey showed that a third of college students blamed peers for feelings of dejection. Students who had been well adjusted before, changed after being rejected, laughed at, taunted, and bullied by peers. Some even became physically ill when in school. Canadian sociologist Anne-Marie Ambert calls it peer abuse. She says it’s a serious problem that does not receive enough attention.

For gifted kids rejection may be the final blow that leads to depression. With a mental mind as old as the age of some of their teachers, they can feel miserably out of place in school. When classmates tease or ignore them and make their day unbearable, they become seriously at risk for under-achievement and dropping out.

Just like a pink monkey, gifted students may appear to be different and quickly learn it is safer and easier to "wear a brown monkey suit" in order to be accepted by a group. Unfortunately, not showing their true selves also prevents recognition by real peers. In a regular classroom with little or no access to those who are like themselves, gifted students may develop serious behavioral and emotional problems. Not surprisingly, a large number of high school dropouts are identified gifted students. Losing them to learning may mean that their talents and possible contributions to society are lost forever.

A solution is to group students of like needs and abilities for at least part of the school day. Research shows that not only the gifted students but also their classmates benefit from such measures. Teachers can more easily note the learning status of the groups and spend more instructional time on each.

Experts agree that gifted kids need the chance to interact not only to stretch their minds but especially to feel validated and accepted by others like them. Unfortunately, starting in middle school, there no longer is a gifted and talented pull-out program. Exposed to a new and very different learning environment, teens may feel more lonely than ever. If we want gifted students to do well in school they--just like other students--deserve an opportunity to be with those who appreciate and accept them.

Varied content promotes learning

"The family or society that understands its children thrives; when it doesn’t, socio-cultural devolution will take place", said Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and researcher on childhood brain development. He pointed out that communities help shape experiences for humans which in turn affect our mentality.

Society decides what children should learn in school. With the focus on reading, math and science, they rarely learn about the importance of proper child development. Yet, it is often young and still uninformed people who willingly and unwillingly become parents. If they do not know how important constant and loving interaction with their infant is, neglect and abuse in some families will not stop.

If certain brain connections are not formed in the first year, they will never have another chance to do so. The brain develops only when its parts are activated and used. If we do not talk to a child, it will not learn to speak. If we do not lovingly connect with it, it will not be able to love itself or others and show compassion.

"Neglect, chaos and trauma can create impulsive, aggressive, remorseless and anti-social individuals. Almost without fail, most individuals in prison today have suffered some kind of abuse or neglect as children." said Perry.
Each year that number grows! More money is used for maintenance and construction of new prisons than for education. Interestingly, education (or rather lack of learning) may contribute to delinquency. Schools are faced with dropout rates that have not significantly decreased in many years.

To keep kids interested in school their brain literally needs to be turned on. This only happens when they actively learn and neurons are busily moving between a myriad of receptors to send messages. In the child whose brain was optimally primed, many such pathways lie waiting. Whatever needs to be learned can easily find its way to the right receptors for processing and storage.

Unfortunately, keeping the brain active is difficult. Perry mentioned that the average brain has an attention span of only two and a half minutes! After that it starts to wander and another stimulus is needed to pique its attention. The best way to learn is "a total sensory experience". Educators need to offer varied content for the different ways in which students learn best.

Teaching is much like weaving, using different colors and fibers to shape the whole pattern.
Perry suggests that it is better to offer a few number problems and then some story problems, maybe even throw in a visual assignment, such as a graph or pie chart. All these different actions keep the brain hopping and in gear for more learning because "the brain fatigues when doing repetitious things".

He underscored the importance that teachers and parents recognize uneven progress within the child. Linda Silverman of the Gifted Child Development Center in Denver calls it asynchrony. It means a child can be at different age stages as far as emotional, behavioral, social, moral, and cognitive development are concerned. Perry says schools place children according to chronological age even though many are unprepared to learn. They may be six, but sometimes function emotionally as three year olds. A child can be at risk of being over, but also under-challenged. Either will affect learning negatively.

"Timing is everything" he claims. The child needs to be able to stretch just far enough to enter into what he calls "the hot zone", so it can learn new skills. It means the student is capable, and in the process of learning, but has not quite reached proficiency. "When impossible demands and challenges are placed on students, or there is a mismatch between their potential and current development, it chills their enthusiasm, curiosity and developmental progress", says Perry who calls that situation the developmental "cold zone". Gifted students too find themselves in that situation if learning is too easy or repetitious. Their brains fatigue which in turn can cause stress and behavioral problems.

Kids also get pushed into the cold zone when they are over scheduled with activities outside of school. They can not learn well if overwhelmed. Only when they feel safe and comfortable will they enter the hot zone of productive learning again. Perry said that "the internal state of a child helps determine what they will perceive and learn. A child who is hungry or exhausted, ill or anxious does not learn well." Children in distress seek and need a comfort zone.

Therefore, teachers should focus on such students’ strengths and talents. "Make them feel good about themselves," concluded Perry. "Draw them out, make it safe". When students feel safe in school with their teachers and classmates, they will explore and go on to discover, master, build confidence and self-esteem which in turn leads to a sense of security and the desire to explore further.

Linking back to past experience crucial in learning

Preparing children for success in school begins before they are born. At some time during pregnancy, brain cells are generated at the rate of 250,000 per minute. Prenatal care with good nutrition and absence of stress is clearly important to create a healthy and efficient brain. In the first years of life the brain keeps developing but also prunes cells and connections that are not used. For babies and toddlers, a responsive and interesting environment in which it is safe to explore with all senses is crucial for later success in school. Children who miss out on that will almost certainly develop learning problems.

In an infant’s life, stress especially can seriously hinder brain development. Anxiety and tension deplete the glucose necessary for mental learning and processing. "The experiences of the first year can completely change the way a person turns out", says neurobiologist Harry Chugani in the book Teaching With The Brain In Mind written by Eric Jensen.

Though parents are responsible for laying the groundwork for learning, schools should build on that foundation as best they can. Teachers must provide students with learning that is meaningful. Young kids, naturally inspired to learn and explore, may do well in school at first but at some point many lose motivation. The blame usually falls on them as if it were a conscious decision on their part to start to fail. It is more likely that student attention and interest wane because there is too little time and opportunity to absorb information and reflect on it. The brain may be highly capable of taking in and storing knowledge, but in order to really learn and retrieve whatever has gone in, it needs a chance to link back to previous experiences.

Passive learning such as memorizing facts, listening to lectures, and simply answering textbook questions does not allow the brain to make useful sense of new information. It hardly engages the mind at all! Passive learning is really a misnomer. No one can passively learn anything--at least not for very long.

Actively engaged, the brain does what it was intended for. It compares, contrasts, and sorts information. "The greater the number of links and associations that your brain creates, the more firmly the information is woven in", says Jensen, who is a teacher and co-founded SuperCamp, a cutting edge academic program in Oceanside, California.

Information that lacks meaning is stored at random. It is in there somewhere, and many students actually "know" much more than their teachers or even they themselves think, but scattered and isolated facts are difficult or impossible to recall.

Active learning requires thought and questioning during class discussions and referring new information to personal views and experiences. It is personal involvement through sharing and debating that keeps students focused. "The whole role of student-to-student discussion is vastly underused," writes Jensen who argues that "teachers who continue to emphasize one-sided lecture methods are violating an important principle of our brain." Namely that humans are biologically wired for communication with one another.

Language is one of our most evolved specialties. From birth to adulthood our brains flourish when we share, discuss, and talk about things that have relevance and meaning to us. Without opportunity to utilize the very processes that also generate great thoughts and ideas, people’s brains are bound to regress.

Facilitate GT students' dreams!

"The best that can be done for gifted learners is to keep them from learning to be average!" said Nancy Johnson, a teacher from Ohio. She was one of fifteen presenters at the Autonomous Learner Model Conference in Colorado. The one recurring message of most all sessions was that children learn best when their curiosity is awakened and they are actively engaged during school hours.

Dr. George Betts of the University of Northern Colorado, along with wife Donni, hosts the ALM conference each year. He impressed upon teachers not to be dispensers of knowledge only. "Facilitate students’ needs, desires and dreams. Believe in them!" he urged.

He went on to suggest that teachers and parents create a positive environment and make belonging meaningful. "When students feel they belong and are accepted they learn to trust and take risks. Simple questions such as "How are you? Are your needs being met? Do you need something? show students concern and caring." he said. It is a critical part of becoming an independent, life long learner, someone who learns by choice rather than coercion.

Karen Larsen, a teacher from Westminster is an avid proponent of curriculum compacting. This requires teachers to pre-test their students’ knowledge. Mastery is defined at 85 percent which equals a solid "B", but students would, in fact, get an "A" so they will want to keep trying! When they show competence they can move on to the next chapter in the book or work on an enrichment project.

One of the best reasons for compacting is that it does away with boredom. As a result behavior problems diminish, students stay in school and test scores improve. Larsen suggested that teachers start with a small group of students for whom compacting seems especially appropriate.

Karen also talked about myths and realities regarding giftedness. She said it is a serious injustice to think of special provisions for the gifted as being undemocratic. "The reality is that compared to most others, gifted students are under served and do need different methods to learn well. Helping them succeed is only fair." she stressed.

With a mental mind as old as some of their teachers’ age, gifted students can also feel out of place in a regular school setting. A solution is to group them together for at least part of the school day. Experts agree that gifted kids need a chance to be together. If they are to do well in school they deserve and need an opportunity to be with peers that accept them.

Unfortunately it is rarely done because people believe that ability grouping is the same as tracking. However, with ability grouping students are re-evaluated regularly so change would naturally occur. Ability grouping is really "need based" instruction and the best way for gifted learners to remain engaged in school.

Need based education a must for gifted learners

Finding the best instructional method for all students is a challenge. What works well for one may not for another. Parents and teachers must stay alert so that children regularly learn something new and do not just put in seat time. Yet in most classrooms, all students, despite having different ability levels, still do the same work. Psychologist and giftedness expert Linda Silverman is not surprised that many bright kids rebel and drop out of school. She says that the majority of them are still being under-educated and forbidden to learn at their own rate.

School districts that receive state monies for gifted education are expected to "appropriately" educate gifted students. According to Colorado’s accreditation rules, they, like all other exceptional students with special needs, require adjusted instruction that matches their abilities.

Differentiation in the early grades, but especially when signs of problems first arise, can mean the difference between a high school graduate and dropout. Many gifted students get straight A’s without studying or trying at all. When they do not learn at the pace and level they are capable of, and can never stretch beyond text book material, they may begin to underachieve.

To any parent it is thrilling to see report cards with nothing but A’s, but that can easily set the child up for failure, or fear of it, when school suddenly does demand more . Gifted children are often very sensitive, and sooner or later getting less than perfect grades can be devastating. The experience can be so traumatic that resulting stress may cause more grades to fall. Having to make up the lost credits in summer school may further strengthen a student’s belief that he or she is a failure.

When performance drops, intervention should take place immediately. It is important to ask the student what can be done to make things better. Both parents and teachers need to keep a positive attitude and not consider underachievement permanent, hopeless, or even a condition at all. It is more a symptom of things gone wrong.

The best is to challenge and engage students, to make learning relevant, and to allow them to do independent projects in their areas of interest. Gifted students can easily turn off to school when the curriculum is tedious, rigid, and unfairly punitive. Still, though many gifted students do well in challenging programs such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, some do not, likely because of the lack of differentiation. Without adaptations for their different needs many highly able students remain at risk for leaving school before graduation. Respect, empathy, and flexibility will go a long way to help keep them in!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Intensity in the gifted

Giftedness expert Annemarie Roeper said "How to relate to the world around them is the gifted child's greatest problem because they experience it differently from others." She asked how such individuals can be supported.

Personally I'm not sure if gifted individuals can be helped in finding strategies to deal with their deep thoughts and emotions that others in their lives do not understand, or care about at the same level. I notice this constant ache in my 21-yr old daughter. It's hard for her to cope with life and I can understand what she's feeling because I sometimes experience the same oppressive ache. When I read about the horrors in the world, and sense the looming doom of global warming and its consequences, I almost cannot breathe anymore. It's like a band of steel is wrapped around my chest.

My daughter says that's exactly the feeling she's been living with for many years. She feels utterly helpless to create the huge changes necessary to turn things around, because others live in denial and remain blind to the signals she picks up. The only consolation she has is to be able to talk to her boyfriend and to me about these things, but that's merely a temporary solution. The underlying stress in her life will remain.

As an aside I wonder what the percentage of cognitively gifted individuals is who are this sensitive?? I talk to many identified GT high school kids and find that most of them are not as sensitive as my daughter is. My daughter's IQ ranges between 141 and 151. She scored 141, but at the time, at age 14, she was battling major depression so the result (according to GT expert Linda Silverman) may have been depressed by 10 points.