In the Wake of Sandy Hook, a Teacher's Plea for Gifted Education
I am a teacher. Like many of my colleagues around the country I was immensely troubled by the shootings last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Like parents, educators, and concerned citizens across the United States, I couldn't pry myself away from the news. But when I first learned of the shooting and the preliminary reports of the suspect, my initial thoughts were not about gun control, violence in the media, or school safety. I thought to myself, "This kid is probably pretty smart. In fact, he is probably brilliant."
As experts put together the patterns and profiles associated with mass shootings, one element emerges time and again: intelligence. It takes a great deal of methodological planning to execute violence of this magnitude. It also takes a social-emotional imbalance that results from isolation, insecurity, and anxiety.
Highly gifted children can experience asynchronous development, a phenomenon that causes intellectual ability to advance at a faster rate than emotional ability. These children can be prone to perfectionism, which can develop into anxiety or insecurity. Heightened sensitivity and over-excitabilities may also factor in to the behaviors of gifted youth.
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Dylan Klebold, one of two students who committed the Columbine massacre, was in a program for gifted students as an elementary school child. James Holmes, who killed 12 people in an Aurora, Col., movie theater, studied neuroscience. Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, has been described in the media as "brilliant," "a smart kid," "a computer geek."
These young men who committed horrendous crimes are outliers. But there are many students who are as bright, as solitary. I am a teacher of gifted students, and the majority of highly intelligent children I have encountered in my career have been well-rounded, social, and engaging. Giftedness was by no means the cause of these shootings, but the connection is an area that we as educators can explore in our attempts to understand how to help young children who feel so alone in this world that they are inclined to retaliate against it.
Amidst the conversations about guns, violence, mental health, and the other critical policy levers, the importance of high quality gifted-education initiatives should also be heard. The following components of gifted programs show their ability to act as an early intervention for these troubled youth.
1) Gifted programs connect gifted kids to other gifted kids. In order to provide teachers with a range of abilities in the classroom, gifted students are often spread out in small groups. Many gifted kids have quirky interests that are beyond the experience of their peers. By connecting with each other in extracurricular programs and in classes, gifted kids can cultivate personal relationships that are vital to students' experiences in school.
2) Gifted education specialists get to know students and families over multiple years. Gifted programs in the elementary school are often set up as classrooms that students can attend for part of the school day over several years. While gifted educators may not see students every day, they follow the story of the family through the child's schooling. Even when a gifted child leaves the building, these teachers often communicate with one another to keep track of students. Teachers can become an invaluable school-level advocate for these children and communicate their needs to classroom teachers as they move through the school system.
3) Social-emotional needs are an integral part of gifted education curricula. Increasing attention has been paid to the social-emotional needs of gifted children and how gifted educators can begin to meet those needs. Trainings for gifted educators deal with the specific social needs of gifted learners (including anxiety, perfectionism, and emotional sensitivity) that could potentially make a real difference in the lives of children. These teachers are trained to seek outside professional resources when they have reached the limits of their expertise. Having one teacher in the school aside from the classroom teacher who can act as a liaison between parents, teachers, counselors, and outside professionals may help to prevent disengagement from school.
Despite the efforts of advocacy groups, gifted education continues to be relatively marginalized in American public schooling. Few teacher preparation programs require a course in gifted education and teachers rarely get on-the-job professional development for working with gifted kids. State funding for gifted education is highly variant. Some states have legislation in place for identifying and serving gifted students, but do not fund programs. At the federal level, limited attention and funding have been allocated to gifted education.
There is no better time than right now to address these shortcomings. Efforts to include gifted-education provisions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—including one proposed measure called TALENT (To Aid Gifted and High Ability Learners by Empowering the Nation’s Teachers), which would give federal backing to gifted education initiatives—have so far gone nowhere. Groups like the National Association for Gifted Children and its state affiliations are working to advocate for these youth and ensure that their educational programs are sufficiently monitored and funded.
The pictures that have been released of Adam Lanza have shown a straight-faced teenager with an empty stare. But there is one circulating of him as a little boy sitting at a desk with a quirky smile, waving to the camera. He could easily be a gifted student in my classroom or your classroom, who desperately needs our help.
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