Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

Gifted Education Is About the Whole Child

By Celi Trepanier — May 12, 2015 5 min read

Face it, the vast majority of people think that gifted children are the smart, high-achieving students in a special, sometimes elitist program at school. It’s a universal misperception.

When I was an education student in college, the elementary school where I was student-teaching had a full-time gifted program. The classroom had no desks—the gifted students got to sit in bean bags for their instructional time instead. In the regular classrooms, where students sat in desks, the field trips were visits to local museums and other cultural events. In comparison, the gifted students were allowed to go on overnight field trips.

Like many, I wondered why gifted students received so many more perks than other students. Was it simply because they were smarter? My opinion back then, as a student-teacher, was that any student, gifted or not, could benefit from learning in a bean-bag chair or gain educationally from overnight field trips. What made gifted kids so special?

As a student-teacher, I understood that the identification of a child as gifted, and his or her subsequent placement into the gifted program at school, was exclusively a function of the school system—its teachers and its schools. The gifted were the “smarter” students, and smarter was determined by school performance and testing. And the smarter, high-achieving kids were rewarded with getting to sit in the bean bags. Giftedness seemed solely an educational label designated by the school.

I know now that many gifted children are not like the stereotypical gifted child sitting in those bean-bag chairs.

Giftedness is so much more than an educational designation administered by a school system. It is brain-wiring from birth, an inborn trait that has strong emotional and social facets, not just educational behaviors. Giftedness is a degree of brain functioning one is born with, and a gifted person’s above-average intellectual ability is only a part of his or her life.

A gifted person may not only be born with strong reasoning, creative-thinking, and analytical skills. The brain is not used only for learning and academic endeavors. Our brains are also where our emotional and social abilities, traits, and responses emerge, and gifted individuals can often have more intense emotional and social needs and issues than others. Some research suggests that physical and sensory traits such as extreme sensitivity to lighting, smells, skin stimuli, and sounds may also be part of some gifted children’s challenges in life.

Simply put, although gifted children are generally recognized as being high achievers, the emotional, social, and sensory traits usually go unrecognized in schools. Historically, schools have done an inadequate job of identifying and serving gifted students, and this has perpetuated the damaging misperceptions about being gifted.

Historically, schools have done an inadequate job of identifying and serving gifted students, and this has perpetuated the damaging misperceptions about being gifted.”

In defense of schools and teachers, the inadequacies in gifted education originate most often with those who hold the educational purse strings and are far removed from the classroom. Teachers and schools are left to educate gifted students with the means they are given.

Inevitably, the educational facet of giftedness is addressed in school, although insufficiently much of the time, while the emotional, social, and sensory traits associated with giftedness are unknown by most educators unfamiliar with gifted children.

When a gifted child begins to have problems at school—which can arise from any number of associated emotional, social, and sensory issues—the problems are rarely attributed to the child’s giftedness. To the contrary, it is all too common for the gifted child to be labeled as arrogant, lazy, or unmotivated, and the solution is that he or she just needs to work harder. And, too often, the child’s giftedness comes into question.

This needs to change.

Somewhere down the line, the identification of giftedness in a child came to be associated exclusively as a function of the school. A school’s purpose is to educate its students, so it may be fair to say that the educational needs of gifted children have become the only aspect of giftedness that our education system has paid any attention to. In fact, it is really the only aspect of giftedness that many have knowledge of or experience with. But giftedness is so much more than a function of education, so much more than a child’s academic performance.

Many educators, as well as parents of gifted children, know that gifted young people don’t always get into gifted programs. Space can be limited, and children who are not gifted also might be accepted into gifted programs when there is extra room.

And let’s throw one other area of giftedness into this big bowl of educational mismanagement: the twice-exceptional, or 2E, gifted students. These are the children who are gifted, many with IQs above 150, but who also have a learning difference or disability that masks their giftedness. These gifted students are often overlooked, generally misunderstood, and frequently miseducated.

When schools focus on just the educational aspect of giftedness—the general expectation of high achievement and high test scores—then gifted children are seen only through the lens of academic achievement, and not for who they truly are. This perspective contributes strongly to the perpetuation of the stereotypical gifted child as an uncomplicated straight-A student.

If I were the parent of a nongifted student, I, too, would question why schools need money just to supply the straight-A students with better educational opportunities in order for them to excel further, achieve more, and be rewarded. I get that.

Are schools and the way they administer gifted education contributing to the hurtful myths that plague giftedness?

Maybe if our schools could focus on the whole gifted child—educationally, socially, and emotionally—the animosity that exists toward gifted children and the seemingly elitist programs created just for them would diminish. If gifted programs focused less on academic achievement and more on educating the whole gifted child, attending to his or her individual strengths and weaknesses, we could, possibly, attain a more balanced approach to educating gifted children and implementing gifted programs. And maybe then we would achieve a more accurate view of our gifted youths.

As long as we feed the association of giftedness with simply being smarter, we perpetuate the myths. As long as we put high achievement above giftedness, we are seriously miseducating gifted students. If we continue only to look for children who excel in school as the criterion for gifted identification, then the “better than” reputation will endure, and many gifted children who may not or cannot excel in school will suffer.

Giftedness is so much more than an educational label.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Giftedness Is More Than A Function of Education

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