By Jim Delisle, coauthor of The Gifted Teen Survival Guide
When it comes to understanding and serving gifted kids, school administrators run the gamut from awful to awesome—and I’ve worked with both types. The awful ones may talk a good game about how every child’s needs are met through individualized instruction, but the follow-through is lacking (or nonexistent), and the commitment to gifted kids as an important subset of learners is given little more than lip service. The awesome school administrators can actually point to specific programs and classes where gifted kids are grouped with each other regularly and tout the fact that only teachers who have professional knowledge of and experience with gifted kids instruct these intellectually able learners.
When you find that your gifted child’s school is being led by an awesome school administrator, your job as a parent is easy: Mention how particular programs or projects benefit your child and encourage other parents of gifted kids to do the same. If problems arise—and even with the best school principals, they can—your positive approach will be the most effective tool at your disposal to address the issue. The principal will perceive you as an ally, not an enemy.
But what happens when the principal veers more toward awful than awesome? As a parent, you’ll need to be prepared with some polite (but direct) responses to particular myths that might be set forth as truths. In my 37 years working with gifted kids, I’ve heard just about every excuse not to serve them in schools.
Below, you’ll find the “Top 5 Offending Statements” I’ve heard from school administrators who choose to ignore gifted kids’ needs. Following each Offending Statement, I’ve included what you can say and do to advocate for the gifted kids in your care.
So, when they say that, you say this.
Top 5 Offending Statements (And Snappy Rejoinders for Advocates)
#1: When they say, “You know, every child is gifted in some way . . .”
You say: “Really? That’s a surprise to me. Would you say the same thing about any other category of special needs learners? For example, is every child dyslexic? Learning disabled? In fact, gifted kids have learning needs as unique to them as do any other identified subgroup of children in your school.” At this point, bring in some actual examples of your gifted child’s work that shows advanced learning skills, and ask the principal, “Now, Tony did this when he was 7 years old. Is this typical for most of your second graders?”
#2: When they say, “We don’t need a separate gifted program, because all of our teachers differentiate.”
You say: “How I would love to see that differentiation in action! Can you give me some specific examples of how differentiation is done in language arts? Because my child has been reading chapter books since age 4 but isn’t allowed to read them in his first grade class. Also, I know that differentiation is wonderful in theory, but teachers tell me that, in practice, it is very difficult to manage, especially in a heterogeneous class where children’s academic abilities run the gamut from below level to superior.” At this point, bring in the academic artillery: the many studies done on differentiation (scour the Internet—you’ll find them) that show it to be inconsequential for advanced learners if used as the primary way to serve gifted kids. Then, end the conversation with this: “You know, differentiation may be one way to serve gifted kids, but so is a specialized program or class that meets regularly. Are you saying it has to be either or, not both?”
You say (try to be polite . . . ): “You don’t have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better.” This powerful truth, as spoken by my friend and colleague, Stephanie Tolan, may cause your principal to raise her eyebrows. So be it—it’s the truth. Follow this up with a question: “Can you point me to any research that shows how gifted children gain academically from being in a heterogeneous classroom? All the evidence I’ve found is to the contrary.” (Of course, you’ll need to have the evidence available, but a quick Internet search will give you plenty of examples.)
#4: When they say, “It’s not possible to be both gifted and have a disability. It’s either one or the other.”
You say: “Have you ever heard of Helen Keller? Albert Einstein? Cher? Tom Cruise? Whoopi Goldberg? Winston Churchill? Each of these individuals, along with countless others, were or are what we call ‘Twice exceptional’ (2E)—gifted with an accompanying disability. In fact, the only disabling condition that cannot appear with giftedness is a cognitive disability. There is much literature on who these ‘2E’ people are and how to spot them, even as children. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some children in your school on IEPs or 504 Plans are also gifted. Have you ever looked for them?”
#5: When they say, “Your child can’t possibly be gifted—have you looked at her grades?”
You say: “I understand my daughter’s grades are low, and we can discuss the many reasons that may be so. However, even though high academic achievement is often seen in gifted children, it is not a ‘prerequisite’ for being identified as gifted. Some people call these kids ‘underachievers,’ while I prefer the term ‘selective consumer,’ because with the right teacher and curriculum, these intelligent kids with lackluster grades can really shine.”
Some of the rejoinders for parents above might seem a bit in-your-face, and I would certainly not suggest using them with a school administrator who is making a good effort to serve gifted kids. However, for those administrators who find one excuse after another for denying services to gifted students—perhaps even denying their very existence—an in-your-face response, backed by evidence, may get you more attention than you think.
There are other steps to take as you advocate for your gifted child (hint: the most effective way is to form a parent support group with other moms and dads of gifted kids), but dispelling myths is a starting point with a school administrator who chooses to believe that gifted kids have no unique needs at all.
Agree? Disagree? Are you a principal with another perspective? Please comment!
Jim Delisle, Ph.D., has worked with and for gifted kids for 37 years as a teacher, counselor, professor, and dad. He currently teaches gifted high school students part-time at Scholars Academy in Conway, South Carolina. The author of 19 books, including The Gifted Teen Survival Guide (with Judy Galbraith), Jim’s latest book is Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back).
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