How to Recognize and Support Gifted Students in Under-Identified Populations

By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., coauthor of Bright, Complex Kids: Supporting Their Social and Emotional Development

How to Recognize and Support Gifted Students in Under-Identified PopulationsBright kids who fit high-ability stereotypes (high achieving, conscientious, well-behaved, eager to show what they know) are likely to be referred to selection committees for gifted programs. A research study I published several years ago addressed this reality, but with emphasis on nonstereotypical students. The findings are still relevant today.

I asked 55 dominant-culture middle school teachers, “Which of your students would you nominate for a gifted program?” I interviewed teachers during their preparation time—individually or in small groups. All eagerly named students and justified their nominations. No one challenged anyone else. Silently, the teachers seemed to agree about how “giftedness” was displayed.

When I later repeated this process with community members in five minority-culture communities, great differences appeared—both among the five, and collectively between their and the teachers’ perceptions. It seemed that “giftedness” was in the eye of the “cultural beholder.”

Teachers’ Themes

Individual, competitive, conspicuous achievement: this was the main definition that arose in my conversations with teachers, who referred to organization, strong work ethic, perfection, production, motivation, eagerness to learn, high-level thinking, knowledge base, memory, being “top,” winning awards, and specific academic strengths, among others.

Over 40 themes were mentioned by teachers, but the five major ones were these:

  • behavior
  • verbal ability/verbal assertiveness
  • family status
  • work ethic
  • social skills

Cultural context probably determines how work ethic, social skills, behavior, and family status are demonstrated. A bright 12-year-old’s work ethic might be displayed in adult-level responsibilities at home. Family status might be perceived differently between affluent and low-income communities. Aggressive behavior in one culture might be viewed as “just the way people argue” in another. Intelligence was rarely mentioned—even during elaboration.

It occurred to me that the teachers’ language reflected what they valued—not just in the dominant culture, but also in middle-class teacher culture. Even more important was the probability, especially when considering that verbal ability was the second-most frequent theme, that many bright students go unrecognized: for example, those for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) language, those who have home responsibilities that are labor intensive, those whose social skills are weak, those whose behavior is questionable, and those whose parents are unlikely to advocate for services at school.

Teachers are gatekeepers for gifted programs, especially when asked, “Who might have been missed during screening—and needs a closer look?” Their cultural values may affect their decisions about whom to bring to the attention of a selection committee.

Themes in Five Minority-Culture Communities in the Same State

The interview themes in the minority-culture communities differed from the teachers’ themes. Language reflecting how giftedness was perceived in two predominantly Black communities included:

  • selfless contribution to the community
  • handiwork
  • wisdom
  • concern for family and children
  • ability to inspire

In a Latino community, the main themes were:

  • arts as expression, not as achievement
  • humility, instead of assertive self-promotion
  • community service, but not through organized activities
  • personal responsibility to help extended family

In an immigrant Southeast Asian community the themes were:

  • education (related to adaptation)
  • adaptation
  • caring for family
  • asceticism and hard work for the future

In a Native American community, tribal leaders and Native teachers would not name students because “we don’t believe in standing out,” and “you don’t put yourself above anyone.” However, these were among their statements about what they might notice in classrooms:

  • creativity in art, stories, thinking
  • a unique approach to a problem
  • excitement about their work
  • asking for more answers than the teacher knows
  • thinking of how something will affect the family

In a low-income white community, the themes were:

  • helping others, listening, advising, teaching children
  • manual dexterity, creativity, versatility
  • academic ability with practical application
  • overcoming adversity
  • nonbookish learning

Common themes about giftedness across the five communities included:

  • helping others, listening, advising
  • child-rearing
  • manual dexterity, creativity, versatility
  • academic ability with practical application
  • overcoming adversity
  • nonbookish learning

Social and Emotional Characteristics Associated with High Ability

Scholars and clinical experts have associated the following social and emotional characteristics with giftedness. Regardless of life circumstances and cultural context, and regardless of whether these characteristics are displayed in the classroom, they affect how bright students experience all aspects of life.

When asked to refer students for a program, teachers can consider that the following social and emotional characteristics are associated with high ability:

  • heightened sensitivity to stimuli
  • intense emotions, interests, sensory responses
  • asynchronous development (social and emotional lagging behind cognitive and physical; cognitive development being more advanced than age peers’)
  • anxiety, worrying
  • reluctance to ask for help; tendency to hide their distress
  • wanting control—including control over emotions
  • protecting social image by not showing limitations
  • believing they should be able to resolve their own distress

Interacting with Bright Kids Typically Not Identified for Programs

Bright kids who do not fit common stereotypes of giftedness include kids from minority cultural groups, kids without economic advantages, kids with disabilities, kids with severe personal stressors, and kids from families where academic achievement is not valued. The following paragraphs include suggestions for interacting with these bright kids.

Cultural themes can be avenues for accessing the world of bright students underrepresented in programs, but not directly. Teachers are patronizing when they say, for example, “I know your culture admires people who are good with making things, so you can build something for this assignment.” Instead, simply offer varied options for completing assignments. Educators and parents can also, without implying a ranked cultural hierarchy, raise awareness of how cultures may differ—even about how they define giftedness. Contrary to some common perspectives, giftedness is not something to “find” or compete about, but rather is something valued in a particular culture, warranting attention in school.

At home, parents might emphasize how families and cultures differ in what kinds of talents and abilities they value. For example, creativity might be valued more than high test scores. Knowing how to put knowledge to use in practical ways may be viewed as more important than displaying knowledge in the classroom. Working to improve the community might be more valued than having financial power in it. Being humble might be valued more than a prestigious award.

When a student’s behavior or interests reflect a cultural value, gently showing interest and respect (without recognizing it as a “cultural value”) can be subtle validation without being tied directly to culture. The student might quietly appreciate the comfortable attention.

In general, educators can embrace the notion that giftedness is not limited by social strata, culture, or classroom performance. All bright kids, regardless of family status and cultural background, are likely to have hyperalert senses and extra layers of sensitivity, intensities, anxieties, self-protection, need for control, and reluctance to ask for help even when distressed.

These sensitivities and intensities affect behaviors and emotions, which may or may not be obvious in the classroom. If children and teens in under-identified cultural groups demonstrate these characteristics, impressive insights, or unique humor, for example, teachers and parents can encourage the gifted-education liaison to evaluate these students for eligibility. Even when English is a new language, nonverbal activities in pairs or small groups can facilitate language learning through social interaction. Nimble problem-solving in games or activities and alert nonverbal responses can indicate high ability.

Cultural and socioeconomic differences typically disappear in small-group discussion about “growing up,” where trust can develop and bright students can comfortably demonstrate personal strengths and cultural values.

jean petersonJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books (including Get Gifted Students TalkingHow (and Why) to Get Students Talking, and Bright, Complex Kids), journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.

Free Spirit books by Jean Sunde Peterson:

Get Gifted Students TalkingBright, Complex Kidshow and why to get students talking

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