As an educator who is striving to mobilize faculty and staff to fully address the complex needs of a wide range of learners, one area that emerges as both frustrating and very promising is how we address the needs of the highly capable students. Let me speak first about these two terms: “highly capable” and “gifted.”
I use the term “highly capable,” because it is a term that is less encumbered by the way we (wrongly) determine who is the “gifted” children. I realize there are some hazards in saying “highly capable,” as we might be too loose with this definition and pull too many students inside this special tent. Likewise, we often think of “gifted” children as belonging to some homogeneous grouping that comprise something like 3—5% of any given school population and who have an IQ above a particular number—let’s say 140. This statistical way of defining giftedness is patently unfortunate and can be tragically misused by schools and their teachers.
Before I turn to the broader classification of “highly capable,” I want to share a helpful definition of giftedness. I really like the definition that our Dean of Enrichment here at Levine Academy in Dallas, Lynda McInnes, uses. Lynda references Martha Morelock’s book, “Giftedness: The View from Within” with this definition:
“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”
There is a lot of good substance in that definition above, but I just want to unpack one part of it for now. I’m taking “advanced cognitive abilities” and broadening this category by using the term “highly capable,” not to discount this valuable articulation of giftedness, but to widen the net and make sure that no highly capable child is left behind because of a school’s arbitrary determination of giftedness.
Let me spell out my list of frustrations with some of the typical approaches and attitudes we find in schools when they attempt to accommodate the needs of their highly capable students.
- Teachers often regard highly capable students as being easy to teach.
- Schools expect teachers to “teach down the center” of their classes, thinking that the highly capable students will do fine on their own.
- Math teachers have a tendency to differentiate instruction by merely assigning more problems or just assigning them the harder problems.
- When highly capable students act out emotionally or when they make poor behavioral choices, teachers often dismiss these outward signs as quirky facets of their unusual intelligence.
- Teachers will sometimes ignore the highly capable kids in their class, seeing them as nuisances who belong in a different, specialized school.
- Some teachers will not even try to meet the needs of the highly capable out of fear or jealousy, seeing these students as a threat to the teacher’s authority.
- Teachers often see a student’s expression or demeanor of boredom as a disciplinary matter.
- Many teachers will rely on the highly capable students to “lift the bar” in the classroom for everybody else; in other words, the more gifted the student, the more likely they will be considered as a role model for the other students.
- Some teachers believe every child is gifted or highly capable, so there should be no distinction or differentiation in how we approach each child.
- There is often a general, dismissive judgment among faculty that a poor grade is proof that a child cannot be considered gifted or highly capable.
Here are the opportunities schools should pursue in order to be more successful in accommodating the needs of highly capable students.
- Give faculty the training, the awareness, and the tools to help them reach and accommodate their highly capable students.
- Teachers and principals should include the highly capable students into their child study team conversations—in other words, highly capable students should be on the student discussion agenda at least as much as, if not more than, those students who exhibit behavioral problems.
- Recognize that the highly capable students can have learning differences, just like students who are the typical strugglers, and that these differences mean that accommodations should be sensitive to these “twice exceptional” students.
- Seek ways to link or group these highly capable students with older students or those with similar academic profiles.
- Let’s not overlook or dismiss their emotional needs; we need to give highly capable students as much care, affirmation, and attention that we would any of our students.
- Recognize that the more talented academic students are not necessarily our natural classroom role models; sometimes assigning them this stature can backfire, prompting teachers to take them for granted and ignore their needs.
- Teachers should be inspired by the challenge of meeting the needs of the highly capable; these students offer opportunities to move instruction toward more creative, exploratory, high challenge, and stimulating approaches.
- Let me insert one opportunity for parents: Love your child, not the gift. Reward your child for their perseverance, work ethic, and determination—not for their gifts. Listen to their struggles and support their dreams.
- Here’s an opportunity from my colleague Lynda McInnes: Gifted children may be “so overstimulated with all the incoming and outgoing channels,” and thus deserve our understanding and care when they exhibit tantrums or freak out. Remember that these children are “asynchronous”—their developmental domains are moving and evolving at very different rates from what is considered normal. This phenomenon demands our patience and empathy.
- When factoring all the above—the many needs of the highly capable students and the needs of the teachers to support these children—I am in essence calling for a whole child approach to addressing the needs of highly capable students.