Identifying gifted, highly gifted, and profoundly gifted students — challenges and opportunities

As a school principal, I’ve come across my share of bright kids. A few have been identified to me by their parents as gifted, and a few seem gifted, but haven’t (yet) been formally identified.

And one would likely never be identified as gifted by teachers in the classroom because he is disruptive and unfocused. However, in fact, I consider him to be potentially highly or profoundly gifted, and have had the discussion with his parents.

Rather than continue to allow him to be sent to my office when he was disruptive, I decided to try something different.

I spoke to him.

I asked him questions.

I tried to determine why he was being disruptive.

There were other factors contributing to his acting out which are not for public consumption, but one thing that came to the fore when he realized I was actually listening, leading him to open up, was that he was bored to the point of distraction by what he perceived as busywork — the obligatory arts and crafts, the drills, the focus on facts rather than an exploration of patterns and broader synthesis.

He revealed to me his love of certain academic subjects. This is a young child, I should mention. His favourite activity is sitting alone and reading. And yet, he is articulate, a deep thinker able to connect ideas and synthesize.

The following week, less disruption. But in subsequent weeks, it picked up again. I spoke with the parents,  and a picture began to emerge of a very able and advanced child who had no true peers in the age-lockstep classroom and who was being made to do work several years behind his ability.

On discussion with the parents, I offered to teach him privately from time to time, focusing on ancient history and allied topics. They were thrilled. The student was thrilled. I was thrilled.

And I’m beginning the process of completely restructuring my school curriculum to go beyond the IEPs in order to develop an approach that allows for ease of special need accommodation. But it, like most worthwhile pedagogical enterprises, will take time.

This is one story from a small private school. Larger schools, particularly public schools, have a much harder time. The idea that a disruptive child or one who appears to have an attention deficit, could possibly be gifted, let alone highly or profoundly gifted, may sound odd to many educators.  And with 20, 25, or 30 students to teach, lesson plans to put together, and work-life balance to figure out, teachers have their work cut out for them.

What I advocate is a top-down approach. Administrators, Heads of School, Principals — take the lead and arrange for training in gifted identification and accommodation for your staff. How, after all, can I expect my teachers, who come from varied backgrounds and who have had differing types of exposure to special needs kids, to know how to properly identify a gifted, highly gifted, or profoundly gifted student, if they’ve never had special training using the latest research by giftedness researchers?

Some teachers have been working in the field for decades, and their concept of a gifted child is the stereotypically smart student who is dutiful, absorbs her lessons quickly, is socially cooperative (or perhaps a leader), and, if graded, receives the straight As.

And some mildly gifted students do indeed fit this profile. But more often than not, they don’t. Highly and profoundly gifted students are even more difficult to identify in the classroom. Or, if they are identified, it’s most likely to be for less positive reasons, such as disruption, a “social problem” such as not wanting to interact with the other students, preferring to read alone during class time, or preferring the company of adults or older children. Tantrums are also common  in the early school years, when an unidentified HG or PG child feels the lack of fit, or boredom, has no idea how to express it emotionally, and so, acts out.

Such students may fare better in provinces where giftedness is both recognized and accommodated by the Education Ministries. Alberta, for example, has an excellent track record with respect to gifted programs and accommodation, though funding for such programs remains elusive for many provinces and boards.

Quebec is one province that lags behind the other provinces on all measures — from giftedness training for teachers and administrators to accommodation. This is, simply put, because the Education Ministry does not recognize giftedness as a special need, as do other provinces, such as Ontario. The Ministere believes that all students can be accommodated in the regular classroom.

What this means is that teachers and administrators alike have simply not been prepared to identify gifted students unless they conform to the very narrow stereotype of the gifted child who is dutiful, organized, socially strong, and gets straight As. And indeed, why should they bother if there is nowhere to refer gifted children in Quebec? Why recommend psychometric testing if there is nothing to be done with the results?

Other stereotypes commonly put forward as Gospel by educators without giftedness training, and disputed by the prominent giftedness researchers, include the following:

Stereotype 1. Acceleration (either grade skipping or other means of moving the student ahead in various subjects) is socially harmful to gifted students.

Fact: Acceleration is one among several ways to allow a gifted student to excel. It has not been proven to be socially harmful to most students. More information here and here. And in this excellent study on The effects of acceleration on the social and emotional development of gifted students, the matter is clearly summarized as follows:

“Neither the review of the literature nor the comparison of the SMPY gifted students identified any negative effects of acceleration on social and emotional development. Indeed, any effects of this sort seem to be positive. The validity of the claim that acceleration is somehow detrimental to the social and emotional development of accelerants must thus be seriously questioned.”

Stereotype 2: Parents who identify their children as gifted are “pushy” and simply want special attention.

Fact: Studies have demonstrated that parents are often the first and best identifiers of gifted traits in their children, as per articles such as this one, by N. Colangelo and D.F. Dettmann, in which they state that:

“. . . parents are the most potent identifiers of giftedness and creativity. The school may simply be unaware of the child’s nonacademic abilities, and thus, schools need any supporting evidence parents can offer (Kaufman,1976). Also, children with creative abilities may be perceived as wild, playful, silly, “off the beaten track,” having a tendency to think independently, and to be nonconforming (Sisk, 1977); Information from parents can be useful to offset this image. [. . .] It seems clear that parents can be helpful in the identification process.”

Stereotype 3: Gifted students will be fine without special programming.

Fact: It has been irrefutably demonstrated that without special needs accommodation, gifted students may have great difficulty in a conventional classroom setting, and either tune out or eventually drop out. These minds are then lost to society. Rather than de-fund gifted education in Canada, legislators — the selfsame legislators who complain about Canada’s “brain drain” — should reinvigourate and increase funding for gifted  programs across Canada in order to nourish the gifted and talented who can enhance our country and its achievements. Although I’ve embedded the link above, I will again underscore this important article in Macleans, which is a must read if you care about gifted children in Canada. It may be read here:

One quote, in particular, stands out, and should make all educational administrators and teachers take note:

“Studies have shown that gifted students, who make up about two per cent of the population, risk social alienation and boredom, which can give way to underachievement and behaviour problems. It’s possible for these kids, as well as the profoundly gifted (the top 0.5 per cent), to be saddled with a learning disability. And though their potential to achieve may trump that of their classmates, as some experts have found, so does their propensity to drop out.”

Bottom line and some points to consider:

Identify, identify, identify. Returning to the top-down approach — Heads of School/Principals, arrange for giftedness identification and accommodation training for your teachers, and, if you haven’t had the training, for yourself as well. There is no shame in not having had the training, or admitting that one’s pedagogical skills need refreshing. However, not taking action after becoming aware of the existence of new giftedness research due to force of habit is another matter. Sorry to be a nudge, but these kids need your leadership and institutional change to help them flourish. Take the leap into the unknown; become the giftedness resource in your school district.

Use your PD/Professional days to teach your teachers to properly conceptualize and identify/nominate gifted or likely gifted students. If there are no gifted schools or pull-out programs in your region, buy, read — and have your teachers read — the wonderful book by Susan Winebrenner, entitled Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom: Strategies and Techniques Every Teacher Can Use. Everything is there in one package, and I can almost guarantee that you will look at your students with different eyes when you’ve finished reading the book. And you’ll understand why teachers of the gifted in regular classrooms refer to it as “the Orange Bible.”

If you note a disruptive or challenging child in your classroom who also happens to be advanced in reading, math, vocabulary, or some other area, I suggest that you don’t immediately jump to pathology. Think gifted while considering the other options. Share this possibility with the parents so they can make educational decisions that best meet their child’s needs.

If a young gifted child in your classroom does not seem to fit in with his age peers, and prefers to sit and read (particularly if his age peers are not yet reading) or has a preference for conversation with adults or older children, do not automatically label it as a “socialization problem”. Think gifted. As Susan Winebrenner tells us in the book I’ve linked to above, you can never judge a gifted child’s socialization by watching his or her interactions with age peers. Rather, she states the following, which should become a mantra for teachers who seek to better conceptualize the challenge of gifted children and socialization:

“It’s true that gifted children may seem socially inept when we observe them with their age peers. But put them together with their learning or passionate-interest peers — older kids, adults, or other children who share their gifts — and many function just fine. Please don’t ever judge a gifted child’s social skills based only on his interactions with his age peers. And please don’t deprive him of appropriate learning opportunities in order to focus all of his school time on his social interaction skills.” (Winebrenner, p. 25)

On a personal note, I saw this in my own child, who found it challenging to interact with age peers, but who has interacted beautifully with older children and with a profoundly gifted ‘true peer’. Both five years old, they sat reading together, discussing the proper identification and features of the brachiosaurus. True peers interacting on the same level, appropriately, and without any evidence of social difficulty. All gifted children should be identified in order to be placed with their true peers so that they can find their place in the world, speak the same “language”, and not feel different.

In an excellent gifted identification list produced by Alberta’s Education Ministry, which may be accessed here in pdf format, we find the following key gifted traits that tend to be mislabeled as various types of pathologies in educational settings where there is little to no training in giftedness and its identification:

  • “Enjoys or prefers to work and play independently”
  • “Prefers the company of older children and adults”
  • “Reads books and magazines geared for older children and adults.”
  • “Is very active and has trouble sitting still.”
  • “Cries or excites easily”

While the reading may seem like an obvious identifier, if the child chooses to be alone away from the group so s/he can read, that may be too easily mislabeled as a social issue.

And does anyone see some possible ADHD identifiers here as well? So do many educators untrained in giftedness. Which is not to say that a gifted student might  not also be 2e, that is, doubly exceptional. Some students are both gifted and have an LD or ADHD. The onus, then, is on us as educators and school administrators to become properly trained, to train our staff, and for all of us in school communities, particularly parents — who know their kids best — to advocate for the proper identification and accommodation of all special needs students, including our gifted.

After all, were legislators to suggest not properly identifying or funding students functioning 2 standard deviations below the average IQ of 100 (i.e,. ~an IQ of 70), we’d be up in arms. And yet, somehow, students functioning at 2 standard deviations above the average (i.e., an IQ of 130), who are as different from the norm as are the students with IQs of 70, are frequently left to languish in the regular classroom. Why? How can we change this in Canada?

There. I’ve said my piece.

These and other stereotypes about the gifted may be read in the excellent article ”36 Myths and Stereotypes of Gifted Students: Awareness for the Classroom Teacher”  by Nicholas Colangelo, which may be found here. This is essential reading for all teachers and school administrators.

Thank you for reading, sharing this with others, and making a difference in the lives and futures of a precious resource and underserved population — our gifted students.

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7 comments on “Identifying gifted, highly gifted, and profoundly gifted students — challenges and opportunities
  1. Fantastic article. I have a 2e child who has an IQ 0f 185 and we are in Manitoba without any programming. My goal is now to try and work to get funded programming. The province decided in the 70″s to fund gifted programming, but chose to remove it under the auspiciousness that is was not needed, and these kids were ok on their own in the classrooms, whist those with learnign difficulties were not and therefore were the priority for funding. The latter we know is a fallacy and i am working hard to try and connect to other parents who are in the position I am in so that we can work to lobby for proper programming for our children and those to come.

    Thanks you for you great insight and understanding. The children and teachers with whom you work are fortunate to have you on their team.


    • Thanks for your comment, Sharon! I greatly appreciate it. Does your child have an IEP or any kind of accommodations at all? Are you in touch with other local parents of gifted children? Would love to hear more. Have a good weekend!

  2. Great post! I have worked in PLD for schools in gifted and talented for a number of years. I can say unequivocally that the major factor for success in getting gifted and talented provisions embedded in a school culture is the involvement of the Principal. Where the Principal leads the PLD, attends all sessions and takes an active part in the process, success follows and the school will have a sustainable, ongoing process even when I walk away.

    • Thanks, Robyn. I appreciate your comment. We do need more understanding of gifted and talented issues across the board (so to speak). Principals have access to spec. ed. training as well as GT courses — often locally but certainly via distance education. We’ve been fortunate that our DD is now in a school where both the Principal and her teacher are trained in spec. ed., so she is being accommodated in a regular classroom. It can indeed be done if there is a focus on these kids by the administration.

  3. Excellent post. I particularly like the recommendations for principals/heads of schools to include training for gifted education in their planning for teachers.
    I am an scholar and advocate for culturally diverse gifted learners (children of color, Black, Hispanic), can you share any reflections on how the needs of these students are being met in Canada? Please feel free to write me via email. Thank you very much!! Dr. Davis

    • Dear Dr. Davis. Thank you for your comment and kind words. Since the needs of gifted students are addressed province by province, each province has its own approach to identification and accommodation (or lack thereof). For example, the testing used to identify all students in Grade three in Ontario is standardized and I’m unaware of a culture-fair format. Parents are welcome to obtain private testing, and I believe that this can include culture-fair testing, but of course, this is expensive and out of the range of many families. Quebec’s Education ministry does not formally recognize giftedness as a special need. There is awareness of the challenge in identifying culturally diverse gifted learners in the provinces (for example, one mention of this challenge on page 21 in ); however, in practice, the implementation side is handled board by board and school by school. The availability of gifted programs and classes varies.

  4. Many thanks for a wonderfully inspiring, articulate article. I believe my son is gifted in language arts but haven’t gone down that path with much intention as we homeschool and I think that our approach has probably taken care of many of his ‘needs’. I have put the book you mentioned on hold at the library though, and hopefully can glean some useful tips!

    I am so, so encouraged to read your article. You are a beacon of light for these often misunderstood children. And I love that you are a principal—in a position to have a profound influence. Keep up the fantastic work!

    kind regards,

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