Is my child gifted? Talking to schools about talented students

February 6, 2019 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary

One of the earliest videos I took of my daughter shows her as a toddler, playing with wooden blocks and haltingly counting to 20. I was bursting with pride, both at her ability to stack the blocks so carefully and precisely, and at how she had finally mastered her numbers. In that moment, I felt, as so many other parents have, that surely my child was a genius, capable of doing great things!

My daughter is 7 years old now, and I am still happy to brag on her abilities. She is a strong reader, a creative artist and a delightful conversationalist. But as a parent, it can be hard to separate my own bursting pride from any sort of objective assessment of her abilities. After all — what does it really mean to be “talented and gifted”?

What does ‘gifted’ mean?

The difference between a child who is bright and capable, versus a child who is truly exceptional, can be hard to tease out.

“It’s not a matter of ‘being gifted’ or not,” notes Linda Brody of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth.

But, Brody said, it is useful to distinguish between students who are being well served by the material at their grade level, and students who require more challenging material in order to continue learning and progressing in that area.

“If you’re talking about a kindergartner who’s reading on a third-grade level, whether or not the world would agree this is a ‘gifted’ child, we can agree there’s a need there,” Brody said. “It may not be appropriate to skip a grade, but right now, they need an advanced curriculum, because that’s where they’re at.”

The benefits of enrichment

Because there is no single standard or definition for what “gifted and talented” means, programs to serve exceptional students will vary from district to district — and many programs have evolved to become more inclusive.

In the Fort Plain Central School District, Lauri Broady has been offering extracurricular programs for gifted and talented elementary school students for about a decade. During that time, she said, the school has opened the program up to any student who is interested, letting go of any formal evaluation process to identify students as “gifted.”

Broady’s program offers a variety of activities throughout the school year, all of which are interactive and hands-on.

“They are definitely exposed to some things that they would not normally do in the course of a day,” Broady said, adding, “I can do things with a group of 15 or so kids that a teacher can’t necessarily do with a larger class. We can branch out a little bit, or dig into things a little deeper.”

At Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Carrie Sunkes runs the PACE program, which identifies specific students through entrance criteria for more challenging and project-based activities throughout the school year. But Sunkes also administers enrichment programs, which offer all students the opportunity to enrich their grade-level learning in a 5- to 6-week unit of further study in a particular topic.

Like at Fort Plain, Sunkes said the BH-BL program gives students the chance to dig deeper into certain subject areas, and to work together as a smaller group.

“There’s so many things that are typically taught to gifted and talented kids — the problem-solving, the ability to question things,” Sunkes said. “Why not give that to every kid? Why not send them to sixth grade and beyond with that knowledge?”

Talking to your child’s school

While programs like those in Fort Plain and BH-BL do a great job of serving talented students, not every school offers a structured program for acceleration or enrichment. So how can parents approach their child’s teacher or school if they think their child needs acceleration? Linda Brody of the Center for Talented Youth suggests that parents take the following steps to make that conversation productive:

Know your child

The more information you have about your child’s abilities, the better, Brody advises. That could be anything from pointing out that your child is still being taught his ABCs when he already knows how to read, to some type of formal assessment (Brody mentioned the Iowa Acceleration Scale as one tool that can be used to measure a student’s readiness for above-level curriculum).

The basic idea, Brody says, is to be aware of where your child stands in relation to what they’re being taught. “If you’re seeing a discrepancy between what you know the child is capable of doing, and the kind of work they’re bringing home, that’s a red flag,” she said.

Case the joint

Brody encourages parents to look at everything from a teacher’s style of instruction to the child’s peer group when considering what makes the most sense.

“It helps to get a better sense of the school itself,” Brody explained. “Are there other kids at the level of your child? Is there a more advanced reading group she could be put into? Is there another classroom where he could go for math?” These kind of questions, Brody said, can help you and your child’s teacher work together toward a solution.

Be realistic and collaborative

Brody encourages parents to approach any conversation with a child’s teacher as an opportunity to collaborate and work together in the child’s best interest. “What doesn’t work is the parent who goes in and says, ‘My child is brilliant and totally bored in class, what are you going to do about it?’”, Brody cautioned, adding, “Pick your battles — you’re not going to change the whole school day, you’re not going to change the way a teacher teaches. Working together — that’s what you want to do.”

Think it through

When considering skipping students ahead, Brody recommends parents consider both the short-term implications as well as the longer-term impacts.

“You could take a third grader and skip fourth grade, but it might be that there were much stronger kids in her class, and the class she’s skipping into is a weaker class,” Brody warns. Then, of course, there are the implications further down the road — will your students be able to play sports with his peers? Will she be left out of social activities because of her age?

For students who are ready to skip a grade, Brody recommends situating the “skip” at a natural transition point, such as the transition from elementary to middle school, providing the child seems ready socially and emotionally as well as intellectually.

For Carrie Sunkes of BH-BL, it’s also important to consider what else is going on in that child’s life.

“It’s not just about a grade, or one piece of data,” Sunkes noted. “There’s a balancing act — if a child’s being challenged in their music lessons or athletics right now, this might not be the time to push them more in English or math.”

Brace yourself

Once a student does begin to be challenged, parents should be prepared for that child to experience frustration or stress, especially if previous schoolwork had been easy for them.

At BH-BL, Sunkes works directly with parents to prepare them for this, and considers navigating these new challenges as a core part of the accelerated curriculum.

“We try to do it in the elementary schools so it’s not mind-blowing when they get that first bad grade,” Sunkes explained. “We’ve really been talking to parents about how these students are developing grit, and learning to be comfortable tackling different or difficult situations.”

Sunkes said it can be hard for parents to see their children struggle, but encourages parents to cheer students on in sticking with it and working through problems, and to share their own challenges with their kids as a way of illustrating how problem-solving works in everyday life.

I still don’t know if my daughter is “gifted,” but if I ever do decide to have that conversation with her school, at least now I know I’m ready. In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying her stories, drawings and great conversations — which are enough of a gift for me any time.

Emily Popek is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Otsego County with her husband and their daughter.

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