When the ‘gifted’ kids aren’t all right
A group of U.S. children could be set up for failure, despite the fact that they have a notable academic advantage over their peers. Gifted children fall victim to a belief shared by parents, educators and legislators alike that they “will be fine on their own.”
Experts say the issue boils down to lack of money and other resources to build robust education programs for them.
Nurturing bright minds requires more than just harder homework. The Deseret News spoke with experts who assert that improved outcomes for gifted children demand proper state and federal resources, quality emotional and academic education, and the creation of classrooms where these children can grow at rates matching their abilities.
When Kim Watterson’s daughter was referred by her teacher to the gifted and talented program, the course of Watterson’s teaching career permanently shifted. Watterson taught within Montana’s gifted and talented program, the Association for Gifted and Talented Education (AGATE), before retiring and becoming an association representative in southeastern Montana.
One of the primary reasons gifted children struggle in the classroom is because of how educators approach teaching gifted students. Teachers overall have been hard to find, The Washington Post reported, as they’ve been overworked, underpaid and stretched thin. Those who remain in the profession are charged with supporting as many students as possible, so when it’s time to review test scores, the students who get high marks aren’t the ones who catch their eyes.
“The kids who are low-achievers, the kids who are struggling with reading and math … all of the programs now are focused on getting those kids up to average. When we look at state testing, that’s what we’re looking at,” Watterson said. “And teachers are getting overwhelmed. They just don’t have the resources available to meet the needs of the wide spectrum of kids that they have.”
Teachers trying to accommodate gifted students may give them a bigger workload, Watterson said, to make up for the lack of time to teach each child one-on-one. This doesn’t intellectually stimulate or challenge a gifted student, however. Repetition of the same information doesn’t teach them anything new.
Watterson said that a common misconception when teaching gifted students is that assigning more work to students will be challenging enough. “The gifted kid will finish their assignment in 30 seconds, so they’ll be given more work to do,” she said. “It should be that they’re given something meaningful, so they can have something they’re learning, as well.”
Students given the same coursework repeatedly will succeed with it, but show no growth for their time spent in the classroom. This negatively affects their education, as a clever mind left bored and unattended will find ways to pass the time. Watterson said this is where teachers and parents typically start seeing behavior problems and an unmotivated attitude.
Studies from around the globe confirm the detrimental effect of a gifted mind left unchallenged, proving that “busy work” does more than simply leave the child bored. A Greek study found that gifted children will regularly underperform academically against their peers later in life, despite a heightened skill set. Not being challenged, interested or needing to put in effort sets up gifted children to be poor scholars as they won’t have learned a skill that their peers did in elementary school: how to study.
“It becomes difficult for kids when you’ve … never really been challenged to all of the sudden being in a situation where you are,” Watterson said. “They’re left thinking, ‘I’m not as smart as I thought I was’, or, ‘Maybe I’m not really gifted.’ … They start questioning themselves.”
To keep up with gifted students’ needs, knowledge assessments at the start of the semester, challenging coursework and gifted training for teachers are a baseline for improving gifted students’ performance in school, Watterson said. These require financial support from the state, however, and programs assisting children who are behind academically are given higher priority.
“We tend to forget about those kids at the high end. We tend to think that those kids are going to be OK, they’re doing fine,” Watterson said. “(AGATE) is struggling, as with a lot of the gifted ed in Montana. There’s not funding. It’s kind of a depressing road we’re going down.”
Funding and allocation
For the 2022 fiscal year, $17.5 billion was allocated for Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the legislative successor of the No Child Left Behind Act. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, Title II for the Every Student Succeeds Act — the title responsible for professional development and the gifted and talented programs nationally — received $2.2 billion for the fiscal year.
While that would equal $687 per gifted student, a 2019 study from Purdue University and Vanderbilt University found that even though there were roughly 3.2 million gifted students for the 2016 school year, as many as 3.6 million students had not been properly identified as gifted students, suggesting that the money allocated towards gifted education isn’t being properly distributed. Gifted programs typically don’t see that money to begin with, however.
The Every Student Succeeds Act says that the state must “address the learning needs of all students, including children with disabilities, English learners, and gifted and talented students.” Examples of how to accomplish this are given, but are worded in a way that does not require the state to use the funding for the identification and education of gifted children. Money is not guaranteed for gifted education.
Kristen E. Job, executive director of the Nebraska Association for the Gifted, said that each state’s laws differ on whether to require the identification and education of gifted children, both or neither. Purdue’s study supports this, noting that 30 of the 50 states have laws that require identification and services for gifted children and only four of those states are fully funded.
The inconsistency in services isn’t just on a national or state level. School districts differ in how they provide gifted identification and education. This becomes a greater issue for states like Nebraska which are mostly rural. Any funding the gifted program receives is more likely to end up in larger cities, leaving smaller towns and rural areas neglected — and the quality of a gifted Nebraskan child’s education entirely dependent upon where they live.
“You could move literally across town and have completely different identification plans and services,” Job said. “Once you get out of metro areas, there is little in the way of identification, and there is even less in the way of services.”
Nebraska’s state legislature only requires gifted identification, not educational services. One way that Nebraska schools can get state funding is by submitting an identification plan for students, receiving a small grant in return. The amount depends on the number of gifted students identified in the school, however, so even Nebraska’s largest schools receive little from the grant. The money is often used towards general education instead, Job said, which further prevents gifted students from receiving advanced education.
Asked what children deemed gifted get in accommodation to their education, Job replied: “Little to nothing. That’s the short answer.”
Underfunding for the gifted and talented program undercuts gifted students, leaving them with an incomplete education. However, it’s not only by way of academics that these children could be left behind. Their socioemotional well-being can suffer greatly without being addressed at a young age, leaving them without needed skills to cope in their adult years.
Studies have shown that without proper intellectual and emotional education, gifted students are at higher risk for poor mental health — which is often joined at the hip with peer exclusion, isolation and stress, according to Cambridge University. While these may sound like typical teen woes, symptoms become more worrisome when matched with high sensitivity, perfectionism and obsessive interests.
“Twice exceptional” is a term with which many — even those within the gifted community — may not be familiar. It is a more accurate description of many kids referred to as “gifted,” as research finds giftedness closely tied to the neurodivergent spectrum.
Grace Malonai of TheraThrive Counseling and Assessment in Lafayette, California, is a licensed professional clinical counselor who began working with gifted children and adults after her own child was shown to be gifted. She has seen many gifted individuals both in therapy and her research and said misunderstanding twice-exceptionality can lead to many unnecessary obstacles for people of this demographic.
“Giftedness is asynchronous development,” Malonai said. “People have connotations with the word (‘gifted’) that make it feel like they have a big ego or people like this are ‘better,’ but they’re not. They’re just people.”
High expectations are often pushed onto those that are gifted, Malonai said. This causes disproportionately high levels of stress in young students, as these expectations are often unattainable for the child’s age. With the “gifted” label, however, this issue is overlooked and behavioral issues come as a shock for parents and teachers.
“Oftentimes, we’re talking about fairly young people,” Malonai said. “These kids are so smart, and people are used to talking to these kids like they’re adults already. They’re just kids. Just because they can understand what you’re saying doesn’t mean that they’re mature.”
Malonai continued, “It’s easy to forget how young someone actually is when they don’t act that young. Therefore, it’s easy to be surprised when they actually act their own age.”
A large percentage of gifted individuals struggle socially and/or emotionally, Malonai said. While they are able to grasp existential concepts like hunger, poverty and even mortality, they lack the emotional skills to cope with intense topics. This applies to everyday, mundane struggles, as well. Though some gifted children will be able to teach themselves proper self-regulation, the belief that “gifted kids are fine on their own” once again leaves gifted children unprepared for the future.
By contrast, Malonai found that gifted adults who were educated early on about their giftedness, their potential twice-exceptionality and how to properly self-regulate had a far more positive self-image. Students who received emotional counseling typically had more positive outcomes than their gifted peers who received minimal emotional guidance.
“Some of the foundations of giftedness — the intensity, drive, focus, sectionalism, sensitivity and overexcitability — are there throughout their lifespan,” Malonai said. “(But) when somebody is understood better and is able to accept themselves, then they’re able to flourish as adults.”
Research from the University of Isfahan in Iran supports this, as a 2022 study found that interventions based on applied behavior analysis therapy — a form of therapy often used with neurodivergent individuals — proved to be a boon with gifted students. Therapeutic interventions helped steadily improve gifted high schoolers’ psychological well-being, as well as rekindle academic motivation in gifted students.
“You see more burnout in kids who don’t know how to balance their lives,” Malonai said. “Parents need to trust their kids when their kid says to them, ‘I can’t do this’ … and support them.”