From Misconception to Evidence-based Understanding

By Larry Davis

January, 2018

Attitudes Toward the Gifted

The very notion of gifted education presents a seeming conflict of equity. Labeling one group of children as gifted sets up the premise that all the others are not. In my role as an education consultant, here’s how I often see this system of “haves” and “have nots” play out in the public schools.

To balance out the conflict, many inside the system tend to minimize the disparity between various skill levels, marginalizing the extraordinary nature of our gifted students’ abilities. As a result, many myths about giftedness go unchallenged, myths such as:

  • All children are gifted.
  • Gifted is a subjective term.
  • By focusing on the gifted students, we may lose touch with those who need us the most.

Perpetuating such myths diminishes the importance of meeting the needs of gifted students as well as the needs of the rest of the student body.

Parents who raise concerns over learning challenges their highly capable children may face are often met with a dismissive response. Recently, I was helping a parent navigate the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process. Her son, Andrew, has a reading disability coupled with a cognitive IQ score of over 140. A score at this level is relatively rare, placing the child in a group of students that comprise approximately a fourth of one percent of the student population. [See the sidebar for information on levels of giftedness.]

A formal evaluation showed that Andrew’s reading comprehension was “meeting standard” and that he was reading “at grade level.” However, looking deeper into his profile, we discovered that his ability to decode phonetic symbols and truly read new words was more than 49 points below his verbal comprehension IQ scores. This gap is considered a severe discrepancy between one’s ability and achievement, with the decoding score considered to be in the very low-average range.

Andrew’s extraordinary sight-word vocabulary, the result of his memory and verbal comprehension skills, enabled him to compensate and read at the same level as his age peers. When he heard a word and saw a visual representation, he could memorize it and immediately apply his recognition of this new sight word as he came across it in his reading.

The challenge for Andrew, however, came when he encountered new words on the page without hearing them first. His sound/symbol recognition skills were way below his age and grade level, leaving him with minimal encoding skills and poor reading fluency (speed, accuracy, and proper expression). All this was uncovered with the formal evaluation.

Isn’t Grade-level Achievement Good Enough?

Andrew’s situation is a perfect example of what many parents face when their gifted children display at-grade-level achievement, while having potential that is so much greater. For years, Andrew’s mother told his teachers that she was concerned about his reading skills. Their response was always the same: “He’s keeping up with his class and doesn’t seem to struggle.”

What does that response really mean? They were saying that meeting standard achievement is the target; anything above that is icing on the cake. From the teachers’ perspective, Andrew was presenting neither reading challenges nor behavior problems; so why focus on his issues when there are others with far greater needs?

Most teachers are overwhelmed, understandably so. Many are so focused on their students’ achievement standards and ability to meet grade level, that the notion of “gifted” is just too far off the radar. So what can parents do to get their gifted or twice-exceptional children on the radar? It takes evidence. Parents can use assessments, classroom performance, and other forms of recorded achievement to both present their concerns to educators and serve as a foundation for bringing about positive change for their children.

Taking an Evidence-based Approach

Here are some strategies that parents can use when advocating for their children at school.

  • Provide documentation to back up your claim that your child is gifted. High scores in the area of verbal comprehension are especially advantageous due to the emphasis in academic work on reading and writing.
  • Collect data relevant to your areas of concern. For example, if your son or daughter struggles with writing, show the teacher samples of your child’s written work. In discussing these samples, ask these questions:
    • How do these work samples compare to work by others in my child’s class?
    • How do the samples compare to work by someone with my child’s cognitive profile; would you expect more than what my child is producing?

    Academic Area

    Formal Assessment Achievement Skills

    Reading

    • Phonological awareness
    • Decoding
    • Fluency
    • Comprehension

    Math

    • Number sense
    • Calculations
    • Computations
    • Math reasoning

    Writing

    • Spelling
    • Sentence development
    • Written expression (including initiation, idea development, and organization)

    Communication

    • Receptive language
    • Expressive language
  • Be specific. When discussing an academic area, go beyond generalities. Focus on specific skills, such as the examples to the right.
  • Focus on strengths. When a child is viewed as being just like all the rest, we lose sight of the child’s individuality. What works instead is to focus on his or her strengths — on interests and successes, especially those outside of school. When the conversation turns toward a child’s deficits, it’s important for parents to redirect it toward the child’s areas of strength.

Taking an evidence-based approach is as important when addressing behavior issues as it is with academic issues. In my experience, gifted students are often, by nature, highly sensitive. Dr. Elizabeth Aron, an expert on this topic, explains it this way:

The highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.
(For additional information on HSPs, visit: http://hsperson.com/about-dr-elaine-aron.) 

As a result of being overwhelmed, many of our gifted students experience stress, anxiety, worry, and agitation. This emotional combination often leads to “flight or fight” behaviors, or to behaviors associated with oppositional defiance or anxiety.

The presence of these kinds of behaviors — sensitivity and anxiety/stress — can make students on the gifted spectrum highly inconvenient to classroom teachers. Furthermore, they can make gifted students seem difficult and confrontational. An agitated student, especially one armed with critical thinking, problem solving, and deep analysis skills, can be highly oppositional when placed in a position of anxiety or stress. Behavior of this nature is unlikely to elicit compassion or a willingness for collaboration from school personnel unless there is a true understanding of the basis of the behavior.

Therefore, I strongly advise parents to work with a clinical psychologist or other mental health provider to get a diagnosis for their child, if appropriate. It is imperative for a child’s success to shift the conversation from a position that is subjective and often emotional to an evidence-based discussion of the child’s behavior, highlighting any evaluation work presented by outside professionals.

Conclusion

From an education advocate’s perspective, I have always believed that twice-exceptional students can be one of the most difficult to work with, from a parenting or school perspective. The complexity of these children — academic, social, emotional, and behavioral — requires their parents and teachers to work from a position of compassion, understanding, and patience. Collaboration between school and home often takes an evidence-based approach to cut through the emotions and frustrations associated with this complexity. Then, once the two sides have created a platform for mutual understanding, compassion, collaboration, and partnership often develop.

The Five Levels of Giftedness

By Eleanor Munson, Ph.D., January 30, 2011 
Adapted here with permission

The label of ‘gifted’ is assigned once a psychologist — or other person who is qualified to administer and interpret IQ tests — has evaluated a child with an intelligence test, most commonly one the Wechsler tests (WPPSI, WISC, or WAIS). IQ scores for our population fall along a bell-shaped curve, meaning that 50% of the population scores around the average (IQ scores of 90-109) and as the curve drops on either end, the percentage of people scoring in that range gets smaller and smaller.

Deborah Ruf, Ph.D., has spent her career focused on that small area at the far right end, or tail, of the curve; the individuals that make up the most intellectually gifted of our society. One might think that the individuals who score in this area are more similar than not, but through her research Dr. Ruf has discovered and defined five distinctively different levels of giftedness. The differences between the levels are quite striking and have significant implications for a child’s home and school life. A summary of each of Dr. Ruf’s levels follows. For additional details, see Munson’s website: https://goo.gl/Wafvej.

Level One: Moderately Gifted to Gifted

IQ scores of 120-129

In the 90th-98th percentiles

Level Two: Highly Gifted

IQ scores of 130-135

Approximately 98th-9th percentiles

Level Three: Exceptionally Gifted

IQ scores of 136-140

Approximately 98th-99th percentiles

Levels Four and Five: Exceptionally to Profoundly Gifted

IQ scores above 140

In the 99th percentile

Larry Davis is an education consultant/advocate, author, and educator. His in-depth experience with gifted education, as well as special education advocacy, have led to his work with twice-exceptional program development. He is currently serving families through direct advocacy in addition to working as the social-emotional learning specialist for a school district in his hometown. For more information, visit his website, www.specialeducationadvocacy.org, Love, Understanding, and Other Best Practices: The New School of Thought on IEP & 504 Plans.

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