What does it mean to be gifted, and what makes someone gifted? (Eli Millner)
What does it mean to be gifted, and what makes someone gifted?

Eli Millner

What does it mean to be gifted?

March 14, 2020

BACKGROUND

Although gifted services in the Clayton School District have seen numerous variations over the past 10 years, 2017 marked a new phase in the program. 70 percent of all identified gifted students were actively enrolled in the program. That year, the percentage of black students in gifted courses was so low Missouri’s annual Gifted Students Report displayed an asterisk rather than a number. Clearly, there were some problems to be addressed.
Around this same time, the soon-to-be founders of Clayton Parents for Gifted Learners Jessica Del Pilar and Chris Win started to notice that the gifted program wasn’t quite what it looked like from the outside. Each had children at Glenridge who seemed to be lacking the support that they needed and, when the two dug deeper into research on the social-emotional wellness of gifted children and state requirements for programs, they identified some serious shortcomings. Del Pilar felt that these gaps needed to be better understood in order for the district to formulate its next steps.
“As I was really struggling to figure out what [my child] needed at that moment, I came to understand that the program had changed from what it was intended to be and what the state required it to be,” Del Pilar said. “And so, we started asking some very pointed questions about what was actually being delivered [by the program] and what we were being told it was.”
The district wasn’t blind to these issues either. As part of a two year self-study, it hired outside consultant Dr. Kimberley Chandler, Curriculum Director at the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary, to examine Clayton’s gifted services. Her conclusions served as a wake-up call.
Chandler, in her official report from April 2017, found that the district lacked a “cohesive, coherent document to guide the development and implementation of curriculum for gifted learners,” as well as professional development for gifted teachers, a system to analyze program effectiveness, or a requirement for gifted specialists to meet national standards established by the NAGC and Council for Exceptional Children.
The report highlighted a “lack of clarity regarding the program emphases.” And, echoing Del Pilar and Win’s concerns, it stated that “there is little evidence of optimal match between a student’s academic profile and the program offered to meet his/her needs.” Just as they had initially sensed, it seemed that the program no longer aligned with state requirements. More importantly, however, it had lost a real connection with the needs of gifted students. Changes needed to be made.
The report was part of a two-year self-study conducted by the District Gifted Committee, led by Coordinator of Gifted Education Sharon Slodounik and Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Dr. Milena Garganigo. Although Soldounik and Garganigo, as well as many other administrators and district gifted specialists, were engaged in improving gifted services prior to 2017, this study was the first step towards something much more comprehensive.
To address Chandler’s concerns of insufficient training, unclear emphasis and variable curriculum, the district set out to make significant changes to the program, starting in 2018. In the spring of that year, a universal screener called the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test was implemented to prepare for identification in the fall. Because this test is nonverbal, “it helps to eliminate any opportunities for language barriers, because it’s really looking at just mental processing skills,” said Meghan Margherio, the district’s gifted coordinator.

Chandler found that the district lacked a “cohesive, coherent document to guide the development and implementation of curriculum for gifted leaners.””

Whereas before, students were required to be recommended by a teacher or parent in order to take gifted testing, this new system allowed all students an equal opportunity to qualify. Thus, it was intended to help solve the issues of equity and subjectivity that had previously been subject of concern. The identification process was now focused on academic ability, MAP scores, grades and performance levels.
But the 2018-19 process backfired.
The process was “identifying kids who are high performers, but don’t necessarily have that brain that’s wired differently, and has those learning needs for gifted services,” according to Captain Elementary Gifted Specialist Laura Winkler. It was also failing to meet the proposed goals of increasing diversity and making the identification process fairer.
“The intention was to be more inclusive, and it was more exclusive,” Del Pilar said.
111 students were identified as gifted that year. Three were African-American.
In July 2019, both Margherio and Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Robyn Wiens concluded in in a review that, “Students from underrepresented populations (racial/ethnic subgroups, students of low socioeconomic status, English learners, and twice exceptional students) did not have an equal opportunity for gifted identification. [And] there was a mismatch between the identification process and the services provided in the gifted classroom.”
Despite the universal screener and changes made to the identification process, the district was still under-identifying minorities. Wiens’ and Margherio’s review also found that the number of African-American students being identified for gifted services was below the Missouri Department for Elementary and Secondary Education’s encouraged 20% “equity index,” which means that the subgroup racial percentages of a district’s gifted program may show a +/- 20% discrepancy with overall district percentages.
The review found that only 4% of the gifted program is African American, compared to 15% of the district.
Confronted by this troubling outcome, Margherio, Wiens and the district decided to once again fine-tune the gifted curriculum and identification process, this time over the summer before the 2019-20 school year.
The universal screener is still used for every student in grades two and four, as well as any new students, but more students move on to further evaluation stages after the screener. This year, 30-40% of screened students were moved on to further evaluation, a much higher percentage compared to that of 2018.
“We widened the screener,” Margherio said. “DESE (Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) [recommends] that we take the top 10-20% of students screened on for further evaluation. We widened that a little bit more to take anywhere between 30 and 40%. Just so that we can make sure that we are looking at as many kids as possible and really trying to make sure that we catch anybody that might fall in the cracks.”
The identification process has also begun to exclude grades and standardized test scores, and focuses more on behavior, cognitive processing and creativity. The district has moved away from national norms to create local norms, comparing students with each other within the district instead of with their peers across the state. Students from underrepresented subgroups are compared to each other, rather than their grades as a whole, to address the problems of inherent bias and inequity in the identification process. Identification no longer relies on students to advance past a number of gates (with one “failed” test meaning exclusion from consideration) and instead pools teacher feedback, assessments and a number of other considerations to come to an ultimate decision.
The district has worked to make the program more holistic. Margherio said that the gifted team is “making sure that we’re supporting kids on every level, not just academically or socially and emotionally, but really thinking about them from a holistic standpoint, all the way from how we identify to the services that we provide to their classroom experience.”
A shift in perspective to the idea of gifted services as a learning need, a vertically aligned curriculum and a general recognition of implicit bias in the identification process have been among other reforms implemented.
This year, 125 students in grades two through eight were evaluated. Out of the 44 students who qualified, 12 were African-American.
Wiens is hopeful that the district will continue to see positive results as the gifted program evolves.
“When we talk about implicit bias, and when we think about systemic barriers that may be in place, either intentionally or unintentionally, it really makes you think critically about the process,” Wiens said. “And so that’s what our plan is this year […] really rethinking where we’ve been and where we want to go.”

VOICES

Many have heard the term “gifted child.” Some may even have been labeled as one. But how many truly understand what it entails?
“It’s not necessarily about how smart a child is. It’s just about how their brain is wired,” gifted counselor Amanda Moeller said.
A gifted child is generally defined as anyone who has a naturally high level of mental ability or extraordinary ability in any specific area of activity or knowledge.
“Giftedness is a product of the interaction of native ability and life experiences. If a child has a native ability, his environment determines the use he makes of his gifts and special talents,” Ruth Strang, a previous psychologist at Columbia University, wrote in a 1954 journal article.
Most psychologists agree that there are differences beyond intelligence between gifted children and others. Lewis Terman observed 1,500 gifted children in a 1921 study, finding a greater drive to achieve, greater mental and social adjustment, and high sensitivity to issues such as boredom or rejection from peers. The exceptional abilities often possessed by gifted children can be associated with certain issues.
One idea sometimes believed to be a result of gifted programs is the idea of “gifted child burnout,” popularized through viral memes chronicling aspects of a gifted child burnout identity. However, previous gifted education teacher and current gifted counselor Emily Kircher-Morris believes that gifted programs are much more of a positive experience rather than a contributor to any symptoms of burnout.
“What I see more often is kids who get to high school, for example, and they feel a lot of pressure to take a lot of AP classes or honors classes at the expense of self-care because they feel like they should do it or people say, ‘Oh, you’re so smart so you should do this.’ I see that causing a lot of stress and burnout at the high school level, but not necessarily associated with participation in a program when they were younger. Most often the kids, teens and adults who I work with have positive memories and experiences of being in those programs when they were kids, because it was kind of the one place that they could generally go and be challenged and work at a quicker pace, whereas in the general ed classroom, that wasn’t such a great fit,” Morris said.
Still, Moeller sees issues with anxiety and perfectionism in gifted children. In her experience, study skills tend to be one lacking aspect in gifted children, as some of them were never challenged in their general classrooms and do not know how to truly study when faced with the obstacle later in life. She noted that college students often come to her for help with these problems, as they have not been truly challenged until college and now are beginning to struggle. Other issues she notices are cases of “impostor syndrome,” children in disbelief or confusion about their special talents.
Both counselors attend to “twice-exceptional” children, those who are gifted but have an additional diagnosis, such as ADHD, Asperger’s, dyslexia and others. Moeller explains that with high IQ children, you’re more likely to see secondary diagnoses. This can lead to one aspect of the individual overpowering the other, such as the giftedness masking their struggles, or vice versa.
“So you might have a child who is gifted with ADHD, and they’re so bright they get by. But then when their ADHD symptoms appear, people think that they’re just being lazy or they’re unmotivated when really they’re not. There’s another diagnosis there that needs to be supported. The flipside of that is that you might have the ADHD symptoms that are more prevalent, so they mask the giftedness. Then the kids don’t get the challenge and the strengths-based instruction that they need for their cognitive ability, because people only see the ADHD characteristics,” Kircher-Morris said.
Today, several schools have implemented some form of a gifted program to educate these children in ways that best serve their needs. Implementing certain ideas, such as a social-emotional learning aspect to the program, proves beneficial. Psychologists generally agree that the environmental pressures gifted children face differ from their peers.
“Gifted kids have very intense emotions… They need to have a place where they can talk through those emotions, especially when things get overwhelming,” Moeller said.
Kicher-Morris believes it’s important to educate gifted children on how to navigate friendships, perfectionism, handle the pressure of believing they have to “measure up” and manage the competitive nature of upper-level classes. Twice-exceptional kids also receive greater social and emotional benefits from these programs.
Both counselors have ideas on how gifted programs can improve to better serve their intended purpose. Moeller suggests a strong emphasis on encouraging students to focus on their interests and delve deeper, especially with project-based learning and components of group work. She wants programs to shift away from an overview of generic concepts to a much more challenging curriculum that teaches gifted children the study skills they will need to utilize later in life. Kircher-Morris hopes gifted programs will also refine their programs based on their identification criteria.
“The bottom line is that schools are limited based on what the state regulations and recommendations are as well as what they’re able to do,” Morris said. “I would say a gifted program should match the identification process for how they’re identifying their gifted students. So if, for example, a student is going to be placed in a highly academic, rigorous, gifted program, meaning that there is a lot of researching and writing, perhaps higher level math types of things that they’re doing in the gifted program, then the identification process should include achievement measures that that look at those things. Some programs are more based on critical thinking and problem solving, and so those might be a little bit more related to some other types of measures that look at creativity, problem solving, perhaps IQ.”

PSYCHOLOGY

Many have heard the term “gifted child.” Some may even have been labeled as one. But how many truly understand what it entails?
“It’s not necessarily about how smart a child is. It’s just about how their brain is wired,” gifted counselor Amanda Moeller said.
A gifted child is generally defined as anyone who has a naturally high level of mental ability or extraordinary ability in any specific area of activity or knowledge.
“Giftedness is a product of the interaction of native ability and life experiences. If a child has a native ability, his environment determines the use he makes of his gifts and special talents,” Ruth Strang, a previous psychologist at Columbia University, wrote in a 1954 journal article.
Most psychologists agree that there are differences beyond intelligence between gifted children and others. Lewis Terman observed 1,500 gifted children in a 1921 study, finding a greater drive to achieve, greater mental and social adjustment, and high sensitivity to issues such as boredom or rejection from peers. The exceptional abilities often possessed by gifted children can be associated with certain issues.
One idea sometimes believed to be a result of gifted programs is the idea of “gifted child burnout,” popularized through viral memes chronicling aspects of a gifted child burnout identity. However, previous gifted education teacher and current gifted counselor Emily Kircher-Morris believes that gifted programs are much more of a positive experience rather than a contributor to any symptoms of burnout.
“What I see more often is kids who get to high school, for example, and they feel a lot of pressure to take a lot of AP classes or honors classes at the expense of self-care because they feel like they should do it or people say, ‘Oh, you’re so smart so you should do this.’ I see that causing a lot of stress and burnout at the high school level, but not necessarily associated with participation in a program when they were younger. Most often the kids, teens and adults who I work with have positive memories and experiences of being in those programs when they were kids, because it was kind of the one place that they could generally go and be challenged and work at a quicker pace, whereas in the general ed classroom, that wasn’t such a great fit,” Morris said.
Still, Moeller sees issues with anxiety and perfectionism in gifted children. In her experience, study skills tend to be one lacking aspect in gifted children, as some of them were never challenged in their general classrooms and do not know how to truly study when faced with the obstacle later in life. She noted that college students often come to her for help with these problems, as they have not been truly challenged until college and now are beginning to struggle. Other issues she notices are cases of “impostor syndrome,” children in disbelief or confusion about their special talents.
Both counselors attend to “twice-exceptional” children, those who are gifted but have an additional diagnosis, such as ADHD, Asperger’s, dyslexia and others. Moeller explains that with high IQ children, you’re more likely to see secondary diagnoses. This can lead to one aspect of the individual overpowering the other, such as the giftedness masking their struggles, or vice versa.
“So you might have a child who is gifted with ADHD, and they’re so bright they get by. But then when their ADHD symptoms appear, people think that they’re just being lazy or they’re unmotivated when really they’re not. There’s another diagnosis there that needs to be supported. The flipside of that is that you might have the ADHD symptoms that are more prevalent, so they mask the giftedness. Then the kids don’t get the challenge and the strengths-based instruction that they need for their cognitive ability, because people only see the ADHD characteristics,” Kircher-Morris said.
Today, several schools have implemented some form of a gifted program to educate these children in ways that best serve their needs. Implementing certain ideas, such as a social-emotional learning aspect to the program, proves beneficial. Psychologists generally agree that the environmental pressures gifted children face differ from their peers.
“Gifted kids have very intense emotions… They need to have a place where they can talk through those emotions, especially when things get overwhelming,” Moeller said.
Kicher-Morris believes it’s important to educate gifted children on how to navigate friendships, perfectionism, handle the pressure of believing they have to “measure up” and manage the competitive nature of upper-level classes. Twice-exceptional kids also receive greater social and emotional benefits from these programs.
Both counselors have ideas on how gifted programs can improve to better serve their intended purpose. Moeller suggests a strong emphasis on encouraging students to focus on their interests and delve deeper, especially with project-based learning and components of group work. She wants programs to shift away from an overview of generic concepts to a much more challenging curriculum that teaches gifted children the study skills they will need to utilize later in life. Kircher-Morris hopes gifted programs will also refine their programs based on their identification criteria.
“The bottom line is that schools are limited based on what the state regulations and recommendations are as well as what they’re able to do,” Morris said. “I would say a gifted program should match the identification process for how they’re identifying their gifted students. So if, for example, a student is going to be placed in a highly academic, rigorous, gifted program, meaning that there is a lot of researching and writing, perhaps higher level math types of things that they’re doing in the gifted program, then the identification process should include achievement measures that that look at those things. Some programs are more based on critical thinking and problem solving, and so those might be a little bit more related to some other types of measures that look at creativity, problem solving, perhaps IQ.”

LOOKING FORWARD

You might remember the day you took the gifted test. You were probably pulled out of class for tests that measured your nonverbal, quantitative, and verbal ability, IQ, problem-solving skills, divergent thinking using verbal and non-verbal stimuli, cognitive processing– or, like most Clayton students, you just remember there were blocks involved.
“It wasn’t even a math test or English test. It’s just a puzzle with these weird blocks,” Jamison said.
Mohr was similarly bewildered.
“They came in, and they’re like, build with blocks, and what are tires made out of?” Mohr said.
There is a general sense of confusion about how the gifted identification process works and how the district defines giftedness, even among students who were in the program and spent elementary school meeting with a gifted specialist twice a week. This was the experience of many current high schoolers and middle schoolers in the gifted program. However, according to Clayton Superintendent Sean Doherty, “students aren’t just gifted on Tuesdays and Thursdays when they go to the gifted classroom.” Going forward, the district is tackling a new challenge: supporting gifted students throughout the school day.
To begin with, recent changes to the gifted identification process and curriculum have brought with them a new understanding and dialogue around the variable idea of giftedness.
“It’s not about academic achievement, and it’s not about learning extra math,” Win said. “[…] We do think that there’s a reason for some students to be accelerated in certain areas, but the system is not set up to automatically do that. Some kids will have a lot of challenges in their social emotional world, and will need to focus on that, whereas other students may not have as many of those challenges. I think the more individualized our program can be, to meet these individualized needs, because it’s not the same for every kid, the better off we’ll be.”
The idea that giftedness is synonymous with being conventionally “smart” is a misconception that has generated an attitude of exclusiveness and pressure to be high-performing around those who have tested into the program in the past.

Your brain is just wired in this different way– you feel things deeply, you think deeply. You just have this different way of experiencing the world. ”

“I think what happens sometimes for our students in the gifted program is that we put unintentional pressure on some students,” Doherty said. “It becomes about the intelligence, and it’s like, ‘You’re smart, you’re in the gifted program, why aren’t you getting it?’ or, ‘You made a mistake at this? I thought you were gifted.’ There is so much pressure on a student when they have that, and they’re afraid to make a mistake. Or sometimes they feel like they have to be perfect. We are learning so much about that social-emotional aspect of being gifted, and we have to make sure the students know how to grapple with really difficult things and be vulnerable enough to say when they don’t know something. They’re not gifted in everything, some students are really gifted in certain areas.”
Both Win and Del Pilar agreed that pressures on gifted students to excel in all areas have caused the original meaning of giftedness to be lost. Typically, the term “gifted” is used to describe a person who has an unusual ability in a certain area, such as athletics or music. But the expectation that a student should be unusually skilled in all areas can be damaging over time, especially considering that asynchronicity, or heightened performance in one area and deficiencies in others, is, according to Margherio, “a hallmark of giftedness.”
There is a high level of pressure put on gifted students to excel, but there are also students who go unnoticed because they don’t exhibit what are commonly recognized as gifted characteristics. Not all gifted students are academically successful.
“You can do really well academically and also be intellectually gifted, where your brain is just wired in this different way– you feel things deeply, you think deeply. You just have this different way of experiencing the world. But you can also be that way without having academic success,” Winkler said.
This year, the district has tried to shift away from an academically-focused identification process and is stressing the the idea of gifted services as a learning need instead of a privilege for students with high IQs.
But some things still need to be fixed. The stress put on gifted students remains very real, and these stressors are apt to compound over time.
When gifted students reach the high school level, a drive for overachievement can lead to enrollment in the maximum number of honors and AP classes available, regardless of whether or not those classes play to the individual’s strengths.
Going forward, the district hopes to continue restructuring the program in a way that best supports gifted students in all areas.
“With the realignment in the program, the team will be able to really focus on some of those skills […] around the perfectionism, the fear of failure, a lot of these SEL (social emotional learning) skills that we know are really important for students who have gifted characteristics,” Wiens said.
Wiens and Margherio see a future in which further professional development and gifted counseling begin to provide more structured support for high school students. Additionally, Doherty has been working with other administrators to answer the core question, “How do we provide an equitable and personalized learning experience for students?” He feels that a more individualized style of teaching may help to address the problems that gifted students face as they advance through Clayton; namely the prevalence of unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety.
“What are the things that we have in place right now that are inadvertently causing students undue stress? Or not allowing them to have choice and voice in what they’re learning? We are looking at a schedule that might allow students time to take a breath. We added Greyhound Time, and I love that, but I also think, ‘What could we do more systematically?’ That’s really hard. One thing about our district is that we are very high-performing, so when we look at changes, people might ask why we would change if we’re doing so well. But the underlying issue is that we have students who are extremely stressed or staying up all night. Those are the unseen consequences that we need to look at,” Doherty said.
Although the future of the program is not yet certain, the district has made an evident commitment to its improvement. It may take years for a large change to be seen in the attitudes and ideas centered around giftedness, which have become deeply ingrained in Clayton’s culture. But important steps have been taken this year, encouraging gifted specialists, administrative staff and classroom teachers alike to understand the importance and unique challenges of supporting gifted learners. Del Pilar sees these shifts as an important tool to empower students.
“I think it’s important to find the places where you feel growth and support,” Del Pilar said.“Where you soar.”
In the coming years, the district hopes to do just that– help all gifted individuals find learning environments where they can soar.

About the Contributors
Photo of Ivy Reed
Ivy Reed, Reporter

Ivy is a freshman and she joined Globe because she likes to write and believes that journalism preserves democracy. She's really excited to be a part of the Globe and learn how...

Photo of Sofia Erlin
Sofia Erlin, Feature Section Editor

Sofia is a junior at CHS, and this is her second year on the Globe staff. She started Globe because she is interested in writing and exploring different issues within the Clayton...

Photo of Disha Chatterjee
Disha Chatterjee, Feature Section Editor

Disha is a junior and this is her second year on Globe. Disha joined Globe because she loves writing and wanted to get involved in a new experience. She is looking forward to trying...

Photo of Ruthie Pierson
Ruthie Pierson, Page Editor

Ruthie is a junior at Clayton High School. This is Ruthie's second year on the Globe, and she is a page editor.  She joined globe last year because of her interest in writing...

Photo of Siddhi Narayan
Siddhi Narayan, Review Section Editor

Siddhi Narayan is a junior at CHS and is delighted to start her second year in the Globe as page editor. She has always enjoyed writing and reading and decided to join the Globe...

Photo of Grace Snelling
Grace Snelling, Editor-in-Chief

Grace Snelling is a senior and is Editor-In-Chief of the Globe this year. She has previously been a reporter, page editor, and senior managing editor. Throughout her childhood,...

Leave a Comment

All online comments are reviewed by a member of the editorial staff before being approved. This site is intended to provide information and engage in open and respectful dialogue that is appropriate to the educational environment and fans of all ages. To ensure that exchanges are informative, respectful and lawful, we will NOT post comments that are off topic, spam, personal attacks, illegal, not factual or not appropriate in any other way.

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.




The Globe • Copyright 2020 • FLEX WordPress Theme by SNOLog in