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Identifying Gifted and Talented Students: What to Consider

Identifying Gifted and Talented Students: What to Consider

When educators look to their classrooms and lesson plans, so much goes into the design of instruction. So many different types of learners exist in a general education classroom that it is hard to identify a “typical” learner.

All students have the right to learn new things every day, but managing the range of academic levels within a classroom is a formidable task. Students identified as gifted and talented (or some combination of these terms) can often be underchallenged. There can be a mismatch between how they preferer to learn and how they are taught. This can lead to a host of behavior, confidence, and peer relationship challenges.

Giftedness is not fixed; all students have the ability and the potential to excel, and all students have special talents and strengths. The important thing is finding a way to nurture those talents and strengths in such a way that students can develop their potential to the fullest.

Given how easy it is for gifted students to go unidentified and the many types of assessments that may gauge them as gifted, it should be no surprise that it can be hard to recognize a gifted child. The difficulty in assessing whether a child is gifted is also complicated by the fact that children can be gifted in so many different domains.

The problem with Gifted and Talented programs

The value and fairness of gifted and talented education programs are often topics of debate, and with fair reason. While the intention of catering to the advanced abilities to better help students meet their full potential might come from a good place, historically, admission to these programs tend to favor children with wealthy, educated parents who are more likely to be white. According to an article from U.S. News, “in the 2017-18 school year, white students were 48% of the public school population, according to NCES data, but made up roughly 58% of those in GATE programs, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education. Black students represented 15% of the overall student population but only 8% of students in gifted education.”

While advocates for gifted and talented education (GATE), such as the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), are taking steps to address racial and socioeconomic disparities, it is not a quick fix, nor is by any means the only issue with GATE programs. NAGC defines gifted students as those who “perform—or have the capacity to perform—at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment,” but there is no formal universal method for deciding who qualifies as gifted. Rather, states and local districts generally define not only who qualifies but also what the programs offer.

In some schools, students are identified through parent and teacher referrals, though this practice can be biased against students of color, and it puts students without a strong family advocate at a disadvantage. Other districts have tried to eliminate bias by testing all children for giftedness, and while universal testing has been shown to increase the representation of low-income and minority students in GATE, critics point out that parents and families with means and motivation can pay for test preparation for their students, giving them an advantage over their peers. Additionally, testing for giftedness is typically not as accurate with young children. Experts agree, for the most part, that testing before the age of six is too early to truly identify "giftedness."

Simply identifying what qualifies a students as "gifted" is also a challenge. There is not a consensus on gifted and talented program orientation and implementation across the country. Unlike special education services, students who are above the spectrum of typical are not federally mandated to be served. States have uneven and unequal policies for identifying, funding, and supporting gifted students. Some states have mandate programs and others have no definitions or categories for gifted and talented students. In funding and in certification, tremendous differences exists as well, one state may have specific certifications required, and another no additional accreditation needed.

The disparities in law to address the needs of gifted students is clear; unless their gifts create a problem in learning (such as causing distraction or trouble focusing during class time), there is very little consistent legislation to meet their needs. To see widespread transformation, change needs to come from the state and federal level, but in the meantime, there are accessible practices classroom teachers can use to support students’ gifts.

What to look for in a student that could be Gifted and Talented

Outside of formal identification processes, there are some things a classroom teacher can look out for that may gauge if a student could be considered gifted. Here are a few indicators:

 IQ Testing

Average scores fall between 85–115 on a standard IQ test, with 100 being considered typical. The farther away from the absolute norm of 100 a child is, the greater the need for special educational accommodations, regardless of whether the distance is above or below 100. While an average intelligence score is 90–110, gifted children will typically score well above this. Often, districts will use the IQ tests like Woodcock-Johnson IV (WJ IV), Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), or Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales as a first step in identifying students for gifted programs.

However, these tests have inherent faults. Teachers may not be trained or qualified to interpret the IQ assessment, and NAGC reports that EAL (English as an additional language)/ESL (English as a second language) students may be underrepresented, along with minorities and students from low-income families in the results of these assessments. Far too often, it is gifted learners are underchallenged or never identified, especially if the identification process begins and ends with an assessment. This singlemindedness can create a process that is flawed.

Exceptional Talent

Gifted students may have the ability to perform a task or skill at a level not usually reached until later years, sometimes as late as adulthood. This can also pose a problem. If the exceptional talent is in a creative discipline such as music or art, the child may not be identified as gifted by the school because most testing for gifted programs is based on academic ability or achievement.

High Achievement

Gifted children are usually, but not always, high achievers. They may not get good grades, but they score high on achievement tests. Often, these children simply love to learn and are good at it. They may not be motivated by grades, but they are rather interested in the process of learning.

Unique Disposition

Heightened sensitivity, intrinsic motivation, nonconformity, and total absorption in an activity and thought—these are hints, not a checklist, of unique behaviors and sensitivities that gifted children often have. They can also be more aware of the thoughts and feelings of other people. However, this understanding does not necessarily translate into knowing how to deal with their zeal through appropriate social channels.

Imagination and Humor

Gifted students use imagery and infer intuitive theories that are more creative or tangential in their thinking. In the classroom, their interpretations are often unexpected.

Extraordinary Vocabulary

Verbally gifted students can intuit the direction of the teaching and appear to be ahead of the room. They often understand and use more words than their peers. Younger students may include abstract and figurative language that appears far ahead of typical development. This may be because they are reading more, as well as more advanced texts. It can also be related to a heightened sensitivity to syntax and an ability to guess at the meaning of new words encountered in context. They acquire language with ease and are more at ease communicating with adults. Gifted students ask a lot of questions, listen intently to the answers, and will talk a blue streak on topics they are interested in. They remember the answers, work independently, and retain all the words. Sometimes an extensive vocabulary or advanced reading level is an indicator.

Advanced Interests

Perseveration refers to the obsessive and highly selective focus on things. In the context of gifted students, this can center around a current area of interest. They can demonstrate a need to know everything there is to know about a topic. Or similarly, they may be quite passionate about topics and hold strong opinions. You can teach around that. Use this excitement and obsession to teach skills.

This is not a comprehensive list. A child may be a gifted trumpet player, more amazing than anyone else has ever been in the history of trumpet players, but struggle in math. Giftedness is also not fixed; it does not mean a student is necessarily smarter than any other student, nor does it mean other things will come more easily to a gifted student. A student could be gifted at writing and reading comprehension but find spelling a challenge. Or fabulous at classical piano but struggle with jazz. Where does a GATE program fit in for this student?

Strong gifted and talented programs are not designed to teach the content, but rather to open opportunities for creative thinking. These students are unique, a soup of learners with differing abilities and talents, and as such, it is the opportunity to learn and be guided that drives a good program. That brings us to a very important question.

Ultimately, does it matter if the student is identified as gifted?

Students identified as gifted and talented may learn more rapidly, have stronger recall, or learn differently from their peers. They are capable of mastering new content faster and more deeply than their peers. They may have wild imaginations and create intricate and sophisticated stories, songs, or plays. They may be witty, demonstrating an advanced appreciation for humor. While it is important to remember that these students may share similar characteristics and defining qualities, they can also be passionately interested in different things and fuel those interests.

A gifted learning profile manifests in a myriad of ways. Much of the information taught in school is made up of concepts that are linked around a topic or theme. Gifted students can make unique connections to the content. A gifted child is an original thinker and able to access abstract reasoning and bring together ideas from different areas.

When we look at a typical classroom full of children, isn’t that what we see when we stumble across a student’s passion? If we build a general education classroom that pays attention to the whole child, we are often blessed with the accidental presence of a gifted lesson, when the activity targets the learner’s obsessions.

So, does it matter if a student is formally identified as gifted? The short answer is no—as long as you can recognize that the students in your class have gifts, especially as you lesson plan.

If educators can keep a few things in mind when teaching, we can tap into techniques for teaching ALL kinds of students.

  1. Support acceleration and enrichment
     
  2. Allow for topic immersion
     
  3. Telescope the curriculum
     
  4. Build intentional flexible learning groups
     
  5. Incorporate creative questioning
     
  6. Allow for self-direction
     
  7. Set deadlines
     

By incorporating these concepts with all students, gifted students (identified and not) will reap the benefit of a gifted lesson.

Why teaching gifted students matters (whether or not they are identified)

The population of gifted students has the potential to contribute significantly to our world and change how we live. Gifted students are innovators. They give us the big ideas, possibilities, and options. They could be our future engineers, scientists, designers, writers, and leaders.

Identifying students who are gifted can help determine special services and differentiated approaches to instruction. However, while waiting for the assessment wraparound services, these approaches can benefit the general education students too. Keep that in mind that when planning your lessons, you may find you have a classroom full of visionaries.

Looking for ways to engage and build up the gifts and talents of your students? Get started with six teaching strategies!

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winnie.oleary's picture
Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day.