Over and again the same question is posed by parents, educators, and researchers: “What is giftedness?” The answer is not always straight-forward.
Students capable of working in a capacity that regularly exceeds the information routinely taught in the classroom or at a level of aptitude in the top 10% of age-peers are often placed in the category of gifted. But alone, this doesn’t reveal the entire picture nor even the most accurate. Aptitude implies performance, and performance relies at least in part on motivation.
IQ tests place all gifted children into the category of 2SD [standard deviation] or more above normal on the bell curve. Depending upon which test is used, an IQ test alone may not always tease apart the wide range of giftedness nor acknowledge testing issues that may cause falsely elevated or deflated scores. Furthermore, states, school districts and intelligence researchers vary significantly in quantifying gifted aptitude and what qualities such as creativity may be components of that aptitude.
Not all states have gifted programs, and only 17 states with such programs require the gifted teachers to be credentialed in giftedness. Add to this the fact that only 3% of general education teachers have giftedness training, and ask yourself whether educators would be able to consistently recognize every gifted child in every classroom.
Grouping all gifted children together at or above 2SD or more above normal can also water down gifted understanding. The gifted sub-groups most likely to be both most misunderstood and deeply affected by the experience of being gifted are the highly and profoundly gifted children, some of whom may be 3SD or more away from the norm. These children see and experience the world in truly unique ways. But significant factors, including but not limited to learning disabilities, can lower their IQ test results despite the presence of profound intelligence.
Yet even if a gifted child were easy to recognize and define, the school funding it would take to properly educate the student must come primarily from local resources, as only 25 states provided any gifted funding during 2012-2013 (with 6% of those cutting their previous funding). Poor districts continue to suffer the most, and the poorest gifted children are the least likely to receive proper educational support.
Giftedness is not an on-off switch. Giftedness is a patchwork of strengths and weaknesses.
Expressing giftedness in a way which can easily be quantified is dependent upon a large number of factors. Children develop at widely differing rates physically, emotionally, as well as intellectually in what is termed asynchrony. Some additional factors affecting expression may be as ordinary as fatigue from not sleeping the night before or hunger from missing breakfast. Being slighted or bullied by a classmate before school or feeling boredom from the repetition of a topic long mastered could equally distract a gifted student from performing well on their school work. Trying to express one’s giftedness through the lens of a physical, emotional, or learning disability affects a child more than most adults can even imagine.
The inner life of a gifted child directly impacts how a gifted child interacts with their outer world.
It’s in this precise altered change of viewpoint – from the usual outside in view to an inside out view – that a definition of giftedness came about that speaks most clearly to my own experiences with gifted children and adults. This inside out definition was derived via the combined efforts of a small number of psychologists, educators, and parents in what was released in January 1992 as the Columbus Group definition. Formulated in Columbus, Ohio that previous year, the definition states:
“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”
What was outstanding and immensely ground-breaking about this definition was its clear attempt to express the inner world of the gifted individual. This was and is a grand departure from the output-associated performance definitions that occupy most of the discussions and approaches of the educational system. Within the Columbus Group definition is one important word that resonates and essentially serves as my own mini-definition of giftedness.
At the 2014 International Mensa Conference held in Boston, I hoped my audience could relate to such a direct comparison. In retrospect, I had no need to doubt. So many of the participants spoke up during and after the session on how these two words, words most people would be reluctant to ever place side-by-side, resonated with their own lives and the lives of their children. Alluded to were stories of anxiety, co-existing learning disabilities, being misunderstood, intense emotions and loneliness.
Giftedness implies something extra and vulnerability implies something lacking. How can someone who is gifted be perceived as lacking something? How can a gifted person possibly be vulnerable? These are the questions asked by people and groups who believe those who are gifted have unfair advantages. They may say “the gifted have it easy,” or “they will grow up just fine,” regardless of their circumstances. Others say “all children are gifted”. If a child is said to be gifted then that child is assumed to be ahead of peers in all areas. If it is noted that this is not the case, doubters will say alas the child was not gifted after all. So many misconceptions. Vulnerability in the gifted is indeed real and there are reasons why it persists.
- Negative societal and media stereotyping of gifted children and adults
- Severe limitations of schools to accommodate the educational & emotional needs of all gifted children (especially the highly & profoundly gifted)
- Limited awareness and support of giftedness by educators and medical professionals
- Limited awareness and support for gifted children having co-existing learning disabilities (twice-exceptional, 2e)
- An overwhelming gifted inner experience in many gifted of heightened intensities (Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities)
- Inordinate pressure felt by many gifted to follow the mantra “For those to whom much is given, much is required.” – John F. Kennedy.
- Objectification of gifted individuals by other people with aims of selfish gain obtained through their advanced abilities
- The loneliness of being different with a constant pressure to conform
- The need for appropriate local peer-groups, a rarity for many gifted (and even more so for the highly and profoundly gifted)
- Self-criticism, existential depression, multi-potentiality issues, asynchronous development, and perfectionism of the gifted
Each of these points can be expanded into essays of their own. Without better understanding by all of society of the complexity of the gifted inner world and the gifted individual’s interactions with a complex and not always embracing outer world, civilization will continue to lose remarkably gifted individuals in all fields of study and professions. Accidental death and suicide has been responsible for a number of these losses.
It is without a doubt that the sensitivity of the gifted that brings upon the world great works of art, music, literature, and science can also be partially and/or wholly implicated in the intense emotions which wage a battle to contain the vulnerability felt from being and thinking and relating so differently to our world.
As much as the gifted are at risk of vulnerability, society too is at risk of vulnerability each time a gifted child loses hope and turns away from his or her own gifts. Imagine a world where every gifted child of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status were fully supported in their desire to dream, create, innovate, and fly to places unimaginable. It’s not impossible….Just imagine.
[Find out more about the complexities of giftedness at SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted).]
“A child miseducated is a child lost. “ – John F. Kennedy