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Gifted programs and decisions

I have notes for three blog entries which I scribbled down over the weekend. I wrote notes for two more on Monday. It was delightful. I loved the fact that my brain was spontaneously percolating more than one blog entry at a time. That used to happen, but hasn’t for months. Then I stumbled across Tuesday. It wasn’t Tuesday’s fault really. Nothing inherent to the day was problematic. I just woke up with a sense of stress and sadness. Sometimes that happens. I tried to muddle through anyway. Then in the afternoon, Tuesday did provide new food for thought. I’ve been thinky with it ever since. Gleek was accepted to a gifted program which will require a two year commitment and a transfer to a different school.

I am a graduate of GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) a program that was run by my California school district in an effort to meet the needs of kids who learned things really quickly. Being one of the Honors kids put me with a group of peers who valued school and learning. I made great friends and had a good experience. Towards the end of high school I noticed that there were kids not in the Honors classes who were every bit as smart as I was. They just didn’t quite make the cut due to class size limitations. That was when I first questioned whether test-to-get-in gifted programs are a good thing.

I’m good at learning new things very quickly. My brain picks up information and stores it even when I’m not consciously trying to learn. Know what I’m not naturally good at? Following through. I’m happy to make a herculean effort for a project, but I frequently fail at do-a-little-every-day type tasks. In school, I was great at learning, but awful at studying. I’m told this is common to gifted people. Which is fine, so long as the word “gifted” is being used as a descriptor for a particular pattern of brain function. Instead it is often used to mean “special” “smarter” “better” and is held up like some golden prize that one must simply be born with. I think this reverence comes in part because those who think in careful steps are in awe of intuitive leaps. I am in awe of the people who know how to work steadily on a single thing until they get really good at it. That story about the tortoise and the hare is true and gifted people get to play the part of the hare.

This gifted program that Gleek may be entering, Kiki was in it six years ago. Now Kiki says it was really good for her and that she is glad she went. I have vivid memories of some very hard months. It was only after we emerged from the program that I read several articles which made clear to me the fact that whether or not a person is gifted or talented, the people who succeed are the ones who work hard. That was when I learned to praise and reward effort no matter whether the effort succeeded at what it set out to do. I’ve learned so much since Kiki was in the program. I am better prepared to handle it. Yes I do have to handle it. This is a program which expects parental support. It is a high-intensity program. For that reason I have reservations about committing to it. But then, Gleek is a high-intensity person. It is possible that this is exactly what she needs. I know for certain that the school she’s been attending isn’t right for her anymore.

In the article I linked yesterday there is a phrase “narrative in the public discussion.” One of the things I don’t like about gifted programs is the narratives which surround them. “These kids are special” is in the air. That is often followed by an admonishment to the kids that because they are gifted they have a responsibility to live up to their potential. The problem with that narrative is that it only sets a high bar without showing the kids how to reach it. If they don’t hit it on the first try, it feels hopeless to them. Instead these kids, the ones who learn by intuitive leap, need a narrative which talks about the value of work. They don’t need lofty goals, they need practice pacing themselves toward far goals. The program is structured in such way that kids can learn pacing there, but when Kiki was in it the narrative was off. Of course the only way for me to affect the public narrative on giftedness is to participate in the discussion. I can be the voice which says that we all have things to learn and it doesn’t matter how fast we learn them. Education is not a race. There is no prize for getting there first.

We will probably accept the placement for Gleek. We have a couple of weeks to decide and a few more factors to weigh, but early indicators point that way. This is yet another of those parenting decisions which I must make without knowing what all the repercussions will be.

6 comments to Gifted programs and decisions

  • Colin

    That rings so true. I was never in such a program but the general thing about school and effort, especially in the context of people who can make natural intuitive leaps is spot on.

  • Barbara

    Two years ago my extremely bright niece tested into a special ‘seminar’ program for 4th grade that would have put her into a track to go to the “good” middle & high school. It was at a huge school 30 minutes in the ‘wrong’ direction (opposite from mom & dad’s offices, so a huge impact on the whole family). My sister agonized for most of a summer over the potential impact to her daughter’s whole school experience. We spent hours talking over pros & cons, what we’re willing to do for our kids, what other options could we think of, etc. They ultimately decided to stay with the much smaller local elementary school, and her daughter did a mixed 4/5 class, which worked for her.

    My point is not about what they decided, but that it’s hideously tough as a parent to guide your child through something that could profoundly impact their life. It’s one of the terrifying parts of the responsibility of being a parent; helping choose a “right” path. Trying to not “what if” later is really difficult, especially when the child struggles. I think it’s harder when it’s a subsequent child and you (the parent) have traumatic memories from an earlier experience. I try to consciously remember that my kids are different people. My youngest sister had to follow two “good” sibs in school, which was hard on a non-academic kid; I don’t want that to happen to my son, who, while just as bright as his older sister, is not the innate student that she is. On the flip side, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to push him some when it might make a big difference. It makes me crazy some days.

    • Thank you for your thoughts. These decisions are so hard. What is right for one child is not for a sibling. Then there is also balancing the need to guide the child toward a solid adulthood with the needs of the person she is right now. Definitely crazy-making.

  • Christine

    Not every child who is accepted into a special education programme actually needs the programming. When I got into a gifted programme, I really needed it – while I was passing my regular courses, I was definitely underperforming, and failing a lot of my assignments. But when I went to high school, I managed just fine out of a gifted programme for the first three years. I would have made it through all the way without problem, but I ended up in a course taught by a special education teacher in grade 12, mixed in with a lot of people who were at risk of dropping out. And yes, I probably did better in grade 12 because of that course.

    My sister, on the other hand, went through all the way in the gifted programme. But she didn’t need it as badly as I did. She always got good marks in school, even before she started gifted. In fact, when she went to high school (which she got to do in grade 7) the gifted programming really decreased, and she never had any trouble. So the screening isn’t perfect – some kids are identified as eligible for the programme who don’t need special education. (Just like I’m sure there’s kids dropping out for lack of the programming).