Given that I am trained in special education, I thought that if I had a child with special needs, I would be prepared to assist teachers with strategies to meet the needs of my child’s growth development in order to reach his/her fullest potential. Too often, gifted students are not considered to be students with special education needs. They are not even listed in the IDEA categories of special education. Gifted education is often separate from special education. I have three sons and have now learned a few invaluable lessons about gifted education, which was not part of my formal training in special education.
As I watched the signs of my three boys in their earliest development, I came to discover something I did not know quite how to deal with about students who are more advanced than their age and peers. There are a number of signs that children may be gifted, including advanced cognitive skills, advanced vocabulary, early reading, advanced skills in one or more school subject, high critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, creativity, and more. Two of my sons showed advanced skills in cognitive development and the ability to process information very quickly.
One was on a 6-year old cognitive level at 3-years old and by kindergarten he was on a 4th grade math level. The other had the highest score on the state 3rd grade reading assessment at a school in the top district in the state. I thought to myself, this is going to be a new experience, especially as I had no idea if there would be opportunities to assist my sons as gifted and advanced learners. I found similar challenges that I have witnessed in a number of parents with children with special needs go through, and with my understanding of the historical battles and laws in place to assist parents with children with special needs, I have found that services for children who are gifted are more limiting than students with special needs. Part of this may be because gifted education is not federally mandated, unlike special education. Depending on the state and district, gifted students may receive no services to meet their needs as advanced learners. This is inequitable.
The most challenging part as a parent was first understanding if my children were gifted and in need of more challenging curriculum for their age. My wife and I did the regular annual check-up visits with their doctors. However, it was not until my sons started school that we were we able to get academic and cognitive assessments of their skills and abilities. The school did not have the funds and personnel to assess students for gifted education identification; therefore, we had to pay $300 for testing. This represents another inequity; parents do not have to pay for their children to be evaluated for special education services. This experience brought me to a halting reality. It is our financial privilege that allowed us the opportunity to respond to the academic needs of our sons.
Further, I came to realize that few states mandate and fully or partially fund gifted education in the nation. As I battle to find services for my sons, I am often left feeling, as I know many parents of children with other special needs feel, that I am letting my children down on a daily basis.
I am a doctoral level professional, with resources; I am able to provide enrichment opportunities for my sons. However, what I find discomforting is that there are a number of families who are unable to provide access for their gifted children. This is inequitable.
Before this experience, like many, I saw giftedness as exclusively or extensively comprising of upper-middle class to rich private school students or “nerds” in suburban schools. However, I have come to see that giftedness exists in different cultures, ethnicities, economic statuses, and linguistic backgrounds. I have come to understand that being gifted is a special education need and to ignore this type of need is unjust and failing such students.
As a person who is committed to equity, I have found that while we continue to create laws, practices, and access for “all children”, we unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) leave out gifted children. Some in gifted education have noted a love-hate relationship when it comes to gifted students. We value them when competing internationally, but ignore them during other times.
I see equitable education as providing gifted students the rights to the same access and level of education in relationship to the needs of all children. With this, I have often consulted with friend, colleague, and gifted and talented expert Dr. Donna Ford to help in understanding how the absence in equity is a grave impact on students and families. She writes extensively about the inequitable under-representation of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students in gifted education. Annually at least 500,000 of these students are not identified as gifted and, thus, are not being challenged to reach their potential. This waste of gifts and talents contributes to disengagement and underachievement. Dr. Ford urges educators to recruit and retain these students in gifted education, and to support and advocate for families, such as mine.
Regardless of their race, ethnicity, and income, children deserve to be challenged in educational settings. They need teachers who are formally trained in gifted education; they need teachers who are advocates for culturally, ethnically, and linguistically different students and families; they need educators who will provide resources for those who are low income; they need policies and procedures that are grounded in equity.
When this happens, we move closer to helping gifted students receive an appropriate education; we move closer to helping gifted students reach their potential. This is a win-win for gifted students, families, educators, and the nation. Equity is about fairness and responsiveness. Gifted students are deserving of an education that is equitable. Any parent of gifted students will soon learn this, as my family did. Let’s hope all others learn this too, especially educators and decision makers.
Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks is the Dean of the School of Education at the University of South Dakota. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Masters in Early Childhood Special Education from the University of Colorado at Denver. Dr. Easton-Brooks research is on Educational Policy and Educational Equity. He is widely known for his work on ethnic matching, which has been cited international and used to promote quality practices in educational equity.
Davidson Gifted Database with list of mandates and programs state-by-state. Last retrieved online May 2017 at http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entryType/3