The White Elephant in the Room: Gifted Education–A Real Gift, or an Empty Box?

Hello, readers,

This blog is usually dedicated to the issues surrounding children and adults with disabilities; moreover, it’s dedicated to what I will call the “conventional definition” of disability–a definition that focuses on lacks, not strengths. But it occurred to me today that in our school systems, there’s another group of kids who may be feeling just as segregated and cast out as kids with conventional disabilities or “special needs” do. Those are the children considered academically gifted.

Now, of course, being gifted in any way–academically, artistically, athletically, socially–is NOT a disability. In fact, it is often treated as an extra shot of ability (although in singling out kids whose giftedness is obvious because of, say, high IQ or unusual depth of talent that you can see on paper or on the field, we sometimes forget ALL children have these gifts). But today, we will just focus on those kids who obviously have gifts that society considers an extra ability shot. These are the kids whose parents hope the doctor will have an unusual diagnosis for them (as in, diagnosis: genius). 🙂 These are the kids whose parents look forward to having them tested. The kids whose parents call them “special” and don’t hear, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Giftedness is the atypical thing you want your child to have. I wonder, though: can giftedness be treated like a disability, too? If so, how have we as teachers, parents, or other “experts” done this? And what is the best alternative response?

To answer the first question, can we treat giftedness like a disability, and have we done it: Yes, I believe so. How, you ask? Well, first, let’s look at the obvious ways. For instance, many schools utilize “pull out programs” for students who are gifted. This is less common in today’s educational system than it was ten or fifteen years ago, but these programs still exist. Essentially, they mean that the child in question is taken out of the regular classroom and placed in a different one, either for part of the day or the whole day, to do a different level of work than his or her peers. The classroom can also function as a pretty much self-contained unit.

Now, I hear what you’re saying, because I’ve said it, too. “Chick, that’s different from special education. Gifted kids really need a different level of work, and self-contained rooms with a smaller peer group mean they won’t be distracted.” And yes, I agree that students who are gifted have some different needs than students with conventional disabilities. For example, they may benefit from a smaller class because they’re more comfortable forming one or two deep friendships rather than five or six warm acquaintances. And some may either have a harder time with distractions or have a deeper need for quiet when they work. (I, for instance, am one of those people. Unless it’s “white noise,” like air vents or ticking clocks, or my own personal noise, like my iPod, I do not want to hear it while I’m working).

However, is a pull-out program the true answer for these needs? I say no, for many reasons. The first is, no matter how you slice it, a pull-out program is still based around taking kids out of the regular environment and putting them in an environment that, depending on the school, the teacher, and many other factors, can feel contrived. One argument for that might be, “It lets these kids know they’re special.” Ah–but we use “special” when we talk about kids with disabilities too, right? You know, those kids who get the stares, the pitying looks, the negative diagnoses, and the pitying apologies to parents from other adults? Right–and kids who are gifted know this, probably better than most other kids. So put yourself in their shoes. They might think, “Okay, I’m going to a special class. But Jeffrey goes to a special class because he’s different. He has a disability, and all the kids say he’s weird. So am I weird, too? Is it good or bad to be “special?” (As a matter of fact, I think we’d all do well to ask ourselves that question).

And speaking of what the other kids think, let’s move on to the social factor. The use of self-contained classrooms for students who are gifted may in fact lead to social stigma, no matter how good teachers are at trying to deflect it. And believe me, I’ve seen some great ones. Now of course, the argument here is, “Kids are cruel,” and “Kids will be kids.” And to an extent, that’s true. To an extent, that may even be okay. For example, when my younger brother was in middle school, he and his buddies used to tease the kids who went to Academically Gifted pullout, calling them “Accidentally Gifted.” But the thing is: those kids were in on the joke. They dished it as well as they took it. In that situation, you could chalk it up to “kids being kids,” and as far as anyone knew, no one got seriously bent out of shape.

But I see two things that could go wrong there. One, what if the kids in the pullout program don’t like the jokes? What if some are in on the joke, but a couple of others are really bothered? Should we tell them to “shake it off?” Maybe; it depends on the seriousness of the situation. BUT, that doesn’t give parents and teachers a license not to be vigilant. Stay in tune with the social scene. Know your students (or kids). And if your gut tells you what’s going on is wrong, do something about it.

Two, let’s switch gears for a minute. Suppose the kids being made fun of were the kids with disabilities? As a matter of fact, we don’t have to “suppose”–it happens all the time. Show of hands, readers. How many of you grew up hearing, or even saying, terms like “sped,” “spazz,” “retard,” or “cripple?” Right–and it was never funny. Now, of course, some kids with disabilities, just like kids who are gifted, may be in on the joke. That is, some of us–myself included–have learned to use disability humor, including the self-depricating kind, as a coping device. And that means, again, that adults should always be vigilant. Cultivate wisdom when it comes to who is and isn’t laughing. And remember: kids who are gifted, and kids with disabilities, may be especially vulnerable to these kinds of things. I think we may need to be a little more vigilant with these groups when it comes to teasing, in general, than we would with the average student.

Now, circling back around to the self-contained “gifted classroom”–we’re questioning the need for “special education” as a place (instead of a service). We decry the use of disability slurs like the ones I wrote above (and yes, just like the N word, these are slurs). So my question is, just because a child is “special” for a good reason, why are we doing things to and with him or her that look like versions of what we find in Disability Land? When you think about it, does it really make that much more sense than self-contained rooms for kids with disabilities? Understand, of course, that some children may choose to utilize self-contained classrooms, gifted, with disabilities, or either. And that’s okay if that’s what they want. But in general: does the self-contained gifted classroom truly make sense?

Let’s suppose, for the sake of this post, that we say it doesn’t. Okay, you might say. Then how is my gifted child going to be served the way he or she needs? Well, first of all, let’s give your gifted child some people-first language. Never forget, your child is still a child first. His or her identity is not contingent upon the ability to do extraordinary things. We love that these kids can do those things, but that’s not why we love them.

But I digress.

So, how to serve the student who’s gifted without using the pullout method (and this includes homeschooling, tutors, and so forth–UNLESS your child wants them)? The best way to do this may involve showing teachers how to incorporate different levels of work into one classroom (for example, a curriculum with consistent Emerging, Mastering, and Challenge levels–Challenge being aimed at those who are gifted). Or, for another example, perhaps an English class is divided into small groups whose members read three different books or do three different book projects, based around the same themes, according to their levels. Or perhaps some math students stick to basic algebra for most of a semester, while others move on to the more advanced side of the subject where appropriate.

Because many school systems also suffer from overcrowding, and since many school systems have noted that their population of students who are gifted is underserved, perhaps it would also be a good idea for classrooms to enjoy the benefits of more than one teacher. This sometimes happens in full inclusion classrooms where some of the students have disabilities; a general ed teacher and a teacher trained in disability-related education work in the same room so that no one is “pulled out.” In theory, this could also work if a general ed teacher were paired with a teacher who has mastered gifted education. (And, wouldn’t it be neat to have students of all intelligences, including students with intellectual disabilities, working together in one room?)

“But Chick,” you ask, “what about the distraction issue? What if these kids really need alone time, or one-on-one help? Wouldn’t such a setup deny them that?” Well, perhaps so. Perhaps this would not work for everyone. As I have said before, our world, and therefore our schools, will never be perfct. But what we fear does not have to be true. For example, I have said before that we as people need to examine why and how learning has become “sitting up at a desk for six hours.” Perhaps some of the students who get distracted would benefit from soft music or what are called “sensory breaks” (such as, leaving to do work in a nearby room that is not a self-contained classroom, but is set up to induce calmness and focus with things such as paint colors, sound, and so on, on their own terms). And perhaps some students could benefit from one-on-one time with a teacher before or after school.

Again, school will never be a perfect place. After all, if the world were perfect, we’d all know everything and wouldn’t need school. But I think we’ve penalized all of our students–especially our students with disabilities, but also our students who are gifted–by deciding who does and doesn’t “belong” in the general environment. Instead, let’s think about how to make gifted education a true “gift” from which all students can benefit.

P.S.–Watch for future posts on twice-exceptional kids, the dangers of expecting kids who are gifted to be perpetual tutors or “teachers’ helpers,” and more.



  1. I am going through the process of looking into ‘special needs’ on recommendation from the school, for my extremely bright son Harvey, The teacher has said he has an “authors voice” and describes him as a “creative thinker”, yet he under achieves for his abilities, sometimes has social problems with his peers and switches off in class. He is on the gifted and talented list and they have arranged for him to work on a project with a yr 6 child.
    I can’t quite believe I am going through this process!, it becomes a special need because the school system doesn’t allow for difference!, there isn’t time to include the whole spectrum of abilities.

    1. Hello, M,

      Yes–the “special needs” process can feel like the Twilight Zone, eh? And yes, you’re right–school systems often don’t allow for difference. If your child’s abilities don’t fit into a prescribed “box,” then they are placed in special ed without a lot of regard to whether they really need what constitutes special education for that school. I think many teachers and administrators have given up on seeing students as individuals, and that’s not only sad, but unfair to the kids. However, if we continue to push for individuality, I think we can change that. Good luck to you and Harvey (he sounds like a great kid). 🙂

  2. “Well, first of all, let’s give your gifted child some people-first language.”
    “So, how to serve the student [who is] gifted …” (The actual word was “who’s.”)

    It’s funny how natural it has become to say a child IS typically developing, or a child IS gifted, yet the child “HAS disabilities.” Makes things interesting when speaking of a twice exceptional child. 🙂

    1. I never thought of that but you’re right. It’s probably because “gifted” is seen as wholly positive, while disabilities are considered wholly negative, like a disease. I also think that’s why so many people think of disability and disease as interchangeable, and why the pity narrative persists.

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