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Giftedness in Underserved Populations: A Call to Action

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I gave a talk on the characteristics of gifted children to a group of 25 mental health professionals in an inner-city setting.  For those of you who know X-Men, you’ll understand when I say that I have an Xavier complex.

My dream is to identify youngsters with special abilities and potential, so that they can flourish and reach their full potential.

I have had the opportunity to come across these children in rich schools and poor schools; I have met some with behavior challenges and others who have long since stopped protesting. I want to expand my influence by training other professionals to notice the traits of giftedness.  In preparation for and as a result of this talk, I’ve had a lot of thoughts I’d like to share.

First of all, I had prepared myself to face the typical defense of multiple intelligences theory, a model that differentiates intelligence into specific “modalities”, rather than seeing it as dominated by a single general ability. Multiple intelligence theory is often used to deny giftedness, including inaccurate statements like “all children are gifted.”

While I acknowledge that all people have value and dignity, it’s important to note that some people have beyond-typical sensitivities and developmental potential in addition to a generalized intelligence.  We best serve vulnerable communities by helping the gifted youth in them reach their full potential, and this first requires acknowledging that they exist and that they are different.

Many gifted children go unrecognized and underserved, and this is especially true in underprivileged (read: poor) populations.  In fact, it’s unfortunate, but there are very few people or organizations that would apply Dr. Linda Silverman’s list to such populations.

During my talk, I asked my audience to take the list and consider how each characteristic might show up differently if complicated by trauma, poverty, or institutional discrimination.  For example, a child with a strong curiosity is likely not to receive much positive reinforcement for asking questions in a household that is struggling to get food on the table.  Similarly, questioning authority may be culturally frowned upon instead of nurtured.

This is even further complicated by issues of trauma.  We do well not only to consider the impact of trauma on the expression of giftedness, but how giftedness impacts the experience of and hopefully the recovery from trauma. When an especially aware and precocious child is faced with abuse or neglect, the impacts can be particularly difficult.  This child is likely to know too much too soon anyhow, with curiosity about how the world works.  Precocious intellect met with early sexual or physical abuse does mysterious things to a brain.

Much trauma research talks about the impact on memory, how some memories can become embedded in the body, and a person may develop hypervigilance about mood changes, micro-expressions, and precursors of aggression.

If a typical mind develops both enhancements and gaps in memory in response to abuse, how much more impacted would a person be who already has a predisposition for exquisite memory and attention to detail? When does intelligence contribute to resilience, and when does age-typical obliviousness contribute to resilience?

I am not trying to say that a typically functioning child does not deeply know the pain of abuse, but I am saying that the capacity for cognitive complexity can force or allow a child to understand deeper levels of pain.

For example, how crazy-making might it be for a child to compassionately understand, like a trained therapist, the pain behind a perpetrator’s actions? People who have experience working with vulnerable families, if bolstered by an understanding of giftedness, can help us address these questions.

Within the broader call to action to identify and serve gifted children, I prioritized an initial step of training these professionals on how to notice them. I advised discussing these characteristics in their clinical supervision and consulting with me. We reflected on what it might be like for an adult professional to work with a client who is more perceptive than them.

I’m not just talking about academic abilities, but also suggesting that they can recognize patterns enough to describe the chapters that trainee therapists learned their techniques from.  This means an unsuspecting therapist may be played with like a toy, and a jealous therapist may do great harm by diminishing or ignoring a client’s gifts.

With or without trauma, these children may carry their giftedness with a certain amount of pain.

While I hope for all gifted children to retain a sense of childlike wonder about how their minds work, a pattern of loneliness and isolation may mean they wear their gifts like armor and daggers. They will likely stab at a professional unless that adult can accurately reflect and compassionately understand their giftedness.

Since my talk, I have received feedback that people have reached clients in new ways, achieving a level of understanding and recognition that greatly advanced the therapeutic relationship. Some colleagues have already begun advocating within the school district for independent projects and other accommodations for gifted learners, and GHF has produced and shared some powerful resources.

I have not yet, in X-Men tradition, prepared yellow and black uniforms in which they can join forces to fight supervillains.  I leave them to find their own paths to joy and contribution. I do, however, have one page proposals for program development and implementation.

{ 25 comments… add one }
  • Sara Harrier March 10, 2013, 7:25 pm

    Wow: this article perfectly marries my long-standing loves for social justice and therapy with my newfound passion for gifted theory. Yes!

  • Hilary Yamtich April 6, 2013, 7:47 pm

    What needs are served by identifying gifted children that wouldn’t be served by providing challenging, engaging, individualized education and learning opportunities to all children?

    Is a gifted kid better off if they are told that they are gifted or if they figure it out themselves?

    Do gifted people have any accountability to anybody or to themselves to use or cultivate their gifts?

    • byamtich April 8, 2013, 8:18 am

      Hi Hilary,

      Thanks for your questions; they give me a lot to think about. I plan to write more about the second as my next post. As for the first, a partial answer is that identifying gifted children can help then spend time with true peers, attending to needs for belonging, understanding and growth. Yes, much of what best serves this population is broadly useful in other settings, including challenging, engaging and individualized learning opportunities. Also, all kids enjoy the respect and collaboration I recommend for gifted students. It is unlikely that a traditional classroom environment can adequately differentiate for gifted learners. One way to address the question is to ask, “Are there any methods I would recommend for gifted students that I would not for more typical students?” One is related to academic freedom: some students, given a challenging question and plenty of time, will face their sweet spot of not-too-hard not-too-easy and overcome a challenge. Others may be overwhelmed, and be better served by sequential and scaffolded learning targets.

      As for accountability, I’d say that is up to a gifted person to figure out for themselves. Heightened potential is not always paired with heightened self-responsibility. I would trust the gifted person’s freedom, but I bet anything less than full cultivation would be not only tragic, but also boring, which is frequently worse. I consider the relevant needs here more participation and engagement than meaning and purpose. Do whatever is fun.


  • Jade Rivera July 19, 2013, 7:29 pm

    Shared this!

  • Bobbie Barrows July 19, 2013, 8:18 pm

    This article just made me cry. I have a HG child. Came up with the money to through family and friends. Wish I never had. Now I know she is not only gifted but highly gifted. I can’t afford to do right by her. All the articles I read sound hopeful until I look for help. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but articles and conferences don’t help us.

    • byamtich July 20, 2013, 3:30 pm

      I’m really getting how much you want to access resources to serve your daughter. I also hear your pain about wanting tangible support services. Are you referring to how you had her assessed for giftedness? Even if some enrichment opportunities aren’t accessible to you, you can always encourage her creativity and personality. You can help her live in a home with acceptance of her passion and complexity. I know it might not because of circumstances, distance, or my simply not understanding, but does any of this reach you?

      • Bobbie Barrows July 21, 2013, 10:33 pm

        Yes, it does reach me. I fully understand her passion and complexity. I also am gifted. I do all I can to encourage her gifts. We go from models of the brain, to Beethoven. From coping with sadness, to dancing with excitement. Her need to keep going until she finds the answer SHE needs, to playing in the mud. I get it very well. I also know that mentors, like peers and good teachers all have an important roll in her feeling accepted. I can’t seem to find that in our community.Our schools don’t encourage her curiosity, her desire to learn. They encourage compliance, learn until they tell you to stop, and sit and be quiet. Options? Reach out to G&T coordinator of the district. They wouldn’t test her. So I got her tested and took the tests to the G&T coordinator. Her answer,”you won’t find anyone that like your daughter.” Next step, private. No way can I afford that, and it’s two hours away. Last resort, homeschooling. That means finding my little extrovert social outlets. Tried home school groups. The kids didn’t understand her big words or her interests.(Did I say she’s.) I can’t afford any extra curricular so we do parks, and book store, library, museum ect…

        She is in the 99.9% and hit the ceiling on some of the tests. If wasn’t in poverty (due to a car accident caused by another) what would her options be? I don’t even have the option to work harder and get out of poverty. That’s why the article made me cry. All this money spent on conferences. Expecting it will all trickle down to the kids, it’s not hitting the kids. It takes a community to raise a child they say. Where are they? A few good people to support her. In the end, she will be great. She has unconditional love and support. I just think of what she could be. Supportive school, like minds to explore with, invent with. How great would that be. Between finances, and community that wont happen. I just there was someone like you reaching out here.

        • Kirsten March 2, 2015, 11:08 am

          I don’t know what neighborhood you’re in, but I’d encourage you to find Mensa in your area. MensaForKids.org doesn’t require membership, open and free.
          Hope you can find the resources you need!

          • byamtich March 2, 2015, 11:22 am

            Hi Kirsten, thanks for sharing the resource.

    • Rosemarie March 1, 2015, 8:40 pm

      Hi Bobbie: I raised three girls in poverty and all were GT and HGT. Being American Indian, they did have access to free summer programs, not necessarily for GT. Money would have helped provide more experiences and nurturing of gifts. One likely would have gone to college at 14. And, they were in a school district with definite bias against Indian kids in GT (No Indian had ever been referred for testing, let alone tested). My daughter had been identified in another district. But, just allowing them to explore their interests as much as you can do, advocating for them at school and, most important, listening to them, is more important than the money. My daughters grew up and, on their own, found the way to explore their interests and graduated from good colleges, on scholarship. My son came along later, when we were solid middle class and were able to do more for him. Funny thing is that he still struggled with his HGT because, no matter what, they feel so much more deeply. Do what you can and don’t feel bad about the rest.

  • Celi Trepanier February 28, 2015, 9:09 am

    This is such important information on such a heartbreaking educational problem.

    I taught for several years at an inner-city, at-risk school where the vast majority of the students lived in poverty. I taught Kindergarten and I was the lucky one to see the curiosity, the enthusiasm and the love of learning in these young children. I saw their real potential and thought it would carry them through to success.

    As they moved through their elementary and middle school years, I would keep up with them through their teachers, naively expecting to hear good things, but often it wasn’t good news. The brilliant little boy who lived with his mom and six other siblings, who came to me already reading, the one I had to go and borrow an entire 1st grade curriculum for was now in 6th grade at an alternative school for behavior problems. It’s heartbreaking, but preventable.

    Bob, thank you for tackling this important educational issue of the underserved populations with such empathy and incredible insight!

    • byamtich February 28, 2015, 9:53 am

      Oh, Celi, yes to “heartbreaking, but preventable.” I’m so touched to read this; thanks for your comment. And, “came to me already reading”- a clear sign that a kid needs enrichment and freedom. I’m so glad you were there for him.

  • Kishore Asthana February 28, 2015, 8:55 pm

    At Mensa India Delhi we have launched our Underprivileged Gifted Child Identification and Nurturing Program with a pilot program to select 100 underprivileged gifted children. 62 have already been identified.
    We have found brilliance in the 10-14 year olds we have tested who live in slums and even on the roads. Parents are struggling to make ends meet, many working as maids or day labourers. Some are from single parents families.
    The challenge now is to nurture their giftedness till they graduate. We are helping financially, counselling the parents and mentoring each child individually and holding
    collective nurturing sessions. We will also be conducting aptitude tests and offer career counselling
    Your articles open up new ways of thinking and I find them useful.
    Kishore Asthana
    President, Mensa India Delhi

    • byamtich February 28, 2015, 10:17 pm

      Your work sounds really cool; thanks for your comment. I’m particularly interested in what happens during the “collective nurturing sessions.” Are they for parents, kids, or whole families?

  • Rosemarie March 1, 2015, 8:30 pm

    Also take a look at the parent questionnaire that is part of the identification process. It is totally written for one group. I was a GT teacher and parent of GT kids. I didn’t know whether to lie on the form or try to explain or what to advise parents. If parents didn’t mark yes to 12 out of 16 questions, it wasn’t used to support identification. One question was :does your child play with older kids? In minority communities, they are just that, a community and children play with other children of all ages, because they are raised to do so. Asking too many questions and standing out can be considered rude. And, once students from minority and poverty communities are identified, the services are not culturally competent. The minority children who succeed in both identification and with generic services are those who may present their giftedness in the traditional way, either because they are a bit more assimilated or their gifted brain has an understanding of what is required.

    • byamtich March 1, 2015, 9:02 pm

      Thanks for your comment! Your example was illuminating for me; I have also asked the question about preferring older friends. I will include this consideration and do more research as I proceed. Thank you.

      • Rosemarie March 1, 2015, 9:19 pm

        You are welcome. My granddaughter is HGT. As a small child she was full of questions. For her other grandmother, tradition was more important, so she would just ignore her granddaughter if she talked too much. It wasn’t to be mean, but to teach her what she needed to be and what her place in the community was, at that time. It was hard for me, but the girl learned that she could talk as much as she wanted at my house and to be more quiet at her other grandmothers home. So, the parent question about how much the child asks questions and gets involved in high level conversations might not be a good identification question either. Caucasian children are encouraged to comment on everything and participate in adult conversations but that is not the case in all communities, and therefore, another problem question on the parent questionnaire.

        • byamtich March 1, 2015, 9:43 pm

          These are all gems; thank you. I already have a lot of thought minutes scheduled to take this in. Would you give one more example for good luck? Or is there a resource you recommend?

  • Rosemarie March 1, 2015, 10:15 pm

    LOL I have so many. And, I will think about a resource! My son is twice exceptional, ADD and significant Dyslexia, both officially diagnosed. So, through school, in a large district in CO, despite that his friends (Caucasian) were in GT, he was never referred for testing. He could build anything from Legos, later excelled in his Engineering classes, had great projects, but never finished the write ups. He was very quiet. He would get Title I reading help every Fall and be discharged every spring. He had continual writing support. All of that support ended after 6th grade. I asked for special ed testing and I was told that “good news Mom and Dad, your son is perfectly average!” Being a teacher I looked at his scores and not one was average. There was a 40 point spread between his processing speed and his verbal score, which was high, 130. Non verbal was high too. But, that profile was not seen as GT and also did not qualify him for SpEd because the GT and LD masked each other. Fast forward to 10 grade. After Elementary school , he got NO services. And, he was failing. That became who he was, Tiger, who doesn’t pass any classes, but wins awards for his equestrian skills. When a friend shot himself over grades, I told my son grades didn’t matter to me. He was so frustrated because he wanted an education and wanted to do well. In ninth grade he scored college level comprehension and 3rd grade reading fluency. Fortunately, someone referred him to the District GT director. When they tested him this time, he was in the 99% for non verbal and 86% verbal, despite having given up and failed every class since 6th grade. He was transferred to a GT center program with a wonderful, insightful director. However, many of his teachers still just saw a dark skinned boy with long hair, who spent too much time riding horses. A few had the nerve to say that they did not believe he was Dyslexic . And, they refused to accept his GT ( the anxiety, increased sensitivity, etc), except to say that if he were more engaged and responsible and if we were harder on him, he would succeed. They totally ignored the years of letting him fail and not accepting the evidence of GT and LD. We should have taken the easy way out, but I always insisted that he be in classes that challenged his intellect, with accommodations for the LD(those were limited because he wasn’t on an IEP. His ALP was ignored by the gen ed teachers. He didn’t like to be in classes were students messed around or were disruptive, although they would have been easier. So, he failed 3 years of English and did not finish high school. And the school didn’t even care that a HGT student dropped out. The GT center program was great though, they helped him understand himself as a 2E student. That program is why he didn’t put a bullet through his head out of frustration. That and his horses! Because he was always quiet, respectful and didn’t put himself out there with his hand up all the time, and because he was a minority, no one believed he could be GT.

    • byamtich March 1, 2015, 10:28 pm

      I’m so glad that he benefited from that program. “Always quiet” can be scary, especially if you are polite and take in “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Polite perfectionism can lead to silence, and I’m glad you spoke up and advocated for him.

  • Aurora September 6, 2015, 1:27 pm

    Thanks so much for addressing this important issue! It has been on my mind as I have thought about how even the gifted programs that we have usually come from a white upper middle class point of view. Getting involved in the identification process recently in my district, I see how arbitrary their criteria is. Up until a few years ago, the only kids that even got tested were those referred by their parents, and academic achievement is still a big part of what they look at. As an underachieving gifted student who was late identified, I have a soft spot for those kids who don’t fit the public school achievement box. I, however, had the advantage of supportive parents and community in the UU church, so my nonconformity was respected there if not in school. I can only imagine the frustration of kids who don’t have support at home or at school!

    • byamtich September 6, 2015, 2:59 pm

      I’m so glad you’re getting involved in the identification process! This increases the likelihood that these kids will have access to more useful educational resources (including, often, freedom from arbitrary criteria imposed by adults who don’t know them or their potential).

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