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Are gifted children getting lost in the shuffle?

by | Posted on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 — 11:29 AM

30-year study reveals clues to the exceptional child’s journey

by Jane Sevier

Gifted children are likely to be the next generation’s innovators and leaders—yet the exceptionally smart are often invisible in the classroom, lacking the curricula, teacher input and external motivation to reach full potential.

This conclusion comes as the result of the largest scientific study of the profoundly gifted to date, a 30-year study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development.

David Lubinski, professor of psychology and human development at Peabody, led the study, which tracked 300 gifted children from age 13 until age 38, logging their accomplishments in academia, business, culture, health care, science and technology. The results were recently published in a paper titled “Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators,” in Psychological Science.

David Lubinski (Vanderbilt)

“Gifted children are a precious human-capital resource,” said Lubinski, who has spent four decades studying talented individuals to correlate exceptional early SAT scores with achievement later in life. “This population represents future creators of modern culture and leaders in business, health care, law, the professoriate and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Our study provides new insight into the potential of these children.”

Peabody collaborators on the study were Camilla P. Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development; and Harrison Kell, visiting postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology and Human Development.

The children for the study were selected using above-level testing procedures, namely SAT verbal or math scores achieved at age 13 or younger that placed them in the top .01 percent in reasoning ability. The children’s accomplishments were impressive.

Of the 320 participants, 203 went on to earn master’s degrees and above. Of these, 142 (about 44 percent) also earned doctoral degrees—markedly higher than the general population (around 2 percent). The majority of the children went on to pursue careers of note, becoming senior leaders at Fortune 500 companies, prolific software engineers, physicians, attorneys, and leaders in public policy, including one who advised the President of the United States on national policy issues.

Despite their remarkable success, researchers concluded that the profoundly gifted students had experienced roadblocks along the way that at times prevented them from achieving their full potential. Typical school settings were often unable to accommodate the rapid rate at which they learned and digested complex material. When students entered elementary and high school classrooms on day one having already mastered the course material, teachers often shifted focus away from them to those struggling with the coursework. This resulted in missed learning opportunities, frustration and underachievement, particularly for the exceptionally talented, the researchers suggest.

“There’s this idea that gifted students don’t really need any help,” Kell said. “This study shows that’s not the case. These people with very high IQs—what some have called the ‘scary smart’—will do well in regular classrooms, but they still won’t meet their full potential unless they’re given access to accelerated coursework, AP classes and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers like Peabody’s Programs for Talented Youth.”

While there are programs in place to help those with learning disabilities, there are none federally mandated for the gifted, Lubinski added. “The higher the intellectual ability, the more difficult it may be to match a student with appropriate educational opportunities and curricula. Our study shows what kinds of measures you need to pinpoint the extraordinarily gifted among the gifted students,” he said.

Lubinski concludes that those with extraordinary talent in mathematical and verbal reasoning ultimately were motivated to achieve at higher levels if course material was presented at the advanced rates at which they learned. “Ability, motivation and opportunity all play roles in developing exceptional human capacity and providing the support needed to cultivate it throughout life,” he said.

Lubinski and Benbow are co-directors of Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. SMPY is a longitudinal study of more than 5,000 intellectually talented participants that focuses on recognizing different types of intellectually precocious students and discovering conditions for enhancing their educational and vocational development. The individuals selected for the study were culled from the SMPY group.

Support for the study was provided by a research and training grant from the Templeton Foundation and by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development grant P30 HD 15051 to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

Contact:
Joan Brasher, (615) 322-NEWS
joan.brasher@vanderbilt.edu


  • Marcia Gregorio

    Allen says, “Labeling children as ‘gifted’ has got to stop.” And what good will that do? Labels happen to be the diagnosis – the way that we can advocate for children’s needs. It might not feel fun to say, “My child has cancer,” but the label /diagnosis is what gets the child the care he/she needs. Whatever the label used to describe kids with an IQ of 140 or 150, the point is that those kids need some kind of special / different educational considerations.

  • Marion Kee

    Why is this an acceptable approach? It’s like deliberately starving the child.

    • Adrian Speteanu

      That’s a silly notion. The social dimension that I’ve mentioned adds to their learning experience, not subtracts, how would it amount to starving, anyway?

      We’ve seen a lot of “special” kids developing into shy adults, not having anything to contribute to a world they do not fit into, feeling resent and seclusion. Maybe the world should keep up with them instead of asking them to be patient with the rest, but IMO, that’s not going to happen, These people need to lead instead of the non-values we see nowadays and the only way that is going to happen is by teaching kids all perspectives that they should be aware of.

  • Patrick Lawrence Desmond

    Unfortunately, your thoughts are typical of those of many. I respectfully suggest that you take the time to more thoroughly research this critical topic.

    • Allen

      I suggest you read Anders Erricson’s and Carol Dweck’s work. I would love to read anything that supports your argument. Please suggest articles for me to read. This is definitely a critical topic. I have dedicated years to it’s study.

  • Dustin Ddraig

    I grew up under this experience–doing the “regular” work that I had already learned years earlier and if I spoke up, I would just be assigned more work. If I tried to explore the topic more deeply through on-topic questions, I was told to be quiet. I quickly learned to not bother trying at school because I’d just be slapped down. I was always at the top of my class, but was also always bored and unhappy and still resentful because of my experience.

  • thalyarae

    As a child who was labeled “gifted” at five, I deliberately gave the wrong answers to my teachers to see what would happen. Thankfully they were smart and made certain I had access to the resources I needed to stay interested, engaged and out of trouble. Not everyone has teaches or parents to advocate for them. And in some schools, the teachers are actually part of the problem. They either feel threatened (happened to me) or don’t know how to teach to highly intelligent learners. This needs to be addressed.

  • Bill DeFilippis

    Okay, then I suggest we also get rid of competitive sports programs that benefit a small group of the athletically talented and instead have fun sports programs. The same people who whine about ‘gifted’ education being elitist are the same types who howl when sports programs are cut back. A local school district gutted their G and T program, then turned around and spent 500k putting field turf on the football stadium…

    I don’t disagree that our education system should challenge all, but the problem is we have this cult of ignorance a la Sarah Palin that says that bright kids are somehow ‘not real’, and as a result, instead of challenging curricula, we see school dumbed down to her level. Schools are letting kids take AP classes who aren’t equipped for them, and then the teacher spends all the time helping these kids try to keep up, and the rest of the class suffers.

  • Bill DeFilippis

    They are wrong, the whole idea of ‘learning to deal with people of all abilities’ is a crock that has been spread by the anti elitist crowd to justify not giving resources to kids who ‘don’t need it’. The problem with mixed classrooms is the kids at either end don’t get what they need. Kids at the upper end zone out, often coast, then don’t achieve their potential,and the ‘answers’ out there are a crock. “Oh, the bright kids should act as teacher’s assistants to help with the slower kids”…..the problem with that is it might keep them from twiddling their thumbs, but what do they get out of it?

    I am not saying gifted kids should be separated out, or be ‘above’ other students, but making them plod along with everyone else is not learning to deal, it is learning that they are supposed to pretend to be ‘average’ to get along. Mixed classrooms only work when the teacher can apply individual attention to meet needs, but what it means in todays schools is they teach to the lowest common denominator.

    I have seen mixed classrooms work, my son was/is gifted, and he went to a private school where the kids abilities ranged..and the teachers made sure he was part of the class, while also challenging him and making sure he was being fed intellectually, too,rather then simply telling him to follow along with the class. When a kid is reading on a graduate level and is being made to plod through a reading book that they have finished reading, it isn’t teaching them anything.

  • Patricia McDonnell

    I was one of the gifted children lost in the public school system – hopelessly bored by my classes, I spent my time reading on my own about the subjects we were being taught. When I tried to ask questions based on my reading, I was labeled a “troublemaker” and frequently sent out of class to the principal’s office to discuss my behavioral problems. I was given many IQ tests, all of which qualified me as “scary smart,” but since I wasn’t interested in playing violin, chess, or joining the math club – I obviously wasn’t one of the “gifted ones.” I was eventually was referred to a “Talented and Gifted” group in Junior High, but I failed the interview.My mother, who worked in my high school guidance department found out why: there was a note in my records from the school psychologist (who had presided over the interview for the club) noting that no child of my age could have read the books that I had described reading, therefore I was obviously a pathological liar. I am now, at 43, a senior at Harvard with a 3.9 GPA. I work full-time and take three classes a semester as there are few grants or scholarships available for “older” students. I intend to continue and complete my PhD – I made the most of my life, and I have no regrets – but I can’t help still being angry with the “system” that applied so many labels to me as a child…labels that stuck and haunted me for years. Labels that even my parents believed…

  • kd

    America used to discriminate against children with disabilities by not allowing them in schools at all, or placing them in institutions without an education. IDEA provides free and appropriate public education for a group that was previously vulnerable. All children deserve an education which adds to their quality of life. There certainly should be an emphasis on challenging students who are two standard deviations above the mean (gifted) as you indicate, and this is a challenge that public school systems should rise to. To me, your statement came off as a bit snarky. Maybe you meant to say this in a different way?

    • http://foundersfollies.blogspot.com/ Chredon

      I think JD’s point is that we spend much, much more on the students who are two standard deviations or more below the mean than we do on those above the mean. I’m not saying they don’t need the help – they certainly do and they should get it. But those above the mean should get support for it, too. Our cookie-cutter educational programs don’t reach far enough to help the gifted.

  • Dr.Watson

    What? Identifying and serving gifted kids has to stop? So, what, we just leave them to suffer through coursework that they have already mastered? That’s the fastest way to end up with a bunch of unhappy, underachieving kids.

    They are gifted. It’s a fact. They weren’t just randomly “pegged” as gifted – they were intellectually (and often in other areas too) advanced from the start. They didn’t “turn out to be more intelligent” as a result of the advanced programming. They started out that way, and (shocking!) had their advanced needs met (at least some of them did) rather than being expected to limit their abilities in the name of fitting into the general education mold that only meets the needs of most typically developing kids.

    Although many people think that identifying the gifted kids is somehow elitist (or something else), it is not. Noting that a kid is gifted does not mean we are saying that they are “better” than others; just that they are different and have different needs.

    The gifted kids didn’t necessarily receive “better instruction and training.” It was more advanced than that of their age-mates.. Because they were capable of working at that more advanced level. Their typically developing peers of the same age are not able to do the same level of work..So we could bring in all the advanced-level work to all children that we want, but they would not benefit from it because they cannot (yet) do it. It is too advanced. Which is why gifted kids need to be identified – so that their needs are also being met, rather than being left to languish in a grade level based solely on their age rather than on their capabilities.

    Fairness means every child gets what he or she needs. Gifted kids need more advanced curriculum that moves more quickly than that which meets the learning needs of typically developing kids of the same age. It is your own “ideology” that is holding U.S. education back – the idea that all kids should get the same instruction regardless of their ability level. Typically developing kids should have strong learning environments that meet their needs. And so should gifted kids. Which means that they may have different learning environments at least part of the time, if we’re doing things right.

  • Allen

    There are too many kids in “gifted” programs. Every high school doesn’t need to have one. This study measured gifted children to be 1/10000. There is no way my high school (1000 students) had enough gifted children to warrant an entire program.

  • Kerrie

    I have one of those kids in the 1% — she’s not able to achieve at her full capabilities. And, no, you can’t always get those needs met in the regular classroom. It’s just like kids with learning disabilities — they have special needs. It’s not right that we support those efforts at the other end of the spectrum, and just because these kids are smart they’re expected to fend for themselves. I’m a single parent and I can’t meet my daughter’s needs when I’m trying to work and run a household. We can’t afford an extra tutor or special programs. I’m really offended by the comments on here from folks who don’t have one of these kids who ISN’T having educational needs met.

    • http://www.kertongroup.com Derek Kerton

      As a dude with a pretty good IQ (a humble 2 percenter), I can sympathize with you. However, I’m not sure the role of public education is to offer a customized education program to each student – nice as that would be.

      We will always have limited public resources, and therefore must define limited goals for our institutions. It seems to me that the goal of public education should be to level the playing field between rich and poor, such that all American children have access to a good, standard quality of education; an education which more or less guarantees a minimum level of mental ability; an education can help them towards leading more fulfilling lives, and will allow them to take their turn at becoming productive (and tax paying) members of society.

      If you want to go beyond that, and give your child a customized experience, or to teach him about Allah or Jesus, or to prep him intensively for sport or science, then that’s up to you.

    • NotinmyBellCurve

      Right there with you – my daughter is intensely energetic, highly visual, reading four levels higher than her class and math-oriented. which apparently means no one at the school has the time or energy to keep up with her…I hardly do at home, but I work full-time so I couldn’t do it and pay the bills too, although helping her learn is a joy for me (I find we have similar brains, it’s fun!) She brings home sheet after sheet of boring repetitive work – things I covered years ago with her and she asks me questions about things they won’t cover for several more years…sometimes we dive in, other times I worry if I’m just setting her up for more years of boredom if we learn it now. What’s more the school won’t accelerate because she ‘doesn’t follow the rules – always talking and getting out of her seat.. if she would follow rules and procedure then we could talk about making accommodations for her.’ Really? Sounds like she NEEDS more to occupy her to me but they refuse to listen. The one thing they definitely don’t want to hear is ‘Energetic kids need more freedom to learn at a faster pace, or you are just bottling up that energy and then blaming it for not sitting still.’

  • Ben Koudelka

    I’ll go ahead and say this. I am one of those students that is considered gifted. I’ve never had any special training. When it comes to saying we are advanced in our knowledge and IQ, that is completely true. Say you were in an advanced college class. Would you rather move at normal speed or speed of a sixth grader? I usually finish at least 10 minutes before everyone else in our assignments and learn faster by a long shot. No child left behind hurts my ability to learn because if I’m left there bored, my mind starts wander. Why should we give slower learners a class but not accelerated learners? That was really the only point I was trying to make in this. None of the other parts really matter.

  • Ben Koudelka

    I’ll go ahead and say this. I am one of those students that is considered gifted. I’ve never had any special training. When it comes to saying we are advanced in our knowledge and IQ, that is completely true. Say you were in an advanced college class. Would you rather move at normal speed or speed of a sixth grader? I usually finish at least 10 minutes before everyone else in our assignments and learn faster by a long shot. No child left behind hurts my ability to learn because if I’m left there bored, my mind starts wander. Why should we give slower learners a class but not accelerated learners? That was really the only point I was trying to make in this. None of the other parts really matter.

  • Allen

    Studies have shown that kids that perform better on their first math tests have been exposed to math earlier on in their childhood. When the first test rolls around, the “gifted” student grasps the concept better than the student who has had no prior exposure to math. The labels of “math person” and “not a math person” get attached and provide an excuse for the non math people to stop trying (they simply don’t have what it takes to be good. smh). Then the math people (those who have prior exposure to math) get placed into special programs where they receive more attention and better training. It should be no surprise that kids with better instruction become more proficient; that is supported by research in the fields of sport, music, art, medicine, and the military.

    I agree that there is the occasional elite elite elite intellectual genius (and they do deserve special programs) but remember this research defined gifted as 1/10000. In my high school about 20% of kids were in the gifted program; that is really watering it down.

    There was another study where students were given a series of math problems. Half of the students were praised for being smart, “wow nice job on those problems. You must be really smart.” (gifted) The other half of the students were praised for their effort, “wow nice job on those problems. You must have worked really hard.” A couple weeks later the kids were offered the choice between a hard test and an easy test. The kids that were praised for being smart (gifted) chose the easy test and the kids that were praised for working hard chose the harder test.

    When you label a kid as gifted they often feel the need to live up to and maintain a perfectionist image that is EASILY and INEVITABLY shattered. I see this all the time with talented young chess players; some of the most gifted players are the worst under pressure and have the hardest time rebounding from defeat.

    Rather than taking the top 20% from a high school and throwing the “gifted” label on them, we should reserve that label for the truly gifted – the 1/10000. Those few students SHOULD be put into more advanced and challenging classes.

    The problem is that when 7-8-9 year old children are told that they aren’t gifted, many of them accept their fate and assume the belief that they will always be dumb. Very tragic.

    I’m reminded of a story I once heard a story from Carol Dweck, who was speaking to a group of children explaining how the the brain learned and developed. When she finished explaining, a kid raised his hand and said “you mean I don’t always have to be dumb?”

  • Allen

    Studies have shown that kids that perform better on their first math tests have been exposed to math earlier on in their childhood. When the first test rolls around, the “gifted” student grasps the concept better than the student who has had no prior exposure to math. The labels of “math person” and “not a math person” get attached and provide an excuse for the non math people to stop trying (they simply don’t have what it takes to be good. smh). Then the math people (those who have prior exposure to math) get placed into special programs where they receive more attention and better training. It should be no surprise that kids with better instruction become more proficient; that is supported by research in the fields of sport, music, art, medicine, and the military.

    I agree that there is the occasional elite elite elite intellectual genius (and they do deserve special programs) but remember this research defined gifted as 1/10000. In my high school about 20% of kids were in the gifted program; that is really watering it down.

    There was another study where students were given a series of math problems. Half of the students were praised for being smart, “wow nice job on those problems. You must be really smart.” (gifted) The other half of the students were praised for their effort, “wow nice job on those problems. You must have worked really hard.” A couple weeks later the kids were offered the choice between a hard test and an easy test. The kids that were praised for being smart (gifted) chose the easy test and the kids that were praised for working hard chose the harder test.

    When you label a kid as gifted they often feel the need to live up to and maintain a perfectionist image that is EASILY and INEVITABLY shattered. I see this all the time with talented young chess players; some of the most gifted players are the worst under pressure and have the hardest time rebounding from defeat.

    Rather than taking the top 20% from a high school and throwing the “gifted” label on them, we should reserve that label for the truly gifted – the 1/10000. Those few students SHOULD be put into more advanced and challenging classes.

    The problem is that when 7-8-9 year old children are told that they aren’t gifted, many of them accept their fate and assume the belief that they will always be dumb. Very tragic.

    I’m reminded of a story I once heard a story from Carol Dweck, who was speaking to a group of children explaining how the the brain learned and developed. When she finished explaining, a kid raised his hand and said “you mean I don’t always have to be dumb?”

  • Scottilla

    In high school I was told “We don’t have to worry about you. You can take care of yourself.” You can see the result.

  • http://foundersfollies.blogspot.com/ Chredon

    The phrase ‘Human Capital’ does not refer to a person’s financial or economic impact. It refers to the skills, abilities, knowledge and experience that a person can bring to bear on ANY situation, not just an economic one. Your human capital is the sum total of everything that you know, everything you can do, and your ability in applying that to the challenges you face every day.

    Gifted children have the potential to grow and learn at an accelerated pace – if the educational opportunities are there. They have the ability to amass great amounts of human capital – skills, knowledge, and abilities – but only if they are exposed to them.

    So, human capital is all about the person’s value as a human being. Yes, the more human capital you have, the more capable you will be in generating financial capital for yourself, your company, and society. But that’s a by-product of having human capital, not the goal.

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