If the Shoe Fits

As a newly minted resource teacher for gifted and enrichment in my board, I have been doing more background reading of late to try to be more current in my knowledge. I was teaching in this type of programming earlier in my career, but the last decade I have been in Special Education working more with students identified with learning disabilities.

This entry might not give you any “new” information whatsoever. My first job teaching gifted students was in 1999 and much of the research still supports trends happening back then. I guess we need to keep repeating it, because it’s not getting addressed. Budgets get cut and the powers that be might not see the value in supporting our students. We are still considered Special Education. We still have needs.

Much of what I’m still reading today, indicates a “mirrored” effect in Special Education. If you need something in one area of the spectrum, you most certainly need to consider it in the other.  I’m not a slave to the “bell curve”. However, since it’s an image/concept so widely understood by most people, I’ll use it as my starting point today.

Whatever is deemed necessary for a student who is at one end of the bell curve should also be applied to a student at the other end.  If you picture a student needing curriculum accommodations and/or modifications, priority seating, changed time allowances, withdrawal, resource, specialized technology, access to manipulatives, multiple input and output choices,  access to other staff/counselling, it works both ways.

The students I currently serve sit at the high end of the bell curve. This can translate into many things, but for ease and brevity, let’s say they are considered above average. Some of my students would be identified as gifted by a traditional definition.

There can be a distinct difficulty in reaching the needs of these students that often goes overlooked. A prevalent notion is that since a student seems to already knows subject material, they may get less attention that others in the class. They can often be left to their own devices because there appears to be students with higher “needs” in the class.

This does a great disservice to students who are considered in the “enrichment” range or of “above average” intelligence. For too long, these types of students would not get the challenges they need because a teacher would need to deal with more pressing issues in a class. It’s often viewed as more important to have most students reach a base level than worry about those that need to go beyond the minimum acceptable level.

Special education encompasses a variety of students with exceptionalities. For an outsider, you might immediately assume that means remediation and not necessarily acceleration. Our students’ needs cannot be met by average or regular means. It is just as important to address those that  function significantly above baseline curriculum standards as it is to address those functioning below.

People in my new world are quite aware of this disparity.  Generally, the idea of education is to get everyone to learn a certain concept. For those that fall behind, it might be tempting to focus our resources on them, to bring them up to standard. Let me be clear: I have no problem with trying to reach all students, and spending meaningful time to help and allow all students access to education. But what we can’t forget is for that every student struggling at the lower end of the bell curve, there is a student at the top end also struggling to get her needs met.

These needs seem to be unequal, but in many ways they are the same. At both ends, a number of situations may occur.  Each student in these ranges encounters difficulties and may struggle to get their needs met. Not being able to learn at their own pace may cause behaviour issues, whether it needs to be slowed down, sped up, or modified.  A student may resort to distracting other students or non-compliance because the academic information does not meet their needs. (Too often we might think only one group may have behaviour issues, but this is not always the case)

An extension of this behaviour can be seen with peer relationships. A student may become a class clown to win favour with students and opt away from the focus on academics. They may have trouble relating to classmates because they don’t understand the  nuances of making friends. Concepts a student either doesn’t grasp, or that goes beyond the understanding of the bulk of students, can cause a chasm when building and maintaining friendships.  Frustration with the speed of conversation (both too fast or too slow) and cause reactions among students that make it more difficult to sustain relationships.

What has been difficult for students in our range is that if they seem to understand the original concept or lesson, they are often left wondering how to get more out of the lesson. They have a natural curiosity to go beyond what is happening in class.  It could be that a teacher already has her hands fulls delivering content, believe me, I’m not teacher bashing here, just trying to show why our students need programs like ours!

Sometimes, it is helpful to give our students a leadership role to help others. Some students will thrive. We must remember that just giving enrichment students more of the “same” is often detrimental to their drive and love of learning.  We might think of them as the annoying student who “ruined” a lesson because he knew the outcome before some students even grasped what was going to happen.  We must remember that when that happens, it’s still the excitement of learning that has them engaged. We can’t be the ones who give “busy work” to keep them occupied, or they will lose that engagement.  (Research out of the U.S. suggests that if we don’t put the proper challenges and opportunities for deeper learning to these students by grade 5, half of them will start to tune out)

The age-old complaint we hear from our students is that they are given more questions to complete, “because they can”, when really, they should be given LESS to complete “because they already can”. They need deeper, richer guiding questions. They aren’t always a great “mini teacher” because they don’t want to be centered out, or that they don’t quite have the ability to accurately explain a concept they grasp which another student doesn’t.

Another misconception is that if their knowledge is higher, their maturity level will be, too. This is often times the opposite. Gifted and enrichment students frequently are asynchronous learners – meaning different skills are learned at different times. While they may be able to answer those math and science questions you even struggle with, they can also have a crying episode when a sheet of paper rips from their book.  Whatever reaction you might attribute to “frustration” can be a result of not understanding and ALSO understanding too much.  How can our students utilize their knowledge and skills in a meaningful way to them – they already understand the lesson and need to deepen their understanding – but often aren’t given the tools to explore.

Another big point that gets wrestled with is the idea of achievement versus ability. A number of teachers have questioned us, wondering why a student, who is supposedly “gifted”, does not have top marks in the class. Plenty of students can achieve great marks. They can be people pleasers, hard workers, understand class rubrics, have high intelligence, be well rounded, have a certain drive. Gifted students have the ability to do all this as well. However, we must remember a number of contributing facts with this population.  As stated earlier, if these students have learned from an early age that school doesn’t meet their academic needs, they may already have given up on hoping to find excitement in a certain subject area. They may not try very hard to “achieve” well.

There are also other factors I haven’t even really touched on. Gifted doesn’t always mean gifted in every subject, every unit, every strand, every time. Giftedness can bring along other attributes that can impede “achievement”, including – organizational issues, subject specific interests, emotional immaturity, anxiety, perfectionism, over-excitabilities, and believe it or not, the lack of proper study habits! (if they’ve never been challenged, they never learn how to overcome and study to learn!)  Being gifted doesn’t always equate to being the highest achiever in the class. It may, but we mustn’t be fooled into thinking a gifted child ALWAYS achieves; and if that is the only way we judge, than we must investigate why they aren’t!

My title is, “If The Shoe Fits”. Special education should allot funds and resources to all students that fall under that umbrella. Special education is meant to service all students with those identified needs. We may be losing out on some of our brightest and most capable minds if we don’t address their unique abilities and contributions to our education system. By not allowing them the freedom to discover and foster their strengths in an investigative setting, gifted students may feel they don’t have the support they deserve and be left wondering where they belong. If the shoe fits, let them stand, walk, and explore.




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