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Assessing gifted kids

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Based on his public school record, you never would have guessed the boy was gifted. “This student’s academic record was spotty and teachers expressed disappointment with him,” says Mark Young, principal of The Abelard School in Toronto, Ontario. The student, now in Grade 11, handed in assignments late, antagonizing his teachers. When the boy switched over to Abelard, Young discovered the delays weren’t because the student was struggling with the work; rather, they reflected his perfectionism. What he eventually delivers, Young says, is “remarkable.”

One of many common misconceptions about gifted students, administrators of such programs say, is they are straight-A students (although many are). “Gifted doesn’t mean the ability to absorb a lot of material,” Young says. “It is about bringing a unique and important perspective to a subject, whether it is math or history, and combining it with traditional interpretations.”

Without academic indicators, educators, let alone parents, find it difficult to determine if a child is gifted. Melissa Volekaert, director of lower school and gifted co-ordinator at Fieldstone School in Toronto, says the only accurate test is the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), a roughly two-hour oral exam that evaluates a child’s independent and abstract thinking. And Young says tests don’t always accurately reflect if a child is gifted.

But gifted kids show certain characteristics that can tip off parents and educators. While bright students tend to be obedient, Volekaert says, gifted students “aren’t usually the best behaved.” This isn’t to say gifted kids are troublemakers, or vice versa, but they tend to be more inquisitive than most and possess unique eccentricities that can frustrate teachers.

“They are very oriented towards justice and fairness,” Volekaert says. “If something is not perceived as fair, you will get quite a reaction.” If a teacher claims information to be accurate when the student suspects it is not, for example, the student may start an argument or essentially “write the teacher off,” which can lead to behaviour issues. 

And while bright students perform well in most subjects, Young says gifted students generally excel in certain areas and struggle in others—another reason why gifted students sometimes go undetected. Young remembers a former Grade 9 student studying then-OAC (Grade 13) math, but struggling with reading novels at his own level. An instructor worked one-on-one with the student in Grade 9 English, and teachers in subsequent grades were alerted to the math genius’ weakness. “By the time he came through the curriculum, he was very strong all around,” Young says. 

That’s what a good gifted program can do: challenge students’ strengths, while addressing their weaknesses. Gifted programs generally follow two models: withdrawal, in which students are periodically removed from regular class to study gifted curricula, and self-contained classrooms, where students only attend classes exclusively for them. 

Abelard’s 50 students are not all gifted, but all are exceptionally bright and highly motivated. “These students are all irrepressible and want to be challenged,” Young says. “This way each student’s voice is heard.”

Three hundred students are enrolled in Fieldstone’s academically challenging program, but just 30 take part in its gifted program. The program removes kids from regular classes three times a week: once to interact with their peer group, and twice to work with students from other grades on specific subjects, such as robotics or cryptography. Volekaert believes it’s important for gifted kids to remain in regular classes. “Not everyone is gifted,” she says. “They need to learn to work with the kind of people they will work with when they’re finished school.”

Of course, not every child is ready to be called gifted. “The label is not always helpful because there are certain expectations brought to bear,” Young says. Yet both Young and Volekaert say if your child shows characteristics of being gifted—and seems disengaged from regular school—it may be time to investigate a specialized program. “These kids really march to their own drum,” Volekaert says.

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