Michael Shaughnessy, EducationNews.org
1) Rose, first of all, could you tell our readers just a little bit about yourself- your education and experiences?
I am president of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, a psychologist working with gifted children and their families, a director on the SENG board, a member of the Advisory Board to the Ministry of Education in NZ, a past classroom teacher and Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour (RTLB), an advisor to the national Gifted Education Centre in New Zealand and most importantly, a parent of two gifted children.
2) Now, how did you FIRST get involved in gifted education?
I had a preschooler who was very different than other preschoolers. He didn’t appear to follow normal developmental pathways and certainly taught me an awful lot about parenting gifted children… For example, he toilet trained himself very early and read avidly prior to school entry.
When he started school, things were not easy and I reached out for help. The more I learned about gifted children the more I realized that they are an amazing group who are often misunderstood and abnormalized. My son has many of the intensities and sensitivities found in gifted children. At sixteen he is currently on a scholarship at a private school here in New Zealand. I often wonder where his life will lead him (and us as parents…)
3) Could you talk a little about how gifted are identified in New Zealand?
New Zealand has a multi-categorical concept of “giftedness”. Our Ministry of Education Handbook (available at http://www.tki.org.nz/r/gifted/handbook/index_e.php)
“The gifted and talented represent a wide range of students with many different abilities. For example, some students may have exceptional abilities in science or technology, some in art or poetry, and others in social leadership.
It is now accepted that the gifted and talented are not simply those with high intelligence.
The range of special abilities that relate to the concept of giftedness and talent has become quite broad over the years. It now includes:
- general intellectual abilities
- academic aptitude
- creative abilities
- leadership ability
- physical abilities
- abilities in the visual and performing arts.”
In New Zealand, a co-ordinated, school-wide approach to identification is encouraged.
Identification is not viewed in isolation; rather it underpins programming and the implementation of a differentiated curriculum for gifted students.
Diagram: Interrelationships between concept, characteristics, identification, programmes, and evaluation (Source: MoE Handbook, Gifted and Talented Students. Meeting their needs in New Zealand Schools, 2000)
4) Now, what do you see as the main social and emotional needs of gifted?
I believe acceptance and respect from society is important. To feel valued and listened to, while being an effective communicator who is assertive and accepting of diversity is an ultimate endpoint. This crosses preschool, primary, high school, university levels out into the workforce. Many children I work with appear to have quite negative self-talk happening in their inner worlds. We want to support them to develop the Life Skills required to catch themselves doing this; and to then re-frame their thinking into more positive self-talk would be helpful.
I also think scaffolding students as they develop emotional resilience is important. Setting realistic and obtainable goals assists this process.
5) What kinds of problems do you see the gifted having in New Zealand?
As in many countries, financial constraints are evident. This however, should not be used as an excuse for not catering for our gifted students. We have to problem-solve and get creative in working with these constraints. They are challenges to overcome not barriers to stop gifted education flourishing.
Teacher training is another area that we need to address. Pre-service training should include modules on gifted education and catering for gifted learners within the classroom. Many classrooms contain gifted individuals who have specific needs and requirements however, these can go unrecognized.
Including social and emotional considerations when we are programming is important. We often focus on academics at the expense of social and emotional wellbeing. To me, an unhappy child is not ready for optimal learning experiences.
6) Are there any cultural concerns relative to gifted? (Are they mocked, ridiculed, ostracized or generally accepted?)
Sport appears to make a difference to peer acceptance. Many students that I see through the practice are happy if they are keen and successful sports people.
Socially, if a child has one or two close friends and is happy then telling them they have “issues” and need to broaden their friendship circles may be making problems rather than accepting individuals as they are.
Attending programmes such as the One Day School (run by the Gifted Education Centre) provides an opportunity for both academic programming and the fostering of social emotional wellbeing. They limit their class sizes to fifteen students and the teachers are all trained in gifted education. The centre has just reviewed their curriculum and it certainly values and considers the social and emotional needs of the gifted.
7) Could you tell us briefly about one case that you did some counseling with and the social concerns and emotional issues that you saw?
One girl I worked with was quite happy spending time on her own or with adults (not unusual for a gifted child but often labeled as a ‘social difficulty’ by a well-meaning but misinformed educator). She loved school and was a real ‘people watcher’ who lay like a seal on the long lunch seats and watched others at lunch-time and morning tea breaks. She had two close friends and was quite happy with this. Her parents and teachers were concerned. We must reflect on this and question: “Is there really a problem here or are we making one?” She has since transitioned to high school and when I saw her recently thanked me for understanding her. We need to be careful as adults not to judge too quickly… rather we should take the time to listen and become aware of the whole situation from every bodies perspective… this must include hearing the student’s voice.
8) How well equipped are the teachers in New Zealand to work with the social and emotional needs of gifted boys and girls?
As in any country, this is highly variable. Some schools are doing an excellent school-wide job while others have one or two teachers who are excellent in catering for the social and emotional needs of the gifted. I see many examples of ‘best practice’. A teacher who takes an interest in one gifted child makes a difference to gifted education nationally. In NZ we ran a recent STAR teacher search through NZAGC and the stories that emerged were heartfelt. Students and parents nominated teachers from the preschool level through to high school. It seemed to me it was the little things that counted. A number of teachers from the gifted Education Centre were nominated. I believe this is a reflection of the value they place on teacher training and selecting staff who are advocates for gifted children and their families.
I would really like to see more pre-service and in-service professional development opportunities for all NZ teachers and teacher trainees.
9) Do the gifted girls have different social or emotional needs than the boys?
Certainly, there are differences in general with the social and emotional needs of boys and girls. However, I think gifted individuals are just that – “individuals”. I tend to work with the individual child and their family on real life everyday situations that arise. We meet and discuss what has been happening. The child may identify an incident and we look at how they reacted, how others reacted and what strategies they could use if a similar situation arises. They go away with something to trial. If it works great, if not we adapt it. I also use light level cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and Bibliotherapy with both girls and boys. Sometimes a student has very negative self talk and we look at re-framing their thinking into a more positive framework. I have found this has excellent results no matter what the gender. I think the level of giftedness is more of a differentiating factor amongst gifted individuals than gender itself.
10) What have I neglected to ask?
I do think culture plays an important role within gifted education. Topics and programmes should be culturally relevant to the audience. For example, in New Zealand incorporating Maori perspectives into a schools definition is important. Concepts such as “collective giftedness” and “spiritual giftedness” should be considered. Our approaches within the learning context also need to be culturally appropriate. For example offering the mentoring approach for some Maori students could be an option.
Jill Bevan-Brown suggests “being of service” as a key component within the Maori concepts of giftedness. In New Zealand the Ministry of Education advocates making pull-out or withdrawal programmes culturally safe. This is where the forced-choice dilemma comes in. As educators we must reflect on if it is ethical to make a student choose between their ‘culture’ and being ‘gifted’.
Michael F. Shaughnessy is the Senior Columnist for EducationNews.org.
Used with the permission of EducationNews.org