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A conference for people who work with kids with special needs

I spent the weekend at the California Association for the Gifted Conference in Sacramento. This isn’t a conference for people who doubt what “gifted” means, though I would guess that most people at the conference dislike the term as much as I do because of its implication of a value judgment. The conference focuses on the needs — psychological, educational, social — of kids that present a large number of common characteristics. [See the NAGC’s FAQ page for specifics.] Let’s call them accelerated learners.

It’s clear to anyone who has worked with them that such learners have special needs. I remember when my four-year-old daughter’s therapist recommended, “You should refer to her at her school as a child with special needs.” I was initially shocked — that term is most commonly applied to kids on the other end of the learning spectrum.

But these days I totally get what she means. And so did pretty much everyone at the conference. Whether they were parents of these kids, teachers of these kids, or therapists of these kids, they could see the group as clearly as special education teachers see kids with Down Syndrome.

The aspect of this group of kids that interests many of the people at the conference is not the fact that they can learn quickly. That’s like saying that those who care for and educate kids with Down Syndrome are focused on their slower learning pace. Their learning rate is part of the whole package.

What many people who are working with these kids are interested in is the fact that not all these kids are doing well. Yes, there are kids like that straight-A student, captain of the football team, president of the student council. But most kids who present the characteristics of this group have unrecognized problems. Many of them are unlikely to be designed “gifted” in school — not a small percentage of them are put into remedial learning. Many of them are not socially adept and end up lonely and confused. Estimates of how many of them drop out of high school range from 10 to 20 percent.

So although there were some talks aimed at what these kids can do, most of what I heard was about what we need to change to help these kids negotiate the minefield they were born into. I went there determined to wear my reporter hat and go to lots of “schooly” talks about GATE funding and the differentiated classroom. However, I found myself drawn again and again to the psychologists who are learning why these kids are like they are, how they can reach their potential, how we can keep them from falling into those negative statistics quoted above.

[I did go to some “schooly” talks and will be writing about those soon.]

The various developmental theories that are being developed attempt to explain why a child who learns to read at 3 can’t seem to get along in a social environment till she’s 8. Or why a child who can do math in his head just can’t seem to get himself to write it down. Why some children start out fast and then slow way, way down. Why accelerated learners can present symptoms of ADHD, bipolar, dysgraphia, sensory integration disorder, etc. [See Hughes.]

No matter what approach they take, psychologists see an usual progression of development in the brain. These kids seem to be getting more signals into the lower brain — there were many knowing chuckles in the audience when one presenter mentioned the kids who are annoyed by their socks, the sound of the lights, a smell no one else notices. It’s also clear that they seem to be developing the frontal lobes (the reasoning area) long before they are developing the parts of their brains that usually develop first, such as emotional and social skills. [See NIH News.]

So what you end up with is kids who present differently but are treated similarly. The kid who presents ADHD excels in a faster, hands-on learning environment. The kid who can’t get along with other four-year-olds gets along just fine with older kids with a higher academic level. The kid who hates school and gets awful grades loves her “gifted” program and does even more work than is assigned. [See Grobman.]

This is hard for other parents to understand sometimes, and can lead to conflict. Many kids would do better in a GATE program than they do in our test-obsessed, repetition-heavy classrooms. But not all kids would. The average kid designated “gifted” needs around 2 repetitions to learn a skill. The average kid needs 8-10.  So in the perfect world, each student would get what she needs in any classroom, and none of them would be bored. But in our world of finite resources and test-obsessed administrations, we’re having to choose who gets which services and which learning environments.

What’s clear to me is that the “they don’t need any help” attitude is not serving these kids at all. Sure, some of them excel, but the CAG Conference was full of people working with and studying even more kids who don’t. They do have special needs. Yes, all children have gifts, but accelerated learners need the disabilities that can accompany their gift to be acknowledged and understood in order for them to live successful, fulfilling lives.

Posted in Education, Parenting, Psychology.

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