How gifted education helped a family embrace cultural pluralism

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At one point in my childhood, I was one of the top five children in my elementary school class. At another point, I was an underachiever. I was a high-achieving child during a time where gifted education programs had yet to be implemented in our neighborhood public schools or clearly defined by educators. Teacher education programs back then were not designed to train teachers on identifying high potential or gifted children by the characteristics they exhibit in classrooms. Likewise, unless parents were exceptionally intuitive or highly educated, they too were uninformed on how to identify and advocate for their gifted children. The result was that I was sometimes reprimanded and, therefore, discouraged from expressing my intelligence and creativity. Rather than being shown how to channel my energy into something productive, I was shut down and told to be quiet.

I still have my second grade report card, on which my teacher wrote, “Joy(ce) talks too much.” I am sure it was not her intention, but my teacher caused long-term damage to my self-esteem and willingness to speak up. Through college, I was hesitant to contribute to classroom discussions even though I had much to add. In hindsight, it was not shyness or fear of judgment that held me back. It was the years-old recording embedded in my mind that repeatedly whispered, “speaking up in class is a no-no.”

Today I hold three academic degrees and have dedicated much of my career to studying gifted education, but it was only through persistence that I was able to overcome the damage that was done to my developing psyche. This is why gifted education is so important to me.

Now, thirty or more years later, I address in a published book (co-edited with Anthony Sparks, PhD) the following fundamental question: “Just how should parents, teachers, and other adults responsible for the education, upbringing, and character development of children respond to youth who are actually smarter than them?”

The book Running the Long Race in Gifted Education: Narratives and Interviews from Culturally Diverse Gifted Adults is divided into five parts, the fourth of which is about navigating families. After many hours of going back and forth with my editor, I noticed that it lacked a parenting perspective close to my heart: out of classroom alternatives to intense gifted education classrooms. Following much deliberation, I decided that the missing perspective was my own—not as a gifted child, but as the parent of a gifted child. So my parental perspective as an educator felt like a natural and necessary contribution to the book.

The book is a collection of narratives and case studies useful for families, educators, and others who encounter gifted children from culturally diverse backgrounds. We did not interpret or analyze the collection, letting each individual part speak for itself. Numerous studies and publications draw conclusions about the culturally diverse gifted child’s social and emotional well-being; their academic challenges and obstacles; underrepresentation in gifted classrooms; and feelings of isolation. The book is different. Its unaccompanied narratives permit reader to gain knowledge without the influence of predetermined interpretation. This openness created the opportunity to develop a new theory.

In my chapter, “Deliberate Choices: How Gifted Education Knowledge and Experiences Dictated a Family’s Life Style,” I describe how I nurtured the gifts and talents of my Black American daughter. This perspective does not focus on what occurred in the classroom, but instead on the lifestyle choices I made to support my child’s development. I chronicle the observed parent-child and teacher-child interactions in relation to the conscientious, deliberate decisions I made to support enrichment opportunities inside and outside the classroom. Rather than rely on intense gifted and talented curricula, I developed my own personalized philosophy on parenting, schooling, education in general, and giftedness in particular.

The process of writing this chapter helped me identify other unique perspectives on raising a Black gifted child (or any gifted child for that matter). My individual thought processes surfaced, and I recognize that they may be useful for families struggling with decision-making in regards to their gifted children. Therefore, I offer the following as guidance:

  • When making decisions about the educational path of gifted children, parents should identify family values, including the role of giftednessAsk yourself, “What are our family values in regard to raising children?” In my case, I strongly valued that my child would be well-rounded, social, confident, a good person, respectful of others, and intellectually astute. As a family, we valued cultural pluralism and assimilation because both are important to well-roundedness. I wanted the outcome of my rearing a child, gifted or not, to be reflective of the world we live in. We embraced cultural pluralism, which meant my gifted child would be prepared to embrace her own culture while living in a world that includes diverse peoples and perspectives. She learned to respect the languages and cultures of those who do not look like her. These values helped my child utilize and draw upon gifted exceptionalities in ways that prepared her for an increasingly changing world.
  • Teacher education programs must include a curriculum that, at the very least, introduces potential teachers to basic characteristics of giftedness, especially those characteristics that may differ across cultural and racial backgrounds. In my chapter, I bring up teacher expectations as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I note the following:

When teachers are not equipped with the appropriate knowledge and skill to encourage achievement in students who are culturally different—because they are most familiar with high achieving mainstream children—those who fall outside the teachers’ scope of understanding and training suffer. In such cases, the teachers’ focus may fall predominantly on the students they find easiest to teach or relate to (who, coincidently, are the ones the teachers tend to have the highest expectations for). The other children—for instance, the “rebellious” ones, the “out of control” ones—are labeled, disregarded, and shuffled off to another classroom to become someone else’s problem. These types of teachers set a classroom norm that makes their jobs easier but at the same time stymies the growth of gifted students with unique learning needs. In order to serve all students, it is imperative that teachers learn to appropriately recognize and manage academic and behavioral challenges presented by gifted children of all racial, ethnic, and culturally different backgrounds.

  • Parents should know there are always alternatives to gifted-education classrooms. Such out-of-the-classroom enrichment opportunities can be better suited to children who either may not have access or may not respond well to intense instruction (or, for example, to what I recognized early on: loads of 2nd grade homework). If a school does not offer specialized enrichment programs, pull-out classrooms, opportunities for acceleration, or classroom differentiation instruction, teachers and administrators should recommend local enrichment opportunities offered at colleges and universities or go out of their way to help identify areas in which the child excels. Parents should expect this.
  • Parents must never completely rely on teachers to make enrichment a priority. Ultimately, it falls on the shoulders of the parents to ensure their children are engaged and challenged. I never underestimated the learning that took place in the classroom, but I knew there would not be an adequate focus on the individual child. Because of all the bureaucracy and standardized testing, it is impossible for curricula to cater to the unique and varied needs of each student. This leaves little opportunity for educational discovery and exploration. Outside-of-class learning opportunities allow children to indulge and further explore their interests while receiving real-world experience. Children identified as gifted (whether through standardized testing, IQ tests, academic test scores, or other measures) are often able to excel in multiple areas at an accelerated rate. For instance, if a child is mathematically talented but wants to join the swim team and is good at it, it is the parent’s duty to encourage it. Who knows, the child may be able to calculate timing between strokes better than the next child.

Sometimes deliberate choices are unpopular and do not fit the cooker-cutter schemata of other family members and educators who subscribe to a one-size-fits-all model for gifted students. In my case, our choices were ultimately made in the best interests of my child’s identity, not only as an academically gifted individual, but also as a highly-social person who we thought would benefit from being well-rounded and cross-culturally diverse, instead of narrowly aspiring to be the astronaut she undoubtedly could have been.

Joy M. Scott-Carrol, PhD, is the CEO and co-founder of the International Gifted Education Teacher-Development Network.

The High Flyer is a unique collaboration between the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Our two organizations unite around common goals: to expand the public’s understanding of the needs of gifted and talented children, to increase public urgency to serve them, and to dispel common myths. The High Flyer and our other combined efforts are meant to lead the conversation and signal that all gifted and talented students matter.