"Sharon, you're smart, you're nice, and you're good at sports. You're going to have a great life," a friend told me during PE class at Gunn High School. She touched me by recognizing my attributes, but I disagreed with her. A person who is regarded as smart, nice and good at sports will not necessarily have an easy life filled with happiness and success.
I recently read Adrienne Van Gorden's letter to the editor, "Consider the gifted" (April 22, 2016). She claims that our community is ignoring a group of students with special needs because we mistakenly believe they can manage everything easily. This group is the gifted.
There is no gifted and talented education (GATE) program in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), despite our unusually large gifted population, as noted in the Palo Alto Weekly's "Startup schools for 'gifted' emerge as state cuts public funding." Ironically, PAUSD even has a school named after Lewis Terman, who invented the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, which is used by schools worldwide to test for intellectual giftedness.
Why do we not have GATE?
First, the district suspended GATE years ago because of "elimination of funding."
Second, some teachers and principals see problems in academic "laning" (similar to "tracks" in other schools, but more flexible), feeling that students in lower lanes are discouraged from taking more challenging classes because they view themselves as "dumb." GATE could discourage more students, by admitting only those tested as gifted and denying others the choice to join, they say.
Third, parents, students and the administration could feel more pressure. Parents may insist on retesting their children until they are classified as gifted.
Fourth, the achievement gap could widen between lower- and higher-achieving students by reserving resources for students who are perceived as already "well-off."
However, problems arise from the lack of GATE: No gifted specialists are available to identify and support the social/emotional needs related to intellectual giftedness. Studies by the Center for Talented Youth in Ireland show that the gifted, without adequate social/emotional support, can easily suffer from "feelings of frustration, low self-esteem, isolation, difference ... negative social behaviour and unfulfilled potential."
I am not recommending a new way of assessing gifted individuals; rather, I am defining giftedness as encompassing not only intellectual but also social and emotional traits.
GiftedandTalented.com, operated by Stanford University, archives articles on different elements of giftedness. One article explains that "'negative' factors (such as tension, anxiety, and depression)" can be present during "personal growth and development." Another describes the affective and behavioral traits of "sensitivity and excitability."
Likewise, NAGC states that gifted individuals have "unusual emotional depth and intensity."
Studying gifted traits, we can see why many of our students face the problems that they face. The traits come from their nervous systems' ease of stimulation, or over-excitability. Over-excitability is the underpinning of acuity and intellectual giftedness, but it is also the root of susceptibility to "negative factors" and excessive emotional sensitivity.
Those in the field of giftedness consider social and emotional sensitivities as prevailing gifted traits. They assert that affective and behavioral education is necessary for gifted learners to not feel "out-of-sync" because of their sensitivities and dive into unhealthy lifestyles such as perfectionism and self-criticism.
The feelings of someone tense, anxious or depressed could stem from personal development in an environment that's not entirely supportive. They may spring from their unrecognized and unsupported giftedness, rather than exclusively from their "excessive" work, "immature" brain, "performance-prizing" parents or "overachieving" environment, as commonly perceived.
Lacking gifted identification and specialists, we've missed a cause of social/emotional problems among our youth. They surely do not stem from only giftedness, but giftedness is a possible cause.
If we had gifted identification at PAUSD schools, we could advise gifted students on how to embrace -- not repudiate -- their social/emotional traits. They would understand that without their over-excitability, they would be rid of their burdensome sensitivities, but they would also have to give up attributes essential to what most people think of when they hear "giftedness." Because we do not have specialized gifted support, gifted students have to figure themselves out circuitously.
Personally, I spent years feeling "out-of-sync," repudiating and trying to "improve" myself. Throughout elementary school and middle school, I was called "quiet," "shy" and "sensitive." In middle school and high school, I tried to reinvent myself to never be called quiet, shy or sensitive again. I tried changing into a louder, more assertive and tougher person, by joining clubs and running for officer positions.
Graduating high school, I left those clubs and reflected upon my experiences. I have searched online and read several books to understand myself. The most enlightening book has been Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski's "Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults." Reading that, I recognized my giftedness, learned about myself and gained understanding of my peers at Gunn. I cannot help thinking that the lack of a gifted program had led to a high school life marked with unnecessary self-ignorance.
I am happy that PAUSD is exploring social-emotional learning (SEL). Our district will tackle not only academic but also personal development. Our schools will teach SEL curricula, looking to increase students' self-awareness and help them manage emotions.
SEL is an opportunity to teach students about the social and emotional traits of giftedness. I would like for it to include a section on giftedness, so our school district could provide a chance for the gifted to see and understand themselves without a controversial GATE program.