The Forgotten Children
By LeeAnn Kriegh '94
The six-year-old who can't sleep because he's consumed with worry about global warming; the three-year-old who reads Charlotte's Web; the 14-year-old so bored with school he threatens to drop out; and the 12-year-old who skips two grades and later feels alienated and alone
Pacific University's Center for Gifted Education offers education, support, and resources to help parents and teachers improve their understanding of gifted children like these. The University is the only college or university in Oregon that offers a certificate in gifted education, a program begun by Professor Paula Wilkes at Pacific's Eugene campus in 2002.
Wilkes spent 25 years teaching in Oregon public schools, where she often saw Oregon's legislative mandate to provide gifted students with instruction that addresses "their assessed levels of learning and accelerated rates of learning" ignored. The mandate is not funded, and many schools offer little or no support for talented and gifted (TAG) students.
"Imagine a gifted child who enters school with a rage to learn," Wilkes said. "Often, that child's teachers, the school's administrators, and even the counselors at the school are not trained in gifted education, and we see that child suffer from not receiving an appropriate level of education."
At the Center, Wilkes offers three classes and a practicum in TAG education for inservice and preservice teachers, as well as for parents of gifted students. She also leads workshops, maintains a lending library for parents and teachers, gives guest lectures, works with parents and students individually, and hosts a book club for people interested in TAG-related issues.
The responsibilities that come with Wilkes' position as the program coordinator are overwhelming, but she appreciates the opportunity to reach more of the state's gifted students through the teachers and parents she instructs.
"I wanted to have a greater impact on gifted kids through working with future educators," Wilkes said. "Pacific is a place where you can come and try out new ideas, and everything just fell into place for me here. I find this to be one of the most exciting things I've ever done."
Wilkes is the first to admit that "gifted" is a loaded term, one that sets some people on edge. "I wish we didn't have to have a label at all," she said.
Paula Prober, a former teacher and now a counselor who works with Wilkes through the Center, said, "People do get offended and uncomfortable with us talking about certain kids being more advanced intellectually, but we love people to be more advanced athletically. We admire them and call them heroes. Unfortunately, we don't often do the same for gifted children."
In her talks, Prober uses the analogy of different ecosystems to help people understand giftedness. Gifted students, she explains, are like rainforests: "They may be more complex and intense, and they can be overwhelming. They're fertile and prolific and misunderstood - but they are no better than deserts or meadows, and they are just as necessary."
Oregon's TAG mandate acknowledges that gifted students should receive instruction that matches their level of learning, but parents, teachers, and administrators sometimes balk at the need for "special" attention or treatment that suggests gifted children are somehow better than their peers.
In response, Prober said, "Every child has gifts and is precious and wonderful. The people in gifted education are not talking about these kids being better than other kids. We are saying these kids are different, and why can't we meet their needs, just like we meet the needs of other kids?"
Although she said she dislikes the "gifted" label, Wilkes said it is necessary for children to be tested and labeled, if only so they can receive the attention they need in their schools. "The gifted label is often the only power parents have to insist on appropriate instruction for their child," she said. "Appropriate education is not special. It is appropriate to the child's needs, and it is what every child deserves."
The Continuum of Giftedness
In April 2004, the Oregon Department of Education gathered input from parents, students, teachers, and others about TAG education in the state's schools. The summary of the 250 responses indicated a feeling that TAG students are "the most under-served minority population in schools today" and "the forgotten population" in Oregon schools.
The survey results do not surprise Prober, who counsels gifted students who are often struggling at home and in the classroom, not only with receiving appropriate education in the classroom but with complex emotional needs many people don't recognize or understand.
"There's a continuum of giftedness," Prober said, "with some students more academic or cognitive and others more intuitive and empathic. It's not fair to pigeon-hole, and it's important that we appreciate the full range of issues these children are dealing with."
Prober frequently counsels gifted students and adults who struggle to have their intense social and emotional needs met. "Gifted people sometimes have bigger feelings. Where a regular child may be sad, a gifted child is in despair," she said. "Everything is turned up higher - their intuition, emotion, and passions."
As an example, Prober said gifted people may be extremely sensitive to color, taste, and texture, and they may be more "tuned in" to the feelings and emotions of others. Through counseling, she helps children and their parents learn how to cope with issues related to these powerful sensations and emotions.
"I try to help kids understand that it's not something that's wrong with them, something they need to get rid of," she said. "The issue is how to function in the world with this unusual level of intensity."
Prober has seen gifted children misdiagnosed with, among other things, attention-deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder - while other gifted students' problems are simply ignored. "People assume these kids are smart and can solve their own problems, when in fact there's depression, suicide, and school dropouts because we're not addressing their needs," she said.
Through her work at the Center, Prober said she hopes she has helped teachers recognize the impact they can have on the gifted children in their classrooms.
"It doesn't take much to make a difference. If teachers are willing to be more sensitive to the emotional needs of these children, the children will flourish," she said. "I hear students talk about teachers who made a difference just by appreciating the child's curiosity and thirst for learning. It's a huge gift teachers can give."
The Ripple Effect
When the Center opened in 2002, Wilkes had just four students in her classes. In the fall, 25 students were enrolled. She has taught a total of 80 students so far, and - partly because some of the coursework can be completed online - she has students coming to her classes from all over the state, including Portland, Roseburg, and Coos Bay.
"I'm starting to see this ripple effect extending out from the Center," Wilkes said. "Some of my past students have been hired as teachers and are having a really positive impact on gifted kids in their classrooms. They're recognizing gifted students, and they're sending parents to the Center for more information and resources."
One future teacher is Janice Ziegler '85, who graduated in January with her M.A.T. degree and a TAG certificate from the Center. Ziegler earned her master's degree in physical therapy. After working in special education as a physical therapist for 15 years, she decided to become a full-time instructor.
"I have two children who are gifted, and I had heard about Paula (Wilkes) and knew I wanted to take classes from her," Ziegler said. "She's an incredible teacher and an incredible person who models through her classes how we can be effective teachers when we go into the schools."
Ziegler said her views of TAG students have changed significantly. "When I used to think about TAG, I was very stereotypical. I thought children were TAG in all areas, or none at all. It opened my eyes to the wider definition of TAG, and to respecting all children for who they are and what knowledge and talent they bring to the classroom."
The Center has also had a profound impact on Jennifer Fogerty-Gibson, a parent who has taken classes at the Center and worked with Wilkes to get her two children identified as TAG students at their school. The process took nine months, but Fogerty-Gibson is thankful for the lessons she learned through the long process.
"It has changed my life, it really has," she said. "I understand my son a little better, and I'm learning that the best thing for TAG kids is letting them know it's OK to be the way they are."
Fogerty-Gibson's son sometimes has difficulty expressing himself, and his mom struggled to understand not only what he was saying but why he was different. "He operates at a really high intensity," she said. "People might initially think he's a behavior problem, but for him to express himself in a concrete way we can understand is sometimes really difficult for him."
Fogerty-Gibson's daughter is also a TAG student, but she is "more traditional," according to her mom. She is an avid reader and highly articulate, which helped her be identified more readily as a TAG student. "It's been a hugely eye-opening experience," she said. "If my son wasn't given appropriate attention in the classroom, he would really struggle." In fact, Fogerty-Gibson said she believes TAG students are often highly destructive when they do not receive the education they need. "People laugh, but I really think the bad guys you see in movies are TAG kids who weren't identified."
Making a Difference
Years ago, when she had just begun to study issues related to giftedness, Wilkes was a TAG coordinator in the public schools. As is true now, there was no requirement to take coursework in gifted education. Wilkes was self-taught, and she said, "Looking back, I didn't do a very good job."
She kept reading and attending workshops, spurred by a desire to understand her gifted daughter. Like many of her current students, Wilkes said she "wanted to understand how I could better support and nurture giftedness." Through her studies, she learned that issues related to giftedness affected not only her daughter, but also Wilkes' parents and siblings, as well as herself.
At the Center, Wilkes is now able to give gifted students, teachers, and parents the one-stop resource she didn't have, providing access to information and resources that can change lives.
"It's exciting for me to see how many Pacific students are learning about how they can meet the needs of gifted children," she said. "It's rewarding to see them taking that knowledge and making a difference in the lives of their children and the students in their classrooms."