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Keep Gifted Students Challenged

Ensure access, equity, and excellence for high-ability and gifted students.
By Joy Lawson Davis
Principal, January/February 2016

Among all student populations are those whose potential for exceptional production are unique and exceed that of their age peers. These students are recognized and generally receive instructional services in our nation’s programs for gifted learners.

Research and experience indicates that early development and exposure to challenging, engaging instructional experiences improves a child’s chances for school success, over time. However, high-potential children who originate from poverty backgrounds, or who are members of cultural minority groups, are critically underrepresented in gifted programs nationwide.

This under-representation is often the result of biased identification protocols, school district personnel who are misinformed about how giftedness is demonstrated, cultural discontinuity, and the limited amount of training in gifted education that covers cultural diversity. The role of principals in reversing this trend cannot be overstated.

Who Are the Gifted?
There are many conceptual models of giftedness, and no one state has the same definition within its framework for how gifted children will be served. Unlike special education, there is no federal mandate and complementary definition that all states must adhere to in the design of programming for gifted children.

As such, states and localities develop their own models for service. In general, giftedness refers to children who may develop ahead of their age peers intellectually, in specific disciplines and artistic areas. Gifted children are known to demonstrate intensity and high levels of sensitivity in response to the world around them. Gifted children also express a strong sense of justice and concern for their fellow human being and may demonstrate leadership potential.

Giftedness is a phenomenon that has been revealed in individuals from all communities over time. Nationally and internationally, evidence of remarkable performance has been indicated across many disciplines: the sciences, arts and humanities, and leadership. When educators align giftedness with affluence and suggest that only children from affluent backgrounds can express remarkable intellectual and academic behaviors, we are missing an opportunity to recognize high-potential and gifted behaviors in all communities. When we miss that opportunity, a massive amount of human potential is wasted to the detriment of the individual, the community, and the world.

The Principal as Advocate and Champion
Nationwide, community leaders and educational advocates are joining forces to enhance opportunities for high-ability and gifted children in public schools. These partnerships have come about as a result of what appears to be a growing focus on meeting the needs of all children, and to ensure equity for gifted learners from diverse cultural backgrounds.

The myth that gifted children will make it on their own is just that—a myth. Gifted and high-potential children are among the increasing number of students underachieving in school. In particular, research has noted an ever-widening achievement gap between high-potential students from low-income and cultural minority groups and their affluent and majority-culture peers. The lack of attention to the needs of these special populations has attracted the attention of many diversity advocates, whose aim is to increase equity and access to high-end and advanced learner programming nationwide.

Coast to coast school districts are making a targeted effort to diversify gifted programs by modifying identification procedures to ensure equity, engage parents and communities in their programming procedures, address equity training needs of teachers, and increase access to advanced learner coursework (i.e., Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and specialized enrichment programs) for more students, especially those who have been overlooked and under-represented in the past. School leaders play a crucial role in ensuring that these new efforts are welcomed in schools and integrated into the school strategic planning process.

As a local district director of gifted and advanced programs, one of my most powerful reflections of principal leadership is the story of an elementary, Title I principal who intervened in the identification process. This particular principal was very engaged in his school community and with individual students, and he made it a practice to meet every school bus each morning. As he greeted students, he came to know their names, see them as they arrived at school, and hear their stories.

One of his students was a young, black male who appeared to have a vast knowledge of meteorology, well beyond his years. In morning conversations, the principal had deep and lively discussions with this student about the weather, impact of weather in different regions, and predictions of activity of hurricanes, tornadoes, and such. When the referral period opened for the district, the principal referred this student for evaluation for gifted program services.

At the end of the evaluation process, parents or others who referred students for gifted services were invited to the formal decision meeting. This principal contacted me to tell me that he was coming. I was ecstatic. In my years of experience, it was the first time I had a principal refer a student and certainly never had one attend the decision meeting. This student was found eligible for services based on the district’s identification protocol/ process, and as a result, received access to the district’s full-time school for gifted learners. When this principal noticed exceptional characteristics in this student, he responded. His direct advocacy made the difference for this child’s life and the potential for his success over time changed as a result of this single action by a school leader.

Four Recommendations
Principals are responsible for ensuring that even in this standards-driven culture, the needs of their students are met and all teachers have the training and the capacity to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of their students. Differentiation at its best means modifying instructional content and practices, expected outcomes, and the classroom environment to best meet the needs of the students.

In a standards-driven culture, differentiation is sometimes difficult. However, principals can create school environments that set the tone for high expectations and ensure that teachers embrace differentiation as the rule, rather than the exception. Doing so will ensure teachers have a better chance of meeting the needs of the diverse learners in their classrooms.

Listed below are four keys to a principal’s capacity to build a school environment that values the potential of all students and provides appropriately differentiated instruction for high-ability and gifted learners from all backgrounds. These recommendations will guide the enhancement of school programs wherein gifts and talents can be acknowledged, valued, and nurtured.

1. Set high expectations for all students. Elementary school is the foundation for learning that will come later in middle and high school. Ensuring that teachers understand and incorporate rigor, challenge, and interest in the design of their teaching and learning will create a great foundation for future engagement in advanced learning experiences.

2. Lead the charge. Eliminate cultural discontinuity through teacher training in cultural diversity. Such training should engage teachers in discussions regarding implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and personal biases. The most effective schools for all gifted students are characterized as bias-free environments where students, families, and teachers can cooperatively engage free from stereotypes and other detrimental social and psychological behaviors.

3. Recognize talent in every community. The principal is the role model for how teachers should value and acknowledge the capacity for all communities to excel and express high intelligence. Effective efforts are those that engage the community trailblazers and other guest speakers from the community who look like the students to tell their story of struggle, strength, and success.

4. Seek the support of all families. Distribute gifted education and enrichment program literature widely. Make no assumptions. Teach how program services can benefit children from all communities. Invite parents and community leaders to work with the school in talent search activities.

These actions are foundational in the quest to create equitable and accessible teaching and learning environments. As the leader and champion for all children, the principal is the first and most important advocate ensuring that students’ intellectual, cognitive, and social-emotional needs are attended to and that they feel valued and safe in school each day. High-potential and gifted learners among the school population from all backgrounds deserve the same attention and nurturing that all students expect from their school experience. To offer any less to our brightest minds would be to neglect our responsibility to our families, communities, nation, and the world.

Joy Lawson Davis is an associate professor and chair, department of teacher education, at Virginia Union University.


  • What is your definition of a gifted learner, and how does it compare to your district’s philosophy?
  • How can you and your staff advocate for a more equitable representation of students receiving gifted and talented services?
  • What strategies can you take to ensure that teachers are equipped to differentiate instruction for each child?


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LawsonDavis_JF16.pdf241.26 KB