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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Intervention for Gifted Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

His name was Kevin (a pseudonym). He had red hair and freckles with a slight build. He was confident and well spoken (perhaps outspoken). He was probably the smartest student I had ever seen. His mother was divorced and worked a horse training operation by herself. Kevin had to take care of his two younger siblings. Every one of his middle school teachers complained about him. His attendance was horrible, but that is not why teachers disliked him.

Kevin's Story

His behavior constantly interrupted the teaching. His state standardized test scores indicated that he had passed all subjects, yet the teachers recommended that he be retained because of his poor attendance and failing grades.

Pure interpretation of policy states that Kevin should be retained yet the idea of social justice pressures for Kevin to be passed on to the ninth grade. The administrator was in an ethical bind. On the one hand, the school is there to serve the student and the parent and on the other hand, the administrator is supposed to support the teachers. Kevin obviously was more educationally adept than other students that were recommended for ninth grade with no questions asked. The only reason that he was considered for retention was that he had not "earned" the right to ninth grade because of poor attendance and failing grades. But that was not the real issue. Most likely, if the behavior was good, accommodations would have been already been made, but since Kevin was apparently able to get under the skin of all of his teachers, they may feel little compassion for his situation.

I got to know Kevin because he attended Saturday school to make up absences. I never had a problem with him. He did the work, got along with the other students, was polite, and even pleasant. In just talking to him, I learned that he played the guitar, his favorite class is science, and that he likes to ride horses. He seemed like a normal kid.

Now that this school year is over, the above types of decisions are being made all over the country. In this case, you have to wonder, how much does attendance, assignment completion and discipline affect student learning? I am not saying they do not matter, but I am wondering if they matter too much in regular public education. All over the US, students are flocking to charter schools that seem to care more about what the student knows and can do, rather than how they do it.

Strategies and Support

What solutions are there for students who have passed the state standardized tests but are not passing a class and/or have poor attendance? What can teachers do in the classroom before the administrator, counselor, attendance review committee make their life-changing decisions? Perhaps the biggest thing we can do this summer is restructure the design of our learning plan to identify a student before his or her becomes a problem. Also, gifted students are natural leaders and tend to challenge authority, and the more you exercise it, the more troublesome the students become. Anyone that gets backed into a corner will fight back -- students are no different. The key is to never allow them to get into a corner in the first place, and that happens before the lesson even begins, in the lesson planning.

I can't help but think that if even one of Kevin's middle school teachers had cared enough to invest whatever time and energy was necessary to reach him, things would have been different. Each, however, said they had done all they could do: sending progress reports home to mom, calling her on the phone, requesting parent conferences, documenting misbehavior. Obviously, it was more following procedure than caring about Kevin.

The mother wrote in a letter to the school and pleaded for help, "Kevin is in classrooms where the teacher has his or her back to the class and one person makes a noise, the first words from the teacher are 'Kevin! Stop talking!' They have formed their opinion, and to them Kevin is just a troublemaker. He passed his state standardized tests and we know he is intelligent. I believe Kevin would benefit from a fresh start with all new teachers." Her words still echo in my soul. Why didn't I listen to her?

Epilogue

Kevin was retained in middle school as a regular student. The first month of the next year, he was in the office constantly until at the end of the month he was caught with marijuana, assigned to in-school suspension in which he caused a disruption, and was sent to the alternative school again. The mother withdrew him from school at that point, to home-school him. I went along with the decisions of the principal and the attendance committee. I was a part of this travesty. Kevin was definitely better off in home school.

Please share how you would have helped Kevin turn things around.




Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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RunningNmusing's picture
RunningNmusing
GATE Program Coordinator, President of PAGE- an advocacy group for GT kids

My district has an at-risk intervention form as part of our identification tool kit http://gate.emcsd.org Section 5. This triggers a student study team meeting where interventions can be noted and the check boxes give everyone ideas. My site has a whole section on social and emotional needs for the gifted to help educate all stakeholders.
If you visit my PAGE site: www.pagegifted.com, I have a recent blog post on why coordination matters. Someone like me is an advocate for students and parents. I am a support for principals, teachers and pyschologists. I meet with the parent,the students one on one and all involved. I know how to connect folks. I get these kids- I AM one of these kids- just grown up.
You didn't go far enough. I talk to these kids and find out what is going on. Why isn't schoold doing it for them? Are they bored? Are they bullied? Are they lonely? Are they depressed?...what is depressing them? Are they overburdened? Overwhelmed? Disconnected?
There are things you can do. Single subject acceleration ( ie: a first grade student taking third grade math, a fourth grader taking high school geometry; create Student Seminars for gifted kids to educate them about their unique social and emotional needs (see my site)for resources; counseling by someone who specializes in GT folks; educate yourself about their needs- GT folks are INTENSE!; locate your local resources- community colleges,districts that have passionate and knowledgeable GT coordinators- yes, they will help you too- I get emails and calls from folks all around the country; LISTEN to the child and the parents with all your heart and advocate for them. GT kids often feel caught in a slow motion world and don't have the power to change their circumstances themselves and this often leads to depression and underachievement.
You can follow me on Twitter: @RunningNmusing

Alex McNeil's picture

Kevin sounds more than bright enough to succeed in school, his intelligence clearly wasn't the culprit. So what was? And what's the solution?

I sympathize with the teachers' dilemma: to hold Kevin back is to give him a chance to normalize himself, to learn how to succeed in a 9th grade environment, and to--though indirectly--give him a better shot at college admissions and to therefore affect his future positively.

So often, though, none of those nice things happen at all when a child is held back. Getting held back is likely to illicit more of the same bad behavior that necessitated the Hold in the first place--I can attest to this personally. There are few things more degrading or embarrassing for a kid than being held back. And, as in Kevin's case, the resulting shame often becomes an insurmountable obstacle to getting him or her "back on track."

What's the fix, then?
If his teachers had strategized WITH Kevin directly, exploring solutions that catered to the interests of both parties, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have been more accommodating. But as it stood, considering the way they treated him in class, Kevin's teachers were his enemies, and not to be appeased.

I'm sure he didn't WANT to be seen as a failure--what kid does! It sounds to me like the poison in the water was the teachers who had it in their minds that, before they even tried to fix anything, he was a lost cause.

He was performing below the standards set by the state, but where was he developmentally?Adhering too strictly to test-enforced standards runs the risk of marginalizing the kids who learn in ways that don't translate to A), B), C), D) type yardsticks. Kevin's particular brand of intelligence may have been one of these. Kevin's ability didn't manifest in tests or standards, and I wouldn't be surprised if Kevin was bored, frustrated, and performed badly because of it. Bored because he quickly understood concepts that the rest of the class took a week to master; frustrated because his teachers had given up on him.

If his teachers had sought a direct way of speaking to Kevin's interests, had made it clear that providing the conditions for him to grow and learn (and not the meeting of a standard) was the school's primary concern, I bet he would have been thrilled to be there.

Instead, though, his school told him that he was stupid. Undoubtedly there were solid arguments for holding him back, but to a fragile 15 year old, those arguments boiled down to one thing: a declaration of inferiority, a vote of no confidence. And who won because of it? No one: A school lost a bright student, and a bright student lost his way.

Alex McNeil, follow me on twitter at @getmcneil

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