Monday, October 22, 2012

UNIVERSAL 'TRAITS' OF GIFTEDNESS

Educators, families, and other stakeholders continue to grapple with the question: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GIFTED?'   Broad based research for a century  has' provided extensive evidence of how students with high ability/gifted traits ‘look’, how they ‘behave’, and how they ‘respond to the world’ around them.

Characteristics like:
Ø being an early reader,
Ø having intense emotions,
Ø expressing high cognitive response to problem solving,
Ø having exceptional knowledge of a particular discipline, content area
Ø having an exceptional ‘number sense’,
Ø expressing a high level of empathy,
Ø demonstrating perfectionistic tendencies –


are seen/observed in gifted learners across cultural groups. In conversations with families, teachers and the students themselves, these traits are quite common.  If then, this is the case, why are we still unable to  identify giftedness across culturally diverse groups in a fair and equitable manner for the purpose of providing access to publicly funded programs? The reasons are numerous, a few are listed here:

Reason #1- In some cases, program opportunities are slim to none with budget cutting at a high in some states, districts, ALL gifted learners are being shortchanged and forced to sit in classrooms where basic, standardized learning is the norm! These students are suffering, being smothered and their gifts WASTED!!

Reason #2- In other cases, school leaders have not yet taken this problem of UNDER-REPRESENTATION OF CULTURALLY DIVERSE GROUPS IN GIFTED PROGRAMS seriously OR they  haven’t been forced to develop  stronger programming based on evidence-based practices that are readily available with the support of expert trainers and their own specially trained teachers!

Reason #3- In other situations, leadership has initiated the challenge, yet educators with biased opinions about what ‘giftedness’ LOOKS LIKE are still the ‘gatekeepers’ and therefore, teacher referrals of African American, Hispanic, Immigrant, BiRacial, Low income students for gifted programs remain low.

At this juncture, there is no real excuse!! So, students from multi-cultural backgrounds and low income environments languish away in classrooms everywhere.

Sometimes gifted learners are considered to be ‘a troublemaker’,  OR the one ‘who is given to flights of fantasy’ (that’s what was said about Nelson Mandela by his uncle and J.K.Rowling by one of her teachers, respectively)

Some special programs are in place in districts, at universities, and at the regional level across the nation that others can learn from IF PROGRAM MODELS ARE DESIRED AND FUNDING IS MADE AVAILABLE (three such programs are listed at the end of the page). Using ‘there are no gifted kids in this school’ as an excuse because the school serves a high percentage of students from poverty OR a high percentage of children of color is NO EXCUSE! (A teacher in a Title I school actually said that to me some years ago when I was there to conduct professional development about Gifted children from poverty).

 At the end of the day…ALL children with high potential demonstrate their gifts the same way and over their liftetime whether they become an award winning scientist, nobel peace prize winner, a college professor, research scholar, classroom teacher, engineer, social activist, ecologist, anthropologist, musician, artist OR just one of your neighbors, or colleagues on your job, you ‘recognize’ them and sometimes wonder- if they were  identified as gifted as a child and had access to an appropriate education when they were young.

Universal traits of giftedness are found in the literature from many different sources. Below is an excerpt from a ‘Universal Traits’ chart that I developed for use during professional development sessions with teachers (the actual chart contains additional descriptors). It shares traits and the ways (negative & positive) that they may be demonstrated.  Any gifted learner, regardless of background may demonstrate one or more of these traits/characteristics.

Universal trait
Positive/acceptable way trait may be expressed in the home, community & school (Negative/Aberrant manifestation)
Verbally precocious
Talks early, using full sentences sooner than others, enjoys using ‘big’ words; reads early; tells long stories; is an avid reader; demonstrates superior oral expression skills; may imitate the preacher or other speakers; likes poetry; writes lyrics for songs; very descriptive. Learns second language easily.(TALKS TOO MUCH; WANTS OTHERS TO HEAR THEM, BUT IS NOT A GOOD LISTENER; DESCRIBED AS ‘SMART MOUTH’)
Reasons well
Goes beyond the surface to probe deeper and discover new information; figures things out more quickly than age peers; engages in conversation with adults, older children easily; sounds like ‘he’s been here before’; makes connections between seemingly unlike objects, ideas, places, things (QUESTIONS AUTHORITY; TROUBLEMAKER)
Artistically & creatively inclined
Expresses rhythm, learns patterns quickly; sings in tune and rhythmically at an early age; enjoys creating patterns out of color, shapes; tells elaborate stories through drawing; is dramatic (SPENDS TOO MUCH TIME DOODLING; GIVEN TO ‘FLIGHTS OF FANTASY’)
Rapidly learns new  information
Needs only 2-3 repetitions to learn new material; puts thoughts, ideas, words, answers together quickly; may get frustrated with constant repetition of information in school or in conversations at home; advanced memory for details. (BORES EASILY; MAY BEGIN ACTING OUT IN CLASS WHEN WORK IS TOO EASY; MAY BOTHER OTHER STUDENTS)
Unusually sensitive to the needs of others
Idealistic, sense of justice formed and expressed early, may be responsible for caring for younger siblings, will express concern for others being treated unfairly (MAY BE OUTSPOKEN RE: FAIRNESS AND JUSTICE ISSUES; DOES NOT RESPOND WELL TO ‘DO WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I DO’)

*UNIVERSAL TRAITS CHART ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, JOY LAWSON DAVIS, ED.D.


With this chart in hand, I challenge you to go into a Title I school; a low income community; to your place of worship;  to a reservation; to the country/rural area; to the ‘hood’; to the barrio; and deliberately search for child or teenager  in each of those environments who ‘looks’ and ‘behaves’ like this.  Once you find them (and I’m confident that you will) –

I ENCOURAGE YOU TO DO YOUR PART TO ADVOCATE FOR THE RIGHT INSTRUCTIONAL SETTING THAT WILL ALLOW THEM TO GROW, ENJOY THE CHALLENGE OF LEARNING, AND TRULY BECOME THE PERSON THEY WERE BORN TO BE!!!

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For more information about three service models for diverse populations of gifted learners, go to:

University of Massachusetts, Boston TAG Latino Program

Project EXCITE, Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University Chicago, Illinois  http://www.ctd.northwestern.edu/excite/

The Timbuktu Academy, Southern University & A&M College, Baton Rouge, Louisiana   http://www.phys.subr.edu/timbuktu.htm

4 comments:

  1. I just can't let this go. I am really uncomfortable with the idea of universal traits. Giftedness can look very different from kid to kid, even within the same cultural group, much less from one to another. And you can't forget twice exceptional kids, who will look even more dramatically different. I understand that the point is children who are not well off and white are over-looked, and people need to be looking harder in these other groups, but I am not convinced this is the way.

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  2. Hi Holli,
    I do agree with you. Actually, I'm writing a piece now on SPECIFIC traits shared by African American students that also demonstrate giftedness (from years of research by a number of scholars). The purpose here is to NOT allow those who believe that the GENERAL TRAITS OF GIFTEDNESS only belong to one group. My point here is that you can find those same traits in ANY high ability/gifted child or teen (yes, even 2E gifted) if you look through the right 'lens'. If I didn't make that clear enough here I do hope you understand I am COMPLETELY empathetic and sensitive to difference and I intend to portray that in my blog. I also believe, however, that while culture is different, expressions of intelligence will generally be very similar. It's all in what we 'WANT to SEE'. More to come. Thanks so much for reading and responding!!

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  3. Fabulous description of my 3 very different children! Each is gifted, but in a different way. One is the trouble maker, one the dreamer, and one is the traditional math gifted boy. I tire of the gifted community holding up the male math whiz as the poster child of intelligence. Thank you for the breath of fresh air! And yes, I had to demand testing for my brown skinned child. No one saw her as gifted despite her breezing through school and co-teaching her classes.

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    1. Asha, Thank you SO much for your candid response! It is such a challenge for families when their gifted children are not 'cut from the same cloth' as others and I do empathize. I'm glad that this blog has been helpful to you and others!! Please keep sharing and stay in touch. I'd also like for you to email me (profjoy1022@gmail.com) about a new project that I'm working on. You may be interested in participating. My best,
      Dr. Davis

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