Sometimes, it’s easy to pick out the gifted child. He or she is bright, articulate, and motivated to do well. Success in school—and in life—is a given. Often when we think of “the Gifted Child,” this is the image that springs to mind.
However, gifted children come in all shapes and sizes, and identification is not always as simple as looking at grades and administering tests. Gifted children who don’t fit the “mold” of gifted are often overlooked.
According to George T. Betts and Maureen Neihart (1988) there are six different types of giftedness: Successful, Challenging, Underground, Dropout, Double Labeled, and Autonomous Learner.
More than 90% of gifted students will fit the Successful mold. He or she is well adjusted to society, obedient, and a high achiever. However, these students may get bored, and, having learned how to work the system, put forth the bare minimum. They also tend to be less creative and imaginative.
Challenging gifted students, on the other hand, are non-conforming and creative. They may often have conflict with parents and teachers and become frustrated by a school system that doesn’t recognize their abilities. This type of student is at risk of dropping out and becoming involved in unhealthy activities.
The Underground gifted student hides his or her talents in order to be more accepted by non-gifted peers. Usually female, this student is often insecure and anxious about belonging.
Dropout gifted students harbor anger and resentment toward a system that hasn’t recognized their talent. They may be depressed and withdrawn and respond defensively. Since they are typically identified as gifted late, they are bitter and have low self-esteem.
Double Labeled gifted students carry another label—physically or emotionally handicapped, for instance, or learning disabled. Often seen as intellectually average, they are ignored since school systems tend to focus on their weaknesses.
Autonomous Learners are gifted students who have learned to make the system work for them versus working for the system like Successful gifted children do. They are successful, liked by peers, and demonstrate leadership.
Successful and Autonomous Learners are easily identifiable, say Betts and Neihart, whereas other, less traditional types of gifted students tend to be overlooked.
According to a 2014 NASP article, profoundly gifted students may even be overlooked in the classroom because their teachers, unable to accommodate the rapid rate in which they learn, tend to focus on students struggling with their coursework. This leads to missed opportunities, frustration, and underachievement for gifted students.
Accurate and early identification is one of the best defenses that parents, educators, and psychologists have against failing this unique group of students.
Cecil R. Reynolds, co-author of the Reynolds Intellectual Assessment Scales (RIAS) and recently revised RIAS-2, is one of the leaders in the field of gifted assessment. Following is a series of questions and answers conducted recently with Dr. Reynolds.
Q: Theoretically speaking, and staying within the current school framework, what do you believe would be the most effective way to identify a gifted student?
Cecil Reynolds: I am often asked what tests or other processes should be used to identify children for participation in a gifted and talented program in the schools. My answer is almost always something along the lines of “What are the goals of the program itself?” and “What are the characteristics of the children you wish to identify?”
The most important thing we can do is match the children to the program so they have the highest likelihood of success. So, for example, if the program is intended to promote academic achievement among the most academically able students in the school, I would recommend a very different selection process and different tests than if the program was intended to take the most intellectually talented students in the school and provide them with a challenging, engaging curriculum that would enrich their school experience, motivate them to achieve, and allow them to fall in love with something and pursue it with passion. While the students in these programs would overlap, the two groups would not be identical and certainly the academic outcomes would not be the same. But the point is that we must know what characteristics we need to assess to identify and to place students in programs where they will be successful, and that requires us to first know what it is our program is intended to do.
Q: What are some of the challenges that psychologists and diagnosticians face when attempting to identify a gifted student accurately?
CR: Regardless of the program and its goals for students, the tremendous diversity in the American schools is our greatest challenge. We have an obligation to be fair, and just, and to promote the best in all children, and that is our intention. However, no schools in any country serve the range of backgrounds and abilities such as are served in our schools. The demands upon school staff to be culturally competent in so many areas, and to devise methods of teaching and accurate measures of intelligence, academic outcomes, behavioral outcomes, and school success generally, and to understand and to motivate such a wide array of eager young minds, are just incredible and require a commitment from the school board on down to the teacher aides.
Maintaining this commitment and acquiring these competencies are undoubtedly staunch challenges to us all. These challenges can be magnified in the domain of gifted education because how “giftedness” is defined and valued may vary tremendously from one cultural group to another.
The biggest concerns I hear from practitioners and diagnosticians center around the lack of proportionate representation of some ethnic minority groups in GT programs and how it can change assessment practices to overcome these issues. The RIAS and RIAS-2 are well suited to assist in identifying more minority students for GT programs since the minority-white differences on mean scores on the RIAS and now RIAS-2 are smaller by about half the differences seen on most traditional intelligence batteries.
Q: A lot has been written about the idea that just because a student has been identified as academically gifted, it does not mean he or she will be successful. Identifying them is simply step one. What things do you find tend to hinder their progress in our schools?
CR: Often it is the mismatch between the program and the student. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of the match between the program goals and methods of achieving them and the students in the program and their characteristics. We simply have to get the right students into the right programs.
We also have to attend to students’ motivation to achieve academically as well as focus on study skills, time management, organization skills, listening skills, and other non-intellective factors that go into academic learning. IQ generally only accounts for less than 50% of the variance on academic achievement, and that is one of the many reasons we also developed the School Motivation and Learning Strategies Inventory (SMALSI). Just because a student is bright does not mean he or she knows how to study and learn, has good test-taking skills, or is motivated to engage in school learning—we should assess these variables as well and intervene accordingly.
Q: What originally prompted you to design an assessment for gifted identification?
CR: To reduce the confounds present in most traditional measures of intelligence. We wanted to have better instrumentation for identifying the intellectually gifted using methods that are less influenced by culture than most tests—the RIAS is not “culture-free,” nor do such psychological tests exist, and the desirability of a culture-free test is questionable conceptually as well. We live in societies, not in isolation. That said, confounds such as motor coordination, especially fine motor coordination and speed, interpretation of directions that have cultural salience, and even short-term memory can all adversely influence scores on intelligence tests, and these variables are not associated strongly with general intelligence. For programs that seek to identify intellectually gifted individuals, the RIAS and now RIAS-2 are strong choices.
Q: The RIAS (and now RIAS-2) has been one of the most popular and widely used assessment instruments for gifted testing. Is the instrument useful for other types of assessments?
CR: The RIAS-2 is useful any time an examiner needs a comprehensive assessment of intelligence, especially one that is not confounded by motor speed, memory, and certain cultural issues. When understanding general intelligence, as well as crystallized and fluid intellectual functions, are important to answering referral questions, the RIAS-2 is entirely appropriate.
Q: What makes the RIAS-2 unique from the previous version?
CR: The unique feature of the RIAS-2 is the addition of a conormed Speeded Processing Index (SPI). It is greatly motor-reduced from similar attempts to measure processing speed on other more traditional, lengthy intelligence batteries. In keeping with the original philosophy of the RIAS, we do not recommend, but do allow, examiners to use this SPI as a component of the Intelligence Indexes, and we worked very hard to reduce the motor-confounds that typically plague attempts to assess processing speed.
Q: Originally there were no processing speed subtests on the RIAS. Why is that?
CR: Processing speed represents a set of very simple tasks that by definition anyone should be able to perform with 100% correctness if given sufficient time. This conflicts with our view of intelligence as the ability to think and solve problems. Processing speed correlates with few variables of great interest as well—it is a poor predictor of academic achievement, and tells us little to nothing about academic or intellectual potential. It is useful in screening for attentional issues, performance of simple tasks under time pressures, and coordination of simple brain systems, and as such can be useful especially in screening for neuropsychological issues that might require follow up assessment, but processing speed tasks remain poor estimates of intelligence.
Many RIAS users asked us to undertake the development of a motor-reduced set of processing speed tasks. Students who ask for extended time as an accommodation on tests are often required by the determining agency to have scores form some timed measures as well, and we felt we could derive a more relevant way of providing this information without the motor issues being as salient as a confound. The ability to contrast such performance with measured intelligence is important to this decision-making process.
Q: What advice do you have for psychologists and diagnosticians when it comes to assessing a student for giftedness?
CR: When choosing assessments to qualify students for a GT program, be sure you understand the goals of the program and the characteristics of the students who are most likely to be successful in that program. Then, choose your assessments to measure those characteristics so you have the best possible match between the students and the goals and purposes of the GT program.
Resources for psychologists
Resources for teachers
Resources for parents