I just hung up after consulting with a former colleague—she is a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) and mother of a gifted son. She had messaged me, “I have a kid I’m testing who is baffling me,” and wanted to talk. What I love so much about that text is that she wasn’t content to sit with numbers that didn’t jive with her instincts. Data is grand—and I do love it—but context can impact the weight we give numbers. You—we, those of us in the trenches—are often the knowers of context. We put the dimension, background, LIFE into the spreadsheets and quantitative reports—and doing so can impact a child’s trajectory.
One of my roles in my previous position was to be a part of my school’s building wide RTI model. I provided enrichment services to a revolving group of students who demonstrated mastery on current content/standards and were ready for more depth. On one of those rotations, I met sixth grade “Sam”. Sam was a known underachiever, master of snark, and an intellectual snob. I liked him immediately. He participated in discussions as a devil’s advocate, was stubborn as a mule, and positioned himself as an outlier socially
Sam had lackluster grades, distaste for school, and was a bit of a rebel. While all of this is appealing to someone like me, who is drawn to the outliers in our schools, Sam’s behaviors and personality, in the setting of a regular classroom, could present as a “problem” student. (Oh, he was a problem—he wasn’t being served appropriately, so problems are inevitable.) Once a student starts exhibiting negative behaviors, attention tends to shift to the fixing of them. Meanwhile, Sam’s patience with school was mirroring the patience he was receiving from many adults. Parent/teacher meetings and phone calls home—all of it was happening. Lots of frustration.
The first time I encountered Sam was during the 2016 Presidential Election—talk of politics was a definite taboo, especially as I was a public school employee serving in a Catholic school. Sam knew. Without my saying anything about my views, he knew my politics and would bait me almost daily, knowing I was dying a slow death of silence. It made him positively gleeful. Oh, he and I were in political alignment—not that I admitted it—but he would lob his verbal grenades into the group, smile his wry smile, cock his eyebrow, and practically sing: “Don’t you think so, Ms. Shore?”
Clearly, Sam had a passion for politics—a topic that doesn’t appeal to most 12-year olds I have known. But what really struck me is how FUNNY he was. Only a teacher of younger students can appreciate this fully. When a student shows up and can make you laugh with adult-level humor, it stands out—and it’s made even funnier because it’s so unexpected. His jokes and puns weren’t basic—in fact, they demonstrated intellectual depth and complexity. Because I am a Gifted Instructional Specialist, I knew that Sam’s wit was a bullet point—in fact, on The Common Characteristics of Gifted Individuals, it’s the third one from the bottom: “keen and/or unusual sense of humor”.
I pulled his file and looked at his Cognitive Abilities Test from the year before, which was used to qualify for gifted programming at that school. Guess what? Our little rebel bailed in the middle of the Quantitative subtest. He. Stopped. Taking. The. Test. Because. He. Didn’t. Want. To. Take. That. Part. He’s not a fan of math, so: of course. His composite was still average, so he wouldn’t have raised any flags. Only if you knew to dig deeper would this have come to light. The end of the story is that Sam took another test, qualified for the gifted services he needed, found a place of belonging where he was valued for who he was, and eventually transferred to the local public school. Leaving was a bittersweet decision for Sam—-had he made it before his identification, leaving would have been akin to fleeing (understandably so). Instead, it was Sam taking on a new venture after being validated, valued, and celebrated.
Which brings me full circle back to my phone call with my colleague—an SLP. What the heck is an SLP doing being baffled about giftedness in a student who is a rebel, has an incredibly advanced vocabulary, seems wise beyond his years, and isn’t motivated by grades? She is advocating. She is collaborating. She is shaking the branches of all of the quantitative and qualitative trees to see what falls out. She is following her informed instincts (informed = she has diligently studied up on giftedness) and tenaciously refusing to look at the numbers in a vacuum. She is combining scores with context upon the foundation of her expertise. She is looking at this student as the whole human he is and is going to see to it he gets what he needs to grow and develop. She just might be the person to change his trajectory—and THAT is a beautifully rewarding gift. For everyone.
It’s important to know “gifted” can show up in lots of ways—-some of them running counter to what might be expected. These kids can be masters at hiding, but if you find one who has fallen through the cracks—there’s nothing like it, for the student and for you. Lots of information on how to identify giftedness is out there. The National Association for Gifted Children’s Common Characteristics are a great starting point—while there be sure to check What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well.