Highly Gifted Children in Full Inclusion Classrooms
by Kathi Kearney
Unfortunately, Michael's case is not unique. Since the advent of graded schools, children with extremely high cognitive abilities and those with extraordinary special talents have had trouble fitting in. With intellect developing at one-and-one-half, one-and-three-quarters, or even double the usual rate, an age-graded curriculum poses enormous academic problems, which, unaddressed, sometimes spill over into the social arena (Hollingworth, 1942).
It is ironic that in an ideological environment which stresses "full inclusion" in regular classrooms for children with severe disabilities, highly gifted children are still being excluded in many ways. Some, like Michael, are being excluded deliberately (and illegally) from school itself. Other highly gifted children attend regular classrooms, but instead of working at appropriate academic levels and having "an equal opportunity to struggle" (Morreale, 1993), spend much of the school day tutoring others in cooperative learning groups or reviewing curriculum that they mastered years ago on their own (Robinson, 1990; U. S. Department of Education, 1993). Furthermore, a sizable number of child prodigies, children with extremely high IQs, and those with extraordinary special talents in the arts end up homeschooling for part of their academic career, because traditional schools (public and private) do not meet their needs (Feldman, 1986; Hollingworth, 1942; ABC News, 1995).
What is full inclusion?
As this current movement sweeps the nation, all children in "full inclusion" schools will be affected, both by the presence of a wider diversity of students and teachers in the classroom and by administrative policies flowing from this philosophical stance. Several Minnesota districts, for instance, used as a guiding principle "the idea that all children belong to their respective home school communities and ultimately the classroom of their age peers" (Wolak et. al., p. 28) However, rigid application of this philosophy may have unexamined or even detrimental effects for many types of students. For children from divorced families who shuttle between parents' living quarters, across the city or across the globe, where is "home"? In the age of the Internet, what is a "home school community"? For a gifted child who often needs several sets of peers (Roedell, 1984; Silverman, 1989) will the "classroom of their age peers" limit their social and academic growth, rather than expand it? Both empirical research and a philosophical examination of these kinds of issues is far from complete.
Gifted children, especially those who are economically disadvantaged and those who are highly gifted, are particularly at risk as the political and ideological winds of the 1990s shift and converge. This is the only group of exceptional children with no protection under federal statute for a "free and appropriate public education." Yet like all other children, they are required by compulsory attendance laws to go to school, unless they receive "equivalent instruction elsewhere" (operationally, homeschooling). Furthermore, school programs for these children are caught between the budget knife and current philosophical movements in education which emphasize heterogeneity. The end result is that as schools stress such policies as full inclusion for students with disabilities, heterogeneous grouping, and general fiscal economy, gifted students have fewer and fewer opportunities in school to interact with intellectual peers, despite clear research evidence of the academic and social gains in carefully designed homogeneous groupings of gifted students (White, 1984, 1990; Robinson, 1990).
If inclusionary classrooms are committed to serving all students, they must choose to include, both physically and philosophically, even the most extremely gifted children as well as children with the most severe disabilities. This means more for both groups than simply being in attendance in the regular classroom. It means respecting and teaching one's students to respect the unique developmental paths of each individual, no matter how unusual; providing access to a developmentally appropriate curriculum; and providing related support services. Although much has been written about inclusion methods for children with disabilities, an examination of inclusionary principles for children who are extremely gifted has not been addressed. The remainder of this article will briefly describe the highly gifted population, and provide principles for establishing inclusionary educational environments for them.
Who are highly gifted children?
Although "Oddly, perhaps inexplicably, the most extreme forms of intellectual giftedness have been the least studied" (Feldman, 1979, p. 335), the research data about this group of children are remarkably consistent across time and geographic location.
What do we know about highly gifted children?
Although the current revisions of the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children do not have as high a ceiling as older versions of the Stanford-Binet, a similar population emerges at about 140 IQ on the newer tests (Silverman & Kearney, 1992; J. Osborn, licensed psychologist, personal communication, August 6, 1995).
School placement is an extremely difficult issue for families and schools alike. Schools are not organized in ways conducive to how these children learn, and school policies often unfairly restrict these children from participation in appropriate educational opportunities (Gross, 1993; Hollingworth, 1926, 1942; Stanley, 1978; Tolan, 1985, 1992; U. S. Department of Education, 1993).
Primarily because of developmental asynchrony, social adjustment is often difficult, especially in the childhood and early adolescent years (Hollingworth, 1942; Morelock, 1992). Emotional intensity and religious, moral, and existential concerns are hallmarks, and remain so throughout the lifespan (Hollingworth, 1942; Roeper, 1991; Silverman, 1989). Burks, Jensen, and Terman (1930) noted that "The child of 180 IQ has one of the most difficult problems of social adjustment that any human being is ever called upon to meet" (p. 265).
Societal attitudes towards these children can be exploitative, negative, or punitive (Feldman, 1982; Grost, 1970; Hollingworth, 1942; Robinson, 1990; Tolan, 1985, 1992; Terman, 1925; U. S. Department of Education, 1993; Wallace, 1986; Wiener, 1953; Witty, 1936). These attitudes are evident both in schools (U. S. Department of Education, 1993) and in the media.
General Principles for Full Inclusion
It is important to remember that these principles were developed by advocates of full inclusion for students with disabilities, after a review of the research literature and an examination of current practice. It is also important to remember, as previously noted, that several major advocacy communities for children with disabilities do not support full inclusion. Generalizing these principles to other special populations in the school may not always be appropriate, although some will be beneficial to all children.
Principles of Full Inclusion for Highly Gifted
Such a situation is untenable. Not only are talents lost and bad work habits reinforced, but compelling students by law to attend school, and then limiting academic challenge for some students while providing it for others, is unfair. To become intellectually accessible to all students, public schools must provide access to the full range of curriculum, preschool through college. This need not necessarily mean leaving either the school or the classroom; courses over the Internet are now available at all educational levels, preschool through graduate school. These include homeschooling curricula, interactive college coursework, and specially developed courses for young highly gifted students sponsored by Stanford University and the Johns Hopkins University. Schools need to adopt policies which permit continuous progress for individual students of all ability levels.
Respect for intellectual diversity
We do not allow epithets based on race, ethnicity, gender, or disability to continue unchecked in today's schools. We must not permit slurs based on ability either. Part of establishing an inclusionary school environment is making sure classroom language and social interactions are not hurtful to any child. As Ayres & Meyer state, "Inclusion has no conditions and makes no differential value judgments. Everyone belongs, everyone is welcome, and everyone has a contribution to make" (Ayres & Meyer, p. 31).
End arbitrary age discrimination
Still other requirements stem from custom, tradition, or local policy, often based less on research than on philosophical belief. Examples include age requirements for participation in a public library's summer reading program, a school's arbitrary refusal to consider grade advancement for a qualified child because "We don't believe in acceleration" (as if acceleration was a religion instead of an educational strategy), or even a toy company's Young Builder's Club, which refused a highly talented 5-year-old boy participation in its organization for older children. The child sent in another club application, "adjusting" his age, so that he could receive Lego sets commensurate with his spatial ability (J. Brunk, personal communication, February, 1992). (The child later went on to win national honors in the company's annual construction contest.)
The concepts of diversity and inclusion in our schools must also extend to age. In order to open up the entire curriculum to students at all levels, it is imperative that we discard rigidly held concepts of age-grading. The current movement toward multi-age classrooms is a beginning, but it is not enough. Changes need to be made in both laws and attitudes. High school students who have a 10-year-old highly gifted classmate can be expected or taught to "do the right thing" (Blackman, 1992, p. 21) and to be just as understanding as we expect them to be with a classmate who has severe disabilities.
Use classroom management and teaching strategies which do not exploit
highly gifted children
The principles behind cooperative learning are based in part on Vygotsky's theory of the "zone of proximal development," which is
Thus, when children are able to work with "more capable peers," they reap the benefits of this mediation by increasing their skills. However, for an extremely gifted child, the opportunity to work with a "more capable peer" in the academic areas often is not available in the heterogeneous mix of the regular classroom. If age grouping is strictly adhered to and grade or subject-matter acceleration is not permitted, the child may never have that opportunity.
There are other academic implications as well. Vygotsky continues by stating that "the notion of a zone of proximal development enables us to propound a new formula, namely that the only 'good learning' is that which is in advance of development" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86, 89; cited in Bruner, 1985, p. 24, emphasis added). This is a key concept. Given that gifted students in the United States typically know up to half of the curriculum content for a given grade before the school year even begins (U. S. Department of Education, 1993), and that children in the highest ranges of intellectual ability often have mastered even more, their opportunities for "good learning" in the academic areas are significantly less than those of their classmates unless individual adaptations are made to the curriculum.
Teachers and policy makers must be very careful not to exploit highly gifted children. It is tempting to use a quiet, brilliant child who has already mastered most of the academic work of the classroom as a tutor or teacher's assistant, especially when there are 30 children in the class, school policies discourage acceleration or ability grouping, enrichment materials are not available, and the gifted education program has been cut. In general, a reasonable rule would be that a highly gifted child should be expected to spend no more of his or her time than would be expected of any other child in the classroom on activities such as peer tutoring or being a teacher's helper. Like all other students in the school, highly gifted children need daily opportunities to learn new things, even though the pace, depth, and even subject matter may be different from their age-peers. Otherwise, "With little to do, how can these children develop power of sustained effort, respect for the task, or habits of steady work?" (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 299)
Adapt peer settings to meet individual social and academic needs. Gifted students, especially the highly gifted, are probably the one group in our schools for whom the inclusionary principle of "Age-appropriate placement in local public schools" (Conn, 1992, p. 28) is not developmentally appropriate. Longitudinal research with this group strongly supports multi-age grouping, especially of intellectual peers (Hollingworth, 1926; 1942; White, 1984, 1990); the social as well as academic benefits of both subject and grade acceleration (Elkind, 1988; Gross, 1993; Stanley, 1978; Terman, 1925); and the need for several sets of peers (Silverman, 1989; Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982).
Teachers are often concerned about the play behavior of extremely gifted children, sometimes mistaking solitary play for social immaturity. It is important to understand that highly gifted children are often loners on the playground not because they lack play knowledge or are unsociable creatures, but because their advanced intellectual development causes them to "organize the play into a complicated pattern, with some remote and definite climax as the goal" and to use vocabulary not yet accessible to age peers (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 274). Developmentally, their cognitive abilities may already be where neither their own motor skills nor their agemates' minds can yet go.
In inclusive classrooms, how much should such a child be encouraged or even compelled to play with age peers? Each case is different, but among children in the very highest ranges of intelligence, Hollingworth (1942) states:
An Inclusionary Vision for Highly Gifted
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Originally published in Highly Gifted Children, Summer/Fall 1996 Vol. 12,
No. 4. ©1996 Kathi Kearney