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'Harm' and the Gifted Student

by Todd McIntyre of AppliedGiftedEd

Summary: A statement regarding the nature of 'harm' is made. A reason why gifted education needs to be individualized is given. A possible cause why parents of gifted children are either active or not is proposed. An analogy regarding giftedness is offered. The perspective regarding 'harm' is suggested. And a call for parents of gifted students to become more involved is made.

Harm is a short word, loaded with emotion. Harm evokes visions of tears, bruises and hospital trips. Parents of gifted students tend think that an inadequate Gifted IEP or a series of inadequate Gifted IEPs does not cause their child harm. Parents also believe that their child's Gifted program does not cause harm either. This is understandable.

'Harm', in the traditional sense of the term, is not inflicted on the gifted student. In their case, harm just happens. A sentiment expressed by parents regarding their child's gifted education is this: "things could be better, but they are not all that bad.' That belief, over time, causes uninvolved parents to remain passive; the net result is that the gifted student is harmed.

Steady as She Drifts

The perception that "things could be better, but they're not all that bad" causes parents to adopt a passive role when planning their gifted child's education. Decisions are left solely to the district. In effect, the gifted child just drifts along. This 'steady as she drifts' approach leads to educational situations which are unfortunate, foreseeable, and entirely preventable. For example, transitions between buildings, from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school are predictable events. Yet, in many cases, these transitions require a 'start from scratch' approach to the creation of the gifted child's educational plan. To provide direction and continuity, direct parental involvement is needed.

Parents have a place at their child's Gifted Education planning table. Pennsylvania has strong legal provisions which require individualized education to be provided to gifted students. These provisions include timely, thorough, identification, ongoing assessment, and appropriate individualization. There is also a a long history in Pennsylvania during which districts which failed to provide those things were required to provide compensatory education to the gifted child. They still are.

The information regarding gifted education is easily found. The source and contact information is listed on the forms parents sign. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education (PAGE) each provide parents with the means to learn about gifted regulations in Pennsylvania. However, many parents do not bother to read the forms they sign. They do not call either the PDE's number or the PAGE Hotline. Nor do they browse either organization's website. Parents simply sign the NORA which approves the district-developed plan.

The consequence for the gifted student of a non-involved parent is that they go through their elementary and secondary education drifting rather than moving purposefully. Their gifted educational needs are conformed to existing district programs. In many cases, the gifted child benefits more by happenstance and 'luck of the draw' for good teachers than by plan or design.


One potential reason why many parents are passive regarding their gifted child's education is the manner by which their child is first identified as gifted. The initial encounter, assessment, will generally set the tone for the parent's involvement. The gifted assessment is requested by either the district or by the family. Assessment is either actively requested or permission passively granted.

To illustrate the difference consider the same child in either situation, one in which the district requests the assessment, the other in which the family requests it. For the purposes of this article, two acronyms are proposed to characterize the distinction: District Identified Gifted Student (DIGS) and Family Identified Gifted Student (FIGS).


In a District Identified Gifted Student (DIGS) process the district takes and maintains the active role. Typically, the district sends the parents a Request to Evaluate form. Parents give permission for the evaluation. Several months later the parents learn the results.

If the student is identified as 'gifted', typically, the parents are told that their child will participate in the district Gifted Program. The details of the Gifted program are presented to the parent at a Gifted IEP Team meeting. The expectation is that the parent will approve the plan as presented during the GIEP meeting.

In a DIGS scenario it is the district that drives the events and decisions. Given the passive nature of the DIG process, parents have no reason to learn their child's basic educational rights, let alone how to protect those rights. The District told them their kid was gifted, the District offered a gifted program: What else is there to know? Parents act, in effect, as the rubber-stamp approver of the district plan.


In the second scenario, one in which the student's family requests gifted assessment, gifted education begins as an active process. In the Family Identified Gifted Student (FIGS) situation it is the parents who request an assessment. To do this, parents will have learned something about gifted education before the Gifted IEP meeting..

Parents have initiated the process. They have questions prior to their child's assessment. These parents have asked their district to evaluate their child for giftedness. For them, gifted education begins as an active process. Gone with the Flow In any given school district one set of parents has entered the gifted program passively via the DIGS process, the other set actively, via the FIGS process. Absent a reason to become active, it is reasonable to think that most DIG parents will be content to 'go with the flow'.

Most kids in gifted education programs enter through the DIGS process. Therefore it is likely that most parents in a district are not active participants. They are simply 'going with the flow'. Yet in a DIGS process most parents do not understand their gifted child's rights, they do not know their district responsibilities, nor do the parents understand their roles.

A district, by having the majority of their plans approved year-in and year-out, is free to misinterpret an abundance of uninformed passive consent as a sign that their gifted education program effectively meets the needs of the students it is designed to serve.

Parents who have a "go with the flow" viewpoint regarding their child's gifted education fail to account for one thing: time. Given enough time, a situation which is not that bad at any given moment can result eventually in a situation that is awful.

Harm will result from a gifted student being left in a long-term situation that any given point 'could be better, but isn't all that bad'. The reason for this is simple, yet not obvious. Giftedness is not an ability that is acquired or a skill that is learned. Rather, giftedness is part of the child. Its characteristics are unique to that child. Every gifted child differs in their giftedness. As such, the direction that child's education takes must have unique characteristics to teach them effectively. Harm, in this case, is also dependent on who's perspective is used to describe it.

The perspective to consider, as with any matter relating to special education, is that of the child. The child must be the primary focus when addressing special education needs, including gifted. Plans which 'could be better, but are not all that bad' can cause harm, An analogy can help illustrate how a long-term series of plans which 'could be better', but seemingly are 'not that bad' cause harm.

A Left-Handed Analogy

In many ways a child's giftedness is identical to their being left-handed. Each characteristic is part of who the child is. Neither is readily apparent except through observation. Compared to the overall student population, there are a relatively few who fit the description. Also, there are varying degrees of each trait. And, it should be noted, the child will not outgrow the condition.

Giftedness issues can, to an extent, be illustrated more concretely to parents by substituting 'left-handedness' for 'giftedness' when considering the child's time in school school. Think about what long term harm occurs if your child is left-handed, but is made to use their right hand during their classes.

Like gifted students, left handed children are a distinct minority in the student population. Like gifted students, a child that is left handed requires accommodation. For example, elementary school teachers differentiate their writing instruction for left-handed students. To be effective in their instruction, teachers must have an understanding of left-handedness. Left-handedness issues can be found in any given classroom at any given grade. Science labs would have safety issues with left-handed students working alongside right handed students. Art class would have its own issues. Requiring teachers to modify the basic curriculum to account for left-handedness also takes time away from students who are right-handed.

There are hard dollar costs associated with accommodating left-handed children to consider as well. Separate left-handed desks, separate left-handed scissors, and other separate left-handed items are purchased. Once purchased, these items are inventoried. From a District's point of view, it is desirable for its instructors to teach all its students using the same instructional methods and to have all students use the same basic equipment.

Why Accommodate?

One fact is clear: Students who are left handed can do their work right handed. Were a teacher to place a pencil in a left-handed child's right hand, tell them to write, and insist that they do, something will be written.

The District establishes performance expectations through a rubric. Should the rubric require that only right-handed techniques be appropriate, then right-handed instruction will take place. Since left-handed kids can work right-handed, they will produce work, which can be graded.

From the District's perspective, there is no problem. The expectations for the students were clearly set at the beginning of the school year and the standards are being evenly applied. The District Policy is that the student must work using their right hand.

Is There Harm?

From the District's point-of-view there would be no obvious 'harm' to the left handed child at any given point. The District has provided the instruction it considers appropriate throughout the student's time in public school. In early elementary grades, the child would learn to write according to the District rubric. Moving into the later grades, the practices established in elementary education would be reinforced.

Having spent a significant amount of time being forced to use their right hand, the left handed child would produce work. Over time with practice that work would improve. The left-handed child would likely meet the minimum standards needed to move on to the next grade, perhaps with extra effort and practice achieving higher-than-minimum marks. From a District's point-of-view, using a curriculum-based standard, there is no harm. The child graduates, the obligation is fulfilled.

Where's the 'Harm'?

Harm, in this case, develops over time. Using the same model, consider what happens from the perspective of the left handed child. Like giftedness, some children are more left-hand dominant than others. The more dominant the child's natural left-handedness, the more difficult it is for them to do tasks using their right hand.

From the left-handed child's point of view, their best efforts at doing their work 'right-handed' begin awkwardly and remain so. The more leftie the child, the more difficult the basic tasks of school remain. The awkwardness would never really go away, regardless of the number of years spent doing work using their right hand. The student's natural inclination would be work differently than they were being shown. Yet, given the overall situation, they could not work that way. Such a child would muddle along, doing assignments as best they can, completing work, and, usually, passing on to the next grade.

Eventually, the left-handed child would graduate from high school having met the basic curriculum requirements. However, it should be noted, the child would never have worked to their natural ability. The left-handed child would not have had the same opportunity of explore their strengths according to their nature as the right handed kids did. The harm that occurs to the child lies in the lack of opportunity to develop. Fortunately, some districts recognize the unique needs of left-handed students and are prepared to help them. Some districts might recognize that the needs of its left-handed students are unmet. A district that was particularly progressive might offer a program to its left-handed children.

Assessing the Obvious

Students would need to be assessed for left-handedness though generally not until 3rd grade, when hand-dominance is firmly established. To qualify for the Lefties program the children suspected of being left-handed would first be screened. Once screening established the potential for left-handedness, the child would be formally tested.

Teacher recommendations factor in the decision as to whether the student was 'really' left-handed. Some Districts might include parent observations that their child was left-handed in the decision. The test results would confirm that the child is, in fact, left-handed. However, the left-handed child would also need to perform their classroom tasks well enough using their right hand to earn a place in the Leftie program.

Down the Hall

This Lefties program takes those kids identified as being left-handed, pulls them out of their regular class, has them go down the hall, and allows them work left-handed for an hour or two each week. The Pull out Leftie programs are distinct from regular education normal right-handed programs.

The left-handed child leaves the regular education classroom and works with a teacher of the lefted. The Leftie program has a separate set of objectives, a separate rubric, and separate requirements for the class. The left handed student who qualifies for the program spends an hour or two each week working as a left-hander.

Such a program allows the left-handed kids to work 'naturally' perhaps for the first time in their time in school. Such students would likely enjoy their time in the pull-out Lefties program. For some students who are highly left-hand dominant, that Leftie program would be the highlight of each week. The Lefties program might be the only time during school when the left-handed kid could be considered happy.

But, at the end of the pull-out program time, the left-handed children return to their regular right handed classes. Once back in their normal seats, the left handed student would not be allowed to work left-handedly anymore. Further, any work missed due to Leftie pull-out would need to be made up, using their right hand.

That is why pull-out programs cause harm.

"Change Hands"

Pull out programs may be good. They may be fun. Pull-out programs may be the best part of a student's week. But a pull-out program by itself does not prevent harm. To develop their potential a left-handed child needs to work according to their nature.

They need to work left-handedly in all subjects throughout the week. Students who have these needs must be with teachers that understand, take those needs into account, plan for them, and help the child develop their skills. Rather than simply allowing a left-handed student the opportunity to do so a few times a week, the student must be allowed to change hands, to do their work in all classes according to their nature. The same is true for gifted students.

To develop, gifted students must work as gifted students during significant parts of the day throughout the week. These students must work with teachers that are knowledgeable in the over-arching issue of giftedness and have an understanding of each child's unique giftedness and a plan to teach that child. This is the law.

It is the responsibility of the District to provide for this, the right of the gifted student to have this, and a necessity for the parent to insist that this happens.

A Sudden, Precipitous, Transient Decline

Parents must also understand that grades and report cards provide a district-based perspective on the child's achievements. Grades on a report card are not the true measure of whether the child is being taught appropriately nor do they reflect the child's abilities. The result shown on a report card must not be confused with the methods used to achieve it.

What happens when the gifted student first makes the transition to an appropriate plan? What happens when the student is allowed to 'be gifted' not only during certain times during a pull-out program but for their whole time at school? Very often the child will do worse before they do better. This is to be expected.

Like harm, skills develop over time. Old habits need to be unlearned and new patterns ingrained. A student needs to develop skills like study skill, organizational skill, and other important life skills. Acquiring and honing these skills takes time.

It is unrealistic to expect that a student will immediately perform at or above their current level in an environment where the rules have suddenly been changed. A gifted child who is finally allowed to 'be gifted' needs time and guidance to make a successful transition. The Gifted IEP should account for this.

For example, to return to the left-handed analogy for a moment, take a left handed child and, from an early age, force them to throw a baseball right handed dozens of times a day. Over time, that child will throw the ball a certain distance, perhaps a respectable distance. If you then turn the left-handed child around and allow them to throw a ball left-handed, at first they will not throw the ball as far. They will do worse, perhaps much worse. That should be expected.

A Rapid, Remarkable Ongoing Improvement

The poor initial results should be considered as the starting point for the Gifted IEP team when making the transition. Once a student begins to work according to their nature in an appropriate plan there should be rapid improvement. Old inappropriate skills are replaced by newer ones, better suited. The gifted student could (and should) be expected to exceed their right-handed performance in fairly short order. Once again, time would help the Gifted IEP team determine how much improvement they should expect.  

A student who spent several five or six years doing things 'wrong', being forced to learn in a style that is at odds with their nature, would take more time to adjust to doing things 'right' than a student who has only a year or two in that wrong-handed situation. Similarly, the junior high gifted student will require more time to learn to do things 'right' than the elementary school gifted student will. The high school student will, perhaps, take the longest time of all. Yet each gifted student will benefit once they are allowed to achieve according to their nature.

As the parent of a gifted student, the only control you have is when that transition starts. You decide when your gifted student must be allowed to learn appropriately. The process starts when you disapprove inappropriate district-based plans, and insist that an appropriate student-based one be developed. And implemented.


For a gifted student, harm occurs over time. Parents must understand that their child can be in a 'pretty good, not that bad' gifted educational situation which causes harm. Parents, whether the child was asked to be assessed by the District (DIGS) or by the family (FIGS) must come to recognize that harm can occur. Harm may be the unintentional result of a well-intentioned system. To prevent harm parents must participate. They must help plan. They must monitor. They must be involved.

The gifted child needs to be taught day-in/day-out according to their needs. Much as a left-handed student is leftie throughout the day, the gifted student should be in Gifted-aware programming throughout the day. Pull-out programs alone will not work. Regular education must be included in their child's Gifted IEP and the parent's role is to see that it is. Active, constructive participation in the Gifted IEP meeting and a willingness to disapprove an insufficient 'not that bad' Gifted IEP makes this happen.

To actively, constructively participate, you have to make use of information available from the Department of Education and Pennsylvania Gifted Education Association. This website, www.penngifted.org, is the place to start.

As your gifted child moves through their time in school, remember: work with your district. Ensure that your gifted child's education is not rudderless. Make certain that it does not just drift along. Your gifted child's education should have as its purpose the goal of preparing them to meet the challenges that lie ahead according to their nature.

See that it does.

Copyright 3/30/04 by Todd H. McIntyre. All rights reserved. toddhmcintyre@hotmail.com  
The article may be reposted in whole on PAGE affiliate sites or distributed via email to chapter members.

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