Title: Bright, tough, and resilient-‐-‐and not in a gifted program. By: Peterson, Jean Sunde, Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 10774610, Spring97, Vol. 8, Issue 3 Database: Professional Development Collection BRIGHT, TOUGH, AND RESILIENT-‐AND NOT IN A GIFTED PROGRAM Abstract Research, identification, and programs in gifted education have typically not accommodated the "tough bright," described in this article as abused, neglected, and undernurtured-‐-‐a subgroup in the "diversity" gifted education has been admonished to identify and serve. Qualitative analysis of language generated in structured interviews with a group of high-‐ability, at-‐risk middle-‐school children (N = 11), who had not been identified for special programming, yielded information related to personal difficulties, perceived support, familiarity with danger and violence, home environment, school experiences, perceptions of the future, and resilience. Suggestions for identification and programming are based on findings in the study They feel like throw-‐away children-‐-‐not just at home, but also in school. They have agile and creative minds and display impressive interpersonal savvy. They are insightful, "smart," verbally adept, heavy with young wisdom, and highly intelligent in terms of Gardners (1983) ideas concerning multiple intelligences. Yet they are not affirmed for these qualities at home or at school. Their parents are neglectful, abusive, unresponsive, erratic, and abuse substances (Berlin, Davis, & Orenstein, 1988; Pollock et al., 1990). As these children see it, teachers make assumptions about them based on their socioeconomic and family situations (Kramer, 1990). In fact, teachers may not be nurturing toward them (Sisk, 1988). By middle school, they are alienated from school (Kramer, 1990) and may eventually drop out (Robertson, 1991). The present study sought to learn about this group of disadvantaged, high-‐ability children. According to a scant number of studies specifically addressing them as a subpopulation among "gifted at risk," and numerous studies of children of alcoholics, these students may exhibit the following characteristics. They feel rage, are depressed and suicidal (Meyer & Phillips, 1990), distance themselves adaptively (Berlin et al., 1988), and have behavior and academic problems (Moss, Vanyukov, & Majumder, 1995). They act out aggressively (Pollock et al., 1990; Tomori, 1994) and abuse substances, the latter more because of stress and negative affect than from rebellion (Colder & Chassin, 1993). Though they have confused and ambivalent feelings about their parents, they remain loyal and enmeshed, perhaps blaming themselves for family distress (Berlin et al., 1988). They have delinquent friends and may be involved in delinquent behavior themselves (Brooks, 1980). Their parents use humiliation, intimidation (Meyer & Phillips, 1990), and heavy household responsibilities (Goglia, Jurkovic, & Burt, 1992) to maintain control over them. A same-‐sex best friend is basic to their self-‐esteem (Barrera, Chassin, & Rogosch, 1993), but they may also be isolated (Berlin et al., 1988; Meyer & Phillips, 1990). They struggle to make sense of their complex contexts (Berlin et al., 1988). In school, they may exhibit symptoms of fetal alcohol effects, which interfere with academic performance and social ease (Streissguth, 1994). Hypervigilant, they are vulnerable to rejection, and they may see suicide as a "safe place" (Meyer & Phillips, 1990). Factors of resilience, "the ability to function psychologically at a level far greater than expected given a persons earlier developmental experiences" (Higgins, 1994), mediate the effects of their situations (Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1992; Werner, 1986). Of interest here are qualities of temperament (Smith, 1995; Werner, 1984), personal characteristics (Garmezy, Masten, & Tellegen, 1984; Werner & Smith, 1982), buffering family conditions (Farrell, Barnes, & Banerjee, 1995; Rak & Patterson,
1996), self-‐understanding (Beardslee & Podorefsky, 1988), and environmental supports in the form of mentors, parental surrogates, and role models for coping (Bolig & Weddle, 1988; Dugan & Coles, 1989). Intelligence and exceptional talents (Higgins, 1994) and the desire to be different from the parents (Herrenkohl, 1994) are also significant to positive outcomes. Just as educators may not recognize their high ability, these students themselves might not believe they are "intelligent," since that word, like "gifted," may translate into only "high academic achievement" for them. Nevertheless, regardless of their academic performance, these students might qualify for programs for the gifted and talented according to the criterion of potential; that is, "capable of high performance," in the Marland (1972) definition. They also might qualify on the basis of performance on traditional assessments for such programs, such as standardized achievement tests, but perhaps on earlier, not current, scores. Their performance on tests might be erratic from year to year, and that inconsistency, too, can mean that they are not nominated as "gifted." Marcus (1986) speculated that the learning environment in homes where a parent abuses substances is qualitatively different from that in others. Given that assessed vocabulary level correlates highly with measures of general intelligence (Sattler, 1992, p. 137), the lack of conversational contact with stable adults might mean lower scores than those of children who have had the intellectual enrichment of middle-‐class homes. Those lower scores might prevent identification for a gifted program. Classroom teachers use good social behavior, a strong classroom work ethic, and positive verbal assertiveness as criteria when referring students, and the lack of any of these can preclude nomination (Peterson & Margolin, in press). In addition, the parents of these children may be unlikely to advocate for them regarding special opportunities and programs for enrichment, according to Scott, Perou, Urbano, Hogan, and Golds (1992) relevant study. These students are not only part of the "diversity" educators of students with high abilities have been admonished to identify and serve; they are also economically or otherwise "disadvantaged," a category needing attention for "learning opportunities" and identification (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993). Yet they may not be among the racial and cultural groups typically targeted by programs making efforts to be inclusive. They may be Caucasian, but not be "mainstream" (see Spindler & Spindler, 1990). In short, they are usually not in programs for the gifted and talented. As a subgroup within the disadvantaged, highability population, these sometimes violent, jaded, angry, and depressed children, with some exceptions (e.g., Baldwin, 1994; Brooks, 1980; Coleman & Gallagher, 1992; Sisk, 1988; VanTassel-‐Baska, 1989; Wang, 1995; Ward, 1992), have not generated a great deal of attention in the literature related to gifted education. They have usually not been part of the databases from which conclusions about "gifted children" are drawn (e.g., Baker, 1994; Goldstein, Stocking, & Sawyer, 1992; Olszewski-‐Kubilius & Yasumoto, 1994; Swiatek, 1995). Gifted-‐education conference and symposia presentations related to them have been rare. Smart and tough, these children are at risk for dropping out of school, criminal behavior, depression, and suicide, and not coming even close to academic or other performance that matches their measured potential. The Purpose of the Study To address the issues of whether these at-‐risk, high-‐ability children should be identified, how they might be identified, and what kinds of responsive services are appropriate for them, the researcher conducted a qualitative study, involving interviews and subsequent language analysis, of a group of "tough and bright" children in order to learn more about them. Of interest initially were their self-‐perception, negative and positive school experiences, resiliency factors, and home environment. The study was undertaken with the assumption that by becoming knowledgeable about these children, educators of the gifted can determine effective ways to serve them. Participants
The participants were 10 (7 females, 3 males) middle school students, among 33 (19 females, 14 males) who had been referred as "the most needy and the most difficult" for a series of focused, semi-‐structured, small-‐group discussions (Peterson, 1990, 1995)for "students with concerns" in the two middle schools in a midwestern community of 25,000. The researcher led the activity as part of an inter-‐agency approach to supporting children at risk. One additional female student, a 14-‐year-‐old ninth grader who had participated the previous year in the groups, was also interviewed, for a total of 11 study participants. These 11 students had scored at or above the approximately 90th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS; Hieronymous & Hoover, 1986) on at least one subtest (vocabulary, reading comprehension, language, science, math, social science) or the composite sometime during their school years. One or both parents of nine of the study participants were suspected of abusing substances. Ninety-‐four percent of the 33 at-‐risk group participants were Caucasian. All of the study participants were Caucasian and were roughly one-‐third (30%) of those who had been referred for the groups in the two schools (37% of the female students, 21% of the male students). None of these students was currently identified as "gifted." In a few cases, one or two teachers seemed aware of their ability, but most of the study participants were not doing well academically, had problems with absenteeism and behavior, had been or were depressed, and had contact with substances and delinquency. Screening and selection criteria for programs for students with high ability continue to rely on achievement tests and other such academic measures (Maker, 1996). Given the typical practice of selecting students in the top 3%-‐5% on a nationally standardized measure (Colangelo & Kerr, 1990; Richert, 1991), the approximately 90% level used in selecting participants for this study might be seen as inappropriately generous. However, as stated earlier, it might be assumed that the scores of these children would have been higher had they had stable and well-‐functioning home contexts. That the scores of most had declined in recent years also suggests that environment had had an effect on their performance on achievement tests. Prior to the interviews, all participants had attended at least one group session with the researcher. All but one had attended most of the sessions of their particular group. They were, therefore, acquainted with the researcher and had established some rapport prior to the interview, probably important in light of the lack of trust that can exist in homes with conflict-‐ridden, neglectful, substance abusing, or abusive parents (Meyer & Phillips, 1990). The study participants will be identified by pseudonyms in the discussion which follows. The Setting The small city where the schools were located had experienced a significant demographic shift over the past decade, the result of corporate downsizing and the relatively new presence of a meat-‐packing plant. There was a growing immigrant Latino population. In the two schools together, 12% of the total middle school population of 1,262 was from minority groups, with Latino students, at 8%, being the largest minority group. The resulting upheaval was evident in the schools: students whose intown addresses changed often; whose parents worked two or three low-‐paying jobs and had little contact with their families; whose parents were substance abusers; who were abused and neglected at home; who became anxious as summer approached, because they would lose the structure that school provided; and who were largely in charge of household management-‐-‐laundry, cooking, cleaning, and childcare. In the schools and in the discussion groups, there was frequent discussion of gang activity and violence.
Method After a review of school records revealed their relatively high ITBS scores, the 11 students were invited to participate in a structured interview. Parental permission was given either in writing or by phone in response to a letter explaining that the child was being invited for an interview because of perceived high ability. The interviews were conducted in a conference room and lasted from 45 to 75 minutes. The students were asked 18 open-‐ended questions (see Appendix A). Only one Participant, the student with the poorest attendance in the discussion groups, did not elaborate with answers. However, based on nonverbal behavior, she, like the others, seemed pleased to be viewed as "bright," and all were alert, attentive, and cooperative. With that one exception, they appeared to respond ingenuously and earnestly. Answers were both audiotape-‐recorded and recorded on laptop computer. The necessary equipment did not appear to be a sustained concern for the participants. Subsequent to the interviews, the transcript language was analyzed for themes regarding self-‐perception, resilience, positive and negative school experiences, and home environment, using a color-‐coding system that marked various recurring themes with an identifying color. All color-‐coded comments were then classified into respective color groups and reclassifted further, with new colors, since the initial analysis had produced additional strands of interest: their vision of the future; significant support personnel; difficulties, vulnerabilities, and fears; familiarity with danger and violence; emotional lability; strategies for coping with difficult circumstances; and concerns relevant to gifted education. In some cases, information was tallied quantitatively in order to determine the relative salience of particular thematic categories. Findings Analysis of the students language yielded assorted themes, which might appropriately be considered descriptors of this group of at-‐risk students with high ability. The most dominant themes were their familiarity with a dangerous, difficult, and unpredictable world, their sensitivity to negative messages in school, and their selfreliance and resilience ("I guess I just make it through"). Their longing for reliable parent contact and for someone to listen to and affirm them ("My best friends mom-‐-‐always been there, always nice") was also a significant theme. Several were forgiving of indifferent or unavailable parents ("She sounds like shes a bad person, but she just makes some mistakes"; "He doesnt do it on purpose. He just forgets what weve planned"). They worried about their parents and siblings ("I worry a lot about my sister"; "I think about my brother all the time"), their friends lived dangerously, and they relied on their intelligence ("my brain") to survive. However, high ability could also cause pain in the immediate family ("Thats one reason I get flack from my sister and brother"; "She says, `You think youre so deep"). In descending order, in terms of the incidence of their appearance in student answers, the themes are listed in Table 1. Teachers and grandparents were named most often as "the nicest people" in response to an open-‐ended question. Teachers were also named most often as someone who "understands me" in response to an open-‐ended question concerning what the students wish others understood. Table 2 lists the categories elicited in both cases. Difficult Lives The following excerpts about what is "difficult" are representative and particularly eloquent. The first is from Sondra, a 14-‐year-‐old ninth-‐grader, a grim achiever in spite of frequent moves from town to town, several marriages for both parents, and no immediate or extended family for support. Various groups of former step-‐siblings were scattered throughout the school system. She recognized her ability to
persevere and had learned how to make friends quickly, but she wished they understood "that Im not trying to act superior or be a smartbutt when theyll do really stupid stuff, and I say something." She had many domestic responsibilities that "dont get done unless I do them." She had become more and more overtly angry and "tough" during the past year. Having no family vehicle precluded both her finishing Drivers Education and her participating in evening music events at school, the latter resulting in poor music grades. She, therefore, had dropped chorus and band in order to protect grades for future scholarships, her only hope for college, she felt. Math had become more difficult, and, though she had scored at the 99th percentile in math problems on the ITBS in grade 7, she was having doubts that she would reach her goals. Her sense of her own ability, which had previously sustained her, was now tenuous (see Dweck, 1986, regarding the significance of perceptions of ability in the face of academic challenges). In high school, she missed the support her middle school teachers had given her. She felt sad, lonely, desperate, and fragile. She dreaded the upcoming summer. In the following excerpts, she explains the difficulties: My mom and dad have been in and out of the house so many times-‐-‐from the time I was 2, a messed-‐up home life. I live with my dad for a while, then hes gone. My moms not real dependable, flutters in and out, cant hold a job. Neither of them wants to watch us that bad. He wants us to leave. The next minute he just wants a maid-‐-‐to make him look good, keep the house clean. Ive always lived with it, but going over to friends houses I found out we were not normal. That hit me last year. Just took it in stride before that. I cant really trust my dad. He tells us mom doesnt want us to live with her either. He cant see to our needs, cant tell that if theres no food left in refrig, its time to go shopping. We need a car to get places. He doesnt have a license. My sisters the oldest, takes care of everyone, does a pretty good job. Lately shes having a hard time of it, getting into drugs real bad. A way to cope. I dont like picking up the messes of my dad and brother. Its not fair. The most difficult thing right now is trying to get a job when theres no car or phone. I dont really have people to talk to. I dont want to be "poor me." My dad does that kind of"poor-‐me" stuff. Ive started noticing how immature he is. Acts like my 14-‐year-‐old brother. He deals with things like that-‐just hide and hope they go away. For a while I was having mega-‐problems. Tried suicide twice earlier this year and went to the mental health clinic. That basically kind of took care of it. I couldnt talk to my family. Theyd say, "You have nothing to complain about. My lifes so much worse." For a while my dad had another girlfriend. She called me names-‐-‐even my sister did. They all gang up on me. I dont hang around the house much. I try to do other activities, or I just go to my friends houses. Its okay when theyre all gone, and I can handle it sometimes when theyre there. Im in my room all the time. The hardest thing is that Im not wanted. If I were off by myself somehow, Id feel better about myself. My dad sees a chance for better things in me. Hes really intelligent, had a chance before and blew it. Id like to tell my siblings, "Im sorry Im not like you. Im sorry Dad likes me. I wish he didnt." The following is from Kris, a seventh-‐grader, eager to talk, invalidated at home for her feelings, and wanting counseling for frightening sadness: My parents divorce when I was in third grade taught me that things dont always last. Even when you think things are going to go right, they dont most of the time. I learned not to trust anyone, cause sometimes my mom would tell us she would be having us some weekend, and then shed take off with her boyfriend. We were freaking out last week when we called work and she wasnt there. We thought shed left. We were supposed to be with her last weekend. We get scared when we dont know where my dad is, too. I think somethings happened to him. One night he was out late, and we thought hed been hit, like a car accident, or shot. When my parents first got a divorce, I had to live with my dad. He never talked to us, and he didnt know how to cook. When my mom first moved out, she always acted as if she was coming back, and me and my sister would get all happy, but then she finally never came back. If we had lived with mom, I wouldnt be
so confused. If I hadnt lived with my dad, though, I wouldnt know how to take care of myself so well. Me and my sister have to cook our own supper a lot. If your parents get messed up or something, you want to go into your room and just cry. You dont know what to do with your life. Sometimes you even think of killing yourself. Thats when its really bad with your family, but I think it would happen mostly for me in the winter cause I cant get out of the house. I never got to go to counseling. My dad wouldnt sign the papers. My sister said she wanted to live with mom, and so he cancelled the appointment. My dad doesnt believe anything is wrong, even if I tell him that Im depressed. He says, "Its all in your head. Youve been watching too much TV." My sister always thinks things that go wrong are our fault. Im going to swim this summer. Keeps me out of the house till 8:00. Brandy, a lonely sixth-‐grader, sensitive about "being different" both intellectually and socioeconomically, reported the following: I write letters to penpals from the back of comic books. I feel kinda like is there something wrong with me, am I doing something wrong? Dad said "Dumb it up a little." My mom says, "No." When I was little, I didnt get to hang around kids my age, so I have a sense of humor thats more like people older than me. I really miss [former city, state]. I used to have a friend like me there. My mom and dad work at different times. When we plan something for the next weekend, we never do it. Tiffany, an anxious seventh-‐grader, who perceived that she was "harder and tougher" than the previous year, was one of several who wished for more contact with parents: "I try my hardest for them. I wish they were there more." Amy, an angry, physically mature sixth-‐grader, recalled loss of contact: "My parents got divorced [when I was in] fourth grade. When I was moving in with my grandma, I didnt know anything about it, and I just left and said goodbye to my dad. I was wondering what was going on." Several mentioned anger, hurt, worry, and sadness over their parents drinking. Sixth-‐grader Jessica, with a flat affect, said, "When I tell my friends about my feelings, they dont understand. They dont live like I do." She expressed a need to be comforted: "My sister doesnt want to give me a hug when I feel bad. She just says, `youll get over it." Eighth-‐grader Robin reported, "My stepmom-‐-‐we dont know where she is. They put her in a dry-‐out place. Shell go out drinking and not tell us where shes going." Articulate, introspective Chad, an eighth-‐grader, had been kidnapped by his father, starved, and locked in a closet for control. Now he lived with his mother: My mom is overprotective because of certain things that happened in the past. Wont let me grow up. She has a problem with trusting-‐-‐partially my fault because when I came back there was a lot of thievery and lying because thats what Id had to do to survive. It seems to be when somebody hurts [a child], its not the child who changes, but its the parents. Living with my father-‐-‐abuse, starvation. Its easy to identify what was the problem there. But living with my mother, theres something wrong, but I cant quite figure out what it is. Two extremes. Shell love you to death, and hell beat you to death. Shell smother me, and he didnt care as long as I was there to do chores. There were intense concerns about siblings: (Robin) "My brother is a manic-‐depressive, tried to commit suicide three times. I think about that a lot"; (Tiffany) "My little sister-‐-‐I dont want her to grow up like me. I want her to have a better life"; (Tiffany) "The reason I tell [on my big sister] is because I care about her." There were problems with impulsivity. Amy reported the following: What is unpredictable? Me and my boyfriend-‐-‐behavior on a date, sexually. And when my friends want me to skip class or something, I always do. Im surprised when it happens. I think of the consequences with my mom and with my friends, and then I usually just go. Just go. Sometimes after I do something bad,
I regret what I did. Like I once passed out on purpose [from a "rocket ride"], and I had a really bad headache, coughing up blood. Familiarity With a Dangerous World These students were familiar with danger, violence, and dramatic events. Sixth-‐grader Brad, with a history of behavior problems at school, articulated the following: I was over at a friends house, and we were messing around, and he was digging through his dads stuff, and he found three guns, a 9 mm, a .357, and a .380, and he took the 9 mm and pointed it at my friend at his head and said, "You dare me to pull the trigger?" I said, "No, you better not," and he pointed it at the ceiling and pulled the trigger, and it went off. My brother has a severe drinking problem. He had a CDO class A-‐-‐such a good license [transporting chemicals]. Got caught drinking. In the penitentiary for two years. One little spark and the semi and half the road is gone. The exhaust comes out of the front of the truck so if a spark shoots out, it wont blow. Ive met challenging stuff, but nothing that I cant deal with. Brandy told of these incidents: Once someone was beating me up in the bathroom. It has to do with a family member. I was really little. They held me down and put their hand over my mouth. I was scared. I kicked one of them. I ran out. I was glad my brother was there. Almost the same thing happened to me and my sister. She said, "When we get to the white van, were going to run." And so we did. Subdued, unassertive Jessica, who said that she had now stopped smoking and that "drugs-‐theyre around me all the time," shared these situations separately during the interview: My sister took me to [a larger city] with her and her friends. They were pressuring her to shoot out a car window. I told her no, and she never did, and she thanked me. One of them did, and they ended up being shot. One of my friends-‐-‐he broke out of the boys home and stole a car. My dad has a lot of tickets for driving with possession. He drinks a lot. Hes losing his job. Some of my friends have tried to kill themselves. Robin spoke of "my brothers suicide attempts" and reported that she was uncomfortable in school "when my dad smacked me and I had to come to school with a bruise on my face-‐-‐this year." Kris said, "My dad used to hit us. I said it was against the law. He said Id been watching too much TV, but then he stopped. When he was a kid, he was abused." Tiffany recognized that her friends presented danger for her: "I have pretty bad friends. If they get in deep trouble, Ill go down with them." Their Perceived Strengths Brad found schoolwork difficult, perhaps because of his learning style or his unusual mental processing: "Everyone else learns quicker than me. Mr. S. has ways of doing it, and I have ways of doing it that arent his ways. They seem hard to him, but they seem easy to me. Its a different way of doing things." He was proud of his abilities: Im good at making dangerous things. I fixed our VCR. Tore it apart and put it back together. I can change oil in a car-‐mechanical things. I like target-‐practice, can hit anything that flies in front of me. I can take a pellet gun in my room, set a bolt at one end, and I can hit it. No holes in the wall where Ive missed-‐-‐not yet, anyway. Im proud because I make the right decisions in a bad situation, and I can get where I need to be to avoid the situation and get it under control.
Sondra appreciated "just sticking up for myself, fighting back. I wont just stand there and take it all. I basically really noticed that this year. Other people-‐-‐they just get knocked over. Im proud of the fact that I want to change-‐-‐that I will hopefully do something." She tried not to live in the past: "When you look back, thats when you get the bad feelings, so you just look ahead. Thats one of the reasons I am the way I am: Ive had those people in my life and Ive been able to say, like about drugs and alcohol, thats not for me." Robin spoke of "always being able to think about something good, even when somethings going bad." Tiffany said she tried to "look on the bright days when I have difficult times." Kris appreciated her "confidence in myself, because I know that I can stand up to my dad. When I go and talk to my dad, I can have a conversation with him, or if an argument, I dont walk off." She also spoke of another asset: Eagerness-‐-‐about going with my mom for a weekend and getting away from my dad. Actually Im kind of glad theyre divorced, because I have another place to go if something goes wrong. If I get in a fight with my dad, I know that in just a couple of days Ill be with my mom and can get a break. She exuded a "tough" confidence: My ability to not do what everybody wants me to do. I know the difference between right and wrong. Its just that sometimes the right is boring. But other people dont make my decisions for me. If Im going to do something, Ill do it-‐-‐like goals, or if I cant make my goal, I try. She was proud of her accomplishments: In third grade, I was one of the only ones who got 100% in the English part of some big test. There were only two of us. Mr. K. also said I was one of the best swimmers. Kind of good to know youre better than most. Sounds like a selfish thought, but its nice to know youre good at something. I know how to cook. If I didnt, we wouldnt have supper half the time. Brandy was proud of her ability to joke about herself and being able to "be okay-‐-‐even when somebody does something." Artistic ability helped two students cope. Brandy discussed her talents: Drawing and writing. I have nine characters. Most are girls, and they each have a part of me in them. I also write songs. And I have a big vocabulary. During when we dress up for a 60s week, teachers get a kick out of my clothes. I wore a sign "Ban the Bomb." And politics. I changed some of the Republican girls to Democrats. Ive found out that its okay to be me even if nobody likes me. Im me and I cant change that. Chad also mentioned his skills in art: "I like to do art. Its basically a stress reliever. I can do whatever I want with it-‐-‐an create beautiful things. Most people cant do that." Several students mentioned their mental ability as a valued strength, but no one used the word "intelligent." Jessica, Tiffany, Marci (the sixthgrader who did not elaborate in her answers), and Matt (a sixth-‐grader on growth hormones that "make me rambunctious") all mentioned getting good grades in certain classes and receiving a classroom award for good work. Other comments about using intelligence are these: (Jessica) I use my mind about things. (Robin) Wanting to learn more about things. Ive always wanted to do that. (Chad, after explaining how he had survived during his kidnapping) I appreciate my ability to learn, my mental capabilities. Most people wouldnt believe my high IQ. If I were to give myself completely away, it
would expose myself. I like to keep myself pretty much a surprise to people, so I have the advantage. I did that with my dad. (Tiffany) My brain-‐-‐I build my confidence in my brain. It has all my school stuff. Whatever I learn pretty much sticks there. It holds my memories. I can always look back on them. Some mentioned the fact that they did not "do drugs" as a strength: (Jessica) "Im not a troublemaker"; (Robin) "Not being like some people in our school violent, thinking about sex and drugs and stuff." Jessica and Robin noted their ability to make and keep friends, and Chad said, "my humor." Jessica and Robin cited their siblings as a strength: "They care about me." Robin cited family counseling as a strength: "Moms starting to talk to me. They wanted things to be okay with me and my mom." Chad discussed his strengths, one of which was his mothers nurturing after his absence: I could lie lickity split if I needed food. Those three years taught me more skills than anything else can teach me. Im proud, when I look back. I can see my extreme ability to survive and cope with things. When I came back to live with my mom, she taught me about loving and sharing. I was uncontrollable. She put up with it. Most parents would have given up. Manipulate-‐-‐I could do that to survive. That was kind of a curse, when I came back. I couldnt help playing it. My mom would get mad. It doesnt work if you dont need it. The strengths discussed by the students are summarized in Table 3. Visions of the Future The students visions of the future ranged from extreme optimism ("a lot of happiness") to cautious hope ("Maybe life will be just a little bit better"; "Hopefully Ill get a job and be able to support myself. You never know. You just hope") to pessimism ("I want to be all sorts of things, but Ill probably not get to do even one of them"). Futuristic scenarios varied from modest ("be better friends with my parents"; "just me in my little house"; "learn from my mistakes, and not make so many of them"; "the house will look nice on the outside-‐-‐so many around here are trashy") to grand ("make lots of money"; "I want a big house and kids and be a lawyer"; "A scientist-‐-‐go to college. Astronomy, thats my favorite"). Chad expressed this vision of his future: Id like to make myself remembered-‐home-‐town famous. I want to prove something to myself. I plan on being able to come into a place, find a goal, spend three years trying to accomplish it, and always bounce back from what happens to me. I want just for an hour to sit back and look at my life and be satisfied with it and just sort of chuckle about what Ive been through. Marci said she would not like to have children, and Tiffany, Sondra, and Marci doubted that they would want to marry. Matt, Chad, Brad, and Brandy did not mention either marriage or children when asked to describe their lives 15 years into the future. Robin could not think of any answer at all to the question about the future. Some visions of the future were scattered and unfocused, not atypical of early middleschool children, but here, perhaps, reflecting lack of guidance about education beyond high school. The comments of two students reflect this: (Brad) I want to go to college. I want to try to get into Harvard or at least in the police academy. Thats cool. Maybe the Army, maybe about five years. Or a doctor or a person who builds computers. Spelling I still have trouble with-‐-‐I dont get the silent letters in there. I hate studying. I dont want to get held back. If I try my hardest, I end up with headaches. I want to get out of sixth grade. (Amy) Sometimes I want to be a doctor, and then sometimes if I see something in a movie, I have a sudden urge to work on computers because it looks cool. I like to sing a lot. I like to dance. Im not too
serious about a career. Probably when Im older-‐-‐in high school. Ill be with a family. I want a kid, yeah. In a trailer or a house, not junky, in California or Jamaica. I heard Jamaica is cool. There was anxiety and personal uncertainty about the future for some: (Amy) I dont know if Ill get into drugs. If someone pressures me to do something bad, I never know what Ill say. (Chad) Unpredictable-‐-‐where Im going, how Im going, if Ill make it, wondering what Im going to end up like-‐-‐like my father. Will the abusiveness pass on? I dont want to be like my relatives on that side. Theyre psychopathic. Sexual orientation was an issue for Brandy, as she envisioned her future: "Im not really gay or straight right now. I know myself a lot. Ive never thought anybody was cute. My dad is homophobic. He thinks anybody without a boyfriend is gay, that all musicians must be devil-‐worshippers or gay." Sondra knew that she would jeopardize her future if she would "drop out like my sister, or be sent away like my brother or get too caught up in other things that arent really important." She thought that working for the Army might be a good goal. Kris said, "I wont have kids so early." What Educators Should Understand These students wanted guidance from teachers-‐-‐perhaps "parental" guidance. Jessica wanted teachers to "tell you not to do something if theyve already done it-‐-‐how it ruins your friendships with other people and stuff." Matt said, "Tell me whats right and wrong; tell me what to do and what not to do." In addition, Tiffany said teachers can "support me, encourage me, praise me when I do something right, notice things I do wrong and help me correct them. Just to be there for me when I need it." Kris said, "I was going to fight this girl at school and [teachers] would talk to me about that, and you get uncomfortable about it." What would they like teachers to understand? Kris explained as follows: I wish teachers would understand my life at home. Youll come to school and wont have an assignment done, and you try to explain that maybe something went on at home. What if your mom and dad got in this big fight and you didnt know what to do. If I told them that, they wouldnt care, so I dont tell them-‐-‐even if its a good excuse. Brad, skilled with "dangerous things," said, "I dont like to be yelled at. This one teacher blows up if you dont learn quick enough. Sometimes Id like to just punch him. I have a short fuse." Kris said this: I wish theyd not punish me for every little single mistake. Thats what some teachers do, and so you feel like not doing anything, because youll get into trouble. Like if you pick up a pencil someone else drops, or just turning around gets you detention ... just stupid little things like that. You shouldnt get in trouble for little things like that. Brandy, distressed by many elements of her life, said, "Id like teachers to understand that it sometimes looks like Im not listening or not trying hard enough, but I am." Chad said, "Knowing my ADHD and knowing my personality would help a lot of people understand me." Jessica advised quietly that teachers should understand that the most uncomfortable things in school "have to do with boys." The following was Amys response: I wish theyd understand why I do some of the bad stuff skip, do drugs. Sometimes I know I shouldnt, and sometimes I just want to-‐-‐just to be rebellious. That Im not really all that bad. They think Im all bad. I do drugs, but thats none of their business. That they can help me if I have a question in classes-‐-‐cause they never do. Every time I need help, they say, "You havent been listening."
Robin said, "They pretty much understand most of the stuff thats going on in my life. Thats okay-‐-‐with most of them." Later, she said, "I wish they wouldnt look down on people like me, who sometimes get confused, so instead of asking for help, dont do the assignment or do the test well." Chad said this: Whats hard? Uncomfortable? When Im approached by teacher or counselor and they act either too buddy-‐buddy or dont bug me at all. Dealing with peers who have no idea what Ive been through and think life is a joke. I feel aggression toward them that shouldnt be there. I cant join them but cant repel them, and Im stuck somewhere in the middle. Amy asked herself, "The nicest thing in school?" Then she paused. "Nothing, really." The following comments from Sondra reflect the kind of discomfort that children from nonmainstream cultures, including low socioeconomic contexts, may feel in middle-‐class-‐oriented gifted programs. She herself had five ITBS scores at or above the 96th percentile, but that did not compensate for what happened socially: Student council. I was in it this year. Ten people were elected out of the 20 running-‐out of 500 kids. But I dropped out because the people were the rich kids and they looked down on me. So they ignored me. And we had little groups for planning things. Id sign up for one and Id just sit there. Even if I gave my ideas, theyd just blow them off, so I said okay, fine. Robin underscored the importance of affirming ability. In spite of her 96th percentile in reading comprehension on an earlier ITBS, she reported that she did not see herself as having high ability: "I was never told I had a good mind. They never let me go ahead into those kinds of classes." In addition, cautious and protective parents might not encourage participation in special programs. Chad explained: Like TAG. They needed $17, and she wouldnt pay it. My mom says, "Youre so smart." She thinks that Im smart enough to do work at home, but not smart enough to take harder classes. I couldve skipped kindergarten, but she wouldnt let me. I already knew addition and subtraction. She wont let me use my abilities. Robin spoke appreciatively about caring teachers: "My teacher-‐-‐he cares about me. I appreciate having a teacher that forgives me even when I dont do something just like he asked, having somebody to talk to about things other than schoolwork." Sondra echoed those thoughts: "[Teachers and counselors] helped me out. I can think of many faces. Theyve helped me out. I forget the names, but there have been a lot." Tiffany said, "Having all my teachers remembering me-‐thats nice." The stress in their lives can contribute to absenteeism, according to Sondra: "Im not really in school much. Ive missed a lot this year. The strain. Id be sick a lot." She also explained, considering the relevance of the classroom to her life, "My classes-‐-‐some things dont seem important. What were doing." Discussion Their responses point to a range of school-‐comfort levels for these students, from Amys "nothing, really [is nice]" to two students being aware of socioeconomic differences, to three students indicating that school was a place of stability and nurturance. Some chafed under the structure of the system, some felt misunderstood, and two cited problems with peers, but the majority listed school personnel as significant, supportive adults in their lives, and a few men tioned moments of achievement. In regard to resilience, optimism may be warranted for most of these participants, given the evidence of strong support from at least one significant person in their lives. Five of the 11 participants indicated that teachers, counselors, or both had offered crucial, valued support. The death of a grandparent had been particularly difficult for Robin and Tiffany, since that individual had played a significant supportive role in their lives. (Amy was living with a grandparent, but unhappily, preferring to live with her father.) Older
siblings provided "parenting" for Brad, Jessica, and, to some extent, Brandy. Sondra might not be typical in her reluctance to lean on others for assistance: "Its hard for me to ask for help. Its like its my problem." She was the only one who indicated that she "had no one to talk to," but she, at least, had the wishes of her father that she could "have a better life." A message to educators, including those working with high-‐ability students, is that a teacher may play a crucial mentor or parent-‐surrogate role for an at-‐risk child, no matter how distancing and intimidating their behavior is prior to establishing comfortable rapport. Only three students spoke of stable, comfortable communication with a parent. However, no matter how conflictual the relationship, their parents were central to their lives and were frequently mentioned during the interviews. Most participants made clear statements about wanting positive parental attention. If a positive view of the future contributes to resilience, then seven of the participants have another reason to be hopeful. All except Brandy, Sondra, Robin, and Jessica spoke fairly confidently about going to college, having a career, and having a better life. However, two of the participants, Robin and Jessica, with low-‐energy responses, had difficulty picturing any future. Sondra had difficulty sustaining focus on anything beyond arranging for the school districts "Independent Living" program, which included living in a supervised residence after age 16. Brad spoke of post-‐highschool education, but quickly reverted to thoughts of going camping with his older siblings. However, they all had exhibited assertiveness and autonomy regarding meeting their needs in the past. Kris, Sondra, Chad, and Tiffany had all behaved proactively in coping with their situations. That all participants were articulate, perceptive, insightful, and self-‐reflective also bodes well for the future, according to the literature regarding resilience. Perhaps by using their high ability, most appeared to have "made sense" of their circumstances, whether or not they accepted their situations or forgave the adults in their lives. Mental ability was cited by several as "appreciated," but high ability did not mean that classes and academic achievement were discussed much in response to the interview questions. In fact, comments that pertained to the classroom were rare. Kris, for example, with one of the highest percentile rankings on the ITBS, never mentioned anything about grades or classroom academic work. Neither did five others. Sondra communicated great concern for academic achievement, but she was losing confidence in her academic ability. She and Robin had trouble with math. Students with difficult home situations, and with little or no parental support for academic work, may find the hurdles of new math concepts and other academic challenges late in middle school particularly formidable. What Gifted Education Can Do We know relatively little about high-‐ability children who, like those in this study, do not fit the images that researchers in gifted education may have in mind when they select samples and generalize findings. These students, from various backgrounds and representing many risk factors, may never be referred for special programs or activities for those with high ability. Then, too, they may choose not to participate if identified or drop out of a program because of poor fit in a one-‐size-‐for-‐everyone curriculum designed to be "more and faster" for highly motivated, advantaged students. Educators are unlikely to pursue them and make accommodations if the students are not eager to be involved. Some of the at-‐risk participants here had done reasonably good academic work earlier in school, despite significant family disruptions. That scholastic data, together with high composite or subtest scores on standardized tests, might be found through close scrutiny of school records (Peterson & Colangelo, 1996) to justify inclusion. In general, nontraditional identification procedures are recommended for finding these students and others from underrepresented groups (Baldwin, 1984; Charlesworth, 1979; Kirschenbaum, 1993; Ward, 1992). In each case in this study, a parent readily gave permission for an interview, "an activity for high-‐ability students," suggesting potential parental cooperation in involving at-‐risk children.
However, if educators find and recommend these complex, challenging students, then gifted education needs to respond with appropriate programs. They need personal and academic nurturing. Gifted programs need to be flexible in meeting individual needs-‐-‐adjusted in format, content, emphasis, and purpose in order to affirm and nurture personal and academic strengths and to support and strengthen areas of relative weakness. Some degree of remediation may be appropriate. VanTassel-‐Baska (1991) advocated a "tryout" program, a low adult-‐tochild ratio, service to families, communication with parents, mentorships and tutorials, emphasis on math and reading, early intervention addressing the whole child, and programs addressing non-‐cognitive skills that can enhance motivation. The fact that academic concerns received so little attention in the interview responses in this study does not mean that inclusive and accommodating programs should not consider academic programming. Several wished that teachers would not assume that they did not care about classroom performance, and some overtly stated that they wanted meaningful academic experiences. According to this study, it is more appropriate to assume that these students are eager to learn, and that programs can fill in "enrichment" gaps and bolster academic selfconfidence through stimulating experiences that bring them into contact with others with similar abilities. The interview responses underscored the importance of supportive mentors, and educators who are designated nurturers of high potential play several crucial roles in these childrens lives. The students demonstrated that they were open to guidance and hungry for it. To respond to affective concerns, involving them in activities like small-‐group discussion with others with similar life contexts, with mainstream, middleclass peers, or a combination of the two can be beneficial, based on the researchers experience. Students from diverse backgrounds find that they have more in common than previously realized, given their common developmental tasks and concerns. Small groups provide opportunity for building trust, contact with intellectual peers, guidance from an attentive adult, and gaining information about post-‐high school education. In the groups that preceded the individual interviews, the study participants demonstrated intellectual agility in their insights, impressive survival strategies, clever repartee, creative responses to situations, and descriptive anecdotes about household management at very young ages. Leaders and peers can provide positive feedback for these strengths and abilities. The "tough bright" are not part of the collective consciousness in gifted education. Educators often do not know these troubled children beyond their appearance and behavior, for they do not share personal information readily. Their life experiences may not have given them the vocabulary, intellectual enrichment, social experiences, or modeling of behavior that they need to fit comfortably into the classroom. They may, in fact, be sullen and withdrawn, hostile, and sensitive to slights-‐-‐trained thoroughly by adults who disappoint. They may initially be difficult to work with. Research methodology intending to learn about their needs, concerns, constraints, and strengths-‐-‐and programs as well-‐-‐must be sensitive to these realities. Those who make referrals need to be encouraged to look at the "toughest" at-‐risk children and adolescents with an assumption that one-‐third of them might be "gifted," according to this study. They represent critical personal and academic needs, and they need and deserve the attention of educators and researchers of the gifted as much as do those students whose parents advocate for them, provide opportunities for enrichment, and nurture predictably and adequately. Finding them and meeting their needs are not easy tasks, but those are appropriate and urgent challenges in gifted education. Table 1 Themes in At-‐Risk Study Participants Responses to Open-‐Ended Questions
Thematic Category (N=11) Alluding to Theme Number of Students Wishing to "Be Known," Appreciating 10 Someones Concern Familiar With a Dangerous World, Taught 10 by Difficult Experiences Accepting That Life is Unpredictable, Dramatic 9 Emotionally Volatile, Impulsive 8 Getting Negative Feedback in School 8 Growing up Early 8 Self-‐Reliance, Strength, Resilience 8 Unreliable Parents; Broken Promises 7 Unforgiving of Parents 7 Needing, Appreciating Someone to Talk With 7 Missing Parent Contact, Parent Affirmation; 7 Wanting Guidance Uncomfortable in School 6 "Confused" 6 Punished Severely, Excessively Controlled at Home 6 Enmeshed With Families; Greatly Concerned 6 About Family, Sibling Reliant on Abilities, Aware of Own Intelligence 6 Aware of Risks in Current Friendship Groups 6 Hopeful About the Future 6 Experienced With Divorce 5 Lofty, Perhaps Unrealistic Future Goals, 5 or No Long-‐Term Goals Experienced With Substances 5
Non-‐validation by Sibling; Discomfort in Family 5 Because of Ability Strong Sense of"Being Different" 5 School Seen as Stability 4 Forgiving of Parents 4 Creative in the Arts; Arts for Expression, Coping, Pride 4 Apprehensive About the Future 3 Distrustful Regarding Relationships 3 Bothered by Socioeconomic Differences in School 3 Desiring Experiences in a Gifted Program 2 Table 2 Significant People in the Lives of At-‐Risk Study Participants "The nicest people" Number of Students Citing Teacher(s) 7 Grandparent(s) 7 Parent(s) 6 Friend 4 Counselor 3 Parent of a friend 3 Mental Health Counselor 2 Sibling(s) 2 People in town, Neighbor 2
Co-‐worker of a Parent 1 "Understand me" Number of Students Citing Teachers 5 Siblings 3 Counselor 3 Parents 2 Peers 2 Dad 1 Table 3 Personal strengths cited by At-‐Risk Study Participants in Response to Open-‐Ended Question Category Number of Students Citing intelligence, "brain," memory, eagerness to learn 5 a caring parent who listens 5 a school award for academic work or talent area 5 siblings who care 4 sticking up for self, fighting back 4 humor 3 creative arts 3 athletic ability 3 ability to look on bright side 3 not violent, not living dangerously 3 being able to forgive 2 being able to make friends easily 2
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What do you expect will change in your life over the next year? ~~~~~~~~ By Jean Sunde Peterson Jean Sunde Peterson is an assistant professor in Counselor Preparation at Truman State University, MO. A former state teacher of the year, she is the author of two Talk with Teens books (Free Spirit Publishing) and regularly presents at national conferences on schoolrelated topics, including underachievement and at-‐risk populations. She has worked with high-‐ability children and their families in private practice and in treatment centers. Copyright of Journal of Secondary Gifted Education is the property of Prufrock Press and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holders express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.