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  • Writer's pictureDerek Davidson

Invisible Gifts

I paid 500 dollars for a psychiatrist to tell me what I already knew about my daughter. Schools would not work for her. They would stifle her academically and socially. It’s not an easy message to hear. But I needed that piece of paper more than the information.

Adexa is profoundly gifted, three standard deviations from the mean in terms of IQ, and conventional classrooms weren’t going to cut it. Without thoughtful advocacy, she would internalize that school was boring and that she was weird, which would lead to misbehavior, and I’d sit on the business end of parent-teacher conferences trying to reconcile parallel truths like She’s Unchallenged Academically and Her Behavior is Unacceptable.

Dex had exhausted the 3 year swath of learning activities in her Children’s House Montessori classroom in six months. On her best days she sat in a corner reading, unbothered. On others, Adexa gave in to frustration like the 6 year old she was, maybe did something unspeakable or called someone “normal” pejoratively. Dex topped out the NWEA reading assessment at college level, but couldn’t reliably remember her lunch or keep a clean room or be kind when there was nothing in it for her.

But she’ll be fine. Adexa is a middle class white kid with educators for parents and a 529 savings account. I have an expensive and official piece of paper verifying her giftedness. We can research the best options and drive her to the tony suburbs for an admissions-based gifted-only program in a highly rated district. She had attended three schools before 2nd grade.

Luckily, second grade is early enough to correct course. Recent data from the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) suggests that students’ fates are all but set by 3rd grade. Third grade scores on state standardized tests are 80 (yes, eight zero) percent predictive of 10th grade scores. That, in and of itself, feels like a tragedy, but layer implicit bias and the structural failings experienced by communities of color, and it’s even more damning.

Kevin Gover, Director for the National Museum of the American Indian, generalized that unidentified gifted students see their struggles to fit in as somehow their own fault. They quickly become bored and distrustful of the system. Perhaps most importantly, they have often opted out of their own education before they reach a moment where they actually need instructional help to move forward. From that point on, despite their gifts, they eschew teacher support and begin to lag behind, constantly putting their identity and psychological armor of being the smartest kid in the room in peril.

It’s not an oxymoron: an Uneducated Gifted Kid. They’re curious and creative like gifted kids often are, sensitive and intense, too. But they’ve had no protected status or honorific label—aren’t told since birth that those behaviors were natural for “kids like them.” They’re obsessed about ideas, but often outpace the class and get hushed by staff and students alike. Presented with “because I said so,” or “I’m an adult, and you’re a child,” these kids respond with “but I understand and communicate just as well as you do, and you aren’t making sense.” That’s a hard pitch to hit for all but the most secure educators.

But they keep throwing heat. Right or wrong, when a student repeatedly talks back, the response is often to squash the rebellion—not investigate it. Our schools don’t make a ton of space for civil disobedience. Face this problem as a student of color and your pushback might become the basis of a diagnosis of Emotional Behavior Disorder or the obsolete Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If your responses manifest inward rather than outward, you might spend some time with the social worker.

Can we imagine sending a kid with an IQ of 50 to a social worker because their classroom isn’t properly differentiated? Or diagnosing them with a behavior disorder when they get frustrated about not having their needs met? Gifted kids are equally aberrant. Consider this chart from a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) brochure on avoiding misdiagnosis in the gifted community:

With SPED funding models that rely on diagnosis and psychological pathology, it’s easy to see how a SPED director’s good intentions might go wrong. In Minnesota, gifted kids don’t get IEPs, and SPED expenses are almost entirely reimbursed by the state. So I’ve sat in IEP meetings where SPED professionals strain to qualify a gifted kid for services under a questionable diagnosis. I get it. Without the diagnosis, that kid can’t receive services. Sometimes they clearly need them.

It is easy to forget that these nimble minds belong to children . They so often outpace the world around them with their abstract reasoning and insight. But no matter how grown they may seem, they are not solely responsible for their education any more than any other preschool, elementary, or middle school student. That’s our job.

It’s a job we’re handling well enough in the suburbs. Affluent and white students are identified as gifted at higher rates than students of color. Even among students identified as gifted, students of color and low income students achieve at lower rates, many dropping out of school, failing to even take SATs or ACTs or fill out a FAFSA.

Identification itself can be controversial. Students rise or sink to the level of their surroundings. A gifted kid with years of low-quality schooling will fall behind one who is nurtured. For that reason, nationally-normed tests identify a different calibre of student depending on a kid’s preceding educational privilege (or lack thereof). Gifted kids who have gone underserved in one context might not make the cut in a higher-achieving context on account of their education up to that point, regardless of mental horsepower. Similarly, I’ve had white, middle-class students come to my predominantly low SES schools and be thought of as gifted when what was actually differentiating them was a significantly stronger educational background. Researchers and some districts are pushing identification based on local norms rather than nationally normed tests as well as alternative methods beyond IQ tests, but even that shift leaves brilliance on the table.

That could have been my daughter, left to underachieve her potential, doing mostly fine but never finding the edges of her own abilities and grit. Instead, she is struggling academically for the first time in a group of her peers at an appropriately rigorous academic level. The workload is significant. Our lackadaisical trouble maker has become a stressed out frenzy of last minute studying and worry. She makes “bad” grades. She gets feedback on her organization and executive functioning, and the adults are almost entirely unimpressed with her vocabulary and test taking skills. She got in trouble for, get this, cheating on a quiz. I cannot imagine her cheating and then learning that life lesson in her previous schools. She is learning to respect a challenge. It’s not easy, but learning—real learning where you have to stretch yourself—shouldn’t be.

These opportunities that she’s enjoying/enduring are not easy for us to provide, even with powerful intersection her, my wife’s, and my considerable privileges (racial, educational, economic and more). Many of my students are navigating considerably rougher paths. We must smooth them because each gifted kid who goes unserved is lost potential. We live in a world with massive problems looming near. We will need moonshot innovation to meet these problems with a fighting chance. Where will we find the mind that solves carbon capture or cures cancer? It’s entirely too likely that our saviors are sitting head down in a boring class, feeling misunderstood and useless.

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