Growing Up Gifted


By Leanne Star


Gifted children can be themselves in programs such as SESP's Center for Talent Development.

Supportive environments help gifted children to "stay with their talent," according to CTD director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius.


In Lake Wobegon, the mythical Minnesota community imagined by writer and radio host Garrison Keillor, "all the children are above average." The line is always good for a laugh, but a working model of Keillor's utopia actually exists, minus the irony, in Northwestern's nationally recognized Center for Talent Development (CTD), which has offered testing and support for gifted students since 1981. But what happens when all the children in a learning community really are above average?

CTD director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius (PhD83) knows the answer to that question. Her years of research on the subject have affirmed the benefits of CTD programs, and she gained a personal understanding of the impact such programs can have on the identity of gifted children when both of her daughters attended programs. Her older daughter summed up her CTD experience this way: "It's just easier to be yourself."

Helping gifted children find that level of comfort with themselves is one of several key goals of the CTD. "These programs change kids," says Olszewski-Kubilius. "They help them feel more comfortable about who they are; they tell them it's okay to be bright." Such programs can also offer support. "A lot of people assume that because kids are bright they'll be successful," says Olszewski-Kubilius, "but that's not always the case, even for kids in advantaged circumstances."

Mixed messages about what it means to be gifted
Indeed, says Olszewski-Kubilius, "these kids can struggle with their identities in the sense of owning their talent. Our society gives them mixed messages about whether it's good to be intellectually oriented, and intellectual kids often feel much better about themselves after they attend programs like these. Experiencing a supportive environment helps them reaffirm their interests."

A supportive environment, however, does not mean one in which bright students are coddled. "Children who are successful demonstrate a positive attitude about their achievement," says Olszewski-Kubilius. "They have an ethic of hard work." She says that being challenged is critical to developing that work ethic: "If they've never experienced challenge, even the brightest kids will eventually flounder. Many of the kids who attend our programs are already being challenged at their schools, but for others it may be the first time they've been challenged academically."

A classroom full of talented young students tackling challenging material might sound like a formula for cutthroat competition, but Olszewski-Kubilius says that is not what happens: "You might think if you put a lot of bright kids together it would be an extremely competitive environment, but it's never been that way. It's a warm, supportive environment."

Being surrounded by one's intellectual peers has an added dimension. "Many gifted students are used to being the smartest kid in the class," says Olszewski-Kubilius, "and suddenly they discover there are others who are equally talented." Some gifted students who attend programs like the CTD's will in fact experience a decline in their academic self-image, notes Olszewski-Kubilius, but research suggests any decline is temporary. Furthermore, notes the center's director, such a wake-up call can be beneficial, stimulating complacent students to develop a work ethic and set high goals for themselves.

Identifying gifted children
During the school year the Center for Talent Development reaches out to students near and far with Saturday enrichment courses on campus or distance learning that connects students with instructors via e-mail or phone. During the summer, gifted 4th- through 12th-graders attend three-week intensive courses in science, math and the humanities, living on campus in supervised residences, an experience that promotes their social as well as intellectual growth. "We've found that while these kids have strong self-confidence in their academic abilities," says Olszewski-Kubilius, "some of them feel less socially confident, maybe because they simply have less practice."

To identify students who will benefit from its programs, the CTD assesses nearly 30,000 children each year through off-level testing. Whereas most school districts rely on standardized, grade-level achievement tests to identify gifted children, CTD research shows that students who score in the top 5 percent of those tests may differ widely in their abilities and educational needs. To identify the truly gifted and provide fine-grained detail, the center asks applicants to take tests intended for older students, such as SAT, ACT or EXPLORE tests. After testing, students and parents receive information about specialized curricula, enrichment programs and accelerated courses of study.

Being surrounded by intellectual peers has advantages for gifted children as they tackle identity issues. CTD has programs for preK through grade 12.

Do children identified as gifted have a unique character? Olszewski-Kubilius notes that gifted children tend to be perfectionists, demonstrate a heightened sensitivity to other people's feelings and to moral issues, and experience intense reactions, both emotionally and psychologically. "As a gifted kid you notice that the things you care about don't seem to be on other kids' radars," says Olszewski-Kubilius. "You start thinking there's something wrong with you. Parents, too, may wonder what's within the normal range."

These concerns are compounded for adolescents, who already have a tough time trying to figure out who they are. A group experience can help these children deal with such feelings. "Having bright kids together normalizes the experience for them. It gives them the opportunity to be with others and realize they're not odd, not unusual."

Despite the many characteristics they share, not all gifted children are alike. "The gifted identity is different for boys and girls," says Olszewski-Kubilius, "just as it would be in the general population. It's different for 2004children of color versus Asian and Caucasian children. That's complicated by the fact that minority kids are less likely to be identified as gifted and placed in programs like ours."

A model for gifted education
The Center for Talent Development is accredited as a special function school for the gifted by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools - the first center for gifted education in the country to receive this distinction. Since its inception the center has assisted more than half a million families with gifted students. The center also conducts research, particularly in the areas of accelerated learning and special populations of gifted learners. "It's important to have a well-studied model," says Olszewski-Kubilius, "and the CTD provides the best research model that exists for identifying and creating programming for gifted and talented children."

Rena F. Subotnik, director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., has high praise for the CTD: "The Center for Talent Development is nationally recognized for the quality and variety of programs offered to gifted children and adolescents. That's because CTD has an outstanding staff and it conducts ongoing research to ensure that only the best practices in gifted education are employed. This research is also widely disseminated to and used by scholars, educators and policy makers around the country."

What makes CTD programs especially valuable, says Olszewski-Kubilius, is that children can apply what they've learned after they return home: "Once gifted children have had the experience of a supportive environment, they know how to find that support wherever they are - and that helps them stay with their talent."

Leanne Star is a freelance writer.
By Leanne Star