How to approach gifted education … from the perspective of a gifted child
Mar 26, 2021
By: Dr. Philip "Reef" Morse II, PhD
Teacher and Computer Instructor
while he was still in public school. The next year, 2011, his parents enrolled him in our school Steppingstone, School for Gifted Education in Michigan. After three years at Steppingstone, Evan attended an all-baccalaureate high school, the International Academy. After graduation, he entered Michigan State University, completing a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He is now a professional actor living in Chicago and following his dream.
I recently caught up with Evan to get his reflections on his journey from a traditional school setting–through our school–and into adulthood. In our interview, Evan describes what it was like to find out he was gifted at age 11. He discusses how the label affected his life from a social, emotional, and academic perspective. Evan also explains how his school environment helped him come to accept and embrace his giftedness.
Life in the traditional school setting
Dr. Reef: Can you tell us about your background before you and your parents became aware of your giftedness?
Evan: Sure. From kindergarten to elementary school, I was enrolled in the West Bloomfield public schools. It is a highly-rated Michigan school district. At that time, my parents and teachers did not know I was gifted.
As far as academics were concerned, I did very well in school. But I had a whole lot of stress about things in the classroom. It was an incredibly difficult time for me.
Dr. Reef: Can you say more about this? How was your anxiety expressed?
Evan: I had quite a bit of paranoia. I remember very clearly thinking that my teacher was trying to trick me. In my mind, every question was meant to trip me up or embarrass me in front of the other kids. I also remember that I spent a lot of time worrying about things that ordinary kids are just not worried about: When is the shower going to run out of water? How was the air conditioner able to keep the air at the exact right temperature?
I could process the information that the school was giving me much more quickly than the other kids. It left me with lots of time to worry about water running out, or global warming.
Dr. Reef: Your experience is actually quite common for gifted children in traditional school settings. For the gifted kid, the answer to a “simple” question may seem so apparent that the gifted kid can’t imagine why it would be asked unless it was a “trick” question with hidden meaning.
In addition to having a lot of extra time on your hands in the classroom, I know you also felt pressure to downplay your advanced academic skills to fit in. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Evan: I remember one time we had to read words aloud. You were supposed to be sounding out a complicated word in front of everyone. But I already knew all the words. But I wanted to fit in, so when it was my turn, I was slowly sounding out words I already knew.
I don’t ever recall getting bad grades or being punished. I was genuinely terrified of being singled out for anything at all. I felt any step out of bounds spelled disaster. The only times I ever did have to go to the principal was when I had anxiety attacks. It got to the point where I made myself sick every other day and became a regular visitor to the office.
For the most part, I kept my head down. But this was at the cost of my sanity. I remember feeling not able to control my nerves. I felt guilty because I had to sit in the office and calm myself down again. I thought I was a great burden on my teachers. It was made worse by the fact that they had no idea how to address my issues.
A defining moment during that time was when I was yet again in the principal’s office getting sick, and a passing staff member said to me, “You know, everybody calls you the throw-up kid,” and left without another word. It solidified in my mind that I was indeed some kind of outcast, and compounded the terror I associated with school.
Dr. Reef: I know that many kids struggle with the label of “gifted” at first. I think that most of the time it is not presented correctly and therefore children try to run or hide from it. What was this experience like for you?
Evan: It was not exactly the most natural thing for me to come to terms with being gifted. I was told that I was “special,” and I was scared about what it meant. It caused me some inner turmoil for a while. Actually, I think that my time at Steppingstone was quite crucial in coming to accept, understand, and embrace my giftedness.
Dr. Reef: What was that process of understanding? How did you and your parents eventually come to understand your giftedness?
Evan: It got to the point in the public school where I was such a wreck that my parents decided to get me psychological help. They knew how distraught I was about going to school, yet I would come home with stellar report cards. As I continued to see the psychologist, they began to understand that I was thinking on a level beyond the benchmark for a child my age.
Thankfully instead of giving me a prescription for Ritalin and throwing me back into the same system, the psychologist educated my parents about giftedness in children. He suggested that what I needed was help controlling the “party in my head” (a description I had given him during our sessions). He suggested enrolling me in a school in the same district that had a specific program for kids like me.
I moved schools in third grade to another elementary school in the same district that had a magnet program (basically an accelerated learning program within a public school), and things began to change. I still didn’t truly understand what “giftedness” meant until I got to Steppingstone, but the environment from third-fifth grades certainly helped my overall mental health.
My parents recognized this change in me, and they began to do more research into what it meant to have a gifted child. Subsequently, that’s how they discovered Steppingstone. I owe so much to my parents. They were the ones who observed my decline early on and decided to understand me rather than “fix me.”
If there’s one piece of advice I can give to worried and confused parents, it is merely to listen.
Myths about giftedness
Dr. Reef: There are a lot of myths about gifted children. Some people think that gifted kids are just “really smart” so they do not need any “special treatment,” so to speak. Instead, sometimes people think these kids just need more advanced work. What would you say to this?
Evan: Just because gifted children generally have a high level of perseverance and curiosity does not mean that we automatically know how to manage our time. It also doesn’t mean that we automatically know how to carry out a project effectively. Some gifted children, like me, struggle socially because they feel different.
And I would also add that gifted children are not all the same! Just increasing the level of difficulty isn’t going to address the many other aspects of development that all kids need, including gifted children.
Dr. Reef: One thing I remember so vividly about you, Evan, is that you always asked great questions. They were serious questions, and I always felt they deserved serious answers. It is so important for gifted children to be in an environment where they can ask questions and have the time and resources to pursue the answers.
For a gifted child, traditional schooling’s confines can sometimes feel like a prison. Many gifted children have the perseverance and the drive to concentrate on a task that interests them for hours on end. However, most schools do not have adequate flexibility to accommodate advanced students working on one subject for a prolonged period.
With this in mind, what would you say are the most important elements of academic life for gifted children?
Evan: The free flow of knowledge! Once my interest is piqued, there is no stopping me. And at Steppingstone, this attribute was not only “okay,” it was encouraged. I was able to do a “deep dive” and not be punished for it. I could be curious and ask questions and find the answer on my terms.
It helped me to be surrounded by other people who were just as hungry to know lots of information about things, even if that particular subject wasn’t their passion. I liked having kids around my age that thought in a similar way to me. It made me understand that I was not alone or an outsider.
“I had been given a ‘gift,’ but at first I wanted to give it back.”
Dr. Reef: What was it about Steppingstone which helped you to come to embrace your giftedness?
Evan: My time there was critical for me. I think there was this moment in which I was rerouted. I think things could have gone in a different direction if I had not had those opportunities.
I was first enrolled in Steppingstone in sixth grade when I was about 12 or 13 years old. In the first few months of being at Steppingstone, my anxiety doubled. I was in a new environment, and I had put a great deal of pressure on myself that I had to get these new people to like and accept me.
I remember being at home at the dinner table every night wishing to myself to be normal, that I would give anything to just go back to being bored and not have to face any of this new world head-on. I had been given this “gift” but wanted no part of it. I feared that I was somehow strange and different from everyone else. It was terrifying.
The Steppingstone difference
Evan: The more I became acclimated to Steppingstone’s environment and the new friends I was making, the more I understood that we weren’t different at all. We were still just kids in school. The moniker of “gifted” sort of fell away. I didn’t feel like I had been branded with some kind of defining title anymore.
I saw how my new friends were nothing but who they actually were. They weren’t afraid of their interests and how they expressed them or how excited they became about sharing these things with me. And I figured that if they weren’t scared or lamenting their giftedness, then why should I?
Dr. Reef: What do you think is the most critical element of education that gifted children need to flourish as you did?
Evan: They need an environment that allows children to be who they are. The way Steppingstone lays out the day is unique. The student has full control over when the lessons get done. If you want to dork around all day, you could do that. But the lesson had to get done by the next morning. If it didn’t, you had to complete it first and then miss whatever exciting activity was planned that day. You also would then be behind on the next day’s work.
There were no surprises. I had complete control. Part of my anxiety as a kid was getting thrown curveballs. I had an irrational fear of the unknown. Being given control over my day erased some of the fears.
Later on in life, when things did come up unexpectedly, it didn’t throw me into the panic attack level that I had before. I knew how to manage it. I learned not to be afraid of new things and to be able to adapt to situations. When I got to high school, many of my classmates had a hard time adjusting to the workload. But for me, it was a breeze. I already had the know-how to manage my time and to structure my day.
But most importantly, at Steppingstone, we were able to figure out what giftedness meant to us, for ourselves, by learning and growing together. I think that’s the heart of Steppingstone’s mission to “unlock the gift” within children.
Steppingstone gave me a better understanding of who I was as a person and what I wanted to do.
This blog was posted by Steppingstone, School for Gifted Education on July 28, 2020 by Dr. Morse.
Dr. Philip "Reef" Morse II, PhD, Teacher and Computer Instructor - Dr. Reef has been teaching Gifted children, as well as serving on Steppingstone’s Board of Trustees, since 1981. He is also the founder and Program Director of the Steppingstone MAgnetic Resonance Training (SMART) Center.