What happens when a neuroscientist, a psychotherapist, an aerospace manager, an organizational behaviorist, and a public policy specialist get together? They raise money and begin an ambitious research effort to examine the sensory, cognitive, metabolic, physiological, neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and genetic characteristics of individuals with high intelligence.
Gifted Research & Outreach (GRO), a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in California, has begun research and outreach on a multidisciplinary level not seen since 1925 when Louis Terman and others published Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children. In the preface of that volume, Terman wrote:
Our positive knowledge of the physical, mental, and personality traits of such children has been extremely limited, and until this knowledge is available there can be no basis for intelligent educational procedure.
When Terman and colleagues examined 1,000 gifted children nearly a century ago, scientists lacked fancy computerized tools for looking inside brains. Examinations of metabolism, hormones, enzymes, gut bacteria, the endocrine system, and the central nervous system were similarly limited. Today, with medical technology unimaginable a century ago, scientists can better examine the mental and physical traits of gifted children, and can link physiology to psychophysiological reactions and behavior in all children.
Despite the existence of new medical technology, our knowledge of the physical, mental, and personality traits of children with high intelligence is still limited. Although Terman craved that knowledge primarily for purposes of “intelligent education procedure,” today we crave that knowledge not just for educational purposes, but also for social, emotional, and medical purposes.
GRO’s Multidisciplinary Efforts
GRO plans a multidisciplinary effort to research the depth and breadth of intelligence. GRO will then share its research results through open access articles, through outreach efforts targeting parents and professionals, and through writings easily accessible to the general public. The two prongs of the GRO mission–research and outreach–are equally important, according to those involved with the new organization.
The founders of GRO share Terman’s belief that a multidisciplinary approach is necessary for studying children of high intelligence. Psychotherapist Dr. Joanna Haase, who has 28 years of experience working with gifted individuals and their families, explained, “Many psychological theories touch on the physiological, but with our current trend to medicate children as a first response, we need to be very careful to understand what is ‘normal’ in the physiological and psychological make up of gifted children. It is only by having a full and integrated understanding of the ways the brains and bodies of these children differ or do not differ from the norm that we can offer effective support and interventions for gifted children and their families.”
The GRO founders believe that understanding all aspects of highly intelligent individuals will help us understand neurodiversity. Organizational behaviorist Sharon Duncan emphasized, “The fact is that much research has been done on the physiology and psychology of individuals with developmental delays, but not enough research has been done on individuals on the other end of intelligence spectrum. The study of outliers helps us increase our knowledge of all humans. As a society aspiring to an unbiased body of research, we should not allow charges of elitism to dissuade us from studying highly intelligent individuals.”
Dr. Haase agreed that by learning more about the brains and bodies of people with high intelligence, we’ll learn more about everybody. Dr. Haase explained that AIDS research taught us not only about AIDS, but also taught us about medicine in general and about social behavior. She notes that we grew as a society as a result of insights gained during the AIDS research effort.
Barmazel noted: “Many children have experienced problems in school because their behavior was brought into question rather than understanding that their physiological needs were not being met. For example, a child may be labeled with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) when he or she holds their hands over their ears. It may be perceived that the child doesn’t want to listen when if fact they are protecting themselves from the pain of noise. When a child is repeatedly punished for self-protection, he or she can become confused and resentful and turn into a behavioral problem. Arming parents, educators and psychological professionals with knowledge and tools to address such behaviors would contribute to a better academic experience.”
GRO’s Research Efforts
Neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Tetreault, GRO’s Director of Research, specializes in neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative disorders. Her prior research efforts include studies in autism, the sensory impairments in Parkinson’s disease, and the development of the visual system. Her experience examining sensory and other physiological correlates of neurological conditions matches GRO’s efforts to find correlations and possible causal links between the brain and other aspects of human physiology.
Dr. Tetreault is close to completing Phase 1 of GRO’s research work. For Phase 1, Dr. Tetreault used her neuroscience background to conduct an extensive literature review of research on the brain and on the genetics of highly intelligent individuals compared to those of general intelligence. The results of the Phase 1 literature review will be posted on the GRO website in the near future.
Phase 2 will involve an in-depth review of literature of the potential associations between high intelligence and allergies, metabolism, hormones, social anxiety, autoimmune diseases, and gastrointestinal dysfunction. Those results will be posted on the GRO website after Phase 2 is complete.
GRO decided to perform its literature review of the brain and genetics first for two reasons. One reason is that brain and genetics research articles are plentiful and well validated. Another reason is that the brain is the source of human cognition.
As part of her Phase 1 research efforts, Dr. Tetreault met with leaders of intelligence research from around the world including Richard Haier, Robert Colom, Timothy Bates, and David Lubinski. She also recently attended a talk by Robert Plomin. She plans to communicate with other scientists as GRO’s research efforts proceed.
When interviewing GRO members for this article, I was happy to learn that GRO, for its outreach purposes, currently uses the Columbus Group’s 1991 asynchronous development definition of giftedness. As I expected, most of the studies that Dr. Tetreault reviewed during Phase 1 of GRO’s research used traditional measures of intelligence such as the WISC, WAIS, and Ravens tests. Using the traditional measures will allow GRO to integrate data across multiple studies and disciplines. Because many factors beyond intelligence can contribute to an individual’s achievement, Dr. Tetreault was careful not to use studies that relied on measures of achievement to determine intelligence.
GRO’s Outreach Efforts
The five people involved with GRO bring an impressive variety of credentials and experience to the organization. Dr. Haase and Dr. Tetreault bring their experience in the fields of psychotherapy and neuroscience, respectively. Marc Montgomery, GRO’s Board Chair, brings 35 years of aerospace leadership to GRO. Michelle Barmazel, GRO’s Director of Development, brings an understanding of public policy, business administration, and nonprofits. Sharon Duncan, GRO’s organization behaviorist, worked for 26 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in project and line management positions.
GRO intends to communicate complex technical and scientific ideas to general audiences. As GRO moves forward, research results will dictate the direction of GRO’s outreach efforts. Dr. Haase hopes to share GRO results not only with educators, but also with doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, allergists, and other practitioners. She explained, “GRO wants to take conversations about giftedness to practitioners who run across gifted individuals.”
In the spring, members of GRO, working with a southern California university, are planning to conduct a continuing education conference for psychologists, school psychologists, and other professionals about misdiagnoses and other issues affecting gifted individuals. At the event, Dr. Haase will explain how gifted children sometimes experience intense emotions and existential depressions at early ages. According to Dr. Haase, “Because those emotions don’t disappear with age, practitioners need to help children understand that those emotions are part of who they are, and help them learn how to manage their intensity across their lifespan. Medication is not always a bad intervention, but it should not be the first and only one.”
Duncan acknowledged that although we have anecdotal and case study evidence of the emotional, sensory, imaginational, intellectual, and physical intensities of gifted children, the scientific evidence has not been fully developed, integrated, and disseminated. Duncan believes that GRO’s future research will shed light on what those who work with gifted children have observed. She explained, “Parents often report that their gifted children behave and react differently than their age mates, yet there is little physiological research to support why this is. On a practical level this information will help parents obtain effective social, emotional, and educational assistance for their children.”
Dr. Tetreault hopes that GRO’s research and outreach efforts will provide a map for parents who have precocious children, and help parents learn how to keep their children growing and how to be within their rights to do whatever their little bodies need to be doing while learning. Dr. Tetreault aspires to provide parents and educators with the support they need to give children opportunities to succeed. She notes that in light of the current trend toward standardization in education, “it’s very important for every child’s healthy development that we be able to identify and satisfy their needs.”
Through her research into autism and other neurobiological disorders, Dr. Tetreault has learned that physiological differences often accompany neurobiological disorders. For example, some individuals with autism experience gut issues, some individuals with dyslexia experience nausea, and a subset of individuals with Parkinson’s experience olfactory impairments. In the same vein, GRO hopes that its research on the physiological differences that accompany high intelligence will help us learn more about all people.
Bring GRO to Your Neighborhood
On December 13, 2015, GRO members will travel to Santa Monica, California for a dinner to raise funds for Phase 2 of GRO’s research plans If you are interested in attending the dinner and hearing the results of GRO’s Phase 1 research, contact GRO as soon as possible for a reservation. If you would like host a GRO fundraising dinner in your community, please let GRO know. GRO members, including neuroscientist Dr. Tetreault, are willing to travel. The GRO website includes this contact form.
A Personal Note
As gifted advocate with over three decades of experience, I recall a watershed moment at the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented conference about 15 years ago. One session title in particular drew me to Houston: The Neurobiological Correlates of Intelligence. At the time, I was hungry to hear scientific evidence of what others insisted was a mere “social construct.” I went to Houston remembering the near blackout of anger I experienced a few years earlier at a general education conference in Ohio as I sat in shock while listening to a presenter tear apart the very existence of gifted children.
The presentation room in Houston overflowed with people hungry for scientific evidence that gifted children exist. People sat on chairs, sat on the floor, and leaned against the walls. Still other people packed themselves tightly far into the hallway, straining to listen. The presenter spoke for noticeably longer than her allotted time, but few moved a muscle. We were thrilled to learn that researchers had started to find correlations between high intelligence and certain brain characteristics.
I believe that GRO’s scientific research and outreach missions will go a long way towards improving public and political opinion about the unique needs of children with high intelligence, as well as about the links between the brain and physiological conditions. Please join me in supporting GRO’s efforts.
I thank photographer Steve Duncan of Avian Resources for granting permission to use the photograph he took of the Milky Way. For more of Steve’s stunning images, see http://avian-resources.artistwebsites.com/
I could not have written this article without the generosity of the GRO Board of Directors. They granted me interviews, reviewed drafts of this article, answered all my questions about their research efforts, and provided me with a photograph of the five of them to include in this blog. Thank you!
Lastly, I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the October 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic by Tara Hernandez (Thank you, Tara!) below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.
Once upon a time, my child gazed happily into my eyes, and we sat hour after hour, breastfeeding contently. Giftedness was the furthest thing from my mind. All I saw was a baby, full of joy, uniqueness, and growth. I fretted about sniffles and rash bumps, not about schools and teachers.
My child’s toddler years, spent happily at the Ohio University Child Development Center under the care of experts, went swimmingly well. My child was free to choose activities, ask for stories, and select playmates. Kindergarten under the guidance of an expert teacher was a breeze. The teacher excellently cared for the needs of each student. Lessons weren’t obviously lessons; what was obvious was the teacher’s love for her students. That’s what really matters to children: above all, they want to be loved.
Stormy Clouds and Deep Water
In first grade my child’s tiny life changed from sunshine and smiles to stormy clouds and deep water. The school’s curriculum, when viewed next to my child’s accomplishments to date, looked remarkably like a recipe for distress. Imagine already knowing how to read, and being forced to spend a whole year pretending to learn how to read.
Do we expect adults to spend year after year of their lives pretending to learn? Of course not! Do we expect adults to bury their real thoughts and needs in order to conform to what a school district prescribes are the needs of every other adult born within the same twelve-month period? Of course not!
By October, my child’s life looked bleak. Stomach aches and refusals to go to school started happening. Other parents couldn’t understand why my child couldn’t just sit respectfully and wait for their children to catch up. In apparent efforts to drag me and my child back to a level playing field, some parents and some teachers spouted now-disproven yuck about multiple intelligences, a mere theory now disproven by cognitive neuroscientists, but still taught in some teacher education colleges and conferences.
Time to Find Kindred Spirits
When you see your child suffering at school, and when you feel others trying to drag you back to their ideas of level playing fields, it’s time to find kindred spirits on Home Planet—an affectionate term for all the places we parents of gifted children feel safe to speak honestly about our children, their needs, and their challenges. It’s time to learn all you can from the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page place for newcomers, from the Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted resource library, from various Facebook Groups, and from real people, too. It’s time to drink from the grail of giftedness.
When you drink from the grail of giftedness, you’ll find compassion, understanding, and downright love among other parents facing similar journeys through today’s educational systems. If you become active as a leader in the gifted community, you’ll see parents cry at presentations, have epiphanies about their own childhoods, and relax when they realize they’re not alone. You’ll find Home Planet; you’ll find your tribe among a mix of people from various religions, races, ethnicities, political persuasions, and sexual orientations. A broad swath of humanity, all with children too different from the norm to fit well into today’s education system. Parents driven by love, who believe that their children’s love and happiness are more important than their children’s seat time in school.
You’ll also learn that giftedness isn’t only about education. Giftedness is about whole lives that are different from the norm, including brains that are different from the norm, and experiences and reactions that are different from the norm. In response to what you’ll learn, you’ll probably change your parenting to the point where your parenting, too, will be different from the norm.
You might hesitate to join us. You might think: Do I really want to enter the world of giftedness, with its perceived tints of inequity and inequality? Do I really want to become an advocate for gifted children, and thus risk the ire of 95% of the other parents in my children’s schools?
Years or decades later, in retrospect, you might ask yourself: Did I really want to explain until I’m blue in the face that gifted education is not elitism, but rather about meeting the unique needs of individual children, needs which include not just academic needs, but also social and emotional needs? Did I really want to spend thousands of dollars on dues, conference registrations, and books over the course of several decades?
I admit that I would have preferred a life without accusations of inequality, without risks of ire from 95% of the other parents, without advocating until I’m blue in the face, and without added expenses. Wouldn’t you?
The Good News
The good news is that my children are grown and happy. More good news is that along the gifted path, I’ve met hundreds of kindred spirits, many of whom have become good friends. We still travel long distances to see each other, and to marvel that somehow we managed to raise our unique children to the point where many of them, oblivious to our sometimes Herculean efforts along the way, see no reason for our interest in giftedness…
…until they themselves have children facing school. Then they call us for advice, and we help them navigate through stormy clouds and deep water to find their own kindred spirits.
Acknowledgements and Credits
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page August 2015 Blog Hop on “Gifted 101.” I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.
The “my child” in the article is an amalgamation of all my children. I didn’t want to pick on any one of them in particular.
The photographs are my own, taken in 2015 in Athens County, Ohio and in Polk County, Wisconsin.
Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies’ Blog Hop participants, or cut and paste this URL into your browser: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_gifted_101.htm
I’m uncomfortable using the g-word in public. Why? Because many people outside of gifted education circles react to the word in a negative fashion. In his 1869 essay, “On Liberty,” philosopher John Stuart Mill noted a similar reaction to the concept of genius:
People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think that they can do very well without it.
Although I can’t control the reactions of other people to the word “gifted,” I can and do carefully decide when and where to use the word. More and more, I use the g-word only with others who understand the nature of individuals with high intelligence.
I have two versions of my resume—one freely sprinkled with the g-word, and one scrubbed clean. I was happy years ago when job-hunting gurus started saying resumes should be limited to one or two pages—that limitation made g-scrubbing even easier.
I have no set method for determining who is gifted and who is not. In Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
I feel that I know giftedness when I see it. Sometimes my recognition of another’s giftedness comes simply by noticing the quickness of a reply, the leadership of others, the novelty of a solution, the “getting” of a joke.
I accept that a negative result does not always equal “non-gifted.” Giftedness is not always as apparent as the color of a flower. I respect my psychologist friends who use careful, validated, and respected methods for making g-word determinations.
I feel anger whenever someone thinks it is fine to have a child sit through a lesson that the child already knows. Sometimes my vision narrows and my pulse pounds when I see children forced to sit in inappropriate education environments. Which leads to my next confession.
My caring for individual students is sometimes excessive. By “individual students,” I mean all students.
My work with g-word kids has spurred me to revere the uniqueness of all children. But sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible task of differentiating lessons, assignments, and assessments to meet the needs of all students. I feel the heavy burden that weighs on teachers who care.
I feel conflicted whenever asked to advocate for money for gifted children rather than for money for all children.
Yes, I do advocate for gifted programs, but in some public education spheres where money is limited, I prefer education finance plans free from labels. I prefer plans targeted at moving education forward to a future that will include individualized education experiences for all children and easy ways for teachers to facilitate those experiences.
Sometimes I turn gifted causes down. A few times, I have purposely decided to forgo advocating for funds for gifted children. Take for instance when we lived in one of the poorest Ohio school districts—a district where some children had to ride the school bus for two hours each morning, where teachers sometimes had to buy paper and pencils for children, and where my husband, a science teacher, collected roadkill and other specimens for his biology classes.
In extreme poverty situations, the mere thought of advocating for diverting general school district funds to gifted pull-out programs feels immoral. When I first felt those feelings of immorality, I moved from local level advocacy to state-level advocacy on behalf of not only the gifted children in that district, but all children in that district. No child deserves a deficiently funded education. Ever.
I never want to tell a child “you’re not gifted.” Full stop.
I realized that public education systems require some sorting of children in order to come close to meeting their individual needs. I admire those in the trenches who make the hard decisions of which children fit the criteria for admission into a gifted program and which children do not fit the criteria. But I count my lucky stars that I have never had to tell a child, “you’re not gifted.” There is no version of that sentence that does not sound wrong.
I enjoy the irony of people wishing their kids were among the most g-word kids in the classroom, but the same time disliking the idea of anyone recognizing that intelligence levels differ from person to person. You cannot both want the cake and dislike the existence of the cake.
I love it when small, scrawny, g-word kids grow up, become valedictorians of their medical school or law school classes, and watch those who despise the g-word flock to their waiting rooms and pay big dollars for their services. The old saying “success is the best revenge” comes to mind.
As a board member of the former National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the United Kingdom, I fully supported its decision to drop the g-word and change its name to Potential Plus UK. The vote was unanimous. I am proud of our decision.
Although I am 100% happy with the name change here in England, I suspect that not all of my g-word connections in the United States are proud of my vote. Which brings me to my final confession.
I wonder whether it’s time to drop the g-word.
I recognize that the g-word has a positive connotation among gifted education professionals and among families served by the gifted education programs in the United States. Decades of research, literature, and conferences attest to the power and poignancy of the g-word among people of high intelligence. The g-word has positively affected my life and the lives of thousands of people I’ve met during my years of gifted advocacy.
Advocacy, however, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Advocacy for additional funds to serve the unique needs of children with high intelligence requires interaction with people for whom the g-word lacks a positive connotation. I’m beginning to sense that among the general population, the g-word now carries a negative connotation.
I recognize that politically sensitive words and phrases that label people pass through phases of “ok,” to “questionable,” to “banned.” Negative connotations invariably attach themselves to innocent words, dragging them down into the realms of non-political correctness. I sense that the g-word has become politically incorrect.
A New Word?
But what new word should we adopt, if any? My preference would be for a word relating to what brain researchers see when they examine brains of highly intelligent people. Or perhaps a word that psychologists use when describing the psyche of those of high intelligence. Or perhaps simply the phrase, “people with high intelligence.”
If we drop the g-word, we remove several bug-a-boos from conversations with the general public. First, we avoid any idea that high intelligence is a gift bestowed by one’s chosen deity.¹ Second, we change the conversation from “gift or no gift” to a conversation about levels of intelligence that might change throughout an individual’s lifetime. Finally, we buy ourselves time; we give ourselves a few decades before negative connotations attach themselves to the new word or phrase and inevitably drag it, too, into the realms of non-political correctness.
Think about it. Do we want to avoid speaking of high intelligence as an immutable characteristic bestowed by a deity? Do we want to change the conversation to better match recent discoveries by brain scientists? Do we want to use words not yet dragged down into the realms of non-political correctness?
I’ll let you decide.
Notes & Credits:
¹I first read and loved the wording “[any]one’s chosen deity” in young Madison Kimrey’s excellent blog article, “Being Gifted is a Beautiful Mess,” where she wrote,“We don’t need anyone’s chosen deity to suddenly miraculously help unwrap us like presents. We need real solutions both inside and outside the classroom to help us reach our individual potential, better understand ourselves, and find our place in the world around us.”
I took all the photos on April 26, 2014 on the grounds of the Polesden Lacey UK National Trust property in Surrey, England.
This blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page inaugural Blog Hop on The “G” Word (“Gifted”). To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_the_g_word.htm
I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions. Please click on the graphic above (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants. Please click on the graphic below (created by Tara Hernandez–thanks!) to see the titles, blog names, and links of other Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop participants.