VSU Opens Center for Gifted Studies

November 11, 2011

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

VSU Opens Center for Gifted Studies


"One can never consent to creep when one feels the compulsion to soar." -- Helen Keller.

VALDOSTA -- Albert Einstein was reportedly 4 years old before he spoke his first word, 7 years old before he learned to read. Still, he went on to make many major contributions to the field of science, including the theory of relativity and quantum theory.

Walt Disney was reportedly fired from the Kansas City Star newspaper because of a lack of creativity. Still, he went on to become one of the world’s greatest animators, an entrepreneur, an international icon, a film producer, a philanthropist, and more.

Identifying the gifted can be a daunting task for parents, educators, and the general public, shared Dr. James A. Reffel, director of Valdosta State University’s new Center for Gifted Studies. There is no universally agreed upon definition of a gifted child. As such, a child who is considered gifted, intelligent, and talented in one context and/or culture might not be considered the same in another.

“For decades, myths related to gifted education have had detrimental effects on providing quality instruction for our nation’s high-ability learners,” according to the National Association for Gifted Children (www.nagc.org). “These myths have affected every facet of the field and, in turn, have distorted the perception of not only what gifted students need in the classroom but also what they can offer the nation now and into the future.

“Persistent belief and the subsequent response associated with gifted education myths contribute to an overall lack of attention and challenge for high-ability students in our schools. As a result, gifted education programs remain underfunded, achievement gaps continue to widen, and too many children across the nation who require ‘something different’ have no place to thrive.”

With the recent construction of the new 33,000-square-foot, $5 million Psychology Building, Reffel, a professor in VSU’s Department of Psychology and Counseling, believed the time was right -- and the space available -- to open a Center for Gifted Studies. He had years of experience in the field of gifted education and knew that gifted children deserve to be better understood; they deserve to be challenged and guided.

The Center for Gifted Studies strives to develop talent, creativity, and critical thinking in individuals with gifts and talents; support cognitive, social, emotional, and wisdom development in individuals with gifts and talents; study the nature, identification, assessment, and evaluation of individuals with gifts and talents; and create curriculum, methods, and materials appropriate for individuals with gifts and talents. Through the center, teachers can add a gifted endorsement to their current Georgia teaching certificate, parents and teachers have access to a resource library, and students can talk to experts in the field about their unique social, academic, and emotional needs.

Reffel said that he and members of the Center for Gifted Studies staff, including Dr. David M. Monetti, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling, are available to consult with teachers and parents who want to learn more, willing to conduct assessments, and eager to pursue research opportunities to better meet the needs of South Georgia’s gifted and talented population, including men and women of all ages, not just school-age children and teenagers.

“The establishment of this center has been a goal of mine for a long time and fortunately all the pieces have finally come together,” Reffel noted on the Center for Gifted Studies website (www.valdosta.edu/coe/psychology/giftedstudies/index). “Our mission is to help address the variety of needs of individuals with gifts and talents. Our mission is ambitious, but our efforts are necessary.”

When asked why he chose to focus his efforts on gifted children, as opposed to those with other special needs, Reffel said that the gifted population is often underserved and that he believes every child has the right to learn something new every day.

According to a Sept. 13, 2010, story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “… many of the most disinterested students in a classroom are also the high-ability children who spend the bulk of their school day going unchallenged and largely ignored. Our nation’s education system has a long history of disregarding the needs of the gifted and talented students, a neglect that threatens the ability of our state and nation to compete in an increasingly competitive world.”

The AJC went on to note that the nation, as a whole, lacks a comprehensive gifted education strategy. However, it also stated that Georgia is better than most states at serving gifted students, although its programs are not where they should be.

“The impact of this complacency is visible throughout much of our national education system, which focuses primarily on preventing struggling students from failing by setting proficiency as a primary goal,” the AJC continued. “While it is vital to ensure that all students are accomplishing baseline concepts and skills, the programs and funding currently available encourage educators and administrators to focus almost exclusively on students who struggle to get by while ignoring those seeking more academic challenge. The solution to this problem is comprehensive reform that recognizes our nation has an obligation to invest in our most promising students and that our long-term stability and prosperity depends on reigniting this commitment to excellence.”
Reffel and Monetti indicated that gifted children often demonstrate a need to learn at a much faster pace; process material to a much greater depth than their average peers; and show intense energy, imagination, intellectual prowess, sensitivity, and emotion which are not typical in the general population.

When asked what strategies work when it comes to educating gifted children, Reffel said that gifted and talented students need special gifted education programs that challenge them in the regular classroom and enrichment and accelerated programs that enable them to make additional progress. He said that acceleration works and more research supports this intervention than any other. He also said that grouping students with similar abilities together for instruction has been shown to have a positive impact on learning and that gifted and talented students thrive in programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, which promote advanced content, rigor, and higher-order thinking.

In order to achieve its goals, the Center for Gifted Studies, Reffel said, will focus much of its attention on training teachers to work with gifted children.

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, gifted children spend 80 percent of their time in the regular classroom, yet few classroom teachers have had any training in meeting their needs. The research suggests that gifted and talented students learn differently than other students, and if teachers know this, they can better adapt their instruction using an array of strategies to help all of the children reach their full potential. Also, teachers who have a better understanding of gifted children are better able to refer them for special programs and services.

From 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19, VSU’s Center for Gifted Studies will host a Gifted Summit, open to teachers, parents, and others who work with gifted children or who simply have an interest in learning more about the needs of this specialized population. Dr. Thomas P. Hebert, author of “Understanding the Social and Emotional Lives of Gifted Students” and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia, will be the keynote speaker. The summit is offered free of charge and pre-registration is appreciated.

For more information, please email giftedstudies@valdosta.edu, call (229) 245-3869 or (229) 249-2777, or visit www.valdosta.edu/coe/psychology/giftedstudies.


Common Gifted Education Myths

Myth: Gifted students don’t need help. They’ll do fine on their own.
Truth: Gifted students need guidance from well-trained teachers who challenge and support them in order to fully develop their abilities. Many gifted students may be so far ahead of their same-age peers that they know more than half of their grade-level curriculum before the school year begins. Their resulting boredom and frustration can lead to low achievement, despondency, or unhealthy work habits. The role of the teacher is crucial for spotting and nurturing talents in school.

Myth: Teachers challenge all the students, so gifted kids will be fine in the regular classroom.
Truth: Although teachers try to challenge all students, they are frequently unfamiliar with the needs of gifted children and do not know how to best serve them in the classroom. The National Research Center on Gifted and Talented found that 61 percent of classroom teachers had no training in teaching highly able students, limiting the challenging educational opportunities offered to advanced learners. A more recent national study conducted by the Fordham Institute found that 58 percent of teachers have received no professional development focused on teaching academically advanced students in the past few years

Myth: Acceleration placement options are socially harmful for gifted students.
Truth: Academically gifted students often feel bored or out of place with their age peers and naturally gravitate towards older students who are more similar as “intellectual peers.” Studies have shown that many students are happier with older students who share their interest than they are with children the same age.

Myth: Gifted education programs are elitist.
Truth: Gifted education programs are meant to help all high-ability students. Gifted learners are found in all cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups. However, many of these students are denied the opportunity to maximize their potential because of the way in which programs and services are funded and/or flawed identification practices. Additionally, with no federal money and few states providing an adequate funding stream, most gifted education programs and services are dependent solely on local funds. This means that, in spite of the need, often only higher-income school districts are able to provide services, giving the appearance of elitism.

Myth: That student can’t be gifted. He’s receiving poor grades.
Truth: Underachievement describes a discrepancy between a student’s performance and his actual ability. The roots of this problem differ, based on each child’s experiences. Gifted students may become bored or frustrated in an unchallenging classroom situation, causing them to lose interest, learn bad study habits, or distrust the school environment. Other students may mask their abilities to try to fit in socially with their same-age peers.

Myth: Gifted students are happy, popular, and well adjusted in school.
Truth: Many gifted students flourish in their community and school environment. However, some gifted children differ in terms of their emotional and moral intensity, sensitivity to expectations and feelings, perfectionism, and deep concerns about societal problems. Others do not share interests with their classmates, resulting in isolation or being labeled unfavorably as a “nerd.” Because of these difficulties, the school experience is one to be endured rather than celebrated. It is estimated that 20 to 25 percent of gifted children have social and emotional difficulties, about twice as many as in the general population of students.

Myth: This child can’t be gifted. He has a disability.
Truth: Some gifted students also have learning or other disabilities. These “twice-exceptional” students often go undetected in regular classrooms because their disability and gifts mask each other, making them appear “average.” Other twice-exceptional students are identified as having a learning disability and, as a result, are not considered for gifted services.

Myth: Our district has a gifted and talented program. We have AP courses.
Truth: While AP classes offer rigorous, advanced coursework, they are not a gifted education program. The AP program is designed as college-level classes taught by high school teachers for students willing to work hard. The program is limited in its service to gifted and talented students. First, AP is limited by the subjects offered, which in most districts is only a small handful. Second, it is limited in that, typically, it is offered only in high school and is generally available only for 11th and 12th grade students

Myth: Gifted education requires an abundance of resources.
Truth: Offering gifted education services does not need to break the bank. A fully developed gifted education program can look overwhelming in its scope and complexity. However, beginning a program requires little more than an acknowledgement by district and community personnel that gifted students need something different, a commitment to provide appropriate curriculum and instruction and teacher training in identification and gifted education strategies.

Source: National Association for Gifted Children