It can be intimidating as a parent or even as another educator to have someone with more experience or education telling you what your child needs or what you should be doing to support them. And sometimes we defer to those with more letters behind their name or what seems like more clout in the field because that is what we are led to believe is the right thing to do. We might want to believe them because we want someone to finally help us figure it all out, or we might have read their books and have made them out to be some kind of gifted guru god/dess in our minds. And yes, they may figure everything out and lead you down the right path so your life is better and your kid is thriving and all that... But it is also just as likely that they may have no idea what to do for you or your family.
They may reach for theories or statistics they’ve read or thought about but those ideas might fall flat or even harm your child or reverse the gains you already have made. You may even be tempted to put so much stock into their advice that you continue down the wrong path even when your heart and intuition are screaming at you to go the other way.
So, it’s important that we have this conversation- maybe it will give you the little nudge you need to turn back around and focus on what you believe needs to be done, or maybe this will be what you need to hear in order to give yourself permission to search for a different kind of expert’s advice.
Whatever your situation or story is, it’s important that you not only realize that not every “expert” can help your child, but that you understand a little about the experts out there who you can choose from. Let’s discuss some different types...
Teachers are an interesting category because there are so many different types of educators. Some specialize in the early years, some specialize in middle school or high school, or some even “usually focus on adult education and just happen to be teaching younger students this year.” You really need to look into the background and education of any teacher you go to for serious advice, and certainly need to hear their opinions and experiences with children with similar needs to your own. Not every teacher is certified in gifted education or even has training in that area. Not every teacher even likes gifted kids. And certainly, many teachers have no idea what twice exceptional students need, or even that they exist.
Teaching programs range in depth and especially range in the depth of gifted education exposure. Even teachers who teach in “gifted” programs may have minimal training, and those who have had extensive training may have personal opinions or past experiences that make them inappropriate for working with your child’s specific needs. For example, a teacher who was asked to teach in a gifted classroom but believes that gifted students are elitist and should not be given special treatment would definitely not be the best person to go to, to discuss academic options or even underachievement issues. A teacher who has little patience for behavior issues may not be the best person to discuss gifted social emotional skill-building ideas. Or a teacher with tons of experience and training in special education may not have as much actual experience with gifted students, since gifted education is not usually included in special ed. teaching certification programs. And a teacher who has a huge heart for gifted underachievers and has multiple strategies for helping those students succeed may still struggle with what to do with your child who is breezing through all of the academic subject areas but is bored and miserable in school.
In order to find an actual fit with an educator who can truly help your child, it first depends on finding a teacher who connects emotionally with your specific child and who is willing and interested in finding strategies and resources to help your child achieve. That being said, it is not necessarily important that a teacher have an advanced degree or even extensive gifted training if they are willing to learn new things and can communicate well with your family.
Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Counselors, and other mental health professionals
Just listing the above job titles made me a little dizzy because they span so many areas of expertise. Each one of those mental health professionals above has a distinct area of focus, including whether they do mental health testing, academic testing, play therapy, talk therapy, medication prescriptions, etc. They also may be more clinical or school based, or they may work mostly with a specific age range or in a specific type of school, or a large or small district, and so forth.
Even if you found a good match in terms of logistics and focus, it is also still possible that the professional has limited experience with the specific needs of your child or family, or that they have biases that may impact the support they can offer. For example, a psychologist who believes very strongly in IQ testing and has had positive experiences with identifying students for gifted programs in public schools may struggle to look outside of the IQ test scores to search for potential test bias or to look for evidence of gifted traits that show up in different ways, even when the student has low IQ test scores. Or, a counselor who has great experience working with at-risk students who are underachieving gifted children, may struggle to effectively assist a family dealing with a high-achieving, dual enrolled gifted student with anxiety.
On the other hand, each one of those cases may be a perfect match if the mental health professional is willing to bond with the student and look into different options and perhaps even consult with other experts in different areas of the field. It’s up to you to look deeply into their background and get a good idea of their theories and beliefs before trusting them to adequately guide your child’s mental health journey.
Physicians, nurse practitioners, other medical health practitioners
Having an advanced medical degree means a professional has specialized training in an area that affects the human body. This may or may not extend to mental health issues, and they may or may not be aware of dual diagnoses and twice exceptional issues. Unfortunately, the field of gifted education has a component of study regarding the misdiagnosis of gifted children due to the fact that many medical practitioners are less aware of gifted issues than we wish they were.
It may be tempting to accept medical advice on gifted issues from your family pediatrician, but not every pediatrician has training on gifted characteristics and needs- for example, they may not be fully prepared to adequately diagnose the difference between common attention deficit issues and similar traits related to gifted needs. Talking openly about your suspicions of medical issues being related to gifted traits may open the door to learning about your practitioner’s personal beliefs and experiences with these topics. And it’s always great to share your story about discovering your child’s gifted characteristics with your medical practitioner so they are aware of your journey and you can learn about your child’s individual needs together.
Professors and Researchers
Just because someone spends a lot of time studying an issue doesn’t mean they have studied every aspect of it, nor does it mean they have hands-on experience implementing any of the strategies or ideas they are reading or teaching about.
There are amazing researchers in our field who have done amazing work to help us further understand the gifted mind. However, if we just picked one of them to guide the entire field, we would be missing a lot.
Each researcher may be an expert in a particular theory, but even they will likely admit that they have not explored every alternative for every combination of traits in every study. It is also likely that a professor or researcher has their own personal history of being involved with gifted education as youngsters or as parents, or have been excluded from such support services when maybe they should not have been excluded… So, just like those situations affect other individuals, they certainly affect the area that these professionals choose to engage in. For example, there are scholarly types who endeavor to show that giftedness is merely a social construct and they work hard to find ways to create new learning experiences for bright, high achieving students who may or may not fit your child’s description. There are also many brilliant minds working on specific issues such as twice exceptional students who need particular accommodations or interventions in order to thrive. For example, there are people who are deeply involved in researching curriculum for talent development, or increasing motivation, or improving technical skills.
Every one of these areas of research are important and each professional in our universities and research organizations play a part in helping us understand the whole child and the whole field. However, there are pieces of research that are later proven wrong, or prove to only be accurate in certain situations, or even that cater to biases and/or go against safe or socially-acceptable standards at first and then (hopefully) evolve over time with additional collaboration or awareness of what’s socially or morally acceptable, etc.
It’s important that we all keep in mind that research shows results of specific testing situations and can still include human error and bias. Real life is not always as cut and dry as research situations and your child is not exactly like any other test object. Research is interesting and useful, but is often not going to give you every answer or be able to help you perfectly figure it all out.
All that being said, it’s possible you could find a professional who has great ideas from their research or their actual experience with gifted people that directly assists you with figuring out how to best support your child and everything could work out perfectly. That doesn’t happen often (the perfectly part...) but a combination of expertise from different researchers and different approaches may help you pinpoint what you need. And the great part about these professionals is that they often publish their ideas so you don’t even have to meet them in person (they may live far away from your home or be otherwise hard to reach,) but you can read their articles online and purchase their books, or even see them present in webinars or conferences.
Keeping an open mind and realizing that not every piece of research on “gifted intensities” or “perfectionism in gifted middle schoolers” will adequately pinpoint your child’s actual needs is helpful so as to keep you from feeling disappointed if you can’t find the perfect match in one area of research. But knowing there is a growing field of gifted research may give you solace... if you can’t find what you need now, it may be in the next paper you find, or maybe you can reach out to the professionals who are working in your area and be the inspiration for a future study!
District and state policy makers
Just because someone in a school district or state department of education has a title that implies that they are a gifted education expert doesn’t mean they really are, unfortunately. Many education administrators end up having to balance multiple roles in their job descriptions, and often roles are handed to them by higher level managers consolidating responsibilities. Many gifted education coordinators leave their positions after short times due to politics or a lack of interest in that area of education. And even more struggle to find time to adequately cover the needs of their programs with all their other responsibilities.
It’s typical that district administrators put gifted education issues as a lower priority than federally-protected education issues or those academic focus areas that are being monitored closely by their school board members or the public- often meaning that standardized test focus areas get more support and attention and gifted programs are not always the top quality… many districts don’t even have gifted programs at all.
At state departments of education, gifted education may or may not even be an area of legal concern at all. And in states whose statutes or administrative rules do require gifted services it’s not unheard of for gifted specialists to also wear multiple hats. Administrators are also chosen for more than having an interest in an educational area- often its more important that they understand how to update forms and effectively monitor compliance.
Even when they are able to offer advice or even official guidance to districts, they don’t always create programs or policies that effectively support every gifted child. For example, if someone focuses on exceptional student issues and doesn’t have much gifted education background, they may push policies that provide accommodations that assist only a small portion of gifted students. Or if they focus on testing, they may create and enforce policies that require test achievement and “adequate progress” that the most high-achieving gifted students can’t produce (those already at the top of their grade standards can’t statistically climb any higher in a system that has a test ceiling, ) or underachievers who may be stripped of all gifted services if those services are based on achievement and they aren’t receiving needed social-emotional support.
Unfortunately, this category of experts is the least likely to be able to assist students with individual gifted needs, unless they care deeply enough about gifted students and they take the time to connect personally with the students (and often with their families.) It is definitely possible to find someone in one of these roles who has the creativity and passion necessary to move political mountains or to see how the policies can be maneuvered or adapted to work for an actual gifted student’s unique needs, but it’s rarer than parents may initially believe based on trusting in job titles or a person’s political influence.
In the end, it’s imperative that actual relationships and connections trump fancy titles or positions, and that everyone you go to for serious advice or assistance for helping your gifted child be vetted for your particular situational needs.
It’s hard enough being the parent or advocate for intense gifted humans, and it’s certainly not worth following bad advice or accepting guidance from “experts” who have no idea what they are talking about, (or who think they do and confuse you by trying to make you believe that their rhetoric fits your real life.)
“Finding your tribe” isn’t just a challenge for gifted people to find soulmates or best friends- we also need to find the right tribe of professionals to help keep us focused and feeling supported. Arming yourself with the freedom of choosing not to accept professional advice is one of the best things you can do for you and your gifted child.