Psychologist Frank Worrell, PhD, has seen countless adolescents develop into highly talented college students in the Academic Talent Development Program at the University of California, Berkeley--a program that offers summer enrichment and acceleration classes to children in kindergarten through 11th grade. Students who struggle with introductory courses when they enter the program can earn As in the program's most difficult classes by the end, says Worrell, the program's lead researcher.

But that talent doesn't flourish on its own, he says: "People have talents in various areas, but if those talents aren't developed, they're not going to mean anything."

Without extra supports, many children with potential are left behind, agrees James Gallagher, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has written extensively on educating gifted children. "When you have a youngster brought up in poverty with no stimulation and little language development, you often will lose a youngster who might have been gifted," he explains. "With the proper environment and the proper education, you can increase the number of high-ability youngsters and adults."

Psychologists are working in schools and through their own independent programs to provide youth with that kind of environment. They're casting wide to find and nurture potentially gifted children and also increasing the achievement and creative productivity of exceptional performers, says Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of APA's Esther Katz Rosen Center for Gifted Education Policy.

"This second effort is viewed as more selective and elite, yet is also an essential component of gifted education," says Subotnik. The hope, she explains, is that students of all backgrounds will have equal access to the heights of talent development if schools do an effective job of nurturing potential talent.

However, some public schools' gifted supports are in danger, say psychologists in the field. In an era of mandated, high-stakes testing, schools with limited resources are being forced to focus on raising the scores of low performers--instead of on raising the achievement of all students, including gifted ones.

"There is a myth in our country that gifted children don't need any special help, that they'll make it on their own," says psychologist James T. Webb, PhD, who is founder of the nonprofit group Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. "Some will, sure, but a lot will not."

Indeed, gifted students may be teased for their abilities, hide their talents to avoid being singled out and have difficulty establishing true friendships. The problems arise when there is a mismatch between gifted students and the education system or family, says Webb. "There is really little inherent in being a gifted child that creates emotional problems," he explains.

Who is gifted?

Because the school environment plays such a key role in fulfilling the potential of gifted students, many psychologists are looking for different ways to identify talented students.

"We need to start working at the kindergarten level to start, in fact, preparing kids well so that those who do have potential gifts actually get those gifts developed sufficiently," says Worrell, who is also an associate school psychology professor at Penn State University.

For example, since an academic-achievement gap between whites and minorities still exists, Worrell's program recruits youth from traditionally under-represented groups using a broad range of criteria: test scores, teacher recommendations, grades, interest inventories and a work sample of the student's choice, such as a short story.

Other psychologists are advocating for different kinds of tests to identify gifted students. For example, Jack Naglieri, PhD, of George Mason University, has developed tests to measure nonverbal reasoning ability without the influence of achievement or knowledge. Children who speak English as a second language or don't have the benefit of educated parents can still be smart, he reasons, but because they're not knowledgeable, they are often overlooked for gifted programs.

APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, is studying how measures of creative and practical thinking, such as writing cartoon captions and doing practical math, in addition to the SAT, predict college students' success. He and his colleagues at Yale University have found that the tests predict freshman-year performance substantially better than the SAT alone, and also close the gap between ethnic groups.

Such efforts to close the gap are critical, many say, because gifted programs are taking a hit over diversity concerns. The reductions could be felt all the more sharply in the current economic climate as financial pressures will force many middle-class gifted children from more challenging private programs back into public school, say Subotnik and Nancy M. Robinson, PhD, professor emerita at the University of Washington and former director of the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars.

"Programs for gifted kids are being dropped or weakened in many cases because [they are] in many cases over-weighted with white and Asian middle-class-and-above kids," says Robinson. "But the fault doesn't lie with the programs nor with those kids. It lies within our society and the burdens that are put on families who don't have financial resources or who are marginalized."

The concern, say psychologists, is that children and adolescents who have great potential--whether they're unidentified minority students or attending a school that's cutting gifted programs--will flounder without support.

Gifted students with disabilities are especially at-risk. It's not uncommon for these "multiexceptional" youth to be passed over for both gifted and academic support programs because their talents and disabilities often mask each other, says school psychologist Ron Palomares, PhD, of APA's Practice Directorate. For example, a girl's learning disability hides her math talent, and the math talent compensates for her learning disability--so she gets passing, but mediocre, math grades.

"To receive services, there has to be an education need, and when the issues are masked, they go without help," Palomares explains.

Developing talents

Because gifted students are a diverse group with varying needs, experts in the field agree that there's no one way to help them flourish.

"We need to be much more explicit about examining the individual child and his or her needs, and then structuring program services around those needs," says Richard Olenchak, PhD, president-elect of the National Association for Gifted Children and director of the Urban Talent Research Institute at the University of Houston. The institute's research has found that gifted student's social and emotional adjustment is moderately correlated with whether they receive personalized program opportunities.

Psychologists are also working with educators and parents to provide gifted youth with a host of options that will develop their particular skills and abilities. Besides advanced placement courses, online classes and magnet schools, many students can enroll concurrently in a local community college or university. The program Worrell helps run at Berkeley offers students intensive summer programs and access to the university's libraries and laboratories.

Other programs provide students with year-round academics, substituting for all or part of high school and sending adolescents to college at 15 or 16 years old. For example, the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, directed by psychologist Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, PhD, supplements students' high school coursework by offering intensive courses that pack a typical year's worth of material into several weeks.

Mentoring from experts is another option. APA's Center for Gifted Education Policy teams talented adolescents with top thinkers in an array of fields, from music to psychology, through its Pinnacle Project (see next page) and Young Scholars Social Science Summit. The programs also provide students with an opportunity to meet similarly talented peers.

"Kids who don't have access to true peers, particularly among the highly gifted, tend to have significant ongoing problems," says Montana clinical child psychologist Maureen Neihart, PhD, explaining that gifted children need interaction with others who share the same interests, abilities and drive--qualities they seldom find in 'normal' same-age peers.

APA convention participants are invited to discuss increasing the visibility of gifted child studies and education on Friday, Aug. 8th, 1-1:50 p.m. in the Algonquin Room of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.

Further Reading

  • Friedman, R.C., & Rogers, K.B. (1998). Talent in context: Historical and social perspectives on giftedness. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Friedman, R.C., & Shore, B. (2000). Talents unfolding: Cognition and development. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Heller, K.A., Mönks, F.J., Sternberg, R.J., & Subotnik, R.F. (Eds.). (2000). International handbook of giftedness and talent (2nd ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Pergamon.

  • Horowitz, F.D., & O'Brien, M. (Eds.). (1985). Gifted and talented: Developmental perspectives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Neihart, M., Reis, S.M., Robinson, N.M., & Moon, S.M. (2002). The social and emotional development of gifted children. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.