ADHD Characteristics: Gifted Children, ADHD and Special Education

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“Good Morning, Mrs. Jankowski.”

“Good Morning, Mrs. Briggs. Nice to see you. So, how is Jackie doing?”

“Well…academically, she’s doing fine. No problems. But, there is something that I am concerned about.”

“Really, what is it?”

“Well, I think that Jackie may have ADHD, I’ve asked the counselor to evaluate her.”

“I’m sorry but I don’t understand. What is it that leads you to believe that she has problems paying attention? I don’t see any of that at home.”

“Well, she has a lot of trouble staying in her seat and she is very talkative. I’ve seated Jackie next to my student teacher and she wants to talk with the student teacher all the time. I know that she tries to cooperate. The other day I found Jackie with her reading book opened on her desk to the correct page, but underneath her desk she was reading another book (an American Girl chapter book). She really needs help paying attention. I think you should consider medication.”

This was my introduction to the intersecting worlds of ADHD and giftedness, although I was not aware of it at the time. It was my first parent teacher conference for my first (and only) child. I have no frame of reference. I was an experienced educator, special educator even, but the growth of the diagnosis “de jour”, ADHD, had been growing rapidly in the interim between the time l left teaching to go into the “mom” business and the time my daughter found her way to first grade.

Being and educator myself, I took Mrs. Briggs words seriously. At the time, I was fortunate to have taken a part-time job at the office of a group of psychologists. I asked an educational psychologist from the practice to evaluate my daughter. As was (and still is) the common practice of most psychologists, he administered the Child Behavior Checklist, a questionnaire that is completed by parents and the teacher. The scoring is entered into a computer that analyzes the results, which are then interpreted by the psychologist. No additional data was collected nor assessment conducted.

The checklist produced data related to the three main components of ADHD – inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Although the results indicated that my daughter was a bit on the impulsive side, she was certainly not ADHD, and I was certainly not about to medicate my child. At this point I still had not leaded of my daughter’s intelligence. Although I knew she was a strong reader and math came easily I really had very little to compare with as my experience as an educator was working with students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders.

By second grade our family moved out of state. Jackie went to a new school, a private school, where they advanced her work in math and reading by a year. She was happy and so was I as the subject of ADHD never came up. She remained at that school for two years, until once again, we were forced to move.

In fourth grade, I finally saw the big picture. Our new location, in the farm belt of Iowa, did not have any private schools so my daughter was forced back into the public sector. I knew I had to do something for Jackie as she had already done the 4th grade curriculum. I turned to the gifted coordinator for help. Naturally, I was greeted with healthy skepticism. All parents think their kids are bright, right? Fortunately, I was armed with standardized achievement test scores from the previous year that showed my daughter functioning at the 99th percentile. So, I was promised that she would be given a screening to see whether she qualified for the gifted program.

When I met Mrs. Johnson, the gifted coordinator, it was already near Thanksgiving. She started with, “Now, a perfect score on this exam is 150. Your daughter scored”…she looked down and there was a long pause, “150”.

At that point, things started to make some sense. My daughter was not having problems paying attention, she was bored. My daughter was not ADHD, she was gifted. My daughter was NOT getting what she needed from regular a regular classroom setting.

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Special Education and the Gifted

Since 1974 federal legislation has existed to serve the needs of students with physical differences, as well as learning and language exceptionalities. Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, states that all children are entitled to a free and appropriate education at public expense. The purpose of the act was to provide special services to children who in the past had not been properly served in the public schools because of their physical and intellectual exceptionalities. As the title reflects, the intent was to provide an appropriate education for all children. Unfortunately, it did not include those children who are truly exceptional but not handicapped – the gifted.

At about the same time that P.L. 94-142 was emerging, the existence of gifted children and their special educational needs were acknowledged legislatively as a result of the Marland Report (1972). However, the desire to serve these children in a manner that would truly meet their learning needs was far from embraced. The first federal legislative allocation of dollars for gifted education occurred in 1974 when $2.56 million dollars was disbursed – just short of $1 for each of the 2.6 million gifted children identified in the U.S. at the time. This fact is indicative of the on-going level of commitment by our public schools to serve gifted children.

As the parent of a gifted child, and an educator who has dedicated many years to serving as a resource to the frustrated parents of highly gifted children who are languishing in public schools, I believe strongly that gifted children possess special educational needs in the same sense as the learning disabled, or hearing impaired, or autistic child does. Unfortunately, those news frequently go unrecognized and unaddressed until the child begins to exhibit other types of symptoms and behaviors. For those children who shut down but do enough to get by, underachievement is simply the issue. But for others the prognosis is far worse.

In my experience, busy minds need to be kept busy. Gifted children possess busy minds that are frequently housed in busy bodies. When these children’s minds are not focused on productive pursuits, they will find alternative activities with which to occupy themselves – frequently not the types of activities that general education classroom teachers associate with giftedness. Across America, very bright youngsters sit unchallenged in classrooms, waiting for the children around them to master information they knew before the teacher began the lesson. These students are perceived as not paying attention – and they aren’t, but not because they can’t. Rather, they choose not to because they are not engaged. When they find other things to do instead of focusing on the lesson they are “off-task”, “impulsive”, and “lack focus”. This scenario frequently ends in a diagnosis, or more accurately misdiagnosis, of a gifted child as ADHD and in many cases the inappropriate administration of psychotropic medication.

Characteristics of Gifted & Bored

  • Poor attention/daydreaming
  • Lack persistence on tasks that are judged irrelevant
  • Begin many projects, see few to completion
  • Intensity may lead to struggles with authority
  • High activity level; may need less sleep
  • Difficulty restraining desire to talk; may be disruptive
  • Question rules, customs, and traditions
  • Lose work, forget homework, disorganized
  • May appear careless
  • Highly sensitive to criticism

Characteristics of ADHD

  • Poorly sustained attention
  • Diminished persistence on tasks not having immediate consequences
  • Often shift from one uncompleted activity to another
  • Impaired adherence to commands to regulate or inhibit behavior in social context
  • More active, restless than other children
  • Often talk excessively; often interrupt others
  • Difficulty adhering to rules and regulations
  • Lose things necessary for tasks at home and school
  • May appear inattentive to details
  • Highly sensitive to criticism

At Chesapeake Bay Academy, twice exceptional (2e) children are our specialty! Click here to learn more.

More on this topic:

Defining 2e Kids: The Intersection of ADHD & Giftedness
Presentation by Dr. Judy Jankowski, Head of School, Chesapeake Bay Academy, and Dr. Peg Jensen, Clinician, Diagnostic Assessment Program

Why gifted may not be what you think: Michelle Barmazel at TEDxHGSE