- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

Brian Hanak of Alexandria could read and do simple math before he was school-aged. His brothers, Gregory and Mark, were also similarly precocious.

Now well into their school years, the Hanak boys, ages 16, 12 and 8, respectively, are involved in gifted and talented (GT) programs in Fairfax County's public schools.

So far, it has been the right place for them, says their mother, Diane Hanak. The programs are appealing because they provide a greater challenge, she says. That has meant the boys are learning rather than waiting for classmates to catch up.

"The GT program moves at a very fast pace," Mrs. Hanak says. "The learning material really pushes them to be critical and creative thinkers."

Not so long ago, the image of a gifted child might have been reserved for the dramatically smart the Mozarts, Einsteins and others creative or intelligent beyond their years. Today there is a broader definition, one that has been expanded to include not only those with general intellectual ability but also those with talent for creative thinking, the performing or visual arts, even leadership ability.

That means the Hanak brothers are among about 5 million American children who fit the criteria of gifted in one way or another. Numbers like that up exponentially in the past two decades, according to the National Association for the Gifted and Talented might give the term "gifted" less cache. Those numbers, however, mean that millions of bright students are also getting the instruction and attention they need.

"Brian just wasn't being challenged as much in his regular classes," Tim Hanak says of his eldest son, now a straight-A junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Annandale. "Still, we've never liked the term 'gifted.' It sounds a little too elitist."

Educators say there are a number of reasons why more children are considered gifted today than a generation ago.

"Standardized test scores are going up, and that may mean we are meeting children's educational needs better than we were," says Linda Brody, director of study of exceptional talent at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a program that identifies, guides and researches gifted children.

"We also have greater awareness of higher ability. We also live in a more competitive world. We have more parents with good education," she says. "That raises the level of aspirations of the next generation."

Still, giftedness can be like art, meaning that educators know it when they see it. Weeding out who is and is not considered gifted can vary from community to community.

"You can go to two different people in the education field, and you are going to get different answers," Ms. Brody says. "Different schools have different criteria, scores and cutoffs. You can also be talking about gifts in music or math or athletics."

At its simplest level, she says, giftedness is "some evidence of a child performing at a higher level other than his age."

"Some might say that means the top 2 percent or an IQ over 140," Ms. Brody says. "But those are pragmatic ideas. They don't hold up in every environment."

Observing and testing

An 11-month-old who can run. An 18-month-old who can say his ABCs. Even a 22-month-old who can use the toilet. Visit any playground, and you'll likely hear a group of mothers marveling over how advanced their toddlers are.

Parents are usually keen ob-servers of their own children, says Linda Silverman, a psychologist and director of the Gifted Development Center, an educational and research group in Denver.

Ms. Silverman says there is a list of characteristics that young, advanced children usually have in common. Preschoolers who eventually test with a high IQ or show giftedness in one area often have excellent memories, extensive vocabularies, long attention spans and a vivid imagination, compared with other children the same age. More concrete characteristics of young children include early and avid reading ability and interest, facility with numbers and skill with jigsaw puzzles.

"We have researched almost 4,000 parents," she says. "They almost never come in here with a false impression of their child's abilities."

Ms. Silverman encourages parents whose children may be advanced to seek an assessment early, such as at age 4.

"The belief we would not test young children is a myth," she says. "If your child was developing slower, would you be waiting? Why would we assume you should when there is atypical development in the other direction? An advanced child is so obviously different, and the sooner you can get information, the sooner you can make informed decisions."

Carol Horn, gifted and talented program specialist for the Fairfax County school system, says tests scores will be more accurate when the child is school-aged. In Fairfax County, for instance, children are tested in second grade as one component of assessment for the gifted and talented program, which begins in third grade.

"We have found in testing earlier than that, development can be sporadic," Mrs. Horn says. "A child can show something exceptional one day and not the next. Developmentally, they are not ready for formal assessment."

It is for that same reason many gifted programs do not formally start until after a child has been in school a few years. Many schools do have resource specialists who can guide and assist children in early grades as needed, though.

"The schools want to respond to the child," Ms. Brody says. "It is hard to label them so early."

Once the screening process for gifted and talented programs begins, it is a complex and competitive process. Most local school districts, including Montgomery, Arlington and Fairfax counties, base entry to gifted programs on an array of criteria rather than a score on one intelligence test.

Mrs. Horn says children in her program are selected through testing (they must score in the top 10 percent for their age group on an ability test); ratings by teachers on a giftedness behavior scale (with categories including desire to learn, need for acceleration and rapid understanding of the abstract); past report cards; and, finally, a review of the file and a vote by a panel of six educators and psychologists.

"It allows for every children to have ability. That way, we can provide levels of service, even if it is not in a GT center," Mrs. Horn says.

Still, every so often there is a parent who sees gifts when the educators and test administrators do not. Or they might not have a lot of confidence in the local school system and believe the GT program might be the track to a better education.

"We live in a very competitive world," says Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children.

"Every parent wants what is best for their child to reach their full potential, but being labeled gifted and talented is not a gold star. What it means is they have a need that has been identified, in the same way you would identify a child who needs remedial work or has a learning disability," he says.

Mr. Rosenstein says the gifted label is not a static one. Rather, it could and should change as children go through school.

"In identifying gifted students, you need multiple criteria," he says. "Children grow and mature at different times. A child may not be right for GT in first grade but may be by fifth. It is up to the school to make sure a child is getting what he or she needs."

Moving ahead?

Many children who enter school already have mastered grade-level work. It is important for parents of such children to stay on top of the situation by talking to their children and teachers to find out what the rest of the class is doing, Mr. Rosenstein says.

A bored child could turn into a behavior problem if he is not challenged in some way, such as by reading a book meant for older students or going down the hall to have math class with students in the next grade.

"It is not fair to say to a third-grader, 'Wait for your peers,'" he says. "In an ideal world, a teacher could sit with 25 kids who have a broad range of abilities and write a lesson plan for each of them. But most teachers teach to the middle. The remedial kids don't always get the attention they need, and the advanced kids don't get the attention they need."

A variety of options are available for gifted children. Entire programs are dedicated to the gifted and talented. "Pull-out" programs allow children to work ahead in certain subjects but stay with their peers for others. Private schools also exist that cater to gifted children, but Mr. Rosenstein advises parents to check out exactly what those claims mean.

"There are some wonderful public schools," he says. "Private doesn't necessarily mean better."

Many parents are choosing home-schooling as an option, particularly in school districts that have no gifted programs, Ms. Silverman says.

Another option for students in a district with no gifted programs is grade acceleration. Skipping a grade has fallen out of vogue in recent years as gifted programs have grown and research has shown that children do better socially around others close to their age, Ms. Brody says.

Ms. Silverman disagrees, however.

"Our research has shown that accelerated kids have marvelous social adjustment," she says. "There is not a shred of evidence to say that kids do better among those their own age or in a regular classroom. Children choose friends with common interests and values. If the same-age kids are not keeping up, then that is not good."

Ms. Brody says, however, other alternatives exist, such as bringing independent work to the classroom, participating in a summer program for gifted students or attending college part-time while still in high school.

"There is a smorgasbord of educational opportunities out there," she says.

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