One of our biggest challenges in gifted education is to find and nurture giftedness among students who are traditionally underrepresented in advanced programming, and to do so meaningfully and early. Wisconsin, like many states, mandates that identification and services for gifted students begin in kindergarten, partly as a way of preventing later achievement gaps. Even so, we know that children from impoverished backgrounds often enter school on day one already substantially behind their more advantaged peers in a variety of skills. How can recent research on neuroscience and the young brain help us expand the size and diversity of the pool of kindergarten children who might be considered for advanced programming and services?
The field of "educational neuroscience" (aka mind, brain, and education, or MBE) has boomed over the last decade. Neuropsychologists have come out of their laboratories and entered the world of schools and children’s thinking. Their work shows clear evidence of the malleability of young children’s thinking skills: malleability, or plasticity, refers to the ability of the brain to adapt and improve. We all have malleable brains and we can all get “smarter,” but young children's brains are particularly malleable. There is research evidence that we could teach and nurture young students in ways that might raise the skills and performance of many more of them to “gifted” levels.
When neuroscientists talk about trying to improve thinking skills in young children, which specific skills are they addressing and measuring, and why those skills? Most of the research in this area has been conducted on “executive functions.” These include such skills as "selective attention" (focusing on appropriate input), "cognitive flexibility" (adapting to change), "inhibitory control" (resisting habits as needed), and "working memory" (remembering the current rule or task). They are important for school success because they allow young children to pay attention to appropriate and relevant stimuli, ignore distractors, and process appropriately complex tasks. From both laboratory and school-based research, we know in general that young children’s executive functions (EFs) can be improved with training. We also have evidence that such training, when appropriately challenging for the individual students, can transfer to a variety of other academic and social-emotional outcomes that are important for school success. The importance of appropriate challenges cannot be overestimated: there is an abundance of research that shows that new neural connections are best made when the brain has to put forth effort. Repeating already-learned skills is not optimal for brain development. Those of us who advocate for policy and legislation that supports gifted education are making sure that policymakers hear about the importance of appropriate challenges!
How can the gifted coordinator or teacher use this research? The evidence for malleability argues for a talent development model: for instance, offering in kindergarten (or even earlier, in cooperation with 4K, Head Start, and private preschools) high-level, open-ended thinking skill programming and activities in order to see what developmental levels all children can reach, rather than just trying to identify children who already have skills that are advanced for their age. It is not necessary to start from scratch with new programs and services; the busy coordinator can work within existing structures such as differentiated instruction, RtI (Response to Intervention) and Equitable MLSS (Multi-Level Systems of Support), and the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards to make sure that young children’s thinking skills are appropriately challenged, and that underrepresented children are given the opportunity to better develop their executive functions for critical school success.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Clinkenbeard’s chapter in the book “Malleable Minds: Translating Insights from Psychology and Neuroscience to Gifted Education,” published by the National Association for Gifted Children. An earlier version of this article appeared in the newsletter WATG Insights, September 2011.
Pamela R. Clinkenbeard, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UW-Whitewater
WI Association for Talented and Gifted Board Member