How to Obtain Proper Testing for the Gifted Underachiever

by Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach

David’s* mother called me because she was confused about what her first-grader was going through. She had pulled David out of school the previous month because his behavior and emotional health seemed to be getting worse and she was beginning to suspect that giftedness and poor educational fit were the issues. While she could already see improvements in her son emotionally, she was exhausted. She informed me that she had David tested at a local gifted center and was told that his verbal IQ was 140, but that they were not able to test further because he was refusing whenever he was required to look at paper. She said that David was “jumpy” while at the testing center. Further, the day before the test, a reading tutor had mentioned that he may have vision issues, which made a lot of sense to David’s mom once she understood what vision issues were. (For more on vision and other sensory issues, see my article on sensory issues, link below.) To say that she was in a high state of stress at this time is an understatement. What she needed was a compassionate person who could truly see her child and help diagnose him in a holistic way, even though neither mother nor son was at their best.

While I don’t care for the term “underachiever,” because it implies laziness among other things, it can be a red flag in terms of gifted children. Because their abilities go so far beyond their achievements, and when frustration and low-self esteem is rearing its ugly head, I believe this is when most parents start to wonder what is going on. Testing is often the first place they turn to, as David’s mother did.

To make matters more confusing, occupational and other therapies can miss key issues in highly gifted kids. The occupational therapy center that David was sent to for sensory issues said that he had muscle weakness in his hand and had dysgraphia (inability to write.) His mother told me that there had been times when he could write almost perfect letters, but not usually. Also, when he drew animals, something her son loved, he could get very detailed and accurate lines on the page, using cross-hatching at times. This didn’t seem to fit with the diagnosis of weakened muscles in his hands. Further, when David heard the term “dysgraphia”, he chose to discontinue writing letters altogether. (Hello perfectionism!) 

David’s story is a pretty typical one. The more highly gifted a child is, the more asynchrony there will be, and the way the child is educated, counseled, and parented needs to be adjusted accordingly, just as you would for a child in the ranges that are that far below the normal range of IQ. For this reason, I advocate for more thorough testing for every child than what is most commonly being offered in our schools, in the mainstream, and even in some of our gifted centers.

Many parents choose not to test, especially if they are homeschooling or otherwise have found a proper educational fit. They see the gifted traits in their child and are able to meet their needs emotionally and intellectually. There is a lot they have learned from professionals and other parents of gifted children about what works. The main purpose of testing, after all, is to make sure your child’s needs are being met and if you can do this without testing, all the power to you.

If you are a parent who chooses to obtain gifted testing, or have been told your child is gifted, or want him or her reassessed because you suspect something else is going on, I urge you to consider the following.

1. Make sure the tester is able to test in the higher gifted ranges.

Make sure you are getting tested by a person or organization who understands the higher ranges of giftedness and what that looks like. Most neuropsych and educational testing is not able to test in the higher ranges of giftedness. As Linda Kreger Silverman Ph.D.,  one of our foremost gifted experts, says, “(the way that we are testing children today)…is like measuring a 6-foot person with a 5-foot ruler.”

“That is, the children scored at the top of the subscales, and they likely could have scored higher except that the test did not allow for that. Webb and Dyer (1993), in one large-scale study, found that 50% of younger gifted children (ages 10 and below) with a Full-Scale IQ of 130 to 144 topped out on one or more subtests” (Webb, et al., 2005, p. 143).

To be clear, this means these children were given scores of 130 to 144, but those who topped out are most likely higher. How much higher? We don’t know. In my own experience with my child, and with those I help in my parent coaching practice, I have found that we are miss testing highly to profoundly gifted children. Many of the parents who I help describe what to me sounds like a child in the higher ranges of giftedness, and also tell me that their child hit the ceiling on parts or all of the test. I hear a lot of “she was in the 99 percentile,” and the overall score I’m told is somewhere around 140 to 145. My recommendation is for retesting by an organization that is able to supplement with modalities that can keep testing to higher levels.

Remember also that because a person or center specializes in giftedness does not necessarily mean they understand and can test into the higher ranges above 145. In fact, the ones that I know admit that the testing companies are currently not creating tests to do so, so they feel their hands are tied. What I find occurs from time to time with a highly to profoundly gifted child is that the child is given the overall scores of somewhere between 120 and 145, but admitting to the parents that they suspect the child’s overall score should be higher. Sometimes they will add that the child is 2e (twice exceptional) so that weaknesses can be addressed. Usually, this gets missed by busy and overwhelmed parents and by other professionals trying to help the child’s “weaknesses” are what become the focus, while the level of giftedness gets lost in translation. A child who is 175 is going to cause an educator or psychologist to step back, even if they don’t know a thing about giftedness. While a score of 140 and the need to address supposed dyslexia or some other weakness, can create an even more stifling learning environment for the child than if they had never been tested.

As a side, Linda Silverman suspects that most of the studies conducted on giftedness in the past were most probably conducted on gifted students who did well in school. So that when you read studies about the gifted population, you need to take into consideration that they were most likely done with moderately gifted people. More on that as her results are published…

2. Understand what the higher ranges of giftedness look like.

Many highly to profoundly gifted children can have secondary issues that impact their success in school. In addition to lack of intellectual stimulation, they may have undetected auditory, vision, or other sensory issues which are common among the highly gifted. Boredom and school trauma can also impact the ability to accurately assess a child.

If they are unable to see the paper in front of them, for example, or to navigate the noises around them, or to read due to something like Central Auditory Processing Disorder, clearly they will not test to their ability, especially if the tester does not thoroughly understand these disorders. The combination of school trauma, shame and perfectionism can cause some children to sabotage their own testing or refuse to be tested at all. (Many parents report to me what they feel is a conclusive test when their child was not able to complete it.) Even a mismatch in the personality of the child with the tester can impact the test. Because there are so many variables to understand about your child, I recommend talking with other parents of gifted children, reading articles and books, and obtaining a gifted professional when needed.

3. Only allow an assessment that includes a qualitative component by a tester who fully understands the complexities of giftedness.

The gifted Qualitative Assessment (QA) was created by Annemarie Roeper, one of the pioneers of the modern gifted movement who had 50 years of experience when she designed it. The QA takes into consideration the overexcitabilities (OE’s), which are the sensitivities and intensities of the child. This allows for a deeper understanding of the potential and drive that correlate to the child’s advanced cognitive abilities regardless of academic success and other challenges. Additionally, the qualitative assessor understands the sensory issues, school trauma, personality sensitivities and other issues that can impact how the child is behaving. They are skilled at navigating an understandably resistant child, and in seeing the potential that is there, whether there are achievements or not. Because I see so many children who are clearly in the higher ranges of giftedness being mislabeled, I strongly believe all testing, especially when giftedness is suspected, should include this qualitative portion.

I suggested a qualitative test for David. His parents were given very helpful feedback immediately afterward. While the bad news was that a traditional school was not going to be a good fit for him, she was given enough information to feel secure in what she now thought to be true: he was exceptionally gifted. She was given a list of OE’s and his scores in each category along with his sensory issues that needed further assessment. I helped by referring appropriate professionals and continued to support David’s parents through next steps. Fast forward to a few years ahead, David, now in 6th grade, no longer feels extreme anxiety due to school and is thriving and finding his way.

The highly to profoundly gifted are an underserved population. To quote my favorite person in the gifted field again, Linda Silverman, “We are bigoted against our gifted population.” That there is currently a lack of proper testing for those who are in the higher ranges of giftedness is emblematic of this, leaving them vulnerable to misdiagnosis and improper care.

The bottom line is that if you know that your child is a highly visual-spatial learner, and suspect they are in the higher ranges of giftedness, and particularly if your child is in crisis, please seek help from a gifted professional who knows this population. Consulting with parents and support groups who know this population can be life-changing (and can also be anecdotally diagnostic as you will hear similar stories). If school is harming them and you have other options, pull them out. Until there is better testing for this population, you are going to have to trust yourselves on this one.

*name has been changed

©2019 Teresa Currivan

Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, and CroppedMaxTCcoaches parents by phone at Help My Child Thrive Coaching. Teresa has been published on sites such as Mother.ly, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education. She is proud to be offering parent support groups for Big Minds Unschool, a school for twice exceptional learners in Pinole, CA. She specializes in giftedness, twice exceptionality,  educational fit, family dynamics, as well as gifted adults. She lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. You can find more articles on this website. Follow her on Facebook at  fb.me/TeresaCurrivanCoaching.

***Not sure if your child is gifted? Or maybe you have a question about your gifted child or family? I offer free 20-minute phone consultations for first-timers. Email me and we’ll set up a time to talk. I’d love to hear from you. TeresaCurrivan@gmail.com ***

 

You might also be interested in:

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How Can I Tell the Difference Between Sensory Issues and Other Childhood Disorders in My Child?

 

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Why It Is Vital To Know If Your Child Is Gifted.

 

or

Why Is High-Achieving Synonomous with Being Gifted

 

Why Is High-Achieving Synonymous with Being Gifted? Because We Didn’t Listen to This Woman.

 

 

GHFUnderachieversBlogHopThis article is part of a blog hop over at the wonderful Gifted Homeschoolers Forum. It’s so helpful to hear how other families navigate the gifted world.

 

 

 

© 2018 Teresa Currivan

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