Now that the holidays are behind us it seems our thoughts are turning to the summer.  A couple of listings of summer programs likely to appeal to highly motivated kids came to my attention today.  I’m going to pass them along to you – but first, a disclaimer or two.

When my brother and I were growing up, around this time of year our father would summon each of us for a private conversation about our summer plans.  Every year it began the same way:  “Nina,” he’d say, “I want you to have a meaningful and productive summer.”  In his view, those long weeks of summer needed to be planned for and used wisely – but it was up to each of us to think about what had meaning for us, and about how to make the time productive.  He was eager to help us build our plans and make our arrangements but the job of finding our path of meaning was ours.  My brother and I used to tease him about the “meaningful and productive” speech but my father knew what he was talking about.  We had plenty of down time but we also loved working hard at our passions -- theatrical productions, music-making, camp jobs, or swimming lessons.  (Thanks, Dad!)

So what is the best way for a gifted youngster to spend those summer months?  Your gifted kid is gifted, and s/he is also a kid.  Some want to spend the summer months indulging their love of learning.  Others look forward to pursuing their love of athletics, or nature, or art.  And some will look forward to unstructured time in which to read or work on a personal project.  All of these are wonderful ideas and I urge you not to pressure your child into participating in an academic experience if that is not what s/he is looking for right now.

I hope all of you with school-age children will help them think about making their summers meaningful, productive, and enjoyable.  Here are some lists that might help.

  • The apparently tireless blogger The Common Mom has assembled an incredibly exhaustive and well-researched listing of academic camps, nation-wide. 
  • The Davidson Institute has just put out their January eNews-Update which includes listings of day and residential programs of special interest to gifted students.  These listings are primarily focused on academic programs but they include several outstanding arts and outdoor programs too.

You don’t often think of the National Bureau of Economic Research as having a lot to say about either gifted education or school choice, but this fascinating paper has some insights that are potentially relevant in both of these areas.   The authors review recent literature on the development of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, with (as you’d expect from economists) a particular emphasis on outcomes.  In other words, is there a correlation between cognitive measures like IQ or achievement testing and outcomes such as socio-economic status?  How about non-cognitive attributes – and which non-cognitive attributes are important to look at in this context? 

For the purpose of this survey, the authors focus on the so-called Big Five personality measures: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.   And their focus is on remedial programs: what type of support helps turn things around for at-risk populations?  Among the study’s key findings:

  • Prevention is more effective than remediation, and programs that target young children by providing support for developing cognitive and non-cognitive skills have been shown to be successful.
  • Of the non-cognitive traits, conscientiousness correlates most strongly with positive outcomes; agreeableness also correlates strongly with some of the outcomes examined.  (Conscientiousness covers such qualities as perseverance, organization, impulse control, ability to delay gratification, and work ethic; agreeableness refers to altruism, empathy, and perspective-taking.)
  • Although much less is known about the effectiveness of programs aimed at adolescents, “[t]he available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programs that offer mentoring, guidance and information.”
  • Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be developed at any stage, but it appears that non-cognitive skills are more malleable than the cognitive ones at later ages (adolescence and beyond.)  All skill development is crucial during the early years.

In other words, it’s important to support children’s developing academic skills, social/emotional skills, and executive functioning skills, but if the cognitive skills are not in place by the time they hit the teen years that gap is going to be harder to close.  All of this seems to suggest a good argument for providing optimal educational experiences for young children.  Many families assume that their kid will do just fine in a less-than-stellar educational setting in the early years, but that come high school (or college) suddenly the stakes are higher; this study may suggest exactly the opposite.  And please note that when I refer to “optimal educational experiences” I emphatically include strong support for developing non-cognitive skills.  Parents of highly able children must do their best to provide support for students’ talents but must also keep in mind the need to foster personal wellness – and that includes attending to social wellness (agreeableness) and life skills (conscientiousness.) 

This study also ties in with one of my pet peeves: the assumption that secondary and post-secondary education is all about course content (cognitive skill) and not so much about educating the whole person (non-cognitive skills.)  High school and college students are adolescents, and no matter how brilliant or motivated they are adolescents are still growing and changing as human beings: the whole person deserves to be cherished and attended to, not just the part of the person that learns math or reads Finnegans Wake.  Indeed, since asynchrony is one of the hallmarks of extreme giftedness, it should come as no surprise that many highly gifted individuals need very little extra support in some areas and quite a lot in others.

Finally, as a former student of Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut, I can’t help connecting this study’s findings with Renzulli’s Three-Ring Model of giftedness.  Renzulli defines giftedness not in terms of potential but in terms of gifted behavior – and the behavior he’s most interested in is creative productivity.  His model finds that three attributes are required: above-average intelligence (cognitive skill,) task commitment (conscientiousness,) and creativity.  Interesting: creativity doesn’t show up in any description of the Big Five of personality development that I could find.  Might that suggest that anyone and everyone needs some mix of cognitive ability and conscientiousness to be successful in life, but that creativity could be the uniquely defining feature of giftedness, if we define it in terms of creative productivity?  Food for thought.