May 20, 2015
By Donna Ford
I have been in the field of gifted education for more than 20 years and have come across my share of geniuses and prodigies. These terms are often used interchangeably, but there are important and subtle nuances. While both are rare — perhaps less than 1 percent of the population — genius often refers to intellectual and academic endeavors, while prodigy refers to talent and creativity.
But being a child prodigy is both a blessing and a curse. The fruits of such gifts certainly benefit society. Who would not be in awe of a musician barely out of diapers performing like a professional? It is hard to not be fascinated by these incredibly rare children.
But who does a 5- or 10-year-old prodigy connect with socially and emotionally? As has been noted, highly gifted students can develop intellectually, physically and emotionally at different rates and have few true peers. These children may compose an incredible piece of music, but then have difficulty riding a bike without training wheels like their age mates, for example. They may become frustrated at not being able to connect, or keep up in certain ways, with their age mates. And how do child prodigies find friends who share or love their passion? This isolation can contribute to loneliness, along with a desire to be "normal."
Finding true peers, of similar age and accomplishment, is most challenging for prodigies whose families have few resources and are culturally diverse. Income increases access, opportunities and exposure. Educated caregivers with higher incomes are more equipped to expose their prodigies to mentors and experiences that will take such already rare gifts and talents to another level.
This is seldom an option for families struggling with the challenges of making ends meet, or who have little to no economic and social capital. While low-income and minority children are just as capable as those in families with more resources, they are likely to experience different outcomes and supports.
This lack of access is one of many reasons Joy L. Davis, Tarek C. Grantham and I have revived the work of Martin D. Jenkins, the first, and virtually only, scholar who studied black geniuses in the 1940s and '50s. In 2014, with the support of the National Association for Gifted Children, we held the only national meeting for nonwhite geniuses and prodigies.
These students, particularly black and Hispanic students, are often overlooked and neglected in scholarship and discourse on geniuses and prodigies. This must change; no racial group or economic class is more capable than another.
Educators and other professionals need training in cultural awareness, including examining their biases. They must also move beyond the myopic notion that nature (genetics) matters more than nurture (environment) in developing gifts and talents at all levels. Few prodigies reach their potential without sustained practice, tutoring and mentoring. I have witnessed too many families living in poverty who are unable to support their gifted and talented children. The cost of lessons, travel and associated expenses is out of their reach. It is essential to inform families about the resources and opportunities in their communities and within their budget.
As a nation, it behooves us to nurture the gifts and talents of all students, with concerted attention to those who are economically challenged and racially diverse.
Source: The New York Times