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Opinion | HiCap: Just basic education for cognitively atypical kids

Unfortunately, HiCap access is being compounded by systemic racism in school systems.  

HiCap education: If you could walk into my kids’ school, you’d see typical classrooms.

There are energetic, curious kids, walls bright with colorful posters, and teachers somehow both engaging and focusing their charges. If you looked deeper you’d start to notice oddities.

A first-grader’s hand-writing is too unwieldy to fit in her third grade workbook. A fourth grade reading group animatedly discusses “The Hobbit.” A second-grader reads a college text for his animal report, and fifth-graders argue about whether you can create a Normandy landing in Minecraft. Everywhere there are kids buried in books too big for their little hands.

This school is odd because it is one of Seattle’s programs for Highly Capable (HiCap) students (known in Seattle Public Schools as HCC, the Highly Capable Cohort). HiCap serves kids who are, in most of the country, referred to as “gifted.” Both terms are legally recognized, but misleading. After all, all children have gifts, so how can only some be “gifted”? HiCap actually refers to students whose cognitive development is atypical. Diagnostically this means being at the outer edge of a normal curve of development, as measured by a standardized cognitive test. 

Pragmatically it means a complex atypical pattern — facile academic learning, sure, but also a marked asynchronous development. Asynchronicity, perhaps the most documented hallmark of these children, refers to a contradictory condition where some skills are far advanced, but other skills are delayed. Some studies show the more atypical someone is, the more they are likely to struggle with pronounced asynchronicity or even additional disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia (referred to as being twice-exceptional). 

Many parents of HiCap children have some inkling of the difference early in childhood. Often these children read early, or speak with much greater maturity than expected at their age. They may ravenously devour math workbooks or abstract information in surprising ways. They may focus intently on a subject, perfecting their skills. They may also have high energy, be very sensitive or have trouble sleeping. Parents may find it hard to find sympathy from peers who wonder if they aren’t sacrificing basic discipline for academic cramming. (Usually they aren’t — the children are learning quickly based on interest, and asynchronous behavior just looks like poor discipline.)

Sometimes the first indication of atypicality is pronounced difficulty settling into a traditional school. Once the child starts school, they may find friends in older grades or struggle with friendships. 

They may come across as inattentive or lazy, particularly when flashes of brilliance are intermixed with a refusal to do repetitive work. In the case of twice-exceptional children, school can become a minefield — developmental delays or disabilities prevent them from demonstrating advanced skills. They become frustrated when they recognize holes in their abilities, and they have a hard time finding adults who understand their learning needs. The adults, in turn, may become frustrated when they recognize that their student needs something that just isn’t available in every classroom.

Washington state mandates that HiCap students are provided with accelerated learning and enhanced instruction. These laws arise from the recognition that HiCap education is basic education — fundamental to future adult functioning — and that typical educational approaches are inappropriate for cognitively atypical students. HiCap students who do not get appropriate interventions are at higher risk for anxiety and depression. Good HiCap programs include social-emotional learning and access to similarly developing peers. Students far from educational justice who are denied access to the requisite programs have these detriments added to others they face in schools, so great HiCap programs must actively practice inclusivity.

Unfortunately, accessing HiCap programs is more difficult than it should be. Barriers to entry are compounded by systemic racism within the school systems. HiCap students comprise, by definition, a small percentage of all students and constant work is needed to ensure that legally required services are provided. It is necessary to ensure that educators are trained in identification and teaching for HiCap, and that focus is put on counteracting the negative effects of racial and gender bias. Access to, and flexibility in, HiCap must be improved to guarantee equitable service.

No matter what name we use — “gifted” or “HiCap” — cognitively atypical children are just kids whose parents hope they grow to be healthy adults. At my kids’ school, remote learning has its ups and downs like most other schools. Families struggle with technology, the librarian struggles to keep everyone in reading material, and superstar teachers work hard to help inquisitive kids understand this year’s dramatic events. My third-grader likes that she can get in some extra writing when she finishes math quickly, and my fifth-grader likes the middle school software his teachers adopted.

Still, they are just kids who are looking forward to the day when they can run out to recess with their friends, and I’m just a parent who is grateful for school staff who support their atypical needs.

Resources for parents

National Association for Gifted Children
Northwest Gifted Child Association
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted

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About the Author

Megan Hazen

Megan Hazen is mom to three children in Seattle Public Schools. By day she teaches computer science and data science at UW, by night she serves on the PTA for her kids' school. Megan has used quarantine weekends to convince her family to explore all the hiking trails in the Seattle area.