Nurturing Talented But Troubled

Nurturing Talented But Troubled
Children and Youth
Ken W. McCluskey and Don ald J. Treffinger
The authors draw on extensive careers working with gifted and at-risk youth to identify the needs of this pop­
ulation. High-risk gifted students often become dropouts in spite of their great talents. The article identifies
practical strategies for reclaiming these "lost prizes. "
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t is often assumed that children or youth with special
talents "have it made." Certainly, in his pioneering
longitudinal work, Terman demonstrated that many
high-ability young people do become successful, produc­
tive adults (Terman, 1925; Terman & Oden, 1947, 1959). It
is not surprising, then, that educators have often voiced
the feeling that it is a waste of time and effort to devote
special attention or programming to those who have
tremendous natural advantages and who, supposedly, can
make it on their own. However, this type of laissez-faire
attitude might better be d escribed as "lazy-unfair"
(McCluskey & Walker, 1986, p. 4). Talents do not appear
magically and grow of their own accord; they must be rec­
ognized, nurtured, and developed. A young plant will
wither and die if left unattended, and a human limb will
atrophy and be-come useless if kept immobile. A talented
golfer must continually hone and fine-tune his or her
skills; a premier ballerina will not remain premier for very
long if she stops practicing and extending her expertise.
And misdirected talent can be dangerous; how many
unsolved crimes are committed by extremely bright peo­
ple (who make it on their own all right, but not precisely
in a desirable fashion)? Thus, we propose that children
and youth who manifest early indications of talent (in per­
formance or potential) should be challenged and stimulat­
ed to help them grow into creatively productive adults.
.. .'.
Talented Individuals Have Problems, Too
Researchers in gifted education have long been concerned
about the plight of talented children whose needs are not
met. Terman himself found that a certain proportion of
high-ability individuals were far from making their mark
in the world; some even developed emotional problems
and ended up as outcasts or criminals (Terman & Oden,
1947). Carlson (1947) believed that a large number of
bright children grow up to become emotionally immature,
pp. 2 1 5-2 1 9 , 226 .... RECLAIMING CHILDREN AND YOUTH
ineffectual, and useless members of society. Strang (1951)
suggested that many bright youth fail to develop to their
potential because, in an effort to be more like their less able
age-mates, they hesitate to use their true abilities. Further­
more, because some very precocious children have a diffi­
cult time forming relationships with other youngsters,
loneliness has been identified as a potential issue (Kaiser
& Berndt, 1985). In other words, talented children and
youth do not always have an easy time of it (d. Bur­
roughs, 1977; Rowlands, 1974). Outstanding ability or tal­
ent has been called a "doubtful gift" (McCluskey &
Walker, 1986, p. 13).
Turning Off and Dropping Out
Underachievement among high-ability students is a major
concern (Gallagher, 1975), for some clearly "tune out" and
underperform. Many simply leave the educational system.
Despite the common misconception that the bulk of our
dropout population represents below-average students,
there is a large body of evidence to suggest that academi­
cally able students, as well as those with considerable tal­
ent in a variety of specific domains, are at risk as well (e.g.,
Rimm, 1987). There can be no doubt that we are "losing"
some talented students who should not be lost.
A survey by Statistics Canada (1991 ) made it abundantly
clear that bored, alienated talented students can be very
much at risk under certain conditions. It found that many
high-risk students who left school had the ability to suc­
ceed but did not or could not apply themselves. In fact,
over 30% of the noncom pIeters were carrying A or B aver­
ages, and only 8% reported problems with schoolwork as
the most important reason for leaving school. Fortune,
Bruce, Williams, and Jones (1991) noted that students iden­
tified the feeling of not belonging as the major reason for
quitting school. Many dropouts mentioned their sense of
1998 ....
truth, troubled, talented students tend to be given short
shrift and left out of the mix almost entirely. Imagine the
frustration of capable young people whose talents are not
recognized. These students are often offered very little
encouragement or opportunity to grow, blossom, or use
their abilities positively.
Turning Things Around
Drawing by Daun Pechawis, age 1 8,
a student at Won-Ska Cultural School,
Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Used with permission.
neglect or isolation, and several reported that they did not
get along with peers or staff. Some schools were perceived
as uncaring and restrictive, with inflexible attendance and
discipline policies that virtually pushed certain students
out the door (Radwanski, 1987).
The phenomenon of dropping out is accompanied by a
substantial cost, which has been estimated at $71 billion in
lost tax revenue, $3 billion in increased costs due to wel­
fare and unemployment, and $3 billion in costs related to
crime (Forbis-Jordan & Lyons, 1992) . Furthermore, the true
"cost" of talent delayed or denied is virtually impossible to
discern. What is the cost of a symphony unwritten, a cure
not discovered, a breakthrough not invented? In today's
complex world, and in preparing for tomorrow's certainly
more complex one, we can scarcely afford such waste of
"talent capital" and human potential.
Most educators would admit that school routines, tests,
and daily life are designed for, and biased in favor of, stu­
dents who are well behaved, strong academically, and will­
ing to work. Unfortunately, at-risk individuals don't quite
fit in here. Enrichment programs have typically not accom­
modated the "tough bright" (Peterson, 1997, p. 121). In
There are encouraging examples of bright but
conflicted individuals who have reversed their
tides of misfortune. John Seita (Seita, Mitchell, &
Tobin, 1996) and WaIn Brown (1983), both for­
mer troubled delinquents, tell poignant tales of
how they moved from foster homes, correctional
facilities, and treatment centers in childhood to
productivity and the rarefied atmosphere of acad­
eme as adults. On a more global scale, the Lost
Prizes project made a real difference for many trou­
bled high-ability youth (McCluskey, Baker, O'Ha­
gan, & Treffinger, 1995; McCluskey, McCluskey, Baker,
& O'Hagan, 1997). In that program, educators identi­
fied a number of at-risk talented high school dropouts
who had been lost to the system. Their talents notwith­
standing, the young people in question were, in the best
cases, floating aimlessly; in the worst cases, they were in
serious trouble with the law. In an attempt to reconnect
with these at-risk individuals and awake dormant poten­
tial, staff gave them training for a month in Creative Pro­
blem Solving (CPS) and other areas. Then, matching the
students' interests with workplace opportunities, each stu­
dent was paired with a mentor in the business community
who offered them the opportunity to try out newfound
skills in a real-life setting. Students who completed both
phases of the program earned two high school credits. Of
the 88 at-risk students initially enrolled, 57 (65%) have been
successful, where success is measured by returning to and
doing well in high school, going on to postsecondary train­
ing at a university or community college, or obtaining and
holding a full-time job.
Another project, Second Chance, dealt with an even higher
risk population who had fallen further through the cracks.
This initiative compared the recidivism rates of two groups
of Native Canadian inmates in the provincial jails. Offen­
ders in the control group received no special prerelease sup­
port; that is, they were "warehoused" through the prison
system in traditional fashion and, at sentences' end, simply
released into society to fend for themselves. In contrast,
inmates in the experimental group were given intensive
support, including counseling, CPS training, career aware­
ness sessions, and on-the-job experience. The results were
powerful: More than 90% of the individuals in the control
group reoffended within a year, whereas less than 40% did
so in the experimental condition (Place, McCluskey, McClus­
key, & Treffinger, in press).
Reclaiming O ur Present and Future
"Lost Prizes"
If we are to give at-risk talented students a fighting chance,
it is necessary to create a "reclaiming environment" (Brend­
tro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 1990, p. 56) . We present 10
broad proposals for making such efforts successful:
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Abandon traditional narrow conceptions of "gift_
edness" in favor of attention to special talent strengths.
Many theorists and researchers now agree that "intelli­
gence" is a broad and varied construct, and that the cur­
rent state of the art extends well beyond traditional
IQ-centered conceptions (Neisser et al., 1996) . In gifted
education, there is also a growing trend to move toward
more contemporary, multidimensional views of abilities
and talents. Gardner (1983) proposed seven different
"intelligences," or varied dimensions of human talent
and ability. Feldhusen (1995) emphasized the importance
of not only responding to the needs of students with
exceptional ability or talent in specific areas, but also look­
ing closely at the strengths and talents of all students.
Feldhusen's Talent Identification and Development in
Education (TIDE) approach focuses on talent in several
domains, including academic-intellectual (science, math,
social studies, English, languages); artistic (dance, music,
drama, sculpture, photography); vocational-technical
(home economics, trade-industrial, agricultural, business­
office, computers and technology); and interpersonal­
social (leadership, care-giving, human services). Throughout
his analysis, Feldhusen emphasized that students must
learn to recognize their own strengths and to become
involved in taking ownership for developing those
strengths. However, to help young people reach that point,
it is critical that someone along the way recognize and
respond to their talents. There is a need for educators and
other caregivers in a variety of settings to be sensitive, to
be on the lookout for sustained interests and strengths,
and to be willing and able to respond in ways that help
students' develop and apply their talents productively.
Treffinger and Feldhusen (1996) referred to "talent devel­
opment" as the prospective successor to gifted education.
They argued that the "use of the term 'gifted' as a specific
category or type of child is untenable or indefensible," and
that education should focus on "the identification and
development of talent in all youth, with appropriate atten­
tion to varied levels and domains" (p. 184) .
Place more emphasis on talent development
than on selecting and labeling students.
We propose that it is more important to emphasize instruc­
tional programming, or efforts to nurture and develop stu­
dents' strengths, talents, and sustained interests, than it is
simply to label and categorize students. Aptitude alone is
seldom enough to insure performance at a high level, and
placing students in a specific category on the basis of arbi-
trary criteria does little to guarantee that instruction will
be appropriate and challenging (or that the person will
respond to the challenges of translating potential into per­
formance). Most educators, employers, and coaches can
tell tales of students who never moved from potential to
productivity, and of others with much more modest natur­
al aptitudes who built upon motivation, a strong and dis­
ciplined work ethic, and high levels of energy to become
outstanding performers. Our challenge is not simply to
identify students, or "sort" them into groups, but to work
toward helping all children and youth maximize their tal­
ents and potentials.
Engage students, teachers, parents, and other
community members in "talent spotting."
Our third proposal involves moving away from viewing
identification as a formal assessment or testing process,
driven primarily (or even exclusively) by quantitative
data. We suggest instead that identification be a rich, on­
going process of understanding a student's strengths,
needs, and learning characteristics. The purpose of identi­
fication should not simply be to characterize the student as
a certain kind of person with a certain level of ability; we
need to begin framing it as a diagnostic process, a way of
preparing for the best and most challenging instructional
opportunities we can design and offer. Viewed this way,
identification is a flexible and ongoing process. Valuable
information can be obtained from many people and
sources of data, and students themselves should be in­
volved in taking stock of their own personal strengths and
needs. The primary question is not "Is this student gifted
or not?" but, rather, "What kinds of teaching and learning
activities and experiences (in school or elsewhere) will be
most appropriate and challenging for him or her, based on
current individual learning profiles?"
Restructure schools, change goals, and attend to
the "ecology of learning."
Feldhusen (1995), Renzulli (1994), and Treffinger (1995, 1996,
in press) have all argued that we need to make schools more
accommodating places for talent development, both for
students in general and for those with outstanding
strengths in many areas. When the school's mission and
goals include these challenges, new opportunities will be
created for defining and pursuing continuous improvement,
quality in education, and innovation. School improvement
has too often been viewed primarily as "fixing up" dimen­
sions of education that are lacking or inadequate (e.g., rais­
ing subpar test scores to more acceptable levels, or reducing
discipline problems). We propose that schools must also
establish and pursue with energy a commitment to excel­
lence and to finding and nurturing the strengths and talents
of all students.
The vision of talent development as a core educational
goal should not be limited to a view that equates educa­
tion only with what occurs in schools. There are many
.... 217
institutions and organizations in a community that con­
tribute to the education of today's young people. We
would do well to consider education as taking place with­
in an "ecosystem of learning," in which many components
contribute to the goals of success and productivity and
interact in interdependent ways. In addition to schools
and classrooms, education is influenced by what happens
in homes; at computers on the Internet; in community
workplaces; in churches, museums, and theaters; on ath­
letic fields; and in correctional facilities, youth homes, and
health-care centers.
Offer a variety of flexible programming options.
Our view of educational programming for talent devel­
opment must move away from reliance on a single, fixed
gifted program, and move toward an approach that incor­
porates a variety of activities and services. Feldhusen
(1995) and Renzulli (1994) described, for example, different
teaching and learning activities and services that can be
used in talent development programming at varying age
or grade levels. Treffinger (1986; in press) suggested a
levels-of-service approach involving four levels: a variety
, of appro-priate services for all students, self-selected
opportunities for many students, carefully designed
advanced learning opportunities for some students, and
extensive programming modifications for a few students.
The levels-of-service concept was also incorporated into
McCluskey, Treffinger, and Baker 's (1995) Amphitheater
Model and extended to consider several important ways
to differentiate and assess instruction for all students.
Flexible strategies may include innovative time-tabling
(Renzulli, 1994), early admission and acceleration (Feld­
husen, 1992), and curriculum compacting to allow stu­
dents to move more quickly through subjects and grades
(Reis, Bums, & Renzulli, 1992) . Alternative programs, fre­
quently held off site, address students' social and emo­
tional needs, as well as challenging them academically
(Hahn, 1987) . E xtracurricular activities can also be used to
increase self-concept and sense of belonging. In particular,
work experience serves to connect students with the com­
munity, make curricula more relevant, and develop func­
tional skills to prepare students for the labor market
(Baker, 1991).
Allow f o r and celebrate diversity in styles.
Although learning styles/modality theory has generated
many different opinions and findings in the literature, it
surely makes sense to recognize that different people learn
differently. It would be terribly boring if we were all the
same; there is room for many assorted types of teachers
and learners in our systems. Narrow-mindness and "group­
think," where creativity is almost obliterated, result when
all group members think alike-we should be actively
searching for others whose points of view may be radical­
ly different from our own. And we should be sure to seek
out and nurture the talents of our oft-neglected at-risk
populations. Seeking a better match between teaching and
learning styles (with material selected to recognize stu­
dents' diverse needs) is one means of meeting the needs of
talented students (Dunn, Dunn, & Treffinger, 1992) .
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Hang in there patiently.
Serious problems do not arise overnight, so it cannot be
expected that they will be solved magically by one-shot
cure-aIls. Too often, with the best will in the world, short­
term solutions are offered enthusiastically by educators
and caregivers. When a troubled /troubling student does
not respond immediately, there is a tendency to become
resentful, to react, and often to abandon the attempt and
the individual. It is much more helpful, from the outset, to
take a long-haul approach. Caring and helping take time,
and this is doubly true when working with young people
who have long been disillusioned, disenchanted, and dis­
In short, superficial quick fixes have very little chance of
working with seriously at-risk children and teens-we must
be prepared to hang in there for the duration. What's nega­
tive in childhood can become positive in adulthood: It's a
small step from daydreaming to philosophical thinking,
from stubbornness to determination, and from overactive,
disruptive behavior to productive energy (McCluskey &
McCluskey, 1996). Given the time, guidance, and support,
high-ability troubled young people will mature, evolve, and
learn to channel their talents productively.
Provide special skills training to address issues.
Several generic programs for at-risk students focus on con­
flict resolution, anger management, and the like. One exam­
ple, the Skills Training and Achieving Resilient Students
(STARS) program, offers units on learning about anger,
getting along with others, respect, self-awareness, and
drugs and alcohol (Stewart, in press). For more in-depth
work with behaviorally disruptive/ emotionally fragile chil­
dren and youth, Life Space Intervention (LSI)-which
views conflict as an opportunity for problem solving rather
than a crisis-has proven extremely effective (Wood &
Long, 1991).
Creative Problem Solving (Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger,
1994; Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 1 994) and other
strategies for productive thinking are also imp ortant com­
ponents of any contemporary programming for talent
development. Students who know and can apply a variety
of structured tools and methods for creative and critical
thinking, problem solving, and decision making can
become more effective in dealing with opportunities, chal­
lenges, and concerns they encounter, both in academic set­
tings and in their lives away from school. The impact of
productive thinking tools on at-risk populations and the
value of combining approaches have been described else­
where (d. McCluskey, Baker et al., 1995).
Rememb er the power of kindness and altruism.
In today's rush-to-get-ahead world, the therapeutic power
of kindness is sometimes forgotten (Long, 1997). How
often in our quest to teach talented troubled children and
youth about the "real world" do we draw lines in the sand
and inexorably push them over? And how often, in our
pursuit of material success and the bottom line, do we
neglect to provide the most important ingredient of all­
good old-fashioned tender, loving care? If we hope to help
nurture their talents, we must take the time to work sensi­
tively and altruistically with troubled students, no matter
how difficult it may be. Furthermore, because valuable
lessons can be learned from behaving compassionately and
altruistically, we must provide opportunities for at-risk stu­
dents to help others (Curwin, 1992).
� @I;i
Build long-term, mutually supportive, men­
toring relationships.
In the late 19th century, Grey Owl made a statement to the
following effect: "A mentor is a person whose hindsight
can become your foresight" (and goodness knows, several
'troubled children and teens of our acquaintance could
benefit from learning something about foresight). Many
researchers have stressed the importance of establishing
informal or formal mentoring relationships to acknowl­
edge and develop the talents of children and youth, includ­
ing those at risk (d. Noller & Frey, 1994) . Philanthropic
mentors in the education, business, and social service com­
munities can make a tremendous contribution by bonding
with, guiding, and encouraging needy young people.
In closing, we must take care not to turn our backs on the
talents of at-risk troubled /troubling youth. Perhaps more
than any other group, this population needs support, nur­
turing, and opportunity. Indeed, as noted by practitioners
in one treatment facility (Laferriere, Bastable, & McClus­
key, in press), rather than discarding them, it is about time
to begin "polishing our bad apples."
Ken McCluskey, PhD, is director of special programs with Lord
Selkirk School Division, Manitoba, and has well over 20 years '
experience as a school psychologist and administrator. In 1 996
he received the "Spotlight on Excellence Award" from Reclaim­
ing Children and Youth, and he is also recipient of the
Canadian Council for Exceptional Children 's "Joan Kershaw
Publications Award" for his work with talented at-risk youth.
Donald J. Treffinger, PhD, is president of the Center for (:rea­
tive Learning, Inc., in Sarasota, Florida, and professor emeritus
of Creative Studies at Buffalo State University College. Dr.
Treffinger taught previously at the University of Kansas, at
Purdue University, and in the public schools. The first author
can be contacted at: Lord Selkirk School Division, Human Re­
source Centre, 2 1 1 Main St., Selkirk, MB, RIA lR7, Canada
(Phone: 204/ 785-8224; Fax: 204/ 482-3033
e-mail: [email protected]).
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("Nurturing Talented But Troubled Children and Youth "
continues on p. 226)
.... 219
They already feel different and isolated from their peers.
Once they are given information about their skills and
potential, they better understand why they feel isolated and
can often be assisted in developing coping mechanisms to
deal with situations where they feel they don't fit comfort­
ably with peers. Gifted children have both a need to be dif­
ferent and a need to be accepted. They need outlets for their
different ways of thinking and functioning, yet they fear
isolation and loneliness.
Jason's emotional and behavioral problems, if they contin­
ue, can further limit his development because he may miss
important classroom instruction. In addition, he will sure­
ly miss out on opportunities to develop teamwork and
leadership skills.
This evaluation and feedback took place in the fourth
quarter of the 1996-1997 school year. It was agreed that
counseling would be postponed until summer vacation,
when the grandparents could bring Jason to the city for
counseling sessions.
During a recent follow-up phone call between Jason's
grandmother and the therapist, it was agreed that counsel­
ing could be postponed indefinitely because Jason is doing
very well. He has been accepted into the gifted program for
the fall semester (after the school personnel performed their
own testing to make the identification), he is participating in
a summer reading program, and he is attending summer
enrichment classes in science and computer sciences, which
his grandmother said, "he loves." His maternal grandfather
is also making a point to spend more time with Jason, teach­
ing him about tools and home repairs. Behavior problems at
school diminished significantly during the last few months
of the school year, following a school-wide emphasis on
reducing fighting and conflicts.
Family stress is subsiding. Jason's stepfather is recovering
and responding well to treatment for the tumor in his leg,
and he has resumed full-time work. The family has just
moved to a neighborhood where there are children with
("Nurturing Talented But Troubled Children and Youth "
continued from p. 219)
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group at midlife. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
whom Jason can play. He has a computer to work on at
home. Jason has also been able to have visits with his
father, who has returned home, and he has regular contact
with his father 's extended family. His maternal grandpar­
ents say he is like a different child-much happier and
excited about learning. His parents and grandparents feel
that the evaluation and identification process resulted in
people perceiving Jason in a different and more positive
light. He in turn is responding to their new perceptions
with a better attitude and more appropriate behavior.
Caryln L. Saunders, PhD, is director of the Communication
Skills Center in Kansas City, Missouri, and is a licensed psycholo­
gist and counselor. She has worked extensively with underachiev­
ing adolescents and has a special interest in counseling for talent­
ed and gifted students. She can be contacted at: Communication
Skills Center, 7611 State Line Road, Suite 140, Kansas City, MO
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