Educating Gifted Students in Middle School: Author Q&A
Educating Gifted Students in Middle School: Author Q&A
PUBLISHED: Wednesday, August 05, 2020 by Andilynn Feddeler

Educating Gifted Students in Middle School: A Practical Guide (3rd ed.) provides a rationale and framework that middle schools can use to fill the service gap for gifted and advanced learners. Learn more about understanding and meeting the needs of gifted students in middle school in this interview with the author, Susan Rakow, Ph.D. 

Q: What is new to this edition of the book? Why were these changes made?

A: As I continued conversations and relationships with my middle school teaching colleagues, presented at gifted conferences around the country, and worked with teachers of gifted middle school students as a professor, I realized there was a need to bring renewed attention to these students. The material in the second edition was published in 2011 (and written a year or more before then). As I worked with the kids themselves and their families both at Menlo Park Academy and in the Family Achievement Clinic—and finally, as my grandchildren entered and moved through middle school—I became increasingly aware that gifted students’ needs during middle school were still not adequately being met. 

The changes I made addressed a number of concerns. First, the external environment of testing and accountability has continued to refocus attention to minimal competencies and grade-level assessments.

Second, as I became more aware of unmet social-emotional needs both in classrooms and counseling settings, I realized I needed to share information and understanding of how depression, anxiety, and a lack of resilience were impacting these kids. It has also become clear to me that a lack of executive function skills impacts depression and anxiety as well as underachievement. Thus, the new book has a full chapter that explores these topics and makes suggestions to teachers, counselors, and administrators for how we can all do a much better job of providing support for gifted students in these essential areas.

The entire STEM chapter needed to be updated to reflect not just the increased role of technology in our classrooms and our students’ lives, but also the resources and strategies available now, most of which didn’t even exist when the second edition was written. Another new aspect of this edition is the online resources. This has the potential to allow for continued updates.

Throughout the book, there are examples of Real Schools, Real Solutions so that readers can see practical ways to implement many of the ideas and suggestions in the text. There are also resource lists and references that teachers, counselors, and administrators will find helpful in their work with their gifted students. 

Finally, there has been significant research since the second edition to increase our understanding of and ways to address the needs of twice-exceptional students as well as diverse gifted learners in middle school that made a third edition necessary. 

Each chapter concludes with Next Steps: Taking Action to help readers develop changes that are appropriate and relevant for them in their schools and classrooms. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned in the last 10 years with teachers, counselors, and administrators in what I believe is a readable and practical guide. 


Q: How are middle school students unique in their needs (both educational and social-emotional)?

A: Far too many individuals assume that giftedness is “what you know and can do.” They miss the point that giftedness, especially at the higher ends, is “who you are.” It impacts how individuals experience the world. During middle school, gifted students may feel caught between what is typical for their age (social and behavioral norms) and what they think and feel. Parents are often confused as middle schoolers push away from them, seeking independence and a like-minded peer group, whereas before, these kids may have preferred adult company. Middle school may be a time when asynchronous development takes its biggest toll: highly verbal, very creative, academically advanced beyond their chronological age . . . BUT simultaneously sensitive, on an emotional rollercoaster, rebellious, needy, and unpredictable like the rest of their age-mates. Teachers too can easily be confused, like when a brilliant middle school student looks at a returned test that has earned a B+ and begins to cry.

Most middle school gifted students begin to demonstrate “domain specificity,” choosing to focus on STEM fields or humanities courses, even though based on general ability, they qualify for honors/advanced classes (when available) in all areas. Sadly, far too many middle schools are eliminating advanced/honors courses even in the most common areas: math and ELA/reading. Under the guise of equality, these decisions actually disadvantage culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse students for whom middle school is the optimal time to prepare them for high school honors, AP, and IB classes. 

This idea of middle school as a “feeder” program for high school is clearly understood in athletics. If we’re to have a good high school football or volleyball team, we need to offer these co-curriculars in middle school. Kids need to learn how to compete at a higher level and learn the basic skills needed to win later on. Yet we ignore the fact that if we want students to succeed (and not just enroll) in high school honors and AP classes, we need to help them develop the basic executive function skills as well as the content knowledge to succeed in these rigorous courses. This is especially true for traditionally underrepresented students. 


Q: How does this book address learners from diverse or underserved backgrounds?

A: The new edition of this book incorporates a much broader definition and understanding of “diverse populations” as it addresses three key questions:

  • What are the aspects of diversity and uniqueness that impact gifted adolescents in middle school? 
  • What are the unique challenges faced by these diverse populations?
  • How can middle schools and gifted advocates respond to these challenges in more inclusive ways that support both excellence and equity? 

The chapter devoted to this topic attempts to break down stereotypes of what a gifted student “looks like” or “acts like.” I was once told I’d love having a particular gifted student in my class because his handwriting was so neat! Absurd even then when typing/keyboarding/word processing was a nascent skill. Middle school is a great time to revisit identification and service options so that late bloomers and those new to a school or district are provided with the opportunities they need for growth. Again, if a district wants to reverse underrepresentation in its high school advanced classes, middle school is unquestionably the time to ensure opportunities are available for all students who are ready to tackle these challenges. Special attention is given in this chapter to the three U’s: underidentification, underrepresentation and exclusion, and underachievement. Specific attention is given to the needs of culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse gifted students, as well as gifted girls, gifted boys, LGBTQ gifted students, twice-exceptional students, and profoundly gifted students. 


Q: How is the book organized, and why?

A: The new edition of the book begins with Chapter 1, presenting a general overview of the academic, social, and emotional needs of gifted students in the middle grades, 5–9. It’s designed to answer readers’ questions about how gifted students in this age group are different from typical middle schoolers and how their needs might vary from the general population.

Chapter 2 addresses diverse gifted learners in order to focus attention on and broaden readers’ understanding of the wide range of giftedness and how it manifests in a range of subpopulations. Hopefully, this will encourage middle schools to cast a wider net in how they identify and serve gifted and advanced learners.

From there, Chapters 3 and 4 address some of the underlying challenges many gifted middle schoolers face (depression, anxiety, underachievement, and lack of executive functioning skills) as well as actions that those in specific roles (gifted teacher/coordinator, school counselor, administrator) can take to help address these challenges. After a brief chapter on national reform movements and trends, particularly those that negatively impact services for gifted learners, Chapter 6 offers an overview of multiple program models and structures with practical suggestions for how a school can develop a continuum of services that addresses students’ needs within the unique context of an individual district and community.

Chapters 7–10 tackle specific instructional concerns and subject areas, including a lengthy discussion of the limitations and overhyping of differentiated instruction and a range of curricular and instructional strategies. A new chapter on the humanities includes the arts and social studies as well as literacy, and the list of materials and books has been significantly revised to reflect new publications and technology. The appendices include a subject-specific Curriculum Review Checklist.

Because no school or district can possibly meet all of the needs of its gifted students within the limits of a school day or even a school year, the final chapter provides suggestions for competitions, summer programs, and other opportunities that extend the learning of our gifted and advanced students. Part of our job as educators is to create lifelong learners, and these options can help students make the connections that forge these behaviors and relationships. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book? 

A: For far too long, middle schools have been considered “the black hole” of gifted education. My primary reason for writing this book is to eliminate this perception and the realities on which it is based. I hope readers will get inspired and motivated to take action in whatever ways they can—as parents, teachers, counselors, administrators—to ensure that the needs of the wide range of gifted learners are met during their essential middle school years. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It is my hope that readers will use this book to take a step or two or more on their own journey to create more welcoming, productive, and positive middle school experiences for gifted students. 

Susan Rakow, Ph.D., LPCC, is currently a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor specializing in work with gifted children/teens and families at the Family Achievement Clinic directed by Dr. Sylvia Rimm. Susan also works as a counselor at Menlo Park Academy, a K–8 school for gifted children in Cleveland, OH.