Focus: Gifted Education

Using a ‘Brainstretch’ To Address Learners Individually

by JEFFREY B. BEARDEN

Our school district used a traditional model for teaching gifted children up until 2006-07. Students were being pulled from their regular classrooms to be taught in isolation, then returned to class to face additional work that was neither challenging nor appropriate.

Gifted students experienced a real disconnect with the curriculum and the regular classroom. It was almost as if they were being penalized for being in the program. Parents, students and teachers were frustrated.

Jeffrey BeardenJeffrey B. Bearden



Three years ago, the district, which serves 2,600 students in the rural communities of Eliot and South Berwick in Maine, made a significant change in service delivery, a paradigm shift I supported on my arrival. We’ve seen positive results.

Philosophical Change
Our district moved from a model that labeled bright youngsters to one that broadened the definition of gifted and talented and emphasized differentiated instructional practices designed to expand and deepen the individual student’s knowledge of core subjects.

To jump start the program, district administrators agreed that an innovative instructor needed to be hired who was trained in the latest research and, just as importantly, had the critical people skills to transform the gifted and talented program. The district found the right candidate in Grace Jacobs.

One of the first goals was to dispel the perception that gifted and talented programs and services were elitist by design: Either you were in or you were out. Knowing this was an undesired outcome, we sought another lens for stakeholders to use to view the district’s services.

The hallmark of the program is recognizing student strengths and fostering these strengths through a “no-cut” system. It honors the entire spectrum of learners and creates an atmosphere in which students can explore learning at varying levels.

Screening Measures
The screening pool the district uses is created from tools used by teachers to look at their classrooms as a whole. The district casts a wide net and hopes to catch all gifted and talented kids, including those who are twice exceptional. These are students who may be gifted in one area yet have a learning disability in another. Students in this category pose an additional challenge for parents and educators.

Each year the school district looks at various data, including local, state and national assessments and individual teacher recommendations, when creating lists of students to screen. Gifted learners, like any other group of learners, are innately different from one another with unique learning styles and needs. No single measure can accurately identify all students, which is why the district uses many instruments to identify students.

Screening begins in grade 3 with something we call “brainstretch” sessions. Because many characteristics of gifted children are not easily identifiable through exams, brainstretch is used because it offers an informal means of testing students.

During brainstretch, students meet in small groups with a gifted and talented specialist over a period of about six weeks. Brainstretch sessions are used to learn about the students as learners. Students select a topic to study in-depth and independently, and then prepare a project to present to the entire group. Approximately 10 percent of grade 3 students are invited to participate.

At the conclusion of the brainstretch sessions, the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test is administered. This standardized test measures verbal, qualitative and spatial reasoning. The combined results from the OSLAT, Maine Educational Achievement test, teacher recommendations and data compiled from the brainstretch sessions are all used to consider the holistic needs of each child.

The screening committee determines the level of service needed: gifted (general intellectual), gifted (specific academic), high ability or monitor status. This allows the district to move away from labeling students and labeling services. The top 5 percent are grouped with a teacher trained to work with their unique abilities.

Clustering allows the teacher to step back and be the facilitator, the observer and the motivator rather than the dispenser of knowledge. Students who think alike are grouped together. In some cases, the youngsters discover, for the first time, they are not alone in how they process information, a powerful revelation.

Invisible Differentiation
Gifted students are at-risk unless they are identified and provided with differentiated instruction. Differentiation should be invisible. Only the teacher and family should be aware the gifted student is doing different work. These students are gifted 24 hours a day; their needs cannot be ignored in the regular classroom setting.

We train classroom teachers to provide differentiated instruction. The gifted and talented staff works with the regular education teachers in a consultation model that includes collaboration, coordination and advocacy. The goal is to create a good fit for kids.

As superintendent, I’ve been thrilled by the results we’ve seen over the past three years. Students are working in clusters with others who have similar gifts and abilities. They seem happy and engaged in the regular classroom setting.

Our regular education teachers are excited about these students’ progress and the anecdotal evidence I receive from parents is overwhelmingly positive.

Hiring the right personnel is the key to the success of any program. My responsibility is to ensure the program has the support and resources to move forward. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”

Jeff Bearden is superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 35 in Eliot, Maine. E-mail: jbb@msad35.net