An Interview with Steven I. Pfeiffer: Making “Giftedness” Understandable

Apr 27, 2021 by

Dr. Steven Pfeiffer Keynote in Milan

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Steven, I understand that you have been working with some colleagues from Italy. Tell us about this.

I’m happy to, Michael. My work in Italy began around 2012. Over the course of this time period, I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of working with a number of different Italian agencies, organizations, schools, and very talented individuals. And the opportunity to meet a great many lovely Italians. My first contacts were with Drs. Roberta Renati and Maria Assunta Zanetti, at the time both affiliated with the Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences- Psychology Section, at the University of Pavia.

Dr. Maria Assunta Zanetti is a Professor at the University of Pavia and was very interested in the opportunity to translate into Italian the gifted rating scale, the GRS, that I authored. And Dr. Roberta Renati – who goes by the nickname Robi, Adjunct Professor at the University of Pavia, was my host. Robi arranged for me to lead a series of talks with professionals and the lay public on issues related to the social and emotional world of the gifted.

That early work in Italy led to subsequent contacts, consultations and workshops at the University of Pavia, and then at the Phronesis Center, located in Milan and part of the Foundazione Eris, a large organization serving a variety of clients, including the gifted. Robi was also clinical director at the Phronesis Center and orchestrated my serving as a consultant to the Foundazione Eris. I was involved in a variety of activities, including grant development for a pilot gifted program in the Milan schools, supervising staff, leading workshops, consulting on research and collaborating on scientific papers. For example, we coauthored a paper on challenges in raising a gifted child, which was published in Gifted Education International (Renati, Bonfigio, & Pfeiffer, 2016).

More recently, Robi launched a new center specializing in the gifted, ArtimisLab. ArtimisLab is a spinoff of a startup called Noah that aims to develop innovative practices in psychological treatment. To my great delight, my work on “strengths of the heart,” my ideas on ways to optimize mental health outcomes for clients who are gifted, my “tripartite model of giftedness,” and my thinking on best practices in gifted identification have all found a welcome home with Robi at ArtimisLab. I continue to consult with Robi to this day. For example, I am (virtual) keynote speaker for her June 26th Italian conference, “Giftedness in a changing world: Enhancing the dialogue between cognition and emotion” Italy conference .

I also have had the good fortune of working with Ms. Viviana Castelli. Viviana is president of the StepNet Onlus Nazionale, a non-profit, national parent-led gifted association located in Milan and affiliated with the WCGTC that supports the talent development and emotional development and potential of Italian gifted kids. Over the years, Viviana graciously involved me in a number of extraordinary opportunities to share my ideas and work. For example, I gave a keynote talk on “strengths of the heart” at a conference she organized (Pfeiffer, 2017). Viviana actually orchestrated a unique opportunity for me to testify on the unmet needs of the gifted before the Italian Parliament, Chamber of Deputies, in Rome. And Viviana arranged for another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to present on live Italian TV on the gifted from the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Milan.

2) What does one do to stay busy and out-of-trouble during the Covid-19 pandemic? 

A great question! This has been such a difficult and challenging time for so many of us, both here in the USA and across the globe. For me, it was a somewhat unique personal challenge – I had recently retired from my tenured faculty position at Florida State University, still unsure of how I would approach retirement, and Covid-19 crashed upon us all! For me, first priority post-retirement (and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic) was to spend more time with my wife, three grown kids and five grandkids. This was, undoubtedly, complicated by the necessity to follow public health guidelines and, if at all possible, to quarantine, stay at home, and avoid all unnecessary social contact outside of your immediate family! But we prevailed.

Although I had recently retired from the University, I had a number of unfinished projects that have kept me busy during the Covid-19 pandemic, Mike. For example, I was working with MHS test publishers on the finishing touches of my new Gifted Rating Scales (GRS ™2; Pfeiffer & Jarosewich, 2021). We had completed a revision and new standardization for the revised GRS™ 2 Teacher Form and had developed and validated a new companion rating form for parents (GRS™ 2 Parent Form). The new GRS™ 2 Parent Form includes a scale that measures social-emotional skills (“strengths of the heart”), which is very exciting. So, a lot of time this past year has been spent going over statistics, item wording, test instructions and design format with the MHS statistics and test development team and writing the new GRS™ 2 Test Manual!

During this year, I have continued to work with a few of my private therapy clients, although now all of my counseling work is virtual using Zoom. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I have also been working with a doctoral student and a former post-doctoral fellow from Brazil on a new and exciting research endeavor – exploring the efficacy and practicality of smartphone-delivered mental health (MH) programs for youth. We are just now finishing a manuscript on a meta-analysis on the efficacy of iPhone Mental Health Apps for children and adolescents with common MH problems. We hope to actually launch a series of small clinical trial studies on the efficacy of popular smartphone-delivered MH apps for gifted kids. Stay tuned!

Finally, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I was surprised and delighted to receive an invitation by a journal Editor to participate in an interview. The interview very recently appeared in the gifted journal, Roeper Review (Pfeiffer, 2021). The interview was an unanticipated opportunity to reflect on my 40-plus year career.

Dr. Steven Pfeiffer testifying before Italian Parliament – Rome

3) Can you talk a bit more about your recommended approach to identifying giftedness? You mention it briefly in the video you helped create. Tell us more about this.

I am always happy to ‘stand on my soapbox’ and talk about my ideas on gifted identification. I’ve been lecturing and writing about these ideas since at least 2002, when I first published a paper in the Journal of Applied School Psychology entitled, “Identifying gifted and talented students: Recurring issues and promising solutions” (Pfeiffer, 2002). My ideas are perhaps most fully explained in my book, Essentials of Gifted Assessment (2015), published by Wiley.

I believe that best practices in gifted identification needs to acknowledge and respect a set of guiding principles and fundamental beliefs that serve as a foundation for what one actually does in attempting to identify a student as gifted. Very briefly, the fundamental beliefs that guide my thinking about gifted identification are as follows. First, giftedness is a useful construct even if it is not really something that is real in nature. I view the academically gifted student as a youngster who “demonstrates outstanding performance or evidence of potential for outstanding academic performance… [and] is likely to benefit from special educational programs or resources, especially if they align with their unique profile of abilities and interests” (Pfeiffer, 2015, p. 45). Second, I believe that we can differentiate high-ability and high-performing students from other, less bright and less accomplished students in the school. My tripartite model of giftedness affords practitioners three complementary ways to go about doing just this.

Third, I believe that irrespective of whatever type of gift we are identifying, we should not forget that there are different levels of giftedness. Françoys Gagné suggests five such levels; Lewis Terman proposed four. In Essentials of Gifted Assessment, I offer four levels based on my own clinical experience in terms of practicality: gifted; highly gifted; exceptionally gifted; and profoundly gifted. We need to remember that there is no one correct number of levels of giftedness! The fourth fundamental belief underlying my view on gifted identification is that there exist technically adequate gifted assessment tests – and that practitioners should always use scientifically sound tests when identifying gifted students.

I also advocate for five principles for best practices in gifted identification. They are: one, how we define and operationalize giftedness is important; two, assessment should always consider the types of available gifted programs and not test kids ‘in a vacuum;’ three, psychometrics and the quality of the tests that we use are important; four, people, and not test scores, should ultimately make diagnostic decisions; and finally, there is a distinct advantage in using multiple measures when assessing any psychological construct, including giftedness. The reader interested in these ideas can find a more detailed discussion in my book, Essentials of Gifted Assessment. I should add that I am a huge advocate for using local norms and conducting recurring gifted assessments in the schools. In fact, in the Test Manual for the new GRS™ 2, we specifically encourage and actually provide local norms at the school district level as a means of ensuring equity and fairness. Of course, as test author, I recommend using the GRS™ 2 Teacher Form and the Parent Form in all gifted identification!

I also advocate using a battery of high-quality tests and measures, not one measure to make a gifted determination! I recommend that gifted identification include measuring intellectual and academic ability, creativity, motivation, persistence, passion for learning and social maturity. I also encourage as part of the gifted assessment test battery including measures of important ‘soft skills’ – what I call ‘strengths of the heart,’ such as empathy, compassion, and openness to experience.

4) Can you share with our readers the entrancing, entertaining video?

With Robi Renati’s enthusiastic support, I am happy to share the cartoon video, created by the creative Italian ArtimisLab team. The video that I am sharing is in English. However, the one that Robi is using for her ‘local’ purposes in reaching Italian kids and their parents is in Italian, not English, of course!

5) What have I neglected to ask?

I don’t think that you neglected anything, Mike. It has been a pleasure doing this interview with you!

References

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2002). Identifying gifted and talented students: Recurring issues and promising solutions. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 31-50.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2015). Essentials of gifted assessment. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2017). Success in the classroom and in life: Focusing on strengths of the head and strengths of the heart. Gifted Education International, 33(2), 95-101: https://doi:10.1177/0261429416640337

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2021). Innovative leadership: An interview with Steven I. Pfeiffer, Roeper Review, 43 (2), 75–78: https://doi.org/10.1080/02783193.2021.1881748

Pfeiffer, S. I., & Jarosewich, T. (2021). The Gifted Rating Scales™ 2 (GRS™ 2). Toronto, Canada: MHS.

Renati, R., Bonfiglio, N. S., & Pfeiffer, S. I. (2015 or 2016). Challenges raising a gifted child: Stress and resilience factors within the family. Gifted Education International: https://doi.org/10.1177/0261429416650948

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