When we hear the word “gifted” we usually think of someone who is extremely intelligent, has remarkable talents or an unusually high IQ. Most people think of being gifted as, well, a gift. It certainly is, to some extent. You learn new information quickly and easily. You pick up new skills with ease. You excel in several, if not most, areas of your life. But being gifted is incredibly difficult and comes with a variety of issues and complications that are rarely observed or addressed. It’s not always a gift.
I come from a family of extremely intelligent and talented people going back several generations. They accomplished world-renowned feats in science, art and education. These talents have been passed down for several generations now. My biological mother graduated medical school and college simultaneously. I was considered gifted and earned multiple awards and scholarships, graduating from high school early. Now I have one son who doesn’t meet the state’s criteria, but has all the intelligence and talents. And I have another son who has met the state criteria and is struggling to get an education.
It may sound odd that a gifted child would struggle to get an education. You’d think that because learning is so easy, school would be easy too. School has been awful. He is bored senseless. He has no idea what it feels like to actually learn something because information just gets absorbed immediately. He doesn’t know how to take notes or study. He doesn’t need to. He is not allowed to work ahead in class or even draw pictures or read when he’s bored. He must not “be a distraction to the other students.” Occasionally, he will be allowed to teach the other kids. But rarely, if ever, is he challenged in any way. He just tries to get through each day as best he can.
This is a tragedy and unbelievably unfair. Why should this child have to spend his entire life going to school to do nothing? Is he not entitled to an education?
People will argue that giftedness is contrived or too difficult to measure. Parents of gifted children will tell you that is not true. These kids learn differently. They learn quickly, across many spectrums. My 12-year-old was drawing by the time he could sit. When he was 1 ½ years old, he could draw a recognizable person with head, body, legs, arms, face and hair. Both kids taught themselves to read by 4 years old. Both kids have taught themselves to play multiple instruments including piano, drums, guitar and bass. They both sit second chair in orchestra for violin, despite the fact that they never practice and have never had a single lesson. Both pick up world languages with ease and little assistance. Any parent of a gifted child will tell you, these kids learn differently and at a different pace.
Gifted education needs to be placed on par with other special education services.
These kids have special needs. We would never ignore children whose learning styles caused them to lag behind. We offer them specialized and individualized services to attend to their needs. Why are we ignoring the other end of the learning spectrum? Gifted kids learn rapidly and yet we expect them to sit still and learn nothing more than what their peers are able to master. This simply does meet their needs.
By ignoring their needs, we are creating terrible problems.
A gifted child who is not consistently challenged does not have the opportunity to feel the process of learning—what it feels like to work through a problem, to work at mastering a concept, to hit bumps in the road of understanding or to fail and then recover. At some point in the child’s life, their ability to absorb information will be challenged by the information they are asked to understand. But without the skills of learning, they are handicapped. Many gifted kids give up, frustrated and feeling stupid or overwhelmed, at some point in their educational career.
Gifted kids need to know they are not perfect.
Many gifted kids are accomplished in so many areas of their lives, they assume that this is normal and expected. When they face something they are not immediately able to master, they can incorrectly believe they are a failure. This is a direct result of a lack of challenge in their lives. It’s improper thinking but how would the child know any different? You would think that being great at so many things would make you feel good. For most gifted kids, it doesn’t. To them, that’s just normal and how things go. It’s imperative they experience frustration and the art of perseverance to understand that perfection is not normal nor to be expected.
Gifted kids can end up feeling like the invisible citizens of their world.
No one seems to care about their needs in school. If they are bored, they must sit still and be quiet. If they already know the material, they can help the other kids. Even if they’ve proved that they’ve mastered the material, they still must do the homework, because that is simply the policy. Where does the gifted child come into play in all this? What about his needs? When does he get to learn something? When does he get to be challenged? Why is it that jumping through hoops and helping the teacher run a better classroom all that matters? Doesn’t he matter?
I have no idea how to change the school system. I see people dismissing the needs of gifted children, or even their very existence. I try to convince my kids’ teachers to accommodate them, but they won’t always agree. I watch as my son rebels against this assault on his dignity and refuses to do homework. I have to make him do it. I don’t know what else to do.
I can’t change the school but I can offer him the opportunity to learn, at home, the most important skill he’s lacking: the process and joy of learning.
I discovered Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and signed him up. These are free online classes offered through universities around the world. So far, he is pulling a B in his college-level computer programming class. He is 12.
This experience has helped him tremendously. He has worked through anxiety related to not being able to instantly absorb information. He has figured out strategies for solving problems if he can’t figure it out the first time. He has learned that grades are relevant to the material presented and the difficulty of the class. (although he still felt a lot better about his 99 and 86 than he did about his two C’s.) We keep talking about the process of learning and the joy that brings. He has come a long way from having near panic attacks when he first started to being able to discuss a moment of frustration and develop a strategy to get through it. He is very proud of himself.
He is no longer afraid of moments when he doesn’t understand something. He is learning that learning is, and should be, a process.
Fortunately, we are almost to high school. At least in high school, we have the option to selectively move up to higher-level classes. My boys have been waiting for this opportunity their entire lives. But isn’t it a shame they have had to wait for so long? Shouldn’t school be a joy throughout childhood?
If you have a gifted child, keep focused on your child’s needs. Don’t underestimate her ability to “do it on her own.” She needs your guidance. Advocate for her the best you can. If you don’t have a gifted child, please don’t overlook these children. Please don’t tell yourself or others that these kids don’t need us or their schools. They ARE getting left behind and they need our help. They are special kids with special needs. It’s time we all start treating them that way. Every child deserves a quality education. Even the gifted child.
What are your thoughts on gifted children and education?