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Gifted Children: Nurturing Genius (Part One)

Nurturing gifted children.

“Beethoven had a music teacher who described him as “hopeless.” [Likewise] Picasso was so disinterested in school when he was a young boy that the only way his family could get him to go was by letting him bring a live chicken to class so he could draw its portrait,” (Judy Galbraith, The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide). Similarly, Einstein quit high school at the age of 15—dismayed.

“What’s up with that?” you might ask.

Dr. Dudley Herschbach of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University who discusses the young Einstein in a paper titled Einstein as a Student ( writes:Late in life, when reflecting on his uncanny papers of 1905, Einstein liked to say, “Nobody expected me to lay golden eggs." A century later, nobody can expect to fully comprehend how he did it.”

Yet, for as much as the world has benefited from the contributions of gifted individuals, it is disturbing, to this writer, to realize that the population least likely to learn and achieve its potential is the highly gifted.

Statistics show that 85% of public school educators agree that more needs to be done for gifted students. And many are doing the best job possible given the hand they’ve been dealt. So one might wonder, why then aren’t they—teachers, students, parents, communities—getting the support we need?

In my following series of posts on Gifted Children, I will discuss why these children are likely to fall between the cracks from early on and why they experience the greatest discrepancies between their abilities and what they are generally being asked to do, in particular—but not limited to—academic environments.

Jan and Bob Davidson—founders of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development and authors of the book Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds, What You and Your School Can do for Your Gifted Child, write that genius has two different but interrelated meanings. “In one sense, genius means high intellectual potential; in another sense, genius means creative ability of exceptional high order as demonstrated by total achievement.” And they use both.

As such, Davidson programs for the gifted serve what they refer to as profoundly gifted youth. They define that with tests that are 99.9% or higher or children that are 3 standard deviations above the norm. Depending on the IQ test, children participating in Davidson programs may norm differently and can peak anywhere from 145 to 150 in terms of IQ. The problem, as addressed in Genius Denied, is that “while children of IQs of 120 to 160 may be called gifted, they learn at different rates and think at very different levels.” The range “includes students who may be satisfied with moderate academic advancement such as taking algebra in 8th Grade, and more intellectually advanced students who may be ready for calculus in elementary school. It covers students who read just a little above grade level to twelve-year-olds who read Tolstoy by flashlight under the covers at night. Yet educational policies tend to view the gifted as a homogenous group and assume that any gifted program in place will satisfy all these children’s needs.”

Most schools, public and private, do well providing students with a solid educational foundation. And we have taken some very productive steps in meeting the needs of low-achievers, middle-achievers, and even high-achievers. All kids deserve this.

It seems discriminatory to exclude anyone, regardless of his or her level of achievement—including the profoundly gifted. Unfortunately, it is easy to write them off—thinking they are getting straight A+s. They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. What more can they possibly need? My state, New York, for example, currently requires identification of gifted children, but doesn't mandate special programming. What's more, funding in just the past few years has dropped from (a modest) 15 million dollars to zero.

It seems unreasonable to expect to reap the benefits of gifted childrens’ contributions if we don’t nurture their minds along the way.

In many states, instruction for the gifted must be supplemental to regular instruction. This means in content and in cost. The Davidson’s write, “Classes [in such states]that gifted students need most—accelerated math, English, and science—aren’t supplementary; they’re substitutes for the core curriculum, and therefore they are excluded from gifted programs and so [in such states] many schools that want to do something for gifted students wind up offering them the equivalent of indoor camp.”

Picture this: A profoundly gifted young boy, age 9, was enrolled in such a school. His parent explains, they live “in a state that has no mandate to identify or serve gifted children and there is no federal mandate for gifted education, [and so he was] offered no services whatsoever other than the regular classroom with his age peers where the main concern was “No Child Left Behind.” This parent’s story is all too common. The parent explains that giftedness in their neck of the woods “is determined by achievement and class engagement in the regular classroom [and since] teachers here are not required to have any training whatsoever in gifted education it is no wonder that this child did not thrive in a regular classroom, and in fact felt extremely isolated, alone and disengaged.” This disengagement is a big flag and can lead to other more serious problems.

Another child is growing up in a state that does mandate schools to identify gifted children and to serve them with special educational programs. However, the state (like mine) has no funds allotted for gifted programming. The child, prior to preschool, was, as her parents describe, “lit.” In fact, the child has been entertainingly and intelligently curious to her parents since birth. “From the moment she opened her eyes,” I could tell there was something different about her,” says her mother—a professor. “She has always loved language and could speak very, very early on. When all the parenting books gave a dipstick of about 60 words —she could wield complex sentences easily and at will. Mom recalls how at the age of two, her daughter described a series of gallery of paintings, using language that was elevated enough for the museum’s director who overheard to comment on her verbal skill. Her love for language and skill were so out of the norm that mom and dad—educators both—decided, upon a friend’s recommendation (an educator of gifted children), to have their daughter tested. When these parents told their pediatrician, he chuckled and commented, “Top 1 %. Right?” The parents were grateful for his response because there had been so few others with whom they could share their joys and concerns—as well as their difficult challenges. The pediatrician was pretty much dead on: the child’s verbal skills landed her above 99%. Interestingly, the mother recalls, he (the pediatrician) had noticed her daughter’s aptitude for communication at 4 months old during a routine appointment, commenting on how—even then— she knew when and where to make baby sounds within a conversation with her mother.

In another story, the parents of a child who at age 3 ½ is measuring kitchen cabinets with a tape-measure (and doing the math) are told by his pre-school teacher, “that sounds a little inflated.”

And another profoundly gifted child is being mocked by her classmates and so she is now slowly “phasing out” —insofar as the classroom is concerned—wishing on a daily basis for someone to understand.

What can we do, writes Dr. James R. Delisle, author of the Gifted Kids Survival Book, to “transform genius denied into genius fulfilled?”

To help gather information regarding some commonly shared questions posed by parents and teachers of highly gifted youth, I recently interviewed Jill Adrian, Director of Family Services at the Davidson Institute. The next sequence of posts will present highlights from our discussion and will include commentary on:

· the 1st signs of giftedness

· how parents can mentor their gifted child before pre-school

· things parents can do to advocate once their gifted child enters the system

· cost-effective ways to meet gifted children’s needs in schools

· researched guides for deciding on acceleration or not

· what happens if you are met with resistance

· and how to make public education work for you

You will find links to most of these talking points and, especially if you are a parent of a highly gifted child, discover a path and some camaraderie with which to break the silence about what you know already are some very special needs and concerns. With any luck, this series of posts can help provide a little light at the beginning of this proverbial tunnel.

Stay tuned!

"It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom."

– Albert Einstein

From the Davidson Young Scholar Program Success Stories

“I’ve been a Young scholar for over two years now. I’m writing to say thank you. When I first started in the program, I was in the first grade and really bored and sad. Our family consultant helped my parents work with the school to help me.”
- Current Young Scholar

“Being a Young Scholar has changed the direction of my daughter’s life and boosted her confidence immeasurably. Finding others with similar interests and abilities has probably been the single most important development in her life.”
– Young Scholar Parent


For a scientific adventure into the world of human attention see my newest book [amazon 1601630638].

Photo Image: Davidson Institute