Parenting Gifted Children: Is the New School Year Okay? Part 1

Can you balance the odds stacked against high achievement learners?

Posted Oct 25, 2011

Robert Frost used to get tossed out of school on the first day of classes because he was unhappy there. Beethoven's music teacher would refer to him as "hopeless." And Einstein quit school at fifteen. This scenario doesn't come as a shock to most parents of gifted learners. This is because for as much as the world has benefited from the contributions of gifted individuals, the academic population least likely to learn and achieve its potential is the highly gifted.

Yet with some high ability learners, their gifts manage to grow. Such was the case with Frost, Beethoven, and Einstein. They and others like them beat the odds. But not every gifted learner does.

Statistics show that 85% of public school educators agree that more needs to be done for gifted students. Yet it seems that most school budgets-of those that had any funds budgeted-are becoming continuously thinner.

As we enter November, we are slowly finishing the second month of the 2011-2012 academic year. By this point if you are the parent of a gifted learner, you have probably already witnessed the beginning this year's challenges. You may have noticed your child whipping off a week's worth of lessons in, say math or language arts, in less time than it takes you to make stir-fry, and in many cases in less time than that. The tricky part is that your child probably - usually - has it all correct. So what's the problem an uninvolved observer may ask? If the child is achieving all A's or 100's, what's the big deal.

That attitude, all too common, frustrates parents of gifted learners because they see how little effort it is taking their child to master required classroom skills. When the parents of gifted learners see this sort of behavior, a flag instantly goes up. You are generally aware of how much further the child could go with certain (or most) of these skills, and instead you begin to see your child's time being diverted toward activities that do not fuel his or her talents, pleasures, and potentials in those areas. Not that you are against creativity or free-play recreational activity. Rather than "spending" time, it becomes more like "killing" time to ward off excess energy. And that's what may bother you.

Parents (and child) both see and react to the lack of challenge. The problem is that this lack of challenge interrupts the child's flow experiences and in some cases, it can stop this great intrinsically rewarding mindset dead on arrival. This is of concern because it breaks down the transfer of flow to other areas of development. It disrupts the scaffolding effect which the right amount of challenge and flow will help generate to grow gifts and their potentials.

Some argue that the numbers of profoundly gifted are so small that why should anyone care? I have personally listened to points of view that insist that if these individuals are so smart, then they can easily qualify for scholarship when it comes time, so why should parents be complaining about anything? What is there to complain about?

If not properly nurtured along the way, by the time high achievement learners reach college age, their potential can already be seriously impeded. The snowballing of information, processing, skill, capability, motivation, delivery, and reward that we all hope occurs with the gifted learner as well as all others may be seriously diluted. But because of the extreme lack of need-based academic programming for these individuals, they seem to be most affected.

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

 Probably the most frequent complaint you hear from parents involves their child's lack of challenge at school, as well as a general overall lack of understanding of just "what is challenging" to a gifted learner from those who work with them. For example, you may have a 7 year old who enjoys pointing out the discrepancies between Galileo and Aristotle and questioning her mother's good friend's definition of death, using a principle of string theory she viewed to her delight several times on PBS or who has noticed a commonality between a Virginia Woolf short story and a science experiment in photosynthesis. Or who has talked about protagonists and antagonists in stories with comprehension for several years and wondered what "agonist" might have to do with each word-to the point that the parent "must" look it up. Or perhaps the 7 year old who aspires to write a book on "what existed before the universe"- her idea - and enjoys going to science classes held in her local museum with her parents. She likes these classes because she sees them as helping her find information that leads to information that she thinks will help her academic pursuits. Meanwhile, she is beginning to become bored with "regular" school because she may receive 2X the "amount" of work she received a year ago - even though she is doing it in minutes. It's not the amount of work, she needs heightened. It's the materials and the treatments of those materials she needs deepened as well as expanded to make it all connect and "flow" into other connections, heightening the bar or interests and pursuits.

Parents of gifted children see the fallout of a disconnect occurs. Lack of challenge leads to high-energy behavior (sometimes misbehavior) trying to create challenge elsewhere - such as dancing ballet on a high balance beam , or timing a stopwatch to see how fast they can figure out a math problem, setting it faster and faster for lack of other incentives and rewards.

I have discussed with other parents what we have come to call an intellectual chameleon effect. Some gifted kids (and many others as well) wind up mirroring the intellectual environments they are in. So, if they are around other high achievers and the academic challenge is good, they raise their own bar. If not, they want to fit in, so they lower their own bar. Looking through a zoom lens of 12 years, it is easy to see how someone may miss their potential if the bar stays low. Parents of gifted children, as parents of all children, are simply concerned - about this missed opportunity.

The following are a few things I would like to share that have made the lives of some parents, children, and educators "a little" easier.

• Arrange for early evaluation for your child. If you haven't already, try to schedule an appointment to have your child evaluated by a professional. This way, when you speak with administrators and teachers, you will have more ground to support your concerns. A professional can also inform you on what to expect in your child's development and how you can nurture it - as well as explain some predictable pitfalls.

• Contact appropriate school personnel in advance - your principal, assigned teacher. By in advance, I mean preferably a year before your child enters a program. This builds your rapport slowly so you will have one when you need it. It's never too late. If your child is already in a program, start now. But move slowly and lightly as your situation allows. Things work out a lot smoother when everyone is on board-if that is possible as per your situation.

• Ask your principal to help match your child with a teacher that will meet his/her needs. This is easier if you already have established a rapport with your administrator.

• Attend early ongoing meetings with your child's teacher, at all scheduled junctures and whenever you feel it necessary to intervene. You can greatly help faculty and administrators understand the unique (and sometimes peculiar) behaviors of gifted learners, which are so often misunderstood or identified as "something else." Take for example, the issue of perfectionism that is all too common among especially profoundly the gifted learners. For instance, a gifted learner may spend the majority of a testing situation making sure that every word is printed to absolute perfection because he was criticized for his handwriting just once and since perfected it - forgetting that the aim of the test is to answer as many questions as you can in, say, 5 minutes. A parent I know had just this situation. Once she explained her son's concern to the teacher, the teacher de-emphasized the handwriting and the child finished pursuant tests just fine. Another example is with emotional over-excitability. For some individuals, it is easy to confuse this kind of reaction with immaturity, when, in fact, it can indicate just the opposite. This was the case with another child whose parents chose not to let administrators misunderstand or write off their daughter's emotional reactions to certain literature as well as interpersonal classroom conducts as "kind of immature." So they instead rounded up the best literature on the topic and shared that with both teachers and administrators-with the goal of achieving a more accurate understanding of the child's needs as well as busting miscomprehensions. Respect, smoothness, and ultimately teaming up to facilitate the best interests for the child are key.

• Hold school administrators to their anthems. Look on school websites. Read their philosophies. See how these pertain to your child's situation. This can be done lightly yet irrevocably. Know what they offer, and if they don't offer something good anymore, find out why, and what they are going to do about that - in general, and specifically to your situation.

• Don't be afraid to initiate meetings with administrators and teachers. Have an agenda-with one or two talking points you want to achieve and think they can deliver on.  It's okay to be direct, but remember you need their cooperation if your child is to continue there.

• Supplement as much as you can during the school year with things linked directly to your child's interests: trips to museums, farms, libraries, classes, etc.

• This one's hard, but try to get in the classroom - volunteer - so you can see what's going on, the environment your child and teacher must deal with, materials in use. This helps you package your requests so that they are reasonable.

• Listen to your child daily. Listen more than talk so that there is a sense of freedom in conveying his or her needs and discussing how they are or are not being met. This helps you strategize for your next meeting at school and for your supplemental activities at home and outside.

• When child wants to hike up the challenge-help her by all means, keep her flow mind going. That's a big part of it.

• Your school doesn't have a gifted program? Create - suggest your own alternate program - for your child.

Stay tuned. Part 2 of this series will discuss "how" you can begin to create such a program and how to present it to administrators and teachers. Julie Dudley from the Davidson Institute will be chiming in with some tips as well. I will also have some discussion on a few extraordinarily good and useful books to help design a personal curriculum for your child and show to educators at your school to make things much smoother and esier for all.

On a final note: Most of us parents have heard a lot about the pitfalls of trying to make our child's classroom experiences work out for the best. I want to encourage parents of gifted children reading this post; however, to share on my comments page any good strategies and the successes you have personally had in helping make your child's education better, more meaningful, and happy. When did you intercede? How? What made your intervention work? What were the results? I am looking primarily for a discussion of successful and personal measures taken, in the spirit of sharing these with everyone to help them on their own way. Surely, we are all in need of more good ideas.