What If Your Child Is Intellectually Gifted, High-Ability?

An interview with Frank Worrell

Posted Sep 11, 2014

To address that question, I interviewed one of the nation’s leading experts on gifted students. He directs the University of California Berkeley’s Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) and is recipient of the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Association of Gifted Children, the Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association, and the Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence. 

Marty Nemko: Is there a common misconception among parents of gifted kids?

Frank Worrell: Many parents assume that if their child has been identified as gifted, s/he should be expected to always excel. Some gifted struggle in a particular subject, or they might excel compared with average students but not be top-of-the-heap compared with other gifted kids. There is a range of giftedness.

Another misconception is that just because a kid is high-ability doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t like things that average kids do, for example, comic books or playing in the park.

MN: Some parents feel that their intellectually gifted child is being short-changed in a mixed-ability class. What would you say to them?

FW:  Before making that judgment, look at the kind of work your child is doing in that class. If s/he gets the work done quickly and thus spends a lot of time sitting bored, yes, that’s a problem.  But sometimes, gifted kids may struggle even in a mixed-ability class. Sure, they may have a high IQ but that doesn’t always translate into broad-based excellent achievement. Also, some teachers in a mixed-ability class manage to do a good job with high-ability kids.

MN: In schools with mixed-ability classes, especially those with a wide range of achievement level, some believe that skipping a grade, two, or even more, offers the most realistic chance that a high-ability child’s needs get met. Do you agree?

FW: Perhaps.That’s often appropriate for those who are doing well across the board. But if a child’s giftedness mainly resides in one domain, for example, math, consider single-subject acceleration—having the school be committed to the child, each year, doing two years of math in one. Of course, that does require the teachers to cooperate.

MN: Some education leaders claim that the new Common Core curriculum will address gifted kids’ needs, obviating much of the need for acceleration. Do you agree?

FW: I disagree profoundly. The Common Core establishes norms for what all students at that grade should know. When a child is identified as gifted, it means s/he likely can get through grade-level curriculum much faster and, Common Core or not, will need additional material one, two, or even three grade-levels higher.

MN: Parents are often reluctant to accelerate their gifted child because they worry their child will suffer socially. What can the school do to make acceleration work socially as well as academically, for example, pairing the accelerated child with a popular child in the receiving grade so as to teach the child "the ropes" and to facilitate the child's being accepted by the class's older students?

FW: It’s a myth that most gifted kids are much less able socially. The research indicates that most intellectually gifted kids are able to adequately apply their giftedness to social interaction. In nine of ten cases, there are no concerns. Some of our (Berkeley ATDP) classes have kids ranging from the 8th through 11th grade and we rarely have problems. Yes, perhaps a buddy may help but what’s really important is if the school has a culture that values high achievement.

MN: High-ability kids are often very hard on themselves because they and/or their parents believe their giftedness imposes a responsibility on them to be excellent all the time, academically pushing themselves all the time, and always behaving maturely. If you were the parent of such a child, what would you do to mitigate that, allowing a kid to be a kid and to having human failings and live with moderation, without encouraging sloth?

FW:  Our research shows that most high-ability kids have adaptive perfectionism: that is, high standards that they can and want to keep. A much smaller percentage have maladaptive perfectionism, consistently unrealistic expectations. Yes, in some cases, such kids may need to see a counselor or psychotherapist but often, it may be enough for a mentor or school psychologist to help a kid see that mistakes are more than okay--often key to learning and to generating knowledge. Such a child should be shown how many great people--for example, Marie Curie--made many mistakes along the way.

The other thing to keep in mind is that we may think that a student who’s passionate about something and working lots and lots on something is being too perfectionistic. Yes, it’s a good idea, for balance, to encourage a child to spend time with family and on standard recreations but often it’s wise to just let that seemingly too-involved, too-perfectionist kid just be.

MN: What about what are called twice-exceptional kids? What's a common way in which a gifted/advanced learner would be twice-exceptional?

They may be high-achieving on most areas but weak in one, for example, dyslexic. Also, ADHD seems more prevalent among the gifted. That needs to be treated, perhaps with medication and/or by being taught behavioral strategies. I remember one kid who was taking an IQ test and bouncing all over the room, knocking over the microphone, but scored off the charts. He could think extremely well while being hyperactive but that won’t work in the classroom because it distracts the other kids. The school psychologist or other professional should teach him behavioral strategies for surviving in and outside the classroom.

MN:  Any specific advice to parents of gifted/advanced learners of color?

FW: Especially if they haven’t previously had much interaction with people of other races or ethnic groups, we need to help them acquire a sense of belonging. Some of that may be ethnocentric—helping them find peers and role models from their background. But it also can mean helping them realize they can be part of communities based on things other than race or ethnicity, for example, the community of kids who love chemistry. Along the way, we may even encourage code-switching—That it's okay to speak and behave differently with their community of math friends than with the community of people of their ethnic or racial background.

MN: Most parents of high-ability kids are aware of resources such as hoagiesgifted.com and summer programs for gifted kids such as Berkeley’s ATDP,  Duke’s TIP, and Johns Hopkins’ CTY. Is there another resource or two that parents should know about?

FW:  The National Association of Gifted Children’s site: nagc.org contains a wealth of resources, programs, and schools including online ones. Also, look for university-based programs for kids. For example, at Berkeley, in additional to the ADTP, our business school, architecture school, and the Lawrence Hall of Science have programs for high school students. Museums and planetariums also have programs which, while not officially for gifted kids, are often appropriate.

Note: A commenter suggested adding senggifted.org, which addresses the emotional needs of intellectually gifted kids. Indeed, that is a fine resource so I want to make sure people who won't have read the comments, know about it. So I've added it here.

MN: Are there any schools notable for well-serving high-ability kids?

FW: There’s a list on NAGC.org but a few schools particularly come to mind: the public Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School in New York City and Thomas Jefferson High in Alexandria, VA. Then there are private schools, for example, The Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA and the Davidson Institute  (residential) in Reno, Nevada.

MN: Is there anything else related to high-ability students that you'd like to tell the readers of PsychologyToday.com?

FW: In the earlier grades, teachers generally should focus on helping kids find a domain they can be passionate abput. Teaching them techniques is mainly for later. Otherwise, you risk having kids burn out.

The other thing is that as kids do get to learning technique, they need to realize that that's harder and that even gifted kids may struggle. Within reason, if you're challenged, it means you’re working at capacity, and that’s usually a good thing.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.