What to do if you Suspect Your Child is Gifted (Part II)

You always thought your child might be gifted, so you’ve gone ahead with testing. You’ve also gone beyond testing to provide, to the best of your ability, for your gifted child’s educational needs. But you still have questions. Lots of questions. You wonder, for instance, how to provide for your gifted child’s emotional needs.

In Part I of this two-part series on giftedness, experts described the general tendency of the gifted for loneliness and depression. Some spoke of keeping a gifted child’s ego in check. Others alluded to the keenness with which gifted children sense cruelty and world indifference.  Shandy Cole, executive director of Fountainhead Montessori School in Dublin, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, has seen this painful hyperawareness both professionally and as the mother of a gifted child. “Parents need to understand that their gifted child has unique needs. They are socially children, but have worries, concerns, and interests far beyond their years. It can be very overwhelming, and anxiety is typically high in such children, as they bear adult concerns and a child’s psyche (i.e., they take in real world concerns, but have no filter or adult understanding to process them.)

“My 6-year-old, for example, cried about the possibility of World War III, and what if all the polar bears went extinct? She took the average human life span and figured out roughly when I would die. This caused many nights of crying and fears that really have no answer,” says Cole.

Gifted Child Concerns

Cole suggests that we reassure children that it’s okay to worry, while providing them with the tools to understand their feelings. “Just telling them everything will be okay discounts their concerns and heightens those same anxieties. The main thing is to not discount the fears of a 4 year-old who is worried about global wars, a 12 year-old worried about cancer, and etc. They understand things far beyond their years, and you have to really explain things and not gloss over events or frightening concepts. Tell them it is okay to be afraid, but this is what is being done to reconcile these risks, for instance.”

Shannon W. Bellezza, Ph.D., of Triangle Behavioral and Educational Solutions, is more concerned about boredom. “Many students who are gifted have difficulty in the classroom with regular instruction because they are bored and under stimulated. Reports of a child demonstrating mildly disruptive behaviors that might indicate boredom could be a sign that a child is gifted. Counterintuitively, bad grades could indicate giftedness as well, particularly if parents know that their child is smart and that the grades their child is receiving do not reflect their intelligence.

“This happens as a result of boredom – the child, being under stimulated, puts forth little effort on their graded work because it’s boring and seems remedial or repetitive and unnecessary; they see no benefit in putting forth effort,” says Bellezza.

On Feeling Different: Quality, Not Quantity

“Regarding a child feeling different once identified as gifted:  Parents want to make sure that the enrichment their child is being provided is in quality and depth, not quantity. Many teachers mistake enrichment and differentiation for ‘more;’ rather than addressing gifted instruction with the depth of content, they address it simply by providing more work,” says Bellezza, who concludes, “This can make a child stand out from his peers and have a negative effect on his love of learning.”

Laurie Endicott Thomas, MA, ELS, feels that placing gifted children among their gifted peers addresses a multitude of problems. For Thomas, it’s not just about the potential for boredom and lack of stimulation in the regular classroom, but about learning humility. In regular classrooms, gifted children are often all too aware that they are the smartest people in the room. But move them into a classroom for the gifted and all of a sudden they’re not: a humbling experience.

Thomas feels the move to a gifted classroom or school is best tackled in elementary school. “It is far better for the child to clear that hurdle in K-12 than to slam into a wall when he or she gets to college. When I went to Penn, I saw a lot of kids who had been big fishes in their small hometown pond were stunned to find that they suddenly were small fishes in a big pond. They lacked the emotional resilience or the moral and intellectual discipline to compete with other gifted people, or even with people who were merely bright but studious,” says Thomas, who adds, “To learn how to treat other people as equals, they need to know what it feels like to be around people who are even smarter than they are.”

Tell Them They’re Gifted?

Learning how to coexist with others is important for all children, part of a child’s social emotional development. That’s true across the board, whether or not a gifted child’s peers are equally blessed. Should a parent refrain then, from telling the child that he or she is gifted? Does doing so help the gifted child make sense of his differences or underscore them even more?

Bellezza says it depends. “Whether parents tell their child or not, the child will eventually notice that the instruction she is receiving is different from a large portion of her peers. No matter what parents decide to tell their child, it is important to emphasize a growth mindset; that intelligence and ability are not fixed but are affected by effort.”

Alina Adams, on the other hand, is adamant that parents not tell their children they are gifted. Adams cites Dr. Carol Dweck on the subject. “Bright children who are told they’re bright have a tendency to decide that being smart means never putting in any effort. So when they encounter something truly challenging, they shirk away from attempting it, for fear of appearing less smart than everyone believes them to be (not to mention as smart as they believe themselves to be).”

Emphasize Strengths

Janet Heller, President of the Michigan College English Association, comments that, at any rate, very few children are gifted in all areas, which means that to stress giftedness as a distinction is perhaps not so important. “Some children, for example, may be excellent at music and mathematics but not in literature and writing—or vice versa. Parents may tell children which areas they are strong in; however, adults need to emphasize that everyone needs to work very hard to develop potential talent. Talent does not grow by itself without effort.

“Thomas Alva Edison said, ‘Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’ I think that this is true. Good athletes, musicians, writers, artists, dancers, scientists, etc. must practice skills and develop new abilities every day in order to succeed,” says Heller.

Cole, meanwhile, says that rather than point out a child’s giftedness, it’s more important to stress that—to paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian—we’re all individuals.

“I think you gain nothing by telling the child. But it is a personal choice. Along with challenging them, I think it is also important that parents help these children understand that not everyone performs at the same level, and that everyone has different abilities with regard to the same tasks, thinking about the same concepts, and so forth,” says Cole.

“This knowledge helps ease their frustrations and develop empathy. It can teach them to be more patient with others, including with adults. It can also help develop their social skills, which may be out of sync with their peers.

“These children are assessing the world from a limited field of experience, and can feel disconnected from others without knowing why. They need the reassurance that they are not ‘odd balls.’ And parents need this reassurance too. A good resource would be A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, since it provides practical guidance from an expert perspective,” adds Cole.

For some parents, the question of whether to tell a child that he or she is gifted, is moot. Tobi Kosanke, mother of a gifted 13-year-old girl never bothered to tell the girl she’s gifted. She didn’t have to: “The fact that she was enrolled at a school for gifted children was a dead giveaway,” says Kosanke.

“Normal” Sibling Issues

Gifted children not only struggle socially and emotionally in the classroom, but in the case of those with “normal” siblings, in the home, as well. What should parents do to minimize issues between gifted and non-gifted siblings? Cole says parents should treat them exactly the same. She points out, however, that the “normal” child may end up being the one who feels different. In this case, says Cole, “I would emphasize that everyone does their best—that you are your own person and etc.—but not make excuses for the ‘normal’ child to not do his or her best. This helps every child find their own unique interests and motivations.”

Heller says that instead of thinking about sibling rivalry issues, we should instead think of the benefits of nearness to the gifted and even perhaps, gifted education. “Normal siblings can often benefit from the extra enrichment experiences provided to gifted students. My fourth-grade teacher recommended that I be placed in a ‘special abilities’ class. This class got the best teachers and most stimulating curriculum in my elementary school.

“I loved it!” says Heller. “Some of the students in this class were not really gifted: they got into the special abilities class because their mothers were very active in the P.T.A., for example. However, these students’ exposure to the enriched curriculum and instruction resulted in their having unusual careers, such as becoming judges and detectives.”

These are career choices these “normal” children might not otherwise have considered.

Different Strengths

Adams says parents should look for opportunities to demonstrate that “normal” siblings have strengths their more gifted siblings might lack. “At one point, my middle child was doing his older brother’s math homework, and my youngest daughter was doing her middle-brother’s English assignments, each three grade levels above their own. It was actually an excellent example of how different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and no one excels at everything.

“I recommend seeking out as many examples as you can of how the other sibling can do something their gifted one can’t, be it sports, music, social skills, and etc.,” says Adams.

Not Gifted? What Now?

Let’s say you have your child tested and it turns out he’s normal, and not gifted, as you had anticipated. Where do parents go from here? Cole is prosaic, “Be thankful you have a wonderful child. I say we should challenge all children to the best of their abilities: every child needs to be challenged in order to help develop the skills that power successful lives.”

But Bellezza wouldn’t let things rest here. “Get a second opinion. If the child’s results on the school’s testing did not meet the threshold for giftedness, parents can seek out private testing through a psychologist. Depending on the school’s giftedness screening policies, parents might be able to try again the following year as well.”

Alina Adams stresses that the various tests for giftedness aren’t particularly valid until the child reaches the age of 10 or 12. Even then, “Different tests will produce different results depends on the day your child took the test and what mood they were in then.

“The fact is; no test result will change the behavior that prompted you to get your child tested in the first place. If they are passionate about a subject or activity, keep encouraging them, no matter what some number on a piece of paper says.”

Effort Over IQ

Adams takes the opportunity to once again emphasize a mindset of effort over IQ. “If, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, ‘stupid is as stupid does,’ then so is ‘gifted,’” adding that many in the gifted community disagree. To illustrate her personal philosophy, Adams relates this anecdote about her own three children. “Each one took the tests at age 4 that NYC requires for school placement. One was deemed not gifted, another gifted, and a third profoundly gifted.

“Which of my children is my worst student? The gifted one.

“Which of my children was my latest reader? The profoundly gifted one.

“Which one is starting Princeton this September? The non-gifted one.”

It’s a lesson we can all understand and learn from.

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What to do if you Suspect Your Child is Gifted (Part I)

You suspect your child is gifted. Actually, you pretty much know your child is gifted. You know it from observing your child. And you know it from all those articles you’ve found with their bulleted lists of gifted children behaviors—you’ve mentally ticked off most of the items.

So okay, now that you know, what should you do?

Dr. Shannon W. Bellezza of Triangle Behavioral and Educational Solutions, suggests that parents find out how schools in their area test for giftedness. “Some schools do universal screening around 3rd grade to see which children may be gifted. Sometimes there are options for parents or teachers to nominate children for testing to qualify for acceleration in certain subjects. Parents should find out how their school screens for giftedness and follow through with the appropriate procedures.”

Testing For Giftedness

Can’t wait that long? You don’t have to, if you don’t mind paying out of pocket. “Many private psychologists offer IQ tests for children as young as 3-4 years-old, including the Stanford-Binet and the WPPSI tests,” says Alina Adams, a school consultant and author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten.

Adams cautions that there are many variables to these tests, which means the results will vary, too. “An important thing to remember is that the tests are different, and it’s entirely possible for a child to test gifted on one, but not on another. Also very few IQ tests are reliable before the ages of 10-12, so it’s possible your child will test gifted one year, but not the next,” says Adams.

Before having children tested, parents should consider that “gifted” means different things to different people, says Parenting and Family Coach Dr. Richard Horowitz. “At times parents with reasonably bright kids latch on to the label ‘gifted’ without actually getting confirmation by a teacher or psychologist. There is no universally recognized standard for gifted. School districts will set criteria for admission into a gifted/talented program but again it is the school’s arbitrary standard rather than a definition based on research.”

Fostering The Gift

Some parents don’t bother with confirmation. Tobi Kosanke, for example. She and her husband just assumed their 13-year-old daughter girl was gifted and ran with it: did what they could to foster their child’s development. “We nourished her intellect as a baby and toddler with toys, music, and books.”

“Gifted,” by the way, is not the same as “genius.” Alina Adams points out that unlike the lack of universal school standards for giftedness, there are actual accepted distinctions that separate those in the category “genius” from the merely “gifted.” “Giftedness can be anything from the top 90th percentile, to the top 95th or 97th. Genius is the 99.99 the percentile. The needs of the two groups are different.”

“Those with IQs between 125 to 145 can basically handle anything they decide to do. Those with IQs of 145 plus often have a harder time making themselves understood, which can get in the way of achievement. There is also the concept of multi-potentiality. When people are good at most anything they try, it becomes harder to narrow down exactly what they want to do. So they end up doing nothing, like the metaphor of Buridan’s ass,” says Adams.

Gifted=Special Needs??

Laurie Endicott Thomas, author of Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, has a different way of looking at IQ. She thinks that children on either end of the IQ spectrum should be thought of and treated as special needs children. “Keep in mind that a gifted child’s IQ is at least 30 points above the average. You would not dream of putting a child with an average IQ (100) in a classroom for mentally retarded children (IQ of 70). Yet gifted children are expected to thrive in a classroom that is geared to children whose IQ is 30 points below theirs. Not only will the gifted children be miserable from boredom, they will be wasting their time and developing bad study habits. (There’s no need to take notes if you know that the teacher is going to repeat the same boring thing 10 times!)”

Here Adams disagrees. “It really depends on the child. Some children who have tested gifted are so used to being the smartest kid in the room, the one that everyone fusses over and praises, that being put in a situation where everyone else is as smart—or even smarter—than they are, is a horrible experience. Some kids shut down completely, and become depressed. If their entire self-image is based on being the best, learning that there are others like them can be devastating.

“Another problem with gifted programs,” says Adams, “is that most public school-based ones operate on the assumption that all gifted children are gifted at the same things in the same way on the same schedule. The whole point of being gifted is that you are uniquely talented in a particular area. I’ve worked with families where their extremely verbal child struggled in advanced math, while other children with incredible math skills floundered in advanced English classes where their very literal-minded approach made parsing the nuances of texts nearly impossible.

Adams gives the personal example of her gifted son, who, when faced with Hemingway’s iconic six-word short story, For sale: baby shoes, never worn, insisted that there simply weren’t enough facts available to draw a definitive conclusion. “Sure, you could assume the baby died. But you could also assume it was an ad from a baby shoe factory that was closing down.”

Educational Needs

Horowitz has a more general view of gifted programs versus mainstreaming gifted children. “The best advice for a parent is to make sure that their child’s individual educational needs are being met and the parents should arrange a conference with the teacher or teachers early in the school year to make sure this is occurring. If the teacher can meet the child’s needs in the regular classroom than there is no need for an additional program,” says Horowitz, adding this caveat: “If, however, the school has identified a child as eligible for a gifted program, I believe the parents should take advantage of the offering.”

Whether or not to mainstream your gifted child is likely to be determined, says Bellezza, by school policy and availability of resources. Bellezza details the various types of school instruction that might be available to a gifted student depending on the school. “Pull-out enrichment (when the child is removed from the classroom for specialized instruction), push-in enrichment (when the child remains in the regular classroom and is given specialized instruction via differentiation by the classroom teacher or from another teacher who comes to the classroom), or some combination are usually offered by schools.”

William Schlitz of Keller, Texas, and his wife, Dr. Myiesha Taylor, decided to bypass the school system altogether. “My wife and I have homeschooled our 3 children here in Texas. We did not make the decision for religious or conservative political reasons. The decision was made to specifically address the gifted status of our two oldest children and tailor their education to create an academic environment that allowed them to thrive. Part of that was our desire to create a secure environment where our kids felt safe, free from bias, and could focus on their education. Like many who start this process we were concerned if our decision would hurt our children’s future (college?). But in reality it served as a launching point for all of them to thrive.

Education Disinterest

Schlitz’s and Taylor’s eldest daughter, Haley Taylor Schlitz, is today a 15-year-old senior at Texas Woman’s University. “Haley made the jump to homeschool when we became concerned about her academic progress at a local middle school. It was Haley’s growing disinterest with her education that led us to have her formally tested for giftedness. Her tests demonstrated a very highly gifted person.”

Haley went on to become a Davidson Young Scholar, and a member of both MENSA and Intertel, graduating homeschool high school at age 13. The young woman has been on the Dean’s List of TWU for the past two years with a GPA of 3.7. Haley will have her BS degree in May 2019, when she will be 16 years-old, and plans on attending law school starting the following Fall semester. Another son is about to follow in Haley’s footsteps. Ian, at 12, has just passed the entrance exam at a local community college.

Having taken the journey of homeschooling her children, Myiesha Taylor has developed insight into gifted education processes around the United States, and has served as a resource for families traveling a similar path. To this end, Taylor created a Facebook group, Brilliant In Color, that helps families of color discuss how to navigate giftedness for their children.

Testing, confirmation of giftedness, and education aside, some parents wonder what being gifted will mean for their child’s emotional makeup. Will being gifted mark a child as different? Do gifted children have difficulty finding and making friends, and cultivating relationships? Will a gifted child, of necessity, always be lonely? How will being gifted affect the child’s world view?

Social Skills

“Gifted children are prone to problems with loneliness and depression. Often, the gifted children themselves are blamed for having ‘poor social skills.’ Yet the real problem is that children generally develop real friendships only with other children whose IQ is within 15 points of theirs.

“If your child’s IQ is 100, then 68% of the population falls within his or her ‘friendship zone.’ As a result, your child is likely to have lots and lots of (rather dim-witted) friends. But if your child’s IQ is 140, less than 2% of the population falls within his or her ‘friendship zone.’ You may need to get involved in some organization for the gifted in order for your child to find children whom they can befriend,” says Endicott Thomas, who suggests parents of gifted children visit the SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website.

Endicott Thomas describes the emotional downside of being gifted. “Because of their abilities to use abstract reasoning, gifted people are often keenly aware that the universe is indifferent to human suffering, that many social institutions are stupid and cruel, and that many adults are hypocrites. For this reason, gifted people need to find some way to make a positive difference in the world. Otherwise, they can suffer greatly from a problem called existential depression.”

On Being Different

Alina Adams disagrees, suggesting that the real problem with being gifted (and knowing it) is watching out for inflated egos. “Professionally, I can tell you that gifted kids love feeling different, and knowing things other kids don’t. Personally, I can tell you my husband and I tell our kids, ‘You’re not that great. Even if you’re one in a million, there are 6000 people out there just like you. And many more who are better.’

“Some parents like gifted schools and programs so that their children can be with like-minded peers. We like them because they prove to our kids just how not special they are,” says Adams.

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Spotting Gifted Students

Spotting gifted students in a large classroom is no big deal. Or so you might have thought. You simply apply the rule of Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others.” shutterstock_178688006

After all, gifted children are different from their peers. They’d have to stick out somehow. So sure, you’d think. You can spot ‘em a mile away. They’re the pocket protector-wearing first graders solving quadratic equations as their peers stumble over, “See Dick run.”

Well, yes and no. The gifted child may indeed stand out in the classroom. But often, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

spotting gifted studentsThink about it: a super-bright kid in a class of garden variety, average students. He’s going to be BORED. Terrifically bored. And so, he may just end up exhibiting behaviors most of us would deem negative. In fact, we might even assume the gifted child has a learning disability or perhaps even an intellectual disability. That was certainly the case with Jason Barnett, whose parents were urged to put him in special ed. classes.

His behavior was odd.

Now, most of us are aware there is something slightly “off” about geniuses. Still, we continue to see genius as a desirable attribute. Parents avidly watch for signs of giftedness in their children.

The upshot is we expect odd behavior from geniuses but only after some reflection. More likely, we expect a genius to be more clever than most, a cut above his peers. If you Google “signs of giftedness” you’re going to see all those special virtues you’d like to see in your kid. Less often, you’re going to learn about the darker side of giftedness which may be confused with disability.

Here are some of those signs—the ones you wouldn’t expect to see:

  • Easily distracted from topics and tasks
  • Impatient when not called on to answer questions
  • Often bored
  • A tendency to disrupt the classroom
  • Dislikes repetition and memorization
  • Finishes work quickly but is sloppy
  • Tries to get out of doing classroom activities aside from those he finds interesting
  • Leaves projects incomplete
  • Bites off more than he can chew and then shows signs of stress
  • Mouths off to authority figures
  • Overreacts to criticism
  • Finds it difficult to do teamwork
  • May overlook practical details such as correct spelling
  • Forgets to do homework
  • Is hypercritical of both himself and others
  • Will belabor a point
  • Expects perfection in himself and others
  • Carries jokes too far
  • Often the class clown
  • Perceived as the classroom “know it all”
  • Can be bossy during group projects

No. You wouldn’t have expected to see this list of the negative traits of giftedness. But when you read them, did you find yourself nodding your head a bit? You see it, don’t you?

The most important thing to keep in mind about giftedness is that it is exceptional, rare. It is every bit a minority statistic within a classroom as the intellectual disability or ADHD. Teachers and parents should be watching for exceptional (read “different”) behavior and keeping an open mind about what this behavior means.

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You want your child to be getting the most he can out of his time in the classroom. You want to give him the best possible chance to succeed, whether gifted or average. Let your child show the way to what he needs and be responsive to that.

Don’t be quick to interpret a negative behavior trait or in fact, any unusual classroom behavior. Instead, keep watching and noting the child’s behavior. Offer the child challenges to see how these are handled. Watch and wait until a clearer picture emerges. And absolutely consult with experts before pinning a label on a child: any label at all.