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

Gifted child

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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Author: Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.

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