Beginning Brilliance
 

Stephanie S. Tolan
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Beginning Brilliance

by Stephanie S. Tolan

In order to meet the needs of our brightest children, it is necessary first to identify them. This can be done in various ways, by giving standardized intelligence tests, or by observing precocious developmental patterns and behaviors. It is not always easy, however, to learn exactly where on the broad span of the human intellectual continuum an individual child's cognitive capacity may fall.

Many people do not believe it is important to have this information. They assume it is enough to know that the child is above normal, intelligent, "smart," gifted. But within the gifted range there is a far larger span of cognitive difference than there is between normal and gifted. In order to appropriately address a child's intellectual needs, it is important to have a reasonably solid idea of just how different those needs are.

If you must clothe an unusually large child it isn't enough to know that you need clothing that is larger than normal. A 6X child fits little better into a 3X dress than into a regular size. Even if you intend to have her clothes made specifically to fit, the dressmaker still needs measurements to know how much material to buy, and how to cut and stitch it. The more we know about a child's capacities, the better prepared we will be to nourish them appropriately.

The terms highly, exceptionally or unusually gifted are not exact, and the degree of giftedness they indicate is not precisely defined, even when derived from IQ scores. They refer to a range, and a rather broad one. The baseline score for exceptional giftedness has been put anywhere from 145 to 160. However, a score over 150 is commonly used to identify a child as highly or exceptionally gifted. Children with scores over 180 (extrapolated scores on the Stanford-Binet Form L-M can go well above 200) are sometimes called profoundly gifted. These are children so far from the norms that they are likely to have difficulty finding a comfortable place for themselves in the world. They sometimes seem stranded between worlds, not quite children, not quite adults.

Other Methods of Identifying

Though a high score on an IQ test is an almost certain indication of extreme intelligence (it is unlikely that a child will "test high" by accident) tests are not as reliable for this population today as they have been in the past. Recent revisions of the Stanford-Binet and Wechsler tests have virtually eliminated the high scores that act as identifiers. It is critical to remember that when the scores that allowed us to identify the upper range of the population are no longer obtainable, the upper range does not disappear. These children will merely be harder to find and identify accurately. If a thermometer with no markings higher than 102 is used to determine the temperature of a sick child, the child's temperature will appear to be 102, whether it is 102 or 104 or an immediately life-threatening 106. The new tests, like such a thermometer, leave us without a solid quantitative measurement.

With tests no longer accurate at the highest ranges, we are forced to rely on more qualitative (and more subjective) means of recognizing extreme intellectual capacities. We can observe that a child accomplishes a particular cognitive task earlier than others, or with greater depth or complexity, but we are forced to rely on our limited experience of normal performance for comparison, rather than on the vast pool of children who have taken IQ tests over the years.

If no IQ scores are available, or if the child's scores have been achieved on the newer tests and are below traditional cutoff points, we can look for many of the same traits and characteristics that identify more moderately gifted children. The differences we can expect in the higher ranges will be in intensity and degree of precocity. A gifted child may enjoy math and function a year or two ahead of age peers in the subject, for instance, while a highly gifted child may be virtually obsessed by math, functioning four or more years ahead. Though most unusually bright children show preferences for one or more general cognitive areas, they typically excel to one degree or another in many. Unusual intensity and precocity usually show up in all of them.

Children given the "highly gifted" label may be prodigies in one or more culturally recognized fields (chess, music, art, math or writing for instance) or they may show extreme capabilities in unusual domains, such as creating complex and fully-developed imaginary worlds; developing, displaying and cross-referencing arcane collections that are unlikely to interest other children; or researching a particular narrow subject, developing a range of knowledge that approaches that of an adult expert. On the other hand, they may develop a rich internal life and keep their unusual mental processing to themselves, seldom displaying it in public.

Common Characteristics

*Very early language development, large and precise vocabulary, complex sentence structure

(children have been reported speaking in three or four word sentences as early as four months; whenever spoken language begins there is a high rate of vocabulary acquisition, accompanied by a concern with precise terminology)

*Very early manipulation of numbers

(a passion for counting, numbers, and measurement, self-taught math concepts -- addition, subtraction and beyond)

*High levels of energy

(some highly gifted infants and toddlers seem to need less sleep than their parents; even those with normal sleep patterns are able to bring intense energy over long periods to projects that engage them; sitting still can be difficult; mental activity seems to generate physical energy)

*Extreme levels of curiosity and highly connective mental processing.

(every answer to one question brings a flurry of further, elaborative questions, a process that often goes on until the answerer rather than the questioner, tires)

*Capacious and clear memory, observable early

(spontaneous memorization of songs, jingles, commercials and whole picture books; memory may be "photographic"; the memory process is often associative and accompanied by a refusal or apparent inability to memorize by rote)

*Early reading and/or early comprehension and use of other written symbol systems, e.g. numbers and musical notation

(some begin reading soon after their first birthdays; they are likely to grasp not only words, but also the uses of punctuation; some children take note of spellings, while others perceive sounds and meanings and virtually ignore the arrangement of letters)

*Precocious sense of humor

(recognition and enjoyment of puns, witticisms, and the surprise endings of complex "shaggy dog stories"; many children are able to compose jokes, riddles and puns that make adults laugh; some have a taste for the bizarre)

*Powerful imagination

(daydreaming, pretending, inventing complex stories that may be built serially for days, weeks and longer; imagining new uses for old objects or inventing and constructing new objects)

*Unusual levels of empathy and connectedness to other children and other life forms

(An exaggerated focus on "fairness"; a tendency to be traumatized or depressed by cruelty and random violence; an insistence on precise honesty; concern that behavior fit expressed principles)

*Precocious interest in spiritual/religious, moral/ethical, metaphysical and philosophical issues

(early questions about life and death, time, the boundaries of the universe, etc., often accompanied by high levels of emotion; fears and stress levels on these topics may seem exaggerated)

*Desire for close friendships, often a preference for a few deep relationships rather than many short or shallow ones

(in lieu of such friendships a child may invent several imaginary friends -- even whole cities or countries of them -- or form intense attachments to pets, dolls or stuffed animals; many highly gifted children prefer the company of adults or older children to that of their age peers)

Not every highly gifted child, of course, will exhibit all of the above characteristics; however if a child shows more than one or two on a consistent basis, it is safe to assume a very high level intelligence.

Nature or Nurture

The debate over nature or nurture continues to rage in academic circles, fueled by our egalitarian social and political beliefs ("all men are created equal") and what has been called the "Standard Social Science Model" [ii] which asserts that the human psyche is molded by the surrounding culture. Books and clinics offer advice to parents on the best way to raise a more intelligent child. In addition, parents of many obviously brilliant children (with little or no experience of children other than their own) take credit for making them brilliant, telling other parents that they need only "do what we did" to "have what we have.

The mother of a child known as an "antiques prodigy" explained on a Phil Donahue show in 1993 that he was a perfectly normal child, but she had talked to him as if he were an adult rather than as if he were a child and that accounted for his unusual abilities. A family in Indiana claims to have "created" four intellectual and musical prodigies by an intensive coaching effort that began before the girls were born. When unusual parent-child interactions or intense coaching has taken place, it is difficult to disentangle the strands of nature and nurture in the child's later intellectual achievements.

However, there are many other parents whose unusually capable offspring came as something of a shock. "My son began speaking three and four word sentences at six months," the mother of a child who graduated from high school at age ten says. "People asked me what I had done to make him do that. What do most mothers do with a new baby? I changed him and bathed him and fed him and put him to bed -- and suddenly he was talking to me!" The mother of a boy who achieved a score of 750 on the Math portion of the SAT at the age of eight says that when he was still in the womb she could tap on her belly and he would kick back, matching the number of her taps with the number of his kicks. These parents do not take credit for their children's differences because their experience of child rearing has been, not an effort to teach and lead, but a constant struggle simply to keep up!

In other cases extreme intelligence has been found in children whose early environment was anything but intellectually nourishing. Torey L. Hayden's book, One Child, is the story of "Sheila," a girl whose Stanford-Binet IQ score of 182 was attained at age six after a life of extreme abuse and neglect and after the child had been diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.

It is clear that biology plays a crucial, probably the crucial role in the creation of unusual intelligence. "They absolutely came this way," is how the harried mother of three highly gifted children put it. "My first born sat for two hours the day we brought her home from the hospital, looking at the kitchen with great interest and intensity. Her eyes moved carefully from one side of the room to the other taking in one detail at a time. This was no passive, unfocused, unseeing lump of protoplasm! Strapped into that infant seat, she was systematically investigating her world the only way she could."

In studies of twins reared apart, intelligence has been found to be among the most heritable of individual characteristics. [iv] The heritability of intelligence may be one reason it is hard for parents (and observers) to determine how great a role their parenting plays in their children's unusual intellectual functioning. The gifted parent is likely to respond naturally to an infant's intensity and curiosity, recognizing it and supporting it. These are the parents who are most likely to read to a nursing infant, to use a large and precise vocabulary both in speaking to their children and in dealing with the world, to fill the household with stimulating sounds, sights and activities. In sharing with their children what they love themselves, they enrich the learning environment even without specifically intending to do so. Dylan Thomas attributed his poetic gift in part to the fact that his father sat by his crib every night and read Shakespeare aloud to him.

We may never be able to draw a clear line between nature and nurture. Sheila's case shows that even a hostile and severely deprived environment may not destroy innate intelligence; Dylan Thomas's case shows that providing a bright infant with a rich and nourishing intellectual diet can encourage the full development of innate gifts. What we do know is that not all parents who (by following the prescriptions of books or clinics) attempt to make what one clinic calls "better babies" actually succeed in creating unusually bright children and not all unusually bright children come from specially enriched environments.

Nurture Vs. Pushing

It may be important to point out here that there is a big difference between following a child's lead, providing the information, materials and resources a fast-growing intelligence demands and pushing the child to constantly prove that intelligence. Even the most cautious parents may find themselves overinvesting in their child's gifts and abilities. Even the best coach or teacher may find it difficult to allow a brilliant and capable child to sometimes relax into childhood, whatever childhood may mean for an individual precocious child. A restless, searching intelligence may drive a child to attempt to do and learn everything; adults may need to help him set a few limits and learn to take an occasional break from his normal, frenetic pace. An obvious potential for major achievement can be a trap, leading everyone to focus on achievement to the exclusion of every other aspect of life. Cognitive ability is not everything; it may not even be all that goes into unusual intelligence.

Dabrowski's Contributions

The Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kasimierz Dabrowski, studying gifted and creative clients, including children and adolescents as well as adults, recognized five dimensions in which they showed greater than normal psychic intensity. He called these intensities "overexcitabilities" (OE's). They are not negative characteristics, but constitute a heightened awareness of and sensitivity to various stimuli. The OE's are thought to be innate and can be found so consistently in gifted children that they may one day serve as one means of identification.

Overexcitabilities

PSYCHOMOTOR

An unusual need for physical activity and movement. Energy may be converted into rapid talk, pacing, the use of hand gestures.

SENSUAL

Greater than normal perceptiveness of sensory experiences; unusual awareness and enjoyment of sensation. Aesthetic awareness.

IMAGINATIONAL

Inventiveness, the ability to visualize clearly, metaphorical speech, dreaming, daydreaming, fantasy and magical thinking.

INTELLECTUAL

The desire to question, to analyze; the ability to delight in the abstract and theoretical, in logical thinking and puzzles and problem-solving.

EMOTIONAL

An intensity of feeling and of relationships; preference for few close friends rather than many acquaintances; natural empathy and compassion. Susceptability to depression, anxiety, loneliness.

The first two of these OE's, though consistently observed in highly gifted children, have not been shown to differentiate between this population and others, but Imaginational, Intellectual and Emotional do. Gifted children tend to exhibit most or all of them in different degrees. An individual child's profile depends on which overexcitabilities are the strongest.

Children who lead with intellectual OE are more likely to be identified as gifted in school; those who lead with imaginational may be less recognizable in an academic environment. These are the "space cadets," the dreamy, creative, fantasy builders, the poets and artists and visionary scientists. If these children are recognized as gifted, they are likely to be labeled underachievers.

Though it would be a surprise to many who think of giftedness purely in terms of cognitive ability, Dabrowski considered Emotional OE to be central. It accounts for the extreme sensitivity often seen in highly gifted individuals, both children and adults. It can leave many of them feeling (and appearing to others) "crazy," or neurotic.

Many highly gifted children experience both internal and external pressure to keep this OE hidden, something they may be able to do by focusing their energies on the products their Imaginational and Intellectual OE's make possible. But it is Emotional OE, the ability to relate deeply to others, to experience a full range of human feeling, that Dabrowski believed was critical to the unusual levels of moral/spiritual development he saw that gifted individuals could achieve.

It is Emotional OE that accounts for the two year old child who, in tears, brings her piggy bank to her mother and begs her to send all the money to the victims of an earthquake half a world away. Or the second grade boy who refuses to go to recess with the other children because he can't bear to watch the bullying that regularly takes place on the playground. As with other aspects of unusual intelligence, it is important that this one be recognized as a normal feature of the child's development rather than an anomaly that needs correcting.

Asynchronous Development

Recently, a group of parents, psychologists and educators known as the Columbus Group suggested a new definition of giftedness:

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders the particularly vulner­able and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally. [vi]

Highly gifted children begin and live their lives on a developmental trajectory that is outside norms. This trajectory assures that they won't fit the expectations of a culture based on norms. They will be out of sync with family, school and society in a variety of ways, from when they begin speaking to what they notice and care about, to what games they like to play. But asynchrony is not only external; it is internal as well. Their cognitive development proceeds at a different rate from their physical, their social, their emotional or their spiritual development.

In an article entitled "Giftedness, a View from Within," Martha Morelock tells the story of Jennie, a four year old whose grandfather has recently died. In addition to her grief over the loss, Jennie is now imagining her mother's death and her own. Her mother has tried to assure her that Grandpa was old and that she and her mother are not, so she promises they will not die soon. Jennie is not comforted. Tearfully, she tells her mother that she can't make such a promise; mothers do die, even children die.

In order to feel secure, to trust in the world and to begin to develop her own identity, Jennie requires a certain comfortable predictability in her daily existence. She also needs to have a simple, solid trust in the strength and reliability of her parents. However, the fulfillment of those four-year-old emotional needs is complicated by Jennie's extraordinary capacity for abstract thought. Her internally imposed demand for logical consistency leaves her emotionally unable to accept anything contradicting it...For Jennie--and for other gifted children like her--the world can threaten to dissolve into unpredictable and frightening chaos.[vii]

Many parents and school programs expose very bright children to the news of the world, assuming that the cognitive capacities that lead the children to an early interest in world affairs will enable them to handle what they learn. Unaware of the problems inherent in asynchronous development (coupled with Emotional Overexcitability), most adults fail to offer sensitive and appropriate support for the emotional consequences of the information to which the children are exposed.

The concept of "mental age" is useful in grasping cognitive differences in a children at the highest ranges. We understand that a six year old with an IQ of 200 (a mental age of twelve) is likely to be desperately out of place in a first grade classroom. But mental age is too narrow a concept to help us cope with asynchronous development. There are many ages within any highly gifted child, and the interaction of those ages is complicated. Parents usually have at least some sense of the age variation. One mother explains that her eight year old son Tad is "eight on the soccer field, fourteen in algebra class, twenty when pleading the case for more challenging school work, and three when he can't find his teddy bear at bedtime." The fact that all of these developmental levels are present in one small boy trying to find a place in a world that thinks it knows about eight year olds makes his task even harder than his mother may grasp.

Teachers aren't likely to be as aware as parents of the complexities of asynchronous development. Even a teacher who sees and adapts to Tad's extraordinary cognitive needs, may expect him to be normal in all other ways, failing to understand the social and emotional pressures he faces. It is important to recognize that when he is in class with age mates, he is attempting to relate to children who are in many ways far younger than he, and when he is in class with his intellectual peers, he must relate to children in many ways much older. Nothing about the process will be ordinary and in neither of these settings will he find a fully comfortable fit.

Michael Grost's first day in kindergarten is an example of the difficulty.Seeing another child coloring an apple blue, Mike compared her choice of color to Picasso's. She asked where Picasso was sitting. Mike attempted to explain Picasso's blue period. She pointed out that she didn't know which crayon was the red one. He showed her where the color name was printed. She said they wouldn't learn to read till first grade. Though Michael's case is the extreme case of a child above 200 IQ, children less dramatically different still face the complex task of trying to understand the behaviors and conversations of age mates. Their own minds are the only minds they know, so they naturally expect other children to think, act and speak as they do. When they discover this is not the case, they must come up with some sort of explanation, and then attempt to establish relationships across the gulf that divides them from others. This is virtually impossible for a very young child without adult help.

In the movie, "Little Man Tate," we see the discrepancy from the other side, as a child tries to build a friendship with a college student classmate. Humans have always had difficulty establishing and maintaining friendly contact with people perceived as "other." For the highly gifted child, it can seem that everyone in the world is "other." Like E.T. he may feel a desperate longing to "phone home." Unlike E.T., he knows this is the only home he has.

The Achievement Focus in Education

The Columbus Group's emphasis on the internal reality of the gifted provides an important balance for the growing emphasis in the academic world on performance and achievement. The definition proposed in the 1993 Report of the Office of Education Research and Improvement makes this emphasis clear:

Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment.

These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields.[ix]

Before dealing with the issue of achievement raised in this federal definition, we should take note of the absense of the term gifted. Because that word carries considerable negative baggage, the current educational fashion is to substitute the word talented. Unfortunately, talent has its own long-established meaning; it refers to an aptitude or ability. One may be very talented in one or more ways and yet not show the integrative intelligence that has been referred to throughout this century as giftedness. Whether the change in terminology will bring a change in concept or approach, effectively eliminating attention to the phenomenon of extreme intelligence, it is too soon to tell.

Schools, themselves evaluated on the achievement and performance of their students, must continually measure achievement and performance. Because unusually bright children have a potential for unusual performance, many educators have come to equate that performance with giftedness, assuming that children who perform unusually well in the classroom are gifted and children who do not are not. Children who do not get good grades may be refused admittance to special programs. In some cases where test scores consistently show potential well beyond academic performance children are said to have "overachieved" on the tests, suggesting the incredible idea that they have achieved beyond their capacities.

In other cases where test scores outdo school performance, children are labeled underachievers and a search may be started to find emotional problems or learning disabilities to account for the discrepancy between aptitude and achievement. Though it is true that there could be learning disabilities or emotional problems involved, the discrepancy between a highly gifted children's cognitive capacities and the tasks they are asked to perform in the classroom is a far more common culprit in underachievement.

Consider the plight of Nicole, a six year old girl with an IQ score over 150, who reads and comprehends at the eighth grade level but is put into the first grade with her age mates. In her school the recent emphasis on "inclusion" has dictated that all first graders use the same reading text. It is impossible for Nicole to exhibit an eighth grade reading level on the primer she is given (she can't read the words "I see the dog" eight levels better than any of the others). Further, she is likely to find the tasks in the accompanying workbook to be boring at best (how can she help but compare "I see the dog" to the rich language and complex stories of Wind in the Willows that she is reading at home), incomprehensible at worst. She may either refuse to do them at all, or do them so carelessly that her performance is actually poorer than that of children far less able. Her handwriting, far too slow to keep up with her agile mind, is ponderous and messy; for this reason she often writes short, simple sentences rather than the complex ones she is thinking. Even in open ended writing assignments she is unable to show her level of verbal reasoning.

Matt, a first grader with an IQ over 170, is not a math prodigy, but does have an intuitive grasp of the conceptual connections between adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing. He understands simple fractions and is able to do complex mental arithmetic problems, using his fingers to keep track of the process. Week after week he is given timed tests on "addition facts under ten" with the rest of his class. Occasionally his score is a perfect 100 (which never earns him a reprieve from the inevitable Friday tests), but far more often it is 60 or 40 or even 10. His mother asks him for an explanation of the erratic scores which have occasioned a note from the teacher. "I get to playing in my mind," he says, "and all of a sudden, the time's up." Knowing that there is nothing to be gained by doing perfectly on any given test, Matt cannot keep his mind focused enough to complete them. There are too many more interesting things to think about.

Teachers who equate good classroom performance with intelligence may evaluate children who get top scores on normal first grade tasks (children who may have only slightly above normal cognitive capacities) as far more gifted than Matt or Nicole.

The word "potential" can create confusion. It is not the capacity that is potential; the capacity is actual and (unless affected by physiological damage, or emotional trauma) constant. The highly gifted child processes and draws meaning from experience in ways unusual for his or her age all the time, whether the expression of that unusual processing is obvious or not. It is only achievement that is potential.

A highly gifted child can fail to achieve for an almost infinite variety of reasons -- from a wish not to appear different from the children around her, to an inability to relate to the tasks at hand, to a sense that her internal reality is so aberrant that it must be denied. Decades ago Leta Hollingworth observed that children above 170 IQ could learn all that was available in the regular classroom in less than a quarter of the time provided. [x] Highly gifted children, when not given curriculum and materials suited to their cognitive abilities, waste most of their time in school, doing their best to find ways to occupy their active minds. How they do that determines how they will be evaluated, and how successfully they will survive their early school years.

Learning

From their earliest months highly gifted children absorb information from the world around them at an astonishing rate. Outside the school environment their learning and development may proceed naturally, encountering few obstacles. Though parents may not always be prepared to provide optimum learning experiences and materials, they aren't likely to actively work against the child's development. It would be a rare mother who would tell her nine month old to stop speaking in full sentences and start babbling like other children his age.

Once unusually bright children begin formal schooling, however, this open-ended learning environment almost always disappears. For the first time they are expected to conform to a learning curve that bears no relationship to their own. They are expected to stop learning and wait for other children to "catch up." (Given the difference in developmental trajectories, this can no more happen than a younger sibling can catch up in age to an older one.)

In school the problems of boredom, lack of challenge, dearth of materials and adult failure to recognize the extent of the children's capabilities combine to short circuit learning. Teachers who have been taught that skipping stages can adversely affect a child's development frequently insist that every child proceed through the prescribed steps in order and on time. They may not understand that the highly gifted child has already taken those steps, both far earlier and far faster than other children.  Parents often rush to the schools to ask for (or demand) special attention for children who are exhibiting boredom, frustration, listlessness, disinterest or hostility to school. "I can hardly believe the change in Amy since school started," a father tells his daughter's first grade teacher. "She used to run on high from dawn till dark, doing, doing, doing. She was always in the middle of a project. Sometimes three or four. Now she comes home and flops on the floor in front of the television. And when it's time to leave for school in the morning she complains of headaches or stomach aches. Sometimes she gets nosebleeds."

Taking their case to teachers, principals, even superintendents, parents may encounter a brick wall -- there is no flexibility in the school's basic program and no special program for the gifted. Or they may be told that a gifted program begins in the fourth grade, so their daughter should just hang on till then. Sometimes they are told they're lucky; the school has a wonderful program beginning in first grade and their daughter is eligible. Only after she has been in that gifted program for a few weeks do the parents discover the painful truth. Few gifted programs anywhere are designed to meet the needs of exceptionally gifted children. Parents are faced with fitting their 6X child into a 3X outfit.

Acceleration

There are ways to keep highly gifted children learning, even in a school that has no special programs, providing there is a willingness to address the child as an individual and be flexible. There is no way to fully meet the educational needs of the highly gifted solely by providing "enrichment" of the regular curriculum, however. Acceleration becomes part of any individual program simply because of the speed with which these children learn and because they are already accelerated before school begins.

Moving a child ahead either in grade level or in subject matter does not "push" the child; it merely acknowledges the actual level of knowledge and capability and the child's rapid learning rate. Off-level testing can provide an estimate of even the brightest child's highest level of achievement and placement in all subjects can be determined from that information, according to the available opportunities and resources. Sometimes it is scheduling and transportation rather than programming rigidity that create problems, particularly when appropriate placement requires that a child travel from an elementary to a middle or high school for a single subject or a part of the academic day.

Both parents and teachers often worry that moving a child ahead will leave gaps in his knowledge. This is not a concern that justifies keeping that child in a class that is not appropriately challenging. It is essential to remember that these children learn very quickly, even more quickly when they perceive a genuine need for the information. Gaps can be filled when they become apparent with very little effort.

The other worry about acceleration is social. How will the young child get along with older students? This is the time to consider the child's own preferences. If she is eager to move ahead and get out of a boring class, she will be far more likely to take social complications in stride. Furthermore, when considering acceleration too many parents and teachers forget that staying with age mates is not the ideal situation for an asynchronous child. Age mates are not true peers. There are social difficulties for the child in their company that can be made worse by the complication of boredom or an effort to hold back intellectually in order to "fit" better.

If a school adamantly refuses to consider acceleration of any kind, there are other options. Some parents have found mentors for their children in subjects covered by the school curriculum or in subjects far afield. Adults with a passionate interest are often delighted to share it with a bright, interested child. They may let their children stay out of school one or more afternoons a week to spend time with their mentor. Though it seems unreasonable to force a child to sit in a classroom that isn't providing real learning all day every day, some school situations give families no way out; mentorships can occur on weekends or during the evening.

Some colleges, museums, art studios and learning centers offer evening or weekend classes for adults and will allow a child to attend either as an auditor or with an enrolled parent. Some may even accept a child as a student on the basis of an interview.

From time to time a child follows in the footsteps of the fictional "Doogie Howser" and becomes a full-fledged college student when other children of the same age are still in the primary grades. Whether to take such a radical step depends on the child. Michael Kearney, who graduated from college in 1994 at the age of ten, simply could not find the intellectual challenge he wanted in any other way. He had consumed the K-12 curriculum by the time he was six years old, and did not want to be held back. College was the challenge he wanted; his mother attended classes with him, but he did the work himself. On the day of his graduation (an event covered by most of the major media) he had no regrets. He was full of ideas and eager to get on with the next phase of his life. He has since appeared on many television news magazine programs and works as a roving reporter on a syndicated talk show.

Homeschooling / Unschooling

More and more parents are choosing either not to send their exceptionally bright children to school at all, or to take them out of school environments that are unsatisfactory and educate them at home. Usually called homeschooling, this process varies from family to family. Some parents create a school-like environment and schedule, designating one room or area as the school and providing "lessons" for as much as half of every day. Curriculum is planned by adults (or purchased) or created or revised in collaboration with the children. Few families devote as many hours to formal learning as schools seem to (though school schedules can be deceiving, with much learning time lost to a variety of non-academic activities) because these children learn so quickly.

Other parents maintain the same sort of environment they provided for their children when they were toddlers. One mother of two 180+ IQ children prefers to call her family's program "unschooling." She wants nothing in her children's lives that smacks of school, which she associates with being forced to do things of little or no interest for little or no reason. "Shelley learned incredibly well when she was eighteen months old and I wasn't trying to teach her anything. Why should I start teaching her now? Her brother likes different subjects and does different things, but he learns quite well on his own, too."

These two children make out their own schedules and devise their own learning plans, checking them with her and getting her help to find the resources and materials they need. They seem willing to take adult advice, but resist efforts to get them to add a subject they aren't interested in pursuing at the moment. When they take standardized achievement tests, their scores surprise even their mother -- they are well beyond their age mates even in subjects they have made no apparent effort to study. And in subjects of current interest they are routinely off the scales. "No matter how haphazard our system might appear, I don't think it can be educationally any worse than school. And both of my children are more comfortable with themselves than they would be if they had had to endure the incessant teasing of other children about their differences. They are independent learners, independent thinkers, and happy kids. I doubt if they would be any of these if they went to school."

The decision to educate children at home, whether formally or informally, can be a difficult one. All fifty states currently allow homeschooling, but regulations vary from state to state. Some districts are friendly and accomodating, allowing homeschooled children to use school facilities for nonacademic subjects for instance, while others purposely set up roadblocks to discourage parents from taking children (and state money) out of the system.

Homeschooling is not for everyone. There are families that have tried homeschooling and found it too demanding. Other families need two incomes and can't arrange to have one parent at home all day every day. Many parents fear that they don't "know enough" to homeschool. Some families have chosen homeschooling for a year or two in order to get past a particular problem in their local school and then allowed their children to return.

For some the obstacle to homeschooling is social. Many highly gifted children are introverts and don't seem to need the constant companionship of other children, but others are extraverts. The mother of one such admitted to being disappointed when her son chose to stay in a seriously unchallenging school environment instead of staying at home. "I need the kids, Mom," he told her. "I can learn stuff after school and on weekends and during the summer, but I can't have friends with me at home all day." She comforted herself with the understanding that bright as her son was, intellectual challenge was not his only need.

A Sense of Self

Some people may wonder whether it is really important to focus so strongly on highly gifted children's differences. They're just children after all. Can't they be left to find their own way?

The answer to that question is a resounding no. They are children whose differences affect every aspect of their lives, both internal and external. Leaving them in a world designed for other children is like leaving Hansel and Gretel alone in the deep woods. Because they are only children, they have few internal resources and little life experience to help them cope.

The capacities these children bring with them are fully integrated with who they are. Failing to nourish them thwarts and distorts their whole being. Psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin believes that much psychic pain and disorder in adults is caused by deprivation of the resources and support necessary to fully develop their abilities. "The stunting and crippling effect of deprivation is directly proportional to the innate capabilities and potential of the person in question." [xi] Highly gifted children bring into the world with them astonishing capacities. They are children of great promise, and children at great risk. Whether they will be able to develop a firm and realistic sense of self and fulfill their promise largely depends on the adults in their world.


[i]. Silverman, L., and K. Kearney. (1992) Don't throw away the old Binet, Understanding Our Gifted, 4, 4.; Silverman, L.K. and K. Kearney (1992) The case for the Stanford-Binet L-M as a supplemental test, Roeper Review, 15, 1, pp. 34-37.

[ii]. Pinker, Steven. (1994) The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow and Company.

[iii]. Hayden, Torey L. (1980) One Child. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

[iv]. Bouchard, T.J., Jr., Lykken, D.T., McGue, M., Segal, N.L., & Tellegen, A. 1990. Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota study of twins reared apart. Science, 250, 223-228.

[v]. Piechowski, M.M. (1979). Developmental potential. In N. Colangelo & R.T. Zaffran (Eds.), New voices in counseling the gifted. (pp. 25-57). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.; Piechowski, M.M. (1986). The concept of developmental potential. Roeper Review, 8(3), 190-197.

[vi]. The Columbus Group, 1991, unpublished minutes

[vii]. Morelock, M. (1992). Giftedness: a view from within, Understanding Our Gifted, 4(3), pp. 11-12.

[viii]. Grost, A. (1970). Genius in residence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[ix]. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America's talent. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

[x]. Hollingworth, Children Above 180 IQ, p. 287.

[xi]. Rubin, T.I. (1990). Child potential, fulfilling your child's intellectual emotional and creative promise. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.


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