Helping Your Highly Gifted Child
ERIC EC Digest #E477
Author: Stephanie S. Tolan
Most parents greet the discovery that their child is not merely gifted but
highly or profoundly gifted with a combination of pride, excitement, and fear.
They may set out to find experts or books to help them cope with raising such a
child, only to find there are no real experts, only a couple of books, and very
little understanding of extreme intellectual potential and how to develop it.
This digest deals with some areas of concern and provides a few practical
suggestions based on the experience of other parents and the modest amount of
To understand highly gifted children it is essential to realize that,
although they are children with the same basic needs as other children, they are
very different. Adults cannot ignore or gloss over their differences without
doing serious damage to these children, for the differences will not go away or
be outgrown. They affect almost every aspect of these children's intellectual
and emotional lives.
A microscope analogy is one useful way of understanding extreme intelligence.
If we say that all people look at the world through a lens, with some lenses
cloudy or distorted, some clear, and some magnified, we might say that gifted
individuals view the world through a microscope lens and the highly gifted view
it through an electron microscope. They see ordinary things in very different
ways and often see what others simply cannot see. Although there are advantages
to this heightened perception, there are disadvantages as well.
Since many children eventually become aware of being different, it is
important to prepare yourself for your child's reactions. When your child's
giftedness has been identified, you might open a discussion using the microscope
analogy. If you are concerned that such a discussion will promote arrogance, be
sure to let children know that unusual gifts, like hair and eye color, are not
earned. It is neither admirable nor contemptible to be highly gifted. It is what
one does with one's abilities that is important.
A United Front
As in most other aspects of parenting, it is important for both parents (or
the adults who bear primary responsibility for raising the child) to agree on
some basic issues regarding the child's potential. Many parents of exceptionally
gifted children were themselves gifted or exceptionally gifted children. If they
did not learn to accept and understand their own giftedness, they may find it
difficult to accept their child's unusual capacities. Raising a highly gifted
child may help parents come to terms with many difficult aspects of their own
lives, but it helps if they focus first on the needs of the child and come to an
agreement about how to meet them.
What the Highly Gifted Need
Exceptionally gifted children have two primary needs. First, they need to
feel comfortable with themselves and with the differences that simultaneously
open possibilities and create difficulty. Second, they need to develop their
astonishing potential. There is a strong internal drive to develop one's
abilities. Thwarting that drive may lead to crippling emotional damage.
Throughout the parenting years, it is wise to keep in mind that the healthiest
long term goal is not necessarily a child who gains fame, fortune, and a Nobel
Prize, but one who becomes a comfortable adult and uses gifts productively.
The Early Years
Before your child begins formal schooling, differences can be handled by your
willingness to follow the child's lead and meet needs as they arise. It is
possible and important to treat an infant's or toddler's precocity with a degree
of normalcy. For example, a 2-year-old who prefers and plays appropriately with
toys designed for 6-year-olds should be given those toys. The 3-year-old who
reads should be given books. The child who speaks very early and with a
sophisticated vocabulary should be spoken to in kind.
Even when parents can take precocious achievements in stride, friends, family
and strangers may not. Unthinking people will comment (often loudly and in front
of the child) that a 2- or 3-year-old who sits in the grocery cart reading
packages aloud is a phenomenon. It may be surprisingly difficult to avoid
letting parental pride lure you into encouraging your children to "perform" in
public. Keep in mind the goal of making the child as comfortable as possible
with individual differences. The more casually you accept unusual early
accomplishments, the more your children will be able to see those
accomplishments as normal. Later, when the gifts are no longer quite as
noticeable, the child will not feel that what made him or her valuable has
somewhat been lost.
Highly gifted children are many ages simultaneously. A 5-year-old may read
like a 7-year-old, play chess like a 12-year-old, talk like a 13-year-old, and
share toys like a 2-year-old. A child may move with lightning speed from a
reasoned discussion of the reasons for taking turns on the playground to a
full-scale temper tantrum when not allowed to be first on the swing. You can
help yourself maneuver among the child's ages by reading about developmental
norms (Gesell is a good guide) so that you are ready for (and avoid punishing)
behavior that, though it seems childish in a precocious child, is absolutely age
If your nine-month-old begins speaking in full sentences, you probably will
not tell the child to stop and wait till other nine-month-olds catch up. You
would not limit such a child to using nouns because that is as much speech as
most nine-month-olds can handle. However, in public or private school that may
be the approach some educators use.
It is important to realize that they are not purposely setting out to keep
your child from learning, although that might be the effect. Many educators have
never knowingly dealt with a highly gifted child. They do not recognize them,
and they do not know how to handle them. Some educators base teaching methods an
developmental norms that are inappropriate for highly gifted children. Although
they may be willing to make an effort to accommodate these youngsters, they may
lack sufficient information or experience and not know what type of effort to
When a child enters school already able to do what the teacher intends to
teach, there is seldom a variety of mechanisms for teaching that child something
else. Even if there were a way to provide time, attention, and an appropriate
curriculum, it would be necessary for the teacher to use different teaching
methods. Highly gifted children learn not only faster than others, but also
differently. Standard teaching methods take complex subjects and break them into
small, simple bits presented one at a time. Highly gifted minds can consume
large amounts of information in a single gulp, and they thrive on complexity.
Giving these children simple bits of information is like feeding an elephant one
blade of grass at a time - he will starve before he even realizes that anyone is
trying to feed him.
When forced to work with the methods and pace of a typical school, highly
gifted children may look not more capable than their peers, but less capable.
Many of their normal characteristics add to this problem. Their handwriting
might be very messy because their hands do not keep pace with their quick minds.
Many spell poorly because they read for comprehension and do not see the words
as collections of separate letters. When they try to "sound out" a word, their
logical spelling of an illogical language results in errors. Most have
difficulty with rote memorization, a standard learning method in the early
Lack of Fit
The difficulty with highly gifted children in school may be summarized in
three words: they don't fit. Almost all American schools organize groups of
children by age. As we have seen, the highly gifted child is many ages. The
child's intellectual needs might be years ahead of same-age peers, although the
gulf may be larger in some subject areas than in others.
Imagine 6-year old Rachel. She reads on a 12th grade level, although her
comprehension is "only" that of a 7th grader. She does multiplication and
division, understands fractions and decimals, but counts on her fingers because
she has never memorized addition and subtraction facts or multiplication tables.
Her favorite interests at home are paleontology and astronomy; at school her
favorite interests are lunch and recess. She collects stamps and plays chess.
Although she can concentrate at her telescope for hours at a time, she cannot
sit still when she's bored. She cries easily, loses her temper often, bosses
other children when they "don't do it right," and can't keep track of her
personal belongings. She has a sophisticated sense of humor that disarms adults
but is not understood by other children.
Putting Rachel into a normal first grade without paying special attention to
her differences is a recipe for social, emotional and educational disaster. Even
if a gifted program is available (they commonly begin in third or fourth grade),
it is unlikely to meet her extreme needs.
Educating a highly gifted child in school is like clothing a 6X child in a
store where the largest available garment is a 3 (or with a gifted program, a
3X). Parents have to resort to alterations or individual tailoring of whatever
kind they can manage.
In dealing with school issues, it's important to remember that you know more
about your child than anyone else. Your knowledge, information, and instincts
are useful and important, and they should be recognized in designing a school
program. Your child genuinely needs individual attention. Anything else may be
directly and seriously harmful.
There is no ideal school pattern for the highly gifted. However, when normal
school patterns lead to difficulty, it is important to obtain real
Because highly gifted children may begin school already knowing much of the
material covered in early grades and because they learn quickly, some type of
acceleration is necessary. For some children and in some situations, grade
skipping is the best choice. Placing a child with older children who share
interests may be socially and intellectually beneficial and result in a more
appropriate curriculum. It is also a simple and economical solution for the
school. Some children begin school early; others skip several early grades;
others skip whole educational levels, such as junior high or even high school.
Skipping a single year is seldom helpful, because the difference between one
grade level and the next is too small. Grade skipping is not without problems,
but allowing highly gifted children to stay in a class that meets few if any of
their needs may do serious and long-term damage.
Another type of acceleration is subject matter acceleration. A child may take
math with a class four grades ahead, reading with a class two grades ahead,
physical education with age peers. This type of acceleration considers the
varying developmental ages of the highly gifted child. For further flexibility,
you might consider evening classes or weekend classes at a high school or
college and ask the school to excuse coverage of those subjects in regular
classes. A child might go to school with age mates only in the morning or only
in the afternoon. This method calls for school and parental flexibility and may
lead to logistical problems such as scheduling and transportation, but is often
more satisfactory than grade skipping because the child associates at least part
of the time with age peers.
When the School Will Not Change
When parents approach teachers and administrators with information and
documentation, in a spirit of cooperation instead of confrontation, offering
suggestions and help instead of attacking, some positive changes in normal
methods usually result. Sometimes, however, schools refuse to make changes for
one child. When this happens, parents have few choices. One is to move to a
school system that will make changes. Another is home schooling.
For many highly gifted children home schooling is a nearly ideal solution to
the problem of fit. Instead of laboriously altering ready-made programs, parents
can tailor an education precisely to the child's needs. Clubs, sports, scouting,
and other activities supply social interaction with other children while parents
serve as teachers or facilitators or engage tutors or mentors in various subject
Home schooling is seldom an easy choice. In some districts it is either
illegal or beset with regulations that make it almost as rigid as classroom
schooling. When both parents or the single resident parent must work, it may be
impossible. Some parents and children find the level of togetherness stifling,
while others cannot avoid pushing and demanding too much. However, home
schooling may be a positive choice for many families. Many children move
surprisingly smoothly from home schooling in the early years into high school or
college when their intellectual needs outgrow the home environment. One of the
major benefits to education at home is the maintenance of self- esteem, which is
highly problematic in a school environment.
In the movie E.T. there was something heartrending in the small
alien's attempts to "phone home," in his constant longing for others of his kind
despite the loving concern of the family who cared for him. Highly gifted
children endure some of that same pain. It is hard for them to find kindred
spirits, hard for them to feel they fit into the only world they know.
Highly gifted children may have trouble establishing fulfilling friendships
with people of their own age when there are few or no other highly gifted
children with whom to interact. As a high school student told his mother, "I can
be that part of myself that is like my classmates, and we get along fine. But,
there's no one I can share the rest of me with, no one who understands what
means the most to me." For most highly gifted children, social relationships
with age peers necessitate a constant monitoring of thoughts, words, and
One of the greatest benefits of the talent searches proliferating in colleges
across the country is the chance for highly gifted children to spend time with
others like themselves. For 3 weeks in the summer, children who qualify (by
scoring high enough on the SAT or ACT in the seventh grade or earlier) attend
class on a college campus with other highly gifted children. Rather than feeling
like oddballs, they suddenly feel normal. Lifelong friendships may form in a
matter of days. Many summer program participants consider the social interaction
as valuable as the classes.
What else can you do to help highly gifted children find friends? It helps
children to understand that there are different types of friends. They may play
baseball, ride bikes, and watch TV with one person, talk about books or movies
with another, and play chess or discuss astronomy with another. Some of these
friends may be their own age, some may be younger, or more often, older. Only in
school is it suggested that people must be within a few months of each other in
age to form meaningful relationships.
Raising a highly gifted child may be ecstasy, agony and everything between.
Adults must perform almost impossible feats of balance - supporting a child's
gifts without pushing, valuing without overinvesting, championing without taking
over. It is costly, physically and emotionally draining, and intellectually
demanding. In the first flush of pride, few parents realize that their task is
in many ways similar to the task faced by parents of a child with severe
handicaps. Our world does not accommodate differences easily, and it matters
little whether the difference is perceived to be a deficit or an overabundance.
We have covered only a few issues in this space, but the most important help
you can give your highly gifted child or children can be expressed in a single
sentence: Give them a safe home, a refuge where they feel love and genuine
acceptance, even of their differences. As adults with a safe home in their
background, they can put together lives of productivity and fulfillment.
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Copyright, 1989, Stephanie S. Tolan. Properly attributed, this material may
be reproduced. Stephanie Tolan is a noted author of children's books and one of
the authors of Guiding the Gifted Child.
ERIC digests are in the public domain and may be freely
reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This
publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research
and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RI88062207.
The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions
or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.