ERIC Identifier: ED321482
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Tolan, Stephanie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Helping Your Highly Gifted Child. ERIC Digest #E477.
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 that 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 highly gifted
individuals 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 the child 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. Some 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 HIGHLY GIFTED CHILDREN NEED
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
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 child 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 child will
be able to see those accomplishments as normal. Later, when gifts are not quite
as noticeable, the child will no longer feel that what made him or her valuable
has somehow 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, although it seems childish in a
precocious child, is absolutely age appropriate.
If your 9-month-old begins speaking in full
sentences, you probably will not tell the child to stop and wait till other
9-month-olds catch up. You would not limit such a child to using nouns because
that is as much speech as most 9-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 on
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
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 is bored. She cries easily, loses her temper often, bosses
other children when they "don't do it right," and cannot 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 regular 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 size 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 is 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 needs individual attention. Anything else may be directly
and seriously harmful. There is no ideal school pattern for the highly gifted
child. However, when normal school patterns lead to difficulty, it is important
to obtain real differentiation.
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
mathematics with a class four grades ahead, reading with a class two grades
ahead, and physical education with age peers. This type of acceleration takes
into consideration 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 parent
flexibility and may lead to logistical problems with scheduling and
transportation, but it 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 rather than confrontation, offering suggestions and help rather than
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 of 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 highly gifted 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.