Helping Your Highly
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 research available.
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
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
What the Highly Gifted
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 appropriate.
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
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 make.
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 grades.
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
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 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 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
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 areas.
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 behavior.
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
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.
Boyer, A. (1989). Surviving
the blessing: Parenting the highly gifted child. Understanding our Gifted, 1
(3), pp. 5, 17, 20-21.
Dirks, J. (1979). Parents'
reactions to identification of the gifted. Roeper Review, 2 (2), 9-10.
Feldman, D. H., with Goldsmith,
L. T. (1986). Nature's gambit: Child Prodigies and the development of hu- man
potential. New York: Basic Books.
Grost, A. (1970). Genius
in Residence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Higham, S., & Buescher,
T. M. (1987). What young gifted adolescents understand about feeling different.
In T. M. Buescher (Ed.), Understanding gifted and talented adolescents (pp.
26-30). Evanston, IL: The Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University.
Hollingworth, L. S. (1942).
Children above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development. Yonkers- on-Hudson,
NY: World Book.
Janos, P. M., Marwood, K.
A. & Robinson, N. M. (1985). Friendship patterns in high intelligent children.
Roeper Review, 8 (1), 46-49.
Janos, P. M. & Robinson,
N. M. (1985). The performance of students in a program of radical acceleration
at the university level. Gifted Child Quarterly, 29 (4), 175- 179.
Kearney, K. (1989). Home
schooling gifted children. Understanding Our Gifted, 1 (3), pp. 1, 12-13, 15-16.
Kline, B. E. & Meckstroth,
E. A. (1985). Understanding and encouraging the exceptionally gifted. Roeper
Review, 8 (1), 24-30.
Lewis, G. (1984). Alternatives
to acceleration for the highly gifted child. Roeper Review, 6 (3), 133-136.
Powell, P. M., & Haden,
T. (1987). The intellectual and psychosocial nature of extreme giftedness. Roeper
Review, 6 (3), 127-130.
Silverman, L. K. (1989).
The highly gifted. In J. F. Feldhusen, J. VanTassel-Baska, & K. R. Seeley
(Eds.), Excellence in educating the gifted (pp. 71-83). Denver: Love.
Silverman, L. K. & Kearney,
K. (1989). Parents of the ex- traordinarily gifted. Advanced Development, 1,
Tolan, S. S. (1982). An
open letter to parents, teachers and others: From parents of an exceptionally
gifted child. In Webb, J. T., Meckstroth, E. A. & Tolan, S. S. Guiding the
gifted child. Columbus, OH: Ohio Psychology Publishing Co.
Tolan, S. S. (1989). Special
problems of young highly gifted children. Understanding Our Gifted, 1 (5), 1,
Tolan, S. S. (1985 Jan.).
Stop accepting, start demanding! Gifted Child Monthly 6 (1), p.6.
Tolan, S. S. (1985 Nov/Dec).
Stuck in another dimension: The exceptionally gifted child in school. G/C/T
Webb. J. T., Meckstroth,
E. A. & Tolan, S. S. (1982). Guiding the gifted child. Columbus, OH: Ohio
Psychology Publishing Co.
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
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 U.S. Department
of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract
no. RI93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect
the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
The Council for Exceptional Children
1920 Association Drive
Reston, VA 20191
Toll Free: 1.800.328.0272