Helping Your Highly Gifted Child (page 2)

— Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Mar 8, 2010

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.

Public Attitudes

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.

Multiple Ages

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 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 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 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 differentiation.

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