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What Do I Do With This (Gifted) Kid?

He would sit in his hallway, making tiny adjustments in his socks. It was that seam above the toes ­– it had to be in just the right place. One day at 3, he hollered from his room, “There’s a spike in my underwear!” He was nearly in tears.

We still tease him about that, but as he grew, his sensitivities, fixations and fascinations increased, taking on more complex guises. He seemed to experience the world in multiple dimensions, with extra senses. He smelled things we didn’t smell, and gazing at rocks, flowers and leaves, he saw things we didn’t see.

He didn’t care much about the usual toys. He wanted to create his own worlds, by drawing, sculpting, reading, acting. His room became a Lego mausoleum, many of them his own intricate designs. He could pull an image from his memory and draw it, with no physical reference point – a detailed rendering of a World War II bomber he’d seen in a book, for example. He fashioned tiny soldiers in colored clay, with rifles, bayonets and backpacks and the distinctive helmets and uniforms of the World War 1 British and German infantry.

Then there were the questions. “Why was Satan in the Garden of Eden?”

He’d take long showers that made the walls sweat – acting out dialogue among multiple characters, with different accents. And he’d read, well above his grade level, and write illustrated booklets, and compose melodies, and set up a camera on a tripod and shoot his own cooking videos entirely by himself – yeast rolls, from scratch (making, of course, a horrendous mess).

And, a significant chunk of the time, he would drive his parents nuts. He’d thrust his latest drawing in my face while I was on a work deadline, and often, I confess, I did the bad-mama thing and barely looked. He moved with all the alacrity of a sun-dried slug in the mornings before school, then he’d joke about how “the glacier inched slowly toward the plain,” pronouncing glass-ier with an impressive British accent.

It took me a long time to figure it out, and I don’t quite know what to do with him: Conor, now 12, is a gifted kid.

There – I said it. And I feel like a conceited jerk.

Embrace the Intensity

Get a bunch of moms and dads together, and the parents of a gifted kid will quickly learn to keep quiet. “My son is having so much trouble with reading,” they’ll hear. “Oh, but your daughter is smart.” In other words, you have nothing to worry about.

Educators of gifted kids will tell you otherwise: Gifted and talented children have a unique set of social, emotional and intellectual needs, and while you might be reluctant to pronounce them gifted because of the stench of elitism, you’d be mistaken to act as though he or she is a typical student. Harnessing that giftedness and channeling it toward a productive end – say, a computer-animation genius, or a concert cellist, or an App designer – isn’t as simple as it sounds. Gifted kids are often underachievers in school, because they’re bored. And their tendencies toward perfectionism can paralyze them. While they need room to explore, like any kid they need boundaries too.

It’s a delicate balance. One thing is for sure: They don’t raise themselves.

Jan DeLisle, gifted/talented coordinator at Lovejoy ISD, a small district drawing students from several Collin County communities, sums up the philosophy of raising and educating gifted kids with the tag attached to her emails: “Embrace the intensity!”

“Gifted kids are nothing if not intense,” DeLisle says. “There are a number of intensities we look at to start to examine the difference between a gifted child and a very able child. Gifted kids have this passion – sometimes it’s intellectual, sometimes it’s emotional.”

A gifted kid could learn everything there is to know about snakes, and, at 6, ask intelligent questions of a herpetologist at a zoo lecture. A gifted kid might, at 4, be absorbed in chess and ponder the merits of various moves. A gifted kid could watch a news story on famine in Somalia and become so horrified he’s obsessed with the inequities and injustices.

“They have imaginative intensities,” DeLisle adds. “They’re the kids who, when they’re very young, don’t just have an imaginary playmate, they’ll have a whole society of interrelated imaginary playmates. They can have sensory excitabilities.”

The only major difference, in fact, between the characteristics of a kid who has ADHD and a gifted kid, DeLisle notes, is that the gifted child can sit for long periods of time and concentrate intensely on a subject of their interest.

“If you’re a parent of a gifted child,” DeLisle says, “you want to be able to like and embrace those intensities. Because they’ll be in your face.” Gifted kids bring many unusual qualities to the table, say DeLisle and Marilyn Swanson, director of programming for Southern Methodist University’s Gifted Students Institute and president-elect of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented. They include:

Curiosity. They crave learning, they ask questions, they want to seize every bit of information on a subject that fascinates them. “We live in a society that’s a mile wide and an inch deep,” DeLisle says. “Gifted children are always deep-diving. They want immersion.”

Passion. Gifted kids usually have an intense interest in something, Swanson says, though it can change over the years. It might be butterflies, or neonatology, or a musical instrument.

The ability to learn rapidly. Gifted kids grasp abstract concepts and quickly make connections with what they’ve already learned.

Vocabulary above age level. Verbal ability is one of the first signs of giftedness; gifted kids are often early readers.

A sense of humor. Gifted kids view the world a little differently. They’re witty, satirical, sarcastic. Some teachers, in fact, don’t especially like gifted kids. “Their teachers definitely need a sense of humor,” Swanson says.

A heightened sense of empathy. “One teacher had a purse made out of rawhide,” DeLisle says, “and this one little girl was so upset about that purse. ‘What did they do with the meat?’ ‘Did they hurt the cow?’ That’s the emotional intensities we were seeing in that child at 3 or 4. These kids have a sense of fairness that goes way beyond egocentric – it’s other-centric.”

Asynchronous development. A gifted kid’s chronological age often doesn’t match his intellectual or emotional age. “They can be cognitively advanced for their age group,” DeLisle says, “but they can’t walk down the street and chew gum at the same time.”

Swanson cautions parents: “No one trait says your child is gifted – it is the intensity of the characteristics.”

Capture the Gift

One thing virtually all educators of the gifted and talented agree on is that gifted kids benefit the most from being around other gifted kids. “Gifted kids need to have the opportunity to work together – that is just the bottom line,” says Kim Tyler, Ph.D., an associate professor of education at Texas Wesleyan University. “The analogy I use is that Venus Williams is not going to come to me to play tennis, because she will not go further.

“When a gifted child enters the classroom,” Tyler adds, “he typically knows 30 to 40 percent of the curriculum already. How do we reward them? By having them do it again.”

The challenge, Tyler says, is to identify gifted kids early and give them opportunities in school to learn at the highest level they can handle.

Experts and educators, however, differ on the definition of a gifted and talented child, and state and federal governments purposely leave the legal verbiage vague. One’s socioeconomic background, environment and opportunities play a major role in standardized tests used to gauge cognitive ability, so the state of Texas allows school districts to select their own criteria for giftedness.

The Lovejoy ISD uses five criteria: measures of cognitive ability in core areas of study (such as math and English); problem-solving skills; and achievement tests. Those three standards are quantitative, with the 96th percentile nationally considered gifted, but the district uses other criteria to measure a child’s intangibles: parent feedback and teacher observation. A committee that includes teachers and administrators with special training in gifted education selects which kids receive gifted and talented, or GT, services at school. Most gifted kids acquire the GT tag in one or two areas of study; only a very small number are gifted “across the board.” In Lovejoy, as in many districts, identification of giftedness starts as early as kindergarten.

Urban legends have arisen in places such as New York City, where parents will fork over thousands of dollars to administer IQ prep courses for 4-year-olds – so intent are they on acquiring the tag of giftedness and thereby snagging one of a handful of vacancies in a coveted school. But researchers know that giftedness is fluid, emerging and morphing and receding throughout childhood.

“Some of the kids who were shining stars in elementary look like slugs in middle school,” says Benny Hickerson, Ph.D., a retired schoolteacher and administrator who serves as a GT consultant to many local districts and private schools. Good GT programs recognize this fluidity and try to capture the force of giftedness whenever it emerges.

It’s especially important that girls are tagged as gifted as early as possible, so they get the benefits of a GT education. “Gifted girls start hiding their gifts around the middle-school grades – they don’t want to be seen as smarter than the boys,” Kim Tyler says. “Boys might hide their gifts through comedy and being funny.”

A boy doesn’t necessarily want to be called out for having the best poem in class, Tyler says. “They need to be with others who don’t look at them as silly for having that passion.”
Educating gifted kids with their peers is all about fueling the passion – making sure it isn’t smothered in repetitious instruction, classes where most of the attention is directed toward average learners and where being smart is uncool.

Seek the Synergy

In Donna Lusby’s fourth-grade GT math class at Puster Elementary in Fairview in the Lovejoy ISD, the kids are gathered on the carpet in front of an electronic blackboard. There are no textbooks; each of the 15 children, 10 boys and five girls, holds a notebook containing their own scribbles. One boy continually stretches to raise his hand as high as he possibly can – unh, unh!

“Are you dying?” Lusby asks, kindly. “I have two people who think they have it. Let me give you a hint: It takes two steps.”

The kids are learning to graph equations. They must devise an equation to show the relationship between two columns of numbers Lusby has written on the board. In a minute or two, the students come up with the answer: 4X + 1=Y.

Afterward, Lusby sends the kids to tables, where she gives them a problem to solve in groups. Some kids stand or walk about; others sit and squirm. The decibel level inches up, but Lusby does nothing to quell it.

“They’re all leaders,” Lusby says while the kids dialogue and negotiate. “That’s a challenge sometimes. They’re very energetic – they crave learning.”

Within a few minutes, a girl hollers, “We did it!”

Lusby says that her GT math class can grasp in 15 minutes what regular students learn in an hour. Gifted kids are masters of learning by concept; while most students learn sequentially and through repetition, GT students will decode for themselves the relationship, say, between two columns of numbers. “They think so differently,” Lusby says. “There’s not just one way to skin the cat.”

She calls her GT classes rewarding but “probably the hardest teaching job I’ve had – just making sure I continue to keep the kids challenged.”

Right across the hall, Laura Labunski teaches “integrated studies” – reading, language arts and social studies – to gifted fifth-graders. While they’re studying the same curriculum as regular classrooms, Labunski injects middle-school concepts: allusion, personification, oxymoron, alliteration.

“Whenever you get a group of gifted kids together, there’s this synergy that happens,” she says. “When they start talking, you just never know where the conversation’s gonna go. It’s very intense.”

Schools that are effective in educating gifted kids, whether public or private, provide a learning environment that’s conducive to independence and problem-solving, says Benny Hickerson, the GT consultant. “If they’re always handed the answer,” she says, “they don’t learn to think for themselves. You still establish boundaries, but within those there should be a lot of freedom and flexibility.”

Schools and teachers to avoid, she says, are those that have rigid ideas about instruction – you will affix yourself to this chair, and you will do as I say. “If their whole idea is that everybody has to march to their same little drummer, it’s probably not the best place for questions and new ideas.”

So what do you do with that gifted kid? Choosing an appropriate school is a big part of it, and Hickerson encourages parents to visit the school and talk to teachers, counselors and administrators to gauge their attitude toward gifted kids.

“See how much empathy they have for the kids they work with,” Hickerson says. One middle-school administrator insisted to her that there were no gifted children in his school. Yet one of the most gifted kids she ever taught came from his campus, she says. To this principal, he was invisible.

Administrators are often so focused on average learners and test scores that gifted kids don’t rate high on the list of priorities. “As everything moves toward standardization and accountability testing and No Child Left Behind,” Hickerson says, “sometimes that means that no child can get ahead either.”

Preserve the Passion 

On my son’s agenda today: saving the world. Since he was 5, he’s wanted to be a doctor and a missionary. And he’s collected hard, cold cash persuading adults and peers to join in his quest to provide food, clothing and Bibles to children in Africa.

His quest is serious and quirky at the same time: He’s formed an association called Missionaries Allied, and the kids who’ve joined – there actually are some – have quasi-military ranks and functions. Conor has dreamed up a manual for operations, which he has lavishly illustrated with diagrams and … battle scenes. Not quite sure how all that fits together, but in his mind it does.

My son has always attended Christian private schools where the designation of “gifted” is not officially applied. We’ve decided to keep him there – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but parents can do things to nurture that giftedness, and I realized I’d done some of them (and blown others) without even knowing it:

Read. And read some more. Read to them when they’re young; help them find appropriate books above their grade level.

Encourage them to pursue their passion – even if you don’t understand or like it, or if it changes six times. When they’ve surpassed you in knowledge, direct them to someone who can take them further.

Allow them to explore beyond the point where you're comfortable. When my son had a sudden opportunity at 11 to act in a feature film in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, I didn’t think twice about pulling him out of school for a month. We accompanied him to Kenya, where he gained a once-in-a-lifetime adventure – and a love for Africa that continues to this day.

Don't force them to be "well-rounded." They just aren’t. DeLisle had to confront a parent who insisted that her gifted daughter become a cheerleader – when all the girl wanted was to be an astrophysicist. “Your daughter will never be a cheerleader,” DeLisle told the mom. “She may be in the uniform, but she’s not a cheerleader.” The young woman now works in an astrophysics lab.

Never, ever praise them for being smart. Praise effort and hard work instead. “Allow your child to fail,” Swanson says. “There’s humor and humility with failure, and you move on.” A wealth of research shows that over-praised kids look to others for reinforcement and avoid risk-taking.

Last and perhaps most important, “Listen, laugh and love,” Swanson says. I’ll try to remember that the next time Conor grinds green clay into the carpet or sticks a dismembered bug under my nose.