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Gifted, Talented and Misunderstood

Bianca* is a bright child. Identified as gifted at the age of 9, she is now in seventh grade at a North Texas private school. With a high IQ, an extensive vocabulary and an artistic talent that comes along rarely, her life — especially childhood — should be a breeze.

But for Bianca and her family, these precious years are not picture-perfect. Now 12, Bianca gave up competitive cheerleading and prefers reading, drawing and writing in solitude to girl-talk and shopping. She still plays basketball, but half-heartedly. She has scored exceptionally high on standardized tests, but zones out in class. Her grades are slipping.

She doesn’t really care.

Her mom says she’s barely aware that she’s excluding the outside world. In class, Bianca is disobedient, but to her, it’s not disrespectful. She follows her adult train of thought, speaks out of turn and doesn’t follow directions. She can’t help it that she thinks, speaks and acts like an adult, but her behavior is still that of a child.

But somehow, as Bianca’s grades plummet, her social life stalls and the teen years dawn, her mom is ever more convinced of her daughter’s giftedness. She knows she’s got a bright little girl on her hands, and she’s known it since Bianca was an infant.

At 18 months, Bianca understood directions and could co-navigate North Texas highways and routes to her grandmother’s house from her car seat. She identified letters and could mimic the act of reading by recognizing words she’d seen before. Now, after years of impressing and excelling, Bianca seems on the verge of a burnout. Her parents have put her in the “right” schools, kept the lines of communication open (even with three small siblings behind her) and have made an unshakable commitment to her education. But Bianca is a contradiction and a delicate balance inside a small package.

Why is this gifted girl stalling on the path that seems to be paved so smoothly for her, and why do other such bright kids run into educational roadblocks? Shouldn’t they sail through school with their above-average intellects and boundless creativity?

Above-average students, it seems, may have even more to learn before graduation than the C-students sitting beside them. What makes these kids’ intellects their heaviest burdens, and what is the solution to this malaise of giftedness?

‘ … define giftedness’
Although experts, educators and doctors hesitate to classify “giftedness” concretely, the State of Texas has done just that: A gifted child or youth is one who performs at or shows the potential for performing at a remarkably high level of accomplishment when compared to others of the same age, experience or environment, and who:

  • exhibits high-performance capability in intellectual, creative or artistic areas;
  • possesses an unusual capacity for leadership; or
  • excels in a specific academic field

And, with 7.75 percent of Texas students currently identified as gifted (that’s 335,844 according to the National Association for Gifted Children), it’s clear that this is a catch-all description, intended to apply to a vast number of students – just not in the same way. Gifted kids and their parents have likely known for years that they don’t fit a traditional academic-intellectual mold, and even the state’s broad definition does little to help kids like Bianca realize where they fit in.

Here begin the challenges for children like her. Feeling alienated within a classroom setting, the options become dismal: act out, withdraw socially or – worse yet – stop trying to learn.

A terrible thing to waste
What is so troubling about a gifted mind? Gifted children, by nature, have the tools to be successful in school and life, but occasionally, these tools are underutilized or inaccessible.

“We are looking for every child to find their strongest point,” says Fernette Eide, M.D., who co-authored The Mislabeled Child: How Understanding Your Child’s Unique Learning Style Can Open the Door to Success. But some kids have trouble expressing their ideas and knowledge constructively due to what is, in part, a conflict between left and right brain tendencies.

Underperformance is a common symptom of a good brain being unchallenged. “[Bianca] stares out the window [in class] — she gets in trouble for it,” says her mom. “Her teachers find it disrespectful, and she misses directions.” Her mom laments the fact that even the teachers in Bianca’s honors classes, the ones who “get” her, know she’s capable of excellence, but no one can make her care.

Ashley Weller, a gifted and talented program educator with a local independent school district, explains that underachievement can sometimes be the result of a lack of organizational skills, not uncommon in gifted children and their chaotic minds. More likely, though, it is because gifted students struggle to stay engaged in lessons that they comprehend quickly and easily. They may tune out, as Bianca does, when they feel they already have gotten maximum benefit from the lesson and don’t see how the rest applies to them.

Another problem, and a “prickly issue,” Eide says, arises when a student feels smarter than her teacher. This is common in a setting that doesn’t challenge a gifted child and is further complicated when she sees her teacher make any kind of mistake. The teacher loses credibility with the student, and with this lack of respect, there is little hope of any real learning happening.

Dr. Christy Stammen of Park Boulevard Psychological Services in North Texas advises parents of gifted children to teach them that everyone makes mistakes – then come up with some polite ways to pose questions in class. However, “if a child is continually asking questions in class and not getting the answers, I would encourage the child to write those questions down, and find out the answers outside of class time,” she says. For teachers to prevent this loss of influence, it’s also important to establish “intellectual honesty,” suggests Eide, and to be able to say, “I don’t know” at the appropriate times.

‘A higher intellectual maturity’
In addition to their issues behind school doors, kids also have lives and social troubles that plague them.

As Bianca’s grades dropped, her circle of friends and interest in extracurricular activities also receded. Last year, in the sixth grade, most of her friends were eighth graders who have now moved on to high school. “Now she has no one in her peer group that she can identify with,” her mom laments. Bianca may not have friends in her age level if, in fact, she has a higher intellectual maturity – a situation that is not unusual. Although teachers report that she is well-liked, Bianca insists she doesn’t have close friends and keeps her interactions on a superficial level, reports her mom.

An antidote for this, local mom Deb Progler shares, is to keep children involved in activities outside of school. With her gifted boys in piano lessons and martial-arts classes, among other things, she says they interact with a variety of children. “I think this helps them to feel comfortable fitting in many different situations,” she explains.

As far as socialization is concerned, Dr. Michael Sayler, associate dean for the College of Education at the University of North Texas, promotes the age-old philosophy of quality, not quantity. If gifted kids can find people to engage with, perhaps through a shared activity, they don’t need a lot of friends to be happy.

The pitfalls and promise of boredom
Adding to the malaise of giftedness is the condition of being bored, day in and day out. A certain amount of down time is helpful for everyone; it is this time in which we all discover our passions, find our hobbies or just take time for ourselves. But for kids during the school day, the time is better-spent exploring curricula and mastering universal skills.

Eide asserts that the cause of boredom falls into one of two categories: a misperception on the part of the student (she’s unclear of expectations, perhaps) or a poor fit of a student with age- or skill-appropriate material.

“Parents will know if [children are] bored by how enthusiastic they are and how they talk about school,” says Sayler, who stresses that bored kids are hungry for knowledge they aren’t getting, and by keeping them back, we’re making them go very, very slowly toward their goal.

Such boredom may lead families to seek gifted education programs for their kids. But if those kids are still not sufficiently challenged, a weekly pull-out program through the school district can provide some academic solace. Many kids find their regular class time draining but live for a two-hour-per-week exploratory session with similarly gifted classmates. Beyond that, there are a variety of other options to consider to enhance their learning.

Being bored doesn’t have to be the death knell for a child’s education. Janet Hale, a local seasoned mother of four gifted sons (grown and almost grown) says boredom offers the chance for kids to take responsibility for their learning. Quick comprehension means they have more time to put into their schoolwork — perhaps analyzing and synthesizing information rather than merely memorizing it. They have the luxury of time to be thorough and curious, while other students may struggle from one assignment to the next.

“Many gifted children have passions that they enjoy reading and talking about, which might be included in research and reporting assignments,” says Hale. Indeed, a free-choice book report might be the perfect opportunity to explore her precocious passion for Russian literature or build a scale model of the Coliseum for a history project.

With rigid curricula and increasingly demanding state requirements, such depth and flexibility may not be offered to all gifted students. Stammen recommends teachers keep a box of more challenging work in the classroom for occasions when students are unavoidably bored. If a child finishes work ahead of other students, there is no reason for her to waste her precious time. The key is not simply more work, but more in-depth work and options to keep their hands and minds active.

“This can be helpful if a child is ahead of other children and starts to get off task quickly,” Stammen says, adding that the materials in the box can be selected by both the teacher and the parents in a collaborative effort. Weller believes strongly in special-interest projects for her students. Each grade level follows a different curricular theme for an entire year to encourage depth of study and ward off boredom.

It’s OK to be smart

Regardless of any validity to the old cliché about idle hands, Sayler says even dullness doesn’t have to be void of meaning for gifted little minds. “We want to start telling our children that sometimes you have to just do things that maybe aren’t so exciting … It’s a lesson that they have to learn,” he asserts.

However, gifted students should remember that getting good grades without learning how to apply themselves may get them so far in school, but it will inevitably catch up with even the brightest scholar. As Sayler explains: “We need to have opportunities to develop good habits of study, asking good questions, being self-controlled, and a more average kid has to learn that, or they don’t get through school” — life lessons that straight As earned by staring out the window will not likely instill.

When tedium does crop up or the classroom environment is somehow less than ideal for the gifted child, it becomes more important than ever to nurture her strengths and interests at home. Several local parents advocate keeping art supplies on hand for when the child needs to indulge her artistic impulses. Feathers, glue, scissors, paper and glitter are all visual, tactile, sensory materials that gifted imaginations crave. Progler advocates art for her 8- and 5-year old sons for “whenever the mood strikes.” Other parents, like Ginny Thompson of North Texas, are vigilant in exposing their children to new activities and experiences.

Hale advises parents to listen and try to understand their child’s unique interests. One of Hale’s sons is pursuing architecture – another, the cello – while Progler’s sons have taken up martial arts. Even Bianca tries to fill her unoccupied time by drawing and volunteering at church.

Beyond the standard reading together and initiating stimulating dinner-time conversation, Hale says, “Go to museums and parks, have a pen pal, take up a musical instrument … share your passions, trials and errors and successes with your children … be a role model — stretch yourself by learning and trying something different.”

Sayler says it shows them that adults can be passionate about things, too, and it’s OK to be smart. And you won’t need to over-schedule her either, just accommodate her demonstrated interests in your family’s down time.

‘Intervene with the teacher’

So, what happens if things go swimmingly at home, but school seems to bring out the worst in a child? It’s always appropriate to intervene with the teacher, say the experts, provided issues are handled appropriately.

Sayler suggests that having an effective student-teacher-parent relationship is all about matching what you know as a parent with what the teacher knows as an instructor. No one understands a child better than her parents, but teachers see hundreds of children, recognize patterns of child development and are experts in the field of education. It’s what you both bring to the table, as a team, that helps a child the most.

“What you’re trying to do is give your teacher a fresh perspective of who your child is,” says Sayler, and, yes, this does include both her strengths and her weaknesses. Approaching the teacher in a non-confrontational manner will have better results than leading with “My child is bored,” which he sees is an indirect way of saying “You’re a poor teacher.”

But inevitably, there will be scenarios when a teacher and student are not the right fit. One the one hand, this is a universal part of the school experience, says Brock Eide (M.D., M.A.), Fernette Eide’s husband and co-author of The Mislabeled Child: How Understanding Your Child’s Unique Learning Style Can Open the Door to Success. A child may need to learn that it’s only one year, and the next will be better, provided you still have faith in the school and the instructors in the grades ahead.

Communicating your child’s concerns to the teacher also may help ease the situation. The teacher could already know that a student is bored but not be aware of other feelings or conditions the child keeps to herself.

At this point, settling on the right environment for a child is critical. Most families do not have the luxury of relocating to test-drive different school districts, and private schools may be a financial burden as well. Look for teachers who understand giftedness and can help kids adopt different approaches to learning. And look to the future at least as much, if not more than, the present. If it doesn’t look promising, says Sayler, it might be time to consider a change.

The Eides contend that a child gets the most out of her school years when her parents understand different learning styles and how their child’s brain works; however, this can be difficult with vast numbers of kids being misdiagnosed.

Many gifted students are diagnosed as having either ADD or ADHD and are either unnecessarily medicated or simply marginalized in the classroom as discipline problems or underachievers. Reasons for these diagnoses vary, and the ways students deal with their boredom can easily be misconstrued as attention problems. This is especially true when they are caught doodling, staring out the window or bothering fellow students, reveals Stammen.

Although there exists overlap between behaviors associated with both ADHD and giftedness, Sayler believes drugs are not the right solution. It’s better, he says, to control the flow of ideas and passions so that creativity can be applied to what’s important (school work, socialization, etc.) and not to shut off completely with medication. Giving kids time to burn off energy and some alone time are effective ways to do this.

Harnessing their gifts
Whatever the obstacles they may face, gifted children are called so for a reason — they have the intellectual “gifts” that can help them succeed and lead meaningful lives, provided they learn the life skills necessary to harness and use their talents effectively. Giftedness is one type of special need that doesn’t have to be detrimental. Janet Hale hopes her sons will look back on their lives and be satisfied with how they used their gifts. Ashley Weller hopes that her young students never lose their intellectual curiosity and stay inspired.

As for Bianca’s mother: “My hope is that I can pull her out of that dark place and that she doesn’t lose sight of her talents.”

*Name has been changed