Monday, September 08, 2008

Schooling a highly gifted young child (circa 2004)

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While out shopping I run into a vaguely familiar mother from my 6-year-old's class and introduce myself. "Oh, I've heard all about your son," she gushes. "He's the smartest boy in class!" I awkwardly smile and roll my eyes, unsure of what to say next.

My son, Mr. Smartypants, would have had a response though. He has a lot to say. Especially to adults. Adults are kind enough to use their good listening skills even if they don't understand what he's talking about. When Mr. Smartypants starts going on about his favorite computer games and books his peers tend to walk away.

He's the kid who, instead of getting a snake painted on his arm at the camp carnival, proudly displays two little dots: "An electron going around an atom!" he excitedly explains. He complains when his beloved Bubbe won't buy him a copy of Heart Disease for Dummies on a trip to the bookstore.

As his mother I feel proud and amazed, but also concerned and confused. Where does he get these ideas? My husband and I are intelligent, we have a house full of books and often visit museums and zoos, but these things can only get a kid so far. Mr. Smartypants is just wired a bit differently than most of us.

When his first-grade teacher, Miss E., asks her students what they want to learn, most express a desire to read or write or do math. Mr. Smartypants wants to build a Web site.

He confounds Miss E. because he correctly spells "premiere" and "hieroglyphs" yet he doesn't sit still. She tells me he fidgets; he's spacey; he's a busybody. "Maybe he's bored," I suggest to her horror.

"Are you learning new things in school?" I ask him.

"Not really," he replies.

"How about second grade math? Is that challenging?"

"Yes, because it's difficult to make it back to first grade in time for the bus."

In a typical first-grade classroom there is little time for Big Ideas, so Mr. Smartypants saves them for later. He does his best thinking in the snug comfort of his booster seat. In the car, we have Deep Conversations-"Why are we in this life? What's it about, anyway?" At 6 he is on the verge of his first existential crisis.

We are driving the interstate, but Mr. Smartypants is lost in his head. I ask him something for the third time, my voice rising in frustration. "Oh, I get it!" he exclaims. Clearly he's not about to tell me wants he wants for dinner, but I bite. "What is it dear?"

He explains that he just realized that since molecules are round like planets, perhaps the molecules in our bodies appear to be planets to some very tiny creatures. And the planets in the sky are just molecules in some other REALLY BIG giant's body. I consider pulling the car over in case his head explodes.

Through a twist of fate the school agrees to provide testing for my son. While awaiting the results, I begin to wonder if he really is so smart after all. I fear I will show up for the report meeting to find that he's solidly average and that the principal will chide me for wasting everyone's time.

Instead the school psychologist starts out explaining, "We don't advise skipping him a grade…." But I don't hear anything else because I'm stunned by the score sheet before me. He's academically gifted. And while he's not one-in-a-million, he is one in about 230.

What does this mean? In my search for information I stumble upon Genius Denied, a book that details the sorry state of gifted education in this country. For months afterward my stomach is in knots over how my child fits (or doesn't) into our public school in the days of No Child Left Behind.

Early in the school year my son describes his various "theories" in his weekly writing assignments. By late winter his little essays look like this: "I like to play with cars. Cars are a lot of fun."

"What happened to the Big Ideas?" I ask.

"But, Mom," Mr. Smartypants insists, "this is what all the other kids do."

As the year drags on his behavior deteriorates along with his intellect. Miss E. reports that he continues to be a spacey, fidgety, busybody and he's not connecting socially with classmates.
At home he complains about going to school and has increasingly intense tantrums. One night he is on the verge of an anxiety attack. "E-mail my teacher," he pleads. "Ask her to watch out for me tomorrow. I'm worried something bad will happen at school." He is almost freaking out and so am I.

We decide to have Mr. Smartypants privately re-tested. It seems the school can't or won't see qualities in my son that I am sure exist. But just in case I'm wrong we also consult a developmental optometrist and an occupational therapist.

The DO reports his visual processing is perfect, and by the way, he's very bright. The OT suggests exercises to improve his handwriting. The psychologist, who is well-versed in the social and academic quirks of gifted children, spends an afternoon testing Mr. Smartypants. He enjoys spending the day doing "fun puzzles" with the undivided attention of a caring adult.

The psychologist calls Mr. Smartypants exceptional, well-focused and motivated to succeed. She reports that his new scores place his academic capabilities on par with those of a 10-year-old. On one level I feel relieved, vindicated even-I'm not just an overbearing mom with an overblown sense of my child's capabilities!

On another level, I thank goodness I didn't breastfeed because those extra IQ points he might have gained would have put me over the edge. He already has so many ideas that seem way too big for his little head and questions that are too hard to answer. Even my husband, a veritable walking encyclopedia, gets exasperated at times. "I can handle questions about sex, but this stuff about quantum physics is really awkward to address," he says as he again attempts to hide our copy of Einstein for Beginners.

As the year winds down, the school announces budget-related staffing cuts. We cannot bear the thought of him returning next fall. We have two options-move or send him to private school-neither of which seems affordable. After much deliberation we choose a private school for gifted kids. We are willing to trade financial strain for the sinking feeling that we're not doing right by our child.

The new school promises an environment of discussion, interaction and exploration. We hope this will help Mr. Smartypants thrive academically and socially as well as allow him to embrace, rather than deny, his talents. Mr. Smartypants is sad about leaving his old school, but he smiles when we explain that he will learn new things each day at the new place. And his eyes light up when we tell him he will no longer be the smartest kid in his class.

Post Script
This originally appeared in Chicago Parent magazine in 2006. Regualr readers know that Mr. Smartypants started second grade at Science and Arts Academy, a private school for gifted kids. After three years at SAA he and his highly gifted little brother, Pikachu, are back in public school, but it's a new school for the boys, not the one in the above essay where we all experienced the burden of being gifted.

Read more of my thoughts on raising gifted children here. Subscribe to my blog here.


laughingatchaos said...

A is nowhere near that level. I think if he were, MY head would explode. But I worry that he's been "dumbed down" at some point. We used to laugh that we needed a PhD in astrophysics to tell him a bedtime story; that isn't the case anymore. Hm.

Kim Moldofsky said...

It's interesting now that my boys are back at public school. Although I dn't think they were "pushed" at the private gifted school, they were encouraged and accomodated, which put them at higher levels in math and language arts than they would have been (I'm pretty sure) had they stayed public. and now we've got to make my square pegs fit in round holes again. It's not so much dumbing down as keepign everyone fitting in. Wait, maybe that IS dumbing down.

Third grader Pikachu told me his teacher is using a workbook for LA that he used in kindergarten (at the gifted school). Oh boy. But the gifted program for third graders will start in a week or two.

KTP said...

Wow. This is a great article. My stomach churned when I read that Mr. Smartypants was having behavioral issues and dumbing down his essays, because I can imagine the same thing happening to my child in the LA public school system if we don't do our homework very diligently before choosing a school. It's 2 years away, but those years will fly.

kristina said...

This is a really good article. I think you should keep chronicling their experiences because I think it can be a book.

Carrie said...

This whole story feels so familiar -- I was the fidgety, daydreaming, bored kid who learned so many times over that it's better to adjust my work down to the teachers' expected range. Of course many of us who had high expectations for ourselves in life will come up with excuses outside ourselves for why we haven't yet changed the world with our mighty intellects. So I'm a little too close to it to say whether the "average" education I received had much of a negative impact. I will say that I thank my lucky stars for the once-a-week gifted program we had in our town at the time. It was such a refuge. It saddens me to see schools moving more toward "enriching the regular curriculum" or whatever and away from having a separate class for kids with different abilities.

I second the advice on writing a book on your experiences. I would buy it!

CanCan said...

I never considered the difficulties about having (or being) a gifted child until I took "special ed" classes toward my teaching MA and it covered gifted children.
I thought, "Special Ed? Isn't that for the "slow" kids?"
But we watched all kinds of videos about children with above average intelligence and how hard it is for both them and their parents, and even that it is difficult for the public schools to accommodate them.
Right now I have a 3 year old son who was "skipped" into PreK (he started out at a Montessori school before this) and I wonder what is in store for us!!!
onlycancan at hotmail dot com

Rachel said...

Great article! We were in a very similar situation and the right school is key.

Jennifer Fink said...

I love this post. I, too, have a gifted son, and I, too, struggled with the feeling that school was so -- what? -- not really benefiting ultimately.

Ultimately, we decided to pull him out of school midway through first grade and have been homeschooling ever since.

It's frustrating, though -- realizing your child has these needs that most people don't fully recognize or acknowledge and can't even begin to accomodate.