There are many different ways to raise and educate a profoundly gifted child. For most of us, the story is completely similar from our child’s birth to about age five or six, when we started dealing with the schools. How we handle the school years, and how our child handles the school years, can vary tremendously. This is a brief overview of the approach I took with my middle son Charlie.
The first time I wrote this story was 1996. I have since become a professional high intelligence specialist, and Charlie has grown up. There are important social and emotional issues to be considered when guiding a family that has a profoundly gifted child. I won’t address those issues in any depth here. Instead, I will concentrate on how we found the academic fit that kept Charlie at least moderately challenged while giving him the social opportunities we felt he needed. But you still might like a little background first.
Some Background on Gifted Identification
In my own consulting practice with the parents of moderately, highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children, I use the same initial steps with everyone. My approach and strategy changed over the years as I’ve learned more, and what I do with clients now is completely different than what was available to me years ago when my own children were young. I now consider gender differences, personality type preferences, and levels and profiles of giftedness when determining what would work best for any given child and his or her family.
For parents who suspect that their child is profoundly gifted, get the child definitively tested by someone who understands giftedness and how to interpret the assessment instrument he or she uses. Why test? The typical classroom will not enable your child to display her amazing abilities, and you are unlikely to be believed when you say she is really, really gifted. My book 5 Levels of Gifted (2005) details early childhood milestones that can help parents to estimate their children’s intellectual levels. Eventually, though, it is testing that makes it clear whether your child is gifted at a level that the schools can serve or is too intellectually advanced for conventional schooling during the years leading up to high school age. From the research I did for this book, I came to refer to profoundly gifted children as Level Five on a level one through five scale. Just for context, Level One children are the majority of those who grow up to constitute the professional classes in our society, and yet most of them are generally below the IQ cut-off for typical school gifted programs. Level Five children are the students who do not easily fit any school set-up at all, and getting into a gifted program does not even begin to provide a solution.
I professionally use the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, Fifth Edition (SB5) because it is not timed and covers ages two to 85, which takes away ceiling effects for gifted children. It, like the equally popular WISC-IV (Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children, Fourth Edition), is very difficult to interpret without considerable experience with the gifted population. In years past, the test of choice was the Stanford-Binet L-M. It is, however, on a very different scale than modern tests and quite outdated in language, test items, and normative data. For those wanting more explanatory information about these test differences, please refer to Use of the Stanford-Binet 5 in the Assessment of High Abilities (Ruf, 2003).
Although a child can be tested as early as age four, it is well known that such scores—for a variety of reasons—very often are inflated. Ages seven or eight are ideal ages for definitive testing. By age 10 and older, final scores can be under-estimated due to a variety of reasons not related to the individual’s losing intelligence. A person who can achieve a score of 150 on an IQ test as a child is likely to score no higher than 140 to 145 upon reaching adulthood. All of the best-known modern IQ tests, both group and individual, have a score range of 50 to 150. Unfortunately, many people still believe that you aren’t gifted unless your IQ is much higher, and modern tests don’t go higher.
Many parents start to second-guess themselves—worried they are over-estimating their child’s abilities relative to others—and don’t want to believe that their child won’t fit any elementary school. Most parents really do want their children to be normal, happy, and fit in with others. Parents must understand two important concepts: asynchrony of development, and learned underachievement. Asynchrony of development, a term coined by Linda Silverman, refers to the disparity within the highly gifted child, which frustrates the child and those guiding his education. A child may be able to read with full comprehension at the seventh-grade level but still not be able to write with any fluency or comfort. A fourth grader may be able to fully grasp eighth-grade earth science but not be able to reach the lab table or keep a decent lab notebook. A fifth grader may be able to tackle ninth-grade algebra but not be mature enough to understand, or go along with, why you show your work on the homework assignment. Finally, a fourth grader in eighth-grade gym is obviously a physical mismatch, and although the highly gifted fourth grader may have humor his age-mates miss, the pubescent humor of the eighth and ninth graders, while understood intellectually by the child, are certainly ahead of his readiness to relate.
Learned underachievement can happen to any child who enters school and spends a considerable amount of time waiting for the other children to learn what she already knows. The gifted child figures out how to use that waiting time, and it’s usually not on academics. When the school work does eventually become challenging, the gifted child often suffers greatly because she hasn’t had the opportunity to learn to take mistakes in stride, or how to study effectively, or how to budget her time when it actually requires some attention to what is being presented in school. A big problem with all of this is that the schools often don’t address the needs of gifted children until third grade or beyond. In the majority of our schools, gifted classes do not exist at all, and accelerated classes don’t begin until seventh grade—usually just in math—or high school. It should be apparent that bright children of all levels receive ample opportunity to hone their underachievement skills. For parents guiding their own child, I encourage them to make certain their child is intellectually challenged at least part of every school day.
One Profoundly Gifted Child’s Story
Again, in this article, I won’t go into the details of how I persuaded school personnel to do what I wanted. It was not been as easy as the following chronology would suggest.
Charlie’s kindergarten teacher screened all her pupils in basic and “challenge” skills and saw that Charlie was unlike any child she had ever taught. She eagerly accepted my suggestions and the materials I personally provided to her. Although she thought the school year went very well, Charlie did not. One month into the school year, he lamented, “School just takes so much of my time!”
For first grade, I invited another child, Monica, to join Charlie and me for morning classes in our home. The school system gave me two school desks, all the textbooks I wanted, and $100 for extra supplies. The kids were put in the same class at the nearby elementary school, and their teacher set up her schedule to do regular academics in the mornings with the other children and special subjects and group activities in the afternoons. Charlie and Monica did art, music, gym, lunch, social sciences, field trips, and parties with their age-mates, and they finished first- through sixth-grade academics with me during their first-grade year.
By second grade, we moved to the Minneapolis area and selected a private school with preschool through kindergarten on the same campus. Although the average IQ, or estimated ability level, in the school was a little bit higher than the public school we had left, the difference wasn’t enough to allow for Charlie’s unusually high ability. The teacher made absolutely no adjustments for him and, in fact, didn’t seem to like him—that is, until she needed him.
The second grade had a Poetry Program each year, led by Charlie’s teacher. She had written a difficult script several years earlier, with a very large lead role, and the other teachers thought it was too hard for second graders. Charlie’s teacher believed Charlie could handle the memorization. He could, and he discovered that he enjoyed acting. Acting became an excellent opportunity for Charlie to fit in with many other people throughout the years.
We made another major change for third grade; we hired two tutors to work individually with Charlie at his own pace and level during his school day. He covered language arts, math, and science at his own readiness level with these two people and then joined age-mates for all other activities. Charlie did enjoy these other activities and always had numerous friends, although none really close. The sports activities, in particular, were important to him.
This extra help in math prepared him for qualifying for the University of Minnesota’s Talented Youth Mathematics Program in fourth grade. He completed algebra I and II during the once-a-week after-school classes. Charlie was three years younger than most of his math-accelerated classmates, so he had difficulty finding pals with whom to discuss problems, and he was one of the few kids who didn’t have at least one parent in a technical field. Fortunately, he did well despite these obstacles. His school also permitted him to take earth science with eighth graders.
Charlie started trying out for TV commercials and movies during fourth grade. I hoped he would get in a movie because I knew they provide tutors, and our expenses were mounting. I couldn’t teach my son at home because he was already too advanced for it to be anything but a full-time job for me.
Fifth grade, he got those free private tutors while acting in Men Don’t Leave and Dick Tracy. The tutors followed his school’s coursework but could go at Charlie’s, rather than the class’s, pace. He also continued his university math in geometry and trigonometry but was unable to finish without a math specialist while working. None of the studio teachers was as advanced as he in math. Charlie was treated well when working with the adults in the movies. They delighted in his abilities and enjoyed his company. This was a distinct change from his treatment at school. Young, profoundly gifted children take a while to learn how to fit in at school.
Sixth through eighth grades were pretty much an academic jumble. As most of us remember from personal experience, middle school is a tough emotional and social time. Charlie thinks he missed some important social opportunities now when he looks back on it. I think he’s wrong, but I know what really simple and unchallenging and superficial coursework he would have had to endure. He still did not have the maturity or grace to deal with that kind of frustration without alienating himself from teachers and students alike.
Three more movies rescued him from seventh grade. He was in What about Bob?, The Doctor, and Hook. We took advantage of a program called the Minnesota Post-Secondary Options (PSEO), in which gifted high school juniors and seniors can take college courses at school system expense and receive concurrent high school and college credit. Even though he was only 12, he convinced the program coordinator that he was ready and took five college courses through the University of Minnesota. Before online courses were available as they are today, these courses were very well-designed correspondence courses. It worked beautifully because the movie tutors simply guided and supervised him through these courses. Even though a Level Five child, Charlie was not disciplined or motivated enough at age 12 to follow through alone on such coursework.
By eighth grade I wasn’t sure what to do. Clearly my son could have gone straight to college, but he was starting to feel lonely for his old “I hate school” stories. We decided to have him return to school full-time. Students have a wide array of coursework available to them in high school, and Charlie really has enjoyed most of his classes. His maturity, finally, led him to be an enjoyable asset to his classes. Most of the teachers really liked him, too. If you look back on your own honors and AP courses, you’ll remember that they were as difficult as your college courses—maybe more so. High school is not a worse option than college, and you have all the appropriate social options.
First, looking back, I can say it worked well, and I’m glad to be at this end of it—high school graduation. Charlie is happy. He has a wisdom and an acceptance that have been hard won. He has tranquility and the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm for learning about the world that he had before he ever started school. He leaves for M.I.T. in the fall to major in aerospace engineering (or history, politics, or philosophy). He is ready to leave—i.e., we seem to have taken care of the inevitable enmeshment issues which occur when highly gifted children and parents find each other. I hope that by sharing our story I’ve given you more confidence to do what you think is right for your own children. Have a good time.
After several different declared majors, Charlie ended up majoring in physics by his junior year at M.I.T. He was tempted back to Hollywood during his sophomore year and played the part of the nerdy guy in Can’t Hardly Wait about a high school graduation party. He basically faxed in his assignments to M.I.T. for that semester. He told me that he had the lowest high school grade point average—about a B+—of any of the students he knew. From that I learned that a Level Five student’s ability to consistently score high on standardized tests—along with a very interesting portfolio of experiences—could overcome a less-than-perfect GPA. One day, when talking by phone, he told me he really couldn’t talk, was too busy, and had to get back to work. I was surprised and said, “Charlie, if you’re having trouble getting your school work done, how on earth do the other students handle it?” He laughed and said, “Oh, Mom. Most people don’t take four physics courses at a time!” His delay in choosing his major led to a packed schedule his last two years. Most of his classmates were foreign students who were tracked and ability-grouped during their grade school and high school years and already had the equivalent of a physics degree before they even arrived at M.I.T.
After graduation, Charlie thought about giving acting one more try but, while waiting, went to work in Washington, DC. He worked eventually as a policy analyst and writer for a congressman and found that he was making the best friends he had ever experienced. I never saw him happier. His sense of humor was appreciated, and his writing and speaking abilities served him—and the congressman—very well. He applied to several law schools, was accepted by all, and selected Yale. He deferred for a year so as not to leave his very happy place in DC too soon, and now, five years later, he is still good friends with the majority of people he met in that job.
Still not sure how he wanted to use his law degree, Charlie clerked for a year for the Chief Justice of the Second District Court of Appeals, deferring the offer of employment from a New York law firm. He recently married a wonderful woman with her own unique academic and personal background, and he now works as a corporate litigator in New York City. He’s thinking of maybe going into business with some of the wonderful people he’s gotten to know over the years.
Is there a moral to the story? I think so. If we had forced Charlie to fit into school, to stay in classes that weren’t working for him and with people who didn’t “get” him or even like him, he would not have developed the interpersonal skills that led him to friendships, a happy marriage, and a sense of connection and belonging that he clearly has now. The best compliment I have ever gotten about Charlie is, “He seems so normal!” And that’s exactly we want for our children, isn’t it?
For advocacy tips, please read Barbara Gilman’s Academic Advocacy for Gifted Children.
ⓒ2008 by Deborah Ruf, Ph.D.
Deborah Ruf, Ph.D., Minneapolis, specialist in gifted assessment, test interpretation, and guidance for the gifted, served as the National Gifted Children Program Coordinator for American Mensa from 2003 to 2008. Having been a parent, teacher, and administrator in elementary through graduate education, she writes and speaks about school issues, social and emotional adjustment of gifted children, and affective policy for supporting the best educational fit for all students. Her award-winning book 5 Levels of Gifted (2005) summarizes levels of intelligence and highlights exceptionally to profoundly gifted children. See www.educationaloptions.com.