Raising and educating children who don’t fit inside the educational norm takes courage and creativity. I talk a lot on this blog about my hopes for the improvement of education in general, and indeed, I am committed to that mission. But today I want to offer discussion about gifted children in particular.
Parents with academically gifted children often feel that they have no option but to leave their kids in educational situations that are unsatisfying. Even placing them in accepted accelerated tracks can sometimes simply not be enough. I have been the shoulder for dozens of parents who feel their hands are tied with regards to their bright children’s education. They tell me their kids are bored, depressed, hate school, feel patronized. That they are uninspired and disappointed. But what can they do? There are no better options.
In my city in particular, there are no gifted services save a short pull-out program that works with students about three hours per week. Many participants and their parents report that this is insufficient to address their educational needs. Private school options here are strictly parochial, and though they may provide superior academic options, religion becomes an inseparable component. Plus, it’s expensive, and may not do better in meeting your child’s educational needs. For many families, this also is an insufficient option.
So what are our options? How do you go about creating an educational plan for children who are testing out at five or six grades or more above their age level? My suggestions here are for families who have already gone through the testing and evaluation process to identify their children as highly or profoundly gifted. I can talk about the testing and identification process in a later post if you’re interested. Let me know.
1. Let go of convention. Though there are hundreds of families carving out unique educational plans all over the country, there may not be any in your particular town. You may well be on your own here, so you’re going to have to allow yourself to step outside the comfort zone of grade levels, traditional trajectory, and the too oft-repeated community mantra of “but what if your child doesn’t fit in?” If your child is unhappy, she’s already not fitting in.
2. Let go of the need for your child to be in an age-related grade. This is an extension of point #1. We first had to deal with the question of “what grade are you in” when Ian did a double grade skip, from 2nd grade to 4th. A couple of years later, Eva did a single grade skip, skipping over 1st grade altogether. Once homeschooling came about, we had to drop the idea completely, as we don’t use much in the way of grade-specific curricula.
3. ASK YOUR KID. Dream together. Without parameters, what does your son or daughter want out of their education? Eva wants her education to allow her to write and self-publish books. Ian wants his education to focus on music. Those are our overarching goals. I asked about the short-term as well, and Eva surprised me by requesting an additional grade-skip so that she can take public school science and band in the 6th grade next year (this in edu-speak is known as “subject acceleration”). Ian is in the midst of considering classes in the middle school, high school, and even the university (again, see point #1).
4. Partner with (and seek advice from) educational experts. Ian, who will be 12 in June, is becoming increasingly ready for a higher level of education than what I can give him. I know we can still handle literature at home, and perhaps one more year of science, but he’s been stalling in math, and he’s far beyond what I can teach in music. I am in conversation with music instructors in the middle and high schools and in the university, trying to decide what his best option is for next year. We are carefully weighing what he’s ready for, what would serve him best, where he would be happiest, always balancing academic and social needs, and always including him in the process. And though I could teach him math again, we’ve together (ie: Ian, his dad and I, and the middle school administrators) decided on a fast-track middle school geometry course where he’ll be able to study with his friends. To begin the advocacy process for Eva, I’ll be working with the principal of her former public school to prepare an official recommendation based on her performance and test scores.
5. Assessments are your friends. OK, that felt odd just to type that. But truly, it is not assessments that I’m so opposed to, but our educational system’s obsession with them. Assessments when done right (and far less often) can be useful tools. And if you want to go outside the traditional school trajectory, you’re going to have to make teachers and admin folks feel comfortable about it. Though both my kids have received testing in the past to approve their grade-skips, I had them take quick state assessment tests last week (thank you Wachter Middle School for so kindly administering them!). The scores were consistent with their past experiences, but having them up to date will assist me in my advocacy for their placement next year. Ian also took the SAT this year; we felt that was important if we were considering university options. Also, don’t forget the Iowa Acceleration Scale, which is a tool made specifically to assess grade-skip readiness.
6. Recognize limitations. When you let go of all parameters, you have to be prepared that you will explore options that ultimately won’t be appropriate. Ian has been considering taking a college chemistry class to follow up on our chemistry study of last year. After interviewing the several science professors, the chemistry professor and parents of gifted children who have done this kind of thing before, we decided that solidifying his math study needed to come first. We want appropriate placement in whatever course of study we pursue, and are open to the reality of his pace; this means that we’re prepared to accelerate if necessary, and to slow down when needed.
7. Connect with the national gifted community for support and advice. Really, I can’t say this enough. This kind of radical acceleration isn’t as rare as you might think. If you feel like your child could benefit from the type of education I describe here, you should be in contact with the Davidson Institute of Talent Development and check out their Young Scholars program. There are many other wonderful organizations for gifted children as well, including Hoagies Gifted Education, National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC), Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), and Gifted Homeschoolers Forum (GHF). And you can always contact me.
8. Lastly, always be prepared to ditch what doesn’t work. This means to ditch the traditional education path if need be, and ditch your carefully laid out acceleration plans if they’re not working. This is process of trial and error. We research and carefully consider each option, but ultimately, sometimes you just don’t know until you try. You only fail if you’re not prepared to change a negative situation (even if it’s a situation that you have created).