Find the Best Curriculum for Your Gifted Child
Because their gifted children were also their first children, Mary Bevan and Lorie Hood-Kaniefski thought it was perfectly normal for a toddler to understand complex concepts, use words like "frustrated" in context and read chapter books before kindergarten. It was only later that they discovered their children, Pax Tirrell and Christiana Kaniefski, were profoundly gifted children, with IQs measuring well over 145.
Both women took different paths to solve some of the schooling dilemmas they encountered because of their children's startling intellect, but navigating through the public school system with a profoundly gifted child can be perilous for the very bright child, simply because most public schools' one-size-fits-all approach to schooling doesn't fit the gifted.
Jan Davidson is the author of Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds (Simon and Schuster, 2004) and co-founder, with her husband, Bob, of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, which offers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in scholarships for gifted children. It is funded by proceeds from the 1996 sale of the Davidsons' educational software company. Davidson is particularly interested in this field because of her experiences as a teacher and as the mother of gifted children who never really had the enrichment they probably needed.
She says when her children were small she didn't really understand what gifted children needed. If she had it to do all over, she says she would have handled their educations very differently. "Gifted children are not seen as having an urgent need primarily because gifted kids can fend for themselves, unlike children who perhaps can't read or write," says Davidson.
Even schools with gifted programs in place often don't challenge their bright students. The most common gifted education program in schools is what's referred to as a "pull-out" program. Children attend their regular classroom every day except for two or three hours one day a week when they are taken to a special classroom to work with a gifted education teacher.
One problem with this approach is that gifted children are gifted all the time, not just a few hours a week. Not making accommodations for the gifted in the classroom, just as accommodations are made for those at the other end of the special education scale, doesn't give gifted children the challenge they need to thrive.
Another problem that gifted advocates have with the "pull-out" program is that it often doesn't offer intellectually advanced children significant acceleration or challenges. Instead, it is used as creative time. "It's not as boring as regular school but this type [of gifted curriculum] seems to be the popular model," says Davidson. "It's fun, but if you're very bright it's just not challenging. Why can't they accelerate and have an educational program in math and languages? This is just a politically correct way of doing something that doesn't really serve the gifted students."
The other approach taken by public schools toward very gifted children is to advance them until they're in a grade where their intellectual and academic needs are being met. Unfortunately, this doesn't address their social or emotional needs. When Christiane Kaniefski was 7, her school suggested that her mother advance her to junior high school. That was the best they could offer. Ultimately, it prompted her mother to pull her from school altogether and begin home schooling. "I pulled her out of school because socially I didn't want her in with fifth and sixth graders with the hormonal surges they're going through," says Hood-Kaniefski. "I didn't feel it was safe for her emotionally."
Advocating for the Gifted
While it's easy to blame the schools, the fact is that the public school system has to meet a broad spectrum of needs from the profoundly disabled to the profoundly bright. They also have to teach everyone in between. Standardized testing and the federal funding tie-ins of the last few years have made individualized education even more problematic. So what's a mother to do?
In some cases, it's easier to get individual teachers to make daily accommodations. It's more difficult with profoundly gifted children like Pax Tirrell (Bevan's son), 14, and Christiane Kaniefski, 8. In their cases, there's little the public school can do beyond grade advancements. Pax's mother started Pax in public school, moved him to private school, home schooled him and even allowed him to home school himself.
Recently, they moved from Alaska to Clinton, Wash., so Pax could attend a program for profoundly gifted teens at the University of Washington. This program will provide him with both peers and mentors as he goes through college during what would, traditionally, be the age he would attend high school. "Learning is not a team sport," says Bevan. "This is working for Pax right now, but I'm prepared to find him something else if he finds he needs more in the future. You really have to follow where these kids lead you; you can't take a cookie cutter approach."
In Christiane's case, Hood-Kaniefski, of Troutville, Va., is sticking with home schooling for now, along with plenty of extracurricular activities so that Christiane has interaction with her peers. Hood-Kaniefski has also gone back to school herself to better understand how to teach her child. Eventually, when Christiane is 12 or so, Hood-Kaniefski plans to look into enrolling her in a special program for highly gifted girls. In the meantime, she just wants to help her develop, intellectually and emotionally, in a safe environment.
"When the public school looks at my child, they see this highly gifted intellect and they react to that," says Hood-Kaniefski. "When I look at her I see a young girl with vulnerabilities. I want her to be able to advance in her learning without having to grow up more quickly than she can handle."