Motivating Your Gifted Child to Bring Out the Best
James R. Delisle, Ph.D., a professor and director of gifted child education at Kent State University in Ohio, started his career as a teacher in special education 25 years ago. There was a boy in his class named Matt, who, no matter what Delisle tried, simply wasn't interested in school. For about a year, Delisle struggled with Matt's lack of interest. Then, one day, after about 18 months of class, Matt came to school stinking to high heaven. Delisle asked him why he smelled so bad, and Matt told him that he had gotten sprayed by a skunk while operating his home business. As it turned out, Matt had a thriving business tapping trees in the neighborhood and making the sap into syrup. He had made a deal with the neighbors to give them a percentage of the syrup, and Matt was building up a nice little nest egg.
At that point, Delisle changed his strategy toward Matt's education. It became, as Delisle puts it, "all maple syrup all the time." From then on, Matt was engaged and interested in the curriculum, and he began to thrive. Delisle realized that Matt wasn't dumb; he was actually very gifted and had done poorly in school simply because his education wasn't relevant to him. When it became relevant, Matt made a great deal of progress.
"Matt was placed in special education because of his behaviors even though he was extremely bright," says Delisle. "I began to see that my perceptions were wrong and realized there must be a lot more 'Matts' out there, so I decided to go into the field of gifted education. What I really learned from Matt and what I've learned through my work with gifted students is that they have to have a passion, and it's our job to find that passion and use it to motivate the gifted learner. I don't fix kids; I merely make them comfortable enough with me to share their passions."
Identifying Gifted Students
Carolyn Kottmeyer of Philadelphia, Pa. didn't know her daughter, Alexa, now 11, was gifted until she came home one day from her preschool and told Kottmeyer that she needed to set up a meeting with her preschool teacher. Puzzled, Kottmeyer set up the meeting, and was floored to learn that the preschool was recommending that her 4-year-old start kindergarten a year early.
"I told them I was worried about the impact socially, and they told me that they wanted to put her in kindergarten for social reasons because she spent most of her time helping the teacher," Kottmeyer says. "They also told me academics wouldn't be a problem. Boy, was that an understatement!"
Not only were academics not a problem, Alexa was asking for more difficult work within a month of starting kindergarten. While most of her fellow 5-year-old students were learning simple words like "look" and "run" and learning to write their numbers properly, Alexa, who had started reading at age 3, was already doing addition and subtraction.
When the school finally tested her later that year, Alexa was found to be highly gifted. That year wasn't too bad, because Alexa had a teacher who was willing to go the extra mile to adapt her curriculum for the bright little girl, but subsequent years weren't always as pleasant. At one point, the Kottmeyers had to file a non-compliance complaint against the school district to get adaptations for Alexa in the classroom.
Alexa, in a way, was a "typical" gifted child. She was reading very early, showed a keen interest in the world around her, asked surprisingly sophisticated questions and was able to express herself well. Gifted children also tend to pass developmental milestones early, have an advanced vocabulary, become easily bored with routines, can be very demanding, particularly of adult or parental company and stimulation and have a good memory and longer-than-average attention span. Because she was her first child, however, Kottmeyer merely assumed all children developed that quickly.
Educating the Gifted Child
In the end, the accommodations made for Alexa just weren't enough; she was far too gifted to be accommodated in an average classroom. She is now attending a special high school for gifted students. It means she has to live away from home, but she's happy and thriving among her intellectual peers. Meanwhile, Carolyn Kottmeyer, who also has a highly gifted daughter, Jessie, age 7, who is already in the fourth grade, started a Web site for gifted children, Hoagies Gifted Education Page, and became an advocate for gifted children.
Like James Delisle, Judy Galbraith, of Minneapolis, Minn., became interested in gifted education in her early days as a teacher when she found she wasn't trained to meet the needs of her gifted students. She decided to go to graduate school and specialize in gifted education. Instead of a thesis, she wrote a book about gifted children. Since then, she has written dozens of books, published under her own label, Free Spirit Publishing, and also has become an advocate for gifted children.
She says that the main problem is that gifted education is far from a priority in our educational system. "Only half of all states have a mandated gifted program, and many of those programs either have no funding, or they're very low on the funding totem pole," Galbraith says. "There also are no federal guidelines, so the services have no uniformity or control."
What Galbraith worries about is that gifted students will become lackadaisical and refuse to "play the game." If they're receiving dull assignments, especially if it's work they already know, they may just stop doing it, and their grades will reflect not their intelligence, but their boredom.
While most experts in gifted education agree that the public schools need a complete overhaul of their gifted programs, Galbraith also says the gifted child's best advocate is an informed parent. She feels parents of gifted children should read and learn about gifted education, programs for gifted children and the rights of their child in their state. Other alternatives are special gifted schools, such as the one Alexa Kottmeyer attends, or even home schooling.
But Delisle warns parents against home schooling for the wrong reasons. "I'm completely behind parents who home school because they think it's best for their child, and they're willing and able to put in the effort and find the necessary resources to challenge that child," Delisle says. "What worries me is a parent who home schools just out of frustration because they can't get what they need from the public school. That tells me the schools are failing in their duties."
The So-called "Underachiever"
Galbraith's experience with gifted children whose grades don't reflect their abilities is a common problem with gifted children because of the inflexible curriculums of most school districts. They are usually labeled "gifted underachievers," but Delisle has a different tag for them. His term is "selective consumer." In other words, they take what they need and reject what they don't.
Often, this refusal to participate in the regular curriculum makes sense when a parent looks at what they're doing on a day-to-day basis. In the case of Lynn Norby, of Minneapolis, Minn., when she looked at what her gifted son did during the school day, she made a decision to home school him. "He would come home and tell me something they had learned," says Norby. "Then he would come home the next day and tell me the same thing and the same thing the day after that and the day after that. There was so much repetition so that every child in the class would retain the information that the kids who got it the first time were bored to tears."
Delisle points out that many gifted children are also very strong-minded and will often just stop paying attention after that first lesson because they learn and retain information so quickly that they don't need the further repetition.
Another common problem with gifted children is that as very young students, the work comes so easily to them that, often, they don't develop good study habits. Then, later, when the work may become challenging, they can become frustrated and give up simply because they never learned how to learn. Any child who has been identified as gifted who begins to falter in the upper grades should be given reinforcement in organizational skills and study habits.
Also, as Delisle points out, it's very important to make a distinction in levels of giftedness. Just as there are different levels of special needs, some gifted children need more enrichment than others. For example, a mildly gifted student may do very well with a standard enrichment program in the public school. A profoundly gifted child, like Alexa Kottmeyer, may need something more.