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Your child is gifted… now what?

Your child’s gift comes wrapped in challenges. Learn why parents often struggle to get their gifted children's intellectual and emotional needs met.

By Gail Robinson

Tracy Fisher, the mother of two gifted sons, has sent her children to public schools, a private school offering online learning, a military academy, and a charter school. Why so many schools? Because, like many gifted children, Fisher’s sons’ learning needs weren’t being met.

As Fisher discovered, the gift of having a gifted child comes wrapped in challenges. There's no one-size-fits-all solution to finding the right school for a gifted child, and programs vary depending on the state and district. And sometimes, idiosyncratic interests and adult conversation styles common to gifted kids can be socially isolating.

What to do when your child gets the G label?

"If it’s not broken, don’t fix it," says Dona Matthews, the co-author of Being Smart About Gifted Education. "If a kid seems to be happy and engaged in school and seems to be learning and growing [and] intellectually challenged — that's fantastic." Not all gifted children need a gifted program, and, Matthews says, the regular classroom is often the best choice. "Exceptional learning needs can be met with a flexible range of options that a good school will offer without calling it gifted, necessarily, and certainly without putting kids in a segregated program."

But if your child seems unhappy, bored, or uninspired, take note. If a school isn't challenging gifted kids, they may end up checking out: not doing their work, acting out, or saying they hate school and even want to drop out. Take an assessment of how the school is working for them. If you see signs things aren't going well, "What you really have to do as a parent is look around," says Katie Haydon, founder of Ignite Creative Learning Studio in Ojai, CA. Look for any available resources: a great teacher, supportive principal, individualized curriculum, or a pullout program.

You may need to look beyond your current school, whether it's public or private. (Caution: experts advise against assuming a private school will necessarily meet your child's special needs.) If you're considering a gifted program — be it at a public or private school — ask how students are selected and whether the teachers are trained to work with gifted children. The California Association for the Gifted has a list of questions you might ask when you visit.

Fisher had an especially hard time finding the right fit for her younger son, a math and science whiz with a learning disability — a combination known as “twice exceptional.” Richard Weinfeld, a special education expert and author of Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties, who advocates for kids like Fisher’s son, says if your child qualifies for both an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for student with disabilities and for gifted education, then you should press the district to make sure your child gets both.

Social struggles of intense, sensitive, excitable, obsessive kids

"They're' so intense — that's one of the things about gifted kids," Fisher says, recalling how ardently her son insisted on military school at one point. Gifted children may be extremely sensitive, have an obsessive interest in an arcane subject, be highly excitable, or come across more of a "mini-adult" than a child. According to Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski's theory, the same sensitivity that helps gifted people assimilate information from the world around them can make them extremely sensitive in other ways, too.

Mariam Willis, a parent outreach specialist for the NAGC, says parents with such children have to make an extra effort to teach them social skills. "Don’t just drop them off at the mall — and don't think that if you just get them all the coolest clothes they're going to do OK, because they don’t want the coolest clothes," she cautions. Instead, Willis encourages parents to help their children seek out groups where they might find others with similar interests.

The good news is that as gifted people get older — even the profoundly gifted — they often find things get easier. Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College, reminds parents not to lose perspective and to remember their children face a bright future. As grownups, says Winner, "they can choose their own niche. They can find weirdoes like themselves. A kid in public high school can't."

"Wow, that’s incredible"

Getting your gifted child’s needs met can be stressful, which is something Houston-based Stacia Taylor discovered when her family moved from Louisiana to Texas. The mother of three gifted girls, Taylor said she did the once unthinkable and ended up homeschooling after it became painfully clear the new elementary school teacher couldn't deal with her daughter. "It was impacting [my daughter] negatively in a profound way," Taylor says.

For the first six months, Taylor "felt like I had jumped off a cliff." But eventually they found their groove. The schedule even allowed the family to travel along with their father on his frequent business trips. But not everything was easy. Taylor combed the internet for resources, and she’d get blindsided by mindboggling questions most parents never hear — at least from an elementary schooler. Taylor recalls a morning when her 10-year-old said at breakfast, "I understand the singularity before the big bang, but I'm a little confused about whether or not gravity was inside the singularity or outside the singularity."

Moments like that remind Taylor of the particular pleasures of parenting her children. "You get stuck in the weeds of some of the difficult aspects of having highly sensitive children," Taylor says. "It's not always easy to parent gifted children, but it's the most amazing journey you will ever be on." 

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Gail Robinson is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer specializing in education and other public policy issues. Her work appears in many publications, including Inside Schools and the Huffington Post. She has two children who went through the New York City school system.

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