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IQ like Einstein

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By Susan Freinkel

“There was no downtime,” April recalls. “It wasn’t hyper; it wasn’t manic. It was intense.”

Quest for the right school

Things got even harder when he was old enough to start school. They were living in West Palm Beach, Florida, and April enrolled him in a Montessori preschool. But it quickly became clear he didn’t fit in. While the other kids were learning about circles and squares, Nathan was talking about parallelograms and rhombuses.

April pulled him from the program and found a local private school for gifted children. He started in the PreK class, though April had misgivings. He may have only been 4, but he was already reading at a second-grade level and teaching himself addition and subtraction. The school had a policy against skipping grades, but midway through the year, the principal reluctantly agreed to let Nathan advance to kindergarten. Nathan was bored. When first grade rolled around, it soon became clear he was in for another year of treading water. April urged the principal to let him advance to third grade and to let him do the fourth-grade math he was already teaching himself. But the principal balked. “There was no way they were going to let him accelerate that much,” April recalls. “They were very concerned about the social and emotional impact.”

Long-term risks of limited learning

To April, that was a non-issue. Nathan was already socially isolated – he’d been bullied and mocked by his classmates on a few occasions. (Nathan doesn’t remember the episodes, though April does. “They hurt us very badly,” is all she’ll say.) “Throwing someone in a room with people the same age doesn’t make for good socialization,” says April. “What makes for good socialization is being around peers, like-minded people that accept you.” Nathan’s peers were not his fellow 5-year-olds, but kids many years older.

Research backs April’s instinct. Studies suggest that most highly gifted kids fit in just fine with older students and thrive when allowed to learn at an accelerated place. For instance, Australian researcher Miraca Gross followed a group of 60 students with very high IQs for two decades. She found that those who were allowed to skip ahead at least three grade levels tended to do well academically and socially; most got PhDs, settled into professional careers, formed relationships, and developed good friends. The 33 who were not allowed to accelerate in school had less charmed lives. Most ended up at less rigorous colleges and several never graduated high school or college. They also had more trouble forming social relationships. Having spent so many years feeling alienated, they had no practice connecting with people, Gross speculated.

Still relatives, including Nathan’s father, urged April to stop trying to find something special for Nathan and to just enroll him in a regular public school. They told her she was being elitist, and acting like the Quiz Bowl version of a stage mother. He’ll breeze through and get straight A’s, they argued. But April felt that would be doing her son a disservice. “I would not have been giving him the food he needed to grow,” she says. “Study after study shows that when you throw a really gifted kid into an environment like that, they don’t always excel. They’re bored. They’re unhappy. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Forcing a highly gifted child to work at the average students’ pace is “like forcing an adult to play an endless game of Candy Land,” says van Gemert. Ultimately the kid will drop out, either literally or figuratively. They may turn their frustration inward and become depressed and self-destructive, or turn it outward and mouth off to teachers and stir up mischief.

Running the school gauntlet

The only educational option April could see for Nathan was homeschooling. So midway through first grade she pulled him out of the private school and threw herself into Nathan’s education, outsourcing when he exhausted her capabilities. For instance, while he grasped math concepts easily – picking up multiplication in an afternoon and pre-algebra in a few weeks – he kept making silly arithmetic errors. So she briefly enrolled in the local branch of Kumon for the repetitive drills that she didn’t like to do.

By the time he was 6, she had shepherded him through the equivalent of middle school. Now, April turned to the Florida Virtual School, one of the country’s first online K-12 programs, for high school level classes. FLVS allowed Nathan to work at his own Mach 5 pace, with monthly check-in phone calls with teachers. But after two years, he seemed to have again hit a wall.

Next page: Ready for college at 12?

Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and has written for the New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian, Real Simple, and other national publications.