In the movie, "Little Man Tate," the main character, Fred, is extraordinarily gifted. He paints, writes poetry, composes music and is a math prodigy. There are few real life Freds even among extraordinarily gifted children because few are so prodigious in so many areas. Even throughout history such genius is rare. Probably Leonardo da Vinci and John Stuart Mill were two such children. In the movie no one doubted Fred's talents, but in real life, all too often such talents are denied.
For example, Jim1did no work in 1st or 2nd grade. Though he read at 8th grade level, he was placed in a regular 2nd grade reader. Work given Jim consisted of many workbook pages of beginning reading and math activities. When Jim was finally tested, he scored over 200 IQ on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (Form L-M), was reading at high school level with math skills at junior high levels. Only when these scores were discussed with the school were they willing to start to think of Jim as an exceptional, but bored, boy whose special needs could not be met by a traditional 2nd grade program. Other Jims are less lucky. In their school systems, no matter how high their scores, there is no deviation from the standard curriculum permitted. The only alternatives for these children are finding more flexible alternative schools or home education.
Some exceptionally gifted children (those who score above 170 IQ) are not recognized easily. Though their early histories might indicate precocious development in such milestones as very early talking and reading, their school achievement may in no way mark them as different from others; such students may be "in hiding." This is particularly the case with exceptionally gifted girls who may not ask for special work, nor complain that they are bored. Many gifted girls tend to conform to what they see as expected performance, even copying the behavior of peers.
Martha, in fact, watched closely to see what she thought adults wanted from her, and then behaved in this manner. When she came for her initial visit, she watched the psychologist to see what she was expected to do. Noticing that the examiner was standing closest to the dolls, Martha played with these. Later, the examiner moved closest to the lego sets, and Martha played with them. One of the major considerations for her school was that she never acted gifted, and mostly appeared quite happy playing with age peers. It is much easier to convince people of the necessity of doing something for an obviously unhappy Fred Tate looking wistfully at other kids while drawing masterpieces on the cement than it is to convince people that a happy looking Martha playing with age peers isn't having her needs met.
In identifying the Jims, Freds and Marthas using material that truly assesses their level of potential is necessary. Most tests of intellectual potential have ceiling effects that artificially lower scores of the highest scoring children: the Stanford-Binet (Form L-M) is the only instrument that adequately assesses intellectual potential for this population. Since the Stanford-Binet has been revised as the Fourth Edition, some school psychologists and other evaluators think the L-M is now outdated and "unethical" to use. However, a recent revision of the Ethical Standards for Psychologists by the American Psychological Association suggests that this is not the case for populations for which there is no other adequate measure (Stanley E. Jones, APA Office of Ethics, personal communication, November 26, 1991).
In addition to their many differences from average children, exceptionally gifted children are also different from other gifted children. Programs and enrichment activities that interest gifted children with IQs in the 125 to 150 range may not be very useful or effective for the exceptionally gifted. This is due to differences in both degree and type of advancement.
How do exceptionally gifted children differ from other gifted children? An extreme need for constant mental stimulation is one important difference. In contrast to gifted children with IQ scores between 130 and 150, exceptionally gifted children have minds that never turn off. Isaac Asimov (1990, p. 140), author of over 400 books, has described his need for stimulation as so pressing that he counts the holes in acoustic ceiling tiles. Many exceptionally gifted children have trouble sleeping at night because their minds do not shut off enough for sleep to come. Others exhibit behavior problems that develop from needing more stimulation than they are receiving. George, age 5, with an IQ close to 200, became extremely attached to Nintendo since it was the only activity in his life that provided enough mental challenge. However, he also began to exhibit the aggressive behaviors and violent solutions to problems that Nintendo teaches. Computer hacking and Dungeons and Dragons are activities often used by the gifted to fill this need.
Concentration can be a problem for exceptionally gifted children when material does not offer sufficient intellectual stimulation. This was what Jim encountered in first grade when required to complete workbook pages. In effect he could not do the task. It was not that Jim was uncooperative or refused to try; in fact, Jim very much wanted to please the teacher. Yet, every time he started a page of problems, he would find himself in trouble for not working. Jim's brain could not work with the material offered, and his mind would not focus on the task. Given material at his level, Jim had no trouble with concentration or completing tasks. Tolan (1985) presents other examples of this same issue.
The thought processes of extraordinarily gifted children tend to be more complex than those of other gifted children. They not only see solutions to problems instantaneously, skipping many of the steps others use to arrive at answers, but they evolve whole new conceptions. Feldman (1986) describes one such youngster who, starting at the age of 22 months, learned foreign languages in several language groups in order to discover whether there was a parent language. Once he found the solution to the problem he had set for himself (which occurred when he was about 4), he went on to another problem and was not interested in learning other new languages. The more typical gifted child may be interested in learning languages at a later age, but could not conceive of such a problem.
Exceptionally gifted children discuss complex issues at a much earlier age than would be expected. They may ask questions or think about issues related to the origins of things: "How did time start?" "Does time start anew with the start of a new galaxy?" "What is the purpose of religion?" Austin, at age 8, speculated on the origins of black holes, including their cosmological purpose and how they fit into the various points of view of cosmology held by different religions.
There is often an unusually early grasp of the essential element of an issue. Thus, in answering questions, the exceptionally gifted child can understand why something is or is not true at an age when other gifted children accumulate facts drawn from authority. The exceptionally gifted seven year old might find the teacher's explanation of subtraction both confusing and inaccurate since he knows about equivalency and negative numbers, concepts that others his age have not yet learned.
Exceptionally gifted children usually show early and unusual perceptiveness about issues and other people. In the movie, Fred Tate is able to explain why there is only one white iris in Van Gogh's painting of irises: It's lonely. Melody, age 11, wrote a scathing parody of state and national policies on homelessness using the 23rd Psalm as her basis. None of her classmates and few of her teachers understood the irony involved.
Because of their different way of experiencing the world, and their vastly different way of learning, both faster and with greater complexity than other gifted children, exceptionally gifted children need different educational experiences. Given the usual academic fare for their age group, such children spend their time counting the holes in acoustic ceiling tiles, playing Nintendo and daydreaming while their self esteem, motivation and even eventually their ability to concentrate and meet challenges deteriorate.
There is no one program that will suit all exceptionally gifted children. However, certain commonalities exist including the need for a high degree of mental stimulation, increased complexity in both material to be studied and in the responses given by the children, and exploration of topics in depth and for prolonged periods, sometimes without a defined goal in mind. For example, the two year old described by Feldman (1986) who decided to study all those languages to determine the parent language did not mention his goal to adults. Were he subsequently forced to continue learning languages beyond his need to do so because he had an obvious talent for them, his ability to learn other skills and his joy in learning might have been destroyed. Thus, mentoring and support from adults while particularly needed for exceptionally gifted children, also have to be undertaken carefully so as to not remove their power to determine the future course of study. Undermining gifted children's initiative, whether through forced participation in grade level curriculum, adult generated projects or too rigid an environment, produces a real loss in terms of potential that may not ever be recovered.
1 Jim, and the other examples described in this paper are composites of several children. All details are disguised to preserve confidentiality. In no case is any example exactly like any real child seen in my practice.
There were endless school conferences about Lydia. Her behavior, peer relationships, quality and completion of work, and general attitude were constantly criticized by teachers. Lydia herself agreed; however, she also felt herself to be a victim of the "buts." "You know," she said, "No matter what I do, it's cancelled out by but." "Lydia is the brightest student we ever had, but she won't do her work." "Lydia writes wonderful poetry, but she won't accept criticism." "We give Lydia special projects to do, but she misses deadlines, and doesn't follow directions."
What is wrong with Lydia? With an IQ score over 180, is she really as incompetent as her teachers think? Actually Lydia has great powers of concentration. She spends weeks on projects of her own devising, loves to explore different topics in the library, spends hours trying to master a math problem chapters ahead in her math book, composes stories in French, and thinks for long hours about how to solve some of the problems of the world.
While seeming to waste a great deal of time, children like Lydia are actually engaged in intense exploration of their own ideas. They get caught on a problem or question and spend all their time thinking about it. Thus, Lydia solves the math problem several chapters ahead but does not do her homework. To force herself to do the homework is difficult. Usually she feels that school and home chores are intrusive and demand a great deal of her time and energy with little left for her own pursuits. Since her mind is constantly active, there is usually a strong pull towards solving a problem or thinking about something, and she cannot stop herself and put it away until a more convenient time. To do so is too painful; it feels as if a part of herself is being cut off or squeezed into a tiny box. The pressure of being in the box is too much and then Lydia explodes.
Following the task demands in school is also difficult. Lydia appears to run out of interest part way through long term projects even when she selects them. Teachers see her as unmotivated, even manipulative. Yet, for Lydia, it is impossible to go back and accomplish what the teachers want. She has already organized, analyzed, and created a complete response in her mind and gone on to another interest; she is simply somewhere else by the time the work is due. Lydia also finds it difficult to force her mind into the framework that teachers demand. She cannot write a paper using an outline and index cards full of information, or neatly write out every step of a math problem according to the teacher's format. She often cannot answer questions asked in class at the level teachers frame them.
Because of her broad base of knowledge, Lydia often has trouble answering questions that appear
simple to more average children. She, in fact, has too much information to draw upon and no way to determine which level of information to give. A good analogy is that if one has but one clock, one knows what time it is; one is less sure with three clocks, and with a dozen, not only is one unsure of what time it is, but the whole question of what time is and how we measure it comes into consideration. Thus, at age 7, Lydia was unable to answer simple science questions on a popular achievement test. However, when she was asked to discuss the whole topic of the test, she demonstrated complex understanding of the issues, and showed a wealth of general information. Asked why she could not answer the questions, she said that none of the answers given was exactly true, she didn't know what the test makers had in mind in asking the questions, and so could not answer them. Often, this sort of child, when asked a question, leaves a long pause. Given some time, many will respond with precision alternatives..."Do you mean this, or this?" This is not a learning style adaptable to multiple choice achievement tests.
Many argue that the real world demands exceptionally gifted children learn to meet deadlines, do tasks others assign and recognize the necessity of dealing with interruptions of their train of thought They argue that it does a disservice to gifted children to change task demands to meet these needs. However, meeting such learning needs is important for the exceptionally gifted, because only by understanding their own thinking styles and learning how to use their minds can they ever harness that great mental energy. It is those who are forced at too young an age into others' molds who spend the rest of their lives rebelling or so crushed by the pressure of the tiny box that they never accomplish anything.
Asimov, L (1990). Worlds in order. Fantasy & Science Fiction, 78(4), 139-149.
Feldman, D.H. (1986). Nature's gambit. New York: Basic Books.
Tolan, S.S. (1985). Stuck in another dimension. The exceptionally gifted child at school. G/C/T, Issue 41, (Nov.-Dec), 22-26.
Permission to reprint this article was granted by D. Lovecky and Understanding Our Gifted.
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