When Simply Skipping Ahead is Not the Answer
Jay, a 13-year-old from North Carolina
Jay’s schooling situation has been a particular challenge because his capabilities and interests are prodigious and he is committed to being a kid, to having his whole childhood experience. Since these needs often stand in direct opposition to each other, finding ways to serve both is a task that requires a lot of creativity and frequent readjustment.
The people who have helped us most have been those willing to really look and listen closely to both who Jay is and what we’re trying to accomplish for him. Too often, in our dealings with public school educators, there has been a tendency for them to say, “Oh yes, he is a gifted kid. We know how to handle gifted kids.” Then they place him in a gifted program which they assume will address his needs. We have found little understanding of the fact that “levels of giftedness” is a real thing, and that there is as much difference between a moderately gifted child and one of profound giftedness as there is between a mentally challenged child and the moderately gifted one.
Still, we have come across a few public school educators who did listen carefully, who have been willing to learn something new in this area and to explore. Just by continuing to advocate for Jay to the best of our ability, we have even come in contact with several who have not only agreed to support our somewhat unorthodox proposals regarding a school plan for him but have even contributed ideas of their own as to how to handle his dual needs. Once we meet someone like that, we hold onto them for dear life, because having a true advocate “on the inside”, so to speak, is so critical to being able to construct a school plan that continues to make sense as Jay grows and his needs change.
Right now, Jay is in middle school in the morning (with his age peers)—though he does take Language Arts by independent study, even there—and then is bused to a nearby high school for the afternoon. Because a kid can only be enrolled in one school at a time in our state, and can only get credit for high school courses if he is enrolled there, Jay is enrolled at high school and is what they call a “visiting student” at middle school. This is something that has never been done in our school system, something that became possible only through persistence (going to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for permissions at one point) and by enlisting the help of those local educators described above, namely, the few who have stopped to listen and really consider what we were saying about the son we’ve been given to raise.
Still, it’s been worth it, since Jay is thriving now on his unusual cocktail of middle school, high school, and college-level enrichments. And so far our high school advocate—a kind and wonderful counselor—has been able to help us keep his schedule flexible enough so that if he wants to zoom ahead at some point, he still can.
A Paradigm Shift for the Whole Family
Mary, age 13, and Rachel, age 11, from New Hampshire
Our decision to homeschool our daughter came after trying for two years to modify her program. The school allowed her to take the Johns Hopkins Writing Tutorial instead of language arts, but as Mary was coming into her own as a learner she was becoming increasingly frustrated. One day she said, "To be a happy person, you have to be true to who you are. Everyday I am compromising myself at school."
In many ways homeschooling has been wonderful for Mary. She is free from grades and her tendency towards perfectionism. She can explore topics of her interest at great depths. She walked out of seventh grade, and was denied access to the AP English class but passed the exam anyway. She has had a chance to test her own abilities. But for a social kid, it is lonely, too. She has not wanted to accelerate. She struggles with her giftedness as a heavy burden.
The only times where Mary has not felt the squeeze has been at summer programs with other gifted kids. What a blessing these opportunities are. All of my children have been to CTY and have talked about being with kids who are often outcasts at school. At the summer programs it is safe to be smart.
It is interesting to note that since we first began discussions with the middle school about Mary, there are now four students who are doing distance learning instead of the regular curriculum. (This is indeed progress.) Also, there is now a mentoring program for middle school kids. John first mentored Rachel and a group of her classmates on Thoreau and materialism. When the group was to reconvene this year it was suggested that they be split up. The kids vehemently opposed breaking up their only opportunity to be with peers during the week. Now the principal is mentoring that group, and John is mentoring another group of students. It is fabulous that the principal is mentoring this group of children. Their topic this year is leadership...What makes a great leader? Who were great leaders? What would you do if you were a leader?
Rachel brought up the topic of ability grouping in school. The principal got an earful of just what it is like for these kids to sit through regular class everyday. Change is slow, but it starts with people listening and understanding that the needs of these kids are different.
As parents who are educators I am amazed at the huge paradigm shift we have gone through. We recognize in our school situation that to pursue a high school diploma will actually hold our children back for three years. Having bored and frustrated smart teenagers is not a good thing. We are going to go a different route. My son is now a folk hero among his classmates because he's the kid whose parents let him drop American Studies...the most boring and non-challenging class but essential for graduation. We are now out of the box completely and making it up as we go along. It is scary, but I also know it is the right thing.
Finding the Optimal Match – A Student’s PerspectiveVicki, a 13-year-old from Maryland
It is true that the one-size-fits all structure doesn't work for everyone. It certainly didn't work for me. I went to public kindergarten for two weeks, because a kindergarten experience was required in my state. Then I was moved to first grade, where I stayed for another month. I was bored, unchallenged, and teased incessantly. My teachers were unsympathetic and largely unhelpful. I had two different teachers over four weeks, one of whom was supposed to be a "gifted and talented instructor". My first teacher even suggested to me that I was slow and couldn't do the work. I refused to do the work because I had done it all when I was three. I was finally tested at the age of five. It was recommended that I go to a private middle school. We did eventually find a solution, though. My mom, who had been staying home with me anyway, decided to homeschool me. I was homeschooled with a prepackaged curriculum for two years, which I greatly disliked. After that we joined an umbrella group and handpicked our own materials. We had finally found a solution that worked. When I was nine, I began going to a local university part time. It was also about this time that I started getting private tutors to go more in-depth in certain subjects, like science. I am now eleven years old and happily (mostly, nobody loves homework) attending college full time. I have run into some adversity from the other students, but I am now a fixture on campus and they have accepted that I'm there, whether they like it or not. I feel engaged and challenged. Acceleration is not right for everyone, but it was just what we needed.
“We Don’t See Scores Like This” Robin, an 8-year-old from Virginia
When Robin was almost 5, I learned that he would not start kindergarten at the end of August because he would not turn 5 until September. Early entry screening resulted in a recommendation that he be enrolled as a 4-year-old. He did very well, although seemed to have trouble near the end of the year "winding down" after large group activities.
In 1st grade, his teacher talked with the principal about Robin. The principal shared her positive comments with me. At the principal's recommendation, I requested that Robin be screened for the gifted program. He met all of the criteria.
When I met with the committee to learn his test results, the evaluator looked me in the eye and said, "we don’t see scores like this." I smiled and nodded, recognizing that Robin had been accepted. The evaluator got my attention again, and with smiling seriousness said, "I mean it, we DON'T see scores like this. What does he want to be? He can be anything he wants to be." I am glad that this man impressed this upon me. I did not recognize the extent of Robin's difference from other students until some time later. This man's remarks helped me to take it very seriously when Robin had concerns about school.
The concerns started in 2nd grade. Robin complained that the reading book was "too easy." Then he became the target of a class bully. He became easily emotional, and one teacher asked me if everything was OK. I started researching giftedness.
Based on what I learned, I asked that Robin be moved up to third grade for reading. They called it "cross-grade grouping." It felt counter-intuitive to have a child who seemed unhappy and respond by giving him more work. But it helped. In January of the same year, he moved up to 3rd grade full time. He was back to being his old self. He had a wonderful teacher and was in a class of 14 students, 6 of whom attended a gifted pull-out each week. This teacher worked with the remaining students on gifted days, and was able to keep the whole class moving at a comfortable pace. We were so fortunate.
When Robin started 4th grade, we struggled again. During free-reading time, Robin explained that he read his science book. When asked if he'd read the whole thing, he reported, "I've read all the interesting parts, now I'm going back and reading the dull stuff." Out of curiosity, I asked him review questions from the last chapter in the book. He responded correctly. Although he reads 5th, 6th and 7th grade science books without difficulty at home, we have been unable to get him any "more" science in his classroom.
Math has also moved at a slower rate than expected, and the teacher refused to allow Robin daily access to the classroom computer to work on an existing self-paced math program that would parallel his text book and let him work ahead.
In language arts, the teacher told students who were struggling with sentence types "this is 2nd grade stuff, people." We believe that she was right. But that same topic was the subject of at least 4 written assignments over two weeks. One two-page worksheet assigned as homework was an exact duplicate of work that he'd completed for a grade the previous week, with no errors.
I talked with the teacher informally. I talked with the teacher of gifted, his case manager. I shared my concerns with the principal regularly. I feel like all of these people are good people who care about children and learning. So why was I getting nowhere?
I asked to meet with them as a group, then we met again when I requested changes to his IEP. Still no significant accommodation. The classroom teacher would still not allow him to use the computer for math, as an example. This particularly frustrated Robin. He told me that children that had difficulty with math used the computer every day because "she doesn't think they understand the stuff in the book well enough to do it."
I withdrew him from the public school and started homeschooling. At this point, we are not moving at the speed of light, but he is not spending 6 or 7 hours a day doing 2 hours of classwork and 4-5 hours of waiting. I continued to negotiate with the school in an effort to return him to class.
I have tried to work through the proper channels. We had a second IEP meeting and have been to mediation. There will be a post-mediation IEP meeting to record those things upon which we did agree. Once that is held, I need to make a decision about whether or not to pursue "due process," the procedure by which I may challenge the district’s response to my requests on Robin's behalf.
This negotiation has been stressful for me. Robin seems better now that we have settled into homeschooling. He has agreed-upon goals to meet in each subject on a weekly basis. I so enjoyed the other morning when he got up from the breakfast table and said, "I'm going to go get some of my work done." He has much more ownership of his learning now.
I am sad about the school situation. It seems to me that there is no one that is responsible for connecting everything up for my son. His gifted pull-out is at another school, so the teacher is not accessible to him four days each week. When they schedule class trips for the same day he is in gifted, no one at school says, "oh, wait, we can't do it that day, the fourth graders have gifted." It was like pulling teeth to get one teacher to write the homework assignments on the board while the kids were out at gifted. She insisted that each child should come to her after they got back and ask about homework. This would have pulled them from their primary classroom yet again that day, when they could have just copied it from the blackboard. I approached this teacher politely, but it took help from another parent and the principal to get this taken care of.
The greatest challenge I feel I have faced this year is to try and connect some of the disjointed aspects of my son's school experience, because no one else seems to have that job. And it seems to frustrate them when I do it, which doesn't feel fair.
But that challenge is probably nothing compared to what my son has faced. I am so impressed that he has maintained good conduct through some of the situations. Here is a child who is two years younger than many of his classmates, with an academic ability that is probably two or more years older. Talk about a hard fit.
A child like this is so rare that he may well be the only one that many of these teachers meet through their careers, so it is hard to get angry with them for not understanding. But it would help tremendously if they were willing to learn, or to find him someone who knows, what he needs.
From Homeschooling to College Classroom Daniel, a 10-year-old from Colorado
Our son clearly was not a one size fits all student even in the ’gifted’ school system. At the age of three, it was clear that his speed, depth and appitite for learning could exhaust any educator and certainly his parents. I began homeschooling Daniel, and decided to try a private school for one year when he was eight years old.
This was a school geared for moderately and highly gifted children. For his first time ever in a school setting, he enjoyed the rhythm of classes and being around other children. About six months into school, it was clear that he needed to move faster and that he wasn’t connecting with his same age peers on the playground. He had meltdowns and cried often. He finished the year, but did not return.
He tried homeschoolong groups that held classes in various subjects and we accelerated his classes. These classes were designed for regular non gifted children and this left my son very underchallenged. My son commented that " even though the classes are for older kids, the way I need to learn the information is different than other kids, I think differently and on a different level"
As our son was now 9 years old and without a schooling environment, I tried one more time to apply for two gifted very reputable private schools. The interviews did not go well and the school directors said he did not "fit" the typical gifted child in their school and their school would not be a good match for him.
Desperate for my son to learn in a classroom setting ( he had clearly outgrown his parents ability to educate him at home) we had him take a college entrance/placement exam. I wanted to see what he needed to work on for early college admission in the next couple of years. To my surprise, his scores were quite good and high enough for admission as a freshman at a local community college.
The next hurdle was the interview process with the computer department chairman. (Daniel’s area of interest) The department chairman’s willingness and open attitude was just the break our son needed. He was admitted and signed up for his first class. He did very well and is currently taking nine credits. He is again doing very well and plans on going full time next semester at the age of 10. He is happy, challenged and loves to attend class.
We are grateful to the department chair for allowing our very young son to try a college course. He understood Daniel’s rage to learn and how these very young children could demonstrate maturity, self control and understand very high level concepts if placed in the correct setting. I wish there were many more like him. Our son who did not fit the one size fits all school, even in the gifted population has found a home. We tried and failed at many different places but never gave up. Finding the best although unconventional match was worth all the heartaches.
Acceleration is not right for everyone, but it was just what we needed.
If you are looking to connect with others who think and learn like you do, we encourage you to explore local and regional for interest clubs, programs, and camps in the Davidson Gifted Database. You may also wish to explore the Davidson Young Scholars program,a free program for profoundly gifted young people between the ages of 4 and 18 where young gifted students have opportunities to connect with each other online and in person.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.