Issues in educating exceptionally gifted students
Osborn, J.
Commissioned by The Davidson Foundation
Spring 2001

This article is the second in a series of three on the processes parents go through in raising an exceptionally gifted child. This article, based on a study of 12 exceptionally gifted students, is a discussion of the educational experiences of these students and the controversies that their parents confronted regarding schooling. Osborn lists the issues and varied resolutions regarding reading, writing, mathematics and friendship.

*This articles is based upon the family experiences of twelve exceptionally gifted students, that is, students who scored over 160 on the Stanford-Binet: LM

Once parents have accepted the idea that their child has unusual intellectual gifts, then their focus becomes on meeting the educational needs of that child.The central questions for parents at this point are: what are exceptionally gifted students usually like, what are optimal educational experiences for them and what happens as a result of these experiences. These questions quickly become specific: how much is my child like these others, what is the best educational plan for my child and, what should I, as a parent, do next. It is a substantial challenge to go from assessment information to developing an individual education plan and to advocating for the child. The parent of an exceptionally or profoundly intellectually gifted child has the challenge of insuring that the child become well educated. While it is certainly true that no two EG/PG children are alike, it is helpful to have a general idea about the academic skills and development that are common to some of these children.

This article contains a summary of some of the educational issues that the parents of twelve students faced when they began to plan for their exceptionally gifted child's education. On their way to understanding these issues clearly, many parents felt that they had to come to terms with educational and social stereotypes about their children. Their views on common stereotypes are presented first. Following that is a summary of the information about the student's issues with reading, writing, mathematics and friendship patterns. In each section, common issues are highlighted and some common resolutions for these issues are listed.

Discarding Stereotypes
A common educational stereotype that parents had to discard was the idea that grade acceleration or subject matter acceleration was harmful. Reading educational research about these practices helped many parents' effectively counter prejudice with factual information. This activity was time consuming for many of them and yet becoming informed about the research strengthened their understanding of their child's educational needs. Most of the parents felt that reading widely on the topic of educating gifted children was essential for them. On the other hand, many parents, especially those who were active on the Internet, encountered another educational stereotype, that the best educational goal for these unusual students was radical acceleration and early college entrance. As parents had first hand experiences with children who been radically accelerated, they began to doubt the wisdom of this approach.

Many parents described their effort to break free of these fixed ideas as a slow, difficult and important process. To find a more credible middle ground for themselves, they found that they needed to read articles on the education of children scoring over 160, and temper that with an understanding that the articles were often based upon schools that were very different from their own. They also found it helpful to meet with parents of other the exceptional students and learn more directly from their experiences. Those who were fortunate enough to join a support network with other parents, found that the first hand knowledge they shared with other parents was invaluable. Knowing individual children and then hearing about their experiences with various educational programs was quite helpful to the parents as they made decisions for their own children.

Another set of conflicting stereotypes concerned the typical social and emotional development of these students. In some schools the stereotype was, if gifted students are well-balanced, engaged, productive and happy students, then exceptionally gifted students should be more extremely well balanced, engaged, productive and happy. This could turn into the assertion that if the student was not startlingly productive, did not display exceptional emotional balance, and consistently unusual performance, then that student was not really exceptionally or profoundly gifted. At the other extreme, there was the stereotype that these students have "a rage to learn", asynchronous development, extreme emotional sensitivity or heightened reactivity. As one parent observed, this could lead adults to treat these children "as if all the information about child development can be disregarded as it doesn't apply to these children."

Neither extreme view represented these students in this study who generally became deeply engaged in selective activities, who could be cooperative and seem reasonably well adjusted in many settings, especially classrooms. For a number of these students, their most remarkable accomplishments (in music, in chess, in math competitions, in creative writing) occurred outside the classroom. For others, their greatest unhappiness was expressed outside the classroom when they shared their in-classroom frustrations with trusted adults, usually their parents. These parents found that common stereotypes did not describe their children's social and emotional development accurately and some rejected these stereotypes with considerable vehemence. For the parents who struggled against these stereotypes, it could take a long time for them to understand that extreme intellectual ability did not have to mean extreme emotions, inappropriate behavior or and inability to enjoy childhood. Again, the parents found their direct interactions with other exceptionally gifted children to be one important source for their ideas about the social and emotional development of these children.

Educational Issues
In thinking over their children's educational lives, the parents became concerned about their children's optimal educational experiences. For many of the parents, an optimal educational experience was one that challenged the child intellectually and also permitted the child to have a happy experience with peers. In the elementary years, parental concern often focused in the basic areas of reading, writing and doing math. Each of these areas had a distinct pattern of acquisition and distinct set of educational issues. While not all of the issues could be listed for each area, some of the more common issues and their varied resolutions are described.

Reading: Keeping the Passion Alive
Most of these students began to read at young ages (the average for girls was 3 1/2 and for boys was 4 1/2) and were proficient readers after three for four years. It is important to emphasize that there was considerable variability in beginning reading but by third or fourth grade, all of these students were consistently reading material that is more common in middle school or above. Their emotional connection with reading was intense and many parents understood this implicitly. All the students were deeply emotionally engaged in reading for knowledge, for information, for the love of learning, for relaxation, for comfort, for excitement, for connection to other students and for control over learning. Many parents understood that reading was a vital, life-giving act for their children and they sought out book recommendations from adults with whom they felt a close, trusting relationship. Consequently, when parents were looking for books, they turned to their own childhood memories and the recommendations of family and close friends and they less often turned to book lists or school officials. A frequent source of distress for these students was that they did not always find other students with whom they could make the same emotional connections around shared reading. Several common issues were:

  1. Lack of a compatible reading group. This could be resolved by cross age, cross grade, cross-classroom or even cross-school formation of literacy groups.

  2. Book discussion skills being more advanced than book report skills. Solutions to this issue ranged from using discussion to explore books rather than using book reports, basing book discussions on the format of the Junior Great Books programs and keeping informal reading response logs.

  3. Difficulty selecting appropriate reading material. Solutions to this issue came from parental memories of favorite childhood books, recommendations from friends and family and the use of literature forms (fairy tales, myths) that are especially suitable for young, precocious readers.

  4. Difficulty finding other students who enjoyed similar books. Solutions to this included having book discussions among family members, finding peers in deliberately formed school groups, finding peers in groups organized outside of school (book clubs in libraries) and sharing books in selective summer programs (IAAY, summer camps for the gifted).

Very early reading is a sign of exceptional intellectual ability but the opposite is not always true. The presence of reading in a pre-school child is a likely indicator of high intellectual ability but the absence of early reading does not indicate lack of intellectual ability. Pre-school children who are reading prior to school entrance should receive an accurate assessment of their reading level in order to assist the school in providing appropriate educational services. Once exceptionally intelligent children begin to read, they often progress through the learning process more rapidly than other students do. The outcome is that they are often reading at unusually high levels in elementary school. Consequently, these children need to be regularly re-evaluated on reading measures with unusually high ceilings or they need to be given reading tests designed for older students. In the absence of formal testing, individual reading logs are a useful way to trace reading development.

Writing: Traveling the Rocky Road
All of the students in this study had the prerequisites needed to become good writers--they thought well, spoke well and read widely. Many of them had produced writing that pleased their teachers, earning them good grades, and pleased test makers, passing the New York state writing tests with the highest scores. Five of them had their writing published in well-known magazines such as Spider, Cricket, Creative Kids, and Underage. Seven of the twelve students in this study had substantial and varied writing experiences outside of school and three of them initiated the experiences themselves. Yet, there were many obstacles to writing and the parents were keenly aware of the ones their child had experienced. For ten of the twelve students in the study, writing was challenging, even frustrating at times. Only two appeared to progress smoothly and without stress.

Beginning with the youngest students, the initial roadblocks to writing could be purely physical, five families detailed this. The mind moved more quickly than the hand and frustration resulted. Occasionally, penmanship was not well developed and messy papers, discouraging to all, resulted. Some youngsters could generate many ideas and thoughts but could not judge how much was too little, too much or just right. Some students wrote tersely and were urged by their teachers to expand. Other students wrote or planned to write so much that they could not complete the task in the time allowed and tears resulted. Others, having received too much criticism, from teachers or other adults, froze and could not write at all. Some found themselves with creative ideas and an eagerness to write them but experienced little opportunity in school and did their best writing at home. Others, concerned about their audience, did not share easily what they wrote, especially at school. Unlike reading, which came easily and without much instruction, writing was challenging, frustrating and required significant adult help, usually at home.

The middle school students appeared to be transitioning from struggling writers to confident writers, and several appeared to be helped considerably by relationships with unique teachers, writing mentors or by enrollment in the CTY distance writing program. One essential, critical aspect of these relationships was the respectful, detailed responses that the teachers or mentors wrote in reaction to the student writing. Initially this process was focused on drawing the student's attention to those writing elements that were effective. In this early stage of writing instruction, revisions and editing played a minor role. The most successful instructional approaches to writing instruction appeared to combine a gentle form of emotional support with a rigor in analyzing writing style.

There were, additionally, a variety of issues that individual students experienced. Some students, often the creative ones, struggled to find their own forms of expression. Two parents, both writers, spontaneously commented on the moment when their children were able to "find their own voice". Another issue that some students faced was scaling back the complexity of their responses so they could actually complete the work required in a timely way. Some, especially middle school students, were helped by frank discussions with parents who tried to set realistic boundaries on the size of the writing product. Other students needed substantial help with time management when facing large reports for the first time. They were helped when parents planned a timeline with them and set deadlines for competing sections at set times.

While there were varied successful parental responses to the challenges that young students faced in learning to write, there were no successful accounts of students being left to work out their difficulties on their own. Some parents, having experienced the ease with which their children learned to read, were surprised at the struggle and effort that went into their learning to write. For ten of the twelve students, parents needed to be actively involved as their children learned to write.

Some common issues in learning to write and some of their successful resolutions included:

  1. Fine motor limitations on quality and speed of penmanship. Solutions included: dictating to an adult scribe who wrote down what the children said (used successfully but infrequently in school), dictating to a parent who keyboarded and then had the child add revisions, giving oral reports in school.

  2. Limited school programs that developed writing. Solutions included: a small, selective writer's workshop program within a school and open to interested students, private writing mentors who worked with individual students, writing workshops connected with public businesses such as bookstores, transfer to private schools that provided well developed curriculums in writing instruction, and enrollment at approximately age 12 and above in the writing programs offered as part of the Distance Learning through IAAY.

  3. Student's discomfort in sharing their writing with other students. Solutions included: selected literacy groups in which writing was shared among a small and trusted group of similarly interested students, writers workshops experiences outside of schools, work with supportive and non-critical adult mentors, writing journals that were shared with teachers as a form of a written dialogue, creative writing portfolios that were compiled in school but not necessarily shared within the entire classroom.

  4. Lack of adequate amounts of time within school for writing. Solutions included providing free time, daily, in which students could pursue writing projects of their own choice.

Mathematics: The Critical Need for Modifications
All of the twelve students in the study experienced some type of unusual adjustment to the usual and expected math curriculum offered by the school. Many were accelerated in math by being placed into an ongoing math class with older students (7 students). Many were also placed into pullout enrichment programs (7 students) or grade accelerated for all subjects (5 students). Three were also given subject matter acceleration in addition to the grade skip, which had the combined effect of increasing still further their acceleration in math. If a grade skip of three or more years in a subject is radical acceleration, then three students had experienced radical acceleration in math. For each of these students, parents thought carefully about the question of when acceleration was too much, too soon. Acting on their concerns in different ways, some provided additional support at home during difficult times of math learning, others helped their children turn to teachers for additional help, and others took steps to slow down the acceleration. In addition to the modifications offered in school, 10 students had modifications that occurred outside of school. These included: private tutoring (4 students), work in the EPGY program (10 students), supplemental instruction from parents (8 students) and weekend or summer programs (5 students). In summary, there was no student in this study who progressed without modification through the pre-established school math sequence.

Beginning in the early years of elementary school, the children in this study found it easy to master the math curriculum that was offered to them. At times, some would enter school with a solid knowledge of the material that was to be covered in the year ahead. The emphasis in the elementary years, on frequent repetition of mathematical facts and ideas (necessary for many regular education students), was a source of frustration to these students. Parents heard complaints about repetition, review and the overall slow pace of instruction. In addition to the child's complaints, parents, especially the mathematically knowledgeable parents, felt that the curriculum was often superficial, haphazardly organized and omitted many interesting topics that their children could learn. Parents felt that the ease of the material and the repetitiousness of the material caused some of their children to rush, to be inattentive or to view math as a dull activity in which "numbers were turned into other numbers".

Some of the common issues and their varied resolutions were:

  1. Entering a class with mastery of the material to be taught. Solutions included: unit or course pre-testing followed by skipping unnecessary material or compacting material, subject matter acceleration of 1 to 3 grades, participation in EPGY, work with a math mentor in lieu of classroom instruction, home instruction either in homeschooling or as a supplement to classroom instruction.

  2. Over-emphasis on arithmetic and under-emphasis on mathematical problem solving. Solutions included: playing mathematical games, solving logic puzzles with adults, discussion, of mathematical ideas such as bases, set and properties of numbers, and using a conceptually sound curriculum for homeschooling (e.g. the Singapore math curriculum).

  3. Difficulties with the EPGY curriculum. Solutions included: supplemental explanations from a parent or math tutor, constant parent presence as a resource for resolving bugs in the program, additional pencil and paper practice assigned by parents, use of additional problem solving programs (Riverdeep and Academic Systems).

  4. Lack of exposure to problem solving with other students. Solutions included: participation in Math League Contests, Math Counts, Math Olympiad, local and state competitions and summer courses at CTY. Training with math teams offered students opportunities to learn material that was rarely covered in classrooms.

  5. Few opportunities to play with math. Solutions to this usually required an unusual parent, teacher or mentor who was mathematically knowledgeable and could share math exploration in a playful way with the student. Within those relationships, students approached math as a way of thinking rather than a body of knowledge.

Friendships: A Necessary Ingredient in Childhood Happiness
Many of the students in this study had friendships that satisfied them and most found their friends in selective academic classes, selective programs or deliberately arranged family gatherings. Those activities provided important, adult created social structures through which these students found a significant number of their closest friends. A few students found friendships in regular education classrooms or in their general neighborhood. However, there were a few students who were able to utilize many avenues for forming friends. These were outgoing students who tended to find friends in selective programs and they found additional friends in neighborhoods and communities.

While the nature of friendship is unique to the individuals involved, there were some common features that appeared in a number of the friendship choices. As so many of these exceptionally gifted students enjoyed intellectual activities such as reading books, making up new games, improvising plays and skits, these shared activities formed the basis of many friendships. Very frequently, the parents reported that their children were attracted to other "very bright" children. Many students formed friendships with those who had an independent cast of mind and who were comfortable disengaging from popular culture. Together these children felt freer to follow their imaginations and explore mutual interests. Some children had a wide circle of friends; others had a much smaller group. Despite that difference in number of friends, the common features of friends included high intelligence, independence, imagination, creativity, shared interests in activities and books and an ability to have fun in a playful and unconstrained fashion.

Some of the issues that arose were:

  1. The infrequency of good friends in neighborhoods and schools. Parents found that they needed to make deliberate efforts to help their children meet regularly with friends. They noticed which children attracted their child's attention, invited these children to their homes and suggested mutual outings with parents of these children.

  2. Maintaining long distance friendships. Once children had found friends in special programs or groups, parents had to work to help their children sustain frequent contact. This involved deliberate planning, driving and other adult led arrangements to permit the children to be together.

  3. Sustaining friendships from short-term programs. Once the students were old enough to attend summer programs, such as IAAY, then tended to find compatible friends and to have intense social experiences. Parents helped their students maintain contact by permitting phone and e-mail contact and by supporting reunions or visits that the students requested.

Parents came to understand the educational needs of their exceptional children as they observed their children's responses to altered educational programs. Many of the students began school with well-developed reading skills; others quickly developed those skills. At a time when schools are focused on helping children attain basic literacy, many of these students need exploration of books and discussion of literary themes. On the other hand, many exceptionally gifted children (even those with advanced skills) must work to acquire writing skills and this process unfolds over several years. Parents need to be actively involved in supporting and assisting their children as they becomes more fluent, expressive and productive in writing. Finally, in the area of math, it was uniformly true that this was an area in which all students needed accommodations that included a blend of enrichment, acceleration, supplemental instruction and problem solving practice. The amount of modification that was necessary in this area was striking. One last comment is important. While parents worked hard to collaborate with schools, many families found that they needed to change schools at least once or move to homeschooling in order to provide an optimal educational experience for their children. Many of these educational modifications were the result of active parent advocacy. The parent's experiences with advocacy are explored in the subsequent article.

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