Author: Gross, M.
Organization: Davidson Institute for Talent Development
Let me start by noting a few points about longitudinal studies in general – those which have focused on gifted and talented children, that is.
Interestingly, the most famous longitudinal study that has ever been conducted in education or psychology focused specifically on gifted and talented children. It commenced more than 80 years ago and was led by Professor Lewis Terman of Stanford University. The first volume of findings, on 1528 gifted children, was published in 1925 and the most recent volume came out less than 10 years ago (Hollahan and Sears, 1996). Terman, of course, died more than 40 years ago but the study is still ongoing – the surviving subjects are in their 90’s – and data are still being collected by (now) the third generation of researchers.
One of Terman’s most interesting findings, which he published in the very first volume, was that the children in his study, who were all of IQ 135 or above, came from a very wide range of social classes. Fewer than 30% of their fathers (it was mostly fathers who were in the workforce in the first quarter of the 20th century) were in “professional” occupations. This contradicts the myth, still prevalent today, that gifted children come mainly from professional or middle-class families.
Terman found that, as children, the young people in his study differed in many ways from their age-peers of average ability. They learned to talk significantly earlier than usual, and also tended to walk rather earlier. Almost half learned to read before school entry. Their play interests, their hobbies and the books they preferred to read were more like those preferred by children some years older.
Schools in Terman’s day were readier to respond to these developmental advancements than are most schools today. More than 10% of Terman’s subjects skipped the entire first grade. Two years after the gradeskip, children who had accelerated were significantly more likely to say that they enjoyed school than equally gifted children who had not been permitted to gradeskip, and this finding was particularly strong for girls (Burks, Jensen and Terman, 1930). More than one quarter of the Terman subjects were permitted at least one gradeskip during the course of their education.
How did these young people feel, in adulthood, about their acceleration, and how did it influence their lives? Students who were accelerated tended to gain higher educational qualifications than their age-peers who stayed in-grade. Accelerants tended to go into more prestigious and high-paying occupations. Interestingly, they tended to marry earlier (probably a reflection of their having entered the “dating” atmosphere of college earlier) but their marriages were more stable; fewer of the accelerants divorced. When, in their 60’s, the Terman subjects were asked to look back both on their careers and their personal lives, the accelerants in general made more positive responses (Cronbach, 1996). As Terman had predicted 50 years before, acceleration did not prevent these gifted young people from going on to better-than-normal work, social and family lives.
Discussing the social and personality traits of the gifted group, Terman and his colleagues made very specific distinctions between children at different levels of intellectual giftedness. They argued that while one might naturally expect a child of IQ 170 or 180 to be superior in school achievement to an age-peer of IQ 140 or 150, one should not make a parallel assumption in the case of social traits. They argued:
“The distribution curve of intelligence implies that a child of 140 or 150 IQ may find a fairly large group of associates whose mental development and range of interests are not hopelessly far behind his own, and who react to him as to a congenial playfellow, perhaps elevating him to a position of real leadership. The child of 170 or 180 IQ, on the other hand, stands in an extremely sparsely populated region of intelligence. Only one child in thousands makes so high a score and only one child in two hundred or more come even with such a long distance range as 140 IQ . . .
In her book on gifted children Professor Hollingworth presents case studies of a dozen children whose IQ’s equal or surpass 180. The data amassed in these studies would appear to fully justify her generalization that the majority of children testing above IQ 180 “play little with other children unless special conditions such as those found in a special class for the gifted are provided. They have great difficulty in finding playmates in the ordinary course of events who are congenial both in size and in mental ability. Thus they are thrown back upon themselves to work out forms of solitary intellectual play.” The children in our gifted group whose IQs are over 180 tend to fall into the social pattern described by Hollingworth. (Burks, Jensen and Terman 1930, p. 173-174)
The authors then went on to acknowledge that the 35 members of Terman’s gifted group whose IQs were at or in excess of 170 tended to have “considerably more difficulty in making social adjustments” than did the more typical members of the group, with 60 per cent of the boys and 73 per cent of the girls being reported by the teachers and parents as being definitely solitary or “poor mixers” (Burks, Jensen and Terman, 1930, p. 175). These social difficulties, however, tended to lessen significantly when the child was accelerated.
The study conducted by Leta Hollingworth, over a span of 20 years, focussed specifically on young people of IQ 180+ (Hollingworth, 1942). As Terman commented, Hollingworth’s study found that for these profoundly gifted children, life in the ironically misnamed “inclusion” classroom offered neither intellectual stimulation nor social companionship. Hollingworth was a passionate advocate of both acceleration and fulltime ability grouping for gifted students, and her research findings strongly substantiated her beliefs. In her landmark study, the profoundly gifted children who were accelerated, especially those who were accelerated by three or more years, and those who were placed in special classes for gifted children, experienced significantly greater academic success and substantially happier social lives.
What can we learn from the above? Tips for parents
- Longitudinal studies can be of enormous benefit in letting us see the long term effects, on the academic and social development of gifted students, of various interventions such as acceleration.
- In the considerable majority of cases, when the gifted child is socially and emotionally mature for her years (and this maturity tends to be the rule for gifted young people, rather than the exception!) acceleration has lasting academic and social benefits. Parents should not be over-influenced by the myths and misconceptions that surround acceleration; talk to parents of children who have accelerated, and familiarize yourself with the research; you will then be in a better position to make an informed judgment.
- It is quite normal for a gifted child, particularly a highly gifted child, to feel and act more like a child some years older. Unfortunately some teachers react with wariness towards this – they seem to feel it is something that should be “mended” rather than understood – and they may want to retain the child with age-peers so that she can become better “socialized”. It may help to give the teacher a short, readable article about the social and emotional development of gifted children to help her realize that your child’s behavior is normal for her ability level.
- Parents who do not come from professional backgrounds and who have gifted children may have particular difficulties in getting their child’s teacher to look past stereotyped barriers of “social class” and recognize the child’s high ability. If you are such a parent, have courage; there are many more of you out there. Ask your son or daughter who are some other kids in the class who seem to be bright – gifted kids tend to recognize other gifted kids more readily than adults do. Also, if you do come from a professional background, keep a watchful eye out for parents of your child’s classmates who don’t have that advantage, and hold out a friendly hand.
Very early developmental advancement – yes, it’s real!
Virtually every study that has been conducted of exceptionally and profoundly gifted children has reported on remarkable developmental precocity in early childhood in terms of the development of speech, movement and reading. In general, highly gifted children learn to speak early and become quite mobile at ages when other children are just beginning to develop these skills.
(Of course, this does NOT mean that a child is not highly gifted if he or she hasn’t displayed early development! Two brothers in my own longitudinal study did not speak their first word until 18 and 20 months of age respectively. But once they started . . . oh my! The rates at which they passed through the developmental stages of speech were incredible.)
Over the years a number of critics have cast doubt on the validity of findings of exceptionally early development, suggesting that accounts of unusually early development arise from wishful thinking or exaggeration on the part of parents! However, a remarkable and well designed and conducted study has provided very strong empirical evidence for precisely the forms of developmental precocity that case study research has been reporting for 80 years or more.
The Fullerton Study traced the development of 107 children recruited through birth notifications of hospitals adjacent to California State University, Fullerton. The children, who were one year old at the start of the study, were given numerous developmental assessments throughout their childhood and adolescence. At the age of eight, AFTER a wealth of data on their early development had been collected they were assessed on the WISC-R (the version of the WISC which was then standard) and the 20 children who made a full-scale IQ score of 130 were designated the gifted group for comparison with the other 87 children. The IQ range in the gifted group was 130-145 with a mean of 137.6.
This meant that the Fullerton team had objective, systematically collected, data on the early development of a group of children who were LATER identified as gifted. This is not, therefore, a retrospective study, but a developmental study conducted in current time and the consistent superiority of the gifted group can’t be attributed to wishful thinking, flawed memory or parental bias.
The Fullerton Study found that differences in the level of intellectual performance between the gifted and nongifted children appeared on psychometric testing as early as one and a half years of age, and were sustained right throughout the children’s childhood. Interestingly, the earliest difference was found at age one, on entrance to the study, in receptive language. The gifted babies understood, and responded to, speech to a greater degree and more consistently than the control group. This bears out SO MUCH previous empirical and case study evidence of extremely early responses to speech in young gifted children!
Significant differences in expressive language were consistently found from infancy onwards. Assessments of comprehension, gross and fine motor skill, memory, and personal-social development consistently found the gifted group superior. Indeed, the only academic skill on which the gifted children did not display significant superiority was on numeracy – and the researchers noted that this was due to a ceiling effect on the test for the gifted group! Indeed, the Fullerton team concluded: “Gifted IQ implies generalized high intelligence. Gifted children were superior across an array of cognitive tasks beginning as early as the pre-school period. Gifted children tended to be cognitively well rounded or adept. Globality rather than specificity in cognitive performance characterizes intellectual giftedness” (Gottfried, Gottfried, Bathurst and Guerin, 1994, p. 85).
Although the Fullerton Study included no extremely gifted children – the highest IQ in the group was 145 – its findings do lend credibility to retrospective assessments of unusual cognitive precocity in case studies of extremely gifted children!
Influence of sound educational planning and decision-making by families
A substantial proportion of the earliest research in gifted education comprised retrospective case studies of children whose exceptional and highly visible abilities in childhood flowered into quite remarkable productivity and influence in adulthood. Many of these studies paid particular attention to the influence of parenting and family support.
In 1869 Francis Galton published a remarkable book called Hereditary Genius: An Enquiry into its Laws and Consequences which detailed the lives of 300 men who had made major contributions to society. Galton (1869) concluded that the prime determinant of intellectual functioning was heredity . . . however, this does not mean that he discounted the influence of demographic and environmental variables. To the contrary – he was one of the first writers to embrace an interactionist perspective in viewing the contributions of heredity and environment.
Galton discussed the socio-affective influences of both birth order and the traditional place in British society accorded to eldest sons. He noted that first-born children were more likely to be treated as companions than subordinates by their parents, that they tended to be given family responsibilities—and indeed social responsibilities—at an earlier age, and that these factors could combine to facilitate talent development and increase the likelihood of their emergence as social leaders.
Many of the men whose careers were recorded by Galton (1869) were educated at home, and this facilitated a much more sophisticated educational curriculum and much speedier progress than would have been possible in a conventional schoolroom setting. Indeed, many of these young people were radically accelerated and entered university at age 14 or younger.
In 1926 Catherine Cox published a remarkable retrospective study of the childhood and youth of 300 of the most eminent individuals of history. She planned this as a parallel study to Terman’s first investigation of gifted school children – and because of this she included a strong focus on early indications of unusual precocity. Like Galton, she found that many of these highly productive adults, whether they were educated wholly or partly at home, entered university at remarkably early ages. Of the 20 individuals whom she believed would probably have had IQs excess of 160, fully 14 completed their high school education and/or entered university at age 15 or younger. Cox considered the influence of family and upbringing so important in the development of these remarkable young people that it comprises the first section of each of the 300 biographies included in her book.
The progress of radical accelerands can be greatly assisted where the gifted young people and their families have access to at least one educator who is genuinely knowledgeable about the needs of gifted children. Several of the radical accelerands in my own study has such a teacher who acted as a long-term critical planner, monitor, and mentor, identifying appropriate interventions for the student, providing information concerning access to these interventions, and supporting the student, their family, and their teachers.
Positive outcomes are most likely to ensue when the students themselves are strongly are motivated to achieve and are closely involved in the educational decision making regarding their acceleration programs. Ongoing family support and encouragement is essential for the student who chooses to radically accelerate. It is important for students to feel that their parents are their partners in the process. Encouragement and support from significant others, including friends and teachers, has significant positive effects.
However, talented athletes may wish to avoid acceleration in situations where they may be physically disadvantaged when competing with older students. Micheal Sayler (1994) cautions that student athletes considering early entrance to university or college should reflect on the possibility of not being able to play their sport due to their youthful age. Given the importance of sport in American (and Australian!) society, it is important that students considering acceleration give due weight to these issues.
In their study of students’ perceptions of early college entry, Noble and Drummond (1992) found that some students had regrets about radical acceleration. Three of the 24 students surveyed said that they missed school music and arts programs as well as some extracurricular activities. Four missed social interaction with school friends while another four missed the debating team, band, and orchestra. Other regrets included missing formal dances, sports, math competitions, chess club, and language classes. Students also reported missing the ethnically diverse mix of students in the school population. Six students felt that if they had attended high school, they would have been able to apply for more scholarships and would have had opportunities to attend more prestigious universities. It is important that students considering radical acceleration be encouraged and assisted to weigh the disadvantages of such lost opportunities against the advantages of early entrance and decide whether the possible benefits outweigh any future regrets they may have.
Micheal Sayler (1994), reviewing literature concerning early entry to college from as early as 1929, concluded that despite fears of social and emotional problems, most students electing to enter college early experience academic achievement, make friends, participate in extracurricular events and organizations, and enjoy normal social activities. He suggests that success is closely associated with highly developed study skills and stresses that it is of key importance that students are confident about their decision to enter college early. Sayler synthesized the information gleaned from this literature review into a series of guidelines for parents, students, and school staff, listing 12 points for prospective early entrants to consider.
- Contact the admission office, explain circumstances, and request information about policies regarding early entrance.
- Exhaust the challenging opportunities available in the school system, including Advanced Placement courses, honors courses, advanced level course work, and part-time college courses.
- Attend university summer programs before leaving school as a way of developing skills in preparation for early college entrance.
- Be sure you have a sincere desire to accelerate and a realistic understanding of the consequences.
- Seriously consider attending cohort acceleration programs where a group of young students attend college together, as there are many advantages to having a student support network.
- Match career goals to the courses offered at particular colleges or universities.
- Do not select a college or university based on “big name” appeal but rather concentrate on the offerings of programs and departments.
- Decide whether to live on campus or commute.
- Determine whether your aptitude and achievement measures are at least as high as the average for the freshman class.
- Assess the extent of your organizational skills.
- Visit the college or university campus and meet the admissions personnel, current early entrance students (if there are any), and academic staff. If possible tour the residence facilities.
- Avoid excessive publicity about the decision to enter college or university early, as a public profile might bring unreasonable expectations from others and create uncomfortable situations.
My own longitudinal study
For the last 20 years I have been conducting a longitudinal study of 60 truly remarkable young people of IQ 160+ who were born and educated here in Australia. In 1993 I wrote a book called Exceptionally Gifted Children which documented the first decade of the study. The second book in the series, called simply Exceptionally Gifted Children: Second Edition documents the last 10 years and brings the study up to 2003. The majority of my subjects are now in their 20’s.
In common with other longitudinal studies, my study has been able to trace the ways in which the intellectual and social-emotional characteristics of the young people have interacted and have affected their own lives and the lives of their families. The study has also traced ways in which facilitative, less than facilitative or downright unfacilitative educational provisions have impacted on the young people’s academic and socio-affective development, their social relationships and their attitudes towards their own abilities. Something that has become very clear over the 20 years of this study is that to a large extent the seeds of what has happened to the young people over their years of adolescence and young adulthood were sown in the first few years of school. Indeed, my study has shown that, apart from the absolute necessity of family support, the main determinant of whether the young person will or will not achieve his or her potential seems to be what the school does to allow the child to learn at his or her own pace and level and to provide the child with developmental peers.
One of the things I have examined in depth has been the presence or absence of acceleration as an element in the children’s educational program. I have been able to compare academic and social outcomes for four groups within the study:
- Young people who have been radically accelerated (i.e. graduated from high school three or more years early)
- Those who accelerated by two years
- Those who accelerated by one year
- Those who received no acceleration
I reported on this to some extent in the first edition of Exceptionally Gifted Children in 1993 but the patterns and findings have become even stronger over the last 10 years. Here are some of the main findings.
Of the 17 young people who were radically accelerated, not one regrets their acceleration in any way. Those who would, in retrospect, have chosen a different pathway say that they would probably have preferred to accelerate still further, or start their acceleration earlier. Interestingly, a recent study of exceptionally gifted adults in the United States reported the same finding (Lubinski et al., 2001).
Almost all the radical accelerants have gone on to do Ph.D.’s – a minority have stopped at Masters degrees. None has taken only a Bachelor’s degree. The majority of this group, despite their radical acceleration (or because of it?) topped their state in specific academic subjects, won prestigious academic prizes, or represented their country or state in Math, Physics or Chemistry Olympiads. The majority won scholarships to attend prestigious universities in Australia or overseas.
In every case, the radical accelerants have been able to form warm, lasting, deep friendships. Several are in permanent relationships or serious love relationships. Only one is married but, after all, the oldest person in the study is 27. They tend to choose partners who are intellectually gifted – but not necessary gifted in the same field.
The young people who accelerated by two years report as much, or almost as much, personal satisfaction with their education as do the radical accelerants – although several say they would dearly have liked another gradeskip. None regrets accelerating. They are slightly less likely to do PhD study than Group 1, but tend to take excellent Bachelors (Honours) degrees.
They are almost as likely as Group 1 to report satisfactory personal and love relationships.
Unfortunately, in general these young people are not deeply satisfied with their education. The majority would have loved to accelerate by more than one year. For many, their school experience has not been happy; after the euphoria of new, harder work, attained through the acceleration, wore off, school became just as boring as it had been before the acceleration. Why did the schools refuse to accelerate them further? Mostly, through fear that more than one acceleration would damage them. In a few cases, the school said, “No more acceleration – you are already doing much better than the students you’re working with who are a year older than you, and that’s not good for their self-esteem, and if we put you with kids who are even older, what will happen to them if you outperform them too!” So it seems that the difference between Group 2 and Group 3 was lack of opportunity rather than lack of ability.
Group 3 people tend to take undergraduate degrees and stop there. Unfortunately it is with this group that a dissatisfaction with friendships and love relationships starts to appear. Several of them have had quite severe problems with social relationships. If children are not given structured opportunities in childhood and adolescence to interact with developmental peers, they may not easily develop the skills of making friends.
Unhappily, the majority of the young people in this group tend to have very jaded views of their education. Several dropped out of high school before graduating and did not go back. Several more have had difficulties at university – not because of lack of ability but because they found it difficult to commit to undergraduate study which is less than stimulating. They had been consoling themselves all these years with the promise that university would be different – exciting, intellectually rigorous, vibrant – and when it was not, as the first year often isn’t – it seemed to be the last straw.
Several have serious and ongoing relationships problems – they find it very difficult to sustain friendships. One young man, Rick, who is 21, dropped out of school twice, once in 11th grade and once in 12th grade and is working in a supermarket, after stints in a fast food outlet. He has no academic qualifications – not even a 12th grade certificate – and no self-confidence to go back to school and get them. His self-concept is rock-bottom. His “friends” are very much less intellectually able than he is and he feels caught between two worlds with no real home. (I should perhaps mention that if he was happy in his job and his friends I would not worry – not everyone needs to go to university! – but he is unhappy and lost and aching.)
The great scholar John Feldhusen once said that rather than worrying about the consequences of accelerating gifted students, we should turn our attention to the consequences of not accelerating them.
Teachers often argue against acceleration on the grounds that children should stay with their “developmental peers”. We need to look at this recommendation.
Almost invariably, when teachers or schools use the word “peers” they are talking about children of the same chronological age. In teacher-speak, “I don’t believe in acceleration – children should be educated with their peers” usually means “I believe that children should be educated only with children who are of the same chronological age.” Similarly: “He needs to learn to get on with his peers” usually means “He doesn’t seem to socialize very well with other children of his own chronological age.”
However, there are other, sometimes more important, forms of “peerdom”. For example, one’s mental age-peers are children of the same mental age. A moderately gifted child of 10 with a mental age of 13 will find mental age-peers among other children with a mental age of 13, regardless of how old she is – although she is more likely to relate to other 10, 11 or 12 year olds with a mental age of 13 than she will to a 16, 15, or 14 year old with a mental age of 13.
Then there is emotional development – emotional maturity. That seems to be somewhat more closely linked to mental age than to chronological age. The emotional maturity of a 10 year old with a mental age of 13 will be somewhat closer to 13 than to 10 – perhaps 12, almost certainly 11½ (I’m not talking about emotional behaviour which can sometimes seem immature if the child is angry, frustrated, lonely or bored – anyone can look immature when they are distressed – but underlying emotional development.).
So the “developmental peers” of a gifted child are likely to be people at similar stages of intellectual and emotional development – either chronological peers who are gifted (which is why ability grouping is so successful) or older students (which is why acceleration is so successful).
Characteristics of accelerants
In my longitudinal study, mathematically gifted young people were much more likely to be radically accelerated than were verbally gifted young people. I think this is for two main reasons.
Firstly, children who are very mathematically gifted are less comprehensible to teachers than children who are verbally gifted; ironically this leads to the teachers paying more attention to them! Teachers worry more about how to assist the student gifted in math or science. Some teachers do not feel they are, themselves, very competent in math or science and feel much more competent in English.
Secondly, teachers may find verbally gifted children easier to respond to. Leta Hollingworth, who conducted the landmark longitudinal study of children of IQ 180+, once said, “Society attends to that which is socially annoying. The school attends to those that give it trouble” (Hollingworth, 1931, p. 3). Hollingworth was aware that if a child is easy to teach she is more likely to be ignored than a child who causes difficulties for the teacher and for whom the teacher therefore has to struggle to find an appropriate intervention.
Students who love reading can be “easier” to manage because if they finish their work early the teacher can simply say, “Would you like to carry on with the book you’re reading until the others finish?” This isn’t particularly admirable – but it’s very tempting. (Believe me, I’ve been guilty of it myself now and again!) But when a mathematically gifted child finishes her math work early, the teacher can’t simply say, “Why don’t you make up a few math problems that you can work on till the others finish!” For a start, the teacher might not be able to understand the problems the kid may come up with!
I am very sure that this is one of the principal reasons why mathematically gifted children are more likely to be accelerated than children who are gifted verbally. If the school is aware that David, in 4th grade, is clearly able to do 5th grade math, it may be seen as an appropriate solution to allow David to do math with the 5th graders. By contrast it is often assumed that verbal talent can be managed through “horizontal enrichment” so the verbally talented child is less likely to be offered acceleration.
A third factor in schools’ willingness to accelerate my subject kids is that children who were talented in sport or athletics were much more likely to be radically accelerated than those who were not. Children who were musically talented as well as academically talented, and who enjoyed popular as well as classical music, were also more likely to be radically accelerated. I believe this is because their “normal” interests made them more understandable – and thus more “palatable” – to their teachers and classmates. Their teachers were less afraid that they would be harmed by acceleration because they displayed interests that would facilitate their acceptance by their new classmates. They were not “geeks” or “weirdos”. Equally gifted young people who had more esoteric interests were much less likely to be allowed acceleration because the school thought they were “strange” enough already!
Interestingly, at the IQ 160+ level, children who are remarkably gifted in one subject area are usually remarkably gifted in several. Children who are radically accelerated are usually gifted in many academic subject areas but because their mathematical precocity is more dramatically obvious than their precocity in other fields, it is the math ability that is responded to and reported on.
The multi-potentiality of highly gifted students directly contradicts theories of “multiple intelligences” which propose that human abilities are quasi-discrete or unrelated. This misleading idea has been around for a long time; the concept of “seven primary mental abilities” was first proposed by Thurstone in 1938. Factor analysis has established relationships between several academic subject fields. In my study most of the highly gifted young mathematicians also display high levels of musical achievement – not surprisingly, as the strong links between math aptitude and musical aptitude have been recognized for many years.
Radical acceleration: Tips for parents
- Watch out for the argument, often proposed by teachers, that it will be better for your child developmentally to keep him with his “peers”. You may need to discuss, with the school, the different forms of “peerdom”.
- Parents of children who are verbally gifted may have to advocate more strongly for acceleration than parents of children whose talents lie in mathematics. The school may assume that a verbally talented student can simply be given more advanced reading material (or more complex material at her own level) and “extend herself” in the regular classroom. Parents may need to point out that this gives the child no opportunity to share and discuss ideas with classmates whose reading interests are similar to hers. Just as the mathematically gifted child appreciates and processes math at a higher level than her age-peers, so a verbally gifted child appreciates and processes language at a higher level. She needs classmates who share her own levels of linguistic development and her own capacity to enjoy and immerse herself in language arts…
- For the majority of exceptionally and profoundly gifted children in my study, a single grade skip has not been sufficient for their intellectual and social needs. However, most programs of radical acceleration begin with a single grade skip. In my experience, parents would be unwise to suggest a double grade skip in the first instance. Schools which are wary of acceleration (and that seems to be the majority of schools) are unlikely to agree to such a “radical” departure from the customary mode of grade-to-grade progression. Start by suggesting that your son or daughter could benefit from a grade skip. If this is agreed to, accept it – and monitor it thoughtfully (but not anxiously or publicly) to evaluate the degree to which it is meeting your child’s needs. If it is meeting his or her needs (and in most cases it does, at least for the first year) give genuine praise and thanks to the school and the teachers for their flexibility. If, after a year or so, a second grade skip seems to be in order, you now have a sound basis of effective collaboration with the school on which to scaffold your next approach. The school is more likely to consider a second acceleration where they can see that the first has worked and where there has been a period of consolidation where they can be sure that it has indeed worked.
- Parents of exceptionally and profoundly gifted children who display outstanding ability in one subject area should actively look for high level talents in other fields. Children may be acknowledging their abilities in subjects which are more acceptable to the peer culture while concealing talents which seem less socially acceptable. It is important that children be encouraged and assisted to accept the full range of their abilities.
Turning teachers around
A number of parents in the 2006 seminar spoke of teachers who just don’t seen to be interested in gifted children or who even seem to be hostile to them.
One post commented:
“The most significant question that strikes me is, what kind of coursework could possible open a closed mind to the real possibilities of giftedness? Because all the differentiation strategies in the world don’t help if a person refuses to see the elephant in the room. That has happened to us numerous times. The teacher simply refuses to accept what my daughter is capable of EVEN WHEN MY DAUGHTER DOES IT IN FRONT OF HER (or, occasionally, him.) A friend of mine with an older PG daughter has had the same experience, and feels that extreme intelligence is so far outside the experience of these teachers that they have no framework within which to process it, therefore it doesn’t exist to them. They simply reject what they are seeing, as if it isn’t happening.”
That is a very perceptive post. I do believe that some teachers who have had no previous experience with extremely gifted students put up a subconscious denial of what they are seeing because it is so far outside their experience that they subconsciously feel that it can’t really be happening. Even when they do eventually recognise what’s happening they explain it to themselves by telling themselves that the child has been “trained” or that it’s an occasional “fluke” or that because it is so far from what they should “rightfully” expect from a child of that age, it is okay to ignore it.
The post continued: “Winding back around to the official subject of the seminar, I wonder if you have any thoughts, based on the details from the case studies of the many children you have been following who had rigid, nonresponsive teachers, on possible ways to change that dynamic. Were there any teachers in the study who started out resistent but were transformed in one way or another?”
I can’t talk about changes within individual teachers but I can say that a surprising number of the young people who had facilitative educational programs were in schools which had at least a few teachers who had been through inservice programs in gifted education.
You can’t force a teacher to attend a conference but you can try to persuade the building principal (or the school district superintendent) to arrange for an inservice day (some schools call it “professional development day”) on gifted education with a speaker who has been a teacher (you’d be surprised at how many gifted education experts started off as “chalkies” – I’m just one of many) and can talk to them in their own language. DON’T make it a day especially on EG/PG kids or you will seem to be advocating only for your own. But a day where the teachers get some factual, friendly information on what is meant by giftedness and talent, how to recognise gifted students, how they differ from age-peers not only in their capacity to learn but also in their social and emotional development, and what schools can do to help . . . this can work wonders. My own research shows that significant attitudinal change can occur after one six hour inservice day!
Other developmental issues
In an earlier seminar on longitudinal studies which I facilitated for the Davidson Foundation, we discussed the situation for the highly gifted child who outshines everyone at school, who then grows up to be a gifted adult who outshines everyone in the workplace and who may, sadly, experience the same resentment in the workplace that she experienced in school.
That has happened to several of my subjects, but I must acknowledge that it has happened hardly at all to the Group 1 and 2 young people who did high level doctoral or masters degrees and entered highly challenging work environments which attract very bright adults – fields in which one has to be very bright, and have high level knowledge and qualifications, in order to to succeed.
I believe it is important for highly gifted young people to be counseled about the wisdom of of choosing a line of work which will not only meet their intellectual and emotional needs but where they are also likely to find a cadre of people who are also very, very bright. You may still be “the brightest kid on the block” but you are less likely to “stand out like a sore thumb” from everyone else.
Richard, a remarkably gifted young man in my study, changed schools four times before he was 12, in a desperate hunt for a learning and social environment in which he could flourish academically and be accepted socially. Sadly, he never found that in school. It is only now, at the age of 25, that he has come into his own. He holds quite a high level position in Information Technology (this is a kid who at age 12 was socializing on the modem with people all over the world – the modem was the forerunner of the web – even while he was being rejected by age-peers at school) and he is working with a cadre of highly intelligent, highly skilled professionals in his field who are encouraging and permitting him to develop his own professional skills to the utmost. Recently he told me: “It is amazing what a group of like-minded people can achieve.” He never had the opportunity to experience this in school – and sadly, he dropped out of university after only a few months because he chose a rather second-rate university rather than the prestigious school he could have entered, and consequently found the first year work quite unchallenging.
The young people in my study varied in the degree to which they have embraced, cognitively and affectively, the full extent of their giftedness. I can say without question that this depended not so much on their families’ acceptance of the degree of their giftedness as on their school’s acceptance. Where the school responded to the child’s gifts with acceleration, the child felt empowered to say to himself or herself, “Yes, it must be really true – I am indeed able to do things at a level that most people my age can’t, and it must truly be okay to do these things at this age because the teachers are helping and encouraging me to do them and they show real pleasure and excitement and gratification when I do these things well.” I think the school’s validation is even more necessary to the child than the validation provided by his parents. The child may even subconsciously suspect that his parents, who after all, love him dearly, may even be a little biased in their judgment of his abilities; if this is so, then the school’s validation is even more important.
One of the most striking findings of my study is that, the earlier exceptionally and profoundly gifted children are placed in a setting which is deliberately structured to allow them access, not to age-peers but to children at similar stages of cognitive and affective development, the greater will be their capacity to form sound friendships in their later childhood, adolescent and adult years.
When one has known deep loneliness and social isolation, the affection and acceptance of friends become especially important. When one differs from one’s age-peers so profoundly and in so many respects, intellectually, academically, emotionally and in one’s interests and values, as do the young people in my study, friendship can be difficult to achieve or sustain. When it is achieved, it colours and transforms one’s life.
The following poem was written by Jessica, by far the youngest, and one of the most remarkably gifted, of the 60 young people in my study who, through a thoughtfully designed program of acceleration, ability grouping and enrichment, has been able to find both lasting friendship and deep intellectual fulfilment. However, Jessica’s early school years, before the school accepted her difference, and her needs, were deeply unhappy.
This is one of the poems which Jessica has kindly allowed me to reproduce in Exceptionally Gifted Children: Second Edition, in which I tell a fuller story of her remarkable educational program. In Difference, which she wrote at the age of 8, she talks about self-acceptance and the acceptance of friends. The “tree” shape of the poem is a moving metaphor for the intellectual and emotional growth she was finally experiencing. She is currently 12 years old, based in 10th grade and undertaking 11th grade work in several subjects.
You are alone
In your long exploration
Of the world of difference.
Yet, as the light consoles the darkness,
And the flame consoles the desolate wick,
So a friend brightens the darkness in your heart
And makes life a joy.
(Jessica Bloom, aged 8 years 10 months.)
(Jessica’s poem reproduced from Miraca U.M Gross (2003) Exceptionally Gifted Children: Second Edition, p. 281. London: RoutledgeFalmer.)
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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.