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Advice for parenting and supporting gifted and highly able learners

Alison Brown Educational Consultant and Advocate for Gifted PEAK Consulting, LLC (Parenting, Education & Advocacy for Kids)

A gifted or highly able child can bring absolute joy, as well as absolute heartache. Typically, highly able children achieve well and display skills/talents well beyond their years. However, coupled with success and achievement comes a heightened emotional intensity, a leaning towards perfectionism, occasional underachievement, friendship difficulties, and a will and determination that makes parenting a never-ending challenge.


Do

Do understand and accommodate asynchronous development

It is not always necessary to test children before acknowledging that they are, or may possibly, be gifted. In order to know with certainty whether or not your child is gifted, a thorough IQ assessment (WISC-IV or Stanford Binet) must be undertaken, with a full-scale IQ of 130 + indicating that your child does fall within the gifted range.

Gifted children have an IQ or intellectual potential more than two standard deviations above the norm. However, with an advanced intellectual ability, gifted children also exhibit greater emotional maturity, yet are still perceived as young children based on their chronological age and size.

In understanding and accommodating the asynchronous development of gifted children, we need to appreciate that they have an intellect well beyond their years and an emotional maturity above age peers. Yet, often they have the physical dexterity and strength of a young child.

Gifted children need support and encouragement as they constantly seek information and challenges to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and understanding of the world. They need patient and understanding adults with whom they can discuss and work through emotional and ethical issues from a very early age. Above all else, they need the caring, understanding and support of adults in their lives who are willing to accept, appreciate and accommodate their varied and asynchronous needs.

Do appreciate heightened intensity and sensitivities

Very often, gifted children display some degree of heightened intensity or sensitivity. This can be manifest in many ways. Typically, there will be an intellectual intensity, together with an emotional intensity. Gifted children seem to feel and think about things with great passion and depth, often resulting in an insatiable curiosity, probing questions and a desire to be right, which may be unexpected for their age. They can also experience levels of anxiety and distress that seem disproportionate to the situation.

A slight injustice, that most of us would let slip, can be particularly traumatic to such children, causing unexplained tears, sadness or physical and verbal outbursts. What is needed most is an understanding of these heightened intensities, an acceptance that the feelings are real for the child, and a sensitivity in helping the child both benefit from, and cope with the intensity of these experiences.

Do anticipate social difficulties

With an intellect well beyond their peers, many gifted students experience situations in which they feel they are not understood or accepted by their friends and classmates. Help them to appreciate why this situation occurs--that it is certainly not due to any failing in them, but more because they think and operate at a level beyond many children their age. Help them understand that their conversations, interests and games may not necessarily be something that other children their age will understand or enjoy. Help them learn to join in group games and activities, for the simple pleasure of being part of the group, without the need to overcomplicate the game or change the activity completely.

Also make time to mix with like-minded peers. This may be through activities, such as chess club, orchestra or science enrichment classes, or perhaps through some chance meeting of a like-minded friend. Gifted children need to feel they can connect with others who share similar interests and operate on the same level. Occasionally, parents may arrange a mentor-type relationship with somebody (perhaps an older person) who shares a similar passion. At other times, like-minded peers can be found through enrichment activities or sometimes even just by chance. Foster these relationships. Gifted children need to know they can anticipate a time in their regular routine when they can work, talk or play with someone who truly understands them.

Do help kids cope with perfectionism and anxiety

Whether your child is the exhausted, paralyzed or aggressive perfectionist, most children with perfectionistic tendencies have overly high expectations of themselves and of others. Feeling that anything less than 100 percent is a failure is not unusual for gifted children, who aim for perfection in all things.

Understand the natural anxiety that comes from this and help your children learn to cope with perfectionism. Speak realistically about setting high standards, but giving themselves permission to be “less than perfect” at times. Encourage them to “let certain things slide” and to focus occasionally on the process rather than the end product. Ensure they see failures and disappointments as temporary and specific, not as permanent and generalized. Help them understand that all people learn through mistakes and encourage them to take risks, to cope with disappointments and to have the courage to try again.

Do involve kids in decision making

Many parents of gifted children struggle with their child’s strong will, resulting in confrontations, tantrums and unpleasant encounters on a daily basis. Gifted children have a very strong sense of pride. Being told what to do often feels like a failing and the sense of shame they feel is humiliating.

Involving gifted children in the decision making process (within reason) can create a situation where the child takes on a greater sense of ownership of the decision, and a greater sense of responsibility in following through on any decisions made. Bright children are passionate about justice and fairness. When they are involved in the decision making process, they have a voice and can see the transparency in decisions made. They learn to contribute, listen, acknowledge other points of view and compromise in coming up with a final decision. Rather than feeling dictated to, they feel they have worked collaboratively to come up with a suitable solution that acknowledges and incorporates the needs of everyone involved.


Don't

Do not be unrealistic in your expectations

Having identified a child as gifted, it is easy to place extremely high expectations on the child. In many ways, these high expectations may be perfectly justified. A child with an IQ of 145 certainly has the potential to perform at a very high level. Such expectations, however, make life for any child extremely difficult. Not only are these kids continually aware of what is expected of them, but they often feel that they should achieve these standards and should never fail. All children have a certain level of potential, and we would be wrong to think that every child always achieves to the best of their potential. Having extremely high expectations of gifted children places them under enormous pressure to continually do well and never fail.

Children who have not been formally assessed have no definite expectations placed upon them in terms of what they should be achieving. A prize, a high score, a great mark or a wonderful achievement are all received as unexpected surprises or accomplishments. However, for a gifted child, such achievements are often expected and the joy and pride of doing well and surprising others is often lost.

Too often with gifted children, we fail to acknowledge the level of skill, time, effort and perseverance that has gone into some great achievement. This happens because sadly, we fail to see it in terms of a great achievement, but see it simply as just another thing we expected the child to do well.

Do not let gifted students coast through school without making an effort

Gifted students need to be provided with work that is sufficiently challenging to the point that it will actually require them to make some effort, employ appropriate research and study skills, and actually learn how to learn. We are doing bright students no favors by allowing them to fly through work that is far too simple, receiving high marks with very little effort. Unless gifted students are assigned tasks of appropriate complexity, they will never learn the skills of perseverance, application and mastery necessary for success in later life.

Do not overschedule kids

Although bright children have many varied interests, and are very capable and competent in a wide range of areas, encourage them to choose a few specific activities and hobbies in which they would like to specialize. In doing so, they will no doubt be working on these activities at a high level, requiring many hours a week of dedication in classes and training. Gifted students enjoy such challenges and cope well with the demands. But be careful not to have their days and weeks so tightly orchestrated that there is no down time. Give them time to play, time to relax and time to just enjoy being a child.

Do not allow giftedness to become an excuse for unacceptable behavior

Like any other kids, gifted children need boundaries and feel more secure knowing that there are clear expectations and consequences for their behavior. Yes, bright children have many wonderful ideas and suggestions, and can be very competent in making decisions and undertaking tasks. However, as parents, it is our job to ensure they learn to communicate respectfully, to be considerate of others, to contribute in a fair and equitable way, and to play a positive role in society. It is our job to coach and guide them--with awareness and consideration of their intellect and heightened sensitivities--but also to be mindful of the impact their behavior has on others around them.

Do not believe the myth that “gifted kids can make it on their own”

Although obviously bright, gifted students are still children and require the same love, support and sense of security as other children their age. Gifted children, with their intensity and sensitivity, are often misunderstood, ridiculed or criticized.

Home can become a haven for them--a place in which the child is truly understood. Support them, back them up, let them know that you understand, and be prepared to stand up for them and their needs. Become their advocate. Speak up on their behalf. Help others understand them to ensure their needs are met, and they are not left or expected to cope alone.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

Parenting a highly able child can certainly be a delight. It also can be a source of great anxiety, concern and frustration as parents try to meet the many and varied needs of their child--providing stimulating and enriching experiences, yet also encouraging the child to relax, play and enjoy just being a child. Acting as an advocate for children is vital, but also potentially ostracizing.

Parents are required to be understanding and sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of their children--and to be there to cushion their falls. They also are required to play the typical ‘parent’ role, encouraging appropriate, acceptable and respectful behavior, as well as enforcing age-appropriate or developmentally-appropriate expectations and boundaries.

Parents can be challenged, stretched to the limits, questioned and criticized in their endeavor to provide a loving, secure, stimulating and nurturing home environment for their child. Despite all of this, the enjoyment, delight, surprise and sense of teamwork make parenting highly able children a demanding, yet extremely vital and most rewarding role.


More expert advice about Raising Gifted Kids

Photo Credits: 7dd_6087109-zuleikha by Wolfgang Lonien via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Alison BrownEducational Consultant and Advocate for Gifted

Alison Brown (Grad. Dip (psychology), B.Ed (psychology, math and music), Dip.T) is a registered Australian psychologist, an experienced teacher and a parent. She was a committee member and Vice President of the Victorian Association for Gifted a...

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