Adults caring for or teaching gifted children can be challenged when a young gifted child wants more from school. How can you protect and nurture their youthful idealism and desire to learn within the realities of an educational system that may not seem fair to even the youngest learners?

One of the frequently-mentioned characteristics of gifted children is an innate idealism that may persist well past the point at which their peers let go of such lofty ideas. It may take the form of a stubborn refusal to “go along to get along,” especially if a shift toward conformity supports (or implies support for) something they perceive as unfair or unjust. While there is of course great variety among gifted children, many of them include some of the youngest vegans you will meet, as well as some of the youngest environmental activists, civil rights supporters, and others who take a firm stand on a complex topic earlier than you’d expect. 

A child bored with school.So what happens when a gifted child encounters a situation where there is no way to move adults towards what they think is fair, just, or right

The same thing that happens when adults find themselves between a rock and a hard place, with nowhere to go: cognitive dissonance and existential angst. 

DISMAY AND DISILLUSIONMENT

At some point, a gifted child might run into an impasse which sounds something like this: 

Six-year-old Quinn can do all the math in the first-grade workbook — and has, in fact, done so, finishing the whole thing over Thanksgiving break. 

Back at school, Quinn has a sudden realization and an idea: the second-grade classroom is just next door, and they do math every day, too. If my teacher thinks I am ready for second-grade math, why can’t I just join the kids next door?

To this gifted first grader, this is a perfect, simple, and tidy solution. Surely the teacher will delightedly make this magical thing happen. 

Except that is not what happens. The teacher, who genuinely does care about all her students, provides Quinn with worksheets with different problems, which they quickly devour with gusto — but that still leaves Quinn without math instruction that allows progress. As you can imagine, Quinn finds this to be a most unsatisfying response. 

When Quinn’s parents meet with the teacher and the school principal, they learn that the school is not equipped to offer asynchronous programming to move Quinn to next year’s math curriculum. They are profoundly disappointed to learn that their mathematically-talented child’s school cannot provide any form of acceleration.

Quinn feels stuck and frustrated, having clearly envisioned immediate change, and starts to feel like math class is boring — and maybe school, itself, is boring, too. 

SO WHAT IS A PARENT TO DO? 

This is a moment parents of gifted children may encounter when their children are very young — and even earlier, in the case of the profoundly gifted. Simply put, they must burst a bubble about the adults at school magically making this problem disappear.

Unfortunately, Quinn’s parents may genuinely not be able to offer satisfying reasons for this state of affairs. Quinn’s understanding is likely limited to what is immediately visible rather than any expertise on curricular design or educational policy. The perceived inaction is all the harder to explain when all parties agree Quinn is ready to progress in math.  

The worst thing about this conversation is that Quinn’s parents may be in total agreement with their child, but are put in the position of defending the very people who will not help. They want and need to validate that Quinn is not imagining being ready for the next level of math — while simultaneously being careful not to undermine the authority of the teacher or any of the other adults at school who are involved. 

The parents need to somehow convey to their child that no, it’s not fair, and no, we don’t really understand why nothing is happening, either. Launching an advocacy campaign for creating an acceleration policy won’t satisfy the in-real-time learning needs of their child. 

But from Quinn’s perspective, it seems that all the adults — parents and teachers alike — know about this maddening situation, but they also all insist that Quinn goes back to school every day and accept that they may be bored until they attend Middle School when more options may be available. 

For a child, it is one thing to feel helpless, yourself, and quite another to have your parents tell you they are helpless on your behalf. 

Quinn’s parents, like so many other parents of gifted children before them, will have to educate themselves about the options for addressing what is clearly a bad fit in mathematics. (Thank heavens for technology, by the way; in a pre-internet world, families from far-flung or under-resourced areas might be genuinely stuck at this point, unsure where to find resources.) Their likely next step is probably sharing these resources with the principal and the teacher at the school, who are very likely not to have had any training regarding the teaching of gifted students (Rinn et al., 2020). 

Does this sound familiar to you?

Both parents and educators seeking information on how to meet the needs of a gifted child may find these resources helpful: 

  • For math, in particular, many gifted families have discovered the joys of The Art of Problem Solving, which offers books, competitions, problems, and resources for math-loving children of all kinds and their parents, too.

youthful IDEALISM: BACK TO THE BUBBLE

Since there are 14,000 school districts in the US, there will likely be 14,000 different solutions for Quinn; in fact, it’s entirely possible that Quinn’s family will be able to solve their mathematics quandary with the school after considering and discussing several options, though they may also choose to supplement the school curriculum with outside resources. Ideally, now that the school knows about Quinn’s abilities and needs (and more resources about acceleration), they will start planning for what Quinn will need in second grade… and third, and fourth, and fifth. That is definitely one flavor of happy ending for Quinn. 

A student looking for higher levels of math than they are being taught.

For the happiest of all possible endings, let’s return to six-year-old Quinn with the youthful idealism and optimism they should have for school. We can imagine the Platonic ideal of school for a gifted child like Quinn:   

Ideally, the school seeks out, recognizes, and assesses Quinn’s abilities and interests, using all of this information for careful placement in every subject, allowing Quinn the maximum opportunity to learn, struggle, and grow in the company of intellectual peers who share that passion for learning. There are no worksheets, no busywork, no sitting in the hall alone reading a book, and no waiting for other students to “catch up.” Students spend their days thinking and working hard, and their time out of school mostly doing things they enjoy rather than doing hours upon hours of homework. At school, their quirks are seen as idiosyncrasies rather than strangeness, and they can relax emotionally to grow into their authentic selves. 

Even if they don’t get all the way there, it’s worth the effort for Quinn’s family to even have a “directionally correct” solution, because step closer to that ideal speaks volumes to Quinn about what the teachers and administrators at school know and value: that only data can show what students can learn or have already learned, not preconceptions, and that each student has a unique learning profile worth understanding by the adults in the building, who dedicate significant time and effort to that project.  

These are not just research-supported best practices in gifted education; they are crucial messages about the value of Quinn as a human being with potential worth our time, attention, and effort. 

Perhaps most importantly, Quinn also learns that the individuality, uniqueness, and potential of every student is both seen and central to education.  That’s a bubble I’d rather we not pop at all. 

REFERENCES and further resources

Rinn, A. N., Mun, R. U., & Hodges, J. (2020). 2018-19 State of the States in Gifted Education. National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) & The Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted (CSDPG). Available here, retrieved 20 March 2022. 

Delisle, J. R. (2006). Parenting gifted kids: Tips for raising happy and successful children. Routledge. 

Hébert, T. P. (2021). Understanding the social-emotional lives of gifted children. Prufrock Press. 

Jolly, J. L., Treffinger, D. J., & Inman, T. F. (2021). Parenting gifted children: The authoritative guide from the National Association for Gifted Children. Routledge. 

Webb, J.T. (2014). Searching for meaning: Idealism, bright minds, disillusionment, and hope. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.

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