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Highly Gifted Children At Home

by Karen Morse

Originally published in IAGC Journal 2002,
abridged in Understanding Our Gifted, Fall 2001

"Quick what's 7x9," Ben's mom queried. Seven year old Ben knew it immediately. He said he had "figured it out" by making a more complicated algebraic pattern mentally.

His mother then asked about 5x5, but he took longer saying that he, " just knew that one" - had it memorized. Ben explained, "It's as if 5x5 isn't enough to wrap my brain around and figuring it out gives my brain cells more to do. Ben continued, "I think there is a boredom factor involved. If it's inside an algebra problem I seem to know it faster. My subconscious knows it but won't tell my conscious for efficiency reasons. If I knew I was doing arithmetic I probably wouldn't be able to do it as fast."

Ben's second grade teacher wasn't ready to let him explore algebra because he hadn't yet mastered the basics. Ben kept his father's algebra book in his desk at school for free reading time. However, because Ben, like many highly gifted children, finds simplicity in complex ideas, he was actually more able to solve the difficult problems than the simpler problems generally suited for second graders. In fact it was the simple problems that confused him. As he so eloquently expressed it was as if there wasn't enough to wrap his brain around. Ben is now a homeschooler. He is profoundly gifted.

While driving with his Mother from school seven-year-old Chris explained his theory for solving multiples of five. His mother asked, "I know you've been working on the times tables. Have you been taught the fives yet?"

"No, but I know some," Chris answered. Chris's Mom gave 9x5. Chris answered 40.

His mother thought she'd offer some strategies for Chris to consider. "One way I do it is to keep in mind that any even number times 5 ends in 0, and any odd number times 5 ends in 5." With this advice she asked, "So what do you think you would do to solve 9x5?"

Chris thought quietly for some time. "Actually, I have a better way. "Half of 9 is 4.5 so 9x5 is 45. You just divide any number by .5 and put the numbers together." Chris couldn't articulate his procedure. He couldn't even explain that .5 meant half. He intuitively knew it. Memorizing the times tables was too tedious without the complication needed to make it stimulating. Chris found it more efficient, complicated and thus interesting, to approach the solution from another angle. Now eight, Chris still hasn't memorized all of the tables, but he has developed his own strategies to shoot them out just about as fast as the child who has learned them in traditional rote fashion. Chris is now a homeschooler. He is exceptionally gifted.

Five-year-old Emily was seated toward the back of the church during a friend's wedding. When the minister asked, "Who gives this woman to be a wife?" Emily didn't see or hear any response and so from her pew she raised her hand enabling the ceremony to continue. When asked about it she responded sadly that "No one in the whole church wanted the bride to get married." Emily is home schooled. She is highly gifted

Individuals who score above IQ 145 are considered highly gifted. The range of 90 or more IQ points beyond includes the exceptionally gifted IQ 160+, and the profoundly gifted 180+. Silverman (1994) found that the highly gifted are as different from their moderately gifted peers as the gifted are from average learners and encompass a range larger than their mentally handicapped counterparts. They have value structures so different from their chronological peers that they are able to make greater sense of the world and the disparity between their perception of it and that of the average learner. They seldom seek popularity or acclaim and often prefer isolation as a catalyst for much needed quiet reflection. In fact because of their modesty, researchers think that there are more than 25% of the highly gifted population who remain unidentified.

There is no single profile of a highly gifted learner. "They seem to be characterized by their uniqueness," and are "almost impossible to know," (Meckstroth, 1994). Most of our nation's schools, in the way that they now function, can't begin to address the breadth of needs of the highly gifted individual. For these children who are 3-5 standard deviations above the norm, a traditional school setting is almost always an uncomfortable and inappropriate place. Not only do highly gifted children see differently, but also they see the detail of the world that others don't see at all. "We all see the world through some kind of lens. Gifted people see the world through a microscope. Highly gifted individuals see the world through an electron microscope" (Tolan, 1990).

When parents discover that their child is highly gifted it stirs up a myriad of emotions including pride, joy, clarity, frustration and fear. The guidance from experts is limited and local support is almost unheard of. Parents more than usually feel desperately alone in finding an understanding ear and sympathetic shoulder. The parent then, must become the expert.

Few common characteristics among the highly gifted have been noted in research: a fascination with words and ideas, being argumentative, but not for the sake of arguing, but rather because of intense conviction of their idea. They are more often able to perceive many sides to an issue; and have metamorphic thinking. They have the ability to learn in great intuitive leaps. Highly gifted individuals often express concern for early moral and existential issues (Silverman, 1994). A three-year-old who walked into a convenience store with her mother noticed a teenager on her way out. Seeing that she was expecting a baby, the three year old said to her mother, "Mommy, that's like a baby having a baby" (Kearney, 1994).

Jonathan's grandmother was sharing tales of a particularly rambunctious and troublesome boy in her third grade classroom. Aloud she wondered what to do about this student to which five-year old Jonathan responded, "Just love him." While watching a Lassie movie this same five-year old noted that the antagonist was greedy for gold because he was sure that would make him rich. He leaned over to his family and said, "No way, love makes you rich."

Even within the highly gifted range there is tremendous variance of ability. Lovecky (1994), found that while some individuals in the IQ158+ range may have overlap of characteristics of profoundly gifted children, it is not to the extreme of profoundly gifted individuals. Individuals with IQ170+ have an insatiable need for precision, so much so that it can hinder their progress and they may be labeled as "slow, easily distracted or inattentive." This need to be so analytical can almost retard functioning at times.

Like Ben, Chris and Emily and Jonathan these gifted of the gifted are the individuals who find simplicity in complex ideas and can make simple ideas complicated. They are the empathetic philosophers who cry themselves to sleep in mother's arms lamenting over the historical issues and impact of slavery on society, appalled with the inhumanity of it all. These are the children with exceptionally early memory; recalling experiences that occurred even before they had language. However, Leta Hollingworth helped us understand that prodigious children learn basic skills at a similar pace to their moderately gifted and average chronological peers, but that the complex ideas presented are what leave others behind (1942).

In a classroom of 25 to 30 children it is hard for even the best teachers to meet the individual needs of every child. The children with learning disabilities have daily mentors and abbreviated course work. The highly gifted children in our country are the only group of children who receive no federal mandate for a free and appropriate education. Full inclusion classes are the norm in our country rather than the exception, but the diversity and variance of abilities in a regular inclusion classroom is gaping for the child who needs rapid acceleration and engaging material. Many schools are unyielding when it comes to accelerating work within the classroom and use the What would we do next with your child next year? excuse. However even if agreeable, curriculum acceleration, early entry, or grade skipping isn't always enough for the child who may be working as much as 5-8 years beyond their classmates (Gross, 1993). "To become intellectually accessible to all students, public schools must provide access to the full range of curriculum, preschool through college," Kearney, (1996).

Gross explains that effective teaching must involve a sensitive assessment in the learning process and a presentation of problems that slightly exceed the level already mastered. If the work is too easy it produces boredom and lack of task commitment, which leads to underachievement. In fact, in the last 40 years, the textbook level has dropped 3 grade levels (1999).

About grouping Dr. Gross says that inclusion is an administrative convenience, not an effective educational practice. Students of high ability placed with other high ability students increase in their: self-confidence, achievement, attitude toward school, and their attitude toward the subject matter (1999).

Reasons some administrators and even teachers and parents give for not ability grouping are that it is seen to be: 1.) That it is undemocratic, and adversely affects others, like the sun covering the stars. 2.) People must learn to work together, and 3.) They must be left in the classroom as mentors and models, 4.) That it segregates students, 5.) Causes them to be more conceited and 6.) That it damages the self-esteem of others (Gross, 1999).

Gross gave this scenario: There is in this country one very significant example of high ability grouping where the members get the highest level instruction, are continually challenged, have the finest, most talented mentors with them consistently throughout the learning process, travel internationally because of their ability, and are accelerated and advanced beyond others-Can you guess? The Olympics. If it is intellectual ability grouping that is needed, we call it elitist and exclusive (1999).

The process of learning is what makes all the difference in taking giftedness to talent, says Gross. The process can instill motivation, initiative, interest, and perseverance. Self-esteem comes from doing something you never thought you could do. When self-esteem goes up, motivation and achievement go up too. So as teachers, we must give these students something to reach for. We must stop looking for the weaknesses we want to fix, and look for the strengths to enlarge. Doing work the student already knows doesn't enhance self-esteem.

Gross made an interesting observation explaining that in America, giftedness benefits the person who is gifted and the people he/she chooses to associate with. In a socialist, or communist country, it benefits everyone. So China, Israel, and Russia have very strong programs. She asks, "If we don't serve the high abilities of children today, who's going to look after their low ability children?"

In Silverman's (1994) research on personality types she found that highly gifted individuals in America have the exact inverse personality types of the general population: that is approximately 75% extroverted, and 25% introverted, but among the highly gifted, the percentages are almost reversed. For the highly gifted child who works quickly, efficiently and brilliantly in the quietude of his own thought, mixed ability grouping can be stiflingly unproductive and frustrating. Curses to cooperative learning and whole group instruction! Mixed ability groups are usually carefully balanced with a lower student, two average students and a high student. There is usually a student who is either in way over their head and just doesn't get it, and perhaps another one who doesn't feel like putting out the effort. There may be a child or two in the group who are fully engaged and excited about the possibilities of the activity, but it's can be the highly gifted child who pulls the weight and learns little more than how much they don't "fit." It can be exhausting rehearsing over and over for others how to carry out the plan efficiently and effectively.

If the average group grade for cooperative groups is a B, while individually it's a C, guess who brings up the grade, but has to take the B? Sweller (1994) found that if information is given too quickly or too slowly, it doesn't go into memory. This means that the highly gifted child is receiving information too slowly and the low students are receiving the information too quickly, so it's really not optimal for anyone but the average student.

To some, the gifted individual may seem conceited and rude, when actually they just need to have time for themselves and reflect on ideas in their own space. In a group of highly gifted the dynamics are completely different than in mixed ability groups. There might even be some head butting because of many strong personalities and good ideas being expressed. But research shows that these groups are more productive and motivated (Kulik, 1992). There is evidence of progress even among the moderately gifted. "Programs of enrichment and acceleration, which usually involve the greatest amounts of curricular adjustment, have the largest effects on student learning. In typical evaluation studies, talented students from accelerated classes outperform non-accelerates of the same age and IQ by almost one full year on achievement tests" (Kulik, 1992).

Early accelerated placement, access to mentors and counselors, flexible pacing and valuable enrichment experiences are only possible solutions that are few and far between in finding a good fit for these deserving bright lights. The intellect of highly gifted children develops anywhere from one and a half to two times the rate of their chronological peers (Hollingworth, 1942). With this knowledge, how can we expect them to not suffocate in a chronologically matched group?

The highly gifted child is more likely to choose solitary play over chronological peer interaction because of the nature of their peers' play. They may be labeled as immature, unsociable or a loner, but it is rather their social maturity that causes them to remove themselves from an activity that offers no intellectual fuel.

"These young children of extremely high intellectual acumen fail to be interested in "child's play" for the same reason that in adulthood they will fail to patronize custard-pie movies or chute-the-chutes at amusement parks. It is futile and probably wholly unsound psychologically, to strive to interest children above 170 IQ in ring-around-the-rosy or blind man's bluff. Many well-meaning persons speak of such efforts as "socializing the child," but it is probably not in this way that the very gifted can be socialized. The problem of how the play interests of these children can be realized is one that will depend largely on individual circumstances for solution. Often it can be solved only by the development of solitary play (Hollingworth, 1942).

Our political and social system is based on democratic principles. The school as an extension of those principles must provide an equal educational opportunity for all children to develop to their fullest potential. But, equal opportunity doesn't mean that everyone gets the same instruction. This means allowing gifted children the opportunity to learn at their level of development. For truly equal opportunity, a variety of learning experiences must be available at many levels, even within a gifted program, so that all students can develop those skills and abilities they choose and for what they are ready. Each person has the right to learn and to be provided challenges for learning at the most appropriate level where growth proceeds most effectively.

Hollingworth (1942) found of all the special problems of general conduct which the most intelligent children face, she mentions five: 1.) To find enough hard and interesting work, 2.) To suffer fools gladly-not sneeringly, not despairingly, not weepingly-but gladly; meaning--learn how to tolerate the foolishness of others, failure leads to disillusionment, misanthropy and the ruin of potential leaders, 3.) To keep from being negativistic toward authority, 4.) To keep from becoming hermits and 5.) To avoid the formation of benign chicanery (1942).

Highly gifted children of IQ 140+ enter kindergarten knowing about half of what will be taught that year, while children of IQ 170+ will have previously learned all that will be taught in kindergarten (Hollingworth 1942). Burks, Jensen, and Terman (1930) noted that "The child of 180 IQ has one of the most difficult problems of social adjustments that any human being is ever called upon to meet." Because of the limited resources and experts available to assist highly gifted children in schools, many families are turning to homeschooling as a means of better meeting the diverse needs of their highly gifted children.

Meadow, Abel and Karnes (1992), in their study of 40 homeschoolers in rural Mississippi, found that 20% of the families were homeschooling "to meet the needs of a highly intelligent child." Similarly Kearney, (1991) found that in her work with a group of 46 highly gifted children that 22% were currently homeschooled and that 43% had been homeschooled for a portion of their K-12 school experience.

Homeschooling a highly gifted child won't be easy. Greason (1994) reports what parents say about their highly gifted kids. There is always an element of exhaustion, they ask endless questions, and they give credence to reincarnation because they couldn't possibly have learned so much in one lifetime. They never sleep. They exhibit tremendous asynchronicity, acting 3 at breakfast, but 12 while reading the newspaper-not knowing what age they will act when. Their giftedness permeates everything they do. Parents feel isolated because they lack commonalties with other parents and it may stir up unpleasant memories from unhandled issues of their own childhood giftedness.

Of parenting, Miraca Gross shows a bell curve explaining that if giftedness comes from excellent parenting, then slow learning comes from excellent parenting (1999). But, "giftedness is no respecter of society, culture or parenting. We certainly can and should enhance and nurture our children's ability, but we did not create it by reading Moby Dick to our three year olds." In a summer archaeology class for gifted children, seven-year-old Christine was digging for buried treasure when suddenly she jumped up and declared it was the "Purloined Letter." Obviously she had been exposed to Edgar Allen Poe and transferred that experience to her own.

Finding the right match of schools for highly gifted children may require membership in the "School of the Month Club." Trying to balance an appropriate school experience with affordable tuition and in a practical location can prove to be a harrowing experience and sometimes entails investigating an exhausting number of programs. The first day of a new school experience brings hope; maybe this school will be the one. But after months or even years of having their children leave for school in tears and return home in anger day in and day out from a myriad of programs-even gifted magnet programs, often times has the arms of the parents flailing with exasperation. The decision is made to homeschool. Those who are fortunate enough to be more decisive from the beginning, feel that homeschooling is the best option and never join The Club.

The ultimate goal of a differentiated curriculum is that it recognizes the characteristics of the highly gifted, provides reinforcements or practice for the development of these characteristics, and extends the recognized characteristics to further development. After solutions fail such as approaching teachers, sharing articles and curriculum materials, using rapid acceleration and when appropriate early high school or college entry, homeschooling may be the last option.

At six months Jonathan could sit on the floor bouncing in rhythmic time to music played on the radio. By two years Jonathan knew all of the instruments of the orchestra and could easily identify their sounds. He was particularly fond of the oboe, as a friend of the family played this instrument. In the car, after sitting contentedly through a one-hour symphony, the radio was on playing an oboe concerto. He remarked, "That's Larry Timm." It was indeed the same principle oboist he had just heard at the concert."

As a preschooler, Jonathan spent hours "conducting" orchestras with his fingers and leading marching bands of stuffed animals. He began piano lessons at five and was quite adept at his own "composing." He easily recognized works of particular composers. At eight Jonathan read all that he could find on trumpet players and famous jazz and ragtime era musicians. He learned the components of a trumpet and knew all the notes before ever holding a trumpet. His parents agreed to renting a trumpet for a time, and although the sounds were not completely melodic, simply from reading about the hand and mouth positions, he could create many of the notes. A school assignment asked the children in Jonathan's third grade class to prepare a "How To" report. Jonathan was excited and knew just what he wanted to do. By choice he spent hours and hours of time devoting himself to a report on the history and use of the trumpet for his classmates. On the day he was to present his report, Jonathan's teacher was absent and the substitute had him share the information. Other students shared the results of their "How To" reports in two or three minutes, consisting of "How to Make Chocolate Pudding," or "How to Make a Paper Airplane." He was given the same five minutes to share both his seven-page report and demonstrate the instrument, "Because it wouldn't be fair to the others to give him more time than others." Needless to say, Jonathan hasn't touched the trumpet since.

Homeschooling is an option that can provide the highly gifted child with an accelerated curriculum, flexible pacing, meaningful enrichment, substance and depth in areas of strength and interest. Without an engaging and stimulating learning experience, problems abound. Precocity, complexity and intensity are identifying characteristics of highly gifted children. Depression, illness, anger, loneliness, frustration, stress, and anxiety are all too common results of a system not prepared to deal with this population. The result is a "bad fit." Sadly there are far too many children highly gifted children who leave school because they feel unwelcome, not valued and grossly are undereducated. In the classroom boys may become the class clowns to seek attention; girls may hide their talent in order to fit in socially. There is no place for them in an inclusive system that was designed to integrate children with disabilities into the regular classroom. Until schools choose to include appropriate accommodations for the very gifted in their "full inclusion" system they will continue to leave the system (Kearney, 1996). For gifted children who are twice exceptional, gifted and learning disabled, school holds even more disappointment. Most often their disability is masked by there still above grade level achievement and thus do not qualify for individualized educational plans.

But all parents want their children to be happy and meet well with society. So if they don't "fit" how do we help them become socially acceptable? The question homeschool parents are confronted with the most is unquestioningly, What about socialization? The use of the word "socialization" vs. "social development" is noteworthy. What we're really after is that we want for our children to be able to effectively interact with a variety of individuals. As Americans we want our individuality, yet we're constantly trying to make everyone a round peg. Stephanie Tolan says it beautifully, "If we can't all be round pegs, then at least shave off the corners enough to fit the square pegs into the round holes. Really, isn't it just that we want for children to be happy and productive contributors to society and to look beyond themselves to the largess of the world?

One of the most valuable benefits of homeschooling a highly gifted child is the opportunity to find intellectual peers who are also chronological peers. There is little more empowering than finding that you are not the only eight year old who daydreams about quantum physics or molecular biology and that you no longer have to pretend to like GI Joe in order to have a companion. Too, multi-age homeschooling groups even when not geared toward gifted, are much more tolerant of children with differences and activities tend to focus more on interests and ability rather than on ages.

School plays a very important role in our society and there will always be a need and benefit to some degree of group instruction. But it can't be all things to all people. America was founded to celebrate the individual, to encourage independent thinking and expression of talent and ability. We all know the stories of Edison, Einstein and Lincoln, bound for failure within the school system, labeled as inept and deficient of meaningful intelligence. Yet hundreds upon thousands of our world's leaders, contributors, thinkers and inventors were unsuccessful playing the school game, yet in the comfort of a nurturing homeschool environment were able to reach for the stars and become tremendous contributors to society.

Webster defines education as "the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life." Comparing education and culture, Webster continues, "Education and culture are often used interchangeably to mean the result of schooling. Education, however, suggests chiefly information acquired. Culture is a mode of thought and feeling encouraged by education. It suggests an aspiration toward, and appreciation of high esthetic ideals. The level of culture in a country depends on the education of its people." Isn't what we're after; a culture of well-informed citizens who have developed power of reasoning and judgment? If children don't fit well into the system that has been arbitrarily constructed to educate the masses then school can actually mitigate against their learning. We can assault our students with so much schooling that the result is a society with much less of a culture.

Certainly there are many nurturing teachers who are masters of their topic and respect talent development. In fact most teachers are probably effective with most children. However, we can also probably agree that all teachers are not good for all children. So, we can teach our children to have a personal self-competition for standards of excellence-that they define. We would be remiss if we did not teach the value of hard work with the idea that it is not ability that matters most, but the distinction of how much effort is put into the ability. And most definitely we can help them plan leisure time that is constructive and engaging. We must talk to our kids about their giftedness and help them to understand our complicated world. Teach the value of reading. Read constantly to children help do better on school-related learning, strengthen family ties, enhance social and emotional development and improve vocabulary. And we can ask our children what are their three wishes from the world. Record these wishes and discuss what can be done individually to begin accomplishing their goals. Then, commence work to make these wishes come true, even if in a very small way. It is not giftedness that makes one admirable or contemptible, just different. It's what is done with that difference that either blesses or burdens the world. What are we teaching our children?

Calvin, an eleven year old homeschooler, makes the following observations: "In what I refer to as the "Popular Theory" I hold that every person feels a need to "fit" somewhere. While some people are comfortable marching to their own drummer, others are trying to "fit" by following what those around them are doing. However, in these situations it often seems that no one in particular is leading. They follow a virtually invisible stereotype; someone that doesn't really exist. They follow an idea of fear that they won't fit in if they don't do what everyone around them is doing. In homeschooling there are fewer people to impress. In our homeschooling groups the kids seem to be more confident to express who they are. They've had a chance to figure out who they are without the pressure of outsiders defining them or criticizing them until they're so beaten down that they lose their own identity. Rather, they act the way they want to and try to appreciate differences in each other. The "Popular Theory" is almost eliminated in groups of highly gifted kids, because we're all used to not fitting into the norm. There is no invisible person to follow. We understand that a fish out of water cannot easily get back in. Be it slow or fast everyone has their own pace. A good friend is one who walks at relatively the same pace." Calvin is highly gifted.


Ayres, B., & Meyer, L.H. (1992). Helping teachers manage the inclusive classroom: Staff development and teaming star among management strategies. The School Administrator (February, 1992), pp. 30-31, 33, 35.

Burks, B. S., Jensen, D.W., & Terman, L.M. Genetic studies of genius, vol. 3: The promise of youth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gross, M. (1993). Exceptionally gifted children. London and New York: Routledge.

Gross, M. (1999). Presentation for the 1999 Annual Hollingworth Conference for Highly Gifted, Boston, MA.

Hollingworth, L.S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ (Stanford-Binet): Origin and development. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company. Full text of Children Above 180 IQ is now available from Project Gutenberg in HTML, EPUB and Kindle formats.

Kearney, K. (1991, Nov.). What do highly gifted children and their families really need? Paper presented at the 35th annual conference for the National Association of Gifted Children, Kansas City, Missouri.

Kearney, K., (1996). Highly gifted children in full inclusions classrooms. Highly Gifted Children, Summer/Fall.

Kulik, J. A.(1992). An analysis of the research on ability grouping: Historical and contemporary perspectives (RBDM 9204). Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on Gifted and Talented, University of CT

Meadows, S., Abel, T., & Karnes, F. (1992). A study of homeschoolers in rural Mississippi. Rural Educator, 13 (3), 14.17.

Silverman, L., Meckstroth, E., Lovecky, D., Kearney, K., Greason, M., (1994). Report on Guidance and Counciling for the National Association for Gifted Children, Tampa, FL

Sweller, J., & Chandler, P. (1994). Why some material is difficult to learn. Cognition and Instruction, 12 (3), 185-233.

Tolan, S., (1985). Stuck in another dimension: The exceptionally gifted child in school. Gifted Child Today, Nov-Dec.

Tolan, S., (1990). Helping your highly gifted child. ERIC digest #E477

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