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Asynchrony: Homeschooling an Exceptionally Gifted Child

by Hilary Cohen

We just returned from the conference of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children. Why did we travel all the way from California to New England for a two-day conference? So my daughter could spend time with other kids like her; so her mom could network with others facing the challenge of meeting the special needs of an exceptionally gifted child.

And seeing these kids together made it worth the trip! They had the novel experience of being with age peers who were also intellectual peers.

Not all are homeschooled. There was David, who read A Short History of Time at seven; at 10, he is in his second year of high school, taking senior honors classes. And Aaron, a nine-year-old splitting his time between a highly gifted magnet high school and the local junior college. There were Danielle and Jason, whose families have worn themselves out trying to get their schools, despite the absence of a gifted mandate, to accommodate the needs of their children. And there were many of us who have made the leap.

Let me tell you about one such family. Lianne suffers from severe asynchronous development. She has the reading skills of a graduate student, writes better than most college freshmen, and comprehends mathematical reasoning like the average 8th grader (although her computation skills are only at 5th grade level). She'll be nine next month. Lianne taught herself to read at two and a half; at three, she read stories, with feeling and multiple voices, to her preschool class. At about the same time she learned all the instruments of the symphony orchestra by name, sight and sound, and planned to become a conductor. By four, she was producing full-length Broadway shows with her Barbie dolls. The next year, she asked for Ken dolls - she was mounting a production of 1776 and really couldn't, she reported, cast Barbie as Ben Franklin!

Highly gifted children are those who score 140 and higher on individually administered IQ tests; those above 160 are termed exceptionally gifted. These children are anywhere from 3 to 5 or more standard deviations above the norm. For them, school is almost always a bad fit. A highly gifted child may have difficulty finding appropriate challenges, even in a gifted class, because of a need to move at a faster pace, process con tent in greater depth, or approach the material in a different way. These children often demonstrate increased sensitivity, awareness and intensity that can make the school experience painful and even destructive for them.

They are so different from their age mates that they do not fit in most school situations. Many (most frequently girls) try to adapt by putting aside what they know, and who they are, to shoehorn themselves into a situation not designed for them. Others act out, becoming class clowns or seriously disruptive. And some, like David, become clinically depressed as a result of their school experience.

They may learn with astonishing speed, and remember what they learn. Thus, repetition and drill are anathema, and worksheets just won't be done. Parents can of course meet with teachers to share portfolio work done outside the classroom and explain their child's special needs and ways of learning. Some teachers will study Winebrenner's Teaching Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom, and try to meet those needs.

Sometimes this is successful - like the time Lianne took part in her third grade transportation fair. She wasn't interested in chariots or the space shuttle; Lianne loved the theatre. After reflection, she built a traveling stage wagon. She covered the technological advances (metal horseshoes, rigid horse collar and whiffletree) that made wagon travel possible, then moved on to cover the history of traveling theatre in Western Europe, focusing on the Italian commedia dell'arte.

But such projects are not the daily bread of our schools. Thus, holding the interest of these children, and finding ways to challenge them, demands a lot of even the most dedicated teachers. Furthermore, the problem gets worse, not better, over time. These kids keep learning faster than their age mates; exponentially faster. Thus school becomes an increasingly bad fit.

Sometimes it's the family that decides to pull the child out; in Lianne's case, it was the private middle school that indicated it could no longer meet her needs. When she heard of their decision, Lianne's reaction was "It's their loss. Can we start home-schooling tomorrow?"

Now her program includes not only academics well beyond what the school presented, but a determined focus on writing. She uses a computerized math program designed by Stanford for gifted young people. She takes French lessons with a private tutor. She participates in community theatre, and is taking a scriptwriting and directing class in the evenings. Every day she reads and writes because she loves to. Lke many highly gifted children, Lianne is self-motivated, at least in the areas of her passion. In addition to the script writing class, she works via Internet with a long-distance writing mentor, who reads what Lianne chooses to send her, and comments in whatever way she sees fit. Their correspondence is private.

For these children, a "canned" curriculum just won't work. They are rarely at grade level in any area, or at the same grade level in two different disciplines. Most families I spoke with combined some unit study with a great deal of child led learning. Like other homeschoolers, they take advantage of real life and community education opportunities.

Homeschooling also helps address the problem of finding intellectual and social peers. Many families report the benefits to their highly gifted children from participating in many activities, with many different sorts of folks. Too, they find homeschoolers much more accepting of friendships based on common interests and less on ages.

How to keep up? With little sleep, and a great deal of reading. The Internet is a lifesaver - even if our kids are unusual, we can find information and support internationally. There are terrific online mailing lists for parents of gifted children, and for parents homeschooling gifted children (there are also moderated children's lists). Check out the TAG Family of lists, including the TAGMAX listserv for homeschooling and home enrichment of gifted children: www.tagfam.org. GTWorld includes GT-Families, an electronic mailing list for the discussion of issues facing families raising gifted children, and GT-Special, for gifted children who are twice special, with learning disabilities and/or neurological problems, including ADHD, autism, Aspergers or Tourette's Syndrome, ODD, OCD, anxiety disorders, sensory integration disorders, and depression. Information on these lists is available at www.gtworld.org.

In addition, there are gifted educational organizations supportive of homeschooling as an educational option for gifted children, such as the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children: www.hollingworth.org, and the Gifted Development Center: www.gifteddevelopment.com. There are websites and electronic magazines, including my personal favorite, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page: www.hoagiesgifted.org, which will link you to all of the rest, and much more.

At the time this article was written, the author's daughter was a 9-year-old middle-schooler. Within 2 years, she was in community college. By age 15, she went away to four year college. The author hopes you find this article helpful, but she's long out of the homeschooling business.

This article originally appeared in the June 1999, Vol 7 No 3 issue of California HomeSchooler magazine. Reprints by permission of the author only.


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