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Parenting highly gifted children: The challenges, the joys, the unexpected surprises

by Kathi Kearney

Andrew, age eight, has just completed his older brother's algebra text. Lynn, age four, has been reading the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Anna, age ten, is a full-time college student.

What would you do if you were the parents of Andrew, Lynn, or Anna? What should you do? How does having such a child impact a parent's life?

The most extraordinarily gifted children-those with extremely high I.Q.'s (usually in the 150 to 170+ ranges, Stanford-Binet L-M scores); child prodigies in such areas as mathematics, music, and chess; and children with extremely highly developed special talents in unusual areas-have, surprisingly enough, been the least-studied children in the field of gifted education. Nationwide, many school programs exist for moderately gifted children, but very little work has been done to develop appropriate educational programs for the highly gifted, or to adequately research the psychology and needs of this special population.

For families of highly gifted children, the practical consequence of this situation is that the parents and children themselves often must use their own resources to seek out information about extreme giftedness and its impact on schooling and family life. We find that many times parents and children are unnecessarily isolated from other families in the same situation, and unaware of the resources and basic information that would help them. This results in part from the common, but mistaken belief that highly gifted children are so statistically rare as to warrant little attention from educational systems. Upon taking test scores to school officials, it is not uncommon for parents to be told that “Since this school will probably never see another child at this level for the next twenty years, there isn't much we can do." However, the actual incidence of highly gifted children in the population is probably much higher than statistics would indicate-perhaps six to ten times higher (Dunlap; Robinson).

Parents, then, can assist themselves and their children as they gain an understanding of the etiology of extreme giftedness, its impact on family systems, and how to help their children with the difficult issues of school placement, discrepancies in development, social adjustment, and advanced ethical development.

What are highly gifted children like?
No single set of characteristics identifies the highly gifted, for "Within the top 1% of the I.Q. distribution...there is at least as much spread of talent as there is in the entire range from the 1st to the 99th percentile" (Robinson, p 71). Highly gifted children may indeed be as different from each other as they are from the norm. Furthermore, in addition to high-I.Q. children, the term "highly gifted" also encompasses those children who are considered child prodigies in a specific area. Prodigies face a slightly different set of developmental tasks. (See David Henry Feldman's book, Nature' s Gambit. for further information about prodigies.) However, the characteristics most often mentioned by parents and teachers of the highly gifted include the following:

bulletExtremely advanced development in one or more cognitive areas; High energy level;
bulletHigh degree of sensitivity;
bulletAdvanced ethical sense;
bulletDiscrepancies between physical, social, and intellectual development.

As might well be imagined, the practical consequence of these characteristics in the home can be wonderfully positive at some moments, and less desirable at others. The seven-year-old child who is able to read, understand, and discuss Einstein's theory of relativity is a delight to watch in action (albeit a surprising delight). When that same child gets into an argument over who got the biggest piece of cake, the parent may be tempted to tell him to act his age-which he is doing! The 3-year-old child who cries bitterly while watching the evening news because she has seen a report about homeless children on the streets of New York is able to comprehend intellectually and ethically what she cannot deal with emotionally. Her reaction is all the more difficult for her parents, who, like the rest of us, have no good answers to a national tragedy.

When parents understand these unique characteristics and discrepancies to be a normal part of the development of exceptionally gifted children, and teach the child ways to cope with these discrepancies, they will go far toward assuring the child of a strong sense of self.

In addition to obtaining basic information about the characteristics of highly gifted children, parents often ask questions about assessment, school placement, and sibling and family development. The most commonly asked questions are answered below.

How do I obtain an accurate assessment of a highly gifted child's abilities?
Though this sounds like a fairly simple, straightforward task, in reality it can be surprisingly difficult, for three reasons:

  1. Many examiners do not have a great deal of experience in testing gifted children, much less evaluating the highly gifted. It is essential that the examiner who tests your child have some experience in working with gifted children, and, if possible, successful experience in evaluating the highly gifted.
  2. Highly gifted children are especially vulnerable to "ceiling effect" on both group and individual measures of achievement and intelligence-that is, there may not be enough difficult items on the test to measure a child's true ability.
    (Because of these ceiling effects, the talent searches sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University have pioneered the use of out-of-level testing with very bright seventh grade children, using the Scholastic Aptitude Test.) In addition, many modern measures of intelligence, such as the WISC-R and the Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition, do not discriminate as well in the extreme upper ranges of ability. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a child to score 140 I.Q. on the WISC-R and to score 160, 170, or higher on the Stanford-Binet Form L-M (the “old Binet”). Similar problems appear in the use of the new Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition with gifted children; one study found Fourth Edition scores of gifted children to be, on average, 13.7 points lower than Form L-M scores-almost a full standard deviation (Sattler). Such discrepancies in scores were not found among other populations. "The reasons for these findings are unclear at this time” (Sattler, p 252). Therefore, it is recommended that any time a child scores within the ceiling range on three or more subtests of the WISC-R, the Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition, or the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children, the child be retested with the Stanford-Binet Form L-M (Silverman & Kearney, in preparation).
  3. Depending on their physical and emotional development, sex, and school experiences, highly gifted children may not always display their abilities at the same time or in the same way. Highly gifted girls, for instance, may tend to display their giftedness in the preschool years but go into "hiding" by pre-adolescence due to social factors (Silverman, 1986). A negative school experience may keep the child from giving the teacher any indication that he is gifted-or it may result in behavior problems or depression. And finally, the highly gifted six-year-old whose physical development does not allow him to write down the complicated science fiction epic he has created in his mind may not have any way to show the teacher the extent of his abilities. Such children may not even be referred by teachers or parents for assessment, because they do not demonstrate their giftedness outwardly.

How can I make sure that the school program is appropriate for my highly gifted child?
Positive communication with the school is absolutely essential, as highly gifted children often do not fit the norms of school organization. You will undoubtedly need to ask for adaptations in school policies, curricula, rules, or routines at some point in the child's schooling; establishing a good working relationship at the beginning helps when these difficult issues are discussed and evaluated later. The mere existence of a program for gifted children may not resolve the educational issues your child may face; it is quite common for highly gifted children to also need adaptations to the gifted program itself. Keep the lines of communication open, and keep working with the school to make sure the child's educational program continues to be appropriate. It is not at all uncommon for a carefully individualized program to work well for a highly gifted child for a period of time, and then (seemingly, all of a sudden!) not work any more. Usually, this is no one's fault, but is only an indication that the child has developed beyond the limits of the program and curriculum originally outlined. Then it is time for parents, school personnel, and the student (if she is old enough) to meet to plan additional adaptations to curriculum and program structure.

There are occasions in the lives of highly gifted children when school problems cannot be resolved in the usual manner. These children, after all, present unique challenges to the school organization itself. They may be learning at one-and-one-half, one-and-three-quarters, or even twice the normal rate. There are times when it may be appropriate to consider private school placement, homeschooling, private tutoring, or early college attendance. These are individual family decisions, and should be considered carefully.

My child feels isolated, and so do I! How can I help him to make friends-and how can I find other families who understand what it's like to raise a highly gifted child?
A sense of isolation is very commonly felt in families of highly gifted children. First of all, our society does not make available to families of the gifted the same kinds of emotional support that are available to families of children with other exceptionalities. Even appropriate educational programming is not required by federal law, as it is for other exceptional children, but is left to the judgment (and budgets) of states and municipalities. Parents of extremely gifted children are often puzzled, and sometimes angry, when they are labeled "pushy parents" because their preschooler is reading or their fifth-grader insists on studying first-year algebra. In reality, they may be as puzzled and concerned about their child's rapid development as the well-meaning neighbor or schoolteacher who comments on it. One mother who had struggled to meet the unexpected intellectual needs of her highly gifted first-grader finally responded to the criticism this way: "I am not a pushy parent, but I have a pushy kid!"

Secondly, helping a highly gifted child find friends involves thinking about the concept of "peers" in a different way. Given their discrepancies in development, highly gifted children may need one set of peers, possibly older, for academic and intellectual pursuits, and another set of peers, closer in chronological age, with whom to play soccer! This often means helping the child to develop several sets of peers. If it is at all possible, at some point in early or middle childhood it is very beneficial for the highly gifted child to find a congenial friend of similar chronological and mental age. For some highly gifted children, having such a friend is a life-changing experience for them; it marks a time in their lives when they are able to integrate their intellectual, social, and emotional selves, discrepant as the development may be, and have another child understand, accept, and fully share that developmental experience.

It is essential for parents to find other families of highly gifted children with whom to share their experiences. It is worth seeking out other families and developing this sense of community; those who have done so invariably cite the sense of support, of help in finding resources, and of knowing they are not alone as central to their ability to be better advocates for their children. This kind of support may take place in a formal support group, or over coffee at a neighbor's house; in conversation by phone with a family on the opposite side of the continent, or a letter written to a close friend who is also the parent of such a child. Families who share this kind of community with each other, and who take the time to understand the unique needs of their children, find courage, support, and understanding for the profound changes in their own lives that parenting a highly gifted child brings. For despite the occasional feeling of isolation, the inconvenience of yet another meeting at the school and the difficult decisions that need to be made along the way, parenting such a child is, ultimately, an extraordinary journey of growth and joy.


Dunlap, J .M. "The education of children with high mental ability." In W. Cruickshank & G.O. Johnson (Eds.), Education of exceptional children and youth. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1967.

Robinson. H. B. "The uncommonly bright child." In M. Lewis & L.A. Rosenblum (Eds.), The uncommon child. New York: Plenum Press, 1981.

Sattler, J. M. Assessment of children. San Diego: Jerome M. Sattle, Publisher, 1988.

Silverman, L.K. "What happens to the gifted girl?" In C.J. Maker (Ed.), Critical Issues in Gifted Education. vol. I. Rockville, Maryland: Aspen, 1986.

Silverman, L.K. & K. Kearney. Parents of the extraordinarily gifted. In preparation.

First published in CAG Communicator, Vol. 19, No. 2, April, 1989.
Reprinted with permission of the author. 

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