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The Highly Gifted

by Kathi Kearney

The Highly Gifted columns appeared in Understanding Our Gifted from Volume 1, Issue 1, September 1988 through Volume 3, Issue 1, September-October, 1990.  These articles are divided across several web pages; click for specific topics:

bullet(first column) September 1988
bulletSchool Placement November 1988 - January 1989
bulletThe Early College Option March 1989 - September-October, 1989
bulletHighly Gifted Children And Their Families: Suggestions For Educators November-December, 1989 - January-February, 1990
bulletFinding Highly Gifted Children March-April, 1990 - July-August, 1990
bulletHighly Gifted Children and Changing Conceptions of Giftedness September-October, 1990
bullet[Cooperative Learning] November-December, 1990
bulletHighly Gifted and the Press March-April, 1991 - May-June, 1991
bulletHighly Gifted Children In Isolated Rural Areas July-August, 1991 - September-October, 1991
bulletA Quiet Crisis November-December, 1991 - January-February, 1992
bulletEducating Highly Gifted Children In an Age of Recession May-June, 1992 - July-August, 1992
bulletHomeschooling Highly Gifted Children September-October, 1992
bulletWhen Promising Practices Go Wrong November-December, 1992
bulletAdvocating for Highly Gifted Children January-February, 1993
bulletThe Highly Gifted Baby March-April, 1993
bulletThe Age-Grade Lockstep May-June, 1993 and September-October, 1993
bulletDiscrimination Against Excellence November-December, 1993
bulletNetworking: Essential Tools, Essential Skills January-February, 1994
bulletTalent Searches and the Highly Gifted March-April, 1994

September 1988

bulletMeghan, age 4, eagerly reads all the volumes of the Little House series, books usually read by children five or six years older than she.
bulletAlan, age 7, completes in a childish scrawl all the exercises in a college-level introductory algebra text, with only incidental tutoring from his teacher and parents.
bullet8-year-old Victoria is in tears after reading an excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin, and responds by composing a poem detailing her personal reaction to the injustices of slavery.
bulletMartha is a full-time college student -- at the age of 10.

What do these children have in common?  All are exceptionally gifted, sharing the characteristics of an extremely high intellect, a heightened sensitivity to the world around them and to larger moral issues, and discrepancies in development which mark the normal pattern of development for the highly gifted in early childhood.  In addition, in most cases they (and their parents) also face the challenge of finding educational programs that meet their needs.

Highly gifted children include those who score extremely high on individually administered IQ tests (generally three or more standard deviations above the norm, or in the 145-150+ IQ range, depending on the test used), as well as child prodigies in areas such as music, mathematics, or chess, children with extremely developed talents in unusual areas, and profoundly intellectually gifted children above 170 IQ.

These children are very rapid learners, especially in areas of strong interest, often outstripping the knowledge of their teachers and the resources of the curriculum or the local library.  As a result of their accelerated intellectual development, they often must copy with discrepancies between their intellectual abilities and understanding and their physical, social, and emotional growth.  The practical consequence of these discrepancies in development within the family may be a child who is able to discourse with you about Einstein's theory of relativity one minute, but insists that she will not eat her vegetables the next!

At school, the highly gifted first-grader may be able to create an elaborate science fiction story with an extensive plot, but not yet have the motor skills that allow him to express his ideas in writing at anywhere near the speed that those thoughts are developing in his mind.  He has the ideas of a 10 year old, but the fingers of a 6 year old!  This can be frustrating experience, although such discrepancies are normal in the highly gifted child, and are to be expected.  In time, they lessen.  Dr. Leta Hollingworth, a pioneer in the study of highly gifted children, states:

It is especially to be noted that many of these problems are functions of immaturity.  To have the intelligence of an adult and the emotions of a child combined in a childish body, is to encounter certain difficulties.  It follow that (after babyhood) the younger the child, the greater the difficulties, and that adjustment becomes easier with every additional year of age.  The years between four and nine are probably the most likely to be beset with the problems mentioned... By the time a gifted person is physically mature, many of the problems... automatically disappear as problems. (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 282-283)

Helping the highly gifted child to understand and accept these discrepancies as a normal part of his or her own personal pattern of development, and teaching the child ways of compensating for these discrepancies can increase the child's self-esteem and reduce the frustration that these discrepancies cause. Ω

In future columns, we will explore other areas of special concern for the highly gifted child, including testing and identification, school placement, family growth and development, advocacy and legislative change, and the unique development issues and concerns faced by the children themselves.


Hollingworth, Leta S. (1942) Children Above 180 IQ, Stanford Binet: Origins and Development.  Yonkers-on-Hudson, New York: World Book Company. Full text of Children Above 180 IQ is now available from Project Gutenberg in HTML, EPUB and Kindle formats.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

November 1988  School Placement

The issue of school placement and educational decision-making is one of the most difficult and demanding tasks families of exceptionally gifted children face.  Highly gifted children, by their very nature, may defy the usual patterns of child development with which most schools and parents are familiar.  And for both teachers and parents, instead of being able to rely on tried and tested methods, the experience of developing an appropriate educational program for these children may resemble more the experience of charting unknown territory in the Amazon jungle!

Finding ways to make the school experience both productive and meaningful for highly gifted children is the shared challenge of the teacher, the parents -- and the child herself.  This column and the next one focus on the unique skills necessary to develop appropriate school placements for extremely gifted children.

Obtain an accurate assessment of the child's abilities

Karin, age seven, has been tested with four different IQ measures.  Karin's elementary school administered a group IQ test, and she scored 145.  Her full-scale score on the individually administered WISC-R was 140; on the K-ABC, 143; and on the Stanford-Binet Form L-M, above the norms of the test, but estimated at 180+.

If we know a child is gifted, is it important to know how gifted?  The answer is yes.  The kind of educational program that is appropriate for a child of 160 or 170 IQ is not the same kind of program that is appropriate for a more moderately gifted child.  Obtaining an accurate assessment of a highly gifted child's abilities may be difficult, because of the limitations of the tests themselves.  Most modern measures of intelligence do not have a high enough ceiling to fully tap the abilities of these children.  Karin's scores are more meaningful when we consider that the highest score possible on the group test was 145 and that several of her subtest scores on the WISC-R were at the ceiling.  In this case, the Stanford-Binet Form L-M (the "Old Binet") remains the test of choice for highly gifted children like Karin, because of its higher ceiling (it is possible to extrapolate scores above 164), and because of an unequaled research history of over 70 years with the Stanford-Binet From L-M and it's previous editions, in the study of gifted children.

Make educational decisions within the context of the child's total development

Jeffrey completed pre-algebra in the sixth grade, with honors grades.  He took the Scholastic Aptitude Test at age 11 and scored above 500, qualifying for a special fast-paced summer program in algebra.  Yet his response to this opportunity was "But this is my last summer to play Little League baseball and I really want to play Little League!"

Andrea, at the same age, achieved similar scores on the SAT.  Her response to the school officials who suggested "enrichment" opportunities while remaining with age peers for social reasons was an adamant "I don't want to do extra work, I want to go ahead in my work!"  She attended the Johns Hopkins program, completing Algebra I in 3 weeks over the summer.

The developmental patterns of highly gifted children are marked by discrepancies between intellectual, physical, social, and emotional factors.  Such discrepancies are an absolutely normal part of the development of a highly intelligent child, and should be accepted as such.  The implications of this, however, mean that an educational decision that is right at one point in the child's development may not be right at another.  It doesn't necessarily mean that the original decision was a wrong one -- it only means that all educational decisions need to be continuously reviewed within the context of the child's ongoing development.  Jeffery and Andrea, at the same age and with similar abilities, had different developmental needs.  Jeffery joyfully played Little League that summer (and later became the only 7th grader in the history of the school to take Algebra I).  For Andrea, acceleration was an increasingly comfortable pattern, and she entered college early.

Be flexible

Laura was unhappy in her third-grade class, despite weekly participation in the gifted program and ad attempt to individualize the regular classroom instructions.  When her mother approached the school with her concerns, the principal replied, "But all the other gifted children in this program are doing just fine, Mrs. Smith.  What is wrong with your daughter?"

Kyle's mother, on the other hand, had encouraged her local school to begin a full-time self-continued class for gifted and highly gifted children.  When Kyle's needs changed after the first year of the class, school officials listened carefully to his mother's concerns and adapted his program.

Flexibility is an essential ingredient for the school, the teacher, and the parent when developing and adapting educational programs for the highly gifted.  Without flexibility it is nearly impossible to respond appropriately, at school or within the family, to extremely advanced development. Ω

In the next issue we will discuss three additional recommendations relating to the issue of school placement and educational decision-making:

Don't be afraid to attempt a major educational intervention if it is warranted.

Expect to make mid-course corrections.

Listen to the child, and involve him or her in making educational decisions.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

January 1989  School Placement (Part II)

School placement and education decision making for highly gifted children remain the most challenging task parents and schools face as these children develop.  In the last issue, we focused on three important areas to consider as educators and parents make decisions regarding school placement for the highly gifted.  These included: obtaining an accurate assessment of the child's abilities; making educational decisions within the context of the child's total development; and being flexible.

This month's column focuses on three additional recommendations to assist parents and teachers as they develop appropriate school placement options for highly gifted children.

Don't be afraid to attempt a major educational intervention if it is warranted.

Linda needed the academic challenge that college coursework provided, yet she was only twelve years old.  After exploring a variety of options, Linda's parents worked out an arrangement with the local school: Linda would take her core academic courses at the community college, but participate in arts, physical education, extracurricular, and social activities at the junior high.

Most schools and parents have little experience with grade skipping, early college entrance, radical acceleration of two or more years, or homeschooling.  Yet there are times when such interventions may be the most appropriate educational decision.  When it is, have the courage to try it.  And remember, no decision is irreversible -- if it doesn't work out, another avenue can always be explored.

Expect to make mid-course corrections.

An ambitious program of enrichment and acceleration was established for seven-year-old Rory.  But after an exciting and enthusiastic first semester, Rory complained bitterly after the Christmas holidays that he hated school.  His special classes, which were so much fun in September and October, now seemed like "baby work," and he did not want to finish his projects.

What happens when an appropriate educational program is designed, the child has participated productively and happily for several months -- and then, all of a sudden, the program isn't right anymore?  This is a common problem with highly gifted children, and a potentially embarrassing one for the parents, who may have worked very hard with the local school to develop this program for their child.  It is also almost always a frustrating problem for teachers and gifted education coordinators, who may already have stretched their own energy and school resources to the limit.  It is important for everyone to remember that the highly gifted child may have "gotten beyond" the program of curriculum before his parents or teachers were ready for him to be finished with it!  At this point, a "mid-course correction" is indeed in order, and parents and teachers should meet to discuss other ways of adapting the school program.

Listen to the child, and involve him or her in making educational decisions.

These children often have a clearly defined sense of what they need and when they need it.  It is important, at an early age, for them to feel they have a sense of control and ownership in the educational decisions that affect their lives on a daily basis.  By listening to them and finding ways to incorporate their ideas, we affirm their self-esteem and their growing understanding of their own giftedness; we also teach them educational survival strategies that will be important to them in the high school years and beyond.

Educational planning for highly gifted children is a unique challenge.  In many cases, neither schools nor parents have had any previous experience dealing with the major issues arising as a result of the unfolding development of the extremely gifted child.  This is truly a pioneering venture, and those parents and educators who diligently work to make learning the adventure that it should be for these children are to be commended. Ω

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

1988-1994 Kathi Kearney, reprinted with permission of the author.

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