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The Highly Gifted (3)

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

July - August 1991  Highly Gifted Children In Isolated Rural Areas (Part I)

I will never forget Lou Ann.  Bright enough as a seventh grader to qualify for the Johns Hopkins Talent Search summer program, her family was also one of the few families in her rural community who could afford the substantial tuition fee.  Lou Ann registered for the summer program--and ultimately did not attend.  Lou Ann's experiences had been limited to the tiny rural community in which she was raised.  She had never been out of the state in her entire life, had never seen a major city just two hours' drive from her home, and had never visited a friend or a relative for an overnight stay.  Furthermore, her father felt that extra education for a daughter was a frill, at best.  When it came time to leave for the summer program, Lou Ann simply said, "I can't do it."

Jason was a brilliant boy with a multiplicity of talents, living in a remote mountain community.  Highly intellectually gifted, he was also an accomplished writer and artist.  His mother regularly drove him 30 miles one way to the nearest library to keep him supplied with books.  Throughout junior high and high school, his advisor continued to encourage him to consider such colleges as Harvard, Yale, Stanford or MIT.  And for five years, Jason firmly insisted "I think I will go to the state university."  Only a chance meeting with an Ivy League admissions officer, and family encouragement, finally changed his mind.

The experience of Lou Ann and Jason are not unique.  They typify many of the issues that face highly gifted children growing up in isolated rural areas.  Some of these issues affect almost all highly gifted children and their families, wherever they live, and include the problems of finding intellectual peers, developing appropriate educational interventions, financial stress even in upper middle class families, and lack of support networks (Silverman & Kearney, 1989).  However, the traditional cultural, economic, and social fabric of many rural communities often combine to make these issues even more problematic than they might be for children growing up in metropolitan areas or in suburbia.

Secondly, factors unique to rural life in the United States may pose particular challenges to the development of highly gifted children.

...Wherever they live and whatever pursuits they follow, rural residents do tend to be poorer than metropolitan residents; they are close to nature because they work as miners, farmers, and fisherman; and they are more apt to know all about their neighbors' lives. (Pendarvis, Howley & Howley, 1990, p. 313).

Many highly gifted children attend small schools with few specialized staff members, live in communities which are often resistant to chance, and are not necessarily acculturated according to urban standards (Spicker, Southern & Davis, 1987).  Indeed, these authors also note that

...there remains a subclass of high potential rural students who exhibit behaviors that are antithetical to those of typical gifted students.  These include speaking in a non-standard English regional dialect, being less verbal in their oral language communications, having limited experience outside the community in which they reside, and being relatively unaffected by the pressures of time.  (Spicker, Southern & Davis, 1987, p.156)

In addition, rigidly defined gender rules are still common in many rural communities, and the development of higher aspirations in rural youth is a double-edged sword--while bringing greater personal opportunity, it almost always means leaving the rural culture, at least for awhile, and perhaps forever.

Many of these difficulties are complicated by the tendency of the general public to either romanticize or denigrate the rural culture itself.  Neither Normal Rockwell's idyllic paintings of small town life nor The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Carolyn Chute's best-selling, searingly negative novel, accurately represents the world these children inhabit.  Growing up highly gifted in a rural culture has benefits, as well as liabilities.  To support the optimal development of these children without asking them to deny or denigrate the culture which has produced them requires an appreciation of the cultural foundations of rural life, and a willingness to use the strengths of the culture itself to support the child's development. Ω

In the next column, we will explore several of these issues in more detail, and provide specific suggestions for parents and teachers who work with the highly gifted, rurally isolated children.


Pendarvis, E. D., Howley, A. A., & Howley, C. B. (1990). The abilities of gifted children.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Silverman, L. K. & Kearney, K. (1989).  Parents of the extraordinarily gifted.  Advanced Development, 1, 41-56.

Spicker, H. H., Southern, W. T., & Davis, B. I. (1987).  The rural gifted child.  Gifted Child Quarterly, 31(4), 155-157.

Kathi Kearney is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, and is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

September - October 1991  Highly Gifted Children In Isolated Rural Areas (Part II)

Highly gifted, rurally isolated children share unique characteristics and concerns, which were outlined in the last issue.  This issue's column provides specific suggestions to parents, teachers, and counselors who work with these children.

Begin early.  Highly gifted children growing up in isolated areas need educational and emotional support in their earliest years.  Their difference from other children is accentuated simply by the fact that there are fewer children in the community to begin with, and far fewer gifted children with whom to associate for either academic or social activities.  In addition, fewer gifted education programs are available.  Early identification gives both the family and the school time to access resources and plan interventions.

Respect the validity of rural culture.  Today's media (especially television) emphasize the experiences of suburban and urban children.  Immensely popular programs such as Sesame Street, The Wonder Years, Doogie Howser, The Simpsons, The Cosby Show, and Beverly Hills 90210 are culturally based squarely within the inner city and suburbia.  School textbooks, too, focus on the suburban and urban audiences which comprise most of their sales.  It is tempting to assume that rural families share these experiences and values, but they may not.  The young violin prodigy who prefers to play fiddle for a local contra dance rather than classical music with a symphony orchestra two hours away may be responding to what is both good and acceptable within her own culture.

Plan for financial support.  Although the cost of living in some isolated rural areas may be less than in the city, the cost of talent development for a highly gifted child is not.  Private lessons, tutoring, the regional Talent Search programs and early college coursework not only cost as much as they do for metropolitan residents, but the added and sometimes prohibitive cost of transportation must also be considered.  Even school acceleration and grade skipping, often a cost-effective educational intervention for a rurally isolated public school, can backfire financially without adequate planning.  Parents need to understand clearly that grade acceleration leaves them with less time to save for the child's college education, and less time to search out scholarship sources.  Early identification has the added benefit of alerting parents that financial adjustments, as well as the educational ones, may need to be made.

Help highly gifted rural girls deal with difficult decisions based on their gender.  The rural homemaker and farm wife is not considered a second-class citizen, but an essential partner in the family's economic structure.  Nevertheless, highly gifted girls from rural areas face a double bind with gender issues.  The family and community sometimes expect an early marriage or a traditional career choice of a young woman bright enough to train for almost any career.  The young woman may feel she is "breaking all the rules" of her culture if she follows her own dreams.  Conversely, the highly gifted girl who chooses the early marriage and more traditional rural lifestyle can miss out on the intellectual stimulation advanced education provides.  Highly gifted rural girls need to be taught assertiveness in obtaining appropriate educational opportunities, and the skills of self-education and life planning, in order to maximize their options.

Use the culturally accepted institutions of rural life to support the development of highly gifted children.  Organizations such as 4-H Clubs, Scouts, the Junior Grange, Rainbow Girls, and church youth fellowships offer some surprisingly sophisticated educational and travel opportunities for young people, and are well-accepted within rural communities.  The 4-H Club program not only offers projects in raising livestock, sewing, gardening, and home canning, but also provides programs in areas as diverse as model rocketry, leadership, reading, electricity, and computers.  Teaching methods similar to current practices in gifted education are often used in these rural youth programs.  Advanced leadership training, career development, and travel opportunities for older students are available, and sometimes are more culturally acceptable than similar opportunities provided by public and private educational institutions.

Growing up highly gifted and in rural isolation is not necessarily a disadvantage.  Although access to appropriate educational resources must be much more carefully researched and planned, rural highly gifted children also share the benefits of nature as a science laboratory, quiet places in which to reflect, and an independence and autonomy not always available to their city cousins--elements which can support the inner dynamics of a creative and intellectual life. Ω

Kathi Kearney is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, and a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

November - December, 1991  A Quiet Crisis (Part I)

For highly gifted children and their advocates, that century-old piece of technology, the telephone, may be a more valuable friend than any modern invention.  In virtually an instant, we can access peers for these children, networks of other families who are experiencing similar trials and joys as they live with extreme giftedness day in and day out, far-flung experts in every corner of the globe, and valuable educational resources.

[Editor's note: only a short decade later, the Internet has eclipsed the telephone in all of these roles!]

The telephone also plays the role of a modern Paul Revere for highly gifted children, their families, and the professionals who care about them.  Warnings come in many ways.  For me, it was the fourth troubling phone call this week which finally prompted this particular column.

Phone call #1: A long-time, politically savvy state director of gifted education called to discuss several different issues.  We concluded our conversation, and then, in a private moment, she stated simply and eloquently what seems so difficult to say in the midst of the current politically correct public discourse about school reform: "If we claim our goal is to educated all children, we had better mean all children--not all children except the gifted."

Phone call #2: A young mother of a 6-year-old above 180 IQ called, not to locate information or support for her own child, but to share with me her own dream.  She had become intrigued with the field of psychology and education of the gifted, and had done a great deal of reading and research on her own.  Now she finally had the time and money to return to school.  She had explored educational opportunities in her own area of the country, and had spoken with university professors, school district personnel, and other parents of gifted children.  Their advice to her was nearly unanimous: "Don't go into this field.  You won't have a job when you're done.  Generalize, don't specialize."  She called me to ask why I had persisted in specializing in this area if the prospects were indeed so bleak.

Phone call #3: A program coordinator in a well-regarded school district which has served gifted children using a comprehensive combination of service models called to say that this year, administrators have told her that she and her staff are to provide all services in the regular classroom instead, where "other students can benefit, too."  She was particularly concerned about the highly gifted children in the district, knowing that their unique needs would not begin to be met this way.

Phone call #4:  The mother of a highly gifted girl who does algebra in her head "for fun" and consistently scores four years above grade level on tests of mathematics achievement called to ask me how she could convince the classroom teacher and the gifted coordinator that her young daughter did not need to keep adding and subtracting one- and two-digit numbers with the rest of the third grade class.

Renzulli and Reis (1991) refer to a "quiet crisis" in gifted education, in their extensive and excellent article discussing the impact of the school reform movement.  I believe we may have more than a "quiet crisis" on our hands; if those four phone calls are in any way indicative of the frustration that hundreds of other parents, teachers, administrators, and state directors are experiencing, it is only a matter of time before the unmet needs of the children (and adults) will make it a noisy crisis indeed.

In Langston Hughes's poem, Harlem, he asks, "What happens to a dream deferred"  Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? ...or does it explode?" (Hughes, 1974, p. 268).  Highly intellectually gifted children are already at risk in many ways. They languish in schools which often do not begin to meet their needs.  Their right to a free and appropriate public education is not guaranteed by law.  Their families feel isolated.  Little research exists about this population: "The higher the score used to define highly gifted, the sparser the literature base" (Delisle, 1992, p. 174).  Current trends in school reform have led to the disbanding of honors classes, gifted education programs, and ability grouping, sometimes in the name of equity.  Ironically, these trends leave brilliant children who live in poverty with even fewer opportunities to develop their talents than they had before; their families cannot afford the private schools and summer enrichment programs wealthier children have the option to attend.

I believe it is time to ask the question, "What is the responsibility of regular education?" I will attempt to answer this question in Part II of this column.


Delisle, J.R. (1992).  Guiding the social and emotional development of gifted youth.  New York: Longman.

Hughes, L. (1974). Selected poems of Langston Hughes.  New York: Vintage Books.

Renzulli, J.S., & Reis, S.M. (1991).  The reform movement and the quiet crisis in gifted education.  Gifted Child Quarterly, 35(1), 26-35.

Kathi Kearney is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, and a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

November - December, 1991  A Quiet Crisis (Part II)

In the last issue, several pressing concerns of advocates of highly gifted children were explored within the context of current political and economic trends.  In this column, specific suggestions are provided for coping with these concerns.

Cohen, Jeffcott, and Swartz (1991), discussing current trends in gifted education, speak of "the broadening role of the gifted specialist to include service to all students" (p. 15).  We do not ask the teacher of mentally retarded children or the learning disabilities specialist to curtail badly needed individual instruction with severely handicapped children so that she can "bring out the hidden disabilities in all children."  However, we seem to be asking teachers of the gifted to do something akin to this.  The consequences of such a dilution of services for all gifted children are great, and may put highly gifted children even more at risk than they already are.

Like all children, highly gifted children need developmentally appropriate educational experiences--developmentally appropriate for them, addressing their advanced rate of intellectual growth and the "asynchronous development" (Columbus Group, 1991) that often results.  Such a curriculum may be far different from what is appropriate for the child's agemates.  Doing what is right for these children takes work, it may ruffle feathers, it may be inconvenient and time consuming, and it may run squarely afoul of the political agendas of the day.  But if we fail them, not only may their dreams be deferred, perhaps forever, but so may society's.

We who are advocates for these children--their parents, teachers, counselors, and friends--also have responsibilities.

We must not give up our efforts on behalf of these children because of the current political or economic climate.  Recessions come and go, and so do fads and trends in education.  Sooner or later, the excesses of the school reform movement will be tempered by other voices and other ideas.  But in the meantime, we stand to lose some of the finest minds of a generation, unless we are willing to continue to actively advocate for them.

We must continue to conduct or to participate in research about these children and their families.  "Oddly, perhaps inexplicably, the most extreme forms of intellectual giftedness have been the least studied" Feldman, 1979, p 335).  So little is really known about these children.  What is the range of "normal development" for the extraordinarily gifted child?  What do they and their families really need?  Unless more research is done, we will have only partial answers.

We must create safe places, in our homes, in our schools, and in our lives, for these children who so often "don't fit" (Tolan, 1990, p.2 ).

We must hone the skills of self-reliance, creativity, and courage.  Schools can take months to individualize a curriculum, and years to change.  Meanwhile, children grow up.  Much of what we need to do for highly gifted children may well take place outside, or at the edges of, conventional systems and institutions, until those institutions begin to understand the needs of these children and are willing to adapt their policies and procedures.

We must seriously consider introducing federal legislation which would extend to gifted children the right to a free and appropriate public education.  The "double whammy" of fiscal recession and current political and educational trends has meant that many gifted programs across the nation have been summarily cut.  Worse, many other administrative arrangements which are effective with the gifted and are centered in the regular classroom, including ability grouping, cluster grouping, and acceleration, are now considered politically off limits by educational policymakers.  If gifted children had the same protection for their education which is extended to all other exceptional children, such a thing could not have happened.

A dream deferred, as Langston Hughes (1974) so eloquently described, can also explode--in anger, in poverty, in suicide, and in the quiet acquiescence of the child who discovers early that hiding an extraordinary talent is far safer than developing it.  Our society cannot afford to defer the education of an entire generation of extraordinary minds. Ω


Cohen, L. M., Jeffcott, G., and Swartz, E. (1991).  Recent trends in gifted education.  Gifted International, 7(1), 13-29.

Columbus Group (1991, July).  Unpublished transcript of the meeting of the Columbus Group.  Columbus, OH.

Feldma, D.H. (1979).  The mysterious case of extreme giftedness.  In A. H. Passow, Ed., The gifted and the talented: Their education and development (pp. 335-351).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hughes, L. (1974).  Selected poems of Langston Hughes.  New York: Vintage Books.

Tolan, S. (1990). Helping your highly gifted childERIC Flyer File.  Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Kathi Kearney, M.A.Ed., is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

May - June 1992  Educating Highly Gifted Children In an Age of Recession (Part I)

The current economic recession has hit the nation hard, and education budgets throughout the country have been slashed.  Often, the first programs to go have been programs for gifted children, the double target of spending cuts and school reform efforts.  For highly gifted children, whose needs are particularly difficult to meet solely within and age-graded heterogeneous heterogeneous classroom, such trends spell unusual difficulty for them and for their families and schools.  Some of these difficulties are economic in nature.  In this column and the net, we will explore these issues, including the responsibilities of both the school and the family.

Responsibilities of the School

Cutting program for the gifted does not mean that highly gifted children will go away.  In fact, such cost-cutting means that it is very likely that these children will be found in the regular classroom for the entire school day.  A school's mission to educate all children must mean all children--including the most intellectually gifted.  These children, like all other children, are required by compulsory attendance laws to attend school, yet they have no legal protection for a free and appropriate education.  Until such protection can be established by law, it is up to the schools to recognize their moral obligation to education highly gifted children appropriately, rather than leaving them "...languishing unchallenged by regular classroom practices ...asked to revisit material they have already learned" (Lawton, 1992, p.4).

Luckily, such efforts need not break the budget.  Some educational options ultimately may even save money for both the school district and the family.  Flexibility, not large sums of money, is a key ingredient.  The following suggestions for schools outline important attitudes and practices necessary to provide equitably for highly gifted children in recessionary times.

Individual needs are more important than policies or philosophies.  Just as we have worked over the past decade to make buildings physically accessible to the disabled, we must work to make our age-graded schools intellectually accessible to the highly gifted.  This may involve altering or waiving certain policies, such as those prohibiting acceleration or ability grouping.  Educators may need to revise their concepts of normal child development to accommodate the seven-year-old who can do algebra, but can't yet tie his shoes.

Accept intellectual diversity.  The highly intellectually gifted child has as much right to inclusion, to an appropriate educational program, and to a school environment free from pejorative remarks about his or her abilities, as any other child.

Allow highly gifted children to accelerate their academic progress, to test out of material that they already know, and to complete individual projects.

If the gifted program is a victim of budget cuts, reorganize regular classrooms so that some cluster grouping can occur.  Highly gifted children benefit greatly from spending some time with intellectual peers.  Cluster grouping allows this to happen on a regular basis at minimal cost.

Acceleration can save money.  There are so many ways to accelerate academically.  In most cases, the necessary resources are already available.

Be fair.  Budget cuts should fairly target all groups in the school community, not fall disproportionately on a few programs.  If cooperative learning is used in heterogeneous classrooms, extreme care must be taken not to exploit highly gifted children (Robinson, 1990).

Remember, you can always do something for a highly gifted child.  Even the most impoverished school can allow a highly gifted child to work at his or her own pace in a particular subject, complete alternate assignments or projects, or join a group of older children for instruction.  If there is no gifted coordinator, the principal or another staff member can act as the child's case manager.  Any of these options is far better than doing nothing, and is a tangible message to the family, the community, and the child that we understand and appreciate the child's unique developmental patterns, and share a commitment to educate him or her appropriately even in difficult times. Ω

In the next issue: Economic issues and responsibilities facing families of the highly gifted will be discussed.


Lawton, M. (1992, February 5).  Gifted elementary students languishing in regular classrooms, studies suggest. Education Week, p.4.

Robinson, A. (1990).  Cooperation or exploitation? The argument against cooperative learning for talented students. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 14, 9-27.

Kathi Kearney, M.A. Ed., is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in South Casco, Maine, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

July - August 1992  Educating Highly Gifted Children In an Age of Recession (Part II)

(In the last issue, we discussed the responsibilities of the school towards highly gifted children during difficult economic times.  In this issue, the focus is on the responsibilities of the parents.)

Mary Lou had a problem.  Although her two highly gifted sons were doing well in school and earning good grades, they were often bored in the regular classroom.  The school's program for the gifted, which met twice a week, was a high point in the day for both boys.  Then the budget axe, and the program was eliminated.  Although school personnel assured Mary Lou that the regular classroom teachers would be able to meet the needs of her children without gifted programming, Mary Lou was concerned.  In addition to eliminating the gifted program, ability grouping had also fallen into disfavor, and both of her sons had been placed in classrooms with no other identified gifted children.  When she approached the school principal about the possibility of acceleration in a subject area or a full grade skip for her oldest son, she was told that the school "didn't believe in" acceleration.

Mary Lou's story is not unique.  Indeed, it has been repeated thousands of times in hundreds of communities in recent months, as the current economic recession continues and as popular "reforms" are adopted by school districts, without careful study of how these reforms affect all segments of the school community, including the gifted.  Mary Lou, and other parents of highly gifted children, share some special responsibilities to their children and their communities as a result.

Support your child.  Highly gifted children have unique educational and emotional needs, as they struggle "to find enough hard and interesting work at school" (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 299) and to find intellectual peers.  Home especially needs to be a place of safety and support for such a child, who may not find such support at school.

Educate yourself.  Recent research monographs published by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (The University of Connecticut, 362 Fairfield Road, U-7, Storrs, CT 06269-2007) provide essential information to families of gifted and highly gifted children concerning ability grouping, cooperative learning, and acceleration.  Such information, often brought to the attention of school officials by parents, has already made a significant difference in policy and practice in some schools.

Advocate.  Parents of highly gifted children usually discover early in their child's school career that advocacy for their child is going to be an ongoing process, whether they want it to be or not.  What these parents may not realize is the power of formal, organized advocacy for gifted and highly gifted children on the local, state and federal levels, and through private organizations.  Such advocacy on the part of parents of the highly gifted children in the last decade has already resulted in such changes as improving school policies regarding acceleration, state mandates requiring services to gifted students, changes in state legislation allowing students still of compulsory attendance age to attend college instead, passage of the federal Jacob Javits Act of 1988 (which established the National Research Center and provided a competitive grants program in gifted education), and, in the private sector, the formation of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children and at least one additional foundation.  Parent advocacy can make a huge difference, but there is one caveat that is especially important for parents of highly gifted children to observe.  Change takes time, and in the process, your own children are growing up in front of you.  They are your first responsibility, and the first and most important people for whom you should advocate. Ω


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

Kathi Kearney, M.A. Ed., is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in South Casco, Maine, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

September - October 1992  Homeschooling Highly Gifted Children

Karen was driving down the road on her way to the grocery store when her 12-year-old son, Jonathan, called out from the back seat, "Mom! What I really need to learn this year is fluid mechanics."  Karen winced.  Fluid mechanics was definitely not part of any seventh grade curriculum.  She had a feeling it was about to become part of Jonathan's, though--and realized that before the year was over, she herself would know more about fluid mechanics than she had ever dreamed she wanted to learn.

Karen and her husband are homeschooling Jonathan and his two younger brothers.  Jonathan is an extremely mathematically gifted child whose other interests involve inventions, engineering, and boatbuilding.  (A 12-foot boat with a unique hull design rests unfinished in the family garage; Karen says this is one time she's going to insist on "take commitment" before the snow arrives!)  Homeschooling provides Jonathan with an opportunity to pursue his considerable engineering talent in a way that would be impossible for most students his age even in a gifted education program.  Karen sometimes notes wryly, "Now I know how Thomas Edison's mother must have felt."  But when this unusual "enrichment" of Jonathan's science curriculum seemed imminent, Karen and her husband were genuinely puzzled.  How could they, as a homeschooling family, provide instruction in something so specialized?

One of the charges often leveled against homeschooling is that parents will not have expertise in all the academic subjects.  Karen and her husband, like any good educators of gifted children, were well aware that they could not possibly have expertise in every area in which their children demonstrated an interest.  However, they were determined to be excellent educational facilitators.  In this case, Jonathan helped solve part of the problem temporarily--he decided that he needed to know more mathematics in order to learn about fluid mechanics, and proceeded to accelerate his progress through pre-calculus mathematics.  This bought some time for his parents to access resources at a local university.

Homeschooling in the United States has shown steady growth over the past decade (Lines, 1991).  We do not know precisely how much of this growth involves highly gifted children.  Meadows, Abel, & Karnes (1992), in their survey of the families of 40 homeschooled children in rural Mississippi, found that 20% of these families listed "to meet the needs of a highly intelligent child" (p.15) as their highest priority for choosing homeschooling.  In an unpublished study of 46 children in the 148-200+ IQ range, I found that 22% of the children were currently homeschooling (Kearney, 1991).  Surprisingly, almost half the group--43%--had been homeschooled at some point during grades Kindergarten through 12.

Homeschooling for highly gifted children is sometimes an option when nothing else works out--when the school cuts the gifted program, eliminates any ability grouping, refuses to allow acceleration, or is genuinely rigid in its stance.  However, just as often, homeschooling allows the ideal educational program for a highly gifted child to unfold, by providing maximum flexibility in the spirit of the best traditions and the strongest research bases we have in the field of gifted education.  This includes the use of acceleration, intense and focused enrichment, flexible pacing, mentorships, internships, early college, and summer programs.

Homeschooling is right for some highly gifted children and their families at some stages of individual and family development.  It is not right for everyone.  It takes commitment, time, and in two-parent families, a strong and supportive marriage.  There will be discouraging days and boring days and grumpy days in the homeschool, as well as exhilarating ones.  The rewards, however, are great: opportunities for a child like Jonathan to explore his talents unfettered by age-grade locksteps, opportunities for parents to spend much more time with their children than is common in contemporary society, and opportunities for professionals to observe the unfolding of extraordinary talent within the family crucible. Ω


Kearney, K. (1991, November) What do highly gifted children and their families really need?  Paper presented at the 38th annual convention of the National Association of Gifted Children, Kansas City, Missouri.

Lines, P. (1991).  Home instruction: The size and growth of the movement.  In J. Van Galen & M.A. Pitman (Eds.), Home schooling: Political, historical, and pedagogical perspectives (pp. 9-41).  Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Meadows, S., Abel, T., & Karnes, F. (1992).  A study of homeschooling in rural Mississippi.  Rural Educator, 13(3), 14-17.

Kathi Kearney, M.A. Ed., is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in South Casco, Maine, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

November - December 1992  When Promising Practices Go Wrong

Anna, 16 years old and a college senior, unexpectedly drops out of school without telling her parents.

8-year-old Lee, who had been ecstatic about his full-time gifted class placement in September, balks at attending school at all by January.

Jacob, who scored nearly 560 on the math SATs at age 11, turns down an opportunity to attend a summer Talent Search program in order to play Little League baseball in his tiny rural community.

Suzanne's carefully planned grade skip goes awry when a new teacher is hired.  The new teacher believes there is no such thing as giftedness, that ability grouping is elitist, and that children should remain with their age peers.

What do you do when everything seems to go wrong?  Most parents of highly gifted children struggle long and hard to locate or develop appropriate educational opportunities for their children.  These parents much make difficult decisions about their children's educational placements, often with little or no support.  If things go wrong, parents of highly gifted children are tempted to blame themselves, the school, or even the child.  The important task, however, is not to assign blame, but to try to figure out why a particular placement isn't working, and then find an intervention that does work.

Why Things Go Wrong

Highly gifted children present unique challenges to ordinary schools.  They are often far ahead of the grade-level curriculum, and are able to learn new things at an astonishing speed.  In designing an appropriate education for them, there is a chance of more things going wrong simply because many more interventions may be required -- interventions that neither the school nor the family has much practice or preparation in making.  Grade skipping, subject acceleration, early school entrance, early college, true integration in the regular classroom, or homeschooling are all effective and appropriate educational interventions for some highly gifted children in some situations; they are definitely not the stuff of "how to do it" workshops for teachers or comforting articles in Parents' Magazine or Working Mother.

Asynchronous development in highly gifted children (Columbus Group, 1991) is another reason why things sometimes go wrong.  like Lee's family, many parents of highly gifted children discover early and often that an appropriate educational placement in September may become a disaster by January.  Often this is due to a developmental pattern that is not what child development experts, school officials, and even educators of the gifted tell us to expect.  An appropriate placement at one stage of an individual child's development may be wrong at the next stage.  Furthermore, we know very little about what constitutes "normal" development among extraordinarily gifted children.  The best guide must be the child.  It is possible for these children to outgrow a placement developmentally long before parents or teachers are ready to admit it. 

The child may have a different idea about what constitutes an appropriate educational experience, and we may not agree with the child's perspective.  Anna's parents were dismayed when she left college at age 16, less than 20 credits away from her bachelor's degree, and took a minimum-wage job.  Jacob's family felt algebra was more important than baseball.  Yet highly gifted children often do know what they need, and we need to let them make some choices -- and even some mistakes -- on their own.  Anna has plenty of years left to finish her degree, and Jacob can always complete Algebra I.

We cannot overlook the fact that some educational placements or interventions may have been wrong in the first place.  We all make mistakes.  When an intervention is clearly wrong for the child, change it immediately.

Finally, outside circumstances occasionally can undo an otherwise appropriate educational placement.  When Suzanne's grade skip was planned, she was placed with a a supportive classroom teacher, certified in gifted education.  When this teacher left the district unexpectedly, her replacement entered the classroom with an entirely different philosophy.  Such unexpected circumstances as a change of teachers, a change in school administration, divorce, death or illness in the family, financial difficulties, or even the girls of a new sibling can affect the appropriateness of an educational placement.  Highly gifted children, with their increased sensitivity (Kline & Meckstroth, 1985), may be more aware and affected by outside events than we realize.

Educational interventions for highly gifted children need to be reevaluated on an ongoing basis.  Perhaps the most promising practice we can implement is to respond continually and respectfully to their unique development, rather than try to force-fit that development into preconceived molds. Ω


Columbus Group (1991, July).  Unpublished transcript of the meeting of the Columbus Group.  Columbus, OH.

Kline, B. E., & Meckstroth, E. A. (1985).  Understanding and encouraging the exceptionally gifted.  Roeper Review, 8(1), 24-30.

Kathi Kearney, M.A. Ed., is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in South Casco, Maine, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

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

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