Getting Your Child An Appropriate Education

"Eighty percent of life is just showing up."

          -- Woody Allen

Almost every parent of a gifted child has his or her own personal story of "going through hell" to get an appropriate education for the intellectually gifted child. It's even worse when a child becomes a behavior problem and the school refuses to make any changes until the child "shapes-up." Most of us agree that education should offer more challenge for a child than merely "showing up" for twelve years. But, convincing the schools of this? At times it seems impossible.

From "Exceptionally Gifted Children"
by Miraca Gross:

"It is surprising that very highly gifted children do not rebel more frequently against the inappropriate educational provision which is generally made for them. Studies have repeatedly found that the great majority of highly gifted students are required to work, in class, at levels several years below their tested achievement. Underachievement may be imposed on the exceptionally gifted child through the constraints of an inappropriate and undemanding educational program or, as often happens, the child may deliberately underachieve in an attempt to seek peer-group acceptance." [page 21]

Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.

          -- Mark Twain

Which Option?

Different people advocate different approaches to solving the problem of obtaining a developmentally appropriate education for the gifted child. Some believe strongly in confronting the school and insisting upon changes at that level. Others believe that the best approach is to join an advocacy group and work together within a school district or at the state or federal levels to obtain changes for intellectually gifted children as a group. Still others believe that the best approach is to take their child's education into their own hands whether through homeschooling or by otherwise providing a stimulating learning environment outside of regular classroom. There is no one best solution. Each child and each family has different needs and different resources available to them. The best solution to the problem of "gifted education" is to provide for a variety of diverse programs and approaches to learning then choosing the ones that meet the needs of each specific child while not exceeding available resources.

The most important aspect of getting your child an appropriate education is to work according to your strengths (you, the parent). If you are good at negotiations, then that may be the best approach for you. If the thought of teacher-parent conferences or meeting with the principal of your child's school is enough to make you upset and angry, then perhaps another solution, such as going outside the public schools or homeschooling is the answer for you. But, whatever you do, the key is to work for an environment both at home and at school that meets the child's need. Stella Chess, a child psychiatrist, puts it this way, "the environment must change to fit the child." Goodness of fit is everything!!!

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

          -- Albert Einstein

Alternatives and Options

At times, it seems like a hopeless battle. Though the reasons may vary, the effect is the same. The programs that provide a developmentally appropriate education to gifted children are vanishing. There may be times when your options are limited to obtaining changes in the current classroom. If so, "gifting" the classroom teacher with a copy of Susan Winebrenner's "Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom" may help to smooth the way. It's easier to secure changes in the classroom environment if the teacher has a reference book to show to the school's administrators. Susan Winebrenner's extensive classroom experience gives her suggestions added weight with teachers and administrators.

Classroom Options

Ms. Winebrenner offers twelve guidelines for teaching intellectually gifted students in the regular classroom:

  1. Pre-test to find out what they already know.
  2. Give credit for material already mastered.
  3. Do not give assignments or have students repeat work "just because it's there."
  4. Offer alternatives to drill and practice or grade level materials that are more challenging (i.e. more abstract or complex).
  5. Build projects or assignments around the student's interests.
  6. Allow students to "buy back" time via pre-testing and be flexible in how they use it.
  7. Allow students to learn at a faster pace than their age-mates.
  8. Use discovery learning techniques in preference to lectures and other teacher dominated methods
  9. Trust students to learn in nontraditional ways and forms.
  10. Assist students in finding others like themselves for social interaction. Do not judge social maturity by what is observed between the gifted child and his age-mates.
  11. Keep students interested by giving them a wide variety of choices.
  12. Give students lots of experience in planning, goal setting, and self-evaluation.

Options beyond the classroom:

No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.

          -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

... keeping a child who can do sixth-grade work in a second-grade classroom is not saving that student's childhood but is instead robbing that child of the desire to learn.

          -- Ellen Winner
in "Gifted Children"

Acceleration & Grade-Skips

Radical acceleration, commonly implemented as multiple grade skips, is one solution that appears to work well with intellectually gifted children. There is a growing body of research which shows that it works very well for the majority of intellectually gifted children (as compared to equally gifted children who were not grade advanced). The education establishment, however, remains unconvinced throughout most of the USA and Canada. Teachers and educators may tell you that they know for a fact that radical acceleration does not work. Usually, this is due to their having "heard" about a child, somewhere else, who encountered great difficulties adjusting. Everyone seems to have heard this story. Perhaps it should be nominated for "Urban Legend" status -- like the $250 Cookie recipe.

If you are in a situation where radical acceleration is acceptable to the school's administrators, it is important that the decision include consideration of the individual child's needs and personality. A child with a "slow-to-warm-up" temperamental style is going to need extra support both at school, from teachers and students, and at home EVERY time he/she is moved into a new classroom. The child with an easy temperamental style may be overlooked because he/she appears satisfied with the current situation; this child needs acceleration just as much as the child who is very vocal about being bored in class. The research shows that acceleration works and works well. It's up to you, the parents, however, to negotiate with the school and to insure that arrangements are made to provide adequate levels of support, both social and academic, at school, in the community, and most importantly, at home.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

          -- Albert Einstein

Satisfaction of one's curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.

          -- Linus Pauling

Why Rush School?

Many parents pursue early entry to Kindergarten only to find that the school is vehemently opposed to it. Parents also report difficulties when requesting that a child be allowed to enter full-time first grade at age 5 (when age-mates are entering Kindergarten). In both these cases, the school's reluctance to allow the acceleration may actually work in your gifted child's favor. Why? In school, your child's natural curiosity and need to be physically active will be forced to give way to classroom schedules and rules. Young children learn by doing, via physically interacting with the world around them. For the young child, early entry to school may actually deprive the child of learning opportunities which he would have had if allowed to continue learning on his own at home and in the neighborhood.

Still not convinced? The purpose of Kindergarten is to teach children to follow the rules: sit down, shut-up, do what you are told when you are told. Curiosity and independence, the two characteristics which allowed your child to teach herself to read or figure out the number system at an early age, are squashed by classroom routines that place a higher value on group activities led by the teacher. Kindergarten classrooms frequently are arranged in learning centers which attempt to bring "real-life" into the classroom. Why not allow the curious child who is absorbing everything she can from her real-life setting to stay in that setting awhile longer? Play groups and play dates provide ample "social" exposure for young children.

Upon entry to first grade, the classroom emphasis shifts to handwriting and producing written work on demand. Schools revolve around written work. Most teachers still use worksheets as the majority of their classroom instruction and base their student assessments upon those worksheets. Hand-eye coordination and motor-planning skills rarely develop precociously, to the levels required for legible handwriting, especially in gifted children. As a result, the gifted child's handwriting skills will not keep pace with the school's expectations for written work at the child's actual math or reading level. Placements in higher level reading or math groups (i.e. two or three grade levels up) become problematic because the child cannot execute the required written assignments and the teacher now has a "problem" child -- one who cannot do the work. When handwriting skills are not on a par with mathematical or verbal skills the gifted child will usually be given "remedial" handwriting assignments instead of dispensations and alternative forms of teacher-assessment of the child's work (e.g. oral quizzing) that would allow the child to continue working above grade-level.

School teachers frequently ask students to recopy or repeat work because their handwriting does not meet with the teacher's approval. Parents are often asked to supervise extra handwriting practice at home in the evenings in the form of additional worksheets for material which the child has already mastered. Not only is the child being penalized at school for not having physical skills to match his intellectual abilities but now the boring work comes home with him and eats up what precious little time he had to relax, destress, and actually learn something new. Bored beyond his frustration level, unable to escape even at home, the child develops behavior problems and loss of motivation -- the stage is set for creating yet another under-achieving gifted student who gets the "you're broken" message loud and clear.

Why place a child into a setting which is going to ask of him what his body is not yet able to do? Yes, there are children who are ready for school at age four or five and they do well. But, there are also children who do not begin their formal schooling until age seven or eight. They do equally well, achieving on-grade level in academic subjects within six months. In those two additional years of being allowed to follow their own interests, children who do not enter school early use their natural curiosity and love of learning to progress even farther on their own. There's a book titled "School Can Wait." If you're considering early entry to elementary school for your gifted child, please read it. If your child is truly ready for formal academic work -- try teaching him yourself for the one hour a day of instruction that the average child receives in a typical classroom. If you work and have your child in daycare that one hour a day can become your "quality" time together.

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.

          -- Seneca

Early Entrance to College

Early entrance to college, as early as age 9 or 10, is a reasonable solution for the profoundly gifted child. For the highly gifted child, early entrance could be considered between ages 14 - 16. Most colleges and universities have admissions policies which allow students to apply for early entrance, without a high school diploma, after age 16. There are a few schools which have early entrance programs designed specifically for gifted teens (some as early as age 12) which provide extra supervision including mandatory study halls and "house parents."

These schools offer early entrance programs for students prior to age 16:

Entering college prior to receiving your high school diploma is an option that seems to works well. So much so that many states have standard procedures and provisions for issuing a high school diploma upon successful completion of the freshman year of college (provided that certain additional requirements are met). Many states and local school districts have policies which allow high school students to concurrently enroll in a local community college or university.

If you are considering early entry to college then it behooves you to start researching financial aid and scholarship opportunities as soon as possible. The PSAT/NMSQT, the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Exam, is typically taken in the fall of the Junior year of high school. If you're going to enter college early -- make arrangements to take that exam early! Some parents have reported that they encountered a Catch-22 situation with full-time early college enrollment and scholarship awards. Entering college full-time, before you've gone through the scholarship application process may make you ineligible for some awards. Be careful. Ask questions, many questions, of the admissions officer at the college where you are considering enrolling.

Last Updated: 10/29/99
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