Early on in life, play dates could be tricky for Alex Norton. His mother recalls the time her son went to the home of a friend who was watching Thomas the Tank Engine on television, and her 2-year-old innocently tried to strike up a conversation.
“I see you like trains. What do you like best? Diesel, steam or electric?”
“His friend said he liked choo-choo trains, and he’s looking at Alex like he’s a Martian,” says mom, Sherry Norton, of Marlborough. “You can imagine how isolating that is to a little kid. You always hear, ‘Wow, you are so lucky to have a child who is so talented.’ It’s a blessing, and it’s a curse.”
From a young age, Norton suspected that Alex might not be the typical kid; IQ tests at age 3 confirmed her suspicions. His score put him in the profoundly gifted category, a designation used to describe children who score in the 99.9 percentile on IQ and achievement tests. Roughly 13 out of 10,000 people in the United States are considered profoundly gifted, according to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a Nevada-based nonprofit created to work exclusively with this population.
These children tend to be early talkers and early readers with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. They inundate parents with questions and are not content with simple answers. They are the kids ready for algebra – instead of the alphabet – in kindergarten.
Many parents secretly hold out hope that their child will be one of the smartest kids at school, but exceptional brilliance presents its own set of complications. Intellectually advanced kids can have trouble making friends with children their own age, according to their parents and teachers. Often, these kids prefer the company of adults.
If they’re not challenged enough at school, they can become bored and disruptive, to the point where some are even misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder or other behavioral disorders.
In Massachusetts, state law requires schools to make modifications to accommodate students with special needs, including those with learning disorders. But the same protections are not in place for kids at the other end of the spectrum.
“People think you are lucky to have a gifted child. They think they will be fine anyway,” says Judy Platt, editor of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education newsletter. “Most people are uninformed or, worse, misinformed, when it comes to gifted students. It’s hard to raise a gifted child.”
Looking back now, Nicole Greer suspected that her son Jack may be different. But he was her firstborn; she and her husband had no other children then to compare him to. At age 2½, he not only knew all his colors, he knew how to spell his colors.
“I remember one time him spelling the word turquoise, and I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” says Greer, of Sandwich.
By age 4, Jack was solving complicated math problems. “Stuff I still can’t do, integers and exponents,” says his mother. The parents consulted a family doctor for advice and confirmation that something about their son was unusual.
“I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Wow, he’s a savant.’ I thought that was a horrible word,” says Greer. “He’s so shy and I thought, ‘Oh no, this kid is going to get bullied.’”
When the family moved and her son enrolled at a new school for first grade, Greer says she chose not to tell anyone about her son’s abilities. The surprised teacher called Greer the first week of school to report that her son was reading at a fifth-grade level.
It has since been suggested that Jack would be a good candidate to skip a grade, but right now Greer wants him to be with kids his age. To remain intellectually stimulated, Jack, now 9, reads constantly, participates in a book club at the library, and gets math challenges from his father. He also benefits from free services offered by the Davidson Institute and a math program through Stanford University.
“He’s happy,” says Greer of her son. “He loves his school. He loves his teachers. I don’t think you have to go to high school when you are 10. We look at our son’s giftedness as this: his intelligence won’t go away, but his childhood will. We want him to play. Maybe that’s wrong, but it feels right.”
Determining what’s best for profoundly gifted children is a constant struggle for parents, who may mistakenly be seen as bragging or pushing their child too hard.
“Many people think parents of gifted kids are pushing them. In many cases, we are holding them back. I’m the one saying I’m not going to let him do it. I’d rather he be a kid,” says Sherry Norton, Alex’s mom.
The single biggest challenge, she says, is finding the right school. Her son attended six different ones before they found the right fit. At a previous school, he became so bored that he started to act up in class or tune out completely. In fourth grade, he left that school and entered a new one as a fifth-grader.
“A few weeks later, his Scout leader called and asked me if we had put our son on medication. He was just so calm and relaxed. I told her no, he had changed schools and skipped a grade,” says Norton. “His brain was no longer so frustrated by the monotony of what he was learning that he could sit still.”
Alex is now at Marlborough High School, thriving and challenged by his classes. As a freshman, administrators let him take chemistry and physics at the same time. Norton says she’s thrilled with the town’s public school, which offers so many science classes that no student could ever take them all.
It is a Special Need
Only 20 states in the U.S. mandate services for gifted education, recognizing that – like other children with special needs – these students will not thrive without accommodations. Massachusetts, while considered a national leader for its laws mandating special education programs, does not mandate services for the gifted. Furthermore, the state falls in the bottom 10 for funding of gifted education (with no money allocated for this during the last budget year), according to Diana Reeves, the legislative liaison to the Massachusetts Association of Gifted Education (MAGE).
In the 1980s, Reeves worked in a regional center established by the state to help school districts with gifted education programs, but funding was later cut. The needs of gifted students tend to engender less sympathy than those of children with special needs and learning disorders, she says.
“There persists a perception that, if you have a gifted child, you should be able to put that child into a private school to serve that child’s needs,” Reeves says. “That assumes that only gifted kids are found in wealthy families, or that private schools will do a better job.”
To improve gifted education, Reeves believes that a number of changes could be enacted without a significant investment. Among them:
• Require teachers to take coursework in gifted education in order to obtain a license in Massachusetts, as is now the case with mandated special education credits.
• Establish state Department of Education centers to help schools deemed as underperforming to include services for gifted education. “We spend so much time trying to get the bottom up and getting the middle to the top that we overlook the top completely,” says Reeves.
Platt, a Framingham resident who consults with parents of gifted children through her business, Gifted Support Services, says public schools should assess children at the start of the school year. If a child knows 80 percent of the material in September, he or she will obviously be bored and disengaged as the year goes on, she says.
&pagebreaking&While schools have gotten away from tracking – putting an academic achievement label on a student that would usually stick until graduation – Platt says there needs to be more flexibility based on ability. “We’ve gotten out of the tracking and into the homogenous and everything is done the same for everyone,” she says.
Other proposed changes supported by the MAGE include:
• having a specialist trained in gifted education in every school district;
• early screening to identify gifted students in preschool; and
• accelerated learning, which can include everything from skipping a grade to taking more advanced math lessons than the rest of the class.
Extremely gifted children also need to learn to advocate for themselves, and to propose working on projects or problems that may be different than the rest of the class, Platt says. Age 10 seems to be the “cracking point,” or the general age that parents notice that their gifted child is acting up and doing poorly in school, Platt says.
Just as parents of kids with learning disabilities and other special needs are urged, Platt advises parents of gifted children to be ready to fight for services. “People have to be passionate,” she says. “You are so swimming against the storm and it can be exhausting.”
Getting Outside Help
Often, parents of profoundly gifted students turn to outside resources to supplement their child’s education, whether it’s a community college course or a summer scholars program, such as the highly regarded one offered at Johns Hopkins University.
The Davidson Institute provides free services to roughly 2,000 students ages 5 to 18 through its Young Scholars program. Parents are assigned a family consultant to help make decisions about the child’s educational options, whether it’s acceleration, early college admission or homeschooling. Davidson also operates the first free public school for profoundly gifted students in the country on the University of Nevada campus in Reno.
Through Davidson, children can connect with kids like them in online communities, says Shannon Harrison, the Young Scholars program manager. The nonprofit also runs summer institutes, has drafted a “Gifted Kids Survival Guide,” and also acts as a resource for parents to share stories and information.
“Like with any child with a disability or learning issue, you need other parents who know what you are going through,” says Norton. She says her son has met some good friends through Davidson – kids who understand his intensity to delve into a subject for the sake of knowledge and not just a good grade.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama challenged Americans to not fall behind other countries in the fields of science, math and innovation, calling this our “Sputnik moment.” Some in the field of gifted education saw this as a promising sign, a recognition that the country’s future depends on nurturing talented minds.
“Some countries treat their gifted students like we treat our gifted athletes,” says Platt. “Other countries don’t do as well with the bottom level of students like we do. But the best and the brightest [here] aren’t being educated to their potential.”
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.
Curious about Your Curious Kid?
Is your child profoundly intelligent? If you aren’t sure, here are some signs to look for:
• An extreme need for constant mental stimulation.
• An ability to learn and process complex information rapidly.
• A need to explore subjects in surprising depth.
• An insatiable curiosity; endless questions and inquiries.
• A tendency to complain that school is boring.
• A preference to hang out with adults or older children.
• A need for precision in thinking and expression – often answering questions with “that depends …”
• An ability to focus intently on a subject of interest for long periods of time.
• An inability to concentrate on a task that is not intellectually challenging, including repetitious ideas or material presented in small pieces.
• A tendency toward underachievement, particularly for those who want to “fit in” with their classmates.
Source: Davidson Institute for Talent Development and Gifted Support Services
• Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education (MAGE) – Nonprofit volunteer organization advocating for the appropriate education of the gifted and talented. Parents welcome at monthly meetings.
• Davidson Institute for Talent Development – www.davidsongifted.org – A national nonprofit providing free services to profoundly intelligent students. Website includes helpful information for parents, including how to advocate for your child.
• Genius Denied; How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds, by Jan and Bob Davidson with Laura Vanderkam, Simon & Schuster, 2004. The founders of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development cite numerous studies to show how the needs of gifted kids have been neglected by an educational system that treats everyone the same.