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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Gifted or fast learner . . . what do I do about school???

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

At three years old, my son watched me hand out treats, and as I looked to figure out how many we needed to give two to each child, he blurted out the correct answer. Math came naturally to him. The type of word problem in middle of elementary school, he knew the answer without knowing the words “plus,” “minus,” “times,” or “divided.” When my daughter was three, she ordered from a menu (without pictures) before any of us realized she could read. Many of us have these anecdotes of aha moments, and the ensuing panic, What the freak should I do about school???


Schools in many parts of the world have eliminated or never had gifted programs. With decreasing budgets and increasing goals for equity, curriculum slants to the middle of the bell curve, which, to be fair, encompasses over 90% of children. When there is extra resource, quite reasonably, those who are struggling need it first. Those in the top tail are offered differentiation, but that does not always translate to engaging education. I personally spent many hours of elementary school doing workbooks.


Tune out the judgments. Many outsiders will assume that you “hot housed” your child, and that because of your tutoring, your child has gotten an unfair advantage. You know what your child learned spontaneously and without help, and you don’t need other’s approvals. Like breastfeeding and potty training, there are a lot of opinions, but yours is the one that matters when it is your child. 


Find community. Join a group for giftedness; many exist on Facebook, including our own SF Parents of Gifted Kids and Hoagies Gifted Discussion Group. If you meet other parents with advanced learners, talk to them and support each other. These online groups can be priceless for day-to-day discussions.


Preschools will not cater to giftedness but can teach social skills. In my experience, few gifted kids are advanced at social skills, and preschool is a great time to learn them. If you choose a preschool without academics, you can defer the struggle to get work at their level, and instead offer your child an environment to learn skills like making friends and resolving conflict. While preschools that teach academics focus on ABCs and early number sense, those that focus on social skills have children build in teams, run science experiments, and bake, all of which are more easily adaptable to the gifted learner.


Insist on work at their right level. Carol Dweck found that children need to think they need to work to grow their brains. Telling a child that they are gifted and special can pressure them and will not teach them how to work. Yet, as sh told me at the end of a talk, coasting causes terrible habits and produces a fixed mindset that expects all work to be easy. Learning to make mistakes and then solve them is essential to a growth mindset. A child cannot learn this if the work is too easy for them. 


When your child is shocked others cannot do their same level of work. Remind your child that everyone is good at something, and everyone is working on something. Maybe your child takes longer to make friends, or cannot play soccer as well as this child, or is not as good at art or music. Whatever it is, there will be something that you can point out that this child excels at.


To assess or not to assess. It’s such a question, when should we IQ test our presumed-gifted children. In general, IQ tests of children are not stable until 7 or 8 years old, and even then, a child can have a bad day. Four year olds are known to be stubborn, not perform on request, and therefore not always test to their potential. Children with a second e, such as ADHD, might not focus to their potential either. A good rule of thumb, if you would like to apply to a school or program that requires an IQ test, do so early, but understand that you might need to repeat this. 


Ask the teacher about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. If you feel that the teacher isn’t meeting your child’s needs, ask questions to understand her perspective of your child. Maybe, the teacher has some insight on holes your child is missing, as self taught children are not as thoroughly versed as those taught in schools. It is absolutely possible that your teacher does not get your child, but it’s also possible that your child is not telling you the full story of what happens at school. 


Find a school that will meet your child’s needs. Some important factors for a gifted-friendly school: (1) Single subject acceleration. For children to learn at their just right level, many need acceleration in math, reading or writing. Schools with assessment processes to match the child with the work level are more likely to meet your child’s needs. (2) Fewer repetitions to demonstrate mastery. Gifted children often have holes that they need to fill before accelerating, but they might need only one or two repetitions to master a skill, vs six or more for a typical child. (3) Sideways enrichment. In addition to accelerating, gifted children will often enjoy additional learning outside of the curriculum. For instance, my daughter’s math teacher taught her to calculate with base eight and Roman numerals. In humanities, this might include investigating motivations and subtext during different time eras.  (4) Lower student-teacher ratios or online supplements. In a large class, if only one or two children know the subject area, a teacher might offer online learning, such as Khan Academy, and to unlock programs such as iXL and Raz-Kids that normally are limited to grade level work. In a smaller class or one with a second teacher, breakouts might be possible to give in-person instruction at their level. (5) Intellectual Peer Group. Gifted-friendly schools often attract gifted kids, giving your child a peer group. Even if each child has varied needs, the value is an interpersonal connection plus another child to learn with. 


Add some non-academic activities. We all want well rounded children, and my premise has been to allow one engineering or coding program per quarter, but also to ask my children to choose one active camp or activity. Many children also love art and music. Encourage your child to try new things, and especially to learn a sport or activity that will keep them fit as they get older.


Still need help? If you live in San Francisco, Vicky specializes in school choice consulting, and has experience looking for schools that accommodate fast learners.

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