Here's my next column in the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer. I thought you might enjoy an advanced look.
The Life Well-Led
by Marty Nemko
Guiding Your Gifted Child
No Child Left Behind is the federal law that has inverted how public schools allocate funds. All its carrots and sticks are for improving low-achieving kids' test scores. There are no incentives to help average, let alone gifted kids. So teachers focus on special ed kids, other low achievers, and English-Language Learners.
And those many low achievers are usually placed in the same class as gifted kids, especially K-8. Largely gone are the days when classes are grouped by ability. Today, where egalitarianism trumps efficacy and politics trumps pedagogy, in most California public schools, at least K-8, students are placed into classes at random.
Schools may still identify children as gifted but usually provide little or no accommodation to their needs, certainly far less than to special education children. So what's the parent or other caring relative of a gifted child to do?
Choosing a School
One option is to try to get your child admitted to a school with a large percentage of gifted kids: a school in your district or an inter-district transfer. Of course, there also are private schools that specialize in gifted kids. Such schools as Nueva Day School, Town School, the College Preparatory School, and University High School (SF) may be worth the cost and travel time.
Whether or not such options are available to you, as the new school year or semester approaches, find out if there's a teacher of your child's grade who would be much better with gifted kids than would the other teachers. If so, ask the principal or counselor if your child might be placed in that class. You'll be on safer ground if you couch it as, "I visited the classes my child might be in next year and it really seems that Ms. X would be the best fit for his needs. Might you be willing to place him there?" You can't request that too often but do it once or twice during your child's stint at that school and you can make a big difference in her education without undue effort.
Skip a Grade or Four?
Consider acceleration, grade-skipping. Especially with today's No Child Left Behind strictures, acceleration works better for many kids than does badgering the on-grade teacher to accommodate to your child's needs. Often, despite incessant tactful requests from the parent, gifted kids sit stultified in today's mixed-ability classes. And if a kid is active, s/he gets in trouble and often put on a Ritalin leash...at a ratio of eight boys for every one girl.
Many parents worry that the academic benefits of grade-skipping will be outweighed by social mismatch but generally, if the receiving teacher is enthusiastic and has the child sit next to a supportive, respected student, the result is superior to the aforementioned badgering.
If the idea of grade-skipping appeals, schedule a meeting with the principal in which you don't blame teacher or the school. Couch your request as simply trying to get an appropriate-level education for your child. Support your case by showing a portfolio of the child's work in and out of school, test scores, and a supporting letter(s) from the child's teacher, head of the district's gifted program, and/or a private educational consultant.
While we parents like to think we're most important to our child's development, recent research suggests that peers may have more influence. That means that one of our most potent interventions is to facilitate good friendships. If you don't know which kids to invite to your home or on trips, etc., visit your child's class and watch the kids not only in the classroom but at recess. Of course, ask your child who s/he'd like to befriend.
Parents of gifted kids tend to overschedule their kids after school. Be selective. Not every kid needs exposure to soccer, Lawrence Hall of Science classes, flute lessons, religious school, and community service. Gifted kids are still kids, and they, like all of us, can use down time. Some of my happiest childhood memories are simply of watching clouds, or snowflakes land on the window. That all said, some supplementation of course is wise. Hoagie's Gifted (www.hoagiesgifted.org) is a portal to an amazing range of options for gifted kids and their parents and teachers, from ten-minute activities to summer programs.
Even well-adjusted gifted kids often suffer emotionally. Especially if they're in a school with few intellectual peers, they may suffer from the Hobson's choice of being disliked or dumbing themselves down, for example, by not raising their hand often. Even though it's contrary to today's egalitarian ethos, I think it's wise to often remind your child that s/he is intellectually superior. Of course, that doesn't justify their being obnoxious to others, but quietly recognizing their superiority can balm against the slings and arrows.
Don't assume that because a child is intellectually advanced, s/he's not below average in some emotional or social area. Despite having a Ph.D. in educational psychology and a school psychology credential, except in severe cases, I'm not a big fan of therapy. If my child were mildly depressed, socially anxious, or simply socially clueless, I'd focus on simple behavioral strategies: giving gentle feedback on their behavior, modeling the desired behavior, encouraging them to work to their strengths rather than focusing much on weaknesses, and encouraging some non-academic area that feeds them: in the arts, sports, helping others, whatever.
Of course, significant dyslexia, spectrum disorder, bipolar, etc usually require professional assistance. Severe hyperactive (ADHD) kids may benefit from Ritalin, Adderal, etc. but my sense is they're overprescribed, more for the teacher's benefit than the child's.
I know I'm preaching to the choir here but I believe that a gifted child is one of society's greatest treasures. I wish gifted kids were more valued by today's schools but they're not. That leaves it to us. It may be some of our most important work.
Dr. Nemko is an education and career adviser to people young and old. His seven books include How to Get Your Child a Private School Education in a Public School and How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.