Illustration: Alex Mathers; Photo: Tony Lanz
The bell has gone, and my son, Jackson, isn’t in class. Instead, he’s in the school staff room, where a woman is asking him to spell random words: Laugh. Watch. Demonstrate. Restless, he taps her playfully on the head with his pencil. “I’m tired of spelling,” he says. He’s only five, after all. The psychologist smiles, and explains he has to continue until he makes a mistake.
Like many kids, Jackson is undergoing standardized testing to see whether or not he is gifted, and he’s annoyed. Though the term suggests an advantage, being gifted is not always a gift. Being exceptionally bright, for some, can feel like a burden. Not only are gifted kids largely misunderstood, but many are also stuck in education systems that don’t quite know how to teach them.
Giftedness is about more than simply being “really smart” or prodigiously creative; it is having an alternative way of thinking that comes with a unique set of intellectual and interpersonal skills, as well as sometimes having challenging sensory issues.
One hallmark of giftedness is asynchrony, a gap between intellectual and emotional development. Gifted kids often seem out of sync, their maturity at odds with their cognitive abilities. For instance, a five-year-old like Jackson may read at the level of an eight-year-old, but throw the tantrum of a two-year-old. This discrepancy can make it hard for a child to fit in.
“Children and adolescents need to be with their intellectual peer group,” says Monika Ferenczy, an education expert and president of the Association for Bright Children of Ontario. However, gifted kids don’t always fit in socially with their intellectual peers. “They also need support with social skills, because they can’t converse with grade-level peers the same way they can with other gifted students,” says Ferenczy. “Their deep interests and complex ways of looking at ideas can put them at a distance.”
Then there’s the perfectionism, another common trait. The self-imposed pressure can be debilitating and can lead some to underachieve, for fear that their performance won’t live up to their own high standards.
Elise Cooper’s* 11-year-old son, Heath*, was identified as gifted in grade four. She says her son’s emotions run deeper than those of his peers. “As he got older, he became aware that other kids didn’t react to things with the same level of intensity that he did, but it didn’t change the way he felt or reacted,” she says. “It’s legitimately the way he feels things.”
Heath’s fervent desire for fairness and his overarching need to be right can translate into outbursts like the one he had in grade three: When his building project using recycled items wasn’t selected as the winning structure, Heath became inconsolable and tried to reason with the judge, listing all the reasons his group’s entry was the best.
In Canada, parents and teachers can recommend that students they suspect are gifted undergo standardized psycho-educational testing, either privately or via their public school board.
Those who score in the top percentiles are labelled with a gifted “exceptionality,” which generally means they have demonstrated an ability to master new skills and concepts quickly. They also tend to have a large vocabulary and advanced reasoning skills. Class assignments, teachers’ observational notes and report cards may also be taken into account.
The school then consults the parents to determine the best course of action. The child may remain at his school, working on an enriched or “differentiated” curriculum, or may attend a gifted program at another school.
Sadly, providing a “differentiated” learning experience requires resources and funding that many boards do not have. The result: fewer kids in gifted programs. For instance, in 2002, five percent of students in Vancouver were classified as gifted. By the 2013 to 2014 school year that number was down to just 0.7 percent.
Changing schools in grade five to a dedicated gifted program was clearly a turning point for Heath. Initially hesitant, his parents were assured once they saw how well he adapted. “We are thrilled he has found a community of kids he feels like he belongs to,” says Cooper. “He does not normally like change, but as soon as he started, he was telling us it was the right place for him and thanking us for letting him go.”
Still, some gifted kids don’t find the right fit academically. This was the case for Penny Longman’s son, Lucas Hornick, who is now 14. From the moment he started school in his hometown of Langley, BC, Lucas was getting into fights and ignoring his teachers. He had boundless energy, was impatient with others and frustrated with himself when he couldn’t get something right straightaway. He was always speaking out of turn and fidgeting endlessly.
“He is just so very intense and completely unwilling to waste time on ‘slow school,’” says Longman, who suspects her son preferred the banter in the principal’s office to what was happening in class.
Early on, Lucas’s behavioural challenges led teachers to suspect ADHD rather than giftedness. In kids with neurological or learning disabilities (a.k.a. “twice exceptional”), giftedness may be harder to spot, masked by fundamental cognitive differences, or other behavioural characteristics. Further testing ruled this out in Lucas’s case, but potential misdiagnosis is a major concern for parents of gifted kids.
Now Lucas divides his time between part-time high school and private tutors. The arrangement appears to be working, yet Longman regrets the handling of her son’s experience within the educational system. “If his needs had been met back in grade two or three with acceleration, we could have saved everyone so much anguish and pain.”
Similarly, when gifted children aren’t challenged at school, they may become disengaged. They may act out or withdraw altogether. They may bully or be bullied. “Some of these kids become marginalized to the point where they’re at risk for mental health concerns,” says Ferenczy. “In high school, they may drop out.”
Ferenczy recommends parents research the optimal learning environment for their child, and find enrichment opportunities that extend beyond the classroom. “The perception is that gifted kids can manage fine,” she says. “Teachers have so much on their plates already…if the gifted child is not disruptive, he may fall through the cracks.”
Now at an alternative school, my son, Jackson, enjoys the best of both worlds. He is surrounded by peers his own age, yet working on a curriculum tailored to his individual strengths and needs. As his mom, I have a great sense of relief knowing he’s free to be exactly who he is and to learn without limitation.
Many parents harbour a sneaking suspicion that their child, who nails the shape-sorter every time, might just be gifted. According to ABC Ontario, parents should watch their baby’s development for these signs:
Very early readers also tend to be gifted. If she’s headed to preschool and already sounding out letters, reading signs and even books accurately, out loud and silently, you may just have a little genius on your hands.
*Names have been changed
This article was originally published online in August 2015.