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Gifted Kids and School: The Best Approach to Educating Einstein

Keeping super-smart children engaged, motivated and accepted can be an incredible challenge. Learn how to help your academically bright child.

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Alison Kenyon looked forward to the start of school for her son, Emmett. "I just assumed he'd take the world by storm," she recalls of Emmett entering first grade last year.

Emmett had always been advanced for his age. "He is not the 'typical' gifted child, if such a thing exists," explains his mother. "The clues for giftedness were his enormous vocabulary, ability to pronounce five-syllable words correctly in addition to using them correctly, his ability to hear something once and repeat it verbatim."

But instead of receiving glowing reports about her son's achievements, she'd get phone calls from school about Emmett's bad behavior. When Kenyon went to her son's first parent-teacher conference, the teacher didn't attend. The principal met with her instead and detailed Emmett's regular outbursts. "My sweet little boy had become this angry kid," remembers Kenyon. "He wouldn't eat. He stopped using the bathroom. He became so depressed he wouldn't get out of bed."

The problems escalated to the point that Kenyon decided to take Emmett out of school. She then had to take time off of work to help sort out Emmett's needs; this included visits to various psychologists and school administrators.

"One of the most frustrating elements of the whole experience was the idea always seemed to be to change his behavior through force or medication," Kenyon says.

Along the way to discovering what Emmett needed, Kenyon came across Steppingstone School for Gifted Education in Farmington Hills. She contacted the head of school, Kiyo Morse, and arranged a visit.

"On the way home from the school that first day, my son said something I never thought I'd hear from him: 'I think those people are nice' and 'I think I can go there again.' My son is full of intensities that are hard to understand, and there he found people who were accepting of him," explains Kenyon.

Kenyon's experience highlights the difficulties that many parents of gifted children face in raising their children – that understanding the needs of highly intelligent children isn't easy, and there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach.

Understanding the 'gifted' label

What does it mean to be "gifted"? While the question at first appears simple, there's no one answer. Morse, who's helmed Steppingstone for 31 years, says, "The definition of 'gifted' came originally from individually administered IQ tests, such as the Wechsler, where it was defined as one standard deviation from the top, or the top 2.5 percent. The lower boundary was an IQ of 130."

The National Association for Gifted Children, or NAGC, offers, "Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains." And yet NAGC points out that the definition is fluid: "Even within schools, you will find a range of personal beliefs about the word 'gifted,' which has become a term with multiple meanings and much nuance."

The NAGC estimates that 6 percent of the total school population (grades K-12) is academically gifted. Here in Michigan, the NAGC reports that 58,090 children were identified as gifted for the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year in which data is available. But there's no agreed-upon definition of giftedness for the state, nor any mandates to identify gifted children – so those figures may be misleading.

Syncing with gifted children

Marcy Sznewajs suspected that her oldest son, Lucas, was gifted when he was just a toddler. At 18 months, her son could recite the alphabet and would do math problems for fun. "For me, recognizing his abilities was not so much a point of pride; it was more, 'Now what should we do?'"

It's a question many parents of gifted children ask, since their children don't tend to develop as most children do – with their physical, emotional and intellectual abilities happening at a regular, even pace.

Gifted children experience what's called "asynchronous development," or out of sync. So a gifted child may have amazing skills in math and yet struggle with reading. Still, there's a perception – and expectation – that if a child is gifted, he or she will be advanced in all areas of academic and emotional development.

This out-of-sync development can lead to frustrations for the gifted children. For example, a gifted 6-year-old may be able to perform trigonometry with ease and yet struggle to understand why his motor skills aren't as advanced as his math abilities.

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