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Parents must advocate for a gifted child

We've all met a few of them: The 3-year-old who orders off the menu. The 4-year-old who can name all the states and their capitols. The 2-year-old who can add and subtract, and the kindergartener whose vocabulary is so advanced you'd like to elect him senator.

We call them "gifted," though some educators prefer the label "highly capable."

Terminology aside, we're talking about very bright children who typically score 130 or above in IQ tests -- placing them in the top 2-3 percent of the population.

If your child is one of these kids, chances are you already know. "Parents can usually recognize if their child is advanced in some way -- with vocabulary, for example, or with numbers," says Nancy Robinson, Ph.D., professor emerita at the University of Washington and former director of the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars. "And parents are generally right about their children; they can trust their gut instincts."

Parents might notice their child is unusually good at jigsaw puzzles and has an excellent memory. Or they may discover their child is exceptionally creative.

Gifted children also posses excellent memories and problem-solving abilities, long attention spans, remarkable curiosity, a great sense of humor and the ability to learn quickly, according to the "Characteristics of Giftedness" scale developed by Linda Kreger Silverman, who directs the Gifted Development Center in Denver, Colorado.

Often, gifted children have different emotional needs than other youngsters, says Wilder Dominick, head of The Open Window School in Bellevue. "They are much more sensitive and perfectionistic; there's an inflexibility about their thinking; it may be hard for them to see other points of view."

Let's say you've concluded your child's gifted. Now what?

For starters, relax, advises Dr. Gail Rosenberg, an Eastside psychologist. "Most parents are very anxious about providing the ideal experience if they have a child who is gifted in one or more ways," she says. "Even if you don't provide the exact right amount of stimulation, your children will do fine. You have to be a good-enough parent, not a perfect parent."

Should you have your child tested? Yes -- if there's a reason for it, such as applying to school, Robinson says. "Otherwise, wait until it serves a purpose. Don't test for testing sake; it's useless and expensive."

In the meantime, immerse your child in activities, books and interests that promote investigation and imagination, suggests Michael Murphy, Seattle Country Day School head. "Instead of an easy puzzle, find hands-on pursuits in which kids can explore creating and designing their own projects," Murphy says. "These kinds of things allow for divergent thinking."

When it comes time for kindergarten, select your child's academic environment with great care. "People often assume that a child who is gifted will succeed anywhere," Dominick says. "This is not true. Gifted children have a set of needs that are very difficult to meet -- and are very complex."

Robinson agrees. "The bright kids won't do fine on their own; they'll rev down their motors and go along with the flow. Some will become discouraged and depressed."

That's why parents should seek an educational program that fuels their child's curiosity and encourages discovery and high-level thinking, Dominick advises. "Bright kids don't need as much time on drill and practice. They think outside the box and synthesize ideas. If things are too predictable, these kids will lose engagement."

It's important that highly capable children don't feel different or marginalized, Dominick says. "They should be surrounded with other kids who think at the same level of complexity they do."

Parents seeking independent schools that serve gifted children have many options in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Seattle Country Day School, The Open Window School, The Evergreen School and University Child Development School in Seattle all offer programs for academically capable children, as does the Seabury School in Tacoma.

Public school options for gifted students vary. Seattle Public Schools, for example, offers three programs: the Accelerated Progress Program (APP) for highly gifted children; Spectrum for those testing in the 90-plus percentile range; and an accelerated curriculum for students whom teachers identify as eligible.

Mercer Island schools implemented a gifted program this year for grades 3 and 4 -- they'll add grade 5 next fall -- and the Bellevue School Distinct features the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program for grades 1-8.

If a child has no access to a specially designed program, parents should request a private conference with their child's teacher, Robinson suggests. Then ask the teacher to try something new and innovative. Could this first-grade child do math with the second graders? Could he be excused from reading so he could work on another project?

Parents, Robinson says, must act as their child's advocates. "Teachers are overwhelmed. Even though they have your child's interest at heart, your child could fall through the cracks," she says. "Parents should come up with ideas that might be helpful in meeting their child's needs."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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