Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"All kids are gifted; some just open their packages earlier than others"

That great quote by Michael Carr brings to mind a story. One of my children got his first tooth quite early, compared to his peers. We knew he was dentally gifted. We made sure he tested into the top dentists, we surrounded him with other dentally precocious children, and we gave him a special diet that would encourage his gift to grow further and faster. I also got a bumper sticker for my car to advertise his advanced toothiness.

All right, that's not true, but it is what I think of on the topic of giftedness. Any time someone talks about their child being gifted, I want to ask them "in what area is your child an early learner?" Giftedness is such an inadequate and highly charged word. It seems to imply that a certain group of children are blessed with an all-encompassing, ever-advanced intelligence while the rest of the population is hopelessly average or worse.

Some kids learn to read quite quickly but have no aptitude for math. Others are great at understanding patterns, but are verbally behind their peers. I know many little boys who have an early propensity for dinosaurs - they know the names and habits of every dinosaur known to man, yet they are socially or physically awkward. The term giftedness does not adequately describe a child's singular area of proficiency, but instead tends to confer a blanket of superiority around the child, leaving others in the cold.

Does early achievement really mean permanent giftedness? Well, what if you do have a child who is an early reader? By, say, 6th Grade, does that child actually read any better than the child who learned to read a year or two later? At age 10, can you tell which child learned to talk or walk earlier than the others? Just like those that are dentally gifted, a head start in a particular area of growth and development does not necessarily make for an enduring advantage. By the same token, a delayed start does not equate to mental inferiority. Albert Einstein is a great example of that. Not only would he not have been in the Highly Gifted and Talented Program as a young student, he would likely have had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to help him up to average.

And what about the theory of multiple intelligences? Does giftedness take into account a particularly athletic girl if she horrible at algebra? Does giftedness include the musically talented boy who is an awful speller and grammatically delayed? Is a child with advanced social skills less gifted than a child who can read a Harry Potter book at age seven?

It is natural for parents to notice and take pride in each of the developmental milestones our children achieve. We are supposed to marvel at them and cheer them on, but we should stop short at pressuring them too hard or setting them on a pedestal above others. I overheard a woman talking to the head of our pre-school as she complained how hard the Highly Gifted and Talented test was. She had had her son take the test three times and he failed to qualify each time. I have to believe that is damaging to the child in some way. Why is it so important to her to have the title of giftedness for her child?

It is the job of every parent and educator to recognize the strengths that lie in every child and to facilitate further development in those areas. How would it be if we honored all learning differences in every subject, whether they were advanced or delayed, kinesthetic or auditory, etc.? All children should have an IEP custom-made according to their strengths and learning styles! What if we treated all children as gifted and we optimized the education of each child according to his specific gifts? Our schools and communities would be stronger if we were to recognize and grow the gifts that each child possesses to everyone's benefit.

Just like on their birthdays, I look forward to seeing what gifts my children got and how they will use them!


  1. So beautifully considered and written! Our daughter, now 19, is highly spirited, very creative and intelligent, and didn't learn well in any kind of school -- we tried a lot of them, including Montessori, small private, all girls private, and of course public. She dropped out of school at age 16 (almost on her birthday - the earliest the state of Massachusetts would allow it). She is still taking life on in huge chunks and is definitely learning about life - she has an awareness it took me until mid life to acquire. At times her exploration can be hard on her dad and me, but we always "have her back" (whether she's consciously aware of it or not) and we continue to cheer her on. Fortunately, our experience has shown us both that life is often a far better teacher than anything structured by "someone else".

    So I love your idea of a custom-made IEP for each child, and I'd like to add that it has to be custom-made at each moment. I think that in large part how they develop their gifts depends on how well they're guided, and whether or not we loosen our grip just enough to let them find their way.

  2. Thanks for this! Gifted children are disadvantaged too-that superiority complex you mention can be hard to live up to. It's hard to overcome as you grow into yourself! Poor rich kids in a way, I guess.

  3. Po Bronson has a good chapter on this in "Nurture Shock" called "The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten" debunking the notion that gifted kids can be correctly identified as early as age 4. Seems like common sense to me that kids develop at different rates, but I'm sure a lot of people buy into labeling their kids at early ages. I tell my kids, "never peak too early...the best is yet to come."

  4. I agree completely :) My mother explained to me that GT kids have parents who test well, or at least know the system, and care to be a part of it. I learned to read at age 9. Now you can't get a book out of my hands and I'm part of 4 book clubs, plus I got my degree in Spanish Lit. (yeah, I can read in several languages ;)

    I wouldn't and haven't had my school aged children tested for GT. They are doing great in the "regular" class, learning with "regular" kids. Another thing my mom said was They don't ask you when you potty trained (or got your first tooth, or learned to read) when you apply for college, so don't worry if you're a late bloomer.

    By the way, I enjoyed all the other personal comments!

  5. I loved these thoughtful comments! I liked the angle of the burden on the "gifted" kids. Another reader wrote to me and mentioned "Nurture Shock", saying, ""The book NutureShock sites some very interesting studies on this topic - that repeatedly labeling a child as "smart" or "gifted" often leads the child to do worse educationally because they don't want to take risks for fear of failure. That tests for giftedness that public and private schools use miss something like 83% of "gifted" children because they're used at too young an age. And of the children that do make it in, somethingl like only 20% of them still qualify in 5th grade. Really interesting stuff..."

  6. Who ever said that early reading/learning is the definition of giftedness? Drawing the conclusion that giftedness doesn't exist because "somebody's" definition is wrong is just as wrong.
    Do a little research into the neurology of giftedness, or spend some time with truly gifted kids...I think you may learn something!
    Great day to you :)

  7. Since these same kids are more likely to drop out of school, have drug problems and suffer from depression, it is certainly is not a nice "gift".

    Moreover, children that have higher IQs can suffer from some pretty bad downsides including very severe sensitivities, called Dabrowski's Overexcitibiities. Faster brain function may help solve higher level thinking problems (which does not necessarily correlate to doing well at structured school work!) but in turn can cause clothes to hurt, and it being exceptionally painful to even put a brush in their hair. The brain was not made to go to school, and having a high IQ does NOT mean that you do well in school.

    Lastly, high IQ's don't correlate to success, so get over it. These children should be able to access understanding not just ignorance.

  8. You really haven't understood what having a gifted child is about at all. It's nothing like what you are saying in your article and you do a great disservice to those parents who are struggling to help their gifted children grow up happy and fulfilled, the absolute right of any child I would say, not only those who fit neatly into the school systems.

  9. While I completely agree with you regarding the gross inadequacies of the word "gifted", sadly, your post reinforces some of the oft-held and unfortunate misunderstandings about kids we identify by that label for lack of a better word.

    A child who is wired differently and in some cases, operating as many standard deviations away from the norm as a developmentally challenged child, is not served by the attitudes and beliefs you are promoting here.

    Most of the parents of the gifted kids I know are working hard to raise happy, self-confident children who are able to use their gifts, thrive and become contributive adults. Achieving this task is a compelling and sometimes challenging task and dealing with misconceptions about giftedness does not serve us, our kids, or anyone.

    By identifying a child as gifted takes none thing away from you or your children. Of course all kids are gifts and have their specialness. I've often that the the word gifted would be best replaced by "intellectually precocious" or even more specific descriptors.

    I greatly appreciated Suki Wessling's response to your post at:

  10. How disappointing to find another teacher who doesn't understand giftedness in kids or adults. It is not something to be jealous about, to critique or complain about any more than Autism or Down's Syndrome. I think you are very uneducated on the topic of highly gifted children.

    I do like the idea of unique and specialized IEPs for every child. ALL children learn differently and at their own pace. Education should provide individualized attention that allows each child to grow into his/her potential.

    I have a profoundly gifted child. My life is nothing like you describe, nor like that in Nurtureshock. It is exhausting, exhilarating and full of constant advocacy. It is not his fault that he is FIVE years above grade level by the sheer nature of his brain. He should not be punished by having to wait for others to catch up just because it all comes out "even" in the end. He has been mocked, ridiculed and harassed by teachers who ask him if he ever sleeps, if his mommy makes him read books all night and has horrible comments made like "You're not as smart as me, I'm the teacher." A teacher with an unwillingness to understand and a fear of the unknown is more damaging than any test someone may take.

  11. Sounds exactly like something my seven year old daughter's teacher would write. She would rather have my daughter sit there "learning to read" instead of recognizing and challenging her and her ability to read post high school literature. It's easier to have her "learn to add and subtract" out of the textbook instead of giving her 4th grade math becasue she has already matered the curriculum for the next two years. It's just easier to ignore the kids who don't fit into any boxes. It's easier to teach the "standards" out of the textbook.

  12. Please do some research- try the SENG website for a start.

  13. Gifted is not related to early achievement. Gifted has to do with innate ability to learn. I guess if you do not think there are gifted students you must also deny that there are special education students.
    One lies at the far left of the bell curve the other at the far right. Sorry to disappoint you but gifted children are different and not because they read early.

  14. I respectfully disagree with pretty much everything you've written. As an example, just check out a biography of Einstein or even the wikipedia entry on him. He started studying seminal works in mathematics and philosophy when he was ten. This was hardly what I'd call below average and in need of an IEP!

    Cognitive giftedness is a very real thing: there are people who teach themselves to read when they're two. Others learn when they're three or four. Many of these kids have an intuitive grasp of mathematics at a similarly early age. Some gifted students start reading later, but advance by multiple grade levels in a year or less.

    These people love learning from the earliest age. Far from being pushed by their parents, they absorb knowledge and ideas because they LIKE to. They think differently from most other people and they learn differently from most other people. This is a fact.

    No one would ever say that "all people are athletically gifted". Everyone accepts that some people are just better at running or jumping than others. Why is this so hard with people who are smarter?

  15. Please be educated on this topic before you post an ignorance comment. Giftedness is not a label for proud parents of early achiever. Gifted kids' brain wired differently. THey learn and think differently.

  16. I doubt anyone would say a child with a severe or profound disability should be denied an appropriate education. Children with IQ's above
    145 are now considered profoundly gifted due to changes in the most commonly used tests. These
    children are as different from a child in the normal range as a child with an IQ in the Trainable developmentally delayed range.

    Every child deserves a school situation that is
    at least somewhat appropriate for their level.
    Children with high IQ's are not better just different and deserve an education that fits their needs.

  17. In my experience when a label is used to describe something very specific, without deviations, like Type 1 Diabetes, it is helpful for understanding and identifying treatment. When labels are used to inadequately describe a condition with many deviations, it is not only unhelpful, but it causes a fire store of indignation on both sides.

    My problem with the term "giftedness" is that it is inadequate and therefore misused and misunderstood. Intellect, just like athleticism is a spectrum. What is the cut off for "giftedness" in either category? Who is to say? Giftedness ignores too many things for me to embrace it. It ignores the spectrum, it ignores the pace of learning, it ignores the specific talents (math, mechanical, athletic, etc.), and it ignores the gifts that everyone has.

    I stand by my example of Albert Einstein. He was thought to be nearly mentally retarded for much of his early education. He clearly was a person who was not served well in a conventional school because of his pace of learning (late) and his precociousness later. In my mind, his needs should have been met at all points in his development.

    As I mentioned, I don't think early achievement equates to giftedness, but I know many parents who do. That is my point - it is unclear and misunderstood. I am all for more descriptive language around this. When I see an exceptional musician, a brilliant mathematician, or an outstanding basketball player I see their talents quite clearly without any reservation or feelings of inadequacy.

    Just because I disagree with the term giftedness as do many others, do not assume we are not educated. There is a multitude of literature written by highly specialized, educated people that run the gamut on viewpoints of giftedness. One author that stands out for me on this subject is Dr. Mel Levine. While I don't agree with everything the man has said and done, I do resonate with his views on giftedness and IQ, on the use of labels, and in finding the innate strengths that every kid possesses and building upon them.

    I am advocating for every child. Every child should have an education that is customized to his or her particular needs and talents. If that child is well below or well above the average, it really shouldn't matter. He should get what he needs to continue to grow. An Individualized Education Plan should not be just for one group, it should be for all children because they are all different and on every point of the spectrum. What is the harm in that viewpoint? Why does that alienate some?

  18. Hi Tracy,

    You said "my problem with the term "giftedness" is that it is inadequate and therefore misused and misunderstood."

    Every label has it's limitations; dyslexia, diabetes and giftedness, are, like all simplified words for a complex experience, vulnerable to misinterpretation. I suspect that so many people who have expressed distress above because you've spent energy adding to that problem, rather than repairing it.

    You use the terms "exceptional musician, a brilliant mathematician, [and] an outstanding basketball player" but please, what is the cutoff or the criteria for your use of these terms, which are, like all human experiences, on a continuum? Honestly, in this regard, I don't see how calling someone an "exceptional musician" is different from calling a child "intellectually gifted".

    It's true the "intellectual" is often dropped because we live in anti-intellectual society; sadly children who are different in this regard are expected to hide it because it might make someone else feel that their own special gifts are less-than.

    To your point about advocating for every child, who could ever disagree with that? Of course, every child deserves to have his needs and abilities addresses and supported. The reason so many of us feel the need to advocate for the "intellectually gifted child", the "quick learner", the "asyncronistic child whose learning range spans 6, 8 or 10 years", the "kid who is intellectually 3 standard deviations away from the norm", the "child whose is emotionally like his peers but has a vocabulary and humor they don't understand and so is ostracized by them", the "child who intimates his teacher" etc etc is because these are, contrary to popular opinion, the kids we are leaving behind. Our culture already teaches to the mid-range (granted I'd argue as you seem to be doing, that we are not doing even that very well) and we have no problems talking about and funding kids with learning and physical disabilities. It seems to many of the parents I know, that it's the kids on the intellectually high side of the variation that are ignored and expected to be fine with inadequate and inappropriate support for their gifts.

    I will argue passionately with you on the point that the field of study of giftedness and the people who are up-close-and-personal with it ignore too much to embrace. On the contrary, there is a vast network of intelligent and committed parents, educators and specialists who understand the complexity and beauty of this particular grouping of learners. Sadly it is your post about giftedness, and others like it, that ignores too many elements for me to embrace and which undermines the possibility of meeting every child's need.

  19. You said, "I am advocating for every child. Every child should have an education that is customized to his or her particular needs and talents. [snip] What is the harm in that viewpoint? Why does that alienate some?"

    The harm is that it won't happen. Nowhere in the real world will every child have a custom-made curriculum. So, in fact, what you are proposing (were it to be implemented in the real world) would result in more ignorance of the needs of the gifted.

  20. I don't say you see giftedness in areas of athletics, etc "without any reservations or feeling of inadequacy," even though they aren't specified as to place in a spectrum. Yet, using the term "gifted" when referring to intellect bothers you? Why the difference?

  21. It's not that your idea about IEP's is the issue. I think people are reacting to two critical flaws in your argument. First, I think most would agree that the mom testing her child repeatedly to get a label points to her issues, not her child's needs. But parents of what i think of as the brilliant outside the box are are NOT this parent, generally. Indeed, many of us start this journey looking for help for a "special needs child", not their gifted one. Many are quite shocked, as I was, when the testing revealed an IQ that is off the charts--big time. Understanding how this immature little body is reacting to that kind of difference in every area of their development is really hard. So parents don't appreciate being categorized in this way. A better example is the parent who realizes that she MUST homeschool, because her child's mental health and emotional wellbeing are at stake, and how lonely and hard that choice can be-and how wonderful. Second, you imply that parents enjoy all this attention and take credit for it. I've met those folks too. They don't get it, either. They have HIGH ACHIEVERS. Children with profound gifts face all kinds of challenges,
    Some children may learn to play violin early, others later--but most can never be Itzak Perlman. Should a child who intuitively understands how to write music have to practice music scales for years before she can move to what inspires and drives her? What we find at many schools is teachers who are deeply resentful of our kids and their needs--who put them in charge of tutoring their peers, rather than differentiating their instruction, or who push them into special education to get them out of the general ed classes where their sensitivities, problems finding peers, and difference puts an target on their backs. I work in special education advocating for children with disabilities. I understand what you are saying about all kids having strengths. But there is a deep, cultural resentment of quirky, outside the box learners. Here's an example: My 12 year old received a D on his drawing of a chicken wing (lousy fine motor skills and lack of interest)on the same day he learned that the Linnux was using his proposed fix for a softward problem
    in its latest update (they have no idea he is 12), and an instructor at Stanford's gifted program wrote that he his programming expertise was such that she expected he would be one of the brightest programmers of his age. I have never tutored him, and am hopeless with computers. And I've always been a single parent. Yet his teacher felt the need to shame him publiclyaobut how childlike his handwriting was. That is what we are responding to.

  22. Tracy, you have a point that the word "gifted" can be misused and misunderstood, but I don't see how you are helping to clarify anything by trotting out tired examples of pushy parents and over-prepped kids. It is simply a fact that some children learn faster, learn more, and learn earlier than others because they have extra-ordinary cognitive strengths. If giftedness doesn't exist in children then it must follow that there are no gifted adults. Do you really not know *anyone* who is smarter than you are? I know many adults who are very gifted indeed, and yes, their parents and teachers were quite aware how different they were at an early age.

    And as for the Albert Einstein anecdote, it is canard which cannot be retired too soon. He was asked to leave nursery school because his teacher said he was too much of a dreamer and didn't pay attention to instructions, and his mother considered him to be a late talker. Nobody thought he was retarded or anything like that. By the way, as a teacher you should know that not all children with IEPs have cognitive disabilities, anyway.

    The dangers of labeling/mislabeling children and the harm an inappropriate education can do are important topics. I just don't see how understanding is advanced by misrepresenting and even denying the existence of a whole set of children who also have educational needs.

  23. I wholeheartedly agree with you that every child should have an IEP, however you then said, "What if we treated all children as gifted and we optimized the education of each child according to his specific gifts?" It is a beautiful sentence that is currently totally opposite what is happening in schools. A more appropriate and fitting way to phrase that would have been, "What if we treated all children as developmentally challenged and optimized the education of each child according to their specific challenges and gifts?" In most places it is only the children with developmental challenges that get IEPs or any adjustment to their academic life.

    This is what so many parents of children who are just as removed from the norm but in the other direction are spending so much time and effort advocating with their childrens' schools about. I am not talking about parents who push thier children to learn, push them into programs that they should not be in, or "make" them smart. I am talking about parents like myself and many that I have met on message boards from around the United States and the world who are raising children with needs JUST as special as children who test in the developmentally delayed range.

    It is not about being better, or living through our children, it is about finding a way to meet their needs. Just as a child who doesn't learn to read till they are 10 needs support in school, so does a child who is reading Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea before they hit Kindergarten age. Imagine for just a second what a Kindergarten classroom would be like for this child: learning letter sounds, learning to count to ten, possible starting early readers. Imagine YOUR mind in the body of this child. How long would it take you before you tuned out or started to misbehave due to sheer lack of anything that came even close to challenging you? This is what these parents are trying so hard to prevent.

    I live with a barely five year old who has the intellectual capacity of at least an eight year old probably higher, some parents live with three year olds who have the thought processes and reasoning skills of teenagers or adults. My five year old is still learning to pedal a bike and can't tie his shoes yet. He has age appropriate physical and emotional development. It is asyncronous development like this that these children and their parents have to deal with.

    I believe that you want the same thing most of us do, for all children to have the chance to learn at the rate that suits them. I personally feel that your original comments were poorly phrased if that was your goal and you were not trying to upset parents who have to deal with misunderstandings like these every day.


  24. Why does that alienate some?”

    I'm going to try to answer this question.

    "What is the cutoff for giftedness in either category?"

    IQ can be measured and quantified (just like running or jumping). "Giftedness" is defined as an IQ that's 2 standard deviations above the average (or, 2% of the population/6 million Americans). People with IQs 3 standard deviations above the mean (an IQ of 145) are 0.1% of the population or 300,000 Americans. That's a lot of people when you look at sheer numbers.

    I know that IQ tests aren't perfect, but they're pretty good. Racial biases were removed a long time ago, and there are many different kinds of tests that all have different ways of measuring the same basic things: how fast can you process information and react to it? How good is your memory? How well can you solve a problem? Etc. etc. There is an extremely strong correlation between high IQ and ability to learn fast, apply knowledge, and retain information for a long time.

    People with IQs over 130 think differently from the rest of the population. If you prefer a term less vague than "gifted," try "neurologically atypical" or "cognitively atypical" or something else. The name you use doesn't change the fact that the brains of people with an IQ over 130 are just different.

    This is reality, and telling people who aren’t gifted at something that they are gifted is unfair. It’s unfair to the ones who really do have an exceptional talent, but it’s most unfair to the child who mistakenly believes he has a talent that he doesn’t. That child is in for a very harsh awakening. In fact, I actually think it’s cruel to tell someone he has a gift for learning/sports/art/whatever when he doesn’t.

    I am NOT saying that we can’t challenge everyone to push their limits and discover hidden talents.

    What I’m saying is that kids with IQs over 115, and more so for kids with IQs over 130…and 145…are the ones who MOST need the IEPs that they aren’t allowed to have, because their abilities are the MOST different. Schools designed for average learners abandon these kids, just as schools used to abandon kids with disabilities. The problem goes beyond the schools, as some of the meaner comments here have shown (“superiority complexes,” “it is certainly not a nice ‘gift’”). Many teachers and others accuse parents of gifted kids of “pushing” their kids when the reality is that these kids JUST WANT TO LEARN. Why does THIS alienate some??

    Bottom line: some people learn in a way that’s **very different** from almost everyone else. These people learn very fast, and as kids, they aren’t allowed to struggle/be challgned in school. Most of our schools (and your blog post) refuse to recognize this fact.

    THAT’S why some of the people here are reacting the way they are.

  25. I think your arguments and feelings about the word "gifted" are rehashed. Most everyone knows the term is not perfect, but no one has yet to come up with a better one that is easily adopted, easily used, and conveys all we want it to. While the search for such a term continues, experts in gifted education have been working to define the term. There may be confusion, myth, misunderstanding and bias in the general population, but in the gifted education community, it is used and understood despite its complexity and imperfection.

    In response to your question about other's comments, I can say that in places, it is hard to discern whether you yourself hold an opinion, or if you disagree with the commonly perpetuated myth you are identifying. Part of that difficulty is because you do not clearly counter the myths you identify. Again, in some places you do, but not all. There are also conflicting statements such as early achievement does not equal giftednes, but you also say 'Any time someone talks about their child being gifted, I want to ask them "in what area is your child an early learner?""

    In your comment below your post, you say "Giftedness ignores too many things for me to embrace it. It ignores the spectrum, it ignores the pace of learning." Both of these statements are untrue. Giftedness is the broad generic term, much like "learning disabled", but within that there are further definitions available. Much of the current discussions and research about giftedness addresses the pace of learning.

  26. I very much appreciate the comments from everyone. There was only one that was too hostile to publish. Although my original post didn't properly convey where I stand on giftedness, it may surprise many that we seem to be in agreement on many topics related to this. I think we agree that giftedness does not necessarily equate to an early learner, though it certainly can be a sign of permanent, off-the charts advanced abilities. My aim was to substitute one developmental milestone for another (teeth for reading) to illustrate that point. I know a lot of people who that early learning is giftedness, and as some readers pointed out, these kids are quite damaged when that head start does not carry forward for all of their education.

    I do not think that parents of exceptionally advanced children are pushy, though the one in my example is misguided I think. You cannot push your child into reading 1000 Leagues Under the Sea before Kindergarten or coming up with a Linnux solution at 12. Those things just happen and they should be encouraged at every turn.

    I think we all agree on the fact that ALL kids should be given what they need whether they are well advanced of the average kid or well below them. I feel that the conventional public schools with their typically huge class sizes and non-specialized training are terribly ill-equipped to deal with those outside the norm. I feel tremendously for any child who doesn't get his needs met in this paradigm, hence my idea for every single kid getting an IEP. Doing so would help to eliminate anyone getting ignored and could possibly prevent any kid from feeling freakish or abnormal.

    I would be happy to have a written conversation or interview with someone on this topic for another posting. If giftedness suffers from bad PR, misunderstanding, and misuse, what better way to get the word out and create clarity and support for it? I have asked Suki Wessling to do it.

  27. Thank you for so open-mindedly acknowledging the limitations in your original posting, which was distressing to so many of us who spend endless hours and much energy on behalf of gifted children.

  28. Thanks again to everyone who posted comments to this post. Through it, I met and talked to Suki Wessling, a parent of a gifted child. We had a great conversation and decided to publish it. Please see today's posting on this subject, titled "Schooled in Giftedness - An Apology, An Interview, An Alliance."

  29. It`s interesting that those who are artistically, musically or athletically gifted are celebrated as such, and yet when it comes to cognitive function, such controversy exists. Maybe the behavioural psychologists should weigh in on this one ;)