“The perception is that if a child is excelling they can be left alone."
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When he was 18 months old, Lorenzo Spaccerelli’s pediatrician asked his mother, Kathrin, if he knew 10 or 12 words and she laughed because the boy knew hundreds.
Later, when he started at a preschool in their town, a suburb of Portland, Lorenzo thumbed through the few non-picture books in the classroom. The teacher tried to deflect him to the picture books, thinking they would be more helpful in spurring his reading skills. “We had to tell her to let him read whatever damn books he wanted,” Kathrin recalls.
When Lorenzo was in fifth grade, the family look a vacation and he memorized the geography of Southeastern Asia before they arrived in the region. Soon after, he began designing websites for his family’s businesses, selling Italian cookware and roasted coffee. At 12, he scored 1430 (out of 1600) on the SATs and 32 (out of 36) on the ACTs.
It’s a blessing, Kathrin says, but she and her husband have had to fight for and scrape together educational opportunities to keep Lorenzo, now 14, occupied and engaged since that intervention about picture books. They sought online writing tutors and had him test into MENSA so he could attend summer programs for academically accelerated children. (He’s attended programs at Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Northwestern.)
After they determined—in fifth grade—that there was no longer anything his school could teach him, the Spaccerellis combined home-schooling, online tutoring, and classes at community college. They’re now preparing for Lorenzo to enroll full-time in a university when he’s 16, with a number of college credits already completed.
“It’s continually overwhelming,” Kathrin says. “You’re constantly on the lookout for opportunities because he burns through them so quickly.”
Parents of gifted children must advocate and fret over their children’s education as vigorously and continually as the parents of kids who are developmentally disabled. That’s the opinion of David Lubinski, a professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University who helped lead a 25-year study of children who tested in the top 0.1 percent of reasoning ability, tracing them from age 13 to 38.
Gifted kids are as far from the norm as special-needs students, Lubinski says. But there are few support groups for the parents of advanced children, he says, and fewer federal protections that they get an education suited for their intellectual capacity. Their parents also face anxiety to maximize their children’s potential while ensuring they don’t crack under pressure or lose the pleasures of a normal childhood.
However, if parents and educators are engaging gifted children on the terms of their giftedness, that means they are doing something right. Lubinski says that, in the past, intellectually promising kids had not gotten the consideration they needed because their very status seems to say everything is fine and can continue as-is. “The perception is that if a child is excelling that child can be left alone,” Lubinski says. “There’s a common belief that gifted kids can make it on their own, which means they are often the last to be addressed by the school system.”
As one 2004 report from the National Association of Gifted Children concluded, “In most school districts, a four-year-old who reads ﬂuently, who is already counting, and who is socially mature and ready to leave his parents for the day, is typically prohibited from starting school.” “TAG” (“talented and gifted”) programs typically don’t begin until third grade. And middle-schoolers who do well on SAT and ACT tests, “can absorb a whole year’s worth of high school in three weeks.” This leaves the precocious young learner with few suitable educational opportunities in schools designed for the masses and on a collision coarse with boredom and frustration.
The report authors recommend accelerating gifted children, allowing them to “skip” grades to get them out of that learning environment and into college as soon as possible (a solution that costs the school district nothing, the report notes). They remark that several historic figures— including T. S. Eliot, W.E.B. DuBois, Sandra Day O’Connor, Martin Luther King, and DNA co-discoverer James Watson—graduated high school early.
For many parents navigating educational opportunities for gifted children, the terrain is familiar: Intelligence is hereditary. Lubinski says his study revealed a moderate correlation between a parent having been dubbed “gifted” and a child receiving the same designation. Because—as the study also found—early academic achievers are more likely to earn advanced degrees and move ahead in professional settings. Gifted kids have a high likelihood of being born into a home with the monetary resources for music lessons, science camp and other education outside the local public school.
The intellectually promising students of poor and disadvantaged parents are another matter. “These are the kids who suffer the most,” Lubinski says. There’s not much data on them because school systems might be ill-equipped to find and acknowledge them. He adds that university-based programs for gifted youth—like the ones Lorenzo Spaccerelli spent summers attending— have been obsessed with scholarships and fundraising to increase their access.
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A 2014 study from Brunel University in London attempted to quantify the attitudes of low-socioeconomic parents whose children were lifted into gifted programs through a series of early 21st century education reforms in the UK. All “felt very positive about their children’s attendance,” the report says. The key benefits included self-esteem and a sense of identity as an achiever for the child.
These parents felt an increased distrust of their neighborhoods and worry that local peers would negatively influence their high achiever. It might not seem fair if the girl next door doesn’t spend evenings answering advanced algebra problems.
“She went through this phase of she doesn’t have to necessarily study because some of her friends don't study,” one parent said in the report. “There’s a lot of movies out there that everyone wants to watch and her friends want her to go out and watch and there’s a lot of things—clubbing and all that stuff—they want her to do but it doesn’t really help them.”
Parents might feel a need to adjust or intensify their approach to shepherd their kid to Harvard or Oxford if the possibility presents itself. There’s no consensus among researchers on how best to steer gifted kids into happy and productive adulthoods, says Vassiliki Pilarinos, a psychologist in child development at the University of Montreal.
A 2016 study Pilarinos co-authored tried to measure the impact of three parenting styles on gifted kids, ages 7 to 11: authoritarian (clear commands to and goals for children with little or no back-and-forth), authoritative (expectations and regiment but also dialogue between parent and child), and permissive (parents stated no or minimal expectations). An authoritative approach generally correlated with better performance and self-image, for both gifted kids and a control group of academically average children. An authoritative approach among mothers was the only type of parenting that specifically seemed to improve the performance and self-image of gifted kids. It’s not much to go on, Pilarinos says, if you’re a parent looking for practical advice.
And another crucial question among researchers remains unanswered: Do intellectually advanced kids suffer negative mental health effects, due to pressure, or being dubbed different from peers, or the constraining nature of average schools? “There are different studies,” says Pilarinos. “Most point to them adjusting very well. There is conflicting evidence, though.”
Jared Miracle, a Virginia-based therapist who works with young adults, says that gifted designations can lead to a host of issues. These include a feeling of isolation from age peers, an arrogance that can block out the helpful advice of teachers and mentors, and both superiority and inferiority issues (superiority to average people and inferiority to whomever scores higher on a test).
“[P]ressure to perform…has its own issues,” Miracle says, “but I’m more worried about how being told that ‘you're a wizard, Harry,’ leads kids to create unhealthy self-images. They're so inundated by stories in which life is only meaningful when an individual is specially ordained.” He says it’s important for parents to impart that it’s okay for kids to make mistakes and this won’t lead to them being downgraded from a coveted gifted status.
One mother I spoke with, Sara Balthazor, says that she is in a constant fight to prevent her daughter, nine-year-old Hazel, from self-sabotaging. “She was reading well by age three and half,” Balthazor recalls. Teachers at her Montessori preschool tested her and found she was in the top one percentile. After that, Hazel declared, “I am never reading again because I am afraid of making a mistake.” When Sara read books with her afterwards, she feigned inability to recognize letters. “It used to be fun for her,” she says, “but when she got tested, it became a matter of performance anxiety.”
Hazel was used to doing things well and feared any test that would show she wasn’t performing perfectly. She enjoyed piano lessons, until the teacher began lessons on how to read sheet music. This felt like an exam, so she didn’t want to do it. At various points in her life, she tested in top one percentile in reading and top five in math, but when those tests were timed when she was older, Hazel’s scores drop below the 50s. “I had to ask for her to be tested again without a timer,” Sara says.
Still, Hazel has always shown an intellect that’s almost shaman-like. At five, she asked her parents how the planetary bodies interact in an eclipse and understood the explanation her father, an Air Force scientist, gave her. The same year, the family—who are atheist—drove by a church and Hazel declared, “I know what God is. God is bravery and goodness and I have bravery and goodness inside of me, so therefore I am God.” Theologians can debate the merits of this Alan Watts-like statement, but Sara was amazed by her five-year-old’s conceptual reasoning.
This same burning brain power apparently causes Hazel to express irrational fears about forest fires and poisoning. She’s in therapy for anxiety and attention deficit and oppositional defiant disorders. Sara says she struggles to explain to teachers that her daughter reads as well as most adults but might fall to the ground crying if asked to demonstrate this in the presence of a ticking clock.
She feels like she’s at a crossroads and her daughter will have to start demonstrating her intellect to be eligible for gifted programs. “My biggest fear is she will sabotage herself,” she says. “She’s not going to read. She’s not going to do piano. People won’t recognize what she is.”
Lubinski says that adjustment tends to be temporary for gifted children. “It’s not uncommon for them to have difficult years,” he says. Some of them feel out-of-place skipping a grade or under pressure in an advanced placement program.
But the overall outlook is bright. Of the 320 participants in the study Lubinksi completed, 203 went on to earn master’s degrees and 142 also earned doctorates. Some became software engineers, physicians, attorneys, and senior leaders at Fortune 500 companies. One was an advisor to a US President. “They all tend to be pretty happy individuals,” he adds.
A common mistake of teachers and parents, Lubinksi says, is to push such children into careers stereotyped for smart people, like engineering or government. “We need them in economics, in healthcare, in counterterrorism,” he says. “It’s important to tend to their individuality.”
He says that the intellectual capacity of bright kids is a resource that the country should cultivate, with public policy aimed extending opportunity to them. “You don’t want to look at them as commodities, but they have the potential to change cultures, to change industries,” he says. “These are the people who are best equipped to deal with the problems of the future as they unfold.”
Kathrin says she doesn’t know that Lorenzo’s career, or that of his ten-year-old brother, who has also tested highly, will look like. “I think about environmental science and online commerce and how things change,” she says. “I think their future will be in something we don’t even know about yet.”
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