Until my oldest child entered elementary school last fall, I was blissfully ignorant about giftedness and the extent to which it colors and affects a young child’s educational experience. My husband and I have always been amazed at our son’s busy brain and body, as well as exhausted by his limitless energy, boundless curiosity, and never-ending questions. But until recently, we didn’t grasp that many aspects of our son’s personality are markers of giftedness: an excellent memory, heightened alertness and surplus of energy, rapid learning abilities, intensity, curiosity, impulsiveness, and (unfortunately for us parents) a decreased need for sleep.
All of which has also led to challenges in the classroom that have made his kindergarten year a crash course that has sent us reeling. Within a few months of starting, we realized that our son learns very differently from his peers and needs additional challenges—outside the school’s standard curriculum—to stay happy and engaged. He attends a local public elementary school that is well-known in the area for its strong gifted program, in which identified students are grouped together in separate classrooms and receive accelerated and enriched instruction delivered by gifted-trained teachers. Unfortunately, the program is not available to students until third grade. So the last nine months have been a roller-coaster of joy, confusion, worry, sadness, gratitude, uncertainty, stress, and exhaustion, and have felt incredibly isolating at times.
A voracious reader, I plunged into books and internet offerings to educate myself on what it means to be “gifted” and how the term applied to a child may differ from “gifted education” in our country. I learned, for example, that there isn’t a universal definition, but the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) says that gifted adolescents are “those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in the top 10 percent or rarer) in one or more domains.” The Hoagie’s Gifted Education Page explains that they “have different educational needs, thanks to their unique intellectual development.” And NAGC echoes that these kids “need support and guidance to develop socially and emotionally, as well as in their areas of talent.” Regrettably, this combination doesn’t always occur in typical classrooms, and certainly not in a child’s critical first years of schooling. As the Davidson Academy, a unique school for profoundly gifted students in Reno, Nevada, underscores, “Gifted students are among the least understood, under-identified, and underserved population in schools.”
While most of the research I’ve devoured has been helpful in explaining gifted children and how best to raise and support them, nothing I found focused on the parent experience: what it means to be the parent of a gifted child, how to process the many emotions it causes, and how to find support and best weather the massive ups and downs that result.
That is, until I read a new book by clinical psychologist Dr. Gail Post, The Gifted Parenting Journey: A Guide to Self-Discovery and Support for Families of Gifted Children. It combines research and theory, covers parenting strategies, explains education options, and addresses parents’ experiences and the range of emotions they’re likely to feel. The book also includes findings from a survey of over 400 parents of gifted children that Dr. Post conducted in 2022, and (correctly) ends with a call for more research.
As she and other gifted scholars have long underscored, these children’s environment and education are critical components impacting whether they flourish and meet their full potential. “Gifted children thrive on challenge, the spark of invention, and the joy of progressing quickly—motivating them to persist and delve deeper,” Dr. Post writes. “This cycle of innate interest, proficiency, and further enrichment through challenging opportunities fuels growth... They suffer when their giftedness is not acknowledged.” Unfortunately, because these students are necessarily a small subset of total enrollment, their academic needs are rarely prioritized. She adds, “All children deserve a challenging education that meets their academic, developmental, and social-emotional needs. Gifted children deserve the same consideration as their neurotypical peers. Unfortunately, the burden of advocacy often falls on parents.”
That was not something I was expecting. Our home state, California, doesn’t have a legal definition of “gifted,” nor a state law or rule that mandates their identification. Neither does the state require specialized preparation of any kind for their teachers. All of this is left to the discretion of local school districts, charter schools, etc. This means that programs—when available at all—vary widely. And as noted above, many elementary school programs, such as ours, don’t begin until third or fourth grade, missing young learners’ critical first years of formal schooling.
And the stakes are high. As another gifted scholar, Tracy Inman, cautions, when gifted children aren’t challenged in school, “They are denied an opportunity to develop a sense of responsibility, decision-making and problem-solving skills, a strong work ethic, the strength to cope with failure, the self-worth derived from accomplishments, and a capacity for sacrifice.” They fail to fulfill their academic potential, as well as acquire self-regulation skills. I’ve seen first-hand how these students absolutely require additional challenges outside of the standard curriculum to keep them engaged. When they don’t get them, and when early elementary teachers lack any training in this realm, a gifted child’s emotional intensity and excitability can often be misunderstood as signs of emotional immaturity or misbehavior. They risk becoming bored, frustrated, or angry, and may begin to misbehave and act out at home or at school.
Over the past year, I’ve learned that you must advocate for your child, partnering with his or her teacher and principal if you’re able. No one else is going to do it for you. You’ve got to seek out information, support, and resources where you can find them. It may not be easy or comfortable, but we owe it to these unique, bright, and curious little brains. Many will be quick to peg you as just another pushy or over-involved parent, when in reality, most of us are just struggling to keep up with our child. No one asked to be a full-time advocate or ambassador for giftedness. It can feel overwhelming, daunting, and consuming, on top of all of the usual challenges associated with parenting.
Four things in particular have helped our family during this difficult time. The first is reading up on giftedness and parenting techniques, in particular The Gifted Parenting Journey, A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, and Understanding Your Gifted Child From the Inside Out. (I’ve written before about recommendations for engaging books for young gifted children). The second is finding and connecting with other parents, such as joining Facebook and advocacy groups in your district or state, which has helped us better fight for our son and eased feelings of isolation. Third has been attending webinars, conferences, and workshops on giftedness offered by organizations like the National Association for Gifted Children and Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted. A final option is to seek professional help for your child or yourself; the Davidson Institute has great suggestions for where to look.
As our son’s kindergarten year winds down, we remain in respectful communication with his teacher and district staff about how to continue increasing the rigor of his work while still keeping him in a class with his same-aged peers. I’ve also reached out to our school’s principal to ask how the school has historically accommodated children in his situation, so we have information about what the next few years might look like if we stay enrolled there. We are also touring other schools in our area to see if any might be a better fit for our son’s learning needs, including public charter schools, nature-based schools, schools focused on project-based learning, private schools, and even homeschooling options. Most importantly, outside of the classroom, we’re continuing our weekly visits to our local library, neighborhood parks, museums, and nearby nature centers and trails.
Being the parent of a gifted child poses many unique, life-long challenges that many other adults, educators, and parents won’t understand. But it’s also a massive, heart-swelling blessing. And the hard parts feel much easier when you realize how many good people and resources are out there to help you support your child and advocate for them, and ultimately to help them reach their full and wondrous potential.
Editor’s note: This was also published as an article in an edition of “Advance,” a newsletter from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute edited by Brandon Wright, our Editorial Director, and published every other week. Its purpose is to monitor the progress of advanced education (a.k.a. “gifted” education) in America, including legal and legislative developments, policy and leadership changes, emerging research, grassroots efforts, and more. You can subscribe on the Fordham Institute website and the newsletter’s Substack.