Are gifted children being left behind?

Parents must get involved to challenge their child

As a society, we often think that because a child is intelligent, talented and exceptional that they just “get it”—they don’t need further explanation or extra attention. Add to that, many schools often exhaust all of their efforts trying to help the struggling child. While administrators and teachers have their hearts in the right place sometimes the “gifted” student may be lost in the shuffle. Parents of a gifted child ask themselves, “Is my child being left behind.” 

Navigating your child’s school system
Even with the best intentions, schools are often ill-equipped to handle gifted students. There are several obstacles that prevent gifted students from receiving the necessary level of challenge, says Carole Pickering, Superintendent of Schools for Hyde Park Central School District. For one, teacher training is more focused on helping the struggling child. She explains that there is also a cultural attitude amongst educators that the gifted child will “get it” and, therefore, does not need the attention. “Public schools get a low grade,” she says, when it comes to equal instruction.

Pickering warns about the consequences of leaving a gifted child to her own devices. She claims that if children are getting As too easily, the system is inadvertently enabling bad learning habits. “Students must learn how to work and overcome in order to achieve success. These are our future leaders in their fields. They have to go on to higher education having acquired good habits.” 

Pickering asserts that differentiated instruction (instruction that adjusts to the various learning needs and abilities in the classroom) is essential. “Every classroom should be differentiated… even an Advanced Placement (AP) class,” she says. Pickering also explains that even within an AP class, some will struggle to get a good grade, while others master the material effortlessly. “It needs to be a district mission to challenge children at every level of the spectrum,” she explains.

Hyde Park Central School District’s REACH  committee plans curriculum for advanced learners. This group is made up of parents, teachers, and administrators. They set in motion at least four initiatives: online college courses in conjuntion with Marist College, new electives in the sciences including forensics and paleontology, teacher development in differentiated teaching and a challenging after school program for gifted students. Pickering feels that the work of this committee is a step in the right direction.

Solutions are never simple. For instance, if your child is bored in her current grade, should she skip a grade? “When considering if a child is ready to skip a grade, developmental issues need to be addressed, such as social maturity,” says Dr. Pan-San Haruta, a professor at Marist College and private consultant.

Haruta also suggests that regardless of whether your child skips a grade or not, parents should speak directly to administrators and teachers about helping their child reach her full potential.
Parents and schools working together is always the best equation, no matter what a child’s ability level may be. 

Wen-Hui Chiu, a resident of Poughkeepsie worked for years with teachers trying to find solutions and curriculum that would challenge her two gifted children. “It’s very important that parents be their child’s advocate,” she explains. “I was always the room parent so I could get to know the classroom teacher and work with that teacher.” 

Parents should also ask if there are committees, after-school programs, or support groups in place for this purpose. PTAs can also provide additional programs for students in the arts and sciences.

Finding the Right Programs
Chiu coordinates The Mid Hudson Math Circle which meets in the Arlington Public Library. She believes that programs like these, where gifted students work together and challenge each other, help gifted students thrive.

Chiu, whose daughters advanced to the nationals in MathCounts competitions, finds that gifted students respond well, just as other students do, when the learning is fun and creative. “I find that students are more intrigued with creative problem solving than straight math facts.”

Extracurricular programs which focus on creative thinking and problem solving skills are essential for gifted students. Parents should investigate summer camps, university programs for school-age children, and after-school programs that are geared for the academically gifted. Taking the time to find the “right fit” for your child’s specific interests, needs, and talents is imperative. 

Support groups are also helpful.  Chiu says that it’s important to find other parents and students who are seeking the same kinds of resources and dealing with similar curriculum challenges. “Students need emotional support from peers who are also extremely motivated,” Chiu says. 

Not sure if your child is “gifted”?
Dr. Haruta explains that a gifted child will likely express boredom with school work and possibly have behavioral problems due to frustration. If indeed a parent believes her child is gifted, she should seek help. 

Haruta points out, “Parents must find out what their child’s specific strength is and how narrow that ability is. For instance, a child who is gifted in art may not have good handwriting.” It is important that parents know what their child’s specific strength is so they can attend to that particular ability and find the proper resources. Haruta strongly suggests that parents seek testing (e.g. IQ and standardized subject tests) outside of the school curriculum that will compare their child’s abilities against the general population. “A lot of people feel their child is special, but are they truly exceptional? You must have an external gauge,”  says Hauta

Other assessments may be suggested by professionals. Haruta says that testing alone cannot determine giftedness. A review of work a child has produced as well as an observational assessment to look at task performance is also necessary.

Motivating Your Gifted Child
Chiu believes that oftentimes children have too many scheduled activities. “Kids need the downtime to encourage creativity,” she points out. She suggests that a box with some paper and pencils to create things works well.”

Take advantage of what the community has to offer to stimulate your gifted child. Chiu suggests that parents utilize local library programs, take their kids to museums, and explore nature to stimulate their young minds.

Chiu believes that exposure to world events and what is going on outside a child’s immediate environment is also beneficial. She recommends taking advantage of the many online resources for supplemental learning. 

Dr. Haruta suggests that parents find someone from inside their own network to work with their child at an early age. She says that a family member, friend, or colleague, who is an expert in the area where a child shows giftedness, is always a great resource for children with special talents. Chiu agrees. “When kids are very young, they can’t set their own goals. They still need guidance, even if they’re gifted.”

Parents must recognize that the schools may not provide the guidance they need to help their child. Making sure your gifted child isn’t left behind should become your first priority. Seek resources, find mentors and enroll your children in extracurricular activities they enjoy. Their giftedness makes them unique and drives their personality—don’t let them linger any longer.

Myrna Beth Haskell is a freelance writer and mom of two living in Dutchess County. She has been a regular contributer to Hudson Valley Parent for seven years.