When you think of the word “genius,” Albert Einstein is often a name that comes to mind.
Yet, as a child in the school system, his teachers wouldn’t necessarily describe him as bright. He was a trouble maker with an attitude problem. Einstein obtained high grades, but held in disdain the rote learning and strict protocols of school. This would get him into trouble, and there’s a good chance that no one would have predicted he would become a world-famous theoretical physicist. He didn’t fit. And people didn’t like that.
There’s often an assumption that “giftedness” and “high achieving” are synonymous terms, but to any parent raising gifted kids, it’s often no surprise that someone like Einstein was not seen as a genius at a young age. Gifted kids are most at risk of not fitting in well with peers, facing high-levels of frustration, feeling bored, and experiencing loneliness and isolation. In short, many of our brightest young minds experience the most significant struggles.
Many entrepreneurs have unique capacities that drive their success- analytical problem solving, verbal fluency, creative thinking, leadership, focus. Many entrepreneurs are super smart. And surprise, surprise, many founders are raising kids with “different than average” abilities. “Giftedness” sounds like it should be great- a gift. But for many families, there are significant challenges that go along with raising an atypical child.
Public educators overwhelmingly agree that more needs to be done for gifted students. If even the education system often gets it wrong, it’s little wonder that parents often struggle to grasp the best strategies for raising gifted kids.
What is “gifted”?
A common misconception is that you’ll know the gifted child because they’re the one with straight “A’s”, they play an instrument in the school band, they head up extra-curricular activities, and they’re on the volleyball team. Teachers usually love these kids, and they often have excellent study and social skills.
Except that what I just described is a high-achiever. Some gifted kids may also be high-achievers, but many are not.
The common definition of giftedness comes from a 1991 Columbus Group statement:
“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”
In a nutshell, the asynchronous brain development associated with gifted kids can mean that their intellectual abilities far outweigh their physical or emotional development.
So, while a gifted child might be a high-achiever, many will frustrate teachers because they seem to underperform. Their performance at school may depend upon factors such as how interested they are in the subject, or how much respect they hold for the knowledge of the person teaching it.
Gifted students may lack strong social or study skills. They many lag behind in emotional maturity or find it challenging to read social cues which can lead to isolation and few friends. Sometimes, these kids can be prone to anxiety and depression. Asynchronous brain development can result in painful social and emotional challenges.
Being gifted often comes with special needs that a typical classroom teacher doesn’t have the bandwidth to address.
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Is my kid gifted?
There is no blueprint for a gifted child. There are several identified characteristics and traits that are indicative of giftedness, and gifted children may exhibit some or all of them.
Sometimes giftedness is demonstrated through a specific category, or even through a specific field within that category.
Giftedness is formally assessed by a variety of assessment tools. Strictly speaking, giftedness is a statical marker (usually, 2 standard deviations above the mean). This helps to mitigate known biases of some types of testing so that kids have a better chance of being accurately identified. Assessment is more challenging for some of the categories like creativity or leadership.
While there is often a perception that you “want” your child to be identified as gifted and have access to programs that are set up for gifted kids, this extract from Chris Coll provides food for thought:
“Having your child identified as “gifted” at school is no better or worse than having them qualify for any other academic support service. Parents who pay for tutoring services to teach their child how to “act more gifted” so they “get into” gifted programs at school would be wise to spend those dollars instead on enrichment classes to help their children become high achievers – or to save that money for college.”
Strategies for raising gifted kids
As parents, we are the advocates for our kids. Unfortunately, the resources that you have available vary greatly, depending on the state in which you live. Some states don’t mandate policy for identifying and enriching gifted kids, or take gifted to be synonymous with high classroom achievement (which we know is inaccurate!). This means that it’s important for parents to know where they can go for help, and to be familiar with strategies for raising gifted kids.
The following are by no means exhaustive, but are based upon psychological research, and the experiences of parents and educators:
Be an advocate
As outlined, sometimes school districts have limited resources or a narrow understanding of what makes a child “gifted.” Sometimes unconventional learners are not taken into account, or disengagement as a result of boredom or frustration is not looked at more closely when a student doesn’t achieve high grades.
Organizations such as The National Association for Gifted Children and The Davidson Institute place utmost importance on the role of the parent as an advocate for their child. This often isn’t an easy task – you may find yourself having to conduct a lot of research and to find resources yourself – but there are programs and resources out there, even if they aren’t within your school district.
Many parents feel uncomfortable with the idea that they may be perceived as “that pushy parent,” however, the fact is that gifted kids need extra attention, and early intervention (while they’re still enthusiastic about school!) is better.
If you can, one suggestion is to pool together with other parents of gifted kids. In any case, “it very important that highly able and creative youngsters are provided many opportunities to share time and interests with young people of a similar intellect and level of passion.” (Source).
Find opportunities to enrich your child’s life
Many people will automatically think of extra tutoring, or summer camps spent learning another language; however, advice from psychologists is that, while those might be suitable, it doesn’t have to be that expensive or complicated.
A key piece of advice is to be involved. This is from Dr. Trevor Tebbs, Ph.D.:
“Share time. Engage in ‘sensible’ conversations. Pose questions. Share in the learning. Recognize the importance of the child being who he or she is as opposed to a replica of yourself. Allow time for reflection.
If possible provide a space where ownership can be expressed. Nurture them and provide for their development as best they may with books (books don’t have to cost huge amounts of money), guide them through the potential jungle of the internet, initiate and engage in good conversation, provide opportunities for leadership in the home and community and take responsibility as a community member, encourage autonomy, self-determination and self-discipline not by punishing or rewarding in the accepted sense of the word – – rather looking to ways of providing privileges that are important and which may be chosen, providing opportunities where and whenever possible that enrich the child’s experience of life, by not becoming a “couch potato”…”
Those basics like reading and talking with your child, and finding teachable moments are things that most parents will do anyway. That sense of love and belonging is no less important for our gifted kids.
Be realistic about expectations
“Gifted” has no blueprint. This means that a child who can read at age 4 might struggle to hold a pencil, or, a fifth-grade child who reads at an eighth-grade level may still have the emotional maturity of a fifth grader!
It’s important to recognize that “gifted” doesn’t necessarily mean a child excels in all areas. In fact, if you have expectations like this, it can put a lot of pressure on gifted kids. There are plenty of examples of kids who drop out of classes or fail to turn in work because they’re terrified that they won’t get a top grade.
While it’s important to discover and nurture a child’s strengths, it’s equally important to be there for support when they need it.
Help sharpen your child’s social skills
Sometimes gifted kids are also high achievers, blessed with great social skills too. Other times, that asynchronous brain development can lead to gifted kids struggling socially, which can potentially lead to mental health issues down the track as well.
Gifted kids may have a range of personality traits, like any other kid, but sometimes an enjoyment of debate or a strong sense of justice can lead to other kids considering them to be judgmental or bossy. At the other end of the spectrum, a kid might be shy and struggle to interact with others.
It’s helpful to encourage your child to learn to listen to others, and put themselves in their shoes. Find ways to get them joining activities with other kids and having healthy interactions.
Allow your child to struggle
Eventually, most gifted kids will come up against some subject or assignment that doesn’t come easily to them. It can be tempting to come to the rescue and allow them to quit, or provide help that they could have worked through for themselves, but letting them struggle sometimes is a good thing.
Where a kid has to work their own way through a challenging subject or assignment, they will either end up doing well and understanding the value of hard work or they’ll fail. Many gifted kids have a huge fear of failure, but if they do fail, they can learn that it’s not the end of the world! Their parents and friends still love them and failing an assignment isn’t going to “ruin their life.” Be there in support as you also would if they passed.
Get help where needed
The subject of gifted kids really is quite broad, and different strategies or pieces of advice will pertain to different situations. Some kids will excel and appear to be doing just fine, while others will struggle to meet their potential. Any of these kids can be prone to potential mental health issues, as outlined earlier.
If you or your child needs it, it’s important to seek help from a psychologist who specializes in these issues, or another trained professional. Gifted kids are estimated at around the top 2.5 – 3% of the population, so many can struggle with not being “normal.” If a child does struggle, intervention as early as possible is preferable. There’s some evidence that gifted kids have higher rates of depression and anxiety than their peers.
There are many gifted entrepreneurs out there who’ve passed on genetics and have created family environments that foster giftedness in their kids. And this comes with highs and lows.
Nurturing a gifted kiddo is not an easy prospect for parents – you’ll often find it’s up to you to be your child’s biggest advocate and researcher of resources.
Advocacy, support, and love are the most important things you can do. And they’re enough. You can’t walk your child’s journey for them, but you can set opportunities on their path and let them know that you have their back.