Your kid is four years old and lecturing you on the scientific names of dinosaurs. Six years old and doing the research to organize an authentic Victorian-era birthday party. Eight years old and writing papers on cell biology.
And then… Ten years old, and raising a fuss whenever you mention writing. Twelve years old, and won’t touch a math book. Fourteen, and stubbornly insisting they will never touch a microscope. What happened?
Gifted minds love learning. It feeds them and makes them happy. But only if they can do it their way. Workbooks? Sure, if your kid WANTS to do them. Pre-packaged curricula? See if it works for your student. Teacher-dictated deadlines? If your kid can go at that pace, without falling behind or getting too far ahead. Kept back, frustrated by the structure given, or overwhelmed by keeping pace with the other kids, gifted kids often lose their love of learning. It begins to feel like a chore, because it doesn’t strike the right chords in their brains. Their thirst for knowledge turns into a loathing of the work they are assigned.
Yes, some gifted kids thrive in a public school classroom setting, at least for a little while, but most of them do not. Private or charter schools, homeschooling, and unschooling are often the best education choices for gifted kids. The next question, then, is how to make sure they’re learning the things they need to know. Generally, leaving a student wholly to their own devices is not the best approach: executive function and study skills rarely just pop into existence without some instruction. Letting the student lead the way, and providing guidance where appropriate, will minimize frustration and still ensure the essential skills are learned. With that in mind, here are three top tips for educating a gifted child.
Let them follow their interests. If your kid is passionately interested in Pokémon, let them collect the cards. (Those cards could be valuable someday!) They may move on to a general interest in animals and go on to study veterinary medicine or zoology, or enjoy studying and copying the art and become artists. Perhaps they’ll write stories about the Pokémon, and then graduate to writing original characters. Worst (or best) case scenario, they never stop caring about Pokémon, and grow up to work at The Pokémon Company. Maybe they entirely lose interest and move on to something else – but they have learned that their interests are important, and they have not taken in the lesson that their passions are silly, or unimportant, or something of which to be ashamed.
Use those interests to teach academics and study skills. One pre-teen student was obsessed with FooPets (a virtual pet ownership website). She wanted to use real money to buy “FooDollars,” so she could participate in more aspects of the website with her online friends. Her mom decided that she could – if the student wrote a persuasive essay on why she should be allowed to use real money to buy virtual money. The student wrote the essay, and was allowed to spend the money. In the process of writing, she exercised critical thinking and building logical arguments, two important skills.
A younger student refused to do math workbooks. However, he spent a lot of time building with Legos. His mom sat down to play with him, and would sometimes randomly throw in questions like “how many studs are on a 2×3 brick?” or “if I have a 2×3 brick and a 1×2 brick, how many studs are there?” The student ended up learning arithmetic using Legos, without realizing what he was doing!
Other students might be interested in more traditionally academic fields: history, literature, and science are all common. It can be tempting to then assume that they will be comfortable doing traditional academic work within those fields – but they may not be, for reasons addressed in the third tip…
Remember and accommodate their overexcitabilities. Gifted individuals are highly likely to have overexcitabilities, which can complicate the learning process for them. Too much or too little input, and their brains go kaput; if the work is boring or going too slowly, it can be as difficult for them to process as if there is a lot of information being thrown at them at once. They may need to move around while they listen to an audiobook, doodle while they watch a video, or play with a fidget cube while reading in order to keep their brain engaged. They are also often highly sensitive, in terms of both emotional and sensory input. Strong smells or strange textures may make certain activities, such as manipulating models or performing plant or animal dissections, distressing or intolerable for gifted students. Similarly, emotionally intense subject matter, such as climate change, the Holocaust, or slavery, can trigger tearful outbursts and anxiety attacks.
This is one of the most important places where adult guidance comes in. Students may not be aware of their sensitivities and overexcitabilities. They might instinctively avoid some things because they know it will be unpleasant, but they are generally unaware of all the triggers they could encounter. A science lesson on the atmosphere may veer into climate change; biology can segue into biodiversity collapse; literature is full of cruel actions, even when the “good guys” triumph; history is a timeline of wars and diseases interspersed with cultural developments. Parents and teachers need to be aware of the distressing content students may come across, steer them clear of what they cannot handle, and give them the resources and support they need to cope with disturbing knowledge.
Ultimately, the best thing any adult can do when it comes to educating a gifted child is to give them the space to develop their interests and knowledge base to the fullest extent possible. Let them have questions, and give them resources to find the answers. Teach them that “I don’t know” is a stop along the way, but it doesn’t have to be the final answer if they really want to explore the question. The more students are allowed to have their passions, the more excited they will be about learning – and that, more than anything, is what gifted hearts and minds need.