When Schools Don't Meet Your Gifted Child's Needs

elementary school class
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Like other special needs children, gifted students require specialized accommodations in school. They have needs that cannot be met through strategies that apply to the mainstream population of students. For this reason, many states now categorize their gifted programs as special education.

Gifted children aren't better than other children; they are simply different with different needs. A good gifted program will meet those needs. But what happens if those needs aren't met?

Academic Problems

Ideally, all children will be challenged appropriately. The work they get will be neither too hard nor too easy. If it is too hard, children will give up. If it is too easy, children will give up. In the first case, they will give up because of the stress; in the second, because of boredom.

This level of work is what Lev Vygotsky called the "zone of proximal development." If children get work that is too hard, they don't feel that the goal is reachable. If they get work that is too easy, they will find it difficult to concentrate and will not be able to reach what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls "flow." (Interestingly, these theories apply to adults as well as to children.)

For most gifted kids, getting work that is too hard is not usually the problem, at least not initially in school. They may sail through school getting straight As, but at some point either in high school, college or life, they may encounter work that does not come easily to them, and they may not be able to meet the challenge that the work presents.

Younger children, who don't have the words to explain the problem, may say that the work is too hard. What they might mean, however, is that it is too hard to concentrate on the work and get it done. They don't mean that they are incapable of doing the work.

Gifted children who are not given challenging work in school may end up being underachievers.

It is simply easier to give up than to deal with the excruciating boredom day in and day out. These children, too, may find it difficult to meet the challenges later in life that leads to success.

Social Problems

We have a school system that separates children by age and expects all children to behave in essentially the same way at each age. For example, the social expectations of kindergartners are not the same as the social expectations of third graders. However, gifted kids may be as advanced socially as they are academically. That is not always the case but is possible. Even if they aren't much more advanced socially than their age mates, an inappropriate academic setting can make them appear to have social and behavioral problems.

Those problems can be caused by boredom, but they can also be caused by a lack of intellectual and social peers. Imagine how frustrating it would be to spend about six hours every day performing tasks to teach you what you already know and to have no one who shared your interests or could understand what you were talking about. Giving children appropriately challenging work and allowing them to interact with social and intellectual peers can prevent or solve many social problems.

Emotional Problems

An inappropriate academic setting can also lead to emotional problems. When gifted children are not academically challenged and are not able to spend time with other children like them, they may begin to feel as though there is something wrong with them. Why is everyone else struggling with those math problems? Why can't the other children read already? Why don't the other kids want to spend all day learning about planets and black holes? Why do those kids say such mean things? The answers to all those questions are quite obvious to adults, but not to the young gifted child.

It is even possible for a frustrated gifted child to become depressed, so if your child is not being challenged in school, you want to be on the lookout for signs of depression.

Children can appear to be angry, but anger can be a sign of depression in young children. Children can also feel trapped in their situation and feel as though death is the only way out. If your child tells you that he wants to die, don't panic immediately. It could be his way of telling you how frustrated and helpless he feels. However, depression and death wishes should never be taken lightly, no matter how young the child is.

How to Help Gifted Children Succeed

Most gifted children are not going to encounter all of these problems. Some won't encounter any of them, even though they don't get the accommodations they need. Gifted children are individuals, with different personalities and temperaments. Emotionally sensitive children are more likely to be affected, but even that isn't a sure thing.

Work to understand your child's temperament, and do all you can to ensure that your child's needs are met in school. When that isn't possible, you might consider homeschooling your child. If homeschooling isn't a good option, then get your child involved in extracurricular activities that will provide him with some intellectual challenge and opportunities to spend time with other gifted kids.

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