Parents’ Experience of Rearing Gifted Children

frazzledOn Sunday 20th January, at #gtie, we shared Parents’ Experience of Rearing Gifted Children. Parenting any child is never plain sailing. For parents of gifted children, there is an extra layer on top. Whilst it is exciting and fun at times, it can also be a very worrying, frustrating and isolating experience. When your child is one of a minority, a much misunderstood one at that, advice and support can be hard to find. When others cast scorn, it is even more lonely. Unfortunately for many, school is when things first begin to become really difficult. Below is a summary of our discussion which includes contributions from Irish and American parents and teachers and homeschoolers.

The questions posed were:

Q1. How old was your child when they first a. walked, b. learned to read?

Q2. What was your experience of your child before you found out he/she was gifted?

Q3. When did you first get an ‘inkling’ that something was out of the ordinary?

Q4. How did you decide on what school to send your child to, or did you (have a choice)?

Q5. Experience of school – the good, bad and the ugly?

Q6. Just to focus on the realities of your experience with schools – what alerted you to it ‘going bad’?

Q6.5. What is your experience of teachers that helped?

Q7. Here’s the big one – keep calm…..Are you a ‘pushy parent’ ?

Q8. How did you explain your child’s experience of school to them?

Q9. How do you cope?

Q1 How old was your child when they first a. walked, b. learned to read?

There was quite a bit of variation in answers to this, from kids who could sit up and look around them, much to their paediatrician’s amazement, at 3.5 months, to those who walked a little late due to being extremely proficient crawlers or bum-shufflers. It should be noted that there were no parents of gifted but physically disabled children at this chat, so results are somewhat biased! However, it is generally accepted that gifted children often meet developmental milestones a little earlier than usual, often a tell tale sign of their giftedness. Just how early, can be seen in the Table of Developmental Milestones Contrasting Normal Children With Gifted Children at 30% Advancement from GERRIC in Australia.

As for reading, while not all gifted children learn to read early, it is a very common occurrence. We are not talking about kids whose parents have tried to teach them, but kids who have learned to do so completely off their own bat. As Carol Bainbridge explains in this article, to read fluently requires advanced cognitive ability. One parent noted that, due to their child’s Specific Speech and Language Disorder (SSLD), he may have been reading fluently long before they realised.

Q2. What was your experience of your child BEFORE you found out he/she was gifted?

Interestingly, particularly with a first child, parents may not recognise these early warning signs. To them, without any other reference point, it may appear quite normal to be walking up the stairs at the age of one and waddling round the supermarket reading food labels at three. Gifted children are often born into families where there are several gifted individuals, both children and adults, and so they just blend in.

A common complaint was the lack of a need for sleep. The children of participants all had children who had not required the daytime naps that their friends’ children seemed to take. They also seemed to sleep less at night.  Not alone did they tend to walk early and fast, they were extremely curious and “into” everything. Another common experience is that of a “colicky” baby. This may indeed be colic and may be caused by lactose intolerance which, along with other intolerances/allergies, appears to be more common in the gifted population. Or it might be due to a heightened need for stimulation, as outlined in this article. The net effect, as you might imagine, is exhausted parents who are sleep-deprived and struggling to keep up.

Early Signs of Giftedness by giftedness expert Linda Silverman  confirms these experiences as common to parents of gifted children.

Q3. When did you first get an ‘inkling’ that something was out of the ordinary?

Often, when they get out and about to parent and toddler groups and begin to interact with other parents and children, the penny begins to drop. Other people’s toddlers are sleeping more,  aren’t talking in full sentences, and aren’t reading. They don’t complete large jigsaws (often face-down!) and they aren’t as intense. Often, the difference only becomes apparent when the child begins school.

Q4. How did you decide on what school to send to, or did you (have a choice)?

In Ireland, we often have little choice in this decision, particularly for primary school. Coupled with a general lack of awareness of giftedness, we maybe aren’t aware of what we should be looking for in a school or what questions to ask. Most if us here, are as yet unaware of our children’s giftedness at the point of school entry. We generally send them to the local primary school which has the best reputation. Many have found, to their cost, that these reputations aren’t always deserved. This experience was shared with our US participants. It was suggested that the best test of a school for a child of any ability is to ask how they cater for G&T and watch the reaction. However, it was pointed out that lip service is easy. If a school responded positively, a parents should probe the answer rather than accept it as a given. It’s what actually happens in the classroom that counts and it can be helpful to speak to individual teachers in advance. Increasingly, primary school teachers in Ireland are becoming aware of gifted children through courses such as ICEPE‘s and our gifted education awareness events. The SESS also runs in-service courses.

One participant, Corin Barsily Goodwin, having done her research, decided to homeschool her children. Her account of reaching this decision is very interesting and will resonate with many parents of gifted children. Having opted for homeschooling many years ago, Corin went on to found Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, which is an invaluable resource, not only for those homeschooling their children anywhere in the world, but for anyone looking for information on giftedness or ideas for use in their classroom. I highly recommend that you follow @GHF on Twitter and like Gifted Homeschoolers Forum on Facebook.

Q5 Experience of school – the good, bad and the ugly?

Many gifted children have a relatively good experience of school but, unfortunately, for most, this seems to be the point at which things start to go wrong. In most cases, this is due to a lack of awareness of giftedness among teachers and schools. Children, who had been avid readers since long before they started school, found that, not alone had they already read all the books available in their classrooms long before, they were told not to bring in their own in case it would make the other children feel uncomfortable (yes, this actually happened (PL)). They weren’t even allowed to read material available to kids in the classes/grades ahead of them.

Quite apart from their academic needs, unless the teacher has an idea of the psychology of giftedness and the social and emotional needs of such children, they can be very vulnerable. The child who, because of their advanced ability, their intensity, sensitivity and quirky interests, doesn’t quite fit in, is vulnerable to social isolation and bullying. Those who are extremely active and curious and talkative, outlined above as common characteristics, are at risk of being labelled trouble-makers or having ADHD.

One teacher remarked “I’m amazed at some of the stories here tonight – are schools not supposed to cater for ALL children’s needs?? Also training colleges also need to cop on to this!”

Issues of Gifted Children in the School Environment 

Q6 – Just to focus on the realities of your experience with schools – what alerted you to it ‘going bad’?

Parents reported many negative views on school,

    • It was a slow slide, even with a great school. Twice exceptional (2e) is VERY hard to accommodate, especially when needs change rapidly.
    • School wanted to give my son an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for Learning Disabilities (LDs) and anxiety.  He had no LD, and anxiety was because of school. But no IEP for G&T.
    • Grade 4 teacher even told me schools aren’t set up to accommodate this kind of kid. Not making excuses, but sad that was the case.
    • When we had to avail of adolescent mental health services. Eventually had to remove kids from the school.
    •  I have generally have had good experience but have gone to each teacher every year about my children to ‘discuss and suggest ‘.
    • Maybe we were just very unlucky, but there was no real understanding of what G&T is.
    • Final alert: My daughter’s teacher telling me she was ‘developmentally delayed’ in several areas. I hate that teachers don’t understand asynchronous development! Gas thing is that teacher told me she was weak at maths. Same child, aged 8 now doing Leaving Cert maths!
    • There is a tendency to focus on what’s ‘wrong’ rather than great.
    • Honestly? Not much good, not one teacher from primary “got” the gifted bit for any of mine, Principal’s appalling, to be frank.
    • When you get “I’m bored” every day going to school and every day after school and favourite subject is PE…
    • We were told that our daughter, then 5, was “subversive”! We can (kind of) laugh about it now, but it was incredibly hurtful at the time. Comment was designed to hurt us.
    • My DD was told not to put her hand up in class anymore to give other kids a chance.
    • There is so much emphasis on the points race here. With the best of will, it’s difficult for teachers give gifted kids what they need, especially if they are 2e.

What our teachers had to say:

    • I hate to say it – but schools don’t exist to teach your kids – they exist to teach a curriculum.
    • I beg to differ. Yes, we have to teach the curriculum – but we can incorporate so many new ways to enhance learning & cater for all.
    • Yes – for teachers who are self-driven and keen and who teach anyway   – and who have an open attitude.
    • Schools SHOULD be about learning, NOT teaching.

A little something from down under: Education of Gifted Children – Our Experience and Perspective as Parents

Q6.5 What is your experience of teachers that helped?

Overwhelmingly, these teachers were the ones who are open to new ideas and suggestions, are available listen to parents. The ones who teach the child and not the book, see the whole child and not just the homework produced. It makes a huge difference to a parent when they feel that their child’s teacher, into whose care they entrust them each day, is open and listening. To know that they can see the child as an individual. For a teacher, these parents can often be the source of very useful information that they simply don’t have the time to ferret out. Teachers see the child in a different setting and through a different lens. It is by working together that parents and teachers can make a gifted student’s school experience as positive as possible.

Discussing what teachers can do to help…

When a child is finished their work ahead of the rest of the class, it is tempting to give them more, to keep them occupied. This can result in the child slowing down so as to avoid the extra work; they’re smart, after all! What is needed is not more of the same, but different. Let them do something in which they are interested or let them explore the subject to a deeper level. As one parent said “mine died on “more” but blossomed with “deep.”  Our teachers agreed that differentiation is more work and difficult and it can be hard to find suitable material. Suggestions/observations were:

    • Read/ draw , Scratch (computer programming), sudoko, chess, jigsaws, lego, project work, etc any other ideas would be most welcome!
    • I think many parents want to see their kids love learning, and more is relative to each child.
    • Stop giving ‘summaries’ – allow children to complete homework using any medium they like e.g.
      • Write a poem about the weather; make a video about long-division; do a flow chart on WWI.
    • What if what the kid needs isn’t harder work, it’s completely different work?
      • Parents could help by sending in a folder of activities of interest or depth of challenge?
    • Middle School kids are tricky. Some can think figuratively, many still literal, and it’s not tied to “intelligence.” We have to teach to both.
    • Learning Centres
    • Blogs as teaching tool. I find that “deep” can be expressed there for students who choose, and parents can learn, too! I write extra blog posts for my accelerated students to do in-depth study: Example

Creative writing for young people: The 100 word challenge

But, many aspects of society prefer administrative completeness over improvement. Parents have to recognise teachers’ and schools’ responsibilities to account for what they are required do. Inspectors aren’t aware of giftedness; they judge teachers on how well their students produce the goods as prescribed. In the US, teachers are judged according to their students’ achievements on standardised tests. We aren’t so different here, where schools are assessed according to their place on the league tables and we are about to introduce a new layer of standardised tests to ensure that minimum standards are reached. This, in turn, ensures that minimum standards become the target. Different stuff is all very well, but what if a gifted student is preparing for state exams has no choice but to sit these exams the same as everyone else? While most G&T students can do exams and “different”, those with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia or ADD may struggle just to churn out the work required for class. It can be very destructive and demoralising for such a child to be forced to produce exactly the same work at the same rate as their classmates. When their ability is obvious, it is tempting to expect too much in this regard. This can be a tricky balance to find; how to keep them learning and engaged and exam-ready without demoralising them?

Q7 Here’s the big one – keep calm…..Are you a ‘pushy parent’ ?

    • If you mean, do I advocate for my kids? Heck, yes! And I have taught them to advocate for themselves, as well.
    • I am starting to think I am seen as one. But I prefer the term ‘advocate’.
    • Define pushy. Put him where I want him to be for my own ego? Hell no. Advocate for him because he has complex needs? Hell yes.
    • I certainly don’t push my child, definitely encourage. I tread carefully but positively with school.
    • I think my job, as a parent, is to ensure that my kids get the education that will support them in achieving their potential.
    • Not pushy enough I’d say. Advocating is really hard when schools are so intransigent.
    • I just think it’s odd how kids here can get help for what they can’t do rather than what they can.

Q8. How did you explain your child’s experience of school to them?

    • Tried to explain to new school. Was ignored as pushy/over-involved parent.
    • Square peg, round hole analogy. Said we need to get him through without damage. Plenty of different shaped holes later in life.
    • We explained that the system is designed for the vast majority of kids but that those on the ends…well, they figured out the rest.
    • I told them school’s designed for ‘average’ and they’re not, but promised we’d find solution so school wouldn’t hurt anymore.
    • “Get him through without damage” makes this middle school teacher so very, very sad.
    • More parents have that thought for their kids than you know. Sad, yes, but it’s a reality for a lot of us.

It was important to recognise that primary school teachers in Ireland in particular, face very difficult circumstances in trying to manage mixed ability teaching in classes that often have the full spectrum of learning difficulties.

I would just like to highlight differences with schools here in Ireland -10% of population have English as a second langauge. Mixed ability includes everything from Downs/ Austism up and also including behavioural issues – few ‘special’ schools.

Q9. Nearing the end – final question – How do you cope?

    • Heh. Coping. Friends in similar boat. Wine. Help from my parents. Support online. Wine. Also? I don’t cope well.
    • I tell myself if my kids were deaf/had DS/whatever, I’d fight just as hard and be just as loud.
    • As well as I can! Send to CTYI, Lego Camps, Maths workshops, Progamming etc. Lucky am able to afford these.
    • To be honest, these chats are a lifeline. Also, I read everything I can on the subject.
    • By letting off steam with family, by sharing ideas with our support group, by researching issues of interest, and an odd glass of wine.
    • CTYI, #gtie, wine, whine, give them skills to cope. #lifewillbegood #believeinyourself
    • Try to improve things in the Irish Ed system, inform myself, get support from other G&T parents and drink lots of coffee…..and wine.

This was a hectic chat that covered many issues. But it was clear that parents of gifted children, recognising that the elementary/primary school environment is difficult for students and teachers, were only too happy to help in whatever way they could if it meant that their child’s needs were met – not by sacrificing or denying other children appropriate opportunities – but by complementing and supporting the teacher’s work in the classroom.

by Peter Lydon & Catherine Riordan


  1. Well done for the issues raised.

    Parents are often given the ‘pushy label’ because of the few who are not so good at advocating. Like most things, the minority gets taken as a representation of the majority who do this difficult job of advocating so very well. You see this with the poor public perception (in some areas) of the university population (there are many more hard workers than layabouts) or the political arena (again, many do a fine job, but the vocal minority are given undeserved airtime by the media).

    A bit of common sense, or may be creative solutions could see teachers step up and involve gifted students more in class discussions. Instead of asking gifted kids to stop answering questions to give other kids a chance, which is often a ‘fair’ thing to do from the whole class perspective, I arranged with some of the children I taught to make a sign to me they knew the answer, but instead of asking them to tell me, I would allow others at times that needed a ‘chance’ to answer. Then I would ask the gifted child whether they agreed or not. This meant both had an opportunity to be involved, and kept the gifted child involved and respected by the other class members.

    We have a responsibility as teachers to meet all needs in the classroom, but we are not all superman (or woman), so we have to work smarter.

  2. This was a great article and I plan to send it on to a family member who tries to understand her granddaughter’s difficulties. Thank you.

    Just trying to drop this into our own experience. Do we “suck up” to a teacher or administrator in the hopes that our child will get more reasonable treatment, acceptance for his strengths and weaknesses, and appropriate work, or do we add to what our child is getting in the classroom because his needs are not being met?

    • Hi Barbara, I think ‘suck up’ is not really the way to go – shouldn’t have to – but it is reasonable to ask the school what (at least) they can do. There is always going to be a mismatch between what school (any school) can do for the individual child and parents should never forget that they are the primary educator of their children. There is bit of me that wants to ask how one defines ‘needs’ partly because I fear some schools would say that they cannot meet and are not obliged to meet every educational need of a child. However, at the very least, school should have positive regard for the individual child and ensure that whatever it does, it doesn’t ignore that some children need different educational provision in school. I could go on but hopefully you get the gist of what I’m trying to say. If not, do question this.

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