A parent’s path to recognizing giftedness in their child
Jan 29, 2021
By: Dr. Philip "Reef" Morse II, PhD
Teacher and Computer Instructor
Many gifted children fly under the radar their whole lives, never knowing that they have a unique way of understanding the world. Sometimes they are even misdiagnosed and therefore struggle enormously in the traditional school setting. The parents of gifted children, diagnosed and undiagnosed, can struggle just as much.
Parents often travel a long and difficult path before realizing that their child is gifted.
At Steppingstone, School for Gifted Education, we seek to change this trend. We hope to educate the broadest layer of parents, teachers, and educators to be able to identify and understand giftedness as early as possible in a child’s development.
The following is the story of one parent’s journey to discovering their child’s giftedness. We hope it will be instructive for other parents who might just be beginning down the path to understanding that their child is gifted.
Early signs of giftedness
In 2004, Dana and Margaretta became new parents to a healthy baby boy named Aidan.
“I think most new parents start off assuming their kid is just an average kid. We were no different,” Dana explained. “As a new parent, you really don’t have any framework. Just having a child itself is pretty overwhelming. You don’t know anything about child development or brain development.”
Over the years Dana and Margaretta started realizing that Aidan was developmentally advanced in many ways. However, they had no idea he was gifted. In fact, they did not know much of anything about what being gifted even meant.
“In hindsight, the signs seem much more clear. Aidan had the ability to concentrate on things at a very early age. Our friends who were parents would tell us that their child couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. But Aidan, as a one-year-old, would wake up with something on his mind, and he would find his coloring materials and draw for hours. He could really devote himself to it.”
Dana explained that the first time Aidan picked up a pencil he could hold it correctly, like an adult. “One of the first things Aidan drew was a straight line. He seemed to be determined to draw a perfectly straight line, one that was straighter than I could draw. It might seem like a small feat, but it was pretty remarkable for a 12-month-old.”
Aidan’s drawing skills developed rapidly between one and three years old.
“He would draw a barn scene, for instance. Now normally, a child might draw a barn and some animals. But Aidan would draw a picture where a portion of the barn was off of the page and the sun was half off the page. A young child does not normally draw things like that. They don’t normally have that conceptual level of understanding of the world.”
Aidan also had a level of perseverance not typical for his age. “He would draw something over and over and perfect it. Sometimes it would frustrate him. He knew what he wanted but the mechanics are not easy, and he was not fully developed yet.”
Giftedness is not just “really smart”
“One myth about giftedness is that gifted children are just ‘really smart’ kids,” Dana explained.
It is true that some parents are tipped off to their child’s giftedness from more intuitive displays of a high level of intelligence. For example, many gifted children advance reading levels quite quickly. However, as Dana noted, there are many other signs of giftedness that are less overt: Increased intensity and sensitivity, extraordinary memory, depth of perception, and sophisticated language skills, to name a few.
Aidan was showing different elements of giftedness through his incredible artistic skills and his ability to apply advanced theoretical concepts in his art. “His artwork revealed what was going on in his mind and the variety of scenes and characters, real and fantasy, was an indicator that he was processing information at a high rate. Not that we were really aware of this at that time.”
These characteristics came out in other ways too.
“He was very determined to do things himself,” Margaretta explained. “When we started to put him into a child seat in the car, for example, he would insist that he do that himself. Inserting the upper strap into the buckle between his legs was a challenge.
“For him, it was clearly frustrating because he knew what had to be done but physically it was difficult for him.”
Dana gave other examples: “If he was in the middle of doing a drawing, and we had to disrupt him to go somewhere, he would get very upset. In fact, one time the daycare had to call us when he was three years old. He had built this incredible city using all the wood building blocks at the daycare and they wanted him to take it apart. He got really upset because he was not done yet.”
“I should have taken a picture because this construction took up a floor space of about six feet by six feet. It was quite complex, must have taken a couple of hours to build, and he wasn’t done yet.
“We were very lucky because the daycare employees and director were very accommodating. We would learn later on that not everyone would be as understanding. Giftedness is certainly a positive thing in many ways, but it can also be difficult.”
Giftedness in the traditional school setting
“The real difficulties for us started in kindergarten in public school,” Dana said. “One day the teacher called us and said Aidan was disruptive and talking too much in class.” But that wasn’t all: “She told us that he was likely misbehaving because we, as parents, were not paying enough attention to him at home.”
Dana and Margaretta were stunned and confused at the teacher’s appraisal. At home, Aidan rarely misbehaved. “We might not be perfect parents, but we knew that this behavior in the classroom was not the product of our parenting. There was something else going on.
“At this point we had what we thought was conflicting information. The daycare, our friends, my relatives who were educators and others would repeatedly tell us that Aidan seemed to act much older than is expected for his age. But the school is reporting that he is a problem in the classroom. During that kindergarten year one of our friends mentioned that we should investigate giftedness and at least talk to Kiyo at Steppingstone School. We didn’t take it all that seriously yet.”
“In the spring we did arrange to talk to Kiyo, and this is when we began a more in-depth investigation into giftedness. We decided to continue with public school for Aidan’s first grade. Our approach to the situation was to say, ‘Aidan is a bright and good kid let’s keep him in public school and we’ll supplement his development with other activities and travel experiences.’”
“Kiyo did suggest we have Aidan take the IQ test to help determine if he was exceptionally gifted. We put off the idea of taking the test.”
Advocating for a gifted child
“The real ‘game-changer’ came in first grade. Aidan came home very upset one day. He told us that he had signed his classwork assignment in cursive. The teacher made him erase it and write in block letters. She told him that since cursive was not taught until later, he was not allowed to write in cursive. At the time, he was very interested in writing letters in cursive and practicing at home.”
Dana and Margaretta were quite bothered by this development. It seemed to them that the teacher was holding Aidan back. “This situation caused us to return to our investigation of other educational options and to go ahead with the IQ test. We arranged the testing with Pat LaPat. The results indicated that Aidan’s potential was exceptional across the spectrum.”
After multiple phone calls, they managed to arrange a meeting with the principal to discuss Aidan’s development and the policy of the school in relation to students in Aidan’s situation.
The principle had arranged a meeting that included Aidan’s teacher, the reading specialist, the special education teacher and himself. During the meeting, Dana and Margaretta tried to convey to the principal that Aidan was an advanced learner.
“The principal was a nice guy. He certainly didn’t have any malicious motivations, but he had a definite line in regards to the situation: ‘Let kids be kids.’ I suspect that he was regularly approached by parents that were seeking to accelerate the education of their child, but in fact the child is not ready for it. He seemed to be dismissing our concerns out of previous experiences.”
The limitations of a traditional school setting
Dana wanted to know if the school had a policy on how to handle more advanced students. “I wasn’t demanding anything. I just wanted to ask what the policy was for the more advanced students. But they all said the same thing, ‘Just let your kid go through the system as is.’ The truth is, there was no policy.”
The proposal from the principal was that Aidan continue through school as usual and then when he reached the third grade, he would go into the gifted and talented program.
“But what about right now?” Dana wanted to know. “What about things like just writing in cursive? Can you accommodate that?”
“It wasn’t just that Aidan was an advanced learner but that he was a self-initiated learner. We brought to the meeting a small pile of Aidan’s work at home. We had hundreds of pounds of drawings, writings, and other projects that Aidan worked on at home over the past two years. He was determined to express himself in so many ways.”
To drive the point home, Dana showed the principle and his assistants one of Aidan’s projects he had started on his own at home: a Japanese writing book, which he bound himself. “‘We had a ‘Kanji for Beginners’ book in our library. It explained with drawings how to form some of the basic Kanji characters with pronunciation and the definition. Aidan found this book and decided to create his own version.”
“He made a booklet and stapled the spine and copied like 75 characters—10-12 hours he spent on this. Then Aidan came back to me and said, ‘Okay, tell me how to say this.’ This is a four-year-old, and you are telling him to write the letter ‘A’ 50 times on a piece of paper. I just don’t think he can wait until third grade.”
“We also presented the letter from Pat LaPat on Adain’s IQ test. The special education teacher started to nod her head. We could see her eyes open wide when she was reading the letter. She said something like, ‘This is different.’”
More advanced work versus individualized learning
The special ed teacher ultimately proposed that Aidan be sent to the special education room a few hours each day where the teacher could teach to his proper level. Dana and Margaretta were not satisfied. They did not feel that the special education department was where Aidan belonged and they were concerned about how he would feel leaving his peers every day to go to a ‘special’ class. Even more important, it was clear that the school system had no real policy to accommodate Aidan’s learning capacity.
After the meeting, Dana and Margaretta began searching more seriously for answers to their questions. “We quickly investigated some independent schools in the area. We returned to Kiyo to discuss enrolling Aidan at Steppingstone School.
“The focus on individualized learning was one of the main draws for us to Steppingstone. They understood that gifted children needed academics with a pace, structure, and content which were inherently different from what was beneficial for the average child.
“It was so clear right off the bat that they had an intense interest in all the different elements of our child’s development, not just strictly ‘academics’ but the whole child. They would call us some days and let us know that Aidan had done or said something that they found interesting. They would just want to let us know, for us to be intimately a part of his journey and development.
This blog was posted by Steppingstone, School for Gifted Education on August 13, 2020 by Dr. Morse.
Dr. Philip "Reef" Morse II, PhD, Teacher and Computer Instructor - Dr. Reef has been teaching Gifted children, as well as serving on Steppingstone’s Board of Trustees, since 1981. He is also the founder and Program Director of the Steppingstone MAgnetic Resonance Training (SMART) Center.