Home educating is all very well, but what if your children are gifted? Won’t they need the special programs only available in school? How could a parent be qualified to educate them? Don’t gifted children have trouble socialising anyway, and won’t home education make that worse?
Firstly, let’s look at those “special programs” in schools. In Australia there are no special schools for gifted children. There are a few “opportunity schools” and schools which compact the normal curriculum into fewer years. The competition for places in these schools is fierce and many gifted children can’t get in. The schools themselves may not be the answer as the experts still can’t agree on the best provision for gifted students and the whole issue is fraught with politics.
Some regular schools run gifted classes but, although the gifted children are together, they must still slog through the set curriculum. Some schools have “pullout programs” where gifted students gather once a week to study something more interesting or advanced but this is a set topic which the students may not even be interested in, and is in addition to their class work. Most gifted children are stuck in a regular age-for-grade classroom with a teacher who has one hour’s training in gifted education. Teachers spend much of their time in crowd control and struggle to deliver anything but a “one-size-fits all” curriculum. Even for a compassionate teacher, being expected to “whip something up” for an individual child is well-nigh impossible. Many students are offered more advanced work if they finish their regular work. This must seem a strange reward – more work for finishing! In reality most ‘gifted programs’ are extra work in one form or another.
At the same time, school is very stressful for a gifted child. He is essentially more advanced in some area than his age-mates. Whilst this does not make him better than anyone else, it does make it difficult for him to make friends. He feels his difference but may not understand it – he just knows that the other kids don’t like him for some reason and suspects that there is “something wrong” with himself. He hears the words “weird”, “nerd” and “geek”. Ostracism and relentless bullying are very common school experiences amongst gifted children. Sadly, some teachers are also very hostile to gifted children, seeming to take the child’s prior knowledge of a subject as a personal insult, and they make the lives of gifted children in their so-called care a misery. Maslow wrote that the basic human needs must be met before humans can rise to the higher levels. Safety is a basic need and in school many gifted children are unsafe and stressed. This blocks their ability to learn.
The parents of a gifted child must constantly advocate for him at school, trying to arrange appropriate provision to alleviate his plight. The child knows that all these meetings are about himself and infers again that there is “something wrong” with him. Many parents don’t tell their child they are gifted for fear of giving them a “big head” but he observes the constant meetings, whispered conversations and furtive glances. Ostracized by other children and shut out from adult conversation, he feels alone and odd. Giftedness runs in families so his siblings are his most natural companions but they are separated from him into age-segregated rooms and he is actively discouraged from associating with them. Family disunity results.
Many gifted children have asynchronous development which means they may be physically six years old, capable of maths at a twelve year old level and have a reading age of a nine year old. Emotional intensity and sensitivity are also gifted traits and, coupled with asynchronous behaviour, result in unbearable pressure and the child may often whine like a toddler. Ironically, although they often behave older than they are, when they act younger than their age they draw the most attention to themselves and are then labeled “socially immature” and may even be required to repeat a grade.
Their asynchronous abilities may also create difficulties if their motor skills are several years behind their verbal and cognitive skills. The six-year-old gifted child is therefore out of place in a grade one classroom but, if shifted to a class where the academic content is appropriate, may be way out of his depth physically. For example his handwriting may be totally inadequate to keep up with the work. Teachers often focus on what the child is “bad” at, which can cause the child to feel as though they are “no good at anything”.
Gifted children tend to see ‘the big picture’ and this also makes school difficult for them. Asked to do a project on Romans, for example, they will read a stack of books, but the task of processing all that information and reproducing it as a poster with a little bit of information and a few pictures is just too hard. They may start their project over and over again or not even be able to start as they can never produce something they feel is truly definitive on the subject. Despite having a better knowledge of the topic than anyone else in the grade, they end up handing in a hastily scribbled page because they ran out of time and gave up on producing the perfect piece of work they envisaged. They begin failing as a result.
High achieving gifted students may come under a lot of pressure to continue performing. The stress results in frustration, boredom, depression and/or behaviour problems. Many lose their early love of learning, some are misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Those who know they are gifted can end up with an attitude problem – they come to expect that something should be done for them and wait resentfully, and with increasing cynicism, for that to happen.
Quite apart from the stress of school, it takes up so much of their time, and many gifted school children are also enrolled in a hectic round of extra-curricular activities in an attempt to meet needs which are not being met during school hours. Tragically, the stress of school is so great that some gifted students suicide.
In contrast, home education allows gifted children to blossom. Gone is all that stress, confusion and bullying. They have their siblings and parents for company. Their love of learning is valued and encouraged, they can pursue their passionate interests and they can read to their heart’s content. At home they don’t have to produce something on paper in order to demonstrate that learning has happened. With the pressure to produce work lifted, they can enjoy learning the way they did before starting school. Gradually they begin to produce things because they want to. They are not tested and feel no concerns about what everybody else’s work looks like. Often they plan huge pieces of work which will never be finished and they always start more things than they can complete but will finish more and more projects as they get older. Sometimes they don’t finish things because the task they have set themselves is far too big. On other occasions they stop before they finish a project because they have learnt all they wish to learn about it for now. They revel in the conversations home education makes possible. They also have time left over for as much thinking and daydreaming as they wish. This is very important to any child but gifted children are more likely to be introverted than extroverted and will therefore thrive on the opportunity for reflective thought.
In school, their imaginative stories had to be condensed to what their handwriting could cope with, but at home they can use a computer to write stories, tape-record themselves telling a story or dictate them to mum, dad or an older sibling. A passion for story-telling is therefore not strangled by the struggle to control a pen and the fact that the pen goes so much slower than the story happening inside their mind. Hours of imaginative play also help to develop their story-making ability and passion.
Home education is accepting of asynchronization because learning that is uneven is taken for granted and it’s okay to be interested in physics but struggle with scissors. At school it is considered ‘weird’ and ‘anti-social’. Other home educating adults, who by their very nature respect children and value learning, respond supportively to children’s desire for knowledge about the world.
So are parents ‘qualified’ to educate gifted children? Yes! By the time a gifted child is five years old, his parents have five years experience in how gifted children learn – far more than the average teacher.
Schools fail gifted children and many gifted children fail school. Once out of the system, children begin to feel happy again and follow their own thirst for knowledge. All these children needed was to be removed from the system and allowed to learn at their own pace. There are no grade levels, only a world full of interesting things to learn about.
Giftedness is a difference and differences are frowned upon in school. Learning at home a gifted child is not forced into the constant, stressful company of a group of children who happen to be the same age. As home learners, they learn to deal with and befriend people of many ages. Indeed they have more access to adults generally and they enjoy the interaction this brings. The children may choose to be alone often. There is nothing wrong with time spent alone -we just live in a society which does not value it.
Nurturing gifted children (as with any children) involves responding to them appropriately and this can best be done on an individual basis at home. Far from hot-housing, home education allows gifted children not only the time to enjoy learning but to play, daydream and just be. Out of school, giftedness can be a gift instead of a problem.