How We Shortchange Gifted Kids

One of my four beloved and gifted children (a son I won’t mention by name here) didn’t care much for proving himself in school. This is the boy who, at two years of age, maintained an interest in styles and brands of vacuums, even requesting a trip to Sears for his birthday to linger as long he liked in the vacuum section. He commonly asked me questions I didn’t have answers for, like “Do bees have intestines?” and “Do trees feel cold in winter?” When he was three he discovered that bones have Latin names. Then he pestered us to find out those names so he could memorize them. Before he was four he used grown-up tools to build things and take things apart.

He was unfailingly warm-hearted, eager to help, highly creative, and endlessly curious. Family, friends, even acquaintances told us his obvious giftedness meant he needed experts to guide his education.

Gifted kids may not show their abilities early 

When Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius followed nearly 1,500 young people with high IQ scores, he missed two future Nobel prize winners —William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, whose scores were too low to qualify for the study.  In fact, many Nobel laureates did not show exceptional ability in childhood, and some actively disliked school.

  • Albert Einstein (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921) did well in subjects he liked, but refused assignments that bored him, preferring to read and tinker with building sets. He wrote, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”
  • George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1925) attended only a few years of school. He wrote, “…there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is in some respects more cruel than a prison.”
  • Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) was a late talker and by his third birthday he still hadn’t spoken a single word. He read avidly on his own but described his grammar school as stultifying, “an intellectual desert.”
  • John B. Gurdon  (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2012) labored on despite what his teacher wrote about him after his first semester of biology when he was 15 years old. “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

My son’s kindergarten teacher seemed unwilling to acknowledge that he was already reading. The only child in his class whose reading ability was championed was a girl whose parents were both physicians. She was brought to the front of the class so she could read to her peers from picture books in a regular display of her precocity. My child, son of a blue collar father, was expected to complete rote pre-reading worksheets reinforcing words like “run” and “jump” along with the rest of the class.

A recent study confirms wealthy elementary students are much likelier to be placed in gifted programs than their lower-income counterparts, even when those students attend the same school and show the same levels of academic achievement.

We miss most gifted kids 

Students are typically tested for giftedness when they’re nominated by teachers. For a variety of reasons, including unconscious racial and class bias plus a tendency to mistake compliance for potential, research shows teacher nominations miss over 60 percent of gifted kids. This is a shocking number.

Researchers concluded their 2016 article in Gifted Child Quarterly with a strongly worded statement.

“The authors of this article are on record in opposition to a model of gifted education which begins with an attempt to “identify the gifted,” because we believe that the usual conception of giftedness as a trait of individuals, with stable manifestation across academic domains, lifespan, and educational arrangements (cf., Peters et al., 2014), is not educationally useful though it is scientifically interesting.”

From kindergarten on, my son was not all that interested in school. He drifted along, easily able to ace tests but not all that interested in getting through assignments that didn’t interest him. Now I see that as integrity — like so many other young people who remain true to themselves within larger institutions. At the time I was told this was nothing but laziness.

Gifted kids may not easily fit in the school setting

They may be labeled as difficult, even medicated to make them easier to manage. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s research links five types of “overexcitability” to giftedness, each one hard to accommodate in a typical classroom setting.

  • Intellectual overexcitability: Relentless questions and a drive to go deep into concepts.
  • Imaginal overexcitability: Doodling, daydreaming, unable to let the imaginary world go.
  • Sensual overexcitability: Strong reactions to sound, texture, taste, touch, sights.
  • Psychomotor overexcitability: Rapid talking or fidgety behavior, urge to expend energy.
  • Emotional overexcitability: Sensitivity to and difficulty “getting over” emotions.

Research done by Ruth  Karpinski indicates giftedness is also associated with  mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity,,autism, and physiological diseases that include autoimmune disease, environmental and food allergies, and asthma.

Studies consistently show that personality traits associated with creativity are hard to manage and therefore discouraged in the classroom. One study found the second grade children who scored highest on tests of creativity were also identified as those who were disciplined the most.

There are various estimates, but it’s thought that a quarter of gifted students are considered underachievers and as many as 18 percent drop out of high school.

Through the years my son got mostly A’s and B’s in school. Although teachers appreciated that he was polite and quiet, they told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”  When we asked to have him tested for the district’s gifted program we were told he didn’t qualify because his teacher didn’t recommend him. The teacher said she didn’t recommend him because his work was unfinished or hastily done too often. It didn’t matter that he was reading high school level books in second grade (at home), it mattered that he followed the rules. When they finally agreed to pull him out of class for an IQ test his score came in at 118. Bright, not gifted. I knew that wasn’t an accurate assessment.

We rely too much on tests

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, the longest-running longitudinal study of gifted kids, tracked 5,000 high-potential individuals — some for over 45 years. It demonstrated the pitfalls of standardized tests and talent searches because these approaches miss many gifted kids in poor and rural areas. It also found the types of tests used were too limited. Teens who excelled in spatial ability were among those most likely to go on to produce more patents and professional publications than their peers, meaning students who simply test well in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability have exceptional potential in STEM fields.

As Tom Clynes explains in “How to Raise A Genius: Lessons from a 45 year Study of Super-Smart Children,” published in the journal Nature,  spatial ability is largely built, from infancy on, through hands-on exploration such as helping with varied tasks, playing with loose parts, using maps, doing puzzles, having questions answered by demonstration, using tools — building potential by doing. Not doing assignments on paper or screen.

So we took our son to Case Western Reserve University for more professional testing. He was there for hours. He was found to be profoundly gifted in all sorts of areas. Overall IQ score came in at 151.

Even with those results our award-winning school district said that he didn’t meet the performance standards necessary for the gifted program. Nonetheless, they grudgingly admitted him. This was a good program with highly qualified teachers, and it increased his enthusiasm somewhat, but he still didn’t see the point of schoolwork.  Teachers still told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”

Gifted kids don’t fit mainstream assumptions 

Andrew Solomon writes in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity that being exceptional is actually the core of the human condition because difference is what unites us. He asks to what extent parents should push children to become what they believe is their best selves.

Dr. Solomon says raising exceptionally gifted children is complicated in an age and ability-segregated educational world. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.” This puts heavy pressure on parents and teachers. The education system is constructed for an average that doesn’t, in any one individual, exist. The farther from that norm, the more a child is a misfit. Dr. Solomon speculates that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.”

To my lasting regret, we followed the advice of teachers and guidance counselors to take away things our son loved to do until his schoolwork was done. Over the next few years he was too often deprived of his delightfully nerdy interests in things like ham radio, model trains, and small engine repair because he just couldn’t get around to finishing a report. I know now that this was the exact wrong advice, that he was building knowledge and capabilities far more necessary for his whole being and far more relevant to a lasting acquisition of math, science, history, and language skills in the pursuit of his own interests than he ever could in by regurgitating facts on a test.

Giftedness appears to be, in large part, a developmental process 

A decade and a half of the Human Genome Project failed to find genes that explain differences in intelligence. Hundreds of studies affirm what a Bowlby Centre report sums up as “virtually no genes explaining significant amounts of variance in traits.” Genetically, genetic variance explains less than five percent of traits such as intelligence or psychological differences. In other words, smarts are not “fixed” in the genes.

Families of gifted children tend to provide an enriching environment, have high expectations, be child-centered, and offer a great deal of independence but these characteristics don’t necessarily “cause” giftedness either.

The 30-plus year Fullerton Longitudinal Study took a different approach to understanding how giftedness evolves. Instead of following kids identified as gifted, it started in 1979 by following healthy one-year-old children, regularly assessing them until the age of 17. One interesting result was identifying a second form of giftedness —motivational. Motivationally gifted kids remain intrinsically drawn to challenging and novel tasks, show persistent curiosity and a drive toward mastery. The more conventional category, intellectually gifted kids, showed advanced capabilities early and performed at a higher level across various subject areas. But their intrinsic motivation didn’t necessarily survive through adolescence. Researchers said there was very little overlap. Intellectually gifted kids may persist in curiosity and achievement, but motivationally gifted kids were distinctly more likely to work harder, learn more, and succeed. Researchers urge educators to nurture motivation in all students. They remind teachers that students do best when given greater autonomy and freedom to question assumptions, when they’re exposed to complex and novel ideas, and when they can work toward mastery rather than be judged by testing.

Scott Barry Kaufman, in an article for The Atlantic titled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” sums up this research by writing, “All in all, the Fullerton study is proof that giftedness is not something an individual is either born with or without—giftedness is clearly a developmental process.  It’s also proof that giftedness can be caused by various factors. As the Gottfrieds write in their book Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects, “giftedness is not a chance event … giftedness will blossom when children’s cognitive ability, motivation and enriched environments coexist and meld together to foster its growth.”

In fact, children’s belief in their own ability to be successful learners —particularly children who are considered at-risk in the school environment — may be a key factor in expanding intellectual mastery.

One day my 14-year-old son and I had an appointment with the guidance counselor. This man started in on a lecture about how smart kids made a school look good. He told my son most students had little choice, that they were essentially doomed to drive the brain equivalent of a Volkswagen, but my son was born with a Maserati race car brain. That did not have the desired impact on either of us. I sat there thinking this was an offensive analogy, my son later told me he was thinking this guy didn’t know much about race cars.

The appointment got worse.

The counselor, a man with a master’s degree and three decades of experience suddenly stood up, loomed over me, pulled back his fist and started to throw a punch at me. My son leaped out of his chair just as the punch halted a foot from my face. “See,” the counselor said, “you’d do anything to keep your mom from being hurt. But you’re hurting her every day by not doing your best.”

My son’s education wasn’t about me, or that school’s test scores, or what anyone wanted my him to prove. Although we’d been told from the time he was a toddler that we needed experts to deal with such a gifted child, the counselor’s heavy-handed manipulation helped me see, imperfectly, that experts had been getting it wrong. He’d been showing us all along how he learned best and the adults in his life did their very best to ignore that.

Full use of their gifts may be squelched

Even the most promising child prodigies rarely grow up to use their genius in profoundly creative ways. They excel early on at music, math, or science, but when that excellence is aimed at gaining approval of adults through extraordinary performances or test scores it may not nurture more creative, unconventional approaches. Original compositions don’t necessarily arise from Rachmaninoff played to perfection and new innovations don’t necessarily arise from impressive grasp of facts. Interestingly, when 500 top scientists were asked to identify the core traits of exemplary scientists, they put curiosity at the top. And we’ve known for a long time that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate with adult happiness, career success, good relationships, or mental and physical health.

My son is doing well as a  young adult, which is all any mother can ask. But I would like to apologize to him for believing experts when all along he was right there showing us that he needed to learn in his own way.

16 thoughts on “How We Shortchange Gifted Kids

  1. What a great article!!! I can so relate. My son had many of the characteristics you describe during his school years. He was able to coast through in spite of the lack of challenges but I am not sure how well he was served by the process. I feel like the toxic public school environment at the time was highly difficult and perhaps damaging for my daughter, who while maybe not as obviously “gifted” as my son early on, was more dilligent and sensitive, trying to please while the system caged her in. While there are many well meaning and caring teachers out there, the system is decaying rapidly and not serving our youth at all. I guess this subject pushes some of my buttons!! So thanks for bringing this issue up into the light!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a strange experience for a parent isn’t it, to see our kids in a toxic environment and yet have it affirmed by society that this is the only correct environment where they can flourish? Sort of crazy-making.

      I’m glad you brought up the many well-meaning and caring teachers out there. I try to remember to reinforce that it’s the system, not the people working in the system, and dropped that ball. Thanks Jann.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so happy that so many homeschooling pioneers have gone before me and shown how regular school isn’t the only option. Thank you for your writing and your book, so my sweet children (at least one of whom is an advanced reader and mathematically precocious) don’t have to face that kind of environment where they are chronically misunderstood and underserved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m pretty sure I’m such a fierce advocate for kids because of my own mistakes. This story of keeping my son in school far too long is one of my biggest mistakes. Thanks for your encouragement Jen.


  3. Fabulous article,I so much appreciate its honesty. I could write a whole essay in reply. I feel endlessly grateful that I kept my child out of school, even the “gifted programme” which she found so tedious. Teachers generally don’t understand the difference between smart and gifted – or about the different degrees of giftedness, for that matter. I recall a teacher showing me what her most advanced students were reading (chapter books) and being aghast when I told her what my five year old was currently reading (a philosophical treatise in novel form). She admitted she wouldn’t have a clue how to fit that into her classroom. I actually wonder if IQ tests understand giftedness either. All they show is how well a child understands their rules and is willing to obey them. I’m sorry for the experiences of your son, but remember – we do the best we can with the information we have at the time, and you kept your son in school really believing it was right for him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had to smile in recognition at the disparity between what your child was reading at home and what advanced students were reading at school. Reminds me of the time students in my daughter’s kindergarten class were asked about their favorite things for some bulletin board display. The teacher was stuck on my daughter’s answer to “favorite song” because the teacher wasn’t sure how to spell Beethoven.

      I agree with you on IQ tests too. Some of the research I shared in this piece and more in previous pieces indicate that IQ test results have very limited correlation with long-term adult success in all sorts of areas — health, relationships, career, and happiness.

      Thanks too for your kind words about doing the best we can at the time.


  4. Do you have any tips for how to advocate for my son in a public school setting? We are unable to homeschool, but don’t want his giftedness to get overlooked or squelched. He’s entering kindergarten next month, but our district doesn’t start screening for their gifted program until the end of 1st grade. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cherih,

    I only have what I wish I’d done from the start for all four of my kids. Here are some thoughts.

    ~Insist on a no homework policy through elementary school at least (there’s no research showing homework provides academic benefit to children in this age group — see Alfie Kohn’s books and articles Initially you may be the only parent with this viewpoint. Speak up at parent meetings and teacher conferences by talking about the research, and continue to insist to your son’s teacher and principal that his grades must be based on his in-class work as he will not being doing homework. This is important for all children, including gifted kids, because it gives them back their out-of-school time to explore their passions, to daydream, pretend, play, and spend time with their families. These pursuits are all more likely to develop their creativity, emotional intelligence, and sense of themselves as capable people than homework ever can.

    ~In other ways free up your son’s out-of-school time from overly structured programs. He’s less likely to benefit from adult-run sports and enrichment programs than he is from being given the freedom to explore his own interests. Say yes to messes and adventures. (

    ~Opt out of standardized testing, if you can. The tests themselves are part of the problem, teaching to the test is a much greater problem. There’s a lot of excellent information at

    ~Teachers, in my experience, are overwhelmed by many students with different needs. It’s a common tendency to give gifted kids extra rote work to keep them busy rather than set them free to read/draw/explore/imagine topics of interest to them. Approach his teacher with respect for his/her constraints and ask that your son be given the opportunity to move out of regular curricula he has mastered in order to pursue independent study projects (for example at his age this might include writing and illustrating his own stories, or looking at books about a topic that interests him and telling the class what he’s learned).

    ~Free yourselves too. If something has come up that’s more interesting than a regular school day, let yourself call in to excuse your son from attending. Go take that hike to see migrating monarchs or to watch construction workers tear up your street to put in new pipes or to attend a Native American pow wow.

    There’s much more to say on this topic but take it from me, speak up and do whatever you can to advocate for your son’s right to learn in ways that best advance his unique gifts.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this wonderful, informative article. I wish more educators received thorough training on working with high-potential children. The vast majority of teachers I know sincerely care about their students, but when you combine huge class sizes with lack of knowledge about the traits that come with giftedness, so many kids’ unique educational needs–not to mention personal and interpersonal needs–just don’t get met.

    What I’ve found most helpful to know, as a parent of a gifted child and a family-practice physician, is that giftedness isn’t the Hollywood picture of a one-year-old who can read, but a whole package: strong, deep-running emotions, physical exuberance, a penetrating intellect (and a tendency to ask laser-sharp questions and engage in attorney-like debates over everything from why they shouldn’t have to eat certain foods to why school should be optional), and a rich imaginative life. The same qualities that make life with a child like this exciting also tend to wear out the parent(s)!

    I recognized my daughter’s nature not long after she was born, not because she picked up a book (for the first year of her life, she preferred to chew on books over having them read to her), but because of her unusual activity level. Not only did she thrive on less sleep than I’d heard or read was typical, but she fought sleep with a passion. I’d watch her eyelids start to droop, and then her intense eyes popped open again and she tensed all over, willing herself to stay awake. When other babies were taking two naps per day, she was down to one, and she stopped napping altogether when she was two (although a long bike ride with her in the trailer, or a long car ride, could soothe her to sleep occasionally). At age five and a half, she still fights sleep. We rest together side by side in her bed (she’s most comfortable drifting off with me or her dad next to her, and then we can leave and she usually stays there the rest of the night), and that’s her favorite time to share her hopes, concerns, and imaginary worlds. Then, the next morning, once she’s up, she springs out of bed and powers herself through her day with an incredible energy level. She’s not distractible or hyperactive; she just could be a power source for the house.

    We’re grateful that she’s attending a wonderful alternative school that focuses on place-based education and nature as classroom, and each class has three age levels in it, encouraging kids to work at their own pace. What will happen after she finishes fifth grade, we’re not sure yet, but right now, she’s happy there and is thriving, not just academically, but as a whole person.

    Thanks again for this terrific, thought-provoking article!


    • Your daughter is fortunate indeed that you recognize her energy level and wakefulness as healthy fascination. Her school sounds wonderful, I wish all children had such an alternative.

      It was a pleasure to discover your site. For others reading this comment, if you are interested in the craft of writing I’m sure you’ll enjoy Valor and Compassion


  7. Dear Laura, how painful that experience must have been. I flinched as that d* counselor’s fist came at you. Knowing you (although we have yet to meet in person) made it more visceral than if it had been someone I don’t know at all.

    I read books in my lap throughout my classes in K12. I had never heard of homeschooling back then, and I’m not sure there was such a thing as gifted programs yet. But I wasn’t put in the top reading group in 5th grade because I didn’t do my homework (I did hw until I got moved up), wasn’t recommended for 9th grade honors English because I didn’t do my homework (fought to get in), and wasn’t recommended for the independent study group that left class in my 9th grade algebra class to work in an office together (fought to get in, and stayed ahead of the others). That independent study time may have been the best thing that happened to me academically.

    I wasn’t a good writer in college. It took years to find my voice. I was good at math, and appreciated being good at something I enjoyed. I still don’t stand out as “gifted”, unless publishing a book that took 6 1/2 years of hard work is standing out.

    I explored my interests in codes and ciphers at the library when I was pretty young. I wrote a sequel to one of my favorite scifi books (while in high school, or younger?). It was pretty bad…


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