Austen Jeffries was very busy last year. She devoured 150 books: The Chronicles of Narnia was her favorite. She plunged into a study of the phases of the moon in between updating her blog and completing her school project on the building of London's Big Ben. Long fascinated by rocks, she decided she wanted to be a geologist, even though her friends in Orlando have no idea what that is. Austen was 7.
The Jeffries family is lucky: They have a gifted child who's passionate about learning and they found a public school where teachers are trained to work with advanced students. But it wasn't easy. "When we discovered that our school district had no programs for her, a friend recommended a school that did," says her mom, Miranda. "So we sold our house and moved."
In fact, there's a shortage of programs for gifted and talented kids nationwide -- and those that do exist often fail to meet children's varied needs. Although there are no precise statistics, the National Association of Gifted Children estimates that 6 percent of kids in kindergarten through 12th grade are gifted -- a term that is debated but used to describe children who are intellectually precocious. Yet overall, American students rank far below their peers in other countries on achievement tests, especially in math and science. In order to compete in the global marketplace, we must nurture our future scientists, artists, and leaders -- the children who will someday come up with a cure for cancer or broker peace in the Mideast. "Educating our best and brightest is simply not the priority that it should be," says Joseph S. Renzulli, Ph.D., director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and author of Light Up Your Child's Mind.
While most people assume that having a gifted child is a gift in every way, parents with exceptional kids often find it confusing and frustrating to navigate the maze of rules and red tape surrounding their school district's programs. "Parents may be considered pushy simply for trying to get their child the same opportunities to learn in school with her peers," says Carolyn Kottmeyer, a mother of two in Philadelphia, who founded Hoagies' Gifted Education Page, a clearinghouse for information. If you suspect that your child is gifted, it's important to do your own homework to find the best educational environment for her -- and then to advocate effectively on her behalf.
"Many parents as well as educators are completely unaware of the social, emotional, and academic needs of gifted children," says Dina Brulles, Ph.D., director of Gifted Education in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, in Arizona. "These kids often feel alone and out of step with everyone else." Unless they're challenged by teachers who know how to help them learn at their own pace and level, they can quickly become bored, stop paying attention, misbehave, or clash with others.
"My daughter's brain works 24/7, and when she's bored she gets agitated and develops tics," says Miranda Jeffries, who concedes that Austen has been harder to raise than her 4-year-old and 2-year-old combined. "She was so excited about starting her new school, but even in its gifted program she felt frustrated at first because the work seemed too easy."
A child whose knowledge far exceeds that of her peers may have her enthusiasm squashed by teachers who aren't prepared to deal with persistent questions and comments. At 3, Annapurna Chitnavis attended a small private preschool in Phoenix because her parents thought she'd get more support than in a public school. Instead, she was reprimanded and given time-outs for correcting her teachers. "She's always been a demanding, high-energy child," explains her mother, Pradnya. "If she doesn't agree with us, she'll grill us like a litigator." Though she says Annapurna was reading the encyclopedia at age 3, the school refused to acknowledge that she might benefit from skipping a grade. "Basically they told us, 'If you're not happy, leave,'" says Pradnya. "But we didn't know where to go."
Part of the problem is that educators, psychologists, and politicians can't agree on what "gifted" really means. Until the 1970s, the term was applied only to those scoring above a certain level (usually 130) on standard IQ tests. But in 1972, a Department of Education report established a broader definition that recognized giftedness in creativity, leadership, and the visual and performing arts. It encouraged states to provide special services for extraordinary learners but didn't make gifted programs mandatory.
Due to the lack of federal standards, decisions about gifted programs are left to the states and districts. This means there is a wide variability in the type of programs available and who qualifies for them. Some start in kindergarten, others not until second or third grade. Some school districts group gifted children in special classes; others provide pull-out programs or mainstream them into regular classes where teachers work separately with them. Although gifted kids may be allowed to skip a grade, schools and parents are often reluctant to accelerate kids because they're afraid a child will be out of place socially in a class with older kids, says Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., director of the Family Achievement Clinic, in Cleveland, and author of Keys to Parenting the Gifted Child. "However, research clearly shows that kids who skip grades do fine academically and socially." This may be just what they need to be truly challenged and have a love of learning.
But let's acknowledge the elephant in the room: The lack of options for gifted kids may also be due to the ambivalence Americans feel about anything that smacks of elitism. Why should exceptionally bright kids be singled out for special services when so many kids struggle just to read and write? Shouldn't cash-strapped schools put what little money they do have into enrichment that benefits kids who are falling behind?
"There is a deep misunderstanding about programs for intellectually gifted kids," says David Henry Feldman, Ph.D., professor of child development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. "Of course, children with learning disabilities or special needs deserve all we can give them. But equal education means giving everyone equal opportunities to learn, not teaching everyone the same way."
If your young child seems advanced, contact your state association for parents of gifted kids and connect with online support groups. Look for a preschool that has organized yet flexible classrooms with lots of opportunities for kids to explore, create, and touch. You want teachers who will be engaging and supportive of your child's abilities and who won't feel threatened if you ask about trying to challenge your child even more.
A year before he starts kindergarten, check with your school district to determine which tests are needed to qualify for a gifted and talented program. Most schools will require an ability test or an IQ test, plus an achievement test, which gauges what a child has actually learned. Tests are either given by a psychologist or a school administrator, who will interpret the scores and suggest the ideal learning environment for your child.
The best programs teach each child at his own level and have teachers who have had training in gifted education. One idea that's earned good grades in recent years is "cluster grouping," in which a group of advanced learners are placed in the same classroom. Teachers can give a general lesson to everyone, plus in-depth projects to those who can handle them. If your school doesn't have a gifted program, ask about magnet or charter schools as well as in-district transfers, which let students attend any school in the district if space is available. Investigate what programs neighboring districts offer by checking their websites.
Over the years, you'll probably need to hone your public-relations skills. Approaching school officials in a confrontational way or accusing them of neglecting your child will certainly backfire. Instead, let them know that you hope to collaborate on a plan. When Annapurna was 4, her parents abandoned private school and networked until they found their public-school district's director of gifted education, who helped them to tailor a plan for their daughter. Now 9, Annapurna skipped kindergarten and is thriving in a class with kids who are a year or two older than she is.
Austen Jeffries was accepted into a county-wide program that allowed her to attend another school in their district once a week to study Asian culture and global health issues. As a result, her overall attitude toward school improved and her tics disappeared.
That's good news for Austen and her parents, who are beginning to have their hands full with 4-year-old Ian too. His current obsession: dinosaurs. "He'll rattle off the names of 30 different types," says his mom. "If you ask him a question that he thinks is stupid, he'll just roll his eyes. We're all concerned for his future teachers' sanity."
Is Your Child Gifted -- Or Just Smart?
"Gifted kids see the world as if they're looking through a high-powered microscope," says Dr. Sylvia Rimm. These are some characteristics you might see in a gifted child.
Strength: Impressive Memory
Signs: She can remember details for long periods of time.
Strength: Savvy sense of humor
Signs: He sees absurdities in situations that other kids never notice.
Strength: Plays intensely
Signs: She does puzzles designed for older kids and organizes complex games.
Strength: Unbounded intellectual energy
Signs: He's constantly experimenting, taking things apart, and asking questions. He delves into a range of interests.
Strength: Naturally mature
Signs: She displays unusual independence, self-reliance, responsibility, and prefers adult company.
Strength: Strong critical thinking skills
Signs: He notices discrepancies between what people say and do and may feel uncomfortable with "right" answers.
Signs: She masters information quickly and learns reading, writing, and math concepts long before her peers.
Strength: Deep empathy and compassion
Signs: He is sensitive and may worry a lot about the welfare of other people.
Strength: Creative instincts
Signs: She has a sophisticated ability to express her feelings through art, music, or dance.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.