Polly Breland, the admissions director at Hunter College's public elementary school for gifted and talented kids in Manhattan, is buried beneath 3,000 applications from preschoolers vying for the 48 available spots each fall. At Quest Academy, a Chicago-area private school for gifted kids that accepts children as young as 3 and charges as much as many colleges, there's a waiting list of 40 to 50 kids at any given time. And in monied enclaves like Beverly Hills, weary preschoolers are drilled in their ABCs by tutors to gain entrance into elite kindergartens.
Call it a deep concern for children's education, or call it parental hysteria over getting kids labeled "exceptional" and placed in special programs. But whatever the phrasing, more children are classified as gifted today than ever before. In the United States, gifted kids now make up 5% to 7% of the school-age population, or about 3 to 4 million kids. In certain districts in some states, such as Maryland, up to 22% of schoolchildren may fall into this category. These statistics are a dramatic increase from 3% three decades ago, when only those with IQs above 145 made the cut.
No wonder the word gifted seems to be on every parent's lips. So what gives? Have we been magically transformed into a Lake Wobegon nation, where all children are above average? Or is the determination of a child's giftedness viewed as a validation of a parent's own intelligence -- so that being the mother of a little Einstein entitles you to bragging rights at the supermarket and the office? Is there some fissure in our collective psyche that compels us to establish our children's giftedness as a way to compensate for our own shortcomings? The answer, say the experts, is complicated.
A major part of the confusion stems from the changing definition of giftedness. It used to be that only the Mozarts of the world qualified. Now there's a lengthy continuum, with prodigies at one end and kids who are just very bright at the other.
Until the late 1960s, giftedness was based strictly on IQ. Then experts developed a broader definition, which has remained largely intact and includes five areas: intellectual (measured by IQ and achievement tests), academic (such as when a child is fantastic in math), creative, leadership, and visual and performing arts. "We realize there's much more to intelligence than just a test score," says E. Jean Gubbins, Ph.D., associate director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
In some families, it's pretty obvious that the kids are, if not prodigies exactly, then clearly above the norm in intelligence. Carolyn Kottmeyer has two daughters, ages 5 and 9, who have IQs over 160 -- think Good Will Hunting. Her younger child began teaching herself American Sign Language when she was 4. When her older child was the same age, she had memorized several Broadway shows from start to finish. One day she compared the triangular relationship between herself and two of her friends to that of Marius, Cosette, and Eponine in Les Misérables. "My husband and I are running as fast as we can just to keep up," says Kottmeyer, of Downingtown, PA.
For kids whose IQs aren't through the roof, giftedness may be less apparent. For those children -- the ones who are, say, brilliant with watercolors but have trouble finishing their science homework -- the broader scope is more accurate."The more restrictive definition eliminated kids who excel in the arts and other areas," says Sally Reis, Ph.D., president of the National Association for Gifted Children and a professor of educational psychology at UConn. "It also excluded a lot of culturally diverse children, some of whom may not score as well on standardized tests."
Ellen Winner, Ph.D., a psychologist at Boston College and the author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, acknowledges the confusion and offers a different method of sorting it out. She says that three distinct criteria set gifted kids apart: They are precocious, reaching developmental milestones much faster than their peers; they are fiercely motivated to learn; and they march to their own drum.
It's this last trait that can get gifted kids into trouble -- and why many parents and teachers feel it's so important to get them into special programs.
Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., child psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Westlake, OH, and coauthor of Education of the Gifted and Talented, pioneered a test to identify "creatively gifted" kids. "They figure things out on their own -- not just faster, but in a different way," she says. "They have a really different way of processing things, and they may have trouble in school because they aren't focused on the right answer -- but on many answers. The greatest issue is preventing them from becoming oppositional."
That was the case with the Hayes family of Yuba City, CA. Seven-year-old Talia was bored in her second-grade classroom and clashed constantly with the other kids. "I kept getting called to the principal's office," says her mother, Corinna Helder-Hayes. "I was starting to think Talia was troubled."
Talia was having so many problems in school that her parents placed her in a new one, where administrators tested her and told a surprised Helder-Hayes and her husband that Talia was performing at a fifth-grade level. "We talked everything over with Talia and decided to have her skip second grade," Helder-Hayes says.
Talia's parents worried about her spending the day with older kids and still not fitting in. And although some of her classmates do treat her like a little kid, most of her parents' fears have been unfounded. In the gifted program Talia attends twice a week after school, she's made many friends. "They're all at similar intellectual levels and challenge each other in positive ways," says her mom. "Talia feels appreciated for who she is."
In Talia's case, as with most gifted kids, the big task is to ward off boredom. "A child who is not sufficiently challenged can lose interest in school very quickly," says Marilyn Wallace, head of Quest Academy. "If a kindergartner has to sit through a lesson on the alphabet when she is a fluent reader, that child will tune out because school isn't engaging."
After-school enrichment programs, such as Talia's, are just one option for gifted education. Some districts have an entire public school for gifted kids, like the one associated with Hunter College, or gifted programming may be worked into regular schools. Kids may leave their classrooms for part of the day to work on individual or group projects with a special teacher, for example.
The process of identifying kids who should participate in special programs also varies widely from district to district. IQ tests remain a common standard. Another is achievement, such as when a first-grader is reading at a sixth-grade level. A teacher may also nominate a child -- by saying, for example, "I can't meet the needs of this child in a class of 20 others who are working at a lower level."
Problems can arise when parents and educators disagree about a child's abilities. "Some people think their child is gifted when he's actually learning at a normal level," says Peter D. Rosenstein, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, DC.
Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., observes this phenomenon all the time as a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and in her consultations at elementary schools across the country. "Parents today are anxious, loving, educated, and well-intentioned. But, absolutely, they're trying to categorize their kids as gifted when they may not fit the criteria."
Dr. Winner agrees. "Some parents try to mold their children into something they're not," she says. "You can't mold children. You've got to respect the abilities each child has and doesn't have." To do otherwise does a disservice to the child. "I've seen many kids in high-level academic programs who think they're not smart," Dr. Mogel says. "That's the consequence of being in a program that is too challenging."
She's even seen parents enroll their children in very competitive schools and then send them to a tutor four days a week so they can stay on top of the material. "They don't want the school to realize that the child is in a program he shouldn't be in," she says.
What would cause parents to do this? Peer pressure is part of it, Dr. Mogel says: Parents talk to other parents and compare notes. But anxiety also plays a role. The parents that people like Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., dean of the school of education at Stanford University in California, see every day are worried about their children's futures. "We live in a society that is anxious about achievement, so parents, understandably, want to maximize their children's opportunities."
A decline in the quality of public education can also be a factor. "Some parents are very unhappy with public schools, and they believe that gifted programs are the best place to get a solid education," says Dr. Stipek.
Many such parents feel conflicted about segregating their children in special classes but think they have no alternative."The gifted program was the only way to get decent schooling for my kids," says Dari MacKenzie, whose three children attend gifted programs at their local public school in Los Angeles.
For some parents, controlling every facet of their children's education is a misguided attempt to ensure that they'll become successful adults -- a process that Alfie Kohn, a Boston-based author of several books on education, has acidly described as "Preparation H," the big push to get kids into Harvard. "[Parents] are not raising a child so much as a living résumé."
Insecurity drives some of the anxiety, says Ian Tofler, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Los Angeles and coauthor of Keeping Your Kids Out Front Without Kicking Them From Behind. "They are adding stress to their kids' childhoods by putting them in a hothouse environment, but they don't see it that way," he says. "They feel if they don't get them these advantages early on, their kids run the risk of falling by the wayside."
What parents may not realize is that micromanaging their kids' education can backfire. "Some parents are concentrating on the wrong things," says Dr. Reis. They're trying to get kids to memorize their multiplication tables instead of fostering the one thing that truly helps children excel in the long run -- enthusiasm.
"Kids are losing the love of learning," she laments. As children are drilled more and more on basic facts, their intellectual curiosity -- and often their academic performance -- drops. She thinks parents would be better off eliminating the flash cards and putting more emphasis on fun. "Instead of working on phonics at home, focus on enrichment. You can say, 'Let's go see where Emily Dickinson was born.' Or just read the child a wonderful story."
Against the Grain
Amid all the clamor to get kids into gifted programs, the Chuba family of Plymouth, MI, is running in the opposite direction.
Seven-year-old Benjamin underwent academic testing and was earmarked for the district's school for the gifted and talented, but his mother, Elizabeth, is keeping him right where he is -- in his second-grade public-school classroom. Going to the gifted school would require an extra hour a day on the bus, for one thing. More important, though, is the psychological disruption she feels the switch would bring to her son's life.
"Benjamin has great difficulty with change and has finally settled into his school and his friends," she says. "It would be more damaging, in his case, for him to be removed from his peer group."
She also doesn't relish the idea of her son's being surrounded by children who are just like him. "I think it's good for him to be with all types of kids," she says, "and even to see that not everyone is as smart as he is."
Besides, she doesn't believe Benjamin's education will suffer if he stays put. His teachers have found ways to challenge him in the classroom -- by placing him in a special math group, for example. And in his after-school program, he helps fifth-graders with their homework. "I just can't see how separating him out would be beneficial to him," she says. "My motto is 'Smart at 7, smart at 17.' "
Taming the Hype>
Chuba has a point. Experts say that despite the increase in the number of kids classified as gifted, children today are no more brilliant than they were 30 years ago, before the programs -- and the pressure -- exploded. "There's simply more awareness of gifted programs and more concern about kids' education," says Dr. Rimm.
In her view, not being enrolled in a special program probably wouldn't keep a gifted child from succeeding. But, as in Talia's case, the child could become very bored -- even miserable -- if her teachers aren't sensitive to her needs. "For gifted kids, being in a regular classroom is like being in a slow-motion movie six hours a day," says Nancy M. Robinson, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Washington, who has done extensive research on giftedness.
The best programs evaluate kids on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the broader definition of giftedness as well as the child's strengths and weaknesses. Parents can do the same when deciding what's best for their child. "You have to consider the school, the peer population, and the philosophy of the teachers," says Dr. Rimm.
Just don't go crazy with worry about labels, especially in the early years. "For preschool children, evaluation should only be done for placement in a particular program, because in 98% of the cases, you're not going to do anything different as a parent even if your child is gifted," says Rosenstein. In other words, you're going to be reading to, talking with, and playing with your child -- no matter what his IQ.
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the March 2001 issue of Child magazine.