Guest Author - Lorel Shea
When you are raising a gifted child, you may find that the typical course of development referenced in baby books just doesn't apply. Milestones that other parents look forward to at six months or one year may happen significantly sooner, and leave the parent wondering what sort of path through life this child is going to follow. It's a bit disconcerting to read that you should expect to hear a first word around ten months of age, when your ten month old babe speaks in sentences. My advice to these parents is to not project too far into the future. You don't know if your baby will be doing calculus at eight, and right now, it is not helpful to speculate that far ahead. Be proactive about meeting your child's needs now, and keep doing “the next right thing” for your unique little one. You need to step outside of the customary paradigm, and figure out as you go along what your child is ready for socially and emotionally as well as intellectually.
When a gifted child progresses quickly in reading, traditional reading level suggestions can become obsolete. How do you know what sort of material he is ready to absorb if he can read virtually anything before school age? Reading levels assigned to controversial books may be quite misleading. Alice Walker's bestseller, The Color Purple, has an assigned difficulty level of grade five according to one scheme, but the content is very adult. Parents must work hard to ensure that the books and magazines their child has access to are in line with what the parent perceives as appropriate for that child, regardless of how easy it would for the child to decipher. I've known three year olds who have enjoyed the Harry Potter series, but it would have been too much for my sensitive children at that age. My son, at age four, found the Scooby Doo decorations at a friend's birthday party to be too scary!
Regard the child holistically, and do not push the intellectual abilities past what that child is ready to process emotionally. When my early readers were small, they read non fiction for their most challenging material. Factual information about animals, plants, the solar system etc. can also raise some questions, but I felt better prepared to deal with this than worries about imaginary bad guys.
As these children grow and learn, many parents find that school is a big question mark. They have to step outside the paradigm once again, and make decisions on grade skips, partial acceleration, homeschooling, and or early college. It's not easy to break with tradition, and school administrations are often as confused as the parents. How do you chart a course for an island that is not yet discovered? There is no clear path for some individuals, and the adults in the child's life have to consider each step carefully.
Let's say you have a very highly gifted eleven year old. First, consider the options. Write them all down on paper. Include choices that at first may appear off the wall, such as skipping high school completely. Try to follow the consequences of each action (or inaction) logically. If you bus him to the high school for math and science, will he be able to negotiate the larger school with ease? Will he be comfortable speaking up in a classroom of older kids? What will you do when he runs out of math options at the high school? If you decide to prepare him to enter full time college at 14 rather than going to high school, what are the trade offs? Be sure to include the child in discussions that involve any sort of change. You might be surprised with his opinion, for or against a solution, or find that he has insight that you lack. Gifted children should never be forced to accelerate, though some may be 99% ready but have some lingering fears. In that case, it may be best to wait a year, or to suggest a trial period. Remember that the child is a person, albeit a young one, and you should respect his feelings and do what will make him happy, and not act to satisfy a need of yours.
Stepping outside the paradigm can be scary and strange, but it can also be quite exhilarating. When you throw away the template, you can blaze a path that is just right for your gifted child.