For many of us, the word “gifted” brings to mind very specific assumptions. It’s an elite label that we put on highly achieving children for whom things come easily. We believe that success is pretty much guaranteed.

But not necessarily.

Many parents who seek my help have been told that their child is gifted. They’ve breathed a sigh of relief knowing that “he’ll figure it out, he’s smart.” At the same time, they may have received the news that their child has a learning challenge such as dyslexia or has an emotional problem. How can this be? Aren’t these contradictions? Too often, I find that the connection between these two is not defined. This can be detrimental to both the child’s learning and mental health.

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Giftedness means having a brain that is wired differently. While no two gifted people are the same, gifted individuals can have extreme sensitivities, intensities, creative and intellectual drives, and perfectionism. The inner world of the gifted child can be much larger than she knows how to express and sometimes learning how to be in the world can be difficult. While many people associate the term “special needs” with children who have developmental or learning challenges, it means only that a child has “special needs.” Gifted children are a special needs population.

The Columbus Group, a small group of individuals (parents, educators, and psychologists) who in the late 1980’s worked with highly to profoundly gifted children in Columbus, Ohio, sought to re-define giftedness in terms of the inner experience of the individual. They define giftedness as follows: “Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” (The Columbus Group, 1991)

Asynchronous development means that the child is not following the developmental milestones that we expect from a typical child. He may say his first word at four months, but not read until age 10. She may hold a calculus book in one hand and a teddy bear in the other at age nine.

Before she even entered school, Clara (name has been changed) was a science enthusiast and lover of horses and all animals. When her mother attended her first parent-teacher meeting, the kindergarten teacher reported that she enjoyed the level at which Clara could communicate about most topics. Furthermore, she loved Clara’s participation in all class discussions. When a guest science expert came to class, he was taken aback by her higher level, in-depth knowledge on various science topics. However, the teacher also said, “The other children don’t like your daughter.” Clara despised coloring, worksheets, and any “busy” work that was assigned to her. She responded to these by often ripping the pages with her crayon out of frustration. She told her mom, “It’s just what the teachers give us when they have other work to do.”

By second grade, Clara was having a harder time with the worksheets and homework. During a math homework session with her dad, she yelled out of frustration, “If I already did the problem, why do I have to keep doing all of these!” referring to the many pages of math problems.

Meanwhile, her mother was becoming aware that Clara was being left out and bullied by other children on the school yard. When Clara’s mom discussed this with the school principal, she was met with defensiveness, and the events were often blamed on Clara. Clara’s mother decided to help out in the classroom in order to observe and better understand what was going on. She noticed that Clara had become very quiet during class discussions. The second grade teacher didn’t know that Clara had previously been an engaged, articulate student. Clara’s mother felt her daughter was a stream of contradictions.

Since Clara was slower to read and to do math than her peers, after some testing, it was decided that she would be pulled out of class for special education tutoring. (She was tested as “gifted” for verbal vocabulary, but very low in other areas.) Clara’s mother didn’t quite know why, but she knew that this tutoring would not work well for Clara. However, she wasn’t sure how else to help her.

Clara often complained about the “baby” books she was assigned to read at school. Once, when Clara’s mother happened to be watching Clara’s first grade teacher testing Clara’s comprehension skills, there was a misunderstanding about whether water ran “over” or “under” the ground. The teacher thought Clara didn’t understand the words “under” and “over” and said, “No, water runs ‘over’ the ground,” pointing to the very simple book with a picture of a river. Her mother tried to explain that Clara was probably referring to aquifers. She didn’t want to be seen as uncooperative, so she didn’t press the issue. Sure enough, the first few weeks of her special education tutoring, Clara was in trouble for running down the halls, away from her remedial tutoring sessions.

At this point, the school psychologist was suggesting that Clara was “defiant” and was going to reevaluate her. Clara’s mother was starting to worry that Clara was defiant; that there was something wrong with her child. Even her behavior after school was becoming more difficult to manage. Clara would have meltdowns that would last until bedtime. The Clara that used to be, the sweet, curious, engaged, loving, spontaneous, and joyful girl was disappearing before her eyes. Clara wasn’t even drawing pictures of horses as much as she used to. Sometimes on the weekends she would return to her old self, if the family spent a day in nature with a lot of physical activity and quiet time, or if she spent time with non-school friends, or if horses and other animals were involved. But she felt that Clara’s spark was slowly fading. She wasn’t sure if this was part of the normal struggles of growing up and fitting in, or something was going very wrong. She feared it was the latter, and didn’t know what to do.

This is when a friend suggested that Clara might be gifted. Clara’s mother thought this was a joke, because Clara was having problems in school. (Her high vocabulary didn’t seem relevant to what was happening.) But when she sought my help, read about it, and talked with other mothers who had gifted children, she was shocked to discover the similarities in their stories.

Even though Clara had been tested through the school system, I suggested that she be tested through a center that does in-depth, individual assessments. Clara was assessed to be in the highly-gifted category. Clara’s mother was given very specific information, such as the fact that Clara is an introvert (a surprise to her mother) and that she was a highly visual-spatial thinker. The report included information about Clara’s sensitivities, propensity for ADHD, and sensory issues. While this isn’t the case for every gifted child, since Clara was highly gifted, she would need special classes designed for gifted children that offer more depth, density, and opportunities for her to use her imagination while learning.

Clara’s mother discovered that the reason the math worksheets didn’t work for Clara was because she had already integrated the knowledge and found that repeating the “same thing over and over” was more than just tedious. In the words of Linda Silverman, an expert on gifted visual-spatial learners, doing repetitive work “is like being asked to remove the egg out of the cake batter once you’ve mixed it in.” Most gifted learners integrate knowledge as they learn and need to learn and to be tested on a higher level. The more gifted a child is, the more asynchronous she can be, and the more she will require early identification and support.

While homeschooling is an excellent option for the highly-gifted student, Clara’s mother found a school that is a good fit. The teachers have a deep understanding of giftedness and offer ways of learning that cater to her need for creativity and higher in-depth learning. The school values social-emotional learning as a top priority, and Clara has been able to process her high perfectionism, high sensitivities, and strong will. The school staff sees many children who have not had great experiences with authority figures and rather than label them as “defiant,” they help the students through this, recognizing that a strong will is a common gifted trait.

While Clara continued not to read, the school allowed her to dictate stories and to listen to books. This kept her engaged in storytelling while she found her own way. Her reading was supported in other ways that she enjoyed, such as a spelling game app and having to check her own dictation. A year and a half later, she was able to read high school level novels.

What Clara’s mother found interesting was how sensitive Clara was. As is more typical in boys, she often hid her sensitivities under anger or tantrums. Clara seemed to be going in both directions – both shutting down during class and running away and ripping up papers. With my help, Clara’s mother was able to side coach her about her strong will and her constant fight with authority figures in a way that acknowledged the need to disagree, but in a healthy way. This, of course, is a process, but good for Clara to experience before the teen years.

Clara is now in sixth grade and her mother reports that she is doing well. She is back to her talkative, intense, sensitive, and engaged self. Most importantly, she has good friends with whom she can relate, some who she met in school, and some from gifted groups outside of school. Her mother feels like she has her daughter back.

While it took some time and her parents continue to need support from time to time, they feel they are better equipped to raise her and better able to hold boundaries as they help her navigate her intensities, sensitivities, and intense drive to experience and learn. Her mother understands Clara’s deep need for “down time” and sees how important it is to allow her to process her ideas in her unusual, creative ways. Her father knows that running and playing “gymnastics stunts” is not only fun for his child, but also essential. As her mother has discovered, their entire family is gifted on some level, and she has sought my help in understanding their family dynamics as well as her own struggles as a gifted mother. Their knowledge of Clara’s differences and how to help her through difficult times is what I hope for every gifted child. What I strongly advocate is even earlier intervention when possible.

Why is it so difficult to identify and get help for the gifted child? By the time my own child was having difficulties in school, I had already received my Masters in Counseling Psychology and was a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Not once did giftedness enter into my education or training even though giftedness can influence a diagnosis. This is the case for most psychologists, therapists, and teachers, including school psychologists.

In retrospect, in my work in community mental health with children and families, I suspect that some of the children I worked with were gifted. Clearly there needs to be more awareness of giftedness in the fields of psychology and education. While we would expect that the school system would address our gifted children’s needs, at this time, that is not the case.

If you have a gifted child, or suspect that your child is gifted and seems to be struggling, I recommend further testing and support. Your understanding of your child will become deeper and clearer; your child’s understanding of himself can help guide him into adulthood.