When we think of a child with special needs, we tend to think of a child who is autistic, has ADHD or suffers with dyslexia. Rarely does the gifted child come to mind. I don’t particularly like the term “gifted”, nor does my 8-year-old son. It carries with it a stigma, one that separates him from his peers, and at times, makes him feel awkward and alone.
I never noticed anything “different” about my son until he entered Kindergarten. A few weeks after school had begun, his teacher informed me that he was the only child in his class that could write his full name, and not only recite the alphabet, but recite it backwards! I was a bit shocked, as no one had taught him these things; he had somehow figured them out on his own. She also informed me that he was reading on a second grade level, and wondered if I could provide some enrichment materials for him to bring to school so that he wouldn’t become bored. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the school to provide that? After purchasing the requested material, I met with the “Gifted Resource Specialist” to inquire if he could be tested for the “Gifted Program.” I was told that because he was only in Kindergarten, this was not an option. Not realizing that my son had special needs, I wondered in amazement at his scholarly achievements, and made sure he always had supplemental material available in his backpack.
As first grade approached, I once again met with the “Gifted Resource Specialist”, and this time was told that first graders usually aren’t tested, that I would have to wait until second grade to see if he qualified for the “Gifted Program.” All I wanted for my child at this time was to be challenged, and to be given the opportunity to actually learn something during all of the hours he spent in the classroom. That year went by with my son reading at a third grade level, and spending a lot of his classroom time doing “busy work” because the teacher lacked the training, and resources, to truly educate him. By this time, I was growing quite frustrated, and out of that frustration grew the desire to be an advocate for my child. I did all of the research I could on “gifted” children, and what they needed to thrive intellectually. What I learned was quite interesting.
The general consensus of the school system is that “gifted “ children have no special needs. They are already smart enough, and will do okay by themselves if just left alone. They devote all of their resources to children who have notes from a medical doctor or social worker stating that they have special needs that must be met. While all children with special needs are deserving of special attention, the “gifted” child seems to always fall through the cracks. After thoroughly reading the laws governing my local school system, I learned that if I demanded my son be tested, they could not deny my request. At the end of first grade he was finally tested, and when the results came back, I was told that he was not gifted, and required no curriculum enhancements. The test was administered in a group setting with about 50 other first graders, and I felt that maybe this was not the best way for a child to be tested. I decided to get my own note from a professional.
Over the summer between first and second grade, an independent psychologist who had been examining “gifted” children for over 20 years tested my son. She arrived at my home, a place that was familiar and safe for my son, and the test took about one hour. She was unable to compute a raw score for him, as he had tested off the charts. She returned a month later, and administered yet another test, which showed his IQ to be 137, well above the average second grader. She and I talked at length about what could happen unless an educational plan was put in place for my son. She explained to me that by age 12, whatever brain cells aren’t utilized basically remain dormant for life. In other words, if we had only 100 brain cells, and by age 12 had used only 50 of them, then the other 50 would simply remain untapped. She further explained that it was the duty of the school system to provide my son with a challenging curriculum, and to ensure that he was learning while in the classroom. She typed up a report concerning my son’s abilities, which I carried to the school that very day. I was astonished to learn that because my son had “failed” the test given by the county, the only services he was eligible for was a once a week trip to a neighboring school where he would participate in an arts and crafts program. Surely this woman had to be kidding. How was an arts and crafts program going to challenge my son, the one who recited his alphabet backwards and was two grade levels ahead in his reading skills? I decided at that point to investigate other school options.
I was quite pleased to find a local charter school that practiced full inclusion. This is where children of all abilities are taught together in learning communities, and each one has their own educational plan tailored to fit their individual needs. After speaking with the Dean of Students as well as with parents of children who had previously attended this school, I enrolled him immediately. I had high hopes for his second grade year, and he was happy to learn that he would be going to a school where he could really learn something. The day before school started, he came to me and said, “I sure hope the teacher at the new school can teach me something I don’t already know.” This was not said with a snotty, “I’m special” attitude, rather, he was sincerely concerned about being put into an environment like the one he had just left back in first grade. At this moment, I realized that my son had spent the first two years of his school life being bored and feeling like an odd ball because instead of belonging to a reading GROUP, he had been made a group of his very own by his past teachers, who he said would borrow a book from another classroom and off he would go, by himself, to read, comprehend, and discuss the stories with himself in his mind. I don’t know how long I cried after he told me all of this, but I know that I used up an entire box of Kleenex.
During the first week of second grade I met with his teacher and the “Gifted Resource Specialist”, and we all decided, together, what the best plan would be for my son. An “Individual Education Plan” was written, and I felt confident that he would thrive in this new setting, with administrators and teachers who were all eager to cater to his special needs.
My confidence was soon shattered however, when during the second week of school I received a phone call from his teacher requesting a conference. What now, I thought. The next day I arrived at the school only to learn that my son had been sleeping on class. Not just a few times, but every single day! Knowing that he was getting enough sleep at home, I made an appointment with the pediatrician. After exhaustive medical tests that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, my son was excited to learn that there was nothing medically wrong with him. There was no underlying medical reason for his sleeping in class. The pediatrician reviewed his educational records, and stated that my son was sleeping in class because he was bored. It was during this time period that I learned that many gifted children will simply nod off if their brains are not being stimulated. This is why “gifted “ children will often sleep in the car, even on very short car rides. There is nothing stimulating going on, so they take a nap. I never thought about that before this time, but quickly realized that my son slept every single time he got into a car!
I returned to the school and met with the Principal, who was happy to review my son’s records with me. He said that he felt a change in curriculum may be the answer, and after administering some placement tests to my son, implemented a more challenging curriculum for him to use in the classroom. However, we soon realized that this presented problems of its own, because the teacher was unable to spend very much one-on-one time with him, and he was being left to his own devices to figure out the work. Here he was, a second grade age child completing work on a fifth grade level, and not being able to interact with his classmates because they basically had nothing in common with regards to their learning activities.
The Principal soon decided to do something that he had done only once before in his career, allow my son to skip a grade. I at first had reservations about this. I wasn’t sure that my son would be on the same emotional level as the third graders, and worried about him fitting in. I was put at ease when I learned that the third grade teacher had numerous years of teaching “gifted” children, and had been voted “Teacher of the Year” for our county numerous times. My son was a bit nervous about this, worrying that he would be unable to make friends, or that he may be teased for being “smart”. We told him that if it made him feel better, we could do it on a trial basis and see how it worked out. After spending two weeks in the third grade classroom, being challenged, and kept awake, he came home and asked me, “When can I officially become a third grader?” Soon afterwards, he was officially put into the third grade, passed the FCAT with flying colors, and never slept in class again. He maintains an “A” average, made the honor roll, and is quick to explain to anyone who asks why he skipped a grade that he isn’t special, he just needs to be challenged.
Unfortunately, I know other parents of “gifted “ children who, for whatever reason, are not advocates for their children. These children, who in their younger years were full of promise and hope, are now dropouts because they too became bored in school. They were not challenged, became class clowns to get attention, and decided that if they weren’t being taught anything anyway, why should they bother going to school.
No child is going to stand up in class and proclaim that they are “gifted”. Teachers and administrators need to be aware of the child who seems bored, finishes his hour long assignments in 10 minutes, and who is constantly asking for something extra to do in the classroom. I don’t know of any teacher who is going to ignore the special needs of an autistic student, or one who has been labeled “learning disabled”. While I don’t agree with all of the labeling that goes on in the school system, my son is “learning abled” and his special needs should be just as important as everyone else’s.
Recently, a friend of mine, whose son is autistic, said to me, “You are so lucky to have a gifted child”. If only she knew. Secretly, I was a little angry at her comment. After all, it took me a little over two years to get services for my son. On the other hand, it took her all of five days to get services for her special needs child. Children who possess above average intelligence do not need to be singled out, this only adds to their problems. Instead, they need to be recognized as part of a population of children with special needs.
I am fortunate that the charter school my son now attends serves children through the eighth grade. No longer will I have to appeal his case for a more challenging setting. If he stays on the track he is now following, he will graduate high school a few years early, and begin college by taking a few online classes. By the way, this is his plan, not mine. At the tender age of eight, he is already planning for college, and reassuring me that he will never sleep in class again!