Monthly Archives: April 2011

Asynchrony, Giftedness: What’s in a Label?

Imagine a set of children who by their very nature are likely to be critical to this country’s future workforce—to perform at top levels; to innovate; to lead and inspire; and to succeed at cracking the most vexing of challenges with non-linear approaches.

Now imagine what would happen if these very children had educational needs so different from the norm that they cannot be met by the existing school system—and that few, if any resources, were available to them or their families to meet their learning needs. And imagine that as a result, an astonishingly high percentage of these children fail. They lose their compulsion to learn, their love of information, their creativity, and their drive to excel. This failure leaves some with sociological, psychological and physical health implications that range from mild to catastrophic. They lose two of the most critical traits that the greatest leaders, world-changers, and innovators all have in common:  Motivation to persevere through long periods of difficult but tedious work; and trust in their own creativity and willingness to take risks. In sum, they fail to become what their very nature would lead them to become.

But guess what? This is not imaginary. These children exist. There are no firm numbers, but estimates indicate there are anywhere from hundreds of thousands to three million of these children in the U.S. alone. They are an extraordinarily diverse group, with one thing in common: They are asynchronous, some profoundly so. And society has as equal an obligation to meet their needs as it does to meet any child’s needs. That they may be future leaders in their chosen field, future innovators who revolutionize a sector or even the world—that makes the obligation all the more pressing.

You might have guessed by now that these children are what most people call “gifted,” a term that is so flawed and misleading as to be damaging. In an effort to replace the term, a group of specialists in the field convened a task force in the early 1990s to better define it. What they concluded is this: What is called “giftedness” is not merely high intelligence; it is

asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are highly qualitatively different from the norm, rendering such children particularly vulnerable and requiring modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally [quoted from their report.].

The more advanced the cognitive abilities, the greater the asynchrony. This is usually understood in terms of the discrepancy between the child’s mental and chronological ages; but it is almost always accompanied by discrepancies between the child’s strengths and weaknesses as well, a gap that can be extraordinarily pronounced. The situation is compounded when a child with advanced cognitive abilities also has learning disabilities (“twice exceptionalities”), which is far more common than is generally recognized.

The further along the intelligence spectrum the child is, the more dramatically his or her needs differ from those of typical children. Such needs include accelerated and compacted curricula, sometimes radically so; resources that accommodate visual-spatial learners and their non-linear thinking; educational resources that permit topic exploration in great depth with limited or no repetition, but presented in ways that facilitate visual processing; high-level educational resources that also accommodate asynchronous learners with learning disabilities; and the like.

These children are also characterized inherently by an intense, self-generated need to learn. They devour information in great gulps, nearly always leaving their parents scrambling to keep up, contrary to the gross misconception that many people have to the effect that the parents must be “pushing” their children to learn. Parenting a child like this is perhaps best likened to trying to keep up with a running cheetah while removing obstacles that might cause it harm along the way.

Unfortunately the term “gifted” itself compounds the pervasive lack of recognition both of the needs of these children (“If they’re gifted, they must be happy, well rounded, and well adjusted”) and of society’s obligation to meet those needs (“If they’re gifted, they can figure it out on their own without help”). The term’s very nature seems to slight others by omission, prompting some to assert that “all children are gifted,” a reactive sentiment evoked often by the very notion of some children having “received” some “gift” of high intelligence and capability, and the corresponding implication that other children did not receive such a “gift” and somehow have less intrinsic value.

Many sources address the top myths about gifted education, but the widespread use of the term “gifted” contributes to the continuation of these gross misperceptions on the part of both the public and—most distressingly—the vast majority of educators and school administrators.  The problem is so acute that the Asynchronous Scholars’ Fund holds that for true acceptance to become possible, the term “gifted” must be left behind.  For this reason, the Fund seeks to minimize usage of the term, its use in this needs statement notwithstanding. We instead embrace the “asynchronous” label, balancing it with the word “scholar,” to describe the voracious intellectual appetites of these children.

We recognize that we can embrace a label, and change nothing. Dogged stereotypes persist, and the resulting discrimination is devastating to children who fall into this category. Even mainstream advertisers perpetuate the discrimination (to which we say, Shame on you, Burlington Coat Factory!). But we pledge to do our best to draw attention to the rights of these kids. They may be gifted, asynchronous, genius, brilliant, talented, or [insert label of choice here], but they are kids, and they deserve equal treatment.

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Raising a Genius: Sacrifice Required

A few days ago Sue Shellenbarger wrote two pieces in the Wall Street Journal about the enormous challenges parents have to make just to help their profoundly gifted kids make it to adulthood. Her main point: Kids who are this asynchronous — who are many ages at once, whether it’s a 1.5-year-old playing guitar like an adult, or a 14-year-old college graduate — have immensely different needs than the norm, needs it takes tremendous sacrifice to meet.

And when we say sacrifice, we mean it. We’re talking sacrifice on the order of giving up half your family income…  Giving up one or both careers to be able to homeschool a child that can’t be served by the school system, private or public… Finding niche tutors who can teach a 6-year-old the quantum physics he craves, but still make it fun; or persuading a leading musician to mentor a prodigy… Braving the near-universal scorn of people who think you’re bragging, and thus learning to just not talk about your child in public… Giving up on the idea that your kid might ever want to do typical kid things like play party games, play ball, own a doll… The list could go on.

Most people think that having a smart kid is great, easier than having a typical kid or a kid with learning disabilities (but newsflash, there are gifted kids who also have learning disabilities; they’re called “twice exceptional”). That may be partially true for some garden-variety gifted kids, although we’re not sure their parents would always agree. But in all our research (see this summary) about kids with IQs more than 30 points above the norm, the usual threshold for giftedness, we have seen unanimity: The further from the norm, the more challenging the parenting and educating (also see this [pdf] link on educating gifted kids).

The truth is that exceptionally and profoundly gifted children tend to be exceptionally and profoundly asynchronous. These kids are almost always ravenous, self-driven learners with a highly developed sense of justice, intense sensitivities and perfectionism, and all the baggage and challenge that goes with those traits. Meeting their needs takes an enormous toll on parents, who are often grossly misperceived to be pushing their kids (and the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon has not helped, as Shellenbarger notes), when in fact most parents are struggling to keep up and in many cases face daily bouts of panic that they will succeed in doing so.

The best service we can do as parents — and indeed, the best the system can do as a whole — is to support and nurture these children, to meet their needs, just like we do for any other child. It’s challenging; it’s really, really hard. But it’s not without incredible joys. We’d like to thank Shellenbarger for bringing the challenges to the attention of a broader audience; maybe it’ll help with public perception, educator and administrator understanding, and overall empathy for this group of kids. They’re kids, and they deserve our support. And so do their parents.