Why Is It So Hard to Find Schools for Profoundly Gifted Kids?

We were inspired by a Twitter question from @bee_panelo today to write about something that routinely stymies parents of profoundly gifted kids, not to mention twice-exceptional kids (those who are gifted but who also have learning disabilities or other special needs, never mind that profound giftedness has its own inherent special needs, as we’ve written before). The question was this: Why is it so hard to find good schools for highly/profoundly gifted children?

Most people assume that private schools would be the logical choice — that they would have a better track record at meeting the needs of those with more extreme levels of giftedness, and at accommodating the needs of the twice exceptional. But reality is different: There are shockingly few private schools that do a good job at meeting the needs of the exceptionally and profoundly gifted. Exceptions include the Davidson Academy of Nevada in Reno (but it’s only for kids working at the high-school level across the board, and may not be able to accommodate those profoundly gifted kids who work better solo than in group) and Bridges Academy in Los Angeles (for kids in grades 5-12, but it’s unclear whether it would work for the profoundly gifted as well). Other exceptions exist, and I welcome you to post them in the comment section. They are few.

In some situations, a family will be very fortunate to find a sympathetic teacher and/or administrator who is willing to trust the (unequivocal!) research that shows that radical acceleration and curriculum compacting works well for these kids, particularly when the incoming class is prepared for the child’s arrival in advance. We know of a private school in Westport, CT that assigned at least one profoundly gifted child a full-time tutor to permit him to work at his own level and pace, right within his age-level class. This doesn’t gain him intellectual peers, a need that is as critical for profoundly gifted kids as for any other child, but it’s vastly better than the alternative (not having intellectual peers or appropriate intellectual challenge).

But why? Why can’t (or won’t) schools accommodate these children? We don’t have all the answers, but here are our thoughts:

1. Schools don’t understand the profoundly gifted or the twice-exceptional. These kids are unique. Their very nature, at the end of the bell curve, means there are few of them, relative to the vast numbers of other types of children. And the concept of twice-exceptionality — being that smart, but having a learning disability! — seems counter-intuitive. Furthermore, profoundly gifted kids don’t always “present” the way educators think they should (that’s a PDF: see p. 8), particularly when their needs are not being met. Such kids, particularly with twice exceptionalities, may perform poorly in school, challenge authority, seem lazy or incapable, and dramatically underachieve. (As an aside: If they perk up at the prospect of extremely out-of-level work or deep and complex problems, they’re probably in the crowd we’re talking about!) There are many myths about gifted kids, and sadly, educators and administrators are just as likely to subscribe to these myths themselves — even many GATE teachers!

One of the primary things schools fail to understand is that the social and emotional needs of profoundly gifted kids are almost always far closer to their intellectual age than their chronological age. That behavior you’re seeing? It’s nearly certainly because you are asking a child with an intellectual age twice his or her age to find some area of commonality with someone of an intellectual age half theirs, while you are simultaneously meeting everyone else’s needs, except for theirs. Put yourself in their shoes: You, an adult, will sit through a 4th-grade class every day, with those kids, and be treated just like them. Their needs will be met, and yours will not — in fact, everyone will deny that you have any different needs. If you misbehave, it’s clearly a sign that you’re in the right class, that you belong with those kids, because you are behaving like one. Right?

To modify another much-quoted example: If your IQ is 160 (“exceptionally gifted,” with an IQ similar to Einstein’s), and you are in a classroom of typical kids, you are more different from them than they are from a profoundly developmentally delayed child with an IQ of 60. Or let’s say you have an IQ of 180, and you are in a GATE pullout program once a week, with kids with IQs of 130-140. Forty to fifty IQ points is a huge difference — think of a kid with an IQ of 80 and one with an IQ of 120 or 130. Understand now? Yes, kids can and should learn to be polite. But yes, the education should meet the needs of ALL KIDS, even those with IQs of 180 (or higher!).

Educator and administrator understanding of these kids is absolutely critical. Training can help.

2. Schools often believe that meeting the needs of the profoundly gifted will entail great expense. Many schools resist identifying twice-exceptional kids and giving them  Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) if they are working at or above grade level, never mind how far below their intellectual level the children may be working (or how unmet their learning disability-generated needs are). But meeting the needs of kids with learning disabilities is the same whether or not the kids are gifted.  And acceleration is free or very low-cost, as per the research discussed in A Nation Deceived.

As above, it’s critical that educators and administrators learn about the solutions that work for these kids.

3. Schools fear that if they meet one profoundly gifted child’s needs, they might have to acquiesce to the needs of others. Sorry, but we have to say this: Shocking! They might have to actually meet other kids’ needs! We wouldn’t want that, now, would we?

4. It’s not easy to meet the needs of a profoundly gifted child. Profoundly gifted kids are extremely unique. They are few (though more than statistics would predict – see point 17 in that link), and they are extremely diverse — as diverse as the population at large. So let’s say a school has figured out how to meet the needs of one profoundly gifted kid, and along comes another, or the sibling: They’ll likely have to revise their approach, because the second child’s needs will be different. Having twice exceptionalities just amplifies the differences among these children.

The Solution?

There are solutions, both involving acceleration/compaction as noted above, and involving mentoring, custom schooling (including home schooling), early college admission, you name it. One of the things that is needed is a national public education campaign (not just for educators, but for the public at large as well) to help people understand what these children need, and how to give it to them.

We must meet all children’s needs, even if they’re extremely different from the norm.