I find myself returning to the same question over and over — what makes certain individuals gifted? It is, I suppose, the very basis for gifted education and, hence, my career. It is the question that floats around education blogs, gifted education professionals, and parents of gifted children. No doubt, many parents of gifted children have found themselves doubting the giftedness of their own children. It can be especially difficult to recognize the gifted abilities of your own children when you’ve only ever spent so much time, energy, and thought on your own children. To you, your children are normal.
Our DNA cannot be changed, but the wiring of our brain can and does. From birth until puberty, synaptic pruning causes neural restructuring that has vital consequences for brain function. While some studies attest that synaptic pruning may continue into your 20s, the bulk of the brain’s development occurs during childhood. Seemingly “wasteful” neural connections are eliminated to make room for more *important* connections. Over-active synaptic pruning is thought to be related to schizophrenia whereas “inefficient” synaptic pruning is thought to be related to autism. Stimuli in one’s environment help the brain to decide which synapses may be more important than others.
Sensory deprivation can have a dramatic effect on brain development. Our five (primary) senses are sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. We know, for example, that newborns who do not have enough human contact during their first days of life outside the womb may develop a resistance to touch. A child who only experiences unpleasant stimulation during development, for example, will only learn to react to unpleasant stimulation. As such, this may cause the child to react negatively to pleasant stimulation later in life. A child who lives isolated from human contact from a very young age will not learn human language. A child raised in the wilderness, apart from humans, will begin to adopt the habits and language of the animals around them, rather than of humans. Indeed, a child in these circumstances may genetically have the potential for human language and success, however, without proper nurture, the ability to speak and act “human” fails to emerge. In prolonged situations, children may struggle to ever learn human language and habits after returning to society.
DNA might provide for certain allowances or limitations on brain development, however, without stimulation and exposure, knowledge and skills cannot be acquired. Children cannot learn how to multiply unless they have been taught, or at the very least they have seen the process somewhere. A child who knows how to add might pick up on the concept of multiplication when trying add large groups of items. For example, if you spilled 100 colored pencils, a gifted child might begin to group the pencils into groups of 2s, 5s, or 10s, to make the process more efficient. However (s)he would never know what to call this process without being informed in some way. A child who never sees written letters will never learn the correlation between spoken words and written words. Letters would continue to hold the same value, in the child’s mind, as meaningless scribbles on a page.
Biologically, our brains may be programmed to develop differently — to react and adapt to certain stimuli with varying degrees of intensity. However, without stimulation, the brain is left thirsty — dehydrated — suffering. Our gifted children have more complex neural connectivity. As such, they need more stimulation to adequately quench the brain’s thirst for stimulation to reach their fullest potential.
When our gifted children suffer from chronic boredom in school, they may begin to — quite literally, wither away brain power. The brain needs stimulation to mature and develop. When this stimulation isn’t present, brain development is handicapped. Moreover, when the brain becomes accustomed to boredom, it begins to adapt in ways that are less than ideal. The child either learns to cope with the boredom and becomes accustomed to a lack of stimulation, resulting in a sort of “lazy brain syndrome,” or finds other outlets to unleash energy. Over the years, I’ve seen many gifted children fall victim to anxiety, depression, and other behavioral/psychiatric issues when they are no longer able to cope with chronic boredom.
It is imperative that we provide our gifted children with adequate stimulation to ensure that they reach their fullest potential and become successful gifted adults. Different options work for different children. Some options may include:
- At Home Enrichment – Believe it or not, you’ve probably been enriching your child’s education at home since the day you brought him/her home from the hospital. You taught your child how to crawl, to walk, to dress him or herself, to talk, and more. You may have taught your child how to read, count, or add before starting school. You may have taught your child how to clean his/her room or how to cook a small meal. You’ve taught him/her valuable life lessons far before professional educators came into the mix. Your job as a teacher doesn’t have to end when your child starts school. In fact, it shouldn’t. Continue to enrich your child’s education at home. Go on field trips. Turn family vacations into geography and/or history lessons. Teach him/her how to use the internet to find answers to questions. Encourage your child to turn his/her interests into an inquiry based project. Turn the world into a learning platform. Teach your child to embrace his/her curiosity.
- After-School and Weekend Enrichment Classes – As a parent, you are also a teacher. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to do everything. After school and weekend enrichment classes can help your child to explore topics and interests that you may not be so familiar with — or interested in. Your child is interested in robotics, but you’re a writer at heart. No problem — find a center that will help your child explore that interest. Plus, enrichment classes will help your child to meet other students interested in similar topics. For more information on enrichment, click here.
- Specialized Gifted Schools – This option, of course, depends upon whether or not there is a gifted school in your area. A school that specializes in gifted children may be well suited for your gifted child. In addition to an appropriate academic setting, specialized gifted schools allow your child to meet other gifted students.
- Home Schooling – Every day that your child spends in school should be spent learning. If your child isn’t learning and your private school options are limited, you may consider home schooling. The decision to home-school is a very personal choice. If your child has a bustling social life in school, you may want to consider other options such as at home or weekend enrichment. For tips on homeschooling gifted students, click here.
- In-School Differentiation Options – Most schools offer single and/or double accelerated math tracks. Acceleration and/or grade skipping options vary by school district. In most cases, this decision is made on a case-by-case basis and requires lengthy negotiations with schools. However, if you can find a sympathetic teacher or administrator, you might be able to work out a plan that allows your child to be in a more challenging academic environment while still attending school. For more information on acceleration, click here.