10/28/2013 12:07 pm ET

Parenting and Teaching the Gifted Child, Part 2


Parents of gifted children may feel obliged, on occasion, to push their child more academically. They may feel that they have an extra responsibility to oversee the gifted child's educational progress. In my last blog post I wrote about the common characteristics of gifted children, including the research that gifted children may have their share of emotional stresses, such as lower self-esteem than the average child.

The gifted child and low self-esteem

Parents and educators can help the gifted child with problems of self-esteem if they first recognize that the problem exists and then help establish more realistic goals for them, as well as more appropriate behavioral responses. As a result of the pressure placed on the gifted child, by both himself and the adult community, the gifted child can become frustrated, as well as develop the compulsive behavior of perfectionism. Not only can this child establish unrealistic standards for himself, but he can all too often develop high expectations of others as well. This creates a strain in his interpersonal relationships, as he becomes un-accepting of more typical behavior. Parents can alleviate this situation by helping the gifted child understand the dynamics of his behavior and teach him more appropriate responses.

Another issue that arises with the emotional interplay of the gifted child and his community of peers is the feeling of self-doubt. Because the gifted child is usually heterogeneously grouped, he can usually participate in class without the same preparation needed by his peers. As a result, he may find himself becoming a lazy student who has developed poor learning habits. The gifted child is often so verbally skilled that a little bit of bluff goes a long way.

Unfortunately, all of these behaviors tend to create an environment in which the brain function of the gifted child slows down. Because he doesn't need to develop his learning skills and integrate them with his abilities, he risks the potential for loss. The child's high intellectual ability is often accompanied by high anxiety level, for he is bright enough to be extra sensitive to himself. When asked to perform academically in an area for which he is not prepared, the gifted child may become very upset, feel helpless, lost, and begin the process of blocking.

Couple this with the fact that parents often withhold praise from the gifted child, saving it as a behavioral modification technique for the average or below-performing child, so the gifted child becomes confused and discouraged. He loses his sense of reality in relation to his abilities; without appropriate appreciation for quality work, this child has no parameters by which to judge himself. His contributions lose their relevance, and the gifted child develops negative feelings about his own self-worth.

Seeking acceptance

Parents should recognize that, as a corollary to this, the gifted child may decide to copy the behavior around him that seems to be getting all the rewards. While imitating others for acceptance and approval, the gifted child often misplaces himself. As a teenager, this behavior can present itself in the realms of lower grades, showing off and acting silly. Seeking conformity and peer acceptance, the gifted child may try to adapt to whatever it takes to make him feel good. And, being as bright as he is, his adaptability is quite strong. In a culture that doesn't really reward intellectual precocity(1), the gifted child may, in fact, lose his gift simply because he is not being nurtured and understood.

Stimulated environment and learning

This raises the issue of just how much a role the environment plays in the life of a gifted child. There seems to be a direct relationship between the level of gene activity and cell development and, furthermore, this activity directly influences learning.

Differential experience can change not only the anatomical picture of the brain, but also its chemical composition. In a 1966 study involving two groups of rats from the same genetic strain, it was concluded that environmental could, in fact, alter the brain's capacity to learn (2). One group of rats was raised in a non-stimulating environment, each one living alone in a small, dimly lit cage. The controlled group was allowed to have a mesh wire cage from which they were allowed to venture for 30 minutes a day. This group was also given toys to play with, and exposure to the general interaction that was present in the laboratory environment. Both groups were given identical food and standard health care.

The rats that lived in the stimulated environment, upon examination, had significantly larger brain cortexes that were also thicker and fatter than the deprived group. And, the glial cells, which are directly connected to the nutrition received by the neurons of the brain affecting the learning potential of the brain, were increased in size and number. There was also evidence that the diameter of the blood cells that supply the cortex were larger. Furthermore, there was a chemical change in these brains: they had more acetylcholinesterase, which is the enzyme present in the trans-synaptic conduction of neural impulses and cholinesterase, another enzyme found in glial cells.

The studies indicated that there is a reduction of these enzymes with age, and hence, a loss of both memory and brain function so prevalent in the elderly. When the rats that lived in the stimulated environment were placed into a deprived environment, their brains went back to their normal size. However, the chemical changes remained stationery. Additionally, the rats from the enriched environment with enlarged cortexes and chemical changes were, in fact, smarter.

Create a nurturing, supportive, rewarding environment for the gifted child

The needs of the gifted population are very important. The gifted child needs, first and foremost, a teacher who is trained to teach gifted children -- someone who is neither intimidated, threatened, nor irritated, by the gifted child. Then this teacher needs both home and school cooperation so that he or she can hand-tailor a curriculum that is individualized for the gifted child.

The gifted child needs to be appreciated, respected and rewarded appropriately for quality work and quality behavior. Furthermore, this child's sensitivities need to be understood because, after all, the gifted child can learn negatives with the same fervor and accelerated ability that he can positives. One of the most significant steps in educating and guiding the gifted child is an individualized curriculum created for his needs. Psychologist E. Paul Torrance suggests that educators create a curriculum that encompasses a cooperative learning environment. Several appropriate instructional techniques include individualized teaching, homogeneous grouping for certain subjects, small cluster grouping and an environment that fosters freedom to continue learning at one's own rate of speed. Educators must include in their curriculum the concepts of differentiating characteristics, related needs, organizational patterns, and the classroom strategies.

In the final analysis, the variable for all people is love and understanding and, with parents, teachers and caregivers providing a nurturing environment, the gifted child will obtain his best opportunity for growth.

1. Torrance, E. Paul, Gifted Child Quarterly, 1969
2. Rosenzweig, M. R., Krech, D., Journal of Comparative Neurology, 1966