By Amy Harrington.
Profoundly gifted children are the outliers amongst outliers. These children are intense, creative problem solvers who have voracious appetites for learning. A profoundly gifted child will have intense focus on passion areas and will fully commit to anything of interest to the exclusion of almost everything else. Or, at least that has been my experience while raising my own profoundly gifted boys and working with gifted families. My oldest child is one of those children who just doesn’t fit any mold. He doesn’t know where the proverbial box is, and he is so far outside of it that it is merely a notion he once had to deal with while in school. He has a rage to create, innovate, invent, learn, produce, think, discuss, analyze, and deconstruct every aspect of the world. This is a child whose brain is never idle, and when something is mundane, he is challenged to endure the impossible.
There are few educational environments that will be able to meet the needs of a profoundly gifted child. From an intellectual standpoint alone, many profoundly gifted kids will age out of K-12 curriculum years before their chronological age, and yet intellect is just one piece of the puzzle. Profoundly gifted children experience their world so deeply, develop their own sense of morality, and are rarely motivated by societal standards. Their emotional and imaginational range is extreme, and their psychomotor energy is often atypical, fueling a need for constant movement and mental stimulation. Few schools can accommodate a child with such depth or all-encompassing needs who require high-level instruction coupled with compassion for the myriad over-excitabilities and asychronicity. For many profoundly gifted kids who crave high-level academic instruction, early entrance to college may be an option; however, early entrance to college may not be the pathway to intellectual and social-emotional success for many others. For those who opt out of entering college early, the choices are often limited to some form of alternative education.
Educating A Profoundly Gifted Child Many families raising profoundly gifted children choose home education for at least part of the educational journey to best meet the needs of their child. I am one of those parents whose child is so far beyond what can be offered in a traditional school environment that we are now radically accelerated unschoolers. We didn’t start out this way. We became unschoolers by default. After several years at the “good charter school” and one year at a lovely progressive private school, we were faced with the reality of just how extreme our child’s giftedness is. His teacher explained to me that he requires depth beyond which anyone in the school is equipped to handle. A child like this wastes nearly 100 percent of his time in a classroom, which can trigger behavioral, psychological, and social-emotional problems.
When I came upon homeschooling as the only viable option, I raised the idea with my then 8- year-old son. He was on spring break, and we were hiking in the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains when I asked him what he thought about the idea of homeschooling the following year. His elated response was, “That means I can learn on the weekends and in summer too!” “Yes, you can,” I agreed with him. “You can learn all day, every day,” and that is exactly what he started doing. He embarked on his self-education journey the summer after third grade and has never taken a weekend, holiday, or break since. He went from lock step grade-level curriculum to working at a college level within a couple of months after whizzing through middle and high school content. He was ready for anything and would no longer complain of the boredom he faced in school. He was, and is, an eager, motivated, and voracious learner.
We started with a process called “deschooling,” which is an essential period of time for both child and parent to shift their mindset from traditional school indoctrination and allow for self discovery. During this critical deschooling period, a child is free to figure out their passions without curriculum and structure getting in the way of pure interest-led learning. Deschooling naturally led us to unschooling, which is quite similar. My children engage in self-directed, passion-led learning all day, every day without any adult agenda or external measures. They determine what they want to learn, how they want to learn, when they want to learn, and for how long. For us, it is liberating and crucial for optimal intellectual and creative development. There is no ceiling on what they can learn and create. They are information consumers and knowledge omnivores.
This is an excellent time to be an autodidact as social media and massive open online courses are incredibly powerful tools for unlimited real-time learning. My oldest son can learn anything at any level if the instruction is delivered through audiovisual format or while working one-on-one with a professor; however, large-group instruction would be overwhelming and counterintuitive to his learning style.
The Role of Mentor
Finding the right mentors can be an integral part of a profoundly gifted child’s education. Understanding and supporting a child’s learning style is paramount in serving his intellectual and emotional needs. This alternative educational path is an incredibly interesting journey that, as a parent, I get to experience firsthand and grow alongside of him. I have learned more from my son and our unschooling experience than I did in all my years of schooling. Though formal education works well for some, it can be limiting and restrictive for others. When your child’s mind lingers in the abstract, then freedom to explore is integral for optimal intellectual and creative development.
We drive across town twice a week in Los Angeles traffic to support his unique intellectual needs. He is a computer science prodigy who works with a brilliant professor from one of the top universities in the world while his little brother and I play quietly in the next room. It starts out as following a course lecture; however, it really is a discussion about all things tech, which naturally leads to so many wonderful tangents. For an hour and a half they work side by side on their laptops discussing terms that are foreign to a luddite like myself; however, I know just enough to understand that they are working at a high level, and my son ascends to wherever the professor takes him. My son also teaches the professor about his areas of expertise, and the professor soaks it all in like an interested student. It really is a collaborative relationship where minds are stimulated and common interests are plentiful, including the off-tangent talks about the Big Bang Theory, biology, maths and comic superheroes. I get to witness this beautiful intellectual dance, and the effect it has on my child is incomparable. What these meetings have become are deep conversations where they speak the same language, and each time we leave my child cannot help but blurt out his blatant happiness. These are the moments where my son’s mind has truly been satiated. Working diligently with challenging material provides him with the type of happiness most children must feel while being at Disneyland.
Some of my child’s mentors are not as hands-on than others; however, they all validate my child’s extreme intellectual needs and abilities. His professors can take him very far in any direction and he rises to the occasion each time. What we have learned about our experiences with mentors is that sometimes they are only in our life for a short period of time, but they are always incredibly meaningful towards his overall development.
Parenting a Profoundly Gifted Child
Throw out the mainstream parenting books because none of them will apply to a profoundly gifted child with extreme asynchronicity and all five overexcitabilities. There is no manual on parenting a child whose mind works more competently than your own, who can negotiate like a lawyer yet has the common sense of a small child and the emotional range of a moody teenager. Raising a profoundly gifted child encompasses a whirlwind of joy, confusion, uncertainty, and brilliant chaos. No two days are alike. It is quite interesting, but rarely predictable or easy, and it completely changes the family dynamic. Our journey is a roller coaster ride of emotions, creativity, intellectualism, asynchronicity, and overexcitabilities. These myriad of quirks guide our choices in life. My incredibly intense, prodigious child has taken our life down a very unique path, and he is pulling us all along for the ride. Our entire value system has changed, and our lifestyle is constantly evolving further from the norm. This is our reality. Though our unschooling journey stemmed from intellectual need, it has evolved into an entirely different philosophy that spills over to parenting and daily life.
For those with the incredible and daunting privilege of raising a profoundly gifted child, you may be faced with having to alter your approach to parenting and education. Trying to force these out-of-the-box thinkers into the one-size-fits-all classroom will rarely work in their best interest despite best-laid plans. These kids are intense, emotional, and energetic, and they rarely go with the flow. Few teachers or administrators are trained in working with extremely intelligent children and the inherent social-emotional aspects that need to be addressed.
Now that we are a few years into this alternative approach to parenting and education, I am much more tuned in to who my children are and what they need. Profoundly gifted children are quite complex with a lot of unique needs, which are best met with an open mind and a loving heart.
Amy Harrington, Esq. is a SENG board member and SENG Model Parent Group facilitator, homeschooling advocate, and an eclectic unschooler of two profoundly gifted children. She is an attorney, writer, and blogger (Gifted Unschooling Blogspot) who is passionate about the future of self-directed education. She is the Founder and Managing Director of Atypical Minds, which provides coaching and guidance to gifted families in their quest for alternative education and school accommodations.
Ms. Harrington has helped families with gifted and twice-exceptional children from all over the world transition to home education and has guided them to seek appropriate assessment, treatment, counseling, and school accommodations. She is a multilingual transactional attorney and a former internet entrepreneur, interested in educating teachers, school counselors, and parents about the unique social, emotional, and intellectual needs of gifted and twice-exceptional children.