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The Patchwork of Educating the Gifted Child

By Heidi Molbak.

Last summer I participated in a panel discussion at SENG’s 25th Anniversary Conference in Salt Lake City titled “The Accidental Experts.” You might be able to guess what the subject was. It was in the role of a parent with “life experience” that I joined the national Board of Directors for SENG in January 2008. How many of us have become or are becoming “accidental experts” on the complex topic of raising and educating a gifted child?

As parents, grandparents, teachers or others in a gifted child’s life we sometimes accidentally discover that these children don’t see or participate in the world like most other children around us do. We don’t plan on a child being so different from others – we notice it. It can take numerous schools – in my case seven by the time my oldest son was ten – for a parent to figure out that the constant search for an appropriate education is indeed a patchwork of sorts, a delicate gumbo of ideas, efforts, mistakes and love. We may enroll them in public school, charter school, foreign-language immersion school, private school or boarding school. Many parents of gifted students discover home schooling provides the right fit for the child and the family.

We search high and low for an education that fits our children’s needs – and we parents have a keen sense of what those needs are. We are looking for a school that understands our children have intellectual, social and emotional needs far different than most children and sometimes needs in other areas such as the arts, sports, or civic interests. Is there a school “out there” that meets all of these needs, as different as they are for every gifted child? What about the twice-exceptional child who has high ability and some other complicating factor such as a learning disability or neurological disorder? As accidental experts we have learned that we need to go beyond advocating for our children’s right to an appropriate education; we need to find the fit wherever we can given our personal circumstances.

Educating our gifted children is a patchwork because there is no one approach that works for all of them. There is no one approach that works for even one. Teachers of the gifted can tell you that. For many there is no continuity from year to year – or even month to month with the profoundly gifted. An approach that works now might be ineffective by the end of the school year. We learn through experience that we have to notice children’s social and emotional well-being along with their intellect while they navigate through the systems we offer them. Parents do notice – and the awareness of a child’s loneliness or struggle to fit makes parents feel desperate to find a solution. And so the patchwork begins.

My oldest son is graduating from high school this spring and the patchwork quilt that is his story turned out to be a beautiful one – like many of us I had great concerns for many years. It was made of many scraps of materials that I never knew could be sewn together. “Accidental Experts” learn through the often-painful struggles and endless astonishing revelations that we can best support these children into adulthood by finding the fit wherever we can. For most of our children there is no perfect education – there is a patchwork that we unknowingly create each day as we continue to educate ourselves about the options we have for these gifted children.


Heidi Molbak is the mother of three gifted boys. She has carefully guided her sons through the obstacle course that is gifted education to meet their social and emotional needs. Heidi has supported her children through twelve schools in five states and two countries, and has even run her own small school from home. She has experience with many types of schools–public magnet, independent, public charter foreign-language immersion, one-room multi-age, boarding, and home schools. She’s also experienced in distance learning and summer college programs. Heidi earned an A.B. from Stanford University and is currently completing a Masters in Counseling at Loyola University New Orleans. She is also a trained SENG-Model Parent Group Facilitator.

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