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When you hear the word gifted, what immediately pops into your head? Do you think of the straight-A student? Or, a musical prodigy? A prolific artist? A pint-sized mathematician? Do you assume that everything comes easily to a gifted child? That he has a leg-up over his peers? Do you envision his mom as a tiger mom, hot-housing him from sun up Ďtil sun down? Do you imagine his parents are the pushy, competitive type?
My 7-year-old son, Leo, is twice-exceptional; he is profoundly gifted and learning disabled. As his mom, Iím forever frustrated by the gifted label. The label makes you think that gifted is neat and clean, as it conjures images of beautifully wrapped presents with neatly tied bows. Thatís far from my reality, folks. I love my son more than words could ever express but this journey has been anything but a neatly wrapped package. Instead, Iíd liken it to a wild, white-knuckled, roller coaster ride. It has been messy, and loud, and fraught with various concerns. Why? Two words: asynchronous development.
A better definition of giftedness: giftedness as asynchrony
The current gifted label carries with it many misconceptions and assumptions. The reality is, the social and emotional functioning of gifted children is largely ignored by the general public. Iíd like to share my favorite definition of giftedness, and it is a stark contrast to that neatly wrapped present:
Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally. (The Columbus Group, 1991).
What is asynchronous development?
While most children develop in a relatively uniform pattern, gifted children are asynchronous in their development, and the more gifted the child, the more asynchronous that child may be. Do you want to know which children are the most asynchronous of all? The twice-exceptional children, those children who are both gifted and learning disabled. Children like Leo.
Many ages at once
It is often said that gifted children are ďmany ages at onceĒ, they are quite literally out-of-sync. So, what does that look like, exactly?
Well, letís take a look at my little guy:
This photo kinda sums him up, folks!
Chronologically, Leo is 7-years-old. And he looks like your typical 7-year-old, but we all know that looks can be deceiving. We had Leo assessed last year and results indicated that his cognitive skills are above the 99.9th percentile across the board. That means that, intellectually, Leo is functioning at a level more than twice his chronological age. Socially and emotionally, however, he functions like that of a 5- or 6-year-old. In one moment, Leo can be extremely poised and mature, and in the next moment he can dissolve into a mushy mess of a boy. Just think about that for a second, folks. Can you imagine the frustration he must feel? His mind - his cognitive functioning- is like that of a teenager and yet those thoughts are housed in a 7-year-old body, a body with 7-year-old emotions.
Here are just a few examples of how Leo's asynchrony has reared its noggin' in our home:
- A toddler with epic tantrums because he could not verbally express his thoughts in a way that the adults could understand.
- A 2-year-old with significant stuttering for over a year; his thoughts were so much faster than his speech during that time.
- A dinosaur-obsessed 2-year-old who cannot sleep at night because he's afraid that the human race will suffer mass extinction just like the dinosaurs.
- A 2-year-old terrified of death and its permanence. This fear of death carried over to a number of areas: fear of himself and others being hurt and injured, leading to intense fears and extreme caution.
- A 3-year-old asking about infinity and telling you that circles are a form of infinity.
A 3-year-old who wants to know how the very first person came to the world and repeatedly asks, Why are we here??
- A 4-year-old who is fascinated by weather and yet terrified of weather events, such as lightning strikes, tornadoes, and tsunamis because he has read about them.
- A 4-year-old obsessed with space and yet terrified of comets, meteors, and the sun burning out.
- A 5-year-old who is both interested in and terrified of diseases and asks, How did the first disease get in the world?
- A child who was terrified of television until the age of 6 because the themes and sounds were just too much for his little body to handle.
-A 6-year-old who annoys everyone while watching television because he points out every logical impossibility.
Currently, Leo is fascinated with the Bible. He has a worn copy that we found at our local dump and he loves to read the stories contained therein, particularly the Old Testament. Well, the Old Testament describes an angry God and Leo, who recently admitted to three incidents of sneaking penny candy from our local farm stand, is petrified that he is on the path to Hell. No matter what his father and I tell him, he is terrified of Hell because there is no proof that it does or does not exist, due to death's permanence.
Parenting asynchronous children
Parenting asynchronous kids can be challenging for a number of reasons, including:
-You never know what age youíre going to get in a given situation. In any given day, I experience a plethora of ages from my son and it can change from minute to minute. Leo and I can have an amazing, mature, and thought-provoking conversation one minute and then in the next moment he can throw a fit to rival that of any 2-year-old.
- You must deal with expectations and judgment from others.
When your 5-year-old converses like a 15-year-old, folks often expect more of him. The reality is, heís still very much five and that can be difficult for others to wrap their mind around. Teachers, coaches, and other individuals may mistakenly expect more out of your precocious little one.
- As a parent, you are eternally playing the mediator.
You find yourself constantly explaining this child to others, and you are relentlessly advocating for his needs. It can be challenging to find friends, activities, books, media, etc. that meet your child's unique needs.
Educating the asynchronous learner
Educating a gifted, asynchronous child can be extremely challenging. Leo attended kindergarten at our public elementary school. One might think that a gifted kiddo would coast through a 1/2-day kindergarten program, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is, he floundered. As the pile of nuisance behavior reports increased in height, so too did his dislike for school. My little guy would climb into my car each afternoon, grim-faced and exhausted, and ask me, "Do I have to go to school tomorrow?"
Sadly, many educators receive little to no gifted training, and many more mistakenly equate giftedness with achievement. In kindergarten, Leo would read Harry Potter and The Hobbit on the bus ride to school, however, in his reading group he would barely answer comprehension questions. Why? He hated the books and was not interested. Giftedness and achievement are two separate entities. Leo had little desire to please his teacher, he just wanted to read great books. When I asked for more challenging reading material for him, I was repeatedly told that while he might be reading Harry Potter, he certainly couldn't be comprehending it.
We had Leo assessed in May of last year, during the end of that dreadful kindergarten year. Results indicated that his cognitive abilities are above the 99.9th percentile and his academic skills were two to six years above the kindergarten level. No wonder he was so frustrated and grim-faced at the end of his day. Here is a snapshot of Leo's asynchrony as a kindergartener:
- Chronologically, Leo was 6-years-old and he looked like your average 6-year-old.
- Cognitively, his skills were like those of someone more than twice his age.
- Socially and emotionally, he was functioning at the level of a 5- or 6-year-old.
His reading skills were like those of a late middle schooler/early high school and growing by the day.
- His writing skills were on the second grade level.
- His math skills were at a mid-3rd grade level.
When the results came in, I knew in my heart that his needs could never be met well in a k-3rd grade elementary school building. No wonder the poor kid was miserable in kindergarten: he was wholly misunderstood at just five years of age.
As a school psychologist and product of public education, homeschooling was never on my radar. In reading about this population and after talking with the psychologist who performed Leo's evaluation, homeschooling seemed to be our best option and so I jumped in headfirst. It has been the most unexpected, life-altering, and wonderful decision, folks!
I have learned that homeschooling is a wonderful approach for these children. Homeschooling allows for flexibility and nothing can beat the 1:1, individualized support! Here are some things to consider when homeschooling a gifted, asynchronous learner:
- Steer clear from boxed curriculum. Asynchronous learners are often functioning on very different grade levels depending on the skill and you'll need something more flexible.
- Gifted children have little patience for repetition of material. It's okay to coast through material if the child is understanding it.
- At first, when faced with appropriately challenging material, your gifted child may balk. This is normal. Just think: this is probably the first time your child has met with challenge. It's new and maybe a little scary. Baby steps.
- Allow your child to pursue his or her passions. Do not worry about grade levels. Allow your child soar!
- Educating these children can be costly, as they tend to fly through material. Make the most of the free options available to you, and don't forget how much learning can occur with just your library card alone! When purchasing material for your child, try to look for options that allow for a self/fast pace and acceleration.
-Gifted children need intellectual peers. This can be tricky, but try to find a community for your child. Your child needs to feel that acceptance from others who truly understand him.
A final word
I love my son to the moon and back but parenting him has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. He is my wisest teacher.There are so many gifted myths floating around out there and I wish I could erase every last one. I wish more folks could begin to understand giftedness as asynchrony.