- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

One of Louise Epstein’s three children earned the nickname “Miss Perfect” because she knew answers to questions before many of her peers. Another temporarily stopped doing her homework in hopes of better fitting in with her classmates.

The class clown gets the laughs. The star athlete gets admiring looks from the girls and “attaboys” from his buds. The school brain enjoys a less glorious reception.

“It’s very difficult to be the brain or the egghead,” says Fairfax resident Ms. Epstein, president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted and mother of three gifted children. “It means that you stop raising your hand unless you have a very thick skin.”

School districts have no consistent method for helping these students learn.

Some rely on magnet schools, such as Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District, where accelerated students gather in advanced learning programs. Other schools teach gifted and traditional students in the same classroom, letting the teachers tweak the materials to challenge the advanced students or let them race ahead at their own pace.

Most gifted children are taught via the latter method by teachers without specific training for the task, according to the District-based National Association for Gifted Children. The federal government, the NAGC says, doesn’t require additional services for these children.

NAGC President Rick Olenchak says formalized assessments of whether a child is gifted can take place as early as the preschool years.

“The reliability of those measures tends to be somewhat questionable,” says Mr. Olenchak, a psychologist and director of the Urban Talent Research Institute at the University of Houston. A more accurate time for testing is around third grade, he says.

“That said, a number of schools around the country are appropriately using a more multifaceted approach to rule out the notion that there’s just one test that will find any kind of need, let alone giftedness.”

Schools, in turn, examine several sources, including test scores, what students do outside the school grounds and parental input, to make the call, he says.

Parents typically notice a child’s advanced intellect before anyone else.

“They’ll start witnessing different kinds of thought processes going on, like developmental milestones being reached a little bit early,” he says.

Ms. Epstein says parents of gifted children must do their own homework to find out what’s available for their children.

“Every county decides for itself what, if anything, it’s going to do for children who are academically gifted. If you’re a parent, … figuring out where to live can make a big difference.”

Ms. Epstein, whose oldest daughter is in ninth grade, says parents of gifted children often opt for magnet schools so their children will prosper in a more hospitable environment.

“The best of all worlds,” she says, is for children to be in “one gifted program or another … where they can be with kids who are their own age but who have similar abilities.”

Beverly Shaklee, professor of elementary education at George Mason University, says parents need to be cautious before labeling a child as gifted.

“There are children who do read early who are identified as gifted, but there are some who don’t,” Ms. Shaklee says. “It’s not always an indicator.”

Parents, she says, should talk to their child’s teacher to get a better idea of the child’s ability level. She says parents should, for example, keep teachers abreast of what books the child is reading. Parents also should sit in on a child’s school day, if possible.

One of the biggest mistakes teachers and parents make is treating the children solely at the grade level they achieve and ignoring their chronological ages.

“They have to recognize that imbalance,” she says, which some call “desynchrony.” “They have to be sensitive to when does the child need help physically, and [when] socially [do] they feel left out and need a hug.”

For some children, the gap between their physical and mental development can be frustrating beyond the social setting. A gifted young artist, for example, might have an elaborate drawing in mind, but his or her motor skills might not be up for the challenge, Ms. Shaklee says.

Barbara McGonagill, the Virginia Department of Education’s principal specialist for Governor’s Schools and gifted education in kindergarten through 12th grade, says we can’t view gifted children from one strict vantage point.

“You’re looking at different perspectives that come out at different times,” Miss McGonagill says. “They have different peer groups. One, he plays chess with; another is more typical of his age, and he plays baseball with,” she says. “We try to honor these differences and perspectives” of the gifted versus chronological ages.

Extremely bright children might have an even harder time finding adequate peer groups, she says.

Beth Kaufman, a Bethesda parent of three gifted children, says her children benefit from palling around with other gifted children.

“The magnet schools have been a real godsend. They meet other children who are like them, instead of having to be friends with the one smart kid in class,” says Ms. Kaufman, whose daughters attend magnet schools.

Another way to help children grow intellectually is to take advantage of local resources.

“Make good use of the public library,” Ms. Kaufman suggests, or sign children up for extracurricular teams where they can challenge their young minds.

“My son is an avid chess player,” she says. She found a position for him to play with other children at the U.S. Chess Center in the District. “He’s a pretty shy kid. That’s his social inroad with a lot of other children,” she says.

Never let children stop being children, she says.

“Allow them to enjoy their childhood and be kids and have fun,” she says, “but give them the challenges.”

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