Self-Doubt: Parenting a Gifted Child
When I walked in to pick up my son from preschool on that chilly November afternoon, Miss Terry greeted me at the door and asked if she could speak with me for a moment. She had Pat's first "report card" and wanted to chat with me.
She was concerned about Pat. He didn't like doing what the other kids did. His favorite spot in the classroom was the reading center to the extent that was also his choice location at nap time. He didn't like playing with the play-doh, because it felt "weird". He didn't always make eye-contact. He didn't play with the other kids the same way as they played amongst themselves. No matter how warm the day got, he wanted to have on long sleeves when he went outside. And her biggest concern: he'd been speaking in a robotic way lately.
She wanted to make a referral to the special needs program in my town. Here in NH, the state mandates that public schools provide special needs educational services at the age of three. She explained that this would involve a letter to the public school district from the Center Director, citing the issues she was discussing with me, followed by an assessment by the district.
My kid is different, sure--he was already reading very well at that point (self-taught) and was easily completing jigsaw puzzles aimed at kids twice his age. He has a memory like a steel trap and could tell you the exact page number on which you would find the illustration and description of any one of twenty-odd (at least) dinosaurs listed in the Complete Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs (which incidentally is a textbook, not a children's book and holds a place of pride along with his Atlases and Anatomy book).
A quiet rushing sound filled my ears as soon as she said the words, "I'm concerned about Pat..." I could still hear her words as she spoke, but I felt overwhelmed. And while I have a B.A. in Education, once she started talking about my kid having issues, I felt terribly insecure and inadequate. My cheeks were flaming...not with anger, but embarrassment and regret.
I haven't been doing right by him, I'm thinking. I let him withdraw from the hectic scenes that seem to overwhelm him--his method is to escape with a book and go read somewhere quiet. With all we hear about childhood literacy, what could be wrong with that?. He loves to read, he loves his books. It was how he soothed himself when things got too hairy. I shouldn't have let him.
I should have set up more playdates with other kids, I'm thinking. Because Pat really had a hard time connecting with the kids in our neighborhood who are his age. He wanted to read, and to talk about the solar system, the human skeletal system and dinosaurs in the Mesozoic era. They wanted to play with action figures.
I shouldn't have given in to his quirky preferences, I'm thinking. Pat never liked walking barefoot outside. EVER. He said it hurt his feet--no big deal. He didn't like the feel of wind on his bare arms. He hates loud music, and oh, the vacuum cleaner!! Certain textures freaked him out. I thought I was doing the right thing...I didn't want to torture the kid by making him endure things that were really uncomfortable. Maybe I should have worked to desensitize him somehow. To learn to be OK with these things or at least manage them better.
I should have been a better mother. That's really what my emotions were boiling down to.
I told the teacher to go ahead and make the referral. Even overwhelmed as I was with what I saw as my "mothering-gone-wrong," I knew it could not hurt to have the Special Needs Team evaluate him.
I went in to collect him from his classroom, and was greeted as I always was with an enourmous grin, and running hug followed by a wet sloppy kiss. And I burst into tears as that little boy clung to me, warm breath on my cheek. There is nothing wrong with you, Patrick, I thought. I will do better for you...You are just misunderstood.
Over the next couple of days, my husband and I talked a lot about this referral. It was during one of those conversations, that we talked about the 'robotic speech' the teacher had mentioned. I was puzzled by that one, because it wasn't anything we'd ever seen. Or had we? At the time, Pat's favorite movie Short Circuit, with Kirstey Alley DUH... Ally Sheedy. We burst out laughing realizing, Patrick was imitating Number 5! He did it at home, and we never paid much attention to it. Out of context, we could see why Miss Terry would be concerned! Ultimately, we both came to the conclusion that the evaluation by the team offered no real down side and could only be to the benefit of Pat.
After the evaluation, we met with the Teacher, the Center Director, and a Psychologist from our district. She observed him in class and also worked with him one on one. In the one-on-one, she administered a test to him called the "K-SEALS" (Kaufman Survey of Early Academic and Literacy Skills).
Her conclusion was that no Special Needs issues presented themselves and she did not have concerns that he was developmentally delayed in any way. She did have suggestions for his teachers and us as his parents, and she documented them in her report.
First, he appeared to be developing at an age appropriate manner in terms of social skills and motor skills with the exception that he needed to work on his scissor skills. Did I mention he's a Lefty? She recommended also that we continue to guide and supervise social settings to ensure that he is learning positive ways of interacting with his peers. No problem.
The report also included his gross scores on the K-SEALS, but she neglected to share with us what those numbers meant. That afternoon, after a lot of on-line searching, I learned what those numbers meant--Patrick was in the 99th percentile. For those unfamiliar with such scales, there is no 100th percentile. He'd maxed out on the test.
He'd maxed out, and the school psychologist didn't even mention that little tidbit. She concluded the meeting by basically saying that no further services would be offered to Pat but that should we have concerns about his development in the future, that we should contact the district. You see, while the state mandates special education services be provided at the age of three, there is absolutely no mandate of any type that speaks to the needs of those who fall into the "gifted" category. Meeting over, case closed.
Well, yes and no. I had gotten over the "I did wrong by my boy" feelings--and was reminded again to trust my parenting instincts. As I continued to get to know his teacher, the center director, and the others working with Pat at the school, I became somewhat more comfortable with discussing his intelligence and the quirks that go along with it. Somewhat, meaning that I always felt uncomfortable, but that I continued reaching outside of my comfort zone. When other parents would say, "You're Pat's mom? How did you teach him to read? He's so smart!" Even now, I still get so uncomfortable, and find myself pulling out what has become my stock response--"Yes, he keeps us on our toes!" followed by a (usually awkward) changing of the subject.
Two years have passed.
I'm still very uncomfortable talking about the challenges that come from having a so-called gifted child. It doesn't seem to come up in conversation, aside from the "Can he teach my kid to read?"types of questions. Somehow having a child who is more intellectually advanced gets labeled as a bonus that is its own reward. That gets reinforced by the fact that there is no educational mandate here...there is no substantial G & T funding from our local district, and certainly not from the state. With schools being as strapped as they already are, all funds are supporting the existing programs, and not adequately at that. Until the schools are required to provide for programs geared toward the gifted students, there won't be additional funding. No-funding = *very* limited programs, particularly in Podunk, NH.
I have a small handful of people with whom I can speak to about my frustrations and challenges and with whom I don't have to couch my words and fret over giving the 'wrong impression'. I feel as if saying, "I have an intellectually gifted child," is akin to saying, "I'm rich, and can spend money any way I like!" as if I'd be boasting or bragging--rubbing people's faces in the fact. And yet, when other parents point it out, I find myself wanting to squirm.
Am I proud of my boy and what he brings to the table of life? Absolutely. But it comes with a price--isolation. Information and support are tough to come by in general. Here in rural New Hampshire, I count my lucky stars that we have an amazing Gifted & Talented Coordinator in our district. But she's a one-woman show (K-12) with no staff, a laughable budget, and a resistant administration. And she has told me--advocating for my son will be an uphill, and sometimes lonely, battle. Every. Step. Of. The. Way.
We cited that K-SEALS when we requested early entrance to Kindergarten (another situation entirely, that I'll cover at another time). We've been working with the district, specifically his teacher and the hopelessly overworked G & T coordinator. Fresh new challenges, not to mention insecurities (and not just my own), have come to light. I volunteer, I'm a once-in-a-while substitute teacher, I'm active in the PTG--I'm "involved", as it were, with the school. I'm also reading and researching all I can and writing about kids like Pat--which helps me to better advocate for my boy, but also helps me to channel my energy into something more productive than simply fretting that he's not getting what he needs.
So what's a parent to do? I've been focused on this topic for more than two years, and gathering whatever resources I can to help our family navigate the uncharted waters of this wholly unexpected parental challenge. There *are* other parents out there dealing with this, but I think we all feel as if we're isolated. As if we've not been given the OK to speak up about the challenges that are inherent in raising and nurturing a gifted child.
I see a bumper sticker on a van in my travels about town. It reads, "Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes." I'm getting better about speaking my mind when it comes to my boy. At least with the professionals. I'm still working on building my own confidence to "Speak my mind" about my son to my parenting peers.
Ignorance of the challenges gifted kids present is likely the biggest roadblock to being able to have a conversation about Giftedness. I speak of innocent ignorance, not stupidity or lack of empathy. The best antidote to ignorance? Information.
These websites have a lot of great information...
Hoagies Gifted Page
Unwrapping the Gifted
Looking for some support? Read about others dealing with the joys and frustrations of teaching and raising a gifted child:
Growing Up Gifted
More than a Childrens Music Class
Hormone Colored Days
The More Child
Queen of Shake Shake
Do you feel alone in parenting your gifted child? To whom do you turn? What resources have you found that have helped you and your family?