Monday, July 16, 2012

Getting teachers on your side-finding the right fit for gifted young children:

This post is part of the Parenting the Gifted Blog tour.

For the last 20 years, I've taught young children-in settings for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary students, in dedicated music classrooms and general ed classrooms. And I'm also a  homeschool mom of a 7 1/2 yr old gifted daughter. Over the last 7 years, I've discovered just how much I didn't know about gifted children as a teacher, and I've discovered that it's not always easier to find a good fit for my child as a parent-while at the same time, needing/wanting educational and social opportunities for my daughter. For the last few years, I've had the opportunity to help educate teachers about what giftedness can look like in preschoolers and what parents and gifted young children need teachers to understand. Now, as part of the blog tour, I'm going to try to reverse what I've learned and help parents find ways to smooth that path and find a good fit for their child.

1) Do your research. The fact is that giftedness isn't easy to deal with as a parent OR as a teacher. It's so easy, as a parent, to hear that a friend's child is having a great time in Kindermusik and comes home tired and takes a good nap and it's heavenly and think "Oh, I could use that! Discussions at the park often turn to the best preschools and the best programs.  But your child isn't their child, and what can be a great experience for their child may turn out to be a horrible one for yours, and for you.

The first step is the website. In most cases, parent policy manuals will be online and you can get a lot of questions answered there. You can get a good idea about a program's flexibility and the general feel there. My experience as a parent and a teacher is that the more open a program is, the easier it is on both sides. A preschool that uses a structured curriculum starting at age 3 that's trying to teach a letter of the week will likely be less capable to meet the needs of a gifted child who taught themselves the letters at age 1 than something more flexible. Be aware that Developmentally Appropriate can be just as limiting as something  academic.

For elective classes, look for programs where age levels overlap and where there's a focus on developmental readiness rather than cutoff ages. If there are multiple classes and multiple opportunities for children in the same age range, each of which is structured slightly differently, there's a lot higher chance of finding a good fit.

For programs that are providing child care as part of their mission, which includes many preschools, it's worth it to check on your state's child care regulations as far as age groups, child staff ratios, toilet training requirements, and so on. If the maximum child-staff ratio for age 2-3 is 8 to 1 and it's 10-1 for age 3-4, if your child is 2, it doesn't matter whether they're cognitively more like a 4 yr old, The law requires that in order for your child to be included in the classroom, the ratio has to be 8-1 at maximum. It doesn't matter how flexible the teacher or director is-if they already have a 9-1 ratio in the 3-4 yr old class, they cannot move your child up without either losing enough students to go below that ratio, or hiring another teacher. If, however, they have a ratio that's less than 8-1, you can make a case. If a child is not completely toilet trained, this requires a lower ratio and requires that a classroom meets other requirements.  This can mean that a program won't work for your child right now-but it also can open doors that perhaps might not be considered. For example, at age 2, my daughter was able to participate in a  class at a Mother's Day Out program that was designed for "young 3s/4s"-that is, it was a class for preschool-aged children who were ready for preschool content, but were a little slow on toilet training and needed extra prompting/schedule. Because it had to meet the child care regulations for non-toilet trained children, it met the requirements for a 2 yr old, while giving my daughter the higher level content and peer group that was a better fit for her.

2) Try it out-

The next step is to try to visit as many of the classes/settings as you can. At minimum, try to visit your child's age group and the next one up, and if there's more than one teacher teaching, try to see both in action. If possible, visit without your child the first time so you can sit back and observe. Observe the way the teacher interacts with the children and the level of flexibility. If you're really lucky, you'll find a great fit this way that isn't going to take a lot of modification and a teacher who makes your heart slow down a little because you realize that it's going to be OK. If not, you should have a good idea of what is needed. It may take multiple attempts with multiple programs to get past this step, but it's worth it. Be aware that, especially in programs like music classes that two different classes in a given age group, using the same curriculum and the same teacher may have a completely different feel. If you have an advanced 3 yr old and there's a preschool music class that contains mostly children who are barely 3 and one that is mostly children who are 5 but missed the kindergarten cutoff, it's likely the latter will be a better fit. On the other hand, a class with mostly younger children can sometimes be an excellent fit for a child who has sensory or motor issues with a supportive teacher and allow them to work on these in a safe environment.

3) Talk it out- After you've found a setting that may be a good fit, arrange a sit down with the teacher, or at least a phone conversation. This isn't something to do in the 5-15 minutes between classes, or when the teacher has other children in the room, or when the teacher is trying to get home to her children. The more consideration you can give up front, the greater chance you'll be listened to. Teachers are human, too, and when we're worried about whether our husband has woken up or whether we'll get home to discover that OUR gifted preschooler has dismantled the living room while he's sleeping in (happened to me when I was teaching Saturday morning music classes), we're not going to be as understanding of your concerns about the class pace being too slow to keep your gifted preschooler interested as we might be if you let us make the call after our gifted preschooler is in bed happily reading.  A face to face conference is always better than a phone call. E-mail is a last resort. To be honest, just asking for a conference up front makes us aware that your child really is something special and out of the ordinary, because it's so rare.

4) Don't say the G word-or, how not to be one of "those" parents.

The fact is that preschool activity classes and preschools in general, sometimes resemble Lake Woebegone. And it's not even all in the eyes of doting parents, either. Good preschool activity programs, and good preschools, tend to be expensive. When I taught at a University based arts program, almost all my students came from parents with high education levels. Many of my parents were graduate students or faculty at one of several universities, the law school, the medical school, or some of the varied Allied health schools. Many of my parents were international students or working in the USA on an H1B visa. Almost all of them fit the personality profile of "gifted perfectionist professional" to a T. And not surprisingly, most of their children were developmentally advanced. I had some classes where almost every child in the room would have fit on Ruf's levels somewhere. And those were a blessing to teach. But one side effect of that was that I noticed something. Almost always, the parents who were in the strongest "My child is gifted, let me show you" mode, pressuring their preschooler to demonstrate that they could X (read, play mary had a little lamb on the piano, identify pitches, add numbers....) were the parents who actually had children who were bright, but really didn't require anything extra on my part. They came into class, loved finally being able to work at their own pace, and I did my best to spin what they were doing in ways that kept their parents happy so that they didn't put extra pressure on their child, who often was seeing me as part of a gauntlet of preschool, Jr. Kumon, Music classes, dance classes, language classes, art classes and maybe, just maybe, a nap thrown in with Mozart playing in the background.

The result of that was that even when I was realizing that my OWN child was "gifted", I had acquired a real hatred of the word professionally. The word didn't tell me anything about the child. It told me much, much more about the parent. And this leads to problems when you truly have a gifted child, because what do you say when the actual, diagnostic label has acquired a negative connotation?

The thing to think about is-what are the most important things about my child? What do I need to know to get through a day with my child? Too often parents tell me what their child can do, not who their child is. The fact is, if a child matches pitch beautifully, or can name a middle C each time she hears it, or can read, I'm going to figure it out very quickly simply by the nature of my class because those are skills we're working on developing and the child will demonstrate them and show me they need more. What I DO need to know up front are the things that can affect behavior and that I can manage it if I tweak the presentation a little to match the needs of a gifted learner. You don't have to have all the answers-but if you tell me the behavior and give me an example of how YOU handle it, it gives me a place to start even if I can't use it in the same way.

For example, if your child learns something the first time they hear it, but is shy, that's useful information so that I don't assume that the child hasn't learned it because of their reluctance to respond. (This is actually a very common combination for verbally advanced preschoolers-often they're very self-conscious about age 4 or so, and will become quite disruptive if the class is too repetitive). If I know your child needs little repetition, but also needs time to become comfortable, I can add instrument parts and extensions to provide the enrichment he needs while also providing the time for him to become familiar with the setting and the repetition the other children need. If your child is a kinesthetic learner and learns best by moving, that's helpful because I can vary the activities to provide that need, or allow your child to stand and walk at the back of the room.  If your child has sensory issues and doesn't like to be touched, that's helpful so I know that your child isn't refusing to be part of the circle because they're oppositional or having a bad day.  If your child gets sudden ideas that he has to talk about now and will continue talking for 30 minutes if you give him the opportunity, and you've discovered that drawing lets him release this without being quite so annoying at home, PLEASE tell me so I can make sure I have paper and a pencil ready before I have 6 bored 3 yr olds listening to your child's 25 minute saga on the feather he found that fell from a quetzalcoatlus that flew from the dinosaur planet! (Kindermusik Imagine That, with it's open ended verbal prompts, is notorious for prompting exactly that sort of verbal response from imaginative, gifted preschoolers-and we'd REALLY appreciate a warning!).

If all you can give us is "He thinks and talks and moves constantly, and he's driving me crazy! I need a break!!!", that's fine too-that is honestly more helpful to me, as a teacher, than "He's reading on a 3rd grade level".

An added bonus of framing things behaviorally is that it will tell you a lot about whether the teacher is a good fit by how the teacher reacts. If the teacher responds to a statement that your child learns kinesthetically and often needs to move with a comment like "We're up moving a lot, and we'll see if it's enough. If not, I have fidgets we can use", you're probably in good hands. If the response is "All our children are gifted, so I'm sure he'll be just fine", look elsewhere. And if her response is "Well, he'll just have to learn to sit and listen", run away!

4) Good key words to use. Most teachers participate in in-service training constantly, and many programs really push teacher education and continuing education hard. Furthermore, special ed is a big focus area, particularly when it comes to awareness of disabilities like autism, CAPD, and learning disabilities. There has been a lot of focus on hidden disabilities and accommodating those, and a lot of awareness that such disabilities do not necessarily relate to intelligence at all. That's one reason why I've been able to wave the gifted flag at national and international conferences and get it incorporated into curriculum at a corporate level, because I've been able to frame it as a special education issue. The more you can use words that a teacher is familiar with from special education training, the more she, even if she's not responsive to "gifted" as a label, is likely to be able to come to the point you need her to be at, which is to see your child as a person for whom high intelligence is part of the package, but isn't the entire package. Asynchronous development is a wonderful word to use (if you have an asynchronous child, and most preschoolers who are later identified as gifted are asynchronous at that point, even if they end up being more globally advanced later) because if a teacher knows anything about giftedness, they'll recognize the code for what is it-and if they don't, they'll usually ask what that means and you can then explain that he's speaking in complex sentences and paragraphs more typical of a 5 yr old than a 2 yr old, but is all 2 if something doesn't go his way, including biting when frustrated. After you've explained the behaviors, and given the child a few weeks to settle into class, often you'll have the teachers commenting about "He's very smart, isn't he?" or "Did you know she was reading?"-and THAT'S when you can say that "I've read quite a bit about giftedness online, and I think she might be gifted. What do you think?". Intense is another word that often opens up a conversation.

5) Hammer-Nail syndrome. If you, when describing your child behaviorally, find that the teacher constantly brings up a specific label that is contrary to your observations (Autism is the most common, because so many teachers have gone to in-services and read articles, and think they know what it .looks like), it's a good idea to look elsewhere. While it's true that there are some symptoms that overlap, my experience as a parent, and from what I've seen when I've observed teachers is that this usually ends up being a miserable experience for the child and leads to more and more extreme behaviors, which then leads to the teacher labeling the child more fully, and its a vicious circle. Teachers need more education on what giftedness looks like in preschoolers, but it's not up to your child to be a case study out of "Diagnosis and Misdiagnosis". Find something else.

6) After you've found what looks like a good fit, try it out. It usually takes 5-6 once a week classes, or a couple of weeks of a full-day preschool before a child starts relaxing enough to really start being themselves. If, after a couple of months, it's not a good fit, usually if you've prepared the teacher, they'll tell you. Be aware that some gifted (and non-gifted, for that matter) preschoolers are master manipulators. If a child knows you feel guilty about sending them to preschool, they can play on that. If your child is truly miserable, it won't be just a case of complaining on the way to and from for the first few weeks, and the teacher telling you they're perfectly happy once you leave. It will be a case of the child showing you by their behavior all day, every day that something is wrong and the teacher telling you that it's wrong in the class setting, too. Trust your instincts, but assume it's right unless your child really shows serious behavioral changes. I've taught a couple of children of parents who had been badly burned in other settings and are very nervous about trying a new one, who questioned everything when the child was fine because they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. For that matter, I've BEEN that parent, waiting for another shoe to drop. It's tough to do, but relax and try it out.

7) When you've found a good fit, for now, don't look to the future yet. If they're happy and learning, you've found the Holy Grail. Don't look for another until you need to do so. Often this is something you'll have to reassure the teacher on, too. Some of the saddest, most regretful parent responses I got in my surveys were parents who had a child who was very, very happy in a class at their age/grade level or just above, but had a teacher/coach who was very convinced the child was the next great musician, dancer, gymnast or whatever, and wanted to push the child ahead, taking them out of group classes and to private lessons, increasing the gym time, or whatever. A gifted preschooler who has greater focus and concentration than other children their age can look like a prodigy in almost anything, and teachers love nothing more than to have a child who loves what they love. But that can easily lead to putting a level of responsibility on a young child who isn't ready for it yet, and who really likes things the way they are right now. Almost invariably, the child pushes back and what was a loved activity becomes a hated one. When the child wants more gym time, to take private piano instead of group classes, or to go to a higher age group, they'll tell you/show you. Either they'll start asking explicitly to move up, or they'll start being bored and reacting to boredom. When that happens, THEN you make a change. Until then, enjoy the peace!

I hope this stop on the "Parenting the Gifted" Blog tour was helpful to you. Please visit all the rest of our wonderful stops.

From July 15-21 the Parenting the Gifted Blog Tour will discuss some of the most pertinent issues facing gifted education today:

On July 15th Childhood Inspired will write about “Loneliness as a Gifted Parent”. Our Roxaboxen Adventures will discuss “Identifying Gifted Minority Students”.
On July 16th Sceleratus Classical Academy will share “Don’t Panic! Musings about realizing that your child’s learning pattern is ahead of schedule.”
On July 17th Teaching My Baby to Read will feature “When School Isn’t Enough; Fanning the Flames of Learning Afterschool”.
On July 18th Homeschooling: or Who’s Ever Home will write about “A Broader Definition of Success for Gifted Children”.
On July 19th A Tree House Education will feature “2E Issues”. Homeschool in Florida will share “Get Out of Your Own Way: How to Listen to the Needs of Your Gifted Child”.
On July 20th Making Music With Kids will discuss “Finding a Good Fit for a Preschooler You Suspect is Gifted”. Barely Educational will offer “Worrying Too Much and Overanalyzing Parenting”
On July 21st Teaching My Baby to Read will feature guest posts. Dancing with Dragons will write about “Teaching the Visual Spatial Learner: When Your Child Thinks in Pictures”.


  1. Great post Donna! It's interesting that you mentioned learning disabilities too. My mom is a piano teacher, and she can sometimes pick up that a student has a learning disability ahead of the classroom teacher.

    You're also helping me "buck-up" for giving preschool a go this September with my daughter. Montessori here we come...

  2. What a great article. Especially point number 7! Pushing a child ahead and taking them out of where they are comfortable is NOT always a good thing.

  3. Thanks for this article. I have a 4 year old whom I am starting to think is (haha, the dreaded word!) "gifted," and this was helpful advice, especially #4. As she is our first and only at the moment, I don't yet know even the terms I need to in order to ask the right questions, and I, too, have always cringed to use the word "gifted." It just sounds so boastful, though that is the stigma that comes from overuse. You have given me a starting place to do more research! Thanks again!

  4. Great article! I am a little behind in my blog readings because of a busy summer. I think every parent of a very young gifted child should read your post. You provided some wonderful guidance and information.