On Homeschooling Gifted Children:
What Do You Mean and Why Does It Matter?
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Over the past decade, I have found myself interacting increasingly with homeschooling families. Most commonly, I have met them through my teaching at MIT's Splash and High School Studies Programs, but a number of friends and acquaintances are also among the unenrolled. When talk comes around to "What do you do in real life?" or "Oh? What do you teach?" and I explain about my involvement with gifted education, the most common responses I get are either "What do you mean gifted?" and "Well, we're homeschooling, so it doesn't matter if our child is gifted or not."

"What do you mean gifted?" As with any popularly used term, this has come to mean many things to many different people. Part of the problem stems from the age-old sense that giftedness had only to do with academics and IQ scores. While this is not necessarily so, it does provide a useful perspective for understanding the concept. The normal distribution or 'bell curve' of IQ tests presents a standard of 130 and above as gifted. There are tests in which the split is at 132, but it is still in the same ballpark. According to the statistics, approximately 2.5% of the population meets or exceeds that level.

Of course, we all know that the IQ tests don't measure everything! Leadership, acting ability, emotional sensitivity, and creativity are just a few examples of what is not being tested. Does that make the IQ test invalid? No, because it does demonstrate something about some children. However, it does not provide proof that a child is not gifted, because it didn't measure those areas in which a particular child may have her or his major strengths. My general rule of thumb is that a child is gifted if her or his abilities fall in that top 2.5% in any particular area.

Umm… How do I know that a child is in the top 2.5% of all actors? Okay. I yield, I don't. But I can tell if the child presents needs that go sufficiently beyond the norm that the needs represent both quantitative and qualitative differences - as surely in the more direction as special education provides for qualitative and quantitative differences in the less direction. (LD/Gifted is an important issue for another day.)

"Why does it matter?" In the purest sense, it doesn't, or at least, it shouldn't. Then again, it shouldn't matter in the schools, either. There are reasons why it does. Some of them have to do with 'fit.' Curriculum may not be designed for the pace of learning of a gifted child. It may not cover the subject sufficiently broadly. By adhering to the curriculum, the education path may inadvertently stifle learning rather than encouraging it. Gifted children frequently ask questions that are not answerable in the course material. They may be disturbed by images that most children (and adults) just accept without a second thought. They may quickly outgrow the available resources in a given subject, while moving less rapidly or surely through another.

There are potentials that are a part of these children that come with their abilities and are sources of confusion for parent and child alike. Recognition and understanding of these potentials can make the difference between a child's feeling weird or normal, between discomfort and comfort. In future columns, I will present some of these potentials, their implications, and some possible responses to them.

It matters that your child is gifted in the same way that it matters that your child is tall. It is important that you find the best fit - and sometimes that means paying more attention to the labels than you might otherwise like.

Please forward questions and comments to jshaine@mit.edu.