First Time in a Gifted Program?
Why didn’t somebody tell me about this?
How children react to being placed in a gifted (or GATE) program for the first time will depend on their personalities, backgrounds, and experiences, but you can make it an easier transition if you talk with them ahead of time. For many children, placement in a more rigorous program is a real eye-opener. It can be the first time their work is commensurate with their abilities, which—on the face of it—sounds like a good thing. But problems can arise.
All of us have a sense of what we can do and how much effort it’ll take to accomplish a given task. Based on my life experience, I know how long it will take me to read a book or write a paper. Your child has that sense of self, too, when it comes to school or sports or music. But now let’s say that she’s been moved from a class where she had mastered material quicker than the other students, into a class where students are closer to her level, perhaps even above it. She’s been moved out of her comfort zone. What was considered great work in her previous class is just average in her new one. Her expectations are challenged and she has to create a new view of reality, to fit her sense of self into a class where she works harder than in the past.
Most people, adults as well as children, will do anything they can to avoid making such a change. Younger students seem to adjust more quickly, since they haven’t had as long to become complacent as students. But they can struggle as well.
The two most common responses can confuse, frustrate, and break the hearts of parents. You were expecting joy, a sense of release from the boredom you’ve heard about for so long. Instead, the first thing you’re likely to hear is: “This assignment is stupid/a waste of time.”
Or: “The teacher is mean / isn’t fair.”
Or: “The other kids have their parents do the homework.”
Or the kicker: “I don’t have any friends.”
You wonder what happened. Well, what happened was actually a very normal, very familiar human response. It’s been around forever—think back to Aesop’s Fables. When the fox can’t reach the grapes, he decides that they were probably sour anyway. This isn’t an intentional negativity; it’s just what often happens when a person is moved out of her comfort zone.
Less common but more heartbreaking are cries that “I’m not smart enough to do this! I want to go back to my other class.” How are you to respond?
First, before your child joins the new class, discuss with her how challenging that class will be. Remind her she’ll be learning new ways to think that might not be easy, but you know she can do it. Once school begins, if you start hearing anything like the comments above, check in with the teacher about what your child is feeling. While doing so, try not to be underwhelmed by your teacher’s lack of perception. Odd as it may seem to you, having heard nothing but troubles from your child, it’s often the case that a student won’t manifest any sign of worry or upset in class. When the teacher says your child seems to be doing just fine, she may not be as weirdly out-of-touch as it seems. Your child can be quite different in school than at home.
Which can leave a teacher unaware there’s a problem, but not because such a problem is unheard-of. You’re undoubtedly just the latest concerned parent, not the first one.
The best thing you can give both the teacher and the student is time. Have your child commit to at least six weeks of being in class—assuming you see real effort from her—before you’ll even consider pulling her. Giving in early simply allows a child to avoid the difficult task of learning how to cope with a changing world. The same sort of angst can occur when a child is promoted to middle school, high school or goes off to college. Or when an adult moves to a new city or a new job; changes keep on happening throughout life. The skill of coping is best learned at a younger age when a strong support system is in place (that’s you, of course). Just remember that supporting isn’t the same thing as reacting; do not just react. Talk with your child, talk with her teacher, put together a plan and give it time to work.
Beware of making excuses for your child: She’s young for this grade. She’s never done this before. We just went through a [insert family difficulty here]. The moon is full. There will always be reasons, and yes, there can be situations in which the reasons are valid. Are you in such a picture? The fact—unpalatable as it may be—is that you just can’t know today. It’s going to take a while. You can, and should, act to find out but without deciding first. Talk with the teacher. An experienced teacher knows that kids are amazingly adaptable, and that maturity is very different from chronological age. She has no doubt had other students who felt even less able to cope with change. She’ll probably have recommendations specific to her class (ie, grade level, subject, social situation amongst students, etc) to help you in helping your child.
If you’re really lucky, your child falls in that rarest of categories: the kid who’s never been challenged like this before, but wow, there’s so much to learn! How do I get more? In twenty years of teaching gifted and profoundly gifted students, I’ve worked with more than 50 who were entirely new to the program. Perhaps five or six responded this way and nearly all the others settled in and rose to the occasion once the first few weeks had passed.
Nancy Retter is the director of Renaissance Village Academy.