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Homeschooling a Gifted Child

By Elise Griffith
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #10, 1995.

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Shortly before his second birthday, as we were walking through the airport to pick up his dad from a business trip, Bobby pulled away from me and ran towards the ticket counter.

“Twaay! Twaay!” he shouted.

“I’m sorry, honey, I don’t understand you.” I scanned the area for clues.

“Twaay! Der! Twaay!”

He was beginning to get frustrated, and I didn’t want to cause a scene in the middle of the airport. “Can you show Mommy?” I asked.

He ran over to a large cardboard sign. T-W-A. Twaay. My toddler had somehow taught himself to read.

Bobby had never been a “textbook child.” He did things his own way, at his own pace. When he decided to walk, for example, he simply stood up and walked down the hallway to his nursery!

Lenore Francine was the senior pastor’s wife at our church during this time. She had directed Challenger Preschool in San Jose, California, for nearly 20 years. One Sunday morning, she spotted Bobby reading a bulletin board.

“You’re dealing with an especially gifted child here,” she told us. “You really ought to think about homeschooling him.”

I was very hesitant to even consider homeschooling. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to teach Bobby properly, and that he’d be socially and emotionally damaged for life. I enrolled him in a local “Mother’s Day Out” program, and worked as a substitute so I could keep an eye on him.

At about this time, Bobby began to erupt into violent tantrums regularly. He’d break toys, hit other children, and carry on until he’d make himself throw up. Every week, I was asked by his MDO teachers to come and “control” him.

Steven and I tried everything that the popular child development books suggested, especially concentrating on the books by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. and William Sears, M.D. Ignoring the tantrums, which one book suggested, escalated the problem. We had several long, grueling days of screaming and migraine headaches before giving up on that idea. Trying to diffuse or distract Bobby also failed. He would punch or kick us whenever we tried to console him during a tantrum. Spankings had no effect on him, and made me feel guilty. Bobby learned to manipulate me, carrying on as if mortally wounded when I spanked. Giving him a “time out” in his room (or on a chair in another room) seemed to have marginal success, though it was doing more for me than for him.

When he was still “throwing fits” at age five, we consulted Dr. Shepherd, a Christian family practitioner and pediatrician in Lewisville, Texas. He and his wife have ten children. They homeschool all of them. One of their nine sons had problems similar to Bobby’s. Dr. Shepherd advised us to teach Bobby at home.

“Bobby’s a very bright little boy,” he told me, “and very intense. A public school will immediately suspect ADD (attention deficit disorder), but this isn’t Bobby’s problem. He’s gifted. And gifted kids have slower emotional development. Boys, especially, seem to exhibit frustration by becoming violent. You should homeschool him, and be sure to establish firm boundaries.”

“Doesn’t he need to learn socialization?” I asked.

“All children learn to socialize,” he said. “Human beings are social creatures. Unless you isolate him, he’ll develop at his own pace, in his own time.”

Steven and I discussed our options. I still felt very inadequate, but reluctantly sent for sample curriculum and catalogs. Sifting through the incoming stacks of material, I felt overwhelmed. How would I be able to choose the right curriculum for Bobby? I checked out a few books from the library that dealt with gifted children, and another that explained the homeschooling process.

Bobby displayed several of the “gifted” traits described in Smart Kids With School Problems by Priscilla L. Vail (1987 E.P. Dutton):

    rapid grasp of concepts
    awareness of patterns
    energy
    curiosity
    exceptional concentration
    exceptional memory
    empathy
    vulnerability
    heightened perceptions
    divergent thinking

He also seemed to fall within the visual learning style described by the author. Visual learners acquire knowledge by “seeing”—they have more of a photographic memory. Bobby knew the alphabet by sight at eleven months. He memorized letters and words by sight. Our options were narrowed by this information. The cassette programs dedicated to auditory learners (those who learn best by hearing the lesson) or project lessons for kinesthetic (tactile or “hands on”) learners wouldn’t be as appropriate for Bobby as they would be for another child.

We considered combination programs, where we’d have the option of choosing textbooks according to Bobby’s specific level in each subject. A Beka curriculum can be purchased a book at a time. So can Rod & Staff. A.C.E. curriculum involves self-paced worktexts. Calvert School’s home education program was very appealing because books, worktexts, paper, pencils, rulers, scissors, and every implement necessary for the course is shipped with the grade level package.

With Bobby’s needs and our budget in mind, the first materials we purchased were coloring and activity books. They helped to get Bobby in the habit of doing lessons. The kindergarten materials from Rod & Staff (our choice) were wonderful in their progressive approach to learning, gradually incorporating phonics and mathematics concepts. They weren’t colorful or high tech, but Bobby did quite well with them, proving that simple materials can work with gifted children.

When his baby brother, Zachary, was born in December of 1992, Bobby had completed his kindergarten materials and was beginning the first grade. His tantrums were becoming a fading memory as our schedule and home life gained structure. We’d purchased the first quarter, first grade materials from Rod & Staff.

Then, from April of 1992 until February of 1994, Bobby’s education hit a snag. Major changes hurled us into a state of chaos. We’d chosen Bob Jones books and worktexts for the remainder of the first grade, because, as Bobby said, “they look more like real school books.” He now had six subjects to cover, and this posed a problem. Each day started well. Bobby did excellent work on the first two subjects, but it always went downhill from there. He was regressing. The tantrums returned.

I was overwrought at this point. I’d just had a difficult pregnancy and delivery, Steven had changed jobs and we’d moved three times and 700 miles—all within ten months! I tried to be patient and understanding with Bobby’s regression, but usually ended up screaming and packing up the books for the day. As Bobby disappeared into his room, I’d collapse, sobbing, on the loveseat.

Family and friends began bombarding us with unsolicited advice, blaming Bobby’s behavioral problems on homeschooling. Yet we knew that homeschooling had been the single “constant” during those long months of instability.

When weeks passed with little progress in his behavior, we consulted a Christian with a doctorate in psychotherapy. She repeated information that we’d heard in some form before.

“Often children with special abilities, like Bobby, will be behind in emotional development,” she explained, adding that Bobby’s outbursts and lack of interest in school were an unconscious response to his stress. “With so much brain activity spent on absorbing his environment, there isn’t enough for all areas to develop at the same pace.”

The therapist suggested we give Bobby time to adjust to his new environment, and enroll him in a school for gifted children. The advice seemed contradictory. Steven and I felt as if no one really understood our day-to-day life with Bobby. Most of the time, he was an amiable child. The outbursts were as difficult for him as they were for us. He began to perceive himself as “bad.” This increased everyone’s frustration.

I decided another trip to the library was necessary to find ways we could help Bobby move along in his emotional development.

In their book, Managing The Social And Emotional Needs Of The Gifted (1985: Free Spirit Publishing), Connie C. Schmitz and Judy Galbraith contend that, while children with special abilities don’t have a common collection of personality traits, they do share common problems. These problems include:

    feeling insecure because they’re “different”
    feeling isolated and “weird”
    feeling misunderstood
    feeling overwhelmed by perceived expectations of perfection

Helping your gifted child understand that he’s not alone in his feelings and struggles can produce remarkable results. We encouraged friendships with other gifted children, and showed Bobby the charts in the books.

On a whim one day, I purchased a pack of composition notebooks, waterbased markers, and ball point pens. I explained to Bobby that they were tools to produce his own books. He could write whatever he wanted in his books, and didn’t have to share the contents with us if he didn’t want to. This enabled him to express his feelings safely.

Bobby’s attitude improved, as did his school work. He began to show an interest in learning again. We moved our old computer into his bedroom, then gave him basic word processing software and a few math and story games. Time on the computer was a reward for good school work. Often, computing time took the place of recess. To give me a much needed break, we enrolled Bobby at a local Homeschool Supplemental Program. Art, music, and P.E. are the core focus of this program, which meets two afternoons a week.

As Bobby has grown (he’s seven now), we’ve been able to find more effective means of teaching him self-discipline. He’s held responsible for his actions. If he breaks a toy in a fit of temper, for example, he won’t get a replacement and will have to pay for the item from his allowance.

We have found that, while all children need a balanced education, gifted kids especially need a variety of outlets for their curiosity and creativity. We do our best to expose Bobby to the arts, culture, music, and physical activity. Often this translates to “nature walks” and “museum trips,” but a simple trip to the printer can be a rich experience for the inquisitive child. Even staying home can sometimes be stimulating! I run a desktop-publishing business from home. Bobby already knows the basic typefaces, layout designs, and printing process. He helps me choose appropriate colors for newsletters and designs his own work on his computer.

Bobby now reads with comprehension at the fifth-grade level. His math skills are also well above his age level, using A Beka materials. Still, while he is two to three years ahead academically, he remains about one to two years behind in his emotional development. We’ve learned to adjust to this, and can see definite progress. After dealing with emotional outbursts and tantrums for years, I almost threw a party the day Bobby came to me and said, “Mom, I’m really frustrated with . . . ”

Occasionally I am asked if I’d recommend homeschooling. My response is always the same. It depends on the child and the parents. We’ve discovered over the years that quick fixes and easy answers don’t exist. If you’re willing to work within the boundaries of your child’s unique abilities and quirks, and can make the commitment to teach your child—no matter how rough the road gets—then I’d say, “Go for it!”

There have been a lot of rough days for us, but I have no regrets. We’ve provided Bobby with the best start he could have. With a solid, Christian foundation and parents who strive to meet his needs (while insisting on responsible behavior), the sky’s the limit for Bobby. Children who are homeschooled often reach for higher goals as adults. We praise God every day for our two little boys, and the opportunity He has given us to raise them!


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