“The exceptionally gifted mind thrives on complexity and challenge and can process
huge quantities of information at a time. Schools don't provide information this
way; teachers and textbooks break complex subjects down into simple, bite-sized pieces
presented in a logical sequence. Faced with these crumbs of simplicity, our children
have nothing to get hold of. Particularly in the early grades, school may seem incomprehensible
to the exceptionally gifted child.
Think of feeding an elephant one blade of grass at a time. Not only will he die of
malnutrition before you can get sufficient food into him, he is unlikely to realize
you are trying to feed him at all. That single blade of grass is simply too small
to be noticed.”
children need to learn to struggle and to put forth effort, to gain satisfaction
and a sense of achievement in mastering new skills.
Exceptionally and profoundly gifted children are no different from others in needing
to learn to struggle and to put forth effort, but the extent to which their education
must be personalised to achieve this goal is seldom recognised. They occur so rarely,
it is often not recognised how radically different their education must be from that
of their age peers, or from that of most other gifted children.
There is much published research documenting the positive effect of radical educational
interventions for exceptionally and profoundly gifted children, (Gross & van Vliet,
(2005)) and plenty of case studies documenting massive underachievement, depression
and other psychological problems when children are offered little that is different
to the norm (Gross (2003)). There is no research which documents that education without
intervention is appropriate for exceptionally and profoundly gifted children, and
none which shows they can be adequately catered for in school alongside age peers
from the middle of the ability spectrum.
The result of ignoring this population of children is the underachievement of our
very brightest, with the consequent waste of this country’s most promising intellectual
capital, together with the personal cost to the individuals concerned.
Special needs of the exceptionally gifted/profoundly gifted child
While the child in the top 2% of ability could well be catered for to a considerable
extent by a combination of extension and enrichment within the normal classroom,
the profoundly gifted child may well be looking for a level of complexity, depth
and pace normally only expected of an undergraduate student - in a child who has
not yet left the primary school system. Indeed, neuroimaging research is beginning
to confirm that children with exceptional intellectual giftedness differ in brain
activation from their age-matched non-gifted peers, and that their thinking resembles
that of much more mature students. For more on this, see our web-page ‘What is Exceptionally
and Profoundly Gifted?.
A century of international research has documented the gulf which exists between
the educational needs of the profoundly gifted child and those of most other children.
This gulf is as wide as the difference between the needs of most children and those
of the profoundly learning disabled.
In the UK, we are very much aware of the special educational needs of those whose
intellectual and cognitive abilities fall below the average ability range (where
average is defined as the middle 68/70% of ability). It is accepted that, for all
these children, their intellectual or cognitive impairment will have a major impact
upon their ability to participate alongside their age-peers in the school curriculum.
They will require dedicated teaching support, and modification to the teaching process
and/or learning outcomes, throughout their school career.
There is also general acceptance of the wide differences between those whose learning
difficulties are mild or moderate (falling perhaps between the lower 10% – 0.1%)
- who may be able to achieve some curricular outcomes through adaptations to the
normal classroom work - and those whose difficulties are severe or profound (say,
0.1% - 0.001% below the norm) —who would normally require extensive modification
to educational programmes, or, more likely, an individualized learning programme
focusing primarily upon life skills.
The numbers of children whose difficulties are severe or profound are very small,
but our obligation to provide them with properly directed, individualised and appropriate
instruction is considered unequivocal.
“Contrast, however, the treatment of exceptionally gifted/profoundly gifted children:
though equally numerous, and operating at a level just as radically removed from
their age-peers, there is no special provision made for them, over and above that
which might be made for those performing at in the top 2 – 10% above the norm. We
delude ourselves if we suggest that their exceptional needs may be serviced by tinkering
around the edges of a lock-step progression through a standard curriculum, even in
an ability streamed classroom.” (Gross (2000)).
The personal cost of an insufficiently challenging education.
Extensive research has documented the potentially damaging effects on exceptionally
gifted/profoundly gifted children (and the adults they become) arising from the failure
to meet their educational needs in their youth.
The general finding of a great many professionals in the field, whether academics,
psychologists or coordinators of longitudinal studies, is that years of under-stimulation
and the consequent loss of self-esteem leads to highly negative outcomes for the
The quotations in panels to the side of this page give a flavour of the breadth of
scholars, professionals and clinicians who have come to these same conclusions; and
testifies to the fact that—although these effects have been recognised for decades—we
have yet to make any significant progress (in the UK at least) towards resolving
Every child is, of course, an individual, and the numbers of exceptionally and profoundly
gifted children are in any case too small to lay down prescriptive ‘rules’ about
the likely outcomes for each child. Nor - clearly - does every child suffer from
the entire spectrum of problems flagged up here. But there are obvious and well documented
dangers in forcing an exceptionally gifted/profoundly gifted child to remain in lock-step
progression within the confines and expectations of an education system created for
a broad spectrum norm.
- Poor social adjustment
Research shows that social adjustment is usually intimately linked with educational
placement, with a good educational fit often leading to good social adjustment. It
has long been known that children mostly prefer others of similar mental age as friends,
and this is no different for the exceptionally and profoundly gifted. See Pegy’s
social and emotional page for further information.
- Loss of motivation and appetite to learn
When the tasks set are consistently far too easy, an exceptionally or profoundly
gifted child may eventually reconcile themselves to barely functioning at this level
of work, and their intellectual stamina and enthusiasm declines. They become so accustomed
to nearly effortless busywork that their mental ‘muscles’ become atrophied. As Miraca
Gross notes (2000) ¯”...the drive to achieve, the delight in intellectual exploration,
and the joyful seeking after new knowledge, which characterized their children in
the early years, has seriously diminished or disappeared completely. These children
display disturbingly low levels of motivation and social self- esteem..... Unfortunately,
the schools attended by these children have tended to view their de-creased motivation,
with the attendant drop in academic attainment, as indicators that the child has
"levelled out" and is no longer gifted.”
- Poor study habits
Exceptionally and profoundly gifted children who are not challenged academically
may get used to putting in the minimum of effort, waiting until the last moment to
do a task, taking exams with little or no revision, writing papers and projects without
pre-planning, and completing large assignments in one last minute study session.
Their self image may come to depend on them always being able to achieve ‘good enough’
results using this behaviour. The child may continue in this manner through University
and beyond, often locked into this pattern although finding it deeply dissatisfying.
Ultimately academic results and work opportunities may be compromised by this behaviour.
Anything which demands academic discipline and skills outside their capacity to
improvise becomes a threat to their identity and may be avoided, or may cause a collapse
of self esteem and the abandonment of the challenge altogether. The point at which
this happens may not be reached until University or beyond, if ever. But if the child
never learns how to tackle a complex and difficult task effectively, then they may
never gain the satisfaction of struggling to master new skills and knowledge which
is so important to all children, leading to lifelong dissatisfaction and depression,
as well as the squandering of their potential. They may never use their intellect
to their own satisfaction, or to the benefit of others and perhaps the country as
“Brilliant youths must …. accelerate their progress in those school subjects where
they excel, or else (as Dr. Marolf pointed out) they are likely to be so bored and
turned off academically that they do poorly in college. We of SMPY have seldom observed
an extremely accelerated student who did not earn the Bachelor's degree readily (even
at age 12 years 47 days!), whereas a number of those who completed high school age-in-grade
have even flunked out of college. They tended to cut many classes, hoping to coast
on their brilliance. By the second or third year they became so far behind that they
dropped out or were terminated academically. Others went through in four years but
with mediocre grades. Sometimes, perhaps cynically, I say that they have a defective
academic character brought on by 13 long years of being grossly under-challenged."
The late Dr Julian C. Stanley (2002), professor of psychology and Director of the
Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) at Johns Hopkins University, an on-going
longitudinal study started in 1971.
These children need challenge in order to learn how to tackle something that doesn‘t
come easily, how to persevere, and how to accept failure and try again. The failure
to learn these skills can lead to underachievement at any stage of life, to the avoidance
of challenging tasks, and to dissatisfaction and lack of fulfilment in adulthood.
- Disaffection, Rebellion and Anger
Those who rebel against their education may drop out, either completely or by checking
out mentally and refusing to participate. They may become the class clown, a trouble
maker, or aggressive and antisocial. Teachers may look too shallowly for the causes
of this behaviour, blaming the child, rather than the lack of appropriate stimulation.
Alternatively, the child may simply sit quietly through the school day interacting
as little as possible so that they are mostly ignored. Some find ways of entertaining
themselves and become disruptive to the class in doing so, or retreat into their
minds and stop paying attention in class.
- Blending with the Crowd—fitting in with one’s peers
Some exceptionally gifted/ profoundly gifted children deliberately underachieve to
conform to their age peers’ standards, often in a bid for social acceptance. Some
profoundly gifted preschoolers are so socially aware that they even modify their
language to fit in with their classmates, as well as their performance. If this deliberate
underachievement occurs at preschool or in the early school years, the child may
never realise what level of work they are really capable of doing.
The fear of bullying, of standing out, of being ‘different’ and ‘uncool’ can also
cause the child to conform: this is particularly a problem where academic ability
is not publicly valued or where individual differences are not celebrated, and where
there is poor school discipline.
- Depression and Anxiety
The eager seeking after knowledge with which they drive themselves, the thirst to
learn, the intensity of the urge to know and to master new skills which characterises
exceptionally and profoundly gifted children, all thwarted if a school is unresponsive
to their needs...... day after day of unremitting tedium.....waiting, waiting, waiting
for something new.....the brain pacing the tiny cage of required work, desperately
longing for something hard to work on, until it could SCREAM and implode from frustration......
the lack of purposeful activity ..… the lack of true companionship on an equal intellectual
plane…..always modifying vocabulary, modifying jokes, explaining things, pretending
not to know so others don’t feel bad.....small wonder that anxiety and depression
are widely reported among case studies of exceptionally gifted /profoundly gifted
"By this refusal to recognize special gifts, we have wasted and dissipated, driven
into apathy or schizophrenia, uncounted numbers of gifted children. If they learn
easily, they are penalized for being bored when they have nothing to do; if they
excel in some outstanding way, they are penalized for being conspicuously better
than the peer group and teachers warn the gifted child, "Yes, you can do that; it's
much more interesting than what the others are doing. But, remember, the rest of
the class will dislike you for it." Meanwhile, the parents are terrorized with behests
to bring up their children to be normal happy human beings...."
Margaret Meade “The Gifted Child in American Culture Today”, Journal of Teacher Education
1954 5/3 (September).
Why is UK Policy on ‘Giftedness and Talent’ an inadequate response for exceptionally
and profoundly gifted children?
For a number of years, organisations such as CfBT, CHI, NACE, NAGC, NAGTY and PEGY
have been working with the government to improve the quality of the educational provision
at the top end of the scale, so that the brighter children in the UK‘s schools might
receive an education appropriate to their intelligence and ability.
Much has happened to improve matters generally: there is now, for example a wide-spread
acceptance within the teaching profession of the need for a Gifted and Talented programme
in every school (though this is not yet universal), and genuine attempts have been
made in many schools to enrich and extend the curriculum for those who need stretching.
For all this, however, the plight of the exceptionally gifted/profoundly gifted child
has not been recognised or addressed.
UK Government policy on the Gifted and Talented is aimed at a broad spectrum of children
falling into the top 2%, 5% or even 10% of the school population: in other words,
it is a laudable attempt to improve the educational provision for a very large number
of bright children. But there is little or no differentiation between levels of giftedness
within this group of children; and no recognition of the real differences which exist
between children who are moderately or highly gifted and those who are exceptionally
or even profoundly gifted.
Accordingly, most gifted education teaching manuals and publications in the UK address
only the needs of bright children, and almost universally recommend a ‘one-solution-fits-all’
approach, usually comprising in-class extension work, leavened with stimulating after-school
or holiday activities and the occasional pull-out group. Acceleration or other more
radical solutions for the education of the gifted are dismissed as unwise and unnecessary;
but the whole discussion takes place in the context of the moderately gifted. With
very few exceptions, the needs of the exceptionally gifted/profoundly gifted child
are not discussed, recognised or addressed in G&T policy making or academic writing
within the UK: it is as if they do not exist.
In part, this is because of their rarity: exceptionally gifted children probably
occur at the rate of 1 in 10,000, and profoundly gifted even less frequently. It
follows that few educators or other professionals have ever met or taught such a
child, and there is little experience or information available on the best way to
educate them. Nevertheless, these children do exist and they do have quite exceptional
It is not possible to prescribe an educational solution which will fit every exceptionally
and profoundly gifted child since they are very different from each other in patterns
of strength, motivation and interest. Each case must be assessed individually.
The child should be assessed by an educational psychologist (one who is familiar
with testing gifted children), using tests with appropriate ceilings. They will:
- measure the child’s ability with an individual IQ test,
- assess their academic achievement, to identify what stage they have reached in
Achievement testing will show where the child needs to be placed academically; and
ability testing how fast the child is likely to progress, and how radical their needs
are likely to be (see further on this in Identification).
There is likely to be no perfect solution to the question of educational placement,
so it will be necessary to evaluate options to find the best, or perhaps as Carolyn
Kottmeier writes, ‘least worst’ option.
A creative combination of different approaches can quite often be the answer, and
key approaches are usually:
The ‘do nothing’ option is also a decision which must be evaluated. Be cautious,
however: it is not the ‘safe’ option sometimes thought, as shown by the research
It may be helpful to read Pegy’s page on Advocacy before talking to teachers or education
professionals, or of course, if you are a teacher - the parents.
Any educational plan should be reviewed frequently, at least every three to six months,
and adjusted as necessary. Profoundly and exceptionally gifted children may make
great leaps in progress and outgrow placements. Their needs can change very quickly.
The need of every child to have an education appropriate to their “age, ability and
aptitude” has long been enshrined in law.
The present government has gone further in recent years in recognizing that “every
child matters”, and that education should be allowed to progress by “stage not age”,
with personalised learning giving every child the best chance of fulfilling his or
Much effort and ongoing resource is also spent in developing curricula which aim
to challenge and engage children, since it is recognised that all
"It is surprising that very highly gifted children do not rebel more frequently against
the inappropriate educational provision which is generally made for them. Studies
have repeatedly found that the great majority of highly gifted students are required
to work, in class, at levels several years below their tested achievement. Underachievement
may be imposed on the exceptionally gifted child through the constraints of an inappropriate
and undemanding educational program or, as often happens, the child may deliberately
underachieve in an attempt to seek peer-group acceptance." Gross 2003 p21
“A personalised approach to supporting children means:
· Tailoring learning to the needs, interests and aspirations of each individual
· Tackling barriers to learning and allowing each child to achieve their potential”
from the UK Government’s ‘personalised learning’ webpage
“Children of IQ 169 (that is, exceptionally gifted) appear in the population at a
ratio of less than 1:100,000. If an elementary school teacher taught 30 students
each year in a professional career of 40 years, the odds against her having such
a child in her class are more than 80:1. This is one of many reasons why teachers
and schools make such inadequate response to extremely gifted students. We do not
have enough practice in dealing with them, we are not informed about such students
in our pre-service training, and the very interventions which most benefit these
children, such as radical acceleration and full-time ability grouping, are frowned
upon. These interventions are not discouraged by the research community which freely
acknowledges their usefulness, but by the educational establishment which holds rigidly
to organizational procedures and teaching methodologies which benefit the mass of
students in our schools rather than the individual (Benbow & Stanley, 1997)”, from
Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students: An Underserved Population by Miraca
“When schools retain [exceptionally and profoundly gifted] students with age peers,
they typically underachieve and experience negative affective outcomes, including
lowered self-esteem, anxiety and serious demotivation.”
Gross M & van Vliet H (2005).
“…it is important to note that meeting the educational needs of the gifted and talented
child will also help their social and emotional adjustment. The research has been
fairly clear in suggesting that the degree to which a gifted child's educational
needs are being met is an important factor in their overall adjustment.” “Learning
About Gifted Children” by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Edward R. Amend From EducationNews.org
“In the ordinary elementary school situation, children of 140 IQ waste half of their
time. Those above 170 IQ waste nearly all of their time. With little to do, how can
these children develop power of sustained effort, respect for the task, or habits
of steady work?”
Hollingworth (1942) 299.
“Why should children with unusual abilities experience trouble with ordinary school
curricula? Precisely because the curricula are ordinary. Education is a mass enterprise
geared by economic necessity as well as politics to the abilities of the majority.
Just as a child of less-than-average mental ability frequently has trouble keeping
up with his classmates, so a child of above-average ability has trouble staying behind
with them. Prevented from moving ahead by the rigidity of normal school procedures,
assigned to a class with others of the same age, expected to devote the same attention
to the same textbooks, required to be present for the same number of hours in the
same seat, the Gifted youngster typically takes one of three tacks: (1) he conceals
his ability, anxious not to embarrass others or draw their ridicule by superior performance;
(2) he drifts into a state of lethargy and complete apathy; or (3) not understanding
his frustration, he becomes a discipline problem.”
--Dr. Harold C. Lyon, Jr., Director of Education for the Gifted and Talented, U.S.
Office of Education, January 1974