It’s long been a saying that we have to crawl before we can walk, walk before we can run, and run before we can race. Development is typically easy to track and anticipate as a child builds upon previous skills, a steady line sloping up.
Gifted kids, though, develop much differently. Instead of a straight line gradually and predictably rising, their milestones can track more like the peaks and valleys of a mountain range.
Maybe they skipped crawling and went straight into walking. Perhaps they skipped babbling and were speaking in full sentences while still in diapers. Maybe they skipped arithmetic and plunged into algebra, with a full understanding of how to find x and practical applications of the formulas.
It’s always pretty impressive to witness, honestly. A preschool astronomer or a toddler reading aloud is such a novelty that it can be impossible to focus on those leaps, peaks, and skips in their development.
However, that varied development, impressive as it is, can often come with gaps in foundational skills that weren’t “stops” along the learning journey.
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Referred to as asynchronous development, these spikes in growth and learning can make gifted kids appear to be many ages at once. Where an 8-year-old may have the periodic table memorized and the vocabulary of a college student, their emotional maturity may be that of someone much younger.
It’s not uncommon to meet a gifted child who can solve complex equations in their head and struggle to tie their shoes. Isaac Newton was known to be a brilliant mind, but a poor social companion. Michelangelo could sculpt and paint with unmatched genius but had to be reminded by his friends to bathe or change his socks.
Foundational Skills Can Be Taken for Granted
This sporadic path towards mastery and development takes for granted the foundational skills that might be skipped in achieving advanced skills. The assumption that lower skills have been mastered when more difficult skills are completed with ease is one that is harmful to students, and frustrating to parents.
After all, it’s pretty baffling when your young historian can rattle off pivotal battles and lines of succession but draws a blank when asked where they live. Try not to react in disbelief, dismiss a seemingly simple struggle, or shout that they’re smart enough to know something. It is of vital importance that we approach foundational skills with as much passion and grace as we would any other.
Foundational Skills and Gifted Kids Take Special Care
When you are addressing a foundational skill deficit, you are likely to encounter boredom, resistance, embarrassment, or shame. Try to approach the conversations and practice with a calm voice free of judgment. Remind your child that these gaps are not their fault and are not indicative of their intelligence or worth in any way. They were simply glided over and leapt past in the break-neck achievement journey.
If your child is devouring algebra workbooks it can seem a bit silly to review their math facts. They may resist, wanting instead to push full steam ahead towards more challenging, enticing, impressive math. If they want to move forward and they can, then by all means, let them. Perhaps mastering times tables can earn them the next chapter in pre-calculus, or flawless spelling tests could equal a new novel.
Gifted kids want to move on, especially when they’ve achieved mastery, so there’s no need to constantly review. If they get it, they get it, and they usually get it in fewer tries than the average student. Just because a curriculum or your sister-in-law who teaches says that constant review is necessary, you don’t have to fill your child’s day with repetition for the sake of it.
Go back to what they’ve skipped, identify where they struggle, work at that, then move on. If a child skipped pre-algebra and went straight into full-on high school math, they don’t need to complete every page that came before it. The more you push to review lower-level skills once they’re mastered, the more your child will likely fight against them.
Gifted Kids Can Have Big Emotions
Because gifted kids often struggle with grit, sometimes emotions can arise when addressing foundational skills. These are kids who have found almost everything they do to be easy, so they haven’t had much practice with needing to go back or push through something difficult.
The middle schooler may struggle with embarrassment and frustration when it’s addressed that he can’t tie his shoes. The teen who has a novel-a-day habit may balk at the idea that she needs to beef up her spelling skills. A child may express embarrassment at needing to work on a skill they feel is beneath them. Allow them to practice it in private, whenever possible.
Gifted Kids Likely Just Need a Quick Refresher
Filling in educational or developmental gaps should never be considered shameful and shouldn’t be treated as a subject all its own. It’s tempting to panic and halt forward projections in favor of rigorous skill-building. But, barring any learning differences or physical troubles, they likely just need a quick refresher. Fill in the gap and let them proceed on their merry way.
Don’t approach foundational skill building as though your child is a beginner, even though in many ways they are. This means we can’t make assumptions about the knowledge that “should” have. Additionally, they shouldn’t be made to feel as though they are taking a step (or two, or three…) back. Foundational skills are not backward slides, they’re important stones.
Foundational Skills Aren’t Backward Slides, They’re Important Stones
Don’t use preschool spelling techniques with a tween and don’t order a first-grade math program for a child who is already attempting algebra. Approach the skills gaps with the respect required of such important tasks. Treat riding a bike as though it were normal for any age to be mastering it for the first time. Approach each skill with equal consideration to avoid any belief that they’re going back, flawed, or baby-ish. These kids are smart, remember, so they can tell when they’re being patronized.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the wonders of what gifted kids can do, and often asynchronous development is recognized only in the impressive leaps. Many focus on what has been achieved while forgetting about what has been skipped. Asynchronous development, though, is still development. When a child’s mind pushes them so very forward it is up to us to remind them to build the steps underneath. Even when experienced in a different way, development remains to be development. We must be certain that our children are truly growing, not simply jumping.
Remind your child – or yourself – that these foundational skills would have to be learned at some point, they’re just doing it in a different order. Gifted kids have a lifetime of being different ahead of them. Let’s get them as comfortable as possible with meeting their unique needs in whatever way they present themselves. You’ll be thankful for the extra work of reinforcing the foundation.
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