Another Dimension

Stephanie S. Tolan

Stuck in Another Dimension:
The Exceptionally Gifted Child in School

By Stephanie S. Tolan

© 1985 Stephanie S. Tolan, Used by Permission.
Originally published in Gifted Child Today, Nov. - Dec., 1985

For six years I have tried to educate an exceptionally gifted child in a school system not designed to handle him. As a parent, I've never been able to take our situation as an interesting theoretical problem: mistakes have real, observable and painful consequences for someone for whom I care deeply. I've learned a great deal in these years, and one of the most frustrating things I've learned is that, in spite of the fact that thousands of such children exist today and many thousands have been educated, miseducated, or driven away by our system in the past, each of us confronting the problem is faced with reinventing the wheel.

When, shortly before my son's sixth birthday, I discovered that the special qualities we had noticed in him were signs of extreme intellectual ability, I went directly to the books. Books had helped me through pregnancy and the Lamaze childbirth method, had reassured me through infant illnesses, and had provided expert advice to support my desire to let him keep his pacifier as long as he wanted. I naturally assumed that from books I could learn how to educate him.

Among the first things I found out from books on gifted education was that the exceptionally gifted are considered so unusual that they are relegated to a paragraph here or a chapter there. While there was some information about what minds in the very highest ranges of human intelligence could do, and some biographical information about such people in history, there was almost no practical advice on how to educate such a child. A few people, such as those at The Johns Hopkins University, seemed to know what to do with these children when they reached age 12 or 13 and could do well on the SAT, but what little I could find about first grade, for instance, did little more than predict catastrophe.

There seemed to be a consensus that a child with an IQ over 150, or worse yet, over 180 would be a misfit in school and need an adaptation of traditional school methods. But there was no consensus and, in many sources, no suggestion about what that adaptation should be. In general, the controversy over enrichment or acceleration seemed to be aimed at children in the normal range of giftedness. Little seemed to apply to a child who, before the age of 6, was reading at the sixth grade level about any subject, could carry on a well-informed conversation about pond life in the northern hemisphere with a professional naturalist, and had pointed out an error in an encyclopedia entry about dinosaurs.

Should I accelerate him? Some sources said absolutely not, some said yes, of course, it's the only possibility. But even those that said yes added, as a gloomy afterthought, that even a year or two of acceleration would soon prove insufficient. Not only was the modest amount of advice contradictory, it was overlaid with one of two attitudes, neither of which I could accept. One was the glum certainty that an exceptionally gifted child was in for emotional, social, and educational disaster no matter what one did; the other was the rosily optimistic conviction that the exceptionally gifted child was sturdy enough to survive almost any assault by school, society, or peers, particularly if supported by loving parents. Books, it seemed, were letting me down.

At some point I discovered Audrey Grost's Genius in Residence (1970), a book I recommend to every parent of an exceptionally gifted child. I learned through her experiences that I would have to be more wary of educators than I had suspected and far more determined to do whatever I decided was best. Reading about the obstacles she encountered, I could prepare to meet my own. But there was a major problem even with this enormously helpful book. My son was not up there with Michael in the 200+ IQ range. He couldn't do what Michael could, so the radical approach to education the Grosts finally took would not be reasonable for us. I was still on my own.


I began going to conferences on giftedness where I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Parents of exceptionally gifted children found the least help at conferences. Typical complaints were, "But those ideas couldn't possibly work for my daughter. She needs something more!" " Why don't they talk to us? Why don't they have information for us?" When several distressed parents approached conference organizers at one meeting, they were told that exceptionally gifted children were such a tiny minority as to be statistically insignificant. It was not an answer that satisfied anyone. In fact, there is a growing belief among some researchers, as Drews (1972) suggested some 20 years ago, that there are far more over 150 IQ children than our current statistics, based on the bell curve, predict.

This is not to say that nothing good came from attending conferences. Among other things, we parents got to know each other and began sharing experiences. I've kept in touch with several families in various states, and we have learned a lot together. Unfortunately, among the most obvious lessons is that we are no further now than parents were decades ago. Particularly in the elementary grades, the obstacles Audrey Grost had to contend with are those we face today.

Most educators have never coped with a child identified as exceptionally gifted before. Few have read Hollingworth (1975) and some who have can't believe that our children could readily complete elementary education in one fourth the normal time or less. Such deviations from the norm are incredible to many educators.

It's important for parents and exceptionally gifted children alike to understand that educators do not misunderstand on purpose. What is normal for us is simply not believable to them; it's as if we are living in another dimension, trying to explain our world. They know their own world and its rules. After all, it has been suggested that schools that must educate the majority of the population should no more be expected to educate the 150+ child than to educate the severely retarded.

Unfortunately for all of us, there are few choices we can make about schooling. Exceptionally gifted children are not exempted from compulsory attendance laws nor given special institutes designed to meet their needs. We cannot restructure school systems to fit the needs of our children, but we can get some measure of adaptation for the individual child.

Shared Traits

As we share our experiences, we parents learn that, though our children may be very different from each other in temperament, interests, personality, and appearance, they have a large number of traits in common. We've discovered these traits on our own, and it may take years to piece together our observations into a clear pattern, even longer to connect individual patterns with those other parents have observed. People tend to see our children as strange and don't understand that the very characteristics that make them seem strange in general company would show them to be quite normal in the company of other exceptionally gifted people.

Among the largest obstacles we have to overcome is that these characteristics are not those usually associated with high levels of intelligence. Seldom are our children straight-A or obviously academically talented students who stand out in school. Studies (Terman & Oden, 1947) have shown that children in the highest ranges are less likely to be identified in the classroom than other gifted children. The adaptations that might rescue our children cannot be implemented without the help of educators, and to get that help we must convince them help is needed.

Some principals or teachers may reject special changes for individual children because those changes cause extra work, create further complications in an already complicated system, or elicit negative reactions from parents of other children. But many, perhaps most, would be willing to make an effort if they could be convinced the normal approach to education is inappropriate for such children and that any attempt to make these children normal is doomed. To convince them, we need to show which of the commonly accepted educational rules or procedures are most harmful to our children and why.


The first, most obvious problem for our children is created by the age/grade lockstep system. The very term IQ is based on the possibility of a difference between chronological and mental ages. A 10 year old with an IQ of 150 has a mental age of 15. (The higher the IQ, of course, the greater the disparity between chronological and mental ages.) While a child's social and emotional development may not be as far ahead as his intellectual development, most 150+ children seem to be both socially and emotionally advanced. Putting that 10 year old in a classroom with other 10 year olds and providing him fifth grade educational materials is inappropriate in almost every way. We would not force an intellectually normal 15 year old into such a situation, but we do it routinely to the exceptionally gifted.

There is a great deal of controversy over whether our children are quantitatively or qualitatively different from others. Do they learn in a different way, or do they learn in normal ways but more efficiently? I suspect we will eventually learn that no human being learns naturally the way the educational system teaches, but meantime we know very well that exceptionally gifted children don't learn that way. 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.

The typical school schedule is another obstacle to educating our children. The day is organized into periods of 30 to 50 minutes each, depending on the age of the students. Theoretically, the attention span of a child is small and schools don't want to ask a child to concentrate on a single subject for too long. But exceptionally gifted children have intense powers of concentration. If they connect with a subject enough to give it full attention, they are not ready at the end of a class period to drop it and take up something else.

When our son was 8 and in the fifth grade, his teacher complained that he didn't seem able to pay attention to one subject for a full period. At home the picture was very different. He spent the day after Christmas that year from 7 a.m. until nearly midnight, building with the Capsela kit he'd been given the day before. Anyone who knows the Capsela system knows that it is based on fairly complex mechanical concepts. Our 8 year old hadn't encountered most of these concepts before, so his activity that day was both a learning experience and a creative one. He didn't stop long enough to eat lunch, but consumed a sandwich in the middle of his work. When we insisted, he took time out for dinner, but returned immediately afterwards and had to be sent to bed at midnight. If he had been asked to put the set away after 50 minutes, he wouldn't have discovered how interested he was in it. In the first hour he messed around with the pieces to see what he might be able to do with them. He didn't even look at the instruction book (educators take note!) until he'd satisfied himself that he'd learned all he could without it; that was in the second hour. By lunch he had finished making all the models in the instruction book and set out to create his own designs.

Exceptionally gifted children typically learn by total immersion. Whatever subject claims their attention becomes a virtual obsession until they feel they have mastered it or have gained as much from it as they need. Their attention doesn't have to be concentrated into one day-long marathon, but it does need to be given time to function normally.

The day after our son's Capsela day, he wanted nothing to do with his still-new toy. It was not touched again for months, and then only when a friend wanted to play with it. I've often wondered how he would have felt about Capsela if we'd presented it to him in daily 50-minute blocks. I doubt that he would have learned in 20 separate periods as much as he learned in 17 uninterrupted hours. Worse, he probably would have found the whole project rather dull.

Stanley, Keating, & Fox (1974) have discovered that math is best taught to mathematically precocious children in long sessions only once or twice a week; total immersion is known to be an excellent way to learn a foreign language. But few schools provide such a learning environment for our children, and most educators say that no child could profitably pursue a single subject for several hours at a stretch.

Right-brained, divergent thinkers may learn not by logical, sequential steps, but randomly or morphologically by making connections that may not be apparent to others. They may be able to move in logical sequence from task a to task b to task c, but they seem to be far more comfortable ranging freely, sometimes doing m before b or z directly after e. This pattern doesn't fit what educators have been taught about learning nor the way materials are presented in the classroom.

The mother of a 4 year old boy with an IQ of nearly 200 was told by his Montessori preschool teacher that he wasn't mature enough for school The reason for this assessment? The child insisted on doing task b before task a even though task a was a necessary preparation for b. The mother asked if the child had done b successfully. "Yes, but he shouldn't have tried it."

A 6 year old girl in the second grade went alone to do research on whales in the school library. When she was sent for at the end of 50 minutes, she had found nothing at all about whales because, in the same encyclopedia volume, she had found both water and weather and had spent her time reading about those subjects. She was surprised to be told that her time was up and more surprised when her teacher criticized her for not having done her work. As far as she was concerned, she had been learning interesting information and had intended to get back to whales later. A case could be made, of course, that a child who had learned about water and weather might bring more to her research on whales than one who went directly to the assigned subject. The teacher's assessment? Once again, immaturity coupled with lack of research skills.

Exceptionally gifted children, like all gifted children, dislike repetition and drill. The difference is that they may be unable to do it at all, or may do it so haphazardly, so carelessly that their scores on drill work may fluctuate wildly from 100 to 0. They seem to know instinctively what brain researchers have found out recently -- that repetition shuts down higher brain functions. In fact, these children need little if any drill. Once they have grasped a concept, they have grasped it.

Educators who fear our children will forget what they don't repeat often enough, need to know that even if a concept is temporarily forgotten, these children can pick it up again with incredible speed after a brief reminder. My son, faced with a math problem in which he had to divide one fraction by another, announced that he didn't know how. When he was told that he had to invert the second fraction and multiply, he said, "Oh, of course. I remember," and proceeded to do the problem and others more difficult without trouble. He hasn't forgotten again. But time after time in school teachers have taken his "I don't know how" as a signal to teach him something all over again, tiny step by tiny step. Then he has been assigned several batches of practice problems to complete before being allowed to move ahead again.

One trait that gives both educators and parents a hard time is the exceptionally gifted child's tendency to abandon a project without finishing it. To the child, the "finish what you start" rule seems unreasonable. While he may doggedly follow some projects through to completion over days or weeks or longer, he may more often abandon them before they are through or even shortly after beginning. Must we conclude he's learned nothing? No. He may have learned all he needed or wanted to. Or he may have discovered the project wasn't worth the time it would take. Or something in it may have given him an idea for another, more intriguing project. An exceptionally gifted child, allowed to function normally, is likely to value process more highly than product.

But schools want and need products as the basis for education. How do we know if a process has been learned if we have no product to show for it? The danger of this orientation is that, for the exceptionally gifted child, it is likely to produce inferior products or alienate the child or both. As a writer, I understand the futility of continuing with an idea for a book once I've discovered it isn't strong enough. If I were forced to continue with the idea, the result would be a bad book and valuable time wasted. If the exceptionally gifted child is allowed the latitude to follow through, not on every project, but on some that seem truly worth doing, the products created are likely to be all a school could ask for to measure the child's progress.

Educators may protest that allowing a child to drop a project that no longer seems interesting discourages self-discipline. It's a protest often heard from parents as well. I suggest it isn't letting them avoid normal school tasks that diminishes self-discipline, but forcing them to do all tasks, including those inappropriate to their capabilities. How can children learn to persevere through challenge, difficulty and boredom if boredom is the only obstacle they are given to overcome? Unless they can also experience excitement, thought-provoking complexity and interesting difficulty, they can be overwhelmed by the boredom. They will lose interest in both product and process. We adults are told that if we don't regularly exercise our bodies we will grow sedentary, unhealthy, and flabby. Yet the exceptionally gifted mind is expected to stay fit without being used at all.

The same boy who, at 4, was accused of being immature by his Montessori teacher recently endured a devastating interview with a school principal when he asked to be given more challenging work. He is now 11, still has that approximately 200 IQ, and is in a normal sixth-grade classroom with other 11 year olds. He asked if he could test out of subjects he already knew. He was told the school did not provide that option to sixth graders. He pointed out that he reads for 45 minutes on the way to school every day and for another 45 minutes on the way home and asked if he could be excused from the daily period of sustained silent reading to take a language course in a higher grade. He was told that since he had not made what the school considered a satisfactory social adjustment to children his own age, he could not be put into a class with older children. He asked if he could be given extra instruction after school or more complex work tasks in normal subject areas and was told that since he didn't always complete assigned homework and because he didn't get top grades in all the work he did complete, he didn't deserve to be given extras. It was suggested that if he showed he could and would do all the work the other children were given, he could have some to do that was all his own.


It is important to find ways to keep these scenes from occurring. It should not happen to one child in one school, yet we know it's happening over and over again to children across the country.

By age 12 children can take the SATs and may finally be able to work with people who have long known what to do for minds like theirs. But they have had to wait for too long and suffer far too much damage. There are young children out there about to embark on the same agonizing journey and parents who are going to have to learn the lessons for themselves, making the same mistakes the rest of us have made. It can't be said too often or too strongly that these children inhabit another dimension. They can't be allowed to be different only when their differences are convenient or safe. After six years, I know all too well that those who predicted catastrophe were closer to the truth than those who claimed our children could survive anything. No matter how strong or physically fit our astronauts are, we wouldn't send them naked to the moon; we protect them with space suits and oxygen. It's high time we provided protection and sustenance for our finest minds. We know how gravity limits the distance a man can jump on earth, but we don't expect the limits to be the same on the moon. It's high time we took the artificial limits off our children's minds.

The exceptionally gifted child is unique. What kind of educational adaptation each child needs must be decided after a careful study of that child's individuality. But the certainty that adaptations must be made can be based on what our children have in common, on the rules of their own special world. We must provide educators with maps and guidebooks of that world so they can begin, with a degree of confidence, to let go of the rules they have been taught to follow.


Drews, E.M. (1972). Learning together. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Grost, A. (1970). Genius in residence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hollingworth, L.S. (1975). Children above 180 IQ (Reprint of 1943 ed.). New York: Arno Press.

Stanley, J.C., Keating, D.P., & Fox, L.H. (1974). Mathematical talent: discovery, description and development. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Terman, L.M., & Oden, M. (1947). Genetic studies of genius: mental and physical traits of a thousand gifted children. Vol. 1. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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