When my son was five years old, he was identified as highly gifted.
My parents and friends smiled and said, “You must be so proud!” Quietly, on the inside, I was proud. All of those early activities and learning that we did must have helped. Listening to classical music, trips to the museum, art lessons, and piano were all chosen to help him prepare for school.
I was thrilled. As an elementary teacher, the idea that school would be easy for my son was a relief. For years, I had seen how frustrating school was for struggling readers or for those that couldn’t make sense of the daily math assignments. I had met with worried parents, scared and looking for any advice to help their child succeed in school.
Although I was excited that my son was bright, I was nervous. The therapist explained that many highly-gifted kids struggled in your typical brick and mortar school. She spoke of boredom because of the repetition that is often used and the larger class sizes that prevented individualized instruction. She warned me about social and emotional needs that were complicated and often required additional support.
I knew what she meant. I had seen some of the behaviors that she was sharing. A need to negotiate, the strong urge to have his surroundings clean and tidy, to completely suck up all the information about one topic and to discard that interest quickly, after he had learned all there was to know.
I had seen early signs of difficulty with peers. He could make friends, but they didn’t stay for long. He had troubles sharing friends with others, just like he had struggles sharing toys or materials. He often referred to his classmates as “the children” when reporting about his days at preschool.
Yes. I had seen these things, but I was convinced that the most important part was that he was smart. He could learn these skills. He would mature and with my help and additional play dates, he would gain the skills to build and maintain friendships.
As my son grew, he morphed into a small dictator. His funny, little quirks increased and impacted his day more and more. He challenged his teachers and saw himself as their equals, demanding the same respect that they would give a colleague. He complained about what he was learning and the slow pace of the instruction. He didn’t understand why the other students had so many questions.
He started having behavior problems at school. Very quickly, he discovered that a tantrum in the classroom was a quick way to escape his mundane classroom. Throwing a pencil or a book meant reading a book of his choice in the principal’s office. Before long, his behavior was so unexpected that children grew even more distant from him and physically his desk was pushed away from the others. The emails from the teacher increased and the phone calls from the principal were not focused on his high intelligence, they were reports like the therapist had warned us about.
Simultaneously, we were learning about his sensory needs. The lunchroom was too loud. The assembly was too crowded. The bathrooms were unclean. The sounds of the instruments in music were more than he could stand. By the end of the day, he was exhausted by the inability to filter his surroundings.
This year, my son is a third grader. He completes little work and has few friends. He participates in friendship groups and complains that no one understands him. He sees the other students roll their eyes at him. He is an easy target at recess because of his short fuse that consistently gets him in trouble.
His worry and anxiety about school has increased to such a point that I question having him attend at all. The weekends are both relaxing and stressful since he needs the time to recover, but the realization that Monday is quickly approaching, releases tears and begging to let him stay home. I spend evenings, researching experts and books that might help my son.
As a teacher, I should know what to do! But I don’t. I do know that this can’t continue.
He tells me that he is breaking. He feels as though he is going to implode. I understand because I feel that way too. I must break this cycle of self-doubt and anxiety that our family is experiencing on a daily basis!
While my heart is breaking, I remember when I first heard that he was gifted. I now understand that it is much harder to help a bright student try to fit in to a typical school and system. I know how to help with academics, but I don’t know how to help his friendship issues, his sensory issues, his behavior issues, his worry and anxiety.
What would you do if your child was breaking? How would you break the cycle?