Gifted Advocacy


Biologist, Dr. E.O.Wilson, spent many countless childhood hours watching ants. His unremitting interest eventually led to his ground-breaking research into sociobiology and biodiversity, becoming renown as the world’s leading expert on myrmecology.

Dr. Terrance Tao, mathematician, spent endless childhood hours playing with puzzles and math problems. His consuming passion led him to becoming one of the youngest Fields Medal winners. He’s received many major mathematical accolades in areas of combinatorics, harmonic analysis, matrix theory, and other areas.

Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel), children’s book author and illustrator, spent numerous childhood days at the zoo with his father (the superintendent of parks), sketching animals that would one day inspire the fantastical creatures that inhabit his timeless, world-famous and award-winning books.

Through these examples, I’m reminded of the wisdom spoken by Paul Graham in a January 2015 article stating,

“The stranger your tastes seem to other people, the stronger evidence they probably are of what you should do.“

Further examples of gifted children with unique passions who followed those passions into careers could fill volumes. In the book Far From The Tree, author Andrew Solomon describes prodigies, each experiencing an intrinsic motivation to fully understand and expand upon a specific unrelenting passion. This motivation was given a name by Dr. Ellen Winner in her book Gifted Children: Myths & Realities. She termed it rage to master. Dr. Winner explains that these gifted children “…exhibit an intense and obsessive interest, an ability to focus sharply…”. Rage is an apt term.

Try to stand between a child and his/her passion. What results is anger, frustration, sadness.

A related term, coined by Dr. Brock Eide & Dr. Fernette Eide, alludes to the gifted brain’s hyper-sensitivity & increased glucose utilization as seen on fMRIs.  Brains on fire.

This increased glucose utilization is truly interesting, as I have heard from so many parents including myself who speak about a physical need for food that comes when their child is intensely learning. Skip a meal and these children may experience symptoms analogous to that of a diabetic with hypoglycemia. Rage to master can be thought of as the intellectual component of the over-excitabilities of Dabrowski.

Those who have witnessed rage to master in their own gifted children or in the children of friends or relatives undoubtedly have seen both the advantages and disadvantages to this way of learning. It is without question a hunger. A devouring of information and experiences. An unstoppable force of nature.

But this hunger can be at odds with traditional ways of learning.

Children with rage to master seem out-of-place and time with other children and adults.

More often than not, the passion is unique and not one shared with age-peers. In the book High IQ Kids, in the chapter by Judy Fort Brenneman, she discusses how her profoundly gifted child was a poor fit for the school. Neither the special education classroom nor the mainstream classroom suited his needs. His behavior became unacceptable. What the school said was “If only he could slow down so we could teach him.” The mother replied with “Why can’t they speed up?” Exactly.To.The.Point.

Children like this perform with intensity at home, consuming information and always creating to better understand their world and their thoughts. Yet at school, they are asked to decelerate learning. To slow down. To brake.

BREAKING NEWS: They can’t decelerate. Asking them to stop learning and creating is nothing short of cruel and inhumane. Think about Kurt Vonnegut’s profound story “Harrison Bergeron” and the true meaning of equality. Think of Stephanie Tolan’s excellent essay “Is it a Cheetah?

Families with these children are placed in a nearly impossible position by then requesting acceleration for their child. It isn’t acceleration, per se, these children need. It’s appropriate education at their level of need. FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). These children aren’t asking for something above and beyond an appropriate education. If other children are being given a challenging education, so should these children. The difficulty and ambiguity of the definition of FAPE and gifted education is a discussion for another time.

Acceleration, after all, may simply be a fuzzy politically correct term. Consider the ramifications of calling it by its proper name – appropriate education – and then try to withhold it for a child.

How could one in all fairness justify deceleration in the presence of suitable ability?

But many school districts do not accelerate. Some allow for pull-out classes 1-2 times per week. Some schools do not even recognize ability if accompanied with a learning disability. Other schools, when confronted with acceleration, instill a worry in parents about socialization (as if socialization in a class where the child cannot relate to the slowed pace and is repeatedly made to feel wrong or broken is somehow healthy). This, despite large amounts of evidence to the contrary, as reported in A Nation Deceived.

So what happens when a gifted child with rage to master is denied the opportunity to fulfill that passion? Families are all too familiar with the outcomes. Acting out in class, depression, somatic symptoms (headaches, stomachaches), school refusal, underachievement, and being  labeled by professionals for attentional issues, conduct disorder, learning disabilities. Of course, some of these children may have mental health and/or learning disabilities in conjunction with their rage to master. Determining with accuracy the presence of a disorder requires first addressing the educational environment.

One powerful story of a misunderstood gifted child comes from this blog’s reflections upon Ken Robinson’s excellent book The Element.

It is our responsibility as adults and parents and educators to strive to understand the needs of all our children and to acknowledge a child’s inner feelings. To help understand such a child’s inner feelings, I have never come across anything more potent than this poem by Pearl S. Buck.

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him…
A touch is a blow,
A sound is a noise,
A misfortune is a tragedy,
A joy is an ecstasy,
A friend is a lover,
A lover is a god,
And failure is death.
Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Do I have my own stories about my child? Absolutely. Suffice it to say right now that my son has been permitted to explore his passions through unstructured homeschooling for the past decade. Not every day is completely rosy, as no one’s life is always thus, but freedom to learn is a right to be cherished and upheld no less than any other human right.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  -Howard  Thurman, author, theologian, civil rights leader

This article also appears in The Huffington Post HERE.