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When parents first hear a teacher say how bright their child is, they’re usually thrilled and proud to know that their youngster has been identified as smart. As a former teacher, I can tell you that having a very bright child in class, one who asks stimulating questions or understands humor beyond his years, can be exciting. I will also admit that gifted children can be the most difficult to handle, for teachers and for parents.

To begin with, adults too often expect a child who understands so much beyond his years — who may be able to read, write and use language like an older child — to act like an older child. When that doesn’t happen, the adult’s disappointment or frustration can cause confusion and hurt. Since a gifted child may share interests with older children, but not their physical or emotional maturity, he may also end up feeling left out of the social scene. I have known children who were so far beyond their age-mates academically that they were bored in school and their parents wanted them to skip a grade. But parents and staff must consider the social ramifications before making such a move.

Sometimes the best route for the gifted child is to stay in class with others his own age, but have the curriculum and teacher expectations tweaked to give him an academic challenge. He can read a harder book or write a longer report, while still exploring the same topic as his classmates. Project-based learning facilitates using each child’s strengths in productive ways.

Parents of gifted kids are often challenged to exert their authority at home over a child who may think he knows more than Mom and Dad — and on some topics does. If he succeeds in manipulating you, there will be more to follow, even though what he needs is the same firm rules and boundaries that any child requires to feel safe and loved.

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You may also want to coach him to treat his playmates with respect and compassion. Gifted kids sometimes have a tendency to lord it over others. He needs to learn to give other kids a turn talking, to notice if people don’t understand what he’s talking about and to make adjustments. He may need an older group of friends for playing chess and younger friends for running on the playground. Mixed-age groups through 4-H, scouting, music or religious organizations provide opportunities for friendships based on mutual interest.

It is often a relief for the gifted child to have friends who are also bright and understand his challenges. Ask your school about programs for the gifted. Napa Valley Unified School District screens all students in third grade and offers a variety of programs to challenge gifted students, including summer academies, accelerated experiences during the school day, honors classes and groupings within the regular classroom. Universities like UC Berkeley have weekend and summer programs for gifted youngsters to help them explore their interests in math, science or the humanities.

If you suspect you have a gifted child, don’t take it for granted that school will be a breeze. There is a wealth of information for parents online. If you’re having difficulty disciplining your gifted child, seek help from school personnel or a private counselor. Gifted kids can be just as needy as kids with learning problems or other disabilities. They have so much to offer — we just need to work hard to unleash their potential and help them grow into happy, caring, connected adults.

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Lenore Hirsch is a retired school principal living in Napa. Send questions to lenorehirsch@att.net. Please include your child’s age or grade.

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