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The gifted child: three families, three educational options Add to ...

The gifted route

Henry Wilkinson, 11, Toronto

Henry always seemed happy at school: He had many friends, was well-loved by teachers. But he often created extra challenges for himself at home: "Any time he had an assignment he would add these layers onto it," said his mom, Robin Michel. "Everything was more difficult, everything was longer."

When her son was in Grade 3, Ms. Michel sat in on his science class ("the great passion of his life") and noticed something curious: "He was sitting in the back, he was no longer paying attention, he wasn't participating, he wasn't putting up his hand."

The teacher asked questions Ms. Michel knew her son could answer, yet he remained mum. "When I asked him why, he said, 'Well, I just think it's time for the other kids to answer.' And I thought, 'Uh-oh.' And that's when I realized he was maybe starting to lose momentum."

During a car ride, Ms. Michel and her husband explained to their son that he was gifted and that they were about to attend an open house for a school with a gifted program.

"He had a bit of a heart attack," Ms. Michel says; Henry had no desire to leave his school or friends.

Yet at the open house, Ms. Michel noticed that her son's face lit up as he toured classrooms and listened to other children ask questions. "If you've ever gone somewhere and looked around and thought, 'Oh, these are my people!'… I think that's what happened to him," she explains.

The next morning, Henry, then 8, earnestly informed his parents, "I've made my decision."

"I said, 'About what? Cereal?' " Ms. Michel says.

That fall, he enrolled in the new school. Ms. Michel says the social environment is the real difference. "I noticed that an enormous part of the equation was the experience of sharing learning and knowledge with his peers and what he learns from them."

He has far more opportunities at the new school to take on leadership opportunities too, she says. And he's maintained bonds with his neighbourhood friends - something Ms. Michel says was important to her. "It's kind of like he's just expanding his world."


The French immersion route

Luc Faris, 9, West Vancouver, B.C.

After Luc Faris tested as gifted last year, his mom Reema, who knew little about what that meant, checked out a load of books from the library.

Luc, who was in Grade 3 at the time, came across the hall. "One was written in a very accessible style," his mom said. "He picked it up and read it and said, 'Oh yeah, that kind of sounds like me.' "

While pleased that Luc was an eager learner, Ms. Faris wondered how she could give him stimulating opportunities without pressuring him. Private school, the only nearby option with a formal gifted program, was pricey, and Ms. Faris didn't think her son needed to be in that kind of environment. Many gifted kids struggle with social integration. Since her son had no trouble relating to his peers, she thought it best to keep him in the same milieu.

Luc had been enrolled in French immersion since kindergarten because his mom believed in the benefits of learning a second language - she didn't want to pull him out of that program, either. "It's a tremendous opportunity that's offered in our backyard," she explains.

She spoke to administrators in the district about extra learning opportunities and felt that they, along with extracurricular activities, would keep him intellectually stimulated. A few times each term, Luc participates in "district seminars" - part-day or full-day programs where he and other gifted kids meet up for special lessons and projects.

Still, those seminars may not be enough for him. "We've had a little bit of an issue over the last couple of weeks with regards to math. He's using the term 'boring,' " she says.

She's also enrolled Luc in various arts programs on Granville Island, where he can learn everything from cartooning to computer animation.

"I don't see any reason to make a move. He's comfortable socially. He's learning, he's challenged, and the district is doing a really good job for us."


The fine arts route

Nicola Cech, 8, Burnaby, B.C.

Charlene Cech knew there was something unusual about her daughter when Nicola was just a toddler. "She'd be saying things like, 'I know God made the Earth and the people and he had a son - but who made God?' I'd be at home sick … like, 'Honey, don't ask me these questions!' "

"It was like somebody was attaching a Shop-Vac to my brain and just sucking everything out. I was exhausted after about an hour!" Peter Cech, Nicola's dad, says.

They coughed up $1,800 to have Nicola assessed by a psychologist when she was 5. She tested as highly gifted - a designation that stirred up mixed emotions. "It's like, 'Oh the poor child.' You know now that you have a child who is a square peg who's going to be rammed down a round hole," Ms. Cech says.

The family had a few options. They nixed sending Nicola to French immersion - the program was far away, and they wanted both their kids at the same public school; this one didn't seem like the right fit for Nicola's sister.

Then there was a private school for gifted kids - also a long commute - but Ms. Cech was concerned about what might happen to her daughter's social life.

"Our kid was a very social, bright, friendly, fairly-normal-in-terms-of-her-social-interactions kind of kid that wanted to blend into normal. If you go to that particular school for gifted kids, you find your very stereotypical, awkward misfits, right?"

After interviewing principals in area public schools about what kind of supports would be available for Nicola, the Cech family settled on a school with a fine-arts focus.

"It's not just learning stuff by rote and regurgitating it," Mr. Cech explains. "Say they're studying Greece. Part of the fine arts program is they look at Greek music, look at a Greek play, maybe do some poetry in the style that the Greeks did, and then they do art."

The variety of programs challenges and humbles her daughter. "She's not God's gift to dancing," Ms. Cech jokes.

"I think she appreciates that. I think she'd feel pressure if she felt she needed to be the best in all areas."

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