Watching Prodigies for the Dark Side

Gifted children who are not challenged can quickly grow bored with school, but a hidden fear of failure can lead to far greater problems

JEFFREY IS JUST NOT interested in elementary school anymore. He doesn’t retain what he is taught, and his grades are bad. At recess he avoids classmates and keeps to himself. He knows his parents are disappointed in him, too. His teacher finally recommends that he be taken to a child psychiatrist for evaluation. The therapist administers a special intelligence test, and Jeffrey turns out to have an IQ of 150—far above the average for his age. He is a highly gifted child.

Two to 3 percent of children are considered highly gifted, showing IQ scores of at least 130. For many such youngsters, their extraordinary intellect gives them a real advantage in school. They may shine in music, math or science. Contrary to popular belief, child prodigies do not on average have more school or social problems than their less gifted peers, according to longitudinal studies. They may have fewer friends, but that is usually because they make greater demands of acquaintances.

And yet there is a dark side. For some of the most talented—those with IQs in the 140 to 150 range—their gifts can turn out to be a trap. Because these children are so insightful at such a young age, able to make sense of adult ideas, they are constantly aware of the potential risk of failure. This awareness can immobilize them to the point of emotional paralysis, a quiet demon that parents and teachers must watch for.

School tests pose one example. Unlike classmates who typically approach exams with a certain detachment and answer one question at a time, some highly gifted children relentlessly consider the implications of each answer and what the risks are of making an error. Jeffrey's behavior reflected this constant sense of imminent failure. His fear caused his academic performance to be barely average. He also kept himself away from the other children because he doubted they would accept him.

Developmental disorders can exacerbate the trap. Dyslexia affects about 10 percent of children, regardless of their intelligence. The consequences are particularly severe for a highly gifted child. From the moment such a child enters school, he finds that he gets poor grades even though he comprehends everything easily. He therefore encounters difficulty understanding why his efforts meet with so little success. A steady diet of frustration eats at his self-esteem. The consequence is anxiety that may even shade into depression. As a defense, the child gradually loses interest in schoolwork and begins to isolate himself from social interaction. Punishment may only make matters worse. With their well-developed sense of right and wrong, prodigies consider punishment undeserved, and they may withdraw further.

Moreover, with their heightened self-awareness, gifted children keenly feel a personal loss caused by any developmental disorders. For example, highly gifted children may be acutely aware of a lack of physical coordination or spatial orientation, which also undermines their self-image.

In some cases, IQ tests mislead parents and teachers as well. A gifted child might excel in questions that probe verbal intelligence, say, but perform miserably on spatial reasoning skills in the labyrinth part of the test. Because both scores are typically combined, the overall result may be just average. The discrepancy between the child's own high expectations and the discouraging evaluation from the adult world may lead a boy or girl up a blind alley that is hard to resolve. The ironic and unfortunate result is that an extremely intelligent child may fail dramatically in school.

Catch It Early

So what is to be done? The first step is to recognize exceptional intelligence as well as developmental disorders so that parents and teachers can intervene. Earlier detection means quicker correction. For instance, in five-year-olds, phonics training can clear up dyslexia within six to 18 months. But if treatment begins only a year later, the correction can take twice as long—extending the chance that the child gives up on school.

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