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My almost 4 year old is nearing the end of his first full year of school, and we’re trying to assess whether the school he’s going to is a good fit and whether there might be something better for him.

He is very smart, already starting to read (tells me to stop when I’m reading to him so that he can try reading it himself), likes to play arithmetic games and solve riddles, and is always asking to watch videos about how things work. He complains to me that he doesn’t learn anything at school and “we just play!” He has also seemed to me somewhat socially isolated. The classroom has kids age 3.5 to 6 all together - the older kids don’t want to play with him because he’s still only 3, and the younger kids often don’t understand him (he’s been regressing his speech - leaving out “r” sounds and stopping fricatives and choosing simpler vocabulary - to try to get them to play with him, but he is still usually playing by himself when I pick him up from school).

All of these things have made me think that he needs a school environment that is different. More academic, with kids who are more like him. I have not had him tested for “giftedness,” but in some ways going with a gifted school seems like it might be the easy solution to both of these problems.

I can think of ways in which this could be less than ideal though - most gifted schools don’t start until age 4.5, so my son would still likely be one of the youngest kids. Also gifted schools tend to be small - I went to a small school and believe I suffered somewhat from the corresponding reduction in available opportunities. Also, I’ve had a couple of people mention that it’s important to learn to deal with and connect with “normal” people (whatever that means), and that moving a kid to a more insulated environment could reduce their acquisition of necessary social skills.

I guess I’m looking for answers from people who either went to or had kids go to gifted schools/programs, and whether they think that was a good decision. What were the costs/benefits, and did the benefits outweigh the costs? Answers from people who have experience with more than one system would be especially welcome.

Thanks

Edit: My husband was a gifted child who went through traditional schooling, and he resented his parents for not putting him in a gifted school (still does). However, his experience may not be representative, so I would also be interested in answers from parents/students who have experience with gifted kids in traditional schools as well.

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    School is a procrustean bed: one size fits all and you will be stretched or cut down to make you fit. For someone who doesn't fit there is no good answer. – Paul Johnson Mar 9 '18 at 21:09
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I studied at a school for gifted kids but it was in Ukraine, so take my experiences with a grain of salt as our culture is different, and "special" schools here are different as well.

I was in a usual school from 7 to 12 years of age. Wasn't the best of my class but somewhere at the top. I was kind of a nerd and had some bullying coming my way. It didn't happen too often but mostly it was the threat of bullying that was depressing me. We had a nearby school for gifted kids (school-lyceum) and at the earliest opportunity (they only took kids starting with 12) I went there to pass the tests and got in.

I have to say it was a big change. Going to school was a lot more pleasant experience after that. I found an easier time socializing with kids, since there were plenty of nerds around and there was zero tolerance for bullies in the school. Also being a more happy kid, I found it easier to find motivation to do my homework, though I had to spend more time on it.

Teachers were also kind of different. At the usual school the learning process was rather straight-forward, i.e. information had to be learned, here the process was more engaging, many teachers really wanted their students to understand the stuff, not just memorize it. I really struck a chord with me. For example in usual school I wasn't even the best at Math in my class (the problems were rather simple, so the best one was the one who was the most attentive and did not make silly mistakes, that wasn't me), in the new school I soon got to win my first regional olympiad in Math in a region of over 1 mln. people. That was kind of cool and helped me get accepted to the top university of my country.

It is hard to say if my social skills suffered. I probably lacked some experience in dealing with bullying behavior as a result. But my problem was I was picked on partially because I had health issues, and was a smaller weaker kid. Having more experience would not have solved that.

In your case, it is such an early age it is probably too soon to know exactly if it's a good idea or not. But if your kid is as smart as you say, you should probably give it a try.

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It's impossible to have enough context when it comes to our kids, and every community, family and school is different. With all possible caveats sprinkled with healthy helpings of salt:

The sense that this particular place isn't the best for your kid- it sounds like you should 100% trust that, and explore alternatives.

The gifted label, however, can mean a lot of different, even contradictory things. It's certainly most of all a signalling system for parents, but what happens in the building can vary widely.

In NYC, the "gifted" label is actually often just a vehicle for statistical integration, not a programmatic or curricular signal.

In the educator community, there isn't a single definition of "gifted." There is no one "gifted" curriculum.

Often kids who test as "gifted" one year, will not test that way the next, and vice versa.

From a "growth mindset" perspective, being labeled as gifted can cause blocking, and fear of exploration.

Many schools at higher levels find overall greater success in removing "gifted" tracks altogether. Instead, have kids of all abilities and qualities work together in the same space. This of course requires extra educator commitment to ensure that social challenges are navigated. (Perhaps your current school is trying to do this for the very young kids- which is a different thing than doing it for older kids- and is unable to have sufficient educator support/training.)

Of course- many "gifted" programs are also wonderful, filled with creative, engaged, curious kids and caring, committed parents. It's most important to find the right tribe.

So- there isn't anything specific in the question about the precise characteristics of the other programs in the area, so it could be that the question is best answered by getting more concrete.

There are many distinct philosophies in early childhood education. What's the particular philosophy of each of the other schools and principals?

Every community is different. What's your first impression of the other parents and kids?

Talk to the prospective teachers about the specific circumstances you've observed in your current school, and see how you feel about how they respond.

It can be hard to get time with administrators and staff, but even trying to do that will give useful signal.

Concerns about being the youngest can be looked at similarly. FWIW, we have known many families with a youngest-kid-in-the-class, where it has been a challenge. A couple of have seen improvement from holding their kids back. Many kids on the young end wind up doing fine, of course. It really depends on the school, and on the kid.

Since this is a concern, in exploring other schools, worth having questions that target this concern. How does the school think about age range in their classrooms? What kinds of techniques do they use to ensure that kids of all maturity levels can participate and feel comfortable? Etc.

TLDR: it sounds like it's worth looking at other options, and concrete questions and answers are more informative than the labels.

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I was always ahead of my class at school, but went to a state school. It may have been beneficial to have gone to a school for the gifted, but it wasn't an option where I lived. What helped me was that my parents provided me with as much information as I could take in, I had teachers who would give me extra material and support as I wanted it, and had a supportive environment to learn in every respect.

This meant I ended up not only having learnt to a high level academically, but despite being a Mensa member I am comfortable in all environments, not just those that can get pushed at you in a gifted school. This has been a key differentiator for me all through my career.

There are pros and cons. I would suggest it is worth having an assessment done to see whether it would benefit your child going to a school for the gifted. But whether or not they qualify, you as a parent are much more important. You can provide a strong and supportive learning environment, but it is hard work. Teachers at a gifted school may be able to do it better than you can.

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I was in a public school but in a 'gifted' program, and have a son who sounds like he's about where yours is but a few years older.

My suggestion is that if your son is a fast learner, to not focus too much effort on academics at this age, if your school is at least reasonably decent. A fast learner will excel academically regardless of primary school; with the exception of the truly off the scale, there's little you need to do at this age other than make sure they enjoy learning and give them outside opportunities (museums, books, etc.) I was a very smart child and a very fast learner, and did very well academically in a "regular" school but in a gifted program.

However, the one place I struggled was socially. I was a year ahead, see; started 1st grade (6yo) as a 5 year old. So I didn't develop socially as well as I needed to, because I was always a year behind emotionally and socially.

My six year old I've talked to the teacher about, and agree that while he probably needs some space to learn at his own pace, that the most important thing is to learn the basics really well, because it's easy to skip over important skills when you're that fast (just like skimming a book you might miss significant details). Then in middle school (around 11 years old here) they start moving forward with the more specific classes (algebra, et cetera). That also allows him lots of time to learn the social development, perhaps better than he otherwise would be at a more academically focused school.

To me, this is the focus in the 5-9 year range: get the child to where he/she needs to be socially, and with all of the core skills well practiced, and then when the real learning begins let them advance at that point.

The one thing I would consider, though, is something along the lines of a Montessori type school (not sure if you have that kind of thing). These are schools that encourage the kids to learn at their own pace (self driven learning) and also focus heavily on social and practical living skills. That in some ways might be better for a child like this, because not only can they learn at their own pace but they can also get more of the social development down.

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