Radical Deceleration: Self-Directed Homeschooling for Highly Gifted Children

By Lisa Rivero Parent and Home Educator

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

For children who learn faster and more intensely than average, homeschooling may seem the perfect opportunity for parents to offer challenge, accelerate learning, raise the standards, and encourage excellence. When a child is working way ahead of grade level, doesn't that mean the child needs more challenge in order to continue learning? After all, these are the very students who, according to the government report, National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent, should be started down the path to excellence when they are very young (1993). And why does the report make this recommendation? Not so that the children can eventually be wise or caring or even happy, but in order to "compete on equal footing with the rest of the world."

The children are, after all, America's talent.

But what if what we think of as the best of gifted education--acceleration, enrichment, pull-out programs, theme studies, differentiation--are mere shadows of the real thing? What if we are like the prisoners in Plato's cave, all of us--educators, parents, and students--afraid to turn toward the light behind us?

What if we're missing the point entirely?

This article challenges parents and educators of gifted children to think outside the cave, to re-evaluate words like "challenge" and "acceleration" and "standards" and "excellence," and, most importantly, to look honestly at our approach to our children's education and potential. It means questioning everything we thought was true about education. It also means taking an unflinching look at ourselves and how we see and use our children.

I know. I've been there. We requested and were granted early entrance to kindergarten for our son. He was placed in a gifted pull-out program in first grade, and he attended a private school for gifted learners for 1 years. I served on our public school's gifted and talented committee and had the privilege of developing curriculum for and teaching highly gifted children in the classroom.

When we started homeschooling, our son had just turned eight. He took an achievement test so that we would know "where to start." He tested at several grade levels above his age-based grade. The temptation was to use those scores as indicators of specific areas in which he needed outside-directed, formal challenge, but other thoughts kept getting in the way. Although he had been working at an advanced pace in school, his level of schoolwork was nowhere near the level of his scores, and he had spent a lot of time, to borrow Herbert Kohl's term, not-learning (1994). We didn't teach him at home. So what he learned he had, for the most part, learned on his own--absorbing information silently but constantly as he went about the business of playing, reading, fantasizing, and living, learning perhaps in spite of rather than because of formal instruction.

I share this personal experience only to show how easy it would have been to bring the school acceleration model home, to purchase an advanced curriculum and take him through it, to segment learning into subjects and times, convincing ourselves all the while it was in his best interest, that we were providing the challenge he needs and starting him down that road to excellence.

Instead, using research, common sense, and gut instinct, we decided to take another path. After a few false starts, we slid comfortably into self-directed homeschooling. No textbooks unless he wanted them. No canned curriculum. No tests. No force. The result is a child who wakes up eager to start the day and goes to bed bemoaning that fact that human beings need to sleep. He literally skips through our errands and sings in the car. He's learning to socialize widely and meaningfully with children and adults of all ages.

What has happened is nothing short of a transformation from a child who nearly chewed the cuffs off his shirt from the stress of school to one who is, for the first time in a very long time, once again laughing and smiling.

"We had the experience but missed the meaning" - T.S. Eliot

After nearly a century of gifted education research and theory, there is still no consensus on just what to do with highly gifted children in the classroom. It seems that the only thing we know for certain is that we do not know, a fact that's been insightfully and painfully brought to the fore recently by several people brave enough to look critically at the field of gifted education from within (Delisle, 1998; Morelock, 1996; Piirto, 1999).

The ideas about gifted children that ring most true are also the simplest. Although their application is usually tempered by the pragmatism of the classroom and the seeming necessity of formal instruction, they offer a starting point for parents who are considering homeschooling a highly gifted child:

"[T]he higher the IQ scores of children the less likely they felt themselves to be in need of spoon-feeding from their teachers, and the more they wanted to take part in planning their own education." (Freeman, 1985).

"[M]any gifted children are idiosyncratic learners, assert their own opinions, learn through immersion in their own interest areas, and are chary with respect for authority from a very early age" (Maxwell, 1998).

"Moving a student fast through the curriculum assumes that there is a curriculum, a body of subjects to be mastered, when in reality there is not . . . " (Piirto, 1997).

"It has been substantiated that teachers prefer gifted children who are low in creativity to those who are highly creative" (Whitemore, 1980).

"[O]nly those who continue to merge work and play will go on to become adult creators" (Winner, 1996).

"One of the first challenges to creativity may be formal schooling" (Torrance & Goff, 1990).

"Self-selection of areas for study and research" avoids the problems of matching curriculum and development (Cohen & Kim, 1999).

"[T]he majority of gifted children appear to be introverted . . . . too much interaction drains their energy and they need to retreat from the world to recharge their batteries" (Silverman).

If we follow the logical implications of these statements we're led to self-directed education that takes place in a supportive and understanding environment, where the opportunities for socialization are carefully balanced with enough time for reflection, and where the child's internal timetables and rhythm of learning are honored. Such an education would always remember that curricula and learner outcomes are constructed tools that should be used only when they work and should never supercede the child's own drive to learn.

So why don't we practice what we preach? The short answer is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what others might think. Fear of losing control and of granting control. Fear that such a scheme makes adults less important in the child's education than the child herself.

Comic Relief

How does self-directed homeschooling work? It's different for every child and family, but the gist of it is that the child owns and controls her own learning. Real control, not the shadow version.

A gifted child is characterized not only by precociousness but also by a strong sense of self-efficacy and divergent thinking (Winner, 1996). In other words, when free to learn as nature intended, the gifted learner will be highly self-motivated to follow her interests in challenging and new ways. Her interests may not be typically schoolish in nature, but learning will take place nonetheless.

As an example, our son, like many gifted learners, explores topics of interest passionately and single-mindedly until he quenches that particular thirst, then he moves on to the next challenge. For example, news of the illness of Charles Schulz prompted an interest in Peanuts comics. At one point, we had nearly thirty library books of Peanuts collections. This interest led to inquiries into France, World War I, flying aces, Beethoven, world literature, and baseball. He looked up the locations of French cities in a historical atlas and read about the real Red Baron. We watched Citizen Kane after seeing that Linus's sled was named Rosebud. He asked about references to War and Peace and Gone with the Wind and Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Andrew Wyeth. I've watched him spend several hours in self-imposed discipline of drawing and writing, anthologizing and studying. He wrote a daily historical newspaper based on World War I infantry experiences; he put on a one-boy presentation of "Citizen Beagle," and he wrote and performed a puppet show of "The World War I Flying Ace Meets the Red Baron"; he wrote letters to and from publishers in the guise of the "world famous novelist." He has moved onto studying other comics of this century and their reflection of history, from Superman of the 1930s to Garfield of the 1980s. His drive to compare and analyze has caused him to place comics within the context of popular culture and to notice patterns and similarities in some of the more famous "costumed superheroes," which has become one of his self-chosen areas of expertise.

My job in all of this has been to be available for lots of questions and discussion, to offer suggestions when appropriate and accept their refusal graciously, to assist in obtaining materials and resources. I also try to provide balance and growth by planning trips to museums and parks, arranging opportunities for social interaction, and questioning assumptions in a non-threatening way. We have the time and freedom to frequent different neighborhood libraries and to explore together the business of being a member of our community. He learns with other children and takes direction from other adults in book groups and community classes. Rather than limiting his exposure to the diversity of the world around him, homeschooling has greatly increased it.

If I were to record what he learned during his Peanuts period, as we now call it, it would be more than enough to cover our state's homeschooling requirements and, more importantly, would include valuable study skills and critical and creative thinking. Parents could choose to supplement this self-directed learning in specific areas (for example math or handwriting or spelling), but the child"s goals come first. As David H. Albert, author of And the Skylark Sings with Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education (1999), advises,

Let them choose a path. Help remove obstacles in the way of the path. Help them understand what will be necessary to reach their own goals. Find resources/mentors who can help them along their chosen path. Then, get out of the way. Above all, love and listen, really listen. (personal communication, March 30, 2000).

What are the child's interests? Where do they lead? What inherent purpose might they serve for the child's needs? What concerns or problems may the child need to address through this self-directed activity (Cohen & Kim, 1999)? On a practical level, our son found a way to strengthen his left-handed writing skills (writing comics requires precision), while on a more intellectual level he is continuing an ongoing interest in learning more about the 20th century and how life has changed in the past 100 years. In the affective realm, he's learned much from reading about how Charles Schulz's own experience with grade acceleration and giftedness led to formation of the Peanuts characters, and he's dealing psychologically with the ideas of power and "super" power and wishful thinking. Socially, he's studying an age-appropriate subject that gives him something to discuss with his friends at the park. I could have never designed an interdisciplinary unit that would have addressed so many needs with such elegance, effectiveness, and delight.

Early, Late, Never, or Always?

A lot of attention has been given to the subject of school entry age for gifted children. The assumption is usually that later entry ages mean that the child will start school in kindergarten or first grade and will be older than his or her age peers.

But what about much later entry ages, at which time the student joins age-mates at their current level, whether that be junior high, high school, or even college? What if instead of shortening early childhood education for highly gifted learners we lengthen it?

That's exactly the argument given by David Elkind in his seminal work, Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk (1994). He writes that, for gifted children, the structural imperative--the innate drive to realize developmental and structural growth--is extreme, and that once the concrete operations of conservation and quantification are mastered, the gifted child may move immediately onto realizing the formal operations that in children of average ability do not appear until age 12 or 13. His advice is startling in its simplicity:

What intellectually gifted children need most, then, is not early formal instruction but rather a prolongation of opportunities to explore and investigate on their own. The task of the teacher of such children is not to instruct in the conventional sense but to do what the early childhood educator does, only at a higher level. (1994).

In other words, a gifted learner needs more of what we think of as a typically preschool and kindergarten environment, not less.1

Math is a good example of how Elkind's theories can be applied in a homeschooling setting. Students usually spend most of third through sixth grades practicing over and over again arithmetic--skills of concrete operation. Gifted children, however, loath drill and repetition, and may bypass this "practice" stage altogether as they move quickly onto the structural imperative of higher level thinking skills. Gifted learners are infamous for being able to understand algebraic concepts but not knowing their multiplication table.

What if there's another way? Thomas G. West proposes that for people for whom the "easy is hard and the hard is easy," we find a way to "teach math backwards." He asks,

Would it be possible (or, to what extent would it be possible) to deal with mathematics in the language of images alone? Is it possible to pursue mathematics in a serious, conscientious, and productive fashion by using just the images and leaving the symbols and the logical rigor out of the process entirely (for awhile), bringing these back into the process at some later stage, primarily for documentation, communication, and verification? (1997).

He's not talking about accelerated learning (for example, he's not suggesting using college texts with preschoolers), but about an entirely different approach.

Whether or not West's approach is "practical" in a classroom, in homeschooling it is an approach that celebrates--not just accommodates--the unique way in which gifted children learn. It allows an eight year old to immerse herself in the beauty of geometry through exploration and discovery and wait a few years before being required to "master" multiplication. This not only preserves the joy of math but makes sense from a practical standpoint as well. If a twelve year old can learn the tricks of the multiplication table in a couple of weeks, why should she be forced to spend months at age eight on repetition and drill that go against her very nature?

The optimal age to start formal instruction may be even later than we think. Dorothy and Raymond Moore argue that children all have an age--unique to each child--in which they reach integrated maturity levels (IML). This is the age when their visual, auditory, haptic, and other systems are more or less in line with each other and ready to adjust to the rigor and sequential nature of formal learning:

In other words, the young child's brain with all of its senses and abilities to reason, simply is not ready for formal instruction until the age of 8 or 10. Some psychologists at Stanford, the University of California, and the University of Rochester suggest that, if we could provide good homes, 12 to 14 might be an even better school entrance age. (Moore, 1980).

For the gifted child, whose levels may be more out of sync to begin with (Terassier, 1985) and who may display stronger preferences for one mode of learning and be delayed in others, this IML age may be even later than for average-ability children. By not waiting until their systems have matured enough to handle long periods of close reading and other facets of formal learning, we instead notice issues of "underachievement" and "behavioral disorders" and diagnose the child as having ADD or ADHD or some other problem. The formal setting of school may also lead to repression of creative learning, which may in turn contribute to learning disabilities (Torrance, 1962).

Voices from outside the Cave

Parents of gifted children are often stereotyped as pushy, elitist, and ego-driven. Sadly, the view is not without some justification, but there are other voices, strong and confident voices, of parents who have quietly chosen a different road for their children. They work hard at parenting skills and developing a strong relationship with their children. These parents probably will not be the ones we hear about in the press because they are not concerned with displaying their children or with fighting school officials. They take a much different view of education from that of National Excellence, and they just might change people's minds about the "typical pushy parent of a gifted kid":2

On Challenge

"When Emily was in school, I used to say that she was bored because she wasn't challenged. Now I see that she challenges herself, for the most part, even in outside activities. For example, she elected to participate in a recent homeschool science fair, which was a positive experience and was a challenge." - Laura

On Acceleration

"I have no intention of accelerating my children through 'grades' even if they do accelerated work in individual areas. I don't want a 13 year old college student. I want a happy 13 year old who may be doing college level work and taking the occasional college course, but who is still a 13 year old child." - Karen

"I was grade skipped. This experience taught me that the schools don't know what to do for gifted kids, and I didn't want my son to waste his time." - Laurie

"I have serious reservations about a child 'graduating' at the age of 12 or 13 and going off to college. I think that the road from point A to point B should include many more side trips and fun excursions than are allowed for in a graded curriculum. We could have stayed with curriculum and been well on our way to high school now, but Meredith would have little more than surface knowledge of subjects and would probably not be nearly as enthusiastic about things as she is now." - Amy

On Standards

"When you get older, yes, there are professional standards, etc., but they are very goal-oriented, e.g., 'I want to be a neurologist, therefore I'd jolly well better know my subject well' type of thing." - Laura

On Excellence

"[I]t's my [daughter] who strives for excellence both in the academic sense and in her day to day existence. I really do just follow her lead and I help provide her with the resources . . . ." - Brenda

On the Gifted Self

"It could be said a gifted child needs intellectual stimulation as another child needs oxygen. This is true of Satchel, but he needs creative, philosophical, spiritual, and emotional stimulation the way others need oxygen, too." - Laurel

Advice to Parents who are Considering Homeschooling

"Don't tell anyone what grade your child is really working at; just use the grade his sports age-mates, etc. use if you must, but avoid that, too, if you can. This allows you the flexibility to do what you like without being hassled." - Sandy

"[L]et your child do it. Suggest to them that this is a tremendous opportunity for them to explore what they wish--then sit back and watch! (While being supportively close at hand, of course.)" - Laurie

"Consider how lucky you are to have a cushion of time to 'fail' because you have an advanced child. Use that as peace of mind." - Laurel

"I would remind them that while other children may be dancing to the beat of a different drummer, their child may well be dancing to the tune of a song they wrote, whilst accompanying themselves on an oboe!" - Fiona

The theme of preserving the child's integrity runs deep in these responses, as does respect for the child's role in her own education. Most striking is concern and respect for the child's self and an attempt to put into practice what Annemarie Roeper calls education for self-actualization rather than education for success (1996).

As the homeschooled highly gifted child moves into early adolescence, she has a better chance of approaching more formal instruction with her self intact. For some homeschooled gifted learners, traditional classroom education may not be a part of their lives until their college years, if ever. In the words of one homeschooling parent, "When a child is allowed to grow and learn at home, surrounded by the love of their family, the need to 'fit in' is done away with, and they are free to break the molds of society, to change the path of the world, one person at a time."

Kathy Wentz, owner of the Internet Unschooling List, writes of the possibilities:

I do not wish to artificially extend a gifted person's childhood forever by any means, but I do think that it should not be seen as wrong to let a 16 year old act like a 16 year old. I don't see anything wrong with allowing them several years to do volunteer work or get an internship in their field or to start a business helping others figure out what is wrong with their computer or how to fix their car. These are all valuable experiences, and although they don't result in an early degree, may very well result in a young person really knowing what their long term goals are [rather than] not really knowing why they are going to college and beyond. (personal communication, March 31, 2000).

Self-directed homeschooling for a highly gifted learner is radical deceleration in the sense that no one else's foot is on the gas pedal. The child has the control and freedom to speed up or slow down, to back up to revisit favorite spots and to meander along a country road before zooming past vast landscapes, or to stop completely for awhile just to enjoy the view.

What can the voices from outside the cave tell us about the shadows? How can we move from the shadows toward the real thing? Perhaps the next step in our journey is to ask the children themselves and, most important, to listen.


Cohen, LeoNora M. and Kim, Younghee M. (1999). Piaget's equilibration theory and the young gifted child: A balancing act. Roeper Review, 21(3), 201-6.

Delisle, James R. (1998). Zen and the art of gifted education. Gifted Child Today, 21(6), 38.

Elkind, David (1994). Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Freeman, Joan (1985). Emotional aspects of giftedness. In Freeman, Joan (Ed.) The psychology of gifted children (pp. 247-64). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Kohl, Herbert (1994). I won't learn from you and other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New York: The New Press.

Maxwell, Elizabeth (1998). I can do it myself! Reflections on early self-efficacy. Roeper Review, 20(3), 183-87.

Moore, Dorothy (1980), School can wait. Hewitt Research Center.

Morelock, Martha J. (1996). On the nature of giftedness and talent: Imposing order on chaos. Roeper Review, 19(1), 4-12.

National Excellence. (1993). U.S. Department of Education Office of Research and Evaluation. Author. P. O. Ross.

Piirto, J. (1997). Twelve issues: Postmodern curriculum thought and the education of the gifted. Speech presented at National Association for Gifted Children meeting, November, 1997, Little Rock, Arkansas. Retrieved March 20, 2000, from the World Wide Web. <>

Piirto, Jane (1999, Summer). Implications of postmodern curriculum theory for the education of the talented. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 324-53.

Roeper, Annemarie (1996). A personal statement of philosophy of George and Annemarie Roeper. Roeper Review, 19(1),18

Silverman, Linda. On introversion. Gifted Development Center. Retrieved March 20, 2000, from the World Wide Web. <>

Terassier, Jean-Charles (1985). Dyssynchony - uneven development. In Freeman, Joan (ed.) The psychology of gifted children (pp. 265-74). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Torrance, E. Paul (1962). Guiding creative talent. New York: Prentice Hall.

Torrance, E. Paul and Goff, Kathy (1990). Fostering academic creativity in gifted students. ERIC Digest #E484

West, Thomas G. (1997). In the mind's eye: Visual thinkers, gifted people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, computer images and the ironies of creativity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Whitmore, Joanne (1980). Giftedness, conflict, and underachievement.Melrose, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Winner, Ellen (1996). Gifted children: Myths and realities. New York: Basic Books.


1 I'd like to thank Kathi Kearney, founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children, for bringing to my attention the application of Eklind's work to gifted children. Elkind more recently wrote, "What promotion does for intellectually gifted children is to make a better fit between the child's level of intellectual development and the curriculum. . . ."

(Acceleration. <>). However, "better fit" and "optimal fit" are sometimes two very different things.

2 All quotations in this section are from parents who have at least one homeschooled child who either tests as or fits the profile of a highly gifted learner. All quotations are from private e-mail interviews in the month of March 2000.