Pub: The Age
Pubdate: Monday 16th of June 2008
Too clever by half
It should be a blessing but many gifted children discover that a sharp mind can be a burden at school. By Belinda Hogan.
TELEVISION'S Lisa Simpson yells at the top of her voice: "Relax? I can't relax! Nor can I yield, relent, or . . . only two synonyms? Oh my God, I'm losing my perspicacity!" A big statement for an eight-year-old. Little wonder her parents, Homer and Marge, look at her with bewilderment in most episodes of The Simpsons.
Ones so young are not supposed to use words such as yield, relent or perspicacity. And synonyms? Well, they are taught a little later. Lisa Simpson is a gifted child. She has abilities beyond her years, is environmentally astute, politically aware and shows talent in the arts. She is a deep thinker, sensitive and often misunderstood. Gifted children share many of Lisa's traits.
Contrary to popular belief, they are not all piano concerto players, chess champions or immersed in developing computer programs at age five. These children are, in fact, extremely rare. The gifted are as diverse as children with learning difficulties and their needs are just as varied. They are stereotyped as children who can look after themselves and their parents as pushy. These perceptions can make life for gifted children and their parents extremely difficult.
A 2001 Senate report on the education of gifted children found there was widespread suspicion of the term "gifted", with its anti-egalitarian connotations. A lecturer in gifted and special needs education at La Trobe University, Michael Faulkner, says most people have a notion that giftedness is elitist.
"Some gifted children are seen as the products of over-ambitious middle-class families rich in social capital," Dr Faulkner says.
"Yet research suggests that there are very many children of potentially high capacities from under- privileged backgrounds...Giftedness most commonly refers to superior intellectual functioning, typically evidenced in verbal abilities, logical reasoning and visual-spatial problem solving."
It can also refer to a child's capacity to undertake their own advanced learning, such as when children teach themselves to read before starting school. Dr Faulkner says the gifted may equal 2% of the population.
The gift to learn rapidly can encompass many areas or it may just involve one. For example, a child may show exceptional skill in numbers but struggle with literacy. While another child may be an all rounder, excelling in the humanities, arts and sciences. Some are socially immature, some are not.
Often they misbehave in class when not challenged. What is typical of a gifted child, however, is a sense of social justice, a heightened sensitivity to everything around them and a fixation on topics of interest. They are perfectionists who often feel isolated from their peers. The search for "soul mates" is a lifelong challenge.
The president of the Victorian Association for Gifted and Talented Children, Christine Ireland, says realising your child is gifted can be a shock and cause complex problems for parents.
"If a child has an area of excellence but is also coping with learning difficulties, the problems become more acute," Ms Ireland says. "This asynchronous behaviour can lead to students' abilities not being recognised in a traditional school setting."
Australia's tall poppy syndrome heightens these issues. Sally-Ann Free is a PhD student at Victoria University whose research is centred on support services - or the lack of them - for parents of gifted children in Melbourne. She believes Australians have no problem lauding a child who has outstanding sporting abilities but it is a different story for a child of high intellect.
"Clever people are cut down to size to fit in with the majority," Ms Free says. "Parents are often silent, not willing to share their child's academic abilities or accomplishments with others for fear of being berated."
Tina McCarthy, of Kensington, has a 10-year-old son, Kristian, who is starting high school next year. He began using and reading sophisticated language when he was two.
"He loves books and would learn things like different animal species, trains or dinosaurs and then start classifying them," Ms McCarthy says. "With the dinosaurs, he would say if they were herbivore, carnivore or if they were sauropods and raptors, at age three. I do remember reading articles about kids like him, but I never thought we had one."
It's a similar story for Fiona Hawke, of Mont Albert, whose nine-year-old son, Sam, talks with his peers about concepts they cannot yet grasp.
"He learns so quickly, has an almost adult sense of humour and has interest in things at a deeper level," Ms Hawke says.
"He can hold university professors entranced with his opinions of time travel and its possibilities. He is often left out of peer groups. His view of friendship is off-centre as he is constantly looking for his soul mate."
Sam has also just been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, as have Petah-Jane Anastasas' children in Brisbane. Ms Anastasas has a 10-year-old daughter, Chelsea, whose gifts lie in literacy and languages. Her son, Christian, 8, is gifted with numbers. Ms Anastasas realised her daughter was different when she was three months old.
"It was clear to me that she could understand spoken language and could respond to it," she says. By four, Chelsea could read advanced books fluently, even though she had never been taught. "Her language skills were incredible and I couldn't do enough to satisfy her knowledge."
Shannon Passmore, who recently moved from the Mornington Peninsula to Brisbane, says her nine-year-old daughter - whose name she chose to withhold - was not challenged at school in Victoria. Ms Passmore says her daughter's behaviour became erratic due to boredom. Although her former school promised much, nothing was delivered. "She was made to sit on the mat with the rest of the class going 'A is for Apple' and repeating already learned subject matter," she says.
"So her behaviour deteriorated and the teacher's response to this was to send her into other classrooms without any work where she was taught nothing. Halfway through grade one, she had a bit of a breakdown."
Contrary to another belief that parents of intellectually able children are just being boastful, research suggests that most have no clear academic notion at first of what giftedness is.
Jim Watters, from the education faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, believes it is difficult for parents to find a professional who can help.
"There is a sense of frustration when no one listens to them (parents)," Professor Watters says. "This is heightened when no one can give them an answer on what they can do."
Ms Anastasas knows this feeling and did have problems when seeking answers about her daughter, taking her to 16 different general practitioners in the first years of her life.
There are still great unknowns regarding the links between Asperger syndrome and giftedness. But US author and advocate for gifted children Stephanie Tolan says there are similarities and it seems children can be diagnosed with both: "The characteristics of Aspergers and those of being highly gifted are virtually identical, with the exception of verbal repetition and some physical characteristics such as hand-waving or finger twiddling, which are not common among the gifted."
Finding the right school for a gifted child is generally an excruciating exercise for parents. All Australian state schools have gifted and talented frameworks that should be adhered to. How effectively these are pursued is a matter of debate.
Professor Watters thinks the gifted are placed in the too-hard basket. "It is believed that gifted children don't need the level of support that children with learning difficulties need," he says.
Dr Faulkner agrees. "Schools vary considerably in their willingness and their capacity to provide for gifted and talented learners," he says. "A commonly held view is that very able learners should learn to get on with their peers. But that begs the question, which peers - age peers?"
In her research, Ms Free has found that parents report mostly negative experiences when dealing with schools. "Many parents have felt belittled, patronised and even verbally abused by school staff, who in many cases did not believe what they were telling them about their gifted child's abilities," she says.
Ms Hawke says that she came up against much angst when she asked Sam's former school to extend him. "When we approached the school about him being constantly bored, they informed us he needed to learn to cut out and finger paint more," she says. "We were told that is what his age group did. I was told I did not know what was best for my child."
Ms McCarthy pulled Kristian out of his first school after having Anne Jackson - who runs Mindful, a Melbourne-based educational, social and emotional support agency - advocate for him to be advanced a grade.
"They told us they would not do anything until he was in at least grade 3 because he needed to consolidate," she says. "This was just absurd to us because we could just see a bird tethered to the ground. After much discussion and feeling like we were banging our heads against a brick wall, we left the school."
Ms Passmore found the door was just slammed in her face by her daughter's former school on the Mornington Peninsula. "There were no Educational Department guidelines, no consultations, no resources and no care taken to do the right thing by my child at all," she says.
These parents ask: if education systems want equality, why is it that their children are suffering?
The director of Clearing Skies, a counselling service for gifted children and their families, Michele Juratowitch, believes the emphasis on social justice in schools has been misconstrued and has worked against gifted children.
"I think the term social justice has been interpreted that everyone must be treated the same," she says. "However, it should be about helping each child to reach the highest level of their potential."
Ms Ireland agrees that gifted children are not given that right and are used to create equilibrium in the classroom. "I believe that gifted students should be supported in their right to have an education that allows them to achieve their full potential. No education system has the right to hold highly able students back to prop up the education of academically weaker students."
Ms Free is researching how much support is given to intellectually advanced students as opposed to those who are not.
"Children situated on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale at 70 points below average (being 100) receive much practical and financial support and often an aide worker in the classroom," she says.
"However, children with an IQ of 130-plus are also a group requiring special kinds of support. They receive little and are not generally recognised as a special-needs group."
Ms Passmore agrees: "The same proportion of children lie in the gifted category as do in the remedial category. However, there is a definitive system of identifying and helping those who are falling under the age standard, but no system for those above it."
Another aspect of the debate is the training teachers get in dealing with exceptional students. Professor Watters says teachers are frightened of educating the gifted. "They carry a model of teaching," he says. "They fear being caught out in the classroom and being asked questions they can't answer.
"Unless you specialise in gifted education when completing a degree, there is very little taught to undergraduate teachers about the talented. There is just not enough room in university courses."
The leader of the Boroondara Gifted Network, Dinah Waldie, says research shows that a school's ability to cater for gifted students is directly related to the amount of professional development teachers have undertaken.
"I think it is such a pity that more professional development is not available for teachers," Ms Waldie says. "So often when teachers do come to a gifted network meeting, they are so happy to have had the opportunity to discuss their concerns and have some strategies to take away with them."
Does the way children are graded need to be reassessed? Ms Passmore, who is now thinking of home schooling her daughter, believes so. "There needs to be a system where all children who come above their standardised testing by over a year, are taught to their ability level."
However, some schools like Ascot Vale Primary School, which Ms McCarthy's son now attends, work on this premise. "It is a multi-age school so the classrooms are organised with different mixes of class," she says. "At first people asked me if it was that 'weird school', but nowhere else in your life are you organised into age groups. The school is a gem."
Ms Hawke has found a small alternative school for Sam: "It teaches the arts to the students, so they think nothing of talking about Shakespeare, Monet, Mozart and Latin to others."
Jo Freitag is one parent who took action after she felt there was a lack of resources available for her gifted children. She started Gifted Resources in Croydon in 2004 to provide a network for parents. "Gifted Resources is the type of service I would have found very useful when my own children were young," Ms Freitag says.
Ms McCarthy has started her own group called "The Big Bang Coffee Club" for parents in Melbourne's western suburbs. "What has initiated is a small group which meets once a month, where tears have been shed, but we usually laugh an awful lot,"she says. "It's great to hear others have the same issues and same problems. We are a great source of support for each other."
Parents of gifted children are hoping community perceptions will change and government policies on schooling gifted children will shift with them.
"I think the general public thinks of gifted children as having a bevy of admirers in their peers, are able to design computer programs from scratch and escort little old ladies across the street," Ms Anastasas says. "It's not like that."
Kristian's story: 'I am just me'
"Many people will read this and instantly think, 'Oh, not another gifted kid', because there is an underlying notion that people think you are saying your kid is smarter than theirs or you are showing off," Tina McCarthy says. "That's not what we're trying to do, this is just the way our kid is."
In fact, "gifted" is not a label Ms McCarthy likes to use. "We don't really like the term because of the connotations that go with it or the expectations that may be placed on him because of it."
Ms McCarthy's son, Kristian, has a mop of blond hair, jeans with torn knees, trashed shoes and loves to wear grubby T-shirts. What sets him apart from other 10-year-olds is that he has been assessed with an extremely high IQ.
Artistic, Kristian is also fascinated by plant biology, geology, astronomy and counts Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, David Attenborough and Stephen Hawking among his heroes. "I also really like Reg Mombassa because his artwork is funny and it inspires me," he says. "He uses pencil and I like using pencil best."
Kristian's parents had an inkling he seemed a little out of the ordinary when he was very young but the word "gifted" never entered their vocabulary.
They thought at first every other two-year-old was probably doing the same things, such as learning the names of jet fighters and the Latin names of dinosaurs. . "We thought he was probably smart, but not exceptionally so," Ms McCarthy says.
It was only after Kristian began school that his parents realised they had a different sort of child on their hands. "I remember his teacher saying to me that he was bright," Ms McCarthy says. "But it was here that things started to fall apart."
Kristian would come home from kindergarten and, although given age-appropriate books to read, would ask for more advanced books from his parents. "He also asked me one day why they never discussed black holes and nebulae," she says. "We spoke to his teacher, asking if we could possibly let him investigate things a little wider. We were told that unless he was gifted they would do nothing more than their class set work. So we decided to get the test done, which was horrifyingly expensive and a real strain."
Bored, Kristian continued for a while at this school but his parents clashed with the administration after they refused to accelerate him a year, even though this was the professional advice they had been given.
These days, Kristian is allowed to blossom at his new school. He is making short films, is obsessed with Star Wars, concerned about global warming and looking forward to beginning high school next year. "Most of my good friends might go to the same school as me, they don't care how old I am," Kristian says.
"I think I am average but others think I'm better. I haven't been dumber and I haven't been smarter and I haven't been anyone else. I am just me."