|My young man in the early school years.|
He must have had a good day- the smile
is very unusual!
One thing that the parents of most gifted children need to understand is the level of ignorance in the general community about the special needs of their particular child. Most adults don't have a clue how to cope with a gifted child. This extends most tellingly to the school system, where giftedness- with its frequently associated outspokenness, lack of respect for authority and low threshold for boredom- can often viewed by teachers with a little resentment... or even a lot. It's a gift, isn't it? That child has an advantage! They don't need any extra help! We should be helping the kids who are behind! And those parents are so pushy, and that child is so naughty...
Yep, labels abound in the world of gifted kids' schooling, and few of them are complimentary. Look, don't be too hard on the teachers here. Sure, some teachers are just bone lazy and ignorant, but most of them are actually just terribly over-burdened with rising expectations, special needs students and paperwork, and are at the end of their tether. Few receive any training whatsoever about gifted children- heavens, many of them have received no training about special needs at all, and yet they'll doubtless be expected to cope with a plethora of them (seamlessly) while ensuring that the whole class performs brilliantly in standardised tests so the school's funding doesn't get cut.
So the first thing you need to do is lower your initial expectations when you walk in the door of a school with your gifted child, and be prepared for some difficulties. Please don't despair. It is a gift. Your child will give you (and, with any luck, the school) the most extraordinary pleasure along with the pain, but you do need to brace yourself when school begins- and then keep your eyes open for warning signs that he or she needs your help in communicating their needs.
And the other thing you need to understand is that gifted kids don't automatically take well to being schooled. Far from it. They are very, very different from your average school kid, and yet they're about to be popped onto a one-size-fits-all, age-graded conveyor belt for the next twelve years or so.
That's not really the school's fault, either. No government can afford personalised tuition for all children for 12 years. Be reasonable.
But please accept that our gifted kids are going to cause a few stirs. I mean, I should have seen the writing on the wall when I took my gifted boy to swimming lessons as a four-year-old. All the other children were obediently holding their foam boards and kicking away in a neat line next to the teacher. Mine was up the other end of the pool, splashing his arms, jumping up and down laughing and ignoring the teacher completely.
I was mortified.
He'd always loved the water, and he'd always loved to learn. But I'd just seen the evidence with my own eyes that he hated- HATED- to be taught.
(I'll come back to that swimming lesson later. Back to school for us now.)
I'm quite often asked for advice about choosing the 'right' school for a gifted child. Sorry folks- there's no magic answer here. Picking a school for your gifted child- assuming you have the luxury of choice- is fraught with difficulty. Unless you know other families whose gifted children are happy at that school, there's really no way of knowing that your child will fit in and be accepted for who he or she is. Even if you are in a position to send your child to a selective school from an early age, you are at the mercy of the individual teacher- and quality does vary.
I may have mentioned my son's first day at school to you before. He was enrolled at a public (ie entirely government-funded) school in a posh suburb where the parent demographic was top-flight professionals- doctors, architects and the like. I expected a lot, because this school should have been pretty accustomed to very intelligent children.
My illusions lasted one day.
Bored to death before the day was an hour old, my little darling took it upon himself to create some fun; noticing that the teacher had yet to grasp the children's names, he surreptitiously rearranged the individual names tags the teacher had placed on each child's desk.
Thus a class clown was born, and thus a slightly over-confident teacher became very, very cross with a gifted four-year-old, to the point where I was called up almost at once and berated for my child's bad behaviour.
I was startled and more than a little heartbroken, because I'd somehow got it into my head that my child would be a raging success at school. I mean, hadn't I been a good child at school? (Well, yes, I was- but I was graced with unusual social skills thanks to my early childhood modelling career, and I had the immense good fortune to have a brilliant teacher in my first year at school. It made ALL the difference.)
And my child was at least as clever as me. For heavens' sake, he'd been using advanced grammatical constructions in his speech since he was two. He was making puns and multiplying by 2 at three. He was able to name all the major political figures in Australia at four.
Why wasn't my child behaving himself and using his extraordinary brain to his advantage?
More 'pleasures' awaited me as my child moved through the infants' department of this school. I was called up again, because in the absence of an intellect-appropriate peer group, my son had made 'friends' with an extremely dysfunctional child whose language was, um, 'colourful'- and my dear little fellow was using those swear words to much greater comic effect than his peer, to disrupt the class.
The next complaint was to do with him mimicking the teacher behind her back (and damn good at it he was- I couldn't help laughing- oops). That teacher hated my son, and he hated her right back. Oh, that was a terrible year for us all.
And so on, interminably.
The constant complaint in every single school report was that despite my son's willingness to take over any discussion in class and run it singlehandedly, he never lifted a finger to do any written work- or, as the years went on, homework.
And the message to me in these early years was always one of blame. My child was obviously bright. He only had to open his mouth (and I assure you, the biggest problem was getting him to STOP talking) for anyone to see that he had a brilliant mind. I was a failure as a mother, and he was a failure as a student, because he wouldn't just shut up and do his work to the best of his ability. I MUST BE DOING SOMETHING WRONG.
No teacher ever suggested that the school was perhaps not meeting his needs.
So, was I doing something wrong? There are some things I'd change in hindsight. If I had my time over again, this is what I'd do.
Let's go back to that swimming lesson. I had made a whole lot of assumptions, the most startlingly silly one being that wanting to learn was the same as wanting to be taught. Gifted kids tend to loathe the whole chalk-and-talk routine unless it's a subject about which they're already passionate- generally, they like to find things out for themselves. If I'd taken him to the pool and asked him "How do you think people stop themselves from sinking down to the bottom in the water?", he probably would have worked out how to swim himself in time.
And gifted children just Do Not Respond to the authority figure. They need relationship. No relationship to the swimming teacher = no willingness to do what the swimming teacher said.
Sure, every child needs relationship- but what I'm saying is, without relationship with the teacher, many gifted children simply won't cooperate at all. Some you can't even frighten them into submission (god forbid that a teacher would even try that, but I've seen it happen).
In my defence, I wasn't completely ignorant of my son's education needs. I had suggested to his dad that Montessori or Steiner schooling would be a good learning path for our son, and I'd been shouted down.
"You can't take him out of the mainstream, he's got to learn to be part of a normal group. He'll never blend back in," his dad had protested.
Knowing what I know now, the first thing I'd do differently would be that I'd be stronger about that. I'd insist. I might even have stopped work and home-schooled for the early years, rather than sending him to a school where he wasn't understood or catered for.
Gifted children are not mainstream, and they never will be mainstream. They are neither 'normal' nor 'average', and as their parents we need to acknowledge that. We also need to advocate for them to other people, including perhaps their teachers, who don't understand or acknowledge that. We owe it to them to give them the learning environment they need if we possibly can, not the generic one that our society offers.
Gifted children are equally entitled to appropriate learning environments. They will not 'be okay because they're clever'. Without appropriate learning environments they will teach themselves things we don't want them to know, such as how to stir up trouble for the teacher amongst their peers, how to rest on their laurels intellectually (or hide their light completely to blend in) and how to challenge authority to their own detriment (rather than constructively). We need to try to give them a better learning environment, where they can learn constructive things in the best way for their own learning style.
But we're not all rich. We can't all send our gifted kids to Montessori, or Steiner, or an academically selective school.
If I didn't have the luxury of an income that allowed me to choose non-mainstream or selective schooling, I would spent a lot more time developing a positive relationship with my son's teachers. I would take the risk of being called pushy. I would plead for the teachers to try to get inside my child's head, and see things from his point of view. I'd beg for them to encourage his interests and allow him to teach himself.
It's hard to take that risk. Nobody wants to be called pushy. Nobody wants to have to fight against the argument that children have to 'learn to fit in', when what they're actually arguing for is nothing to do with that, but concerns their child's right to appropriate stimulation.
Be careful with the words you use to your child's teachers. Remember, they are tired, stressed, overburdened with expectation already. Try to be kind, but be strong too. And get your facts straight. Don't pretend your child is ready for advancement to 6th grade at age 5 if he's still falling over his feet physically; you will consign him to social misery, and that matters. Accept that some aspects are going to be difficult, whatever you do.
I was lucky in the end. By the early primary years my son hit a sequence of good teachers who understood him better, and the school started to provide enrichment classes in English (though I fear they never managed to get ahead of where my boy was- again, they were catering for the crowd rather than the individual). The only real advantage of this was that it made the years pass less painfully, because both I and my son were able to form relationships with his teachers which were non-confrontational, and the enrichment gave his poor teacher a break while he played around with words (a favourite occupation).
He still didn't do any written work. But thanks to a teacher who actually asked him why, we got this explanation when he was in 3rd class (about 7 years old):
"My hand's going along like this..." (moves his hand right to left across the desk as if writing) "...and suddenly my brain shoots around the corner..." (his hand flies up to the top of the desk and along the opposite side) "...and my hand can't keep up."
Thus did my little boy explain to us- finally, when someone in relationship with him bothered to ask- that his ability to write frustrated him to death by lagging so far behind the speed of his thoughts. And so he gave up trying to write, and just talked.
(I've seen that problem over and over again in gifted boys.)
And so my fear that my son would never try was diminished, once he could explain the problem. His handwriting as an adult is still pretty dreadful, but in this age of computers, who cares? He can now get his thoughts down fast enough.
A lot of the things I was so worried about when he started school have proved to be paper tigers. He doesn't need maths, which he hated from the start. It didn't matter that he didn't do his homework. It didn't matter that he never practised his cello.
It did matter that he had a good relationship with me, and felt that I was on his side. Hold that thought.
He's found his passion and his career in the humanities. He's had strong relationships with his teachers through senior school and university and so has learned from them, though he's always invited them to learn along with him by challenging their established views. There is a happy ending for gifted kids, if they have a strong advocate somewhere in their life and if they're not pushed too far in the wrong direction.
I have much, much more to say about this, but that's enough for now. Forewarned is forearmed. School will provide some challenges for a gifted child- be ready!