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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Surviving your gifted child's schooling, part 2: Don't let the spark go out!

I've told you a little bit about my gifted son's first years of school, which admittedly was a bit of a horror story from my point of view. Today I thought I'd talk about some happier experiences, so you'll know what to look for in your gifted child's teachers.

And I also wanted to remind you that gifted children are, in some ways, as diverse as any other group of children- even when they're related to one another. There are few firm rules about achieving a happy schooling for your gifted child. The 'best thing to do' will be dependent on your child's personality and level of giftedness.

My own early school experiences couldn't have been more different from those of my brother and my son. Mind you, that was partly because my poor brother had paved the way for me; after four years of dealing with him, the teachers were better prepared for Another One Of Those Children Who Can Read. He'd had a shocking time. My mother used to say that his whole personality was changed by his first years of school, and he'd gone from an outspoken, affectionate, happy four-year-old (who was prone to doing things like explaining how a steam engine worked to a railway carriage full of passengers, or writing and illustrating sentences like "The anaconda dislocates its jaw to consume large animals, hence the fascinating gape", and bursting into tears because he couldn't grasp the meaning of the writing on the top of an adult magazine that said "registered for transmission by post as a periodical") to a withdrawn and somewhat depressed six-year-old.

You don't want that.

That's what can happen when a teacher treats an extremely capable child like a liar and a problem, simply because he demonstrates an uncomfortable truth or two (like, that he can already read and write- oops, there goes the year's lesson plans). My only hard and fast rule is that so much is dependent on the teachers available to your child.

I was much luckier than both my brother and my son; I had a seamless transition to school. Bless you, Miss Bryant! Now, there was a wonderful teacher of the gifted, despite having absolutely no training for any such thing.

She was prepared to be flexible, and she was smart about it too. When she discovered that I could already read, instead of going "Dang it, I have to prepare a whole extra syllabus for this nuisance child!" she saw it as an opportunity. I was encouraged to bring my favourite books from home and spend some time each day reading aloud to the class, while Miss Bryant did some preparation at her desk with one eye on the cheeky kids in the back row.

Brilliant! Somehow she'd detected my ability to entertain as well as just read. I loved it. The class loved it.

That wasn't the end of it, either. In hindsight, I realise that Miss Bryant constructed whole lessons designed to stimulate me without disadvantaging the rest of the class. I remember her reading us a lot of simple poetry, and explaining how a poem worked- a great lesson in recognising speech rhythms and individual sounds within words for the pre-readers, but a marvellous piece of creative bait for me. Looking back, I remembered for many years a lesson where she even asked us all to try to write a poem- but as a teacher, I know now that my memory was deceiving me; I was the only one in that class who could read and write already, so she must somehow have delivered that stimulus just to me. Perhaps the others were asked to draw a picture in response to another poem.

I do remember her sending me around to another classroom- the deputy principal's, I believe- to show off my work afterwards, my poem having been neatly written out over my own illustration. I remember feeling acknowledged for my skill, but without feeling like a performing seal; I was allowed to show off my work on my own terms, without anyone standing over me clapping their hands.

Here's the poem I wrote, aged 5- sadly the drawing that went with it is long gone.

It was obviously an excellent poetry course that she delivered to a 5-yr-old, to get a result like that.

That's what you want for your child. You want a teacher who thinks outside the square, and who is clever enough to learn what will stimulate and teach your child without disadvantaging anyone else in the room. Your child will let you know if they have a teacher like that, because they'll want to go to school.

Of course, I was a biddable child- as I said at the start, there are as many types of gifted kid as there are fish in the sea, and some of them would be far less cooperative than I was. But that doesn't change the sort of teacher you need to find for your gifted child. The teacher doesn't have to be a genius, but they have to be good at recognising a gift in a child and extending it. They have to be willing.

I had reason to be grateful for that good start; my schooling was not all beer and skittles. Thinking that they were doing the right thing by me, the Powers That Be then decided to advance me straight to 2nd Grade, given that I could already read and write. These were the days of universal streaming, on the basis of perceived cleverness as observed through school exams; it was before the days of political correctness, and the classes were clearly labelled A, B and C. Unfortunately, fearing that the leap to 2A was somehow too much for me, they lost their nerve and put me in the B class- with a second-rate teacher, who resented me for being different, and peers who hated me for STILL being way smarter than them despite being a whole year younger.

We shall draw a veil over that year, I think. The memories of bullying, misery and general educational neglect really don't need revisiting.

To compound the problem, they then chickened out of continuing to advance me because I was "too young" (which probably means they'd noticed I was unhappy and drawn the wrong conclusion about why). So I repeated 2nd Grade, this time in the A class.


Please don't let your child be messed around like this. Chronological age is a terrible guide to what's best for a gifted child. What you need is an unbiased assessment of your child's social and physical maturity, as well as their intellect. If you start messing around with your child's schooling based only on the result of some IQ test, you are doing them a grave disservice. For some children, taking them out of their peer group and advancing them is the worst thing you could do- for others, it's the best.

You also need to involve that child in decisions about their future. They will tell you quick smart whether they want to be advanced or not. They may ask what teacher they'll have, and that is an excellent basis for a decision, regardless of whatever political blah blah you get fed by the school (who will likely be playing a numbers game on class size as well as covering their backs about the relative quality of their teachers). Children know those teachers and how they behave in the playground. They know who they'll get on with and who they won't. Please listen. Please be their advocate when you talk to the school about their future.

I sometimes try to imagine how my life might have been different if I'd been put straight into 2A, with a brilliantly insightful teacher (thank you, Mrs Williams!) who challenged me like Miss Bryant did (I believe I wrote a whole book of stories in 2A, in between acing the spelling tests and the arithmetic). She would have eased me into the new peer group, then moved me straight up to primary school. And in this way, I have a suspicion that I may have developed a bit less attitude and a bit less arrogance- two characteristics which are socially troubling for me to this day.

It is Not Good for a child to realise they're intellectually putting it over kids a year older than them, effortlessly. It wasn't good for me, and I was a Good Girl. I shudder to think how it might have affected a gifted child with a much more assertive personality, like my son.

Consider that for a moment. Gifted children are naturally challenging, naturally forceful in pushing for their rights, naturally expert manipulators. A year cheekily resting on their laurels and/or feeling miserable and unchallenged is about the worst thing you can do for their social development, so there'd better be a damn good reason for not advancing them- such as intense shyness, or strong supportive relationships within their current peer group that you don't want to lose, or a really excellent teacher in their current grade who can give them the support and extension they need.

Having no teacher willing to take on your child as an accelerated student sends a different message. If this is the case, or if your child feels seriously unhappy about all the possible teachers within the next grade, it's time to change schools.

Just sayin'.

You don't necessarily need a brilliant teacher every single year- that would be a lucky child indeed- but you do need a chain of teachers who are willing to acknowledge your child's gifts and work with them. It's the attitude that matters, not the syllabus. Did you hear me? The attitude.

Not the syllabus. Teachers don't always need to push whole years of syllabus down from the higher grades to satisfy a gifted student; for the precociously gifted child this may be needed in their area/s of interest, but the vast majority of gifted children are not hanging out to go to college tomorrow, and they don't need to be put in a parental pressure cooker either. Certainly in the early years, a gifted child will usually appreciate the opportunity to self-direct and learn through their precocious play.

Teachers can expand lessons sideways and allow gifted children to indulge in their particular enthusiasms, as Miss Bryant and Mrs Williams did with me. An enthusiastic, self-motivated child will learn, if they're allowed to teach themselves and are given the right tools.

That isn't wasting time. A gifted child will take off like a jet plane when they find something that stimulates them, and you won't be able to stem the flow of questions.

Whatever you do, don't allow that spark in your child to be quenched for someone else's convenience. Keep those lines of communication open, both with your child and with their teachers. If something seems wrong, if your child is frustrated and upset or withdrawing, investigate and act upon your findings. If the teacher is frustrated and upset, he or she needs some help plumbing the depths of your child's personality, or may need to do some personal research on gifted education. You can help them by leading them to articles like this, or to the many wonderful articles by Miraca Gross and at the Hoagies site online.

It's a huge responsibility you have there, parenting a gifted child and guiding them through their schooling. Our society needs the gifted children to flourish, so that they can be our leaders and inventors and teachers of the next generation. Are you ready to be an advocate?


  1. Great posts Aunt Annie. I am exploring new syllabus for our kiddo.. I searched Monterssori and also looked for CHIP programmes. What are your views abt the CHIPs Programme offered at Glendal Primary School

    1. Thanks Akshaya.

      The Glendal programme looks awesome on paper, and the fact that the teacher is trained in gifted education is very encouraging. I would definitely be giving it serious consideration.

      However I would still be doing some face-to-face research when you're thinking of enrolling- even standing outside the school at pick-up time and chatting to the other parents, maybe even interacting with some of the children once you've broken the ice with the parents and asking them what they think about the school and are they happy there.

      The kids are always the best judge of whether it's a good school. The rest is able to be manufactured, but customer satisfaction- NO!

  2. As the last post reminded me of my own school experience, this post makes me think of my daughter's. We were lucky to live right next to a school that became an Arts Charter School in the year after she began attending. My little girl has always been an artist, and she loves to teach others, so whenever she got bored, the teachers would have her draw or help other students, and they had many opportunities for all the students to work on their own projects or just play independently. They also had what they called "art enrichment", for which my daughter chose beginning violin. Until I read your blog, I wondered why she enjoyed the class so much without particularly enjoying violin-playing; she was in an ability-based class with older students!

    Anyway, we moved to a new state and her first public school experience wasn't super-great, but it could have been way worse. She had a lot of trouble connecting with her peers, and got very bored, but her teacher could see what was happening and would often let her do her own projects. He also recommended her for a program for gifted students which she'll be able to attend next year.

    1. Oh Mag, I'm so glad your daughter's experience is proving better than your own. It really is all about the teacher- it's great that your daughter's recognises her gifts. Do make sure you build a relationship with that teacher where you can let him know about what worked for her in the previous school.


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