The trouble with being gifted
The glasses, the high IQ, the pressure that comes with being the one deemed most likely to succeed... why sometimes it 'aint easy being a bright kid.
Auckland University, mid-term. Bored faces stare out from the rowed seating of thebrightly lit lecture theatre. The audience are first-year physics students. Eighteen and fresh out of high school, they must attend this lecture to pass. But in the crowd sits one young student, bright eyed and on the edge of his seat. Eight-year-old Hector Williams squirms, trying to resist throwing up his hand in response to the professor's questions. He doesn't need to be here to pass, he's here because he wants to be.
A book about solar systems prompted the visit, along with Hector's theories about what would happen if Earth went into a black hole, whether asteroids could reach us and what would happen if a scientist could create a telescope that could see great distances. "Kids tend to find an interest and hone in on it but with Hector I guess it was all encompassing," mother Stefani Williams says. "He just loved everything about it, everything was so factually based and he was able to suck up all this knowledge. When we said he could sit down with the (astrophysics) professor, he thought it was the coolest thing in the world."
Impressive, yes. An anomaly, no. In Lower Hutt, 12 year-old Ellie Wright also attends the odd lecture as part of her one day a week MindPlus programme for gifted children. She started attending after mother Nicole Wright had a hunch she was brighter than the rest, and had her IQ tested. "She was always a little bit different," Wright says. "At preschool age she'd spend ages making up sentences with word tiles and they were getting easier so she wanted some to have 'ed' and 'ing' on them so she could make the words longer."
Not interested in television and movies, Ellie was reading at age three and making up her own songs at kindergarten. But when it came to primary school her results were up and down. The school didn't agree she had a gift and opted not to put her in specialised programming because in Wright's words, "her results were all over the show."
The number of bright and gifted people in New Zealand ranges between one and 10 per cent of the population. Around 40,000 of them are children. Some are profoundly gifted, others are very gifted. Some children display exceptional understandings of concepts and theories (like the three-year-old nicknamed the 'weather man' who interprets weather graphs using the correct terminology); some display outstanding leadership or musical gifts, others are academically smart, like Hector and Ellie. The definition of giftedness varies and can often be too restrictive for children's capabilities, experts say.
This is half the trouble with the delivery of the New Zealand curriculum, child psychologist Rose Blackett, believes. "I think there's a lot of misunderstandings. What is gifted? There's over 200 definitions internationally of what giftedness is, and even in New Zealand the Ministry of Education doesn't have a definition. That in itself presents a number of challenges. If you can't define what giftedness is, how can you identify it?"
Blackett is the immediate past president of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children and sits on the international board of directors for Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). She, along with many others the Star-Times speaks to, is delighted someone is interested in the challenges of schooling a bright child. The topic is often overlooked, she says. "Within our education system we've had Ministry personnel for special education, there's a whole department for children at the bottom end, and at the top end there's not really anything. We talk about bringing up the tail end in school, but that tail end has a head, and the head leads."
There's a pattern of concerns. Namely, the professional development of teachers doesn't adequately cover gifted education. Few teacher training colleges offer specialised training and often teachers have to take it upon themselves to seek further information. There can be misidentification of gifted children, who can be "manipulative" and downplay their intelligence to avoid being branded as nerdy. Then there's the responses to children who are identified. "She'll be right" won't cut it. Giving them extra work isn't the answer. "It's more of the same and it's dull and boring. What they end up doing is slowing down. Wouldn't you, if your boss kept loading you up?" Blackett says.
GiftEDNZ chairwoman Louise Tapper says some bright children have a "terrible" time at school. She dedicated her PhD thesis to exploring the experiences of gifted children in New Zealand and found "surprising" results. "There is this social norm that no one person should be seen as having more of an advantage than anybody else," she says.
"The adolescents I spoke to were very keen to avoid the stigmatism of being the nerd. I was very surprised that these young people had a real understanding had a real understanding of the way in which egalitarianism is valued in our society. To be gifted and talented in New Zealand is not something you shout from the rooftops." She has a point. Very few parents of children put their hand up to be interviewed for this story. Some ask if their names can be changed.
Tapper says the myth that bright children "are all these little nerds with glasses" is harmful for both the children who feel stigmatised, and the teachers who are supposed to be identifying their needs, made altogether harder by smart kids who often don't do as well as expected at school. "A lot of these kids didn't have much truck with curriculum or courses they saw had no relevance to their future. A lot are what's called selective consumers- (they say) 'this stuff I'm taking is no use to me at all, even though I can do well at it and I could get excellences in it.'"
After an IQ test revealed Ellie Wright's capabilities her mother promptly enrolled her in MindPlus, a programme that, as Ellie describes it, "makes me feel like I belong". She says they have mind warm ups in the morning, followed by working on industrial revolution projects designed to encompass the learning theme 'change'. This might be followed by science experiments and technology challenges, then "philosophical discussions," free writing and talent time. She enjoys the classes, she says. "I'm really happy because I enjoy being with like minded people."
Blackett says there's nothing inherently wrong with the New Zealand curriculum. All schools have a mandate that they must provide some kind of gifted programming for children, but Blackett says issues can arise in the delivery, particularly when it comes to teacher training. "That's where I think there is a huge disparity. The only way really you can get professional development is seeking out your postgraduate studies. Massey University has a formal post graduate qualification and there seems to be a number of very informal offerings for teachers."
The most recent review of gifted education within the curriculum was undertaken by the Education Review Office in 2008 and the results weren't impressive. It found only 17 per cent of evaluated schools had good provisions for gifted students with many of those in high decile areas. Since then the Ministry's head of student achievement, Graham Stoop, says it set up an advisory group on gifted and talented education, but this is something Blackett disputes. She was on the advisory board, and says it was disestablished and despite repeated enquiries, it hasn't been resurrected.
Asked what else has changed since 2008, Stoop says the Ministry publishes written 'resources' for schools to use, and that gifted children with behavioural or learning difficulties can be given extra support through Ministry-funded resource teachers.
Tapper says she often hears of parents having to "battle, battle, battle" with schools who put up "brick walls" when faced with parents who seem too pushy. "Parents are fantastic advocates for their children and it's very difficult for parents- we're constantly saying we want you to support your child, encourage your child and work with the school- but it seems to me that works very well except if you're the parent of a gifted and talented child. As soon as you encourage your gifted and talented child to do well, suddenly you're a pushy parent."
Laura Swan co-ordinates the Summit programme at West Auckland's Massey High School. She saw a need in the school, devised and developed the gifted education programme on her own, which now caters for several hundred students. She says without early identification, gifted children can quickly become frustrated, bored or withdrawn.
"One of the biggest myths surrounding gifted students is that they'll be okay on their own; they'll succeed regardless of where they are in school, and that myth perpetuates many other issues including resources for schools, funding, and professional development for teachers. It also means students don't necessarily get the time or attention that's needed for them to be able to meet their potential. Every student deserves to be in a learning environment where their individual learning needs are being met."
Blackett is the mother of a gifted child. She recalls as a preschooler he read the word 'penguin' upside down and remembered thinking 'he won't have any trouble reading'. Back then, she had no idea of the challenges of raising a gifted child. "It really is like having a child with special needs. They're often quite precocious, it's like living with a bush lawyer," she says. "They come up with the most complicated rules you could ever think of for things like sticker charts. They'll quote you back what you've said, that kind of thing. Arguing with a gifted child, they'll win every time."
Often gifted children have intensities or sensitivities or unique sets of emotional characteristics that can contribute to introvertedness. Nicole Wright has seen these in Ellie.
"With giftedness there is also the other side. Everyone says, 'oh she's going to achieve' but it's keeping them stimulated all the time and keep them interested really. It's not easy."
"All the parents I talk to for years and years and years, and being a parent myself, the thing is they want their child to be happy, they want them to have friends," Louise Tapper says. The mother of a gifted child herself, she says her own daughter had trouble at school, much like Ellie. When kids aren't being supported academically, they can become withdrawn, frustrated, bored, or even depressed. Some kids lack the social skills needed for the sometimes cut throat playground aristocracy. This is sometimes more painful for parents, she says.
"The thing is, they want their child to be happy. They want them to have friends, and be invited to birthday parties, and often they're not. It's very disheartening. These are the kids that don't fit in- and there are a lot that really enjoy school and thrive and are fine- but for the ones who don't fit in, the parents say I want them to have friends, and I want them to be happy. Sometimes for parents the happiest moment for them is when they're at their child's prizegiving and they might not even get a prize but to see them laughing outside with friends can make parents even happier."