On the Bright Side

12th January 2018

All parents think their offspring are the cleverest children on the planet – but some youngsters really are outstanding in a way that is entirely different to their peers. Lisa Botwright explores the concept of ‘gifted and talented’, and asks how families and schools can support particular needs…

Raising a child who’s much brighter than his/her siblings or classmates brings plenty of challenges. Indeed, one mother has written about her experience of having a gifted child as ‘one of the most difficult and daunting things I have ever had to endure’. Elaine Hook, an experienced teacher familiar with all the techniques for inspiring young minds, reflects: ‘From birth I had known my daughter was different. She was two days old when she gave me such a strange but knowing look and I just knew she was going to be a huge challenge. What I was incredibly naive about was just how much she was going to challenge me, my husband and the whole family.’ She describes how Sophie walked at ten months, spoke at 14 months in full sentences, and was trying to read from the age of one. By the time she went to nursery, aged two, she could read proficiently and to herself. ‘Most people imagine having a clever child must be easy and a privilege,’ Elaine continues ‘but unless you have first hand experience you cannot possibly understand the difficulties and issues that come with having a gifted child – they are definitely a mixed blessing.’

Teenager Mia Speranza explains that she often feels she has to ‘hide her cleverness’ to fit in with her peers and to try and avoid bullying from some of the other children. Her father describes being the parent of a gifted child as “a very lonely place,” adding, “it’s not a thing to tell other parents and friends about, because it always sounds like you’re bragging.”

But what is giftedness? What’s the difference between a bright child who thrives on learning, and a significantly ‘gifted’ child?

Potential Plus UK (formerly the National Association for Gifted Children) is a charity working with parents, carers and teachers, delivering the knowledge, confidence and strategies to help them advocate for their more able children. Julie Taplin, the Acting Chief Executive, explains that the organisation uses the term ‘high learning potential’ to mean ‘gifted’ – but there are plenty of others, used interchangeably, including ‘gifted and talented’, ‘exceptional’, ‘more able’ and ‘most able’.

The term ‘gifted and talented’ is probably the most familiar. It harks back to a former government policy that required all schools to identify the most able 5-10% of their pupils, place them on a ‘Gifted and Talented register’ and provide them with a distinct learning programme. In 2010, with politicians keen to disassociate themselves from criticisms of perpetuating elitism, the practice was scrapped. The National Association for Able Children in Education, an organisation which gives specialist advice to schools, observes that the key issue now is what opportunities are being provided for all children to reveal their abilities. Schools are encouraged to focus on offering more universally accessible enrichment opportunities – the buzzwords are ‘stretch and challenge’ – and there is something of a perception that differentiation of the super-bright is a Bad Thing.

The Department for Education has set aside £23m for a plan they’ve named ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’, announced last December, but its focus is on education as a tool for social moibility. It aims to reverse a trend which sees bright pupils from poor backgrounds fail to achieve. Worthy as it is, it risks leaving the formerly ‘Gifted and Talented’ cohort adrift without a formal structure in which to maximise their ‘high learning potential’.

Parents often ask what is precisely meant by this term. Julie Taplin says it most often refers to an ability “to understand information well, make quick analyses and use memory capacity to learn quickly… useful in academic pursuits as well as in creativity.”

High potential is often linked to high IQ, which used to be the holy grail of intelligence testing, but is now considered by many critics as too narrow an indicator. IQ tests can’t measure emotional or social intelligence, for example, and both are critical in assessing potential for success.

Professor Valsa Koshy and Dr Elizabeth Koshy, a mother and daughter team, are the authors of Find and Nurture Your Child’s Gifts, which they describe as a ‘practical guide’ for parents and carers. Professor Koshy is based at Brunel University, Uxbridge, where, in 1997, she established the first UK university-based research centre focusing on talent development of children. “Giftedness is much broader than academic ability,” she tells me. “All children have a gift.” She believes that “we shouldn’t be asking ‘is my child gifted?’ as all children have a special gift or many, which need to be identified and nurtured. Instead, we should say ‘what are my child’s gifts?’…”

She gives the example of a seven year old child who was ‘bored’ at school. Anna’s parents believed it was because she was very bright and arranged an IQ test, but were disappointed to learn that the result wasn’t quite as high as expected. Nonetheless, in consultation with her teachers, Anna was encouraged to embark on an extension project about something she was particularly interested in. She chose ‘birds’ – and went on to have a highly successful academic career in science.

Judy Rowe, Head of St Albans High Prep School, explains that her team take a very broad and inclusive stance on tapping into each child’s potential: “Our focus is always on individual learning, whatever the subject, so staff can identify strengths and interests and help the student build upon them. Students who have a particular enthusiasm for a subject often read widely and are keen to find out more, so we encourage them to take an investigative approach.”

Howard Gardner is an American psychologist and author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. His theory, that broadly there are seven different types of ‘intelligences’ – linguistic, musical, spatial, logical, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal – and that children will demonstrate varying combinations of ability in each, has gained wide support.

It’s one of the reasons why Professor Koshy strongly believes in exposing younngsters to all kinds of activities in order to develop well-rounded, happy, confident and accomplished people. “Your children’s passions can often be a sign of their gifts. Acknowledging and encouraging children’s particular gifts frequently also leads to increased motivation and higher achievement in other areas. If we only focused on academic ability, we would have never appreciated Einstein’s contributions or Richard Branson’s highly successful business ventures.”

There is a caveat, however. “No matter how gifted children are, they can only fulfil their potential if we simultaneously boost their physical and mental wellbeing,” she cautions.

While Valsa Koshy is a Professor of Education, her daughter Elizabeth is a medical doctor, and well-placed to give advice on prioritising children’s emotional and physical needs, as much as their academic needs. ‘Happy children find it easier to concentrate and learn and positive learning experiences also improves a child’s self-esteem’, she writes.

Julie Taplin also explains how her charity provides a vital role here: “Our advisors give guidance not only on the educational needs of the child, but also on the social and emotional needs that relate to the high learning potential – on peer relations, perhaps, or perfectionism.”

There is often a mismatch between cognitive, emotional, and physical development of gifted individuals, known as ‘asynchronous development’. It’s a term that describes why gifted children sometimes develop unevenly across skill levels – they may excel in maths, for example, but find it harder to build relationships with their peers. An important aspect of supporting a child with high learning potential is to focus on boosting their resilience and emotional maturity. In her book Gifted Lives, Dr. Joan Freeman points out that children identified as gifted are treated differently by parents, teachers and peers alike – but their talents are only in certain specific areas; in all other respects they are ‘normal’ children.

The idea of building resilience is also explored persuasively and engagingly in Dr Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, where she argues that rather than telling our children how clever they are, we should praise their motivation to learn. The subtle difference is important because, as Professor Koshy explains, “Labelling children ‘gifted’ can lead them to either be complacent and not make much effort or avoid challenging work for fear of failure.” 

One 13-year-old, who gained a scholarship to a highly academic independent school, explains how he was caught “completely unprepared”. He continues, “I had never encountered anything that required me to try instead of instant comprehension. I had never had to work at writing a paper, I had never had to submit lab work before, and it shattered me. So I begun to unravel – my entire ego was based on the one thing that made me ‘better’ than others, my intelligence, and I was near-to-failing every course. No one seemed to realise that my study habits (or lack thereof) were the root of the problem.”

Judy Rowe goes on to remind me sagely that “raw talent in itself will not be enough in the future. Enthusiasm and dedication to studying in a particular area will be needed for success [so we] encourage pupils to feel confident about tackling difficulty as a way of driving their learning forwards. Intelligence needs to be combined with determination. This is what will help them become successful as teenagers and adults.”

One popular enrichment tool among educators is ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ – a hierarchy of levels to boost critical thinking skills, which moves children on from remembering, to understanding, to applying, to analysing, to evaluating and finally, to creating. Parents can use this model when reading their child a bedtime story, say, by asking simple questions about the plot or characters to probe ‘remembering and understanding’. If their child is particularly engaged, they might move on to the more abstract levels of ‘evaluating and creating’, saying ‘was Goldilocks right to eat the bears’ porridge?’ or even, ‘let’s come up with some ideas for a sequel’.

Professor Koshy advises parents to engage in a range of activities at home, including talking, reading, playing games or searching the internet together. “Prepare your child to meet challenges by engaging in critical thinking activities… And encourage your child to accept that making mistakes is okay and provide opportunities to learn from them. Finally, work with your children’s school – let them know about your children’s individual interests and passions.”

Parents of bright children are naturally anxious to ensure that they’re sufficiently challenged, but the consensus among experts is to relax, not to worry or apply too much pressure, but to support them just as any well-meaning, actively engaged parents would do: spend time with them, talk to them, place as much importance on social activities as academic ones and give them lots of loving encouragement.

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