To every parent, a child is a gift from above, but sometimes that precious bundle comes with a quality that is not fully understood _ giftedness. The word is interpreted differently for each individual, and that's only fair, as each gifted child is an individual and should not be generalised as nerds, geeks, weird or even as a genius.
Perhaps it's due to Albert Einstein. When speaking of a very bright person, often a scientist, the image that immediately pops up in is that of an odd-looking man whose wild hair had never met a comb. TV commercials portray ``smart'' children by putting thick glasses on them (are those with contact lenses less smart?). Some commercials even suggest that regular children can become little geniuses by drinking brain-boosting milk. But in actuality, giftedness, whether natural or nurtured, is something much harder to define and far from what the media portrays.
``There are lots of different definitions of giftedness, which adds to the confusion surrounding the word,'' commented Dr Selena Gallagher, exceptional learner manager at New International School of Thailand (NIST).
Speaking at International Parenting Network's recent discussion ``Strategies for parenting gifted children: Who are they and what to do if you've got one?'', Dr Gallagher said that in a nutshell, a gifted child is basically someone who has the potential to excel in a particular field, whether academically, musically or in any other areas. They are significantly advanced for what you would expect from their age, according to Dr Gallagher, who has a PhD in gifted education and is the author of a resource book for teachers on the subject.
Schools and educators around the world have tried to define and understand giftedness. Recently, schools in Thailand have added ``gifted programmes'' to their structure, but a closer look at what these programmes do only reveals that we are far from truly understanding giftedness, and even further from giving gifted students what they really need.
Even the Thai name of the programme is another world from its English name. The self-proclaimed ``gifted programme'' is, in Thai, literally a project for developing students with special skills in science and math.
A famous all-boys private school says the objective of setting up gifted classes to give intensive training to students who are outstanding in math and science is so that they can compete internationally. The students spend more hours in the classroom, go home with more homework and spend their weekends either at extra classes in school or tutoring courses elsewhere. Another school says in its gifted programme curriculum that the students are required to stay for extra after-school classes, as well as Saturday classes.
Dr Selena Gallagher.
As painful as it is to watch children go through such rigorous study, some parents think it is worth the struggle. To make sure his daughter gets accepted into the school's gifted programme, and to remain in it, a parent, who does not wish to be named, said he hires tutors to teach his daughter at home on weekends so as not to waste precious studying time on the road.
``I think my daughter stands a better chance of getting accepted into top-ranking universities if she is in the gifted programme, and that would mean better job options in the future, as well as a higher salary,'' he said.
Reading between the lines, the aim is to culture a batch of high achievers who bring fame to the school, without addressing their needs. Most schools' gifted programmes are described as a special environment for children with exceptional grades in math and science. There is no mention of those who are talented in other areas, such as languages, the arts or sport.
Joining this distorted idea of ``giftedness'' are numerous tutoring schools that offer courses specifically for those who want to enter the gifted programme. Just key in ``tutor for gifted programme'' in Thai and thousands of results pop up, with promises like ``100% success guarantee'' or ``taught by gifted tutors''.
In reality, Dr Gallagher said, you can't tutor giftedness. ``You can nurture it if it's there, but you can't create it if it's not.''
Giftedness can start to shine even in the earliest years of a child's life. Parents are the best judge of whether their child is gifted or not. A child might start to walk and talk early, and they tend to achieve milestones a little bit quicker than the baby books say they should. Generally, although it is hard to quantify, Dr Gallagher said giftedness is rare, and most schools systems categorise the top 5% of the school population as gifted. Different schools and different systems will use different guidelines but 5% is reasonable.
It is not easy to identify giftedness. There are tests that can help, but there is not one perfect one that can give a definite answer. ``Tests can reveal a part of the picture, but we need checklists for parents and teachers, as well as to interview the parents and the child to find characteristics from their very early years. All kinds of information go into the identification rather than just a single test,'' said Dr Gallagher, adding that some tests are valid from about four years old, but the early years of school would be an ideal time. It's never too late to test either.
There is a myth that gifted children are very bright and therefore will manage just fine no matter what. In fact, they need support and understanding because they are different.
``There are a lot of characteristics of giftedness that can be misunderstood. It's very important that parents recognise the characteristics and understand the children for what they are. They might have intense sensitivity and emotional reactions. Sometimes parents can put that down as immature and even a mood disorder. Understanding the real cause will help them learn to provide the support that the children need.''
While it is good to recognise the special needs of gifted children and provide a programme for them, what they also need is to mingle with regular kids. Many models are used in schools, such as having a separate class for gifted children, or grouping them together in a regular class. ``That way they can have like-minded friends to work with while also interacting with regular kids of their age. It's a very well-rounded way of providing for their needs. They can also accelerate through school by skipping a whole year or advance in certain classes. The most important thing is for them to move at their own pace,'' she said.
Naturally, every parent wants their child to be smart and successful, but this hope should never be confused with giftedness. There is a difference between smart children, high achievers and gifted children, and each of them needs different support.
If a gifted child is not identified and provided with understanding, they might feel frustrated in school or act out behaviourally, causing trouble in class. Perhaps they can get by without being noticed and get good grades without having to put in any effort, but later on, when the curriculum gets more challenging, they will meet a challenge that doesn't come easy and they won't know how to deal with it. ``Then, they can be at risk of dropping out or giving up. It can be very damaging to their self-esteem at that point. That's why it's so important to identify these children early and make sure they are challenged.''
The bottom line is to let the child's needs and interests, whether gifted or not, be the guide. Dr Gallagher said it does not make sense to overschedule and enrol children in a dozen activities if they're not interested. Play is also very important, especially in childhood. ``Not everything has to be a learning experience. It's okay to let your child be a child and have fun and relax.''
Dr Selena Gallagher said that there can be evident signs in early years. Most kids will show one or more of these signs, but gifted kids might tick more boxes or do them more often. A gifted child can show any of these signs, but not necessarily all.
Early walking and talking.
Going through stages of language development quicker, and talking in full sentences. Extensive vocabulary compared to other children.
Advanced sense of humour. Getting jokes that other children the same age don't understand.
Personality characteristics such as intensity (extreme highs and lows), sensitivity to stimuli (complaining about fabrics and labels on their shirt, or noise that no one else can hear).
Great empathy and compassion that a young child is not expected to have. Sense of justice and fairness, getting upset when they see something unfair.
Early reading or going through the stages of reading quickly.
Learning things faster in general.
Great memory, remembering an event in great details months or years later, such as remembering books that have been read to them or being able to quote lines from movies.
About the author
- Writer: Napamon Roongwitoo
Position: Outlook Writer