Is giftedness always a gift?

Tue, Nov 29, 2011, 00:00

WHAT QUALIFIES children as gifted? On paper, it means they’re in the top 5 per cent of the population when it comes to intellectual ability. It’s a qualification the other 95 per cent tend to regard as an advantage. But being gifted is not always easy.

About 35,000 children between the ages of four and 18 in Ireland fit the description; only 4,500 of those currently access services. And services are what they need: as any parent of a gifted child will tell you, giftedness is a special need.

“Children in the top 5 per cent need a differentiated curriculum just as much as children in the bottom 5 per cent,” says Colm O’Reilly, director of the Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland. “By definition, the average or mainstream curriculum will not serve their needs. Yet there is no recognition of giftedness as a learning need in schools. There is no training for it at the teacher-training colleges, either.”

O’Reilly sees it as a missed opportunity for a country trying so hard to compete globally in higher education, research and development and the smart economy. Closer to home, however, the challenge for families and individual children can be immense. “Some bright kids will do well regardless: they are resilient. But for many more the lack of stimulation in school will actually lead to underachievement. A percentage will fall in with the mainstream and never perform to their ability. Another percentage will become so frustrated that they will withdraw altogether. They think the system is just not designed for them. Then you hear the comment, ‘Well, maybe she wasn’t that bright to begin with.’ It’s a terrible waste of potential.”

About 15 per cent of children who access services through the centre are described as “twice exceptional”: gifted and diagnosed with a learning disability such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia. It can be a huge challenge to create an appropriate curriculum for them. And such children are presenting in even greater numbers, says O’Reilly, probably because of more frequent assessment. “Five years ago we would probably have had one child in 20 at the centre that would be twice exceptional. Now it’s three times that amount. These children can be hard to identify if their learning disability masks their giftedness.”

Children with poor writing skills from dyslexia, for example, cannot be assessed for giftedness using a written exam. The Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland has developed new entry systems to deal with such children, including varied assessments and referrals from teachers.

In the past year the website giftedkids.ie has seen a huge increase in traffic, according to its founder Margaret Keane. “Parents on our forum are angry. There are no services for their children in schools, and many are getting very frustrated.” Until now, some progressive schools have made creative use of special- education and resource staff to support gifted children, even though they don’t fit the Department of Education descriptors for special needs. But with staff numbers falling, there is less and less that enlightened schools can do.

Many schools refer their children to the centre, which is based at Dublin City University, with outreach centres in Dún Laoghaire, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Carlow and Letterkenny. The centre runs weekend classes and summer camps for children with exceptional ability in a range of subject areas, from medicine to aeronautical engineering to the literary world of Harry Potter – Evanna Lynch, who plays Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films, is a former student of the centre.

The service is not-for-profit, but it costs parents about €200 for a 12-week course. O’Reilly and his team hate to turn anyone away on financial grounds, however, and he says that they “try to facilitate as many people as possible”. State funding for the service, which he used to use to provide scholarships and other supports for disadvantaged students, was withdrawn completely in 2008.

It may only be an hour or two a week, but it means a great deal more to many gifted children, says O’Reilly. “It’s just incredible to see how quickly these kids progress when you give them something that really challenges them. The twice-exceptional children tend to progress particularly fast. It’s not just the subject matter: it’s the chance to be with children at the same level as they are, to feel a sense of belonging, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Children with other learning challenges may find that in school the focus is always on what they can’t do. Here their abilities are recognised. It’s great for parents, too. They get so frustrated in a system which literally offers them nothing. That’s exasperating, isolating. Just to be acknowledged takes them out of limbo.”

Three mothers’ experiences of having gifted children

Fiona O’Toole

“I sent my son for private assessment when the school told me that they wouldn’t put him forward for assessment through the National Educational Psychological Service system. It cost me €600, and I could ill afford it, but he was experiencing problems in school that the teachers had identified as possible dyslexia. I wanted to deal with it before it got worse.

“After the assessment I was told that he is in the 96th percentile in terms of visual-reasoning ability, but it is masked by his dyslexia. He may also have ADHD. He needs further assessment, which I am trying to get for him now. His differences have been presenting as behavioural problems in school.

“I knew something was wrong, but this gifted side is new to me. He’s obviously very frustrated. He’s just turned six, and he can tell you the whole history of evolution in fine detail. He is a witty child, and finds a way to get on with the other children to a point, but finds it increasingly hard to work in groups, and his social skills are a problem.

“The school is providing some reading support, which is great, but he needs much more support if he is to fit in at school. That’s the problem: fitting in. The system is not set up for gifted children, let alone those with a learning disability as well. He’s not old enough to go to the Centre for Talented Youth, and I don’t think he has the reading and writing skills to do an assessment, but if I could get him in I would find the money from somewhere.”

Carole Fautrez

“I am the mother of Elisa, who is now six. She has always been very alert, right from birth. She is brought up as bilingual. She sat up and took her first step at normal ages: eight months and 14 months. At age two, she was alert and very inquisitive. She learned effortlessly. She could play games that her age peers couldn’t. At age three she went to a playgroup. We were told her verbal skills were excellent. At four she went to a Montessori school. Three months later she could read and started writing. The Montessori teacher was the first person to suspect her giftedness.

“Following the advice from Montessori teacher and primary-school teacher, Elisa skipped a year at primary school and went straight to senior infants. The school year represented very little challenge, and Elisa started to act up at home; she was very demanding. She is a big sponge and wants to learn about everything.

“We then decided to have her assessed by an educational psychologist, being aware that she is probably smart. The IQ test revealed Elisa functions at a very high level cognitively. The educational psychologist then advised us on how to get her to reach her full potential and told us about the Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland. Elisa has been attending it for six or seven weeks, and she loves it. It provides a challenge which she badly needs.”

Hazel Larkin

“I have two daughters, Ishthara, who is nine, and Kashmira, who is seven. Both are gifted. When Ishthara was born it was my first experience of being a parent, so I didn’t notice anything in the way of giftedness. Other people would comment that she was clever, but I just thought, Ah, sure, aren’t they all like that?

“I suppose the idea first came into my mind when my younger daughter woke up last year and told me that she had been dreaming about division. She was six, and she didn’t have the language for it, but a couple of weeks beforehand she had figured out multiplication, reasoning that there must be a simpler way to add a number over and over again. Then she just seemed to realise that there must be a way to do the opposite of multiplication.

“I got a bit of a fright at that, especially as I had been told by a teacher that she might be developmentally delayed. She was very quiet in school, and they seemed to fixate on that a bit. I wasn’t terribly worried about her, but when a teacher came to me and identified her as being weak in a range of subjects, including maths, I knew that I had to do something. What I was hearing from the teacher was so different from my knowledge as a mother.

“I heard about the Centre for Talented Youth, and as it turned out they were doing assessments the following week. Even speaking on the phone to them was such a relief. To hear, ‘Yeah, that all sounds familiar,’ was brilliant. They recommended I bring my other daughter in, too. I was very surprised when I learned that they were both gifted.

“It was a shock in the sense that this was completely outside of what I know. I suppose in Ireland there is a real sense that you need to keep information like that to yourself. ‘Gifted? Sure, what have you to worry about?’ People don’t realise that it’s a problem in itself.

“My youngest daughter in particular was and is having huge difficulty in school. The school recommended getting her assessed; then they would endeavour to meet her needs. We ended up seeing an educational psychologist who’s giving me the full report next week. We’ll see. If things don’t improve I’m going to have to take her out of school and home-school her. I’d much rather have her in school, but at the moment I have my little girl telling me it’s torture to go to school.

“It’s a last resort, but I can’t preside over my child’s misery any longer. I’ll give it until Christmas, and if things don’t improve that’s what we’ll do.”