The problems and joys of parenting a profoundly gifted child will be outlined from a personal viewpoint. The difficulties which we as "first time" parents faced in identifying giftedness and the educational options (including part time university study) which we gradually selected will be reported. Behavioural problems have loomed large and long in our experience and these will also be discussed.
"We knew he was bright..."
"We always knew he was bright, but not that bright!" Amongst the discussions of parents of gifted and talented children, this statement is heard again and again. I think it is very difficult, especially as first time parents, to know that your bright, curious, cheeky little bundle of joy is operating in ways that are significantly different from his age-peers.
My husband and I certainly took a long time to come to grips with the fact that our elder boy, James, had an IQ score in the profoundly gifted range.
In retrospect, we realize that many of the traits he displayed in his early years are typical of gifted children.
Traits and Interests
James spoke his first words at twelve months (which is quite normal) but then his rate of acquisition of language was very rapid. Also, he barely seemed to pass through the periods of grammatical error which are common to most toddlers. For example, phrases like "he falled", "he comed" only momentarily made an appearance before they were replaced by correct grammar. In addition, there were very few mis-pronounced words.
James was very determined (and still is) and it was always extremely difficult to deflect him from anything he wanted to explore. Very early on he became interested in cassettes and an old collection of EP records which we possessed. He used to demand to be lifted up so he could see us press the "play" and "fast forward" etc buttons and within a very short time (and I think aged under two years) he understood all the symbols and was operating the cassette player very efficiently on his own (something we had sworn he was not going to be permitted to do until he was much older). He was also able to operate cassette players in friends' homes even when the button arrangement was quite different. We thus presumed that he was actually reading the button labels. Cassettes and records continued to occupy much of his time for many years.
He started reading in earnest about three months before his fourth birthday but had been reading shop and street signs and the EP record labels for quite a long time before this. As with language, once he started reading the rate of progress was very rapid. When he was four the kindergarten teacher used to sometimes ask James to read aloud to the other children. He did this by facing them with the book turned so they could see it which meant that he, in fact, read upside down.
Also about this time James became very interested in road routes and street directories. This has become an abiding passion and every year for his birthday (from his fourth onwards - he is now sixteen) we have given him a new UBD Street Directory. He can always point out any new or altered roads or traffic lights - or any mistakes - within a few minutes of receiving a new edition. Back in his pre-school years I was continually being directed to his kindergarten, which was several suburbs away, by a different route. On two occasions, as we walked from the car to the kindergarten, passers-by asked for road instructions (it was quite a complicated suburb) and James was able to direct them, whereas I could not! By the age of eight he knew virtually every street in Adelaide and whether it was classified as a major or minor road. He had also started on Perth and Sydney street directories by this stage and used to ring up his very patient and long suffering "Nanna" and get her to join in with his route planning games. For example, they had to get from point A to point B without using major roads and using only one level crossing. She sat at the other end of the phone with her identical street directory and either helped him plan the route or was tested on her ability to come up with a solution! James also spent many hours drawing maps and freeway intersections (with overpasses etc) and later traffic light cycles.
When he was nine he became very interested in Adelaide's bus routes, and learned these all off by heart (both the route number and the roads traversed). In school holidays we had to take many long and circuitous bus trips much to the boredom and disgust of James' younger brother!
Returning to the pre-school years, the other abiding passion which developed when he was four was a love of numbers. He rapidly accumulated many complex mathematical concepts and, for about a year, used to demand sums when he first woke each morning. He then insisted that we rapidly increase the difficulty of these. His Montessori Kindergarten teacher was astounded at his ability to cope with numbers up to 1,000 when he acted as banker in a simple number game she had set up for the children. He also became very interested in mazes and number puzzles - and this interest persisted into his early school years.
Because of his ability with words and numbers James was able to start playing Monopoly when he was four and he loved it. Words like "Leicester Square" and monetary calculations involving thousands of dollars presented no problem, but peer group isolation became very apparent at this point. There were very few other four year olds who wanted or were able to play Monopoly!
Other board games then started to interest James and for many years provided a lot of stimulation and enjoyment. Over that time he accumulated a huge range as birthday and Christmas presents. Unlike many bright children, though, James was never deeply interested in jigsaws.
For the last four years or so of his life James' major passion has been cycling. This provides continual new challenges (something which he always seems to need) in the form of distances travelled, downhill speeds achieved, steepness of hills conquered etc and has the added advantage of increasing his road knowledge to encompass all the Adelaide hills and nearby country roads. In addition, he derives much enjoyment from using this knowledge to plan ride routes for others. As he is a member of a cycling club he also gains tremendously from the social interaction with other riders whose ages cover a wide spectrum.
In the midst of all his pre-school brilliance some behavioural problems began to surface. These were mainly in the form of aggressive acts towards other children but purely mischievous behaviour also occurred. All this was of great concern to us and we did a STEP Parenting course which was of some use but didn't seem to exactly address James' problems.
Prior to James starting school I visited several local schools to enquire how they would cope with a child who could already read quite well and was quite mathematically competent.
All assured me that each child was allowed to read at his/her own level and the fact that he had some number skills would be taken into account.
At this time I had no idea of the enormity of the difference between James and an "average" five year old and desperately trying not to be a pushy parent I probably didn't argue my case very well. The teachers were pleasant but, I think, presumed I was probably overstating rather than understating the situation.
I eventually opted for the closest school and James weathered two terms of Reception with some ups and downs. Despite my talk to the teacher James started bringing home very basic readers and when I eventually spoke to her again explaining that he had just completed the children's novel "Charlotte's Web" at home she was quite surprised. She had noticed James quickly scanning through the easy readers and thought he was just looking at the pictures. She had no idea that he was capable of fast silent reading.
The teacher's concept of James' ability was probably also clouded by the fact that his fine motor skills were not particularly advanced and thus his writing was very messy. In addition, he was not particularly interested in or good at drawing. Hence the presentation of his work was often poor.
In the first term of Year One James became quite disruptive in class, and also aggressive towards one particular boy. His teacher, who was a lovely lady, was very concerned and after speaking to us arranged for the Education Department Guidance Officer to call and assess James. In the meantime though, we had an interview with the Deputy Principal who said that if the Guidance Officer was not able to help with James there might be the possibility of sending him to a special school (for children with behavioural problems) which was attached to the Psychiatric branch of the Adelaide Children's Hospital. He would probably have to attend this school for a term and then be re-integrated into his local school. Naturally enough we were devastated. As my husband later wrote "we felt as though we had managed in five and a half years to bring up a violent criminal who was about to be expelled from school before he had completed one year." We did, at this point, offer the information that James seemed to be fairly bright and that his behaviour was much better if he was given stimulating intellectual material. The teacher acted on this and prior to the arrival of the Guidance Officer a few weeks later, there was some improvement in James' behaviour.
The Guidance Officer gave James an IQ test and when we were called over to the school to meet him and discuss the results he was obviously quite amazed at James' score. He was not at liberty to give us the actual number (which we later discovered to be 169) but told us that the score was four standard deviations from the mean. We then, for the first time, began to understand how very different James was from the average five year old. We were also told, much to our resentment, that James was a very "valuable resource". The Guidance Officer felt that most, if not all, of James' poor behaviour arose from frustration and that his school curriculum had to be drastically altered to cater for his intellectual needs.
James' teacher, from that point on, went out of her way to provide challenging tasks for James and another very bright lad who was in the class. Although she had no training in Gifted Education she scoured resource centres etc for material for them and even used Maths textbooks which her thirteen year old daughter was working from.
James had this teacher for Year One and Year Two and for the most part enjoyed school and prospered.
I would just like to mention several points about James and Maths in these early school years. Firstly, he had the ability (common in many gifted children) to arrive at mathematical conclusions in novel or different ways.
Secondly, he never needed to learn his times-tables by rote. During Year One he learned to construct grids of numbers from one to one hundred and fifty in different combinations of rows and columns. He would then colour all the multiples of say seven in one colour and these would of course make a particular pattern. Subsequently, he used different colours for the multiples of other numbers. He played around with varying combinations for a week or two and at the end of this time he just knew his times-tables without ever having had to recite them aloud.
He also developed a liking for particular numbers, his favourite being 256 which is 28 (two to the eighth) or 44 (four to the fourth) or 162 (sixteen squared).
In Year Three he had a conscientious but rather pedestrian teacher who had no idea what made a child like James sparkle. Although he tried to provide some extras for the bright ones, the challenging stimulation was rarely there. In fact, he became very cross with James at one stage early in the year when, bored with the simplicity of the Maths test, James gave the answer to the sum 3+4 as 64/4 (six and four quarters). We struggled on through this year with frequent trips to the school and tactful suggestions of how we thought James could be helped, while James did his best to avoid school by complaining of tummy aches each morning.
Year Four was not a lot better, and although James for the most part now behaved in school, he was dreadful to us and his younger brother on the way to and from school and at home. We also found that because of his aggressive behaviour we could not take James to social functions where other young children would be present. Thus, family barbecues and tennis days with our friends just had to cease.
Halfway through Year Four things had become so bad and he was so unhappy, angry and aggressive that we started considering shifting him to a different school as repeated approaches to the teacher and new principal were getting us nowhere. In fact, the principal told us it would be political suicide for her to initiate a special programme for an individual child.
As a preliminary to this change of school we had James assessed again by a private psychologist - not only to gain an IQ score but also to find out his levels in the various academic subjects, so we had something in writing with which to approach a new school. We also wanted some guidance in the ongoing behavioural management of James.
These tests were done when he was nine years and three months old and revealed James had a mental age of eighteen years and six months which gives a ratio IQ score of two hundred. This, of course, put James at a level which theoretically occurs only one in one million of the population and once again we had to adjust to this news.
We started approaching various different schools in our area and although most were understanding they felt there was very little they could offer because of lack of staff and resources. Eventually, we opted for a private R-12 school whose primary principal did offer some promise of extension and hopefully a two year acceleration in Maths. James started at this school at the beginning of Year Five.
Although there was a weekly withdrawal group for children talented in Maths little else seemed to be offered to James in the first few weeks. Upon contacting the school we were informed that all children were being assessed over the first month. Later on, when still nothing had occurred, and James' behaviour was deteriorating once more as the novelty of the new school wore off, we approached the school again. This time we were told that James' Maths ability placed him at a level too high for Year Seven and it was now too late for him to join Year Eight! Sensing our frustration the principal eventually approached the senior school Maths master. He offered to see James weekly at his home (he was at that stage on long service leave) and with his guidance and my husband helping at home, James worked through the Year Eight and part of the Year Nine Maths syllabus in the evenings and week-ends during the latter half of this year.
At the start of the following year (when James was beginning in Year Six), the Senior Maths master suggested that he could cross from the primary to the secondary campus and do Maths with the Year 10 students (a four year acceleration). Although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the Senior School Principal, he did eventually agree.
This was one of the best things that ever happened in James' school career. For the first time he was able to do a subject (in which he excelled) at an appropriate level and with his intellectual peers (even though they were considerably older). I think everyone was a little apprehensive initially, but the teacher reported that James fitted into the class well, participated in class discussions and was accepted by the Year Ten students. Any gaps in his knowledge were quickly filled in. Luckily for us this year level possessed a very bright group of students and James was able to continue doing Maths I and II with them for the following two years. In 1992, aged thirteen, he sat his Year Twelve Maths I and II exams and scored nineteen and twenty respectively (probably, we gather, the youngest student ever to score a twenty).
I think, also, that from the time he was radically accelerated in Maths, James realized how much brighter he was (in some subjects at least) than many of his age peers. Up till this point he was acutely aware of being different, but the difference always had only negative connotations. Now he could see that he was easily able to cope with this advanced work and it gave him some concept of where he fitted in the overall scheme of things. It probably also made the school realize that they were dealing with quite an exceptional child.
It could be argued that James might have worked through the more advanced levels on his own. However, he really didn't appreciate doing school work in out-of-school hours and by the end of several months of this when he was in Year Five, he had had enough. Also, the challenge of discussion and working with other students at the same level was of inestimable benefit to his academic enthusiasm (which had almost vanished prior to his radical acceleration in Maths). In fact, I have the feeling that without this intervention James would have dropped out of school as early as possible.
There was another secondary spin off following on from the fact that he missed many of his Year Six classes to attend all the Maths I and II lessons in the Senior School. Because he had been frequently bored in these classes before, and given that he was a very quick (albeit very untidy) worker, having to make up the work in a reduced time was actually an advantage.
At the end of Year Six (and after realizing how well he had coped with a year of senior school Maths) we approached the school again and suggested that James skip Year Seven. Both primary and secondary principals were quite happy for this to occur.
From an academic point of view James coped with the year skip quite easily, but socially I think it was a little difficult for him (not that his school social life had ever been plain sailing). While in Year Eight he also studied Year Eleven computing for one semester.
In Year Nine James won the Junior Section (for Years Eight, Nine and Ten) of the statewide IBM Maths competition and followed this in Year Ten by winning the Senior Section (for Years Eleven and Twelve). These victories (and the fact that there was some monetary reward attached to them!) boosted James' self esteem immensely.
When he reached Year Ten, having already completed Year Twelve Maths, there were obviously some gaps in James' school time table. He filled these by doing a semester each of Year Eleven Accounting and Year Eleven Economics. We also felt at this stage that James would seriously miss the intellectual challenge of Maths and so my husband approached the Maths Department of our local university and explained the situation to them. They were very helpful and he obtained interviews with a senior lecturer and the Professor. James was later taken to meet two senior lecturers who assessed his Maths ability and after further discussion it was agreed that James could do the Calculus half of the First Year Maths course. This involved him attending two lectures and one tutorial per week which he was able to fit in after school (albeit with a bit of speedy chauffeuring from his parents). James gained high distinctions throughout the year (with seemingly very little work) and then when he was in Year Eleven he was permitted to do the Algebra half of the First Year course, once again gaining high distinctions.
Also while in Year Eleven, to fill the gap left by no Maths in the school timetable, James studied Year Twelve Economics and gained a score of nineteen in the final exam.
In 1995 James was in Year Twelve and he elected to do no University work preferring to just concentrate on his school subjects. He studied Physics, Chemistry, Accounting, Geography and Information Technology (a school assessed subject).
James was permitted to include results from 1992 as well as 1995 when his university entrance score (69/70) was calculated so he was not disadvantaged in any way by the earlier acceleration.
He is now sixteen and just about to embark on an Engineering/Science double degree course and he has the advantage of having already completed the First Year Maths component.
When considering a child like James, outsiders often feel that the parents must have done a lot of pushing - perhaps forcing the child to learn to read or to learn basic Maths skills at an early age when he/she would really rather have been playing in a sandpit. In our case we certainly did not push. We were pulled. James demanded and questioned and explored and we were pulled along in his wake.
I very much enjoyed teaching both my boys all I could about the world around them but I found each of them only absorbed that which was interesting to them at the time. In James' case this was almost everything.
Intellectual "fix" for the day
I have spoken at length about James' behavioural problems. We certainly did find very early in the piece that he needed intellectual challenge every day if he was to be a "nice" person. Without his intellectual "fix" he would, as my husband once wrote, "storm around the place like a caged lion looking for a fight."
Behaviour modification techniques are commonly advocated in parenting courses and in modern primary schools. I am sure they frequently work well but I must add that in James' case they did not seem to be particularly effective. Good behaviour always occurred with intellectual stimulation, and bad behaviour was the constant accompaniment of boredom no matter how many behaviour modification techniques were brought into play. It was as though intellectual challenge was his overriding need.
I guess at this point I would like to make a plea to teachers to be on the lookout when dealing with naughty or aggressive children. You may have an exceptionally gifted child in your class who is simply signalling his or her frustration.
Acceleration versus Withdrawal Programmes
I have already stated that in James' case the best thing which ever occurred in his school career was being radically accelerated in Maths.
Prior to this James had been offered some piecemeal extension work in groups withdrawn from the normal classroom. Although these were of some value they had a number of disadvantages:
On the other hand, once James joined the Year Ten Maths class and succeeded in it, he was just considered a part of the class so that whenever it met, he was there. After a year had elapsed he was automatically promoted to Year Eleven without us having to visit the school and convince them again that this was the appropriate level.
I have already mentioned that James could find no other four year olds with whom to play Monopoly. Obviously, many of his interests, including street directories, left other children of his age totally unimpressed. This, coupled with the fact that he tended to be bossy and also liked to introduce complex rules into everyday games (a trait shared by many gifted children), meant that close friendships were few and far between. As mentioned by Gross (1992) the social isolation experienced by exceptionally gifted young people is not due so much to a lack of social ability as to a lack of intellectual peers with whom to interact.
In the last two years of school there has been some improvement. I'm not sure if this is because all students including James are approaching adulthood, or because academic excellence does not seem to be so scorned in Year Twelve when everyone is trying to do well, or because James has just learned better how to play the social game. I feel things would have been infinitely easier for him had there been a school, or even one or two classes within a school, specifically for the exceptionally gifted of this state, where he could have interacted with others of similar mental ability and age (rather than just having to be accelerated through the curriculum on his own) and where learning at one's own pace was encouraged.
I think the years between nine and fourteen were his unhappiest and we had two periods where he spoke of suicide. We sought counselling both times and were assured that he was not really contemplating the act but nevertheless there was an obvious cry for help.
Parents of gifted children often speak of how, prior to school, their children bubble over with enthusiasm and voraciously explore new topics only to have all of this stifled when they start school and are forced to conform with classroom practice geared for "average" children.
When James was intellectually challenged at school he would come home with a sparkle in his eye, chatting non-stop about some new and interesting topic. In Year Three he stopped talking about school all together and didn't resume until Year Six when he was radically accelerated in Maths.
What we should have done
It should be taken into account, however, that in 1984 when James started school there were very few teachers in SA who knew anything about Gifted Education, and even fewer who approved of acceleration. As we initially looked to teachers for guidance we were in a "no win" situation.
A Varied Academic Ability Profile
James' ability in Maths was obviously very high and was closely followed by his ability in the other Science subjects. The humanities were never his scene and writing essays, particularly about English Literature, is something he detests and has never been good at. Even back in Year One all his creative writing pieces used to consist of directions along roadways, mazes, menus, and flow charts all very sketchily turned into a "story" by a few words at the beginning or end. His teacher, while recognising the sort of child he was and tolerating this, used to say she would throw a party when James eventually wrote an imaginative story.
When one considers his ability profile it can be seen that the type of acceleration which James belatedly received, did partially cater for him. Another student with a more even profile or with peaks in the humanities area would obviously need a very different programme.
Gross, M.U.M. (1992) The use of radical acceleration in cases of extreme intellectual precocity. Gifted Child Quarterly 36(20), 90-98.
Reprinted with permission of the author. © 1996 by Wendy Townsend.
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