Vol. 30, Issue 8, pp. 42-49
This article by Roberta Staley describes some of the situations faced by profoundly gifted young people and their families. Staley relates many interesting anecdotes and commentaries. The article advocates for increased recognition of the importance and value of these gifted young people.
Bright light from a partly opened bedroom door slices across the hallway darkness. Paul Chan pushes the door wider to accommodate his slender frame. It's one in the morning and inside, a dark-haired boy, still hunched over his desk buried by Grade 12 textbooks and scattered papers, weeps. "Are you really sure you want to go through this?" Chan asks his 13-year-old son Paulman -- not for the first time. The boy nods, wiping away tears born of stress and fatigue. "I'm happy there, because my friends are the same. I don't feel like I'm a weirdo or a freak."
Paul Chan sighs. A few colleagues at the hospital where he works as an X-ray technician have gone so far as to accuse him of child abuse for putting his son into The Transition Program, the object of tonight's tears. Co-funded by the Vancouver School Board, the B.C. Ministry of Education and UBC, the program is a gruelling course of study that promotes early university entrance by pushing students through high school in two years. Paulman had transferred to the transition program on the UBC campus as a bespectacled 12-year-old from Maple Ridge Secondary School, where he had been taking special courses for 'gifted' kids. His classmates in the gifted program -- 15, 16 and 17 years old -- towered above him. Tiny even for 12, it wasn't the disparity in bulk that made Paulman's parents change schools. Rather, it was his intellect, which loomed large over even this precocious bunch. Acceptance into the transition program was dependent upon psychological tests to ensure Paulman was in the required 99th percentile of intelligence in reading, math and writing. No problem there: he ranked in the 99.96th percentile, putting his IQ above 160 (100 is average).
Paul and his wife Mavis Chan came to Canada in 1989 from Singapore, seeking a better life for Paulman and two older siblings Berman and Shermeen. A sharp-witted former Singapore army captain who loves the Vancouver Canucks, Paul had always emphasized balance in his children's lives. Fun, games, sports and music -- and, of course, watching the Canucks together -- were just as important as academics for his bright offspring. He took seriously colleagues' accusations that Paulman's childhood was being smothered under the weight of textbooks and exams. "I asked, 'Are we doing it for ourselves?', because sometimes parents do it for their own glory," Paul muses. "But I began to slowly understand that the alternative would have been very bad."
Paulman began university at 14 after completing the transition program. Now 15, he is entering third-year computer engineering next month at SFU. He lives at home with his parents in a modestly furnished, low-rise apartment at the foot of Burnaby Mountain, where SFU's isolated campus perches like a monastery. The teen is grateful his parents got him into the transition program -- despite late-night studying and the occasional tears. "I'm accepting of who I am," says Paulman. "I think most gifted kids -- they try to fit in and be seen as normal. That wasn't the case for me." 'Giftedness' is defined as the endowment of potentially outstanding abilities that allow a person to interact with the environment at remarkably high levels of achievement and creativity. Casually referred to as 'geniuses', 'born' artists, or 'natural' athletes, experts put them in the 98th percentile and above in intelligence. Many gifted children show extraordinary talent in a variety of areas: athletics, music, writing, art as well as academics. However, preternatural abilities may be evident in only one area, such as gymnastics.
Gifted children have long been saddled with labels, the most common being 'prodigy', which has traditionally described kids with extraordinary musical talents. A prodigy is a gifted child, but one who is highly advanced at an early age in one area. They pursue their passion with military discipline and obsessive motivation, despite sore fingers, blisters, a lack of peers, or exhaustion.
These savants will eventually find a cure for some type of cancer, or change the course of history.
The gifted see unconventional solutions to complex problems. They are society's profound philosophers, superior court judges, brilliant doctors, lawyers, politicians and scientists. "They are our future; it's worthwhile investing in them because these kids will be leaders in whatever field that they choose," says Dr. Jane Garland, director of the mood and anxieties disorders clinic at B.C.'s Children's Hospital in Vancouver.
White Rock-based Dr. Sue Jackson concurs. But there is something else Jackson, a world-renowned expert on gifted children, believes these youngsters contribute -- an elevated sense of morality. Ethical concerns obsess them; they have an unusually advanced sense of justice and fairness. Spurred by a deep imperative to do good, the gifted tend to migrate to groups whose mission is to save the planet, or whales, or bring medical care to the world's destitute, or promote human rights.
According to experts, gifted children are not 'normal' and should not be treated as such. Their intellectual needs are as great and demanding as the specialized needs of a disabled child. They shouldn't be in a regular classroom and simply handed extra work, or held up as role models to kids of more moderate intellect. Nor should they be treated as freaks of nature, something the gene pool throws up as indiscriminately and inexplicably as it does sociopaths.
Gifted children -- whose IQs range from 130 into the stratosphere -- constitute only two per cent of the population. But those in the know say their numbers are increasing, the result, in part, of improved nutrition and advances in child-rearing techniques. Early exposure to increasingly sophisticated knowledge, ideas, concepts and technology also contributes to an overall rise in intelligence among youth. As a result tests to measure intellect are being revised to adjust the standard, says Garland, who is also a clinical associate professor in UBC's department of psychiatry. And you thought it was just your imagination that kids were getting smarter.
Jerold Gerbrecht, musical director at the Vancouver Academy of Music, adds that the average student at his school would have been considered a prodigy 20 years ago. It's similar to today's Olympians. "Athletes break records that are very different from the records that were broken 20 years ago, because our training methods are superior," says Garland, an enthusiastic advocate for the gifted. "With kids, there are a lot more enrichment programs for advancing kids with different talents. But we're also making more efforts to identify these children."
Identification is key -- although experts say that 90 per cent of parents who suspect their child is gifted are correct -- but it's not straightforward, as the indicators for giftedness can be esoteric. It takes someone with awareness, sensitivity and -- in the education system -- training, to pick them out.
Gifted children are not superior to other kids; rather, they show great potential in many areas. Intense and highly energetic, they demand constant stimulation. They have extraordinary perception and capacity for complex cognitive reasoning, learning in intuitive leaps. They are deeply motivated, with a compelling drive to create. They are sensitive and possess a keen, sophisticated sense of humor, relating better to adults than to their peers. Existential concerns often overwhelm them. The seven-year-old who derides his parents for recycling, declaring it a pathetic gesture to save the planet, is not being judgmental or conceited -- or a brat -- he's just gifted.
Intelligence testing has its limits in determining giftedness as it doesn't assess areas other than intellect. Throw out the 'dumb jock' theory. Extraordinary kinesthetic abilities -- or athleticism -- also indicate giftedness. "It requires a unique brain, the ability to coordinate yourself in space, speed of decision making, capacity for muscles to be trained in complex patterns, and speed," says Garland. Think Wayne Gretzky.
Psychosocial intelligence -- the ability to lead, inspire and organize others -- also indicates giftedness. Think Pierre Trudeau.
Business savvy also signals unique intelligence. It requires a combination of people management skills, extroversion and quick decision-making abilities. Think Jimmy Pattison.
Meanwhile, visual artists, musicians, writers and actors help define our culture, expose us to beauty, act as society's moral or dissenting voice, or inspire and advance new ideas. Think Canadian architect Frank Gehry, who created the most acclaimed building of our time, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
This diverse skill set among society's brightest needs to be recognized and cultivated. "We need that balance of talent," says Garland. "What I worry about is that kids with potential talent -- even the ability to build things with their hands -- don't get recognized. They're being lost in our system." Currently, the American Mensa member with the highest IQ is a bar bouncer. A good mind, as the saying goes, is a terrible thing to waste.
Without appropriate stimulation, this brainy bunch may become depressed, withdrawn or incorrigibly disruptive. Garland sees many of her young, gifted charges for the first time because parents are seeking help for behavioral problems.
Prodigy wasn't the first word that came to mind when Jackson Rue of Port Coquitlam was younger and, to put it mildly, a handful. Sturdy, with blond spiky hair, cherub cheeks and crystal blue eyes, Jackson turned nine a few weeks ago. He has been golfing since he was 6 ½. In his first 32 months of competition, the youngster tallied six holes in one (a professional golfer has a one in 15,000 chance of making a hole in one). During this time he won two international events, breaking the course record each time. Tiger Woods had only one hole in one and broke 80 once by the time he turned nine. Jackson has broken that barrier three times.
As a toddler he was aggressive toward other kids and would hit them. His dad, Doug, put Jackson into Tae Kwon Do in an effort to channel his son's intensity. It worked. Jackson's behavior improved and the self-discipline he learned keeps him focused during golf tournaments.
Jackson is committed because he loves to win. He is a perfectionist. At one rain-soaked junior tournament more reminiscent of water polo than golf, he topped a ball with an iron, sending it only a few club lengths into a puddle with an undignified plop. Bashing the club into the ground, Jackson scowled at his dad, "Why do you keep on smiling even if I hit bad shots?"
Doug Rue believes Jackson's ambition sparks such displays. "When he's not playing the way he should, if affects him emotionally. He gets pretty uptight and aggressive because he's so intense," says his dad.
When it comes to impudence, Jackson is in good company. Sir Winston Churchill's school reports reveal a willful pupil. One, dated April 1884, reads, "Very bad -- is a constant trouble to everybody."
Success like Jackson's isn't easily attained, even for a golfing wunderkind. A classic prodigy, Jackson happily smashes 400 balls during practice sessions on the driving range. His dedication continuously awes his father. "One time, when he was six, he still wanted to golf after a tournament," Doug recalls. "It was getting dark, he had the flu, and finally, on the 14th hole, he decided to head back to the clubhouse. He had been golfing more than eight hours. It was the only time he quit."
Rebellion and aggression isn't unusual among the gifted, especially among boys, says Helene Giroux, executive director and founder of the Choice School for Gifted Children Society in Richmond. When young males' needs aren't met, they become angry and emotional, and act out, Giroux explains. Gifted girls, on the other hand, tend to become more introverted, and their intellectual superiority goes unrecognized and therefore uncultivated, an unfortunate fate.
Giroux believes that many of the mothers whose children attend her acclaimed school were gifted youngsters. They are willing to pay the $8,000-a-year tuition to ensure their offspring don't languish in the public school system as they did.
Giroux allows kids to accelerate -- rapidly -- through the grades, something that became virtually anathema within public schools in the last generation. (Educators say acceleration improves motivation, confidence and scholarship and prevents lazy study habits among the gifted.) The required curriculum is covered in 60 per cent of the time. Every child is on an individual education plan, allowing each to progress at his or her own pace. Age groups are taught together. Some six-year-olds are working at a Grade 1 level, others Grade 2, 3 or 4. Classes are about half the size of those in public schools, allowing teachers to juggle these diverse demands.
The other 40 per cent of the time kids work at an advanced curriculum in subjects such as literature or math. The school also offers advanced physical education, music, or language study. The highest level of enrichment is a program called, appropriately, Passions. Youngsters may focus upon the one thing they are the most passionate about, be it dinosaurs, computers, science, or dogs and cats. One child turned her love of animals into saving endangered species through work with the World Wildlife Fund. By age 12, she was assisting at a vet clinic and is now headed for veterinarian school, says Giroux.
The Vancouver School Board runs two special programs for the estimated 1,400 to 1,600 gifted children in the city's public system. Grades 3 to 7 attend Challenge Centres, which are half-day sessions for, at most, 10 children a class. Eight city schools offer this specialized program. Grades 5 to 7 students can attend multi-age 'cluster classes', comprising a maximum of 20 pupils. The next step for gifted kids entering high school is The Transition Program Paulman Chan attended at UBC.
Experts believe there is too little support for gifted kids in B.C. Victoria currently allots about $430 a year extra funding for each of the estimated two per cent of gifted children in the public school system. Provincial budget cuts to the school system loom large, and next year schools receive a lump sum to spend as they see fit, according to the Ministry of Education. Funds will not be earmarked for challenge programs for the gifted, sparking worries that money will be used in other areas more affected by the shortfall.
Already, experts say the current $430 allotment is insufficient -- not even covering the cost of psychological testing ($500 to $1,000) needed to assess a child's level of intelligence to properly tailor an individualized education plan. "Lots of bright kids with talent lose their drive because they're in a system that homogenizes what they're doing," says Garland. "Take someone with high mathematical abilities. If they have to plod through the math curriculum, you will bore them and suppress that talent. They need the opportunity to do it at a high level."
Garland believes specially-tailored programs serve more than just those in the 98th percentile and above in smarts. Some children may be in the top two per cent in one area only, such as music, but are in the top 10 per cent in other areas. These kids can handle accelerated, compacted academic programs, thus freeing up time to pursue their special talent, she says.
There is another alternative for gifted children -- home schooling. Fifteen-year-old Michal Suchanek of North Vancouver is one child whose parents began teaching him at home to accommodate a career in acting, a talent that became obvious when he was an infant. Baby Michal would imitate the creak of opening doors so precisely it was like living in a haunted house. His repertoire included emergency sirens; parents Iveta and Michal Sr. would peer outside to catch a glimpse of a passing -- but nonexistent -- ambulance.
By age four Michal was humiliating his parents' friends at chess. Upon the family's arrival in Canada from Slovakia a year later, Michal became fluent in English in a few months. His imitative powers didn't decline. At age nine he clinched his first movie role at an audition by parroting a Robin Williams monologue from Mrs. Doubtfire. Meanwhile, Michal was the worm in the teacher's apple. Flying through his schoolwork, the bored youngster wandered around, chattering with peers, who were still struggling through assignments.
Michal landed leading roles in movies and TV that took him to Hollywood for weeks at a time. Returning home, "he spent more time trying to figure out what he missed at school, as opposed to catching up," says his dad. The only alternative seemed to be home schooling through correspondence. (Michal is consistently an A student.) Iveta, a former professional dancer with a master's degree in architecture, stayed at home to teach her prodigy and his older sister Lucia, now 17, who was also breezing through her studies.
The Lower Mainland is an expensive place to live for a one-income family, especially when two members -- Michal and his mom -- live in Los Angeles up to four months of the year. The house they bought with money Michal lent them has been in a shambles following a renovation project put on hold when funds ran short.
"It's stressful being the only one bringing in the money," says Michal's father, who worked at a printing company until being laid off nearly a year ago. He now works as a consultant, but lines of worry crease his face, making him appear older than 42. "And I'm envious of the memories they have of being on set," adds Michal Sr., a former thespian with a master's degree in the performing arts.
Iveta, sipping black instant coffee, turns to her husband. "On the other hand, money is not everything; somehow we survive."
Young Michal, an Emmy nominee who won a Hollywood Young Artist Award last year, worries about his parents' sacrifices. He freely lends them money, which they pay back -- with interest. "I tell my mom that she can go back to work if she wants; I could take a cab to my auditions."
Iveta responds, "Sometimes it gets to me, but this is what I want -- probably."
Ian Wood's mom, Shirley, has also chosen to home school. Ian, 10, whom the media has dubbed 'mini-Mozart,' has played with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra a dozen times and is a soloist this year with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He plays piano and violin and began composing music several years ago. Dozens of trophies frame the fireplace at the Wood's Burnaby home, most notably the 2001 Canadian Music National Competition, where Ian placed first in piano and second in violin. His talent outstrips an elfin frame. Ian's hands still can't encompass an octave on the piano.
He has always been an overachiever. By age five he was swimming 80 laps at a time, and when he took up figure skating, he aspired to go to the Olympics. In school, he is at a Grade 7 level, Grade 8 in math. He loves reading Hamlet. But it is music that truly inspires this shy youngster.
His mother worries whether Ian and his eight-year-old sister Caitlin, also a home-schooled piano and violin prodigy, are receiving proper socialization. She tries to ensure they continue friendships with peers, attend birthday parties or simply enjoy playtime with neighborhood pals.
It's a legitimate worry, says Dr. Sue Jackson. Many bright kids and adolescents become over-intellectualized, to the detriment of their emotional, social or physical development. Think of the stereotypical computer nerd, who can't hit a baseball to save his life, or becomes speechless when confronted by a girl. Feeling like a freak -- feeling misunderstood -- can twist an adolescent emotionally. Experts call this imbalance 'asynchronicity'. "Over-intellectualization isn't healthy," says Jackson, who is working with an international committee trying to understand moral, social and emotional development of these complex youngsters. "It's a real problem for gifted kids. I insist that they get involved in a program that increases their body awareness so they develop far better in an emotional sense."
Shirley understands that it is not fair to expect Ian to remain suspended in the aspic of his talent. Ian may indeed be the next Mozart, but Shirley will not force this destiny upon him. She will continue to home school, solicit grandparents for financial help and apply for scholarships to help pay for the best teachers -- but only if Ian continues to love music. "If you push too hard, you can push the love away," Shirley says.
Society and Parents are rarely prepared to deal with the demands of rearing these little geniuses. The Chan, Suchanek, Wood and Rue families have all struggled financially to meet their children's needs. Doug Rue has gone deeply into debt trying to pay for the best coaches and travel to golf competitions. The Wood and Suchanek moms have put careers on hold to home school, saving their kids from the plodding ennui of the public school curriculum.
They see their most important responsibility as ensuring their offspring grow into happy, well rounded adults who like themselves and treat others with respect and empathy. And that challenge is just as great -- neither more nor less -- for parents of children everywhere.
Brains by Numbers
Gifted children are identified according to the following criteria:
Mildly gifted: 115-129 IQ One out of every 40 individuals
Moderately gifted: 130-144 IQ One out of every 1,000 individuals
Highly gifted: 145-159 IQ One out of 10,000 individuals
Exceptionally gifted: 160-179 IQ One out of 1,000,000 individuals
Profoundly gifted: 180 IQ and above Less than one individual in 1,000,000
Does Your Child Fit?
The following are general characteristics of the gifted. No child will be outstanding in all areas.
- Shows superior reasoning powers. Has outstanding problem-solving ability.
- Shows persistent intellectual curiosity. Asks probing questions and is exceptionally interested in the nature of man and the universe.
- Has a wide range of interests, often of an intellectual nature, and develops one or more interests in considerable depth.
- Is markedly superior in the quality and quantity of the written word and vocabulary and is interested in the subtleties of words and word usage.
- Reads avidly and absorbs information in books well beyond his or her years.
- Learns quickly and retains what is learned. Recalls important details, concepts and principles.
- Shows insight into arithmetical problems and concepts requiring careful reasoning.
- Shows creative ability and imaginative expression in music, art, dance or drama. Has finesse and sensitivity in rhythm, movement and bodily control.
- Sustains concentration for lengthy periods and shows independence in classroom work.
- Sets high standards and is self-critical in evaluating and correcting his or her own efforts.
- Shows social poise and communicates with adults in a mature manner.
- Shows initiative and originality in intellectual work. Is flexible in thinking and considers problems from a number of viewpoints.
- Observes keenly and is responsive to new ideas.
- Gets excitement and pleasure from intellectual challenge. Has a subtle and keen sense of humor.
Roberta Staley is mom to a four-year-old Alexander (the Great) who, while he may or not be gifted, will always be a gift.