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Raising a gifted child

If you think parenting a child with a high IQ would simply mean outstanding report cards and guaranteed success in later life, think again. As with any special learning need, gifted ability is fraught with its own set of trials

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As with any special learning need, gifted ability is fraught with its own set of trials.
Aquarius

Which parent hasn't looked at their one-year-old holding a book the right way up and thought, "My child is very advanced"? With the great love that we have for our children often comes a slightly biased view of their intelligence.

By the time the bonny, babbling baby grows up to become a pre-schooler, his parents have usually come round to the fact that their child is just like every other child quick to learn some things, slower at others. A normal, average child with his own strengths and weaknesses. But what if your child isn't like every other child?

Mother-of-two Amelia* didn't think anything of it when a friend commented on her four-year-old son's maths capabilities, but looking back, it was one of the first indicators that there was something special going on inside her son's head. "We were at a birthday party when my friend came over to me and said, 'Your son Jeremy is adding up really big numbers over here," says Amelia.

Two years later, after much speculation and suggestions of autism and Asperger's Syndrome, Jeremy was tested and found to be intellectually gifted, with an IQ of 142.

"It was quite a shock," says Amelia. "We certainly weren't expecting it. Jeremy didn't start walking until he was about 15 months and his speech was delayed but when he did start talking, he got the words right first time. The fact that he could read early, and do difficult sums I just thought he was bright for a child of his age."

There is a big difference between being bright and being gifted, although the two are often confused. Jo Jewell, school counsellor at Dubai British School, says, "A lot of bright children will be high achievers across the board, while a gifted child will usually be exceptional in one area, such as music, drama, sport, or a particular academic subject, like physics. Gifted children will often have subjects or areas they don't excel in to, for example, a child could be extremely gifted in music but dyslexic; or a gifted sportsman might struggle academically."

Devika Singh, psychologist at Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre, says, "It's important to remember that IQ is only one measure of intelligence, but most gifted children have a higher IQ than more than 95 per cent of children of the same age." Put simply, if your three-year-old knows all the words to every Disney song ever written, he is probably bright. If your three-year-old is picking out Disney tunes on his Fisher Price keyboard, asking to watch his Disney films in a foreign language, or ignoring Disney films in favour of books on astronomy, he may be gifted.

Alison Schofield, educational consultant at Phoenix Consulting, says, "Gifted children usually show signs from a very young age. Parents may pick up on it but not know the depths." Singh agrees. "Early intervention and awareness of the situation is critical as there are strategies which can help gifted children from a young age."

Whether you pick up on it yourself as a parent, or a teacher notices that your child is excelling but bored, gifted children are normally spotted by the time they reach the age of eight or nine. If you think your child is gifted, talented, or showing signs of learning differently from other children, it is a good idea to get them tested so you can find out exactly how to support them.

"An evaluation will usually start with a psychoeducational assessment with a psychologist, which takes about six to nine hours. This assesses cognitive abilities, different areas of functioning, and compares the results to their age range. Then I always recommend an emotional intelligence assessment to check how the child is developing emotionally. When I do these tests, parents can be disappointed to find out that their child is 'just above average', but they should be pleased, as with gifted children, there are often other challenges," Singh says.

Having a gifted child does not mean that parenting of that child will be any easier. In fact, the opposite could be true. Like other special learning abilities, high intelligence brings with it many social, emotional, educational and behavioural strains, which need care, monitoring and attention. According to Singh, it is often when these challenges rear their difficult heads that light is shed on a child's ability.

Gifted children often struggle with social interaction with their peers, which can result in a misdiagnosis of autism. They can experience intense frustration, for example, if people don't agree with their ideas, if others don't understand something they find very simple, or if they feel misunderstood.

They often struggle with being supervised and very often feel bored and under-stimulated. All of these things can set them apart from their peers and interrupt their bonding within the social group. At this early age, just being different from the norm can be enough to make a child feel excluded or alone.

"Using cognitive behavioural technique, we can help children monitor their conversation topics at school so they can learn to bring their interests and questions home and talk to their parents about them instead," says Singh.

Dealing with social problems is of utmost importance as the stigma of being different can cause a child to hide their special ability.

Jeremy's mother Amelia can vouch for this. "Jeremy has social communication issues and difficulty making friends, mainly because he prefers reading to socialising. I know that he makes mistakes in class sometimes to get in with his peers and appear more 'normal'. A big danger with gifted children is that they can lose self-esteem as a result of bullying and social isolation, and turn their backs on their ability."

Lesley Sword is the director of Gifted & Creative Services Australia (www.giftedservices.com.au). In her advice on Parenting Emotionally Intense Gifted Children, Sword says, "Many people seem unaware that intense emotions are part of giftedness. Feeling everything more deeply than others do is both painful and frightening. Emotionally intense gifted people often experience intense inner conflict, self-criticism, anxiety and feelings of inferiority."

Sword explains that this is not a symptom of emotional immaturity or instability, but a result of having more ability to feel, and to feel in a different way from other people."

According to Sword, emotionally intense gifted children may also be hypersensitive and perceptive, and more analytical. "Sensitivity to society's injustice and hypocrisy can lead many emotionally intense gifted children to feel despair and cynicism at very young ages."

Sword advises parents to accept, validate and listen to their child's emotional issues and to remember that, although they may be very smart, they're still children. "Remember that they are children first and gifted second. Play, fun and leisure activities are essential for strong emotional development."

According to Singh, there is also a strong link between gifted ability and behavioural issues, like ADD, lack of organisation and problems with time-management, disruptive behaviour and attention-seeking ways.

The world of schooling and education poses its own problems for gifted children, and for teachers of gifted children who have to find a way to cater for all abilities in one lesson.

Jewell says, "It's very challenging for teachers to differentiate lesson content to suit everyone. It really needs schools to be flexible. For example, we had a Year Three boy who excelled in maths, so we worked out our timetables so that he could attend Year Four maths lessons."

Some teachers will give the gifted child more of the same work to do, or harder versions of the same exercise, which is not always beneficial to a gifted child - especially if they suffer from attention problems. Other teachers will make the gifted child the helper, asking them to help out peers who are struggling with the work, but Schofield says this can actually stunt a gifted child's development.

Schofield advises problem-based activities and projects, which require research. Similarly, Singh suggests asking your child's teacher to have a special folder of activities on topics that interest your child, so that when they have finished their work, they can get something stimulating and engaging from their folder to work on.

Educational challenges can spread over into home life, when their thirst for knowledge propels them to constantly ask questions. If you find yourself bombarded with curious queries, try taking it in turns with your partner to answer questions; invest in a hefty supply of resource books like encyclopedias and the Guinness Book of Records; and make the most of the internet. "His constant questions can be frustrating," says Amelia. "Sometimes I have to just say, 'I don't know the answer to that - go and research it on the internet.'"

Beyond all of the educational and professional support, however, a gifted child is just like any other, in that his primary need is a stable, loving family life. Like an unhatched egg, he is fragile, full of potential and in need of a protective, incubating period where he can grow at his own pace, learn how to be himself and experiment with his potential.

Expose your gifted child to many types of learning and skills, such as musical instruments, artistic and creative activities, and various areas of academic interest brought to life through, for example, historical castles, maps, planetariums and museums. However, a parent who is encouraging can easily turn into an overbearing parent, meaning excess pressure for the child. Jewell says, "Bear in mind that your child needs to be exposed to a whole range of things - not just the area they excel in. But remember, there is a fine line between being supportive and being pushy."

Once your child reaches a certain age, be honest with him about his abilities as he may be already wondering why he is different from his peers.

Amelia says, "I told Jeremy recently that he is gifted. I think he felt really relieved. I bought him some books about being gifted, which he understood."

Despite the challenges, the endless questions and the trips to the therapist, there are plenty of positives to having a little brain box around the house, says Amelia. "Jeremy has an amazing memory. He remembers details from years ago, so when we went back to the UK this summer it was handy because he remembered the names of the roads and which bus number we had to get on. And he always remembers where we have parked the car!"

And how does the future look for a gifted and talented nine-year-old? Surgeon? Space explorer? Chess champion? "He'll probably sit in an armchair crunching numbers all day, forgetting to eat and wash like a mad professor," laughs Amelia. "And that's fine by me." A * Name changed

Professional support

As a parent, the onus will be on you to make sure your child gets the best opportunity he can, at home and at school, to achieve his potential. Make the most of professional support and guidance available.

Specialists

Psychologists can assess your child, and give you an idea on how best to support your child. Devika Singh says, "Having a few sessions alone with the parents before you meet the child is important because the parents set the stage for success or failure. Some parents don't understand their child's gifted ability and put pressure on them by saying, 'You shouldn't be getting Bs.' They don't take into account whether the child is perhaps bullied, unhappy, or simply not interested in that subject. Also, it gives me a opportunity to do a classroom observation if the child hasn't met me yet." Devika Singh can be contacted at the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre on 04-3351200.

Educational psychologists and consultants can meet with your child's teachers and explain to them how your child learns and how they can modify lesson content to suit your child. Schofield says, "Often class teachers haven't had specific training, or don't have enough experience with gifted children to know how to support their learning." To contact Alison Schofield, e-mail admin@phoenixconsulting-uae.com.

Specialised education

Some schools have specialised programmes and departments, which cater for gifted children:

St Andrew's International School (www.british-ild.com); American Community School Sharjah (www.acssharjah.org); Deira International School (www.disdubai.ae); Dubai British School (www.dubaibritishschool.ae).

Support groups

Schofield and her colleague, Francesca McGreary, hold weekend workshops for bright and talented children, which allows them to meet each other and make friends. They are also planning to form a support group for gifted children and their families. Interested parents, teachers or specialists should visit www.phoenixconsulting-uae.com.

Common characteristics

Joan Franklin Smutny is founder and director of the Centre for Gifted at National-Louis University. Here's a list of characteristics and behaviours, which Smutny has found to be common among gifted children aged four to six.

  • Curiosity about a wide range of topics
  • Asking thoughtful questions
  • Strong use of vocabulary and complex sentence structure
  • An ability to express themselves well
  • An ability to solve problems in unique ways
  • A good memory
  • An exceptional talent in art, music, or creative dramatics
  • A vivid and original imagination
  • An ability to learn quickly and use newly learnt concepts, words or lessons in other contexts
  • An ability to order things in logical sequence
  • Ability to discuss ideas elaborately
  • Preference to work by themselves
  • Good sense of humour
  • An ability to maintain attention span
  • High level of observation skills
  • Creative ability to make up stories
  • A love for reading 
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