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When a gift is a burden

Date

Melissa Conley Tyler

Pushy parents of gifted kids only want their children's needs to be taken seriously.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

LAST year I was one of a group of parents giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry. Parents told of their children's pain: of the almost inevitable bullying; of disengagement with school; of a six-year-old with depression and of pre-teens with suicidal thoughts. They told of being disbelieved and of hitting brick walls in the education system. They told of their delight in finding a welcoming environment where their child was ''not the only one''.

They were talking about gifted children.

In the past week the Victorian government gave its response to the parliamentary inquiry into the education of gifted and talented children, that is the 5-10 per cent of the student population that are cognitively gifted. Children who read at four or three or even two years old. Children who do Grade 6 maths in Grade 2. Children who program in Visual Basic at seven. For them, and their parents, it can seem like anything but a gift.

According to one of the parents, ''There is still the myth that if you have got a gifted child, you should be happy and you have not got any problems. There is not the understanding that they are at the other end of the normal curve and they need as much help as children at the other end.''

Parents find a system that is based on age, not ability; lack of teacher education on gifted students; and a suspicion of anything that could be labelled as elitism. It's a system that pushes them to advocate change.

According to one parent, ''What I have experienced in the education system to date is that anything I want done I have to push, and I have to volunteer … I want them to be able to tell me, 'This is what we can do'.''

The evidence to the parliamentary inquiry suggests that many schools find it difficult to respond to the needs of gifted children. Of the 116 submissions, the hardest to read are those written by children. For example, for eight-year-old Ruby, ''Being me is hard'': ''I find school boring because I already know most things that are meant to be taught … I want to learn, but I hardly ever get to.''

This makes a sad contrast with some of the submissions from teachers and principals. The Victorian Independent Education Union refers to the very concept of ''gifted and talented'' in disbelieving quotation marks throughout. The Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals is suspicious of acceleration and asserts (with no evidence) that ''selective schools and programs for gifted students may be beneficial for the individual to some limited extent but are certainly detrimental to the education system as a whole''. These views contrast strongly with the submissions of their respective parent groups: according to the Victorian Catholic Schools Parent Body ''all children should be provided the opportunities in their school environment to fulfil their potential. This applies as much to those identified as gifted and talented as those with special needs and the vast majority that are neither.''

When it was my turn to give evidence I suggested the simple tests I use when assessing claims made about gifted education: would you say the same thing about children with disabilities? Or about children who are gifted at sport? (Sport is a great touchstone because it's an area where Australians find exceptional achievement unproblematic.)

Would you tell the parents of a profoundly disabled child that ''all children have disabilities'' so that they shouldn't expect any special treatment? This happens with gifted kids.

Would you tell a young Nathan Buckley to kick only 10 metres when he could kick 20 metres because ''that's what all the other kids can do''? This happens with gifted kids.

Would you think it was acceptable to sacrifice the welfare of children with disabilities if contact with them would help average kids? This is an argument used to campaign against academically selective schools.

The parents of gifted students just want what all parents want for their children: the opportunity for their children to learn and develop through schooling that stimulates them. What makes these parents pushy is their view that gifted children's needs are as valid as those of any other students.

The government response to the parliamentary inquiry last week accepted all but two of its recommendations. Ones that got the nod are model school policies on gifted education, identification tool kits and guidelines on acceleration and early school entry. A proposal for an online ''virtual school'' for gifted students got in-principle support. The two that weren't accepted were setting up a special gifted education unit within the department and hiring a gifted education adviser. The response argued that both of these are dealt with by whole-of-system curriculum design. Parents will worry that without a dedicated focus, gifted children will be forgotten - and again they will have to push.

Parents giving evidence to the inquiry stressed that both their advocacy and the expertise they'd built were not something they had wished but had felt pushed into. According to one, ''As a parent of gifted children, I would feel supported if my school knew what it was dealing with when it said, 'You have a gifted child', and if it knew that, it took the lead and said, 'Don't worry; we have dealt with this before. We are educated in this. We are up to date and we know what to do. You don't worry about it; you worry about parenting your gifted children. We will manage the educational side of things.' ''

Despite all the good work of the inquiry, without substantial changes in attitudes this gift may be a while coming.

Melissa Conley Tyler is the mother of two gifted children and the national executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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310 comments

  • The trouble with so- called "gifted children" is their not so gifted parents. l could read the newspaper at 3yo, add up and subtract also, could play cricket and football but l wasn't gifted and my parents weren't delusional either. The trouble these days is the benchmarks people have; what do these kids compare themselves to? other children that probably have skills that they don't. The same as the gifted parents, who probably cause the dears to suffer from depression, which everyone suffers from at times; it appears to me that depression is the new RSI.

    Commenter
    ballarat bat
    Location
    melb
    Date and time
    December 20, 2012, 9:46AM
    • Hey BB your views are extactly the problem with society.
      My kids are doing year 10 maths in grade 2, finnished reading books that most adults will never read, english grade 7 level. Yet you and society expect me to put them in a class with children who can not spell, don't know their times tablets and are on readers.
      There are a group of children probable 1% that are being neglected because some teachers struggle to believe in varying levels of intelligence at different ages.
      These same people would though Mozart, Einstein and the likes just had pushy parents time for these people to grow up and get educated

      Commenter
      md
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 10:30AM
    • @md
      I certainly hope you are allowing your children to actually BE children. Doing Year 10 Maths in Grade 2 steals a child away from being a child. As for your comments about teachers, our cultural climate only allows for teachers to be managers and not inspiring teachers so dont blame them.

      Commenter
      Gordie
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 11:36AM
    • MB it is not the teachers. They have 30 kids in a greade and may have 1 "gifted" child in the room. What do you do?
      Our kid was reading at a very high level, had a keen interest in maths and science before he went to school. His mum is a teacher and whilst I was keen for him to be advanced after the first 4 months his mum knew that there was more to his development than just school. He stayed with his age group but his mum and his teacher made sure that he had challenges, including helping his classmates. He was never bullied, never made to feel a freak and eventually ended up at Melb High. Well rounded he played sport as well as music and studied. I tend to agree that its the parents that make the gifted kids feel different. The same parents who think its the teachers responsibility. Sorry but in a class of 30 your child is not unique. The teacher is there for all and with class sizes they are they have very little tme for one on one. Thats where you the parent come in. Unless of course you are at a private school.

      Commenter
      Ladder of Chill
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 11:57AM
    • Australians pride themselves on pulling gifted/special talented people back into the pack - its called tall poppy syndrome.
      "dont give 'em a big head"
      "gee, heez arrogant"
      "yeah, sheez full of herself"
      "and heez up himself"
      "awww, dont let her get ahead of herself"
      Its an inferiority complex, that breeds ordinary living - as apposed to extrordinary living.
      WELL DONE AUSTRALIA!!....eerr, i mean NOT BAD AUSTRALIA!!

      Commenter
      lifecam
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:04PM
    • @md

      The school system hasn't failed your kid's from what I can see, as your grasp on English doesn't seem to have progressed from primary school levels.

      ...that is unless I misunderstood and you're children are reading books from Finland?

      Commenter
      @classicmrob
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:14PM
    • @md Obviously your child doesn't inherit their 'giftedness' from you. I've read & re-read your last sentence but be buggered if I can make sense of it.

      Commenter
      LucyX
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:16PM
    • @ Gordie.
      How exactly does a child, engaging their brain, and doing Year 10 math in Grade 2, "steal a child from being a child"?
      What an absolutely ridiculous comment.

      Commenter
      Mark
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:17PM
    • @Gordie - If md's kids are anything like I was as a kid, they are probably immensely grateful for the chance to do something interesting and challenging! And as far as kids being kids... it's pretty hard to have the normal kid-type social interactions when your peers are reading Enid Blyton and you're halfway through War and Peace. In fact, I thought that was one of the reasons why this article advocated special education programs for gifted kids - so that they had an opportunity to socialise with other kids their own age who had common interests, instead of having the choice to dumb down or disengage.

      @ ballarat bat - please don't blame this all on the parents. When I was 18, I had a bit of a moment and thanked my parents for not censoring my reading when I was younger. They both had fits, as they hadn't actually realised what I'd been reading all those years. And the depression has cleared up nicely (thanks for asking) now that I'm in the workforce, with an interesting and challenging job, plenty of extracurricular activities and friends who can happily hold an informed and thoughtful conversation on pretty much any topic you'd care to name :)

      Commenter
      andilee
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:21PM
    • @Gordie,
      Seriously if a child is capable of year 10 maths at year 2, then how is that ruining their childhood if they find maths at grade 2 level boring? On the contrary, forcing children - with advanced abilities - to go over and over the boring stuff isn't going to keep them happy.
      One of the big problems we have in Australia is the pathetic levels of academic achievement, that are a reflection of teaching quality as well. I feel terrible for gifted kids who are stuck in terrible schools all because there are limited resources for them. It's a waste of potential.

      Commenter
      aM
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:29PM

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