This is the first in what I hope will be many guest posts offering different perspectives to teachers with Exceptionally Able children in their classrooms.
Elaine Mackey writes powerfully about her experience as a parent.
I’m very new to this.
Our son’s (age 7) school suggested we have him educationally assessed, primarily to ascertain whether his behaviour problems were due to an unmet special need. We dithered and resisted but eventually acquiesced as we felt that in spite of our reluctance to ‘label’ him, we owed it to him to engage with the school, particularly as his unruly behaviour was mostly confined to the classroom and playground. We did feel that the exercise was expected to identify an AD(H)D diagnosis or something similar. Being uncomfortable with these labels and more specifically the pharmaceutical treatments that are all too common these days was only one of the many reservations we had.
So imagine our surprise and delight when we were told that he was not ‘special needs’ but ‘gifted’. It explained so much and felt like we had been given something, when we had expected to have some hopes, dreams or expectations taken away.
The initial relief was short-lived as we soon realised that this meant that he had a special need that was largely un-catered for in our education system. Had he been suffering with AD(H)D, Aspergers or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, he would qualify for resource hours or learning support. As a gifted student, he gets nothing.
I began my own education in the fields of child behaviour, dyslexia (of which our son shows signs) and giftedness. It was clear that ignoring these issues was not an option but more importantly, that they were all connected. Would this child lie on the floor in class, fail to achieve reading and writing levels in line with his obvious verbal and cognitive talents, have difficulty playing with his classmates and complain constantly of boredom if he was fully engaged and challenged?
The fact of his giftedness is the key to understanding his problems, and I was frustrated to realise that while the school wanted to help, their concern was mainly that he behave well, so that they could get on with teaching the majority of the kids. The idea that Irish schools aim to educate all abilities in one classroom is an admirable one, and this inclusiveness is all that I want for my children. In fact, the provision of support outside the classroom for other special needs children may contravene this aim, but their parents are no doubt relieved that they are being catered for, however that may be. I really believe that my son needs to learn with other children, that he can learn from them and they from him – this is not about getting him a ‘special program’ or taking up resources, but simply about his teachers understanding that he and 5% of the kids in their classes, require an adjustment in teaching, because they learn differently. Neither am I living in the mistaken belief that teachers have boundless time, energy and resources with which to do this, so I offered my help, my time, my insight into this gifted child, and continue to do so.
I prepared a behaviour plan , which, as well as helping to ease the disruption caused at times by my son, also linked in to his giftedness, his dyslexia and his peer relationships, something which we had been doing at home, without realising to. I was comforted by the reaction of the teacher, she did see all of the kids as individuals with different needs, and as far as she can, given a full class of all abilities, is working with him and with me to improve things. And it’s beginning to work. We now practice a collaborative problem solving method with my son, which involves him in solving the issues we face, and requires constant examination of the causes that lead him to misbehave or be inattentive.
The teacher and I talk regularly about his progress and his happiness and work together to keep him moving forward. One of the striking things about this approach is the project work which he is encouraged to present to his classmates. He is beginning to be respected by the other children, as an articulate and interesting person, instead of a kid they just didn’t ‘get’! It’s not a quick or an easy solution, but we have a calmer child who is happier to go to school and who is now beginning to see value in the skills and abilities that had previously alienated his peers.
Being our first child, we were surprised to learn that the intensity we had experienced in raising him thus far was not usual, though the arrival of our second and much ‘easier’ child had led us to wonder…! As parents, you give each child what they need, without question and to the best of your ability. I find it difficult to pass my children to an education system which in practice, doesn’t recognise their right to be helped fulfil their potential. So I cannot walk away. Until there is greater awareness of gifted children in the classroom I have to bring his abilities and challenges to the attention of his teachers.
Most teachers that I have come across are diligent, good-hearted and professional and some are exceptional. These are the people we need to reach with the message that gifted kids are in every school, and simply being aware of them, talking with parents and helping to steer them onto the right track will be a major change for the better.