We all remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the classic tale of the little girl who tries the porridge, chairs and beds in the Bears’ house until she finds what is ‘just right’ for her. Parents know there are times when a task is optimally matched to a child’s abilities, skills, interests and needs. When the task is not too hard, not too easy, but ‘just right’ for a child, excitement, engagement, absorption and completion of the task quickly follows. The look of delight on the child’s face when she finds the match that is ‘just right’ frequently illustrates the story of Goldilocks.
Child learn at different rates
Some children learn at a faster rate and are more advanced in their intellectual development than most children of a similar age. These children might start school with certain skills (e.g. reading, addition) already developed or the ability to question in an advanced manner. When schoolwork is appropriately matched to a child’s intellectual capacity, academic and practical skills, interests and current needs, a child will be fully engaged in learning.
Educational adjustments throughout school may be required in order for these children to continue to learn at an optimal level. Academic work should not be too hard or too easy, but to be ‘just right’ for these children, the work should be appropriate to the child’s higher level of ability and provide greater challenge. The child should have to stretch a little beyond their current position so that the student continues to learn new material and develop new skills.
Gifted learning needs
When children have specific learning needs, it is important for parents to advocate on their behalf. Parents of children with disabilities quickly recognize the importance of advocating for their child; familiarise themselves with the various options available; develop an understanding of their child’s personal support needs and become skilled and effective advocates.
In contrast, parents of a child with heightened abilities and advanced learning often feel uncomfortable about approaching teachers and school administrators about their child’s need for educational adjustments although they may be as far (or even further) from the mean as a child with a disability. Parents of a student who is twice-exceptional, i.e. has advanced abilities in conjunction with a disability, are more likely to advocate for their child’s disability than their heightened abilities and advanced skills, believing that areas of strength will be addressed in school, although this might not always happen.
There is a tendency to normalise our children’s behaviour so parents may not initially recognize that their child is intellectually advanced and learns differently. Once this is understood, parents frequently feel uncomfortable – unsure about the appropriate descriptors to use; whether it is appropriate to ask for different learning opportunities for their child; what educational provisions are available; what to say to teachers and administrators.
What is gifted?
The term ‘gifted’ applies to the top 10% of the population; it is not reserved for the ‘one in a million’ child. The terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ are well-established psychological and educational terms and as such, these are the most appropriate terms to use when a developmentally advanced child is identified at the 90th percentile or above in abilities or skill areas. However, there are some who misunderstand the terms and parents may be fearful of overstating their child’s abilities if s/he has not been formally identified. They ‘trip over the G word’ and cringe at using these terms with teachers, friends or family.
Thankfully, there are lots of other ways in which a child’s abilities, skills and educational needs can be described, including: developmentally advanced; high-ability, rapid learner; needs few repetitions to grasp new concepts; thrives with a high level of challenge; has completed that section of the curriculum; has previously mastered these academic skills. There are many ways to describe a child’s abilities, skills and ways of learning so parents feel more comfortable when advocating for their child.
Some have a perception that parents who request ‘more’ for a child who is already advanced in learning are being ‘pushy’ and have unreasonable expectations. This is reminiscent of the story of Oliver Twist, the child who held out his plate and asked “Please sir, I want some more” because he did not have sufficient to satisfy his appetite and meet his needs. Parents often fear that any request for ‘more’ may be met by incredulity and they could be branded as troublemakers, just as Oliver was. Parents who act as effective advocates understand that it is best not to request ‘more’ of what has already been offered, as Oliver Twist did. Gifted children need challenging academic work and will thrive when they are provided with curriculum that has been differentiated to meet their specific learning needs – and this is a provision that parents of gifted children can reasonably request.
Michele Juratowitch is Director of Clearing Skies, provides counselling and programs for gifted children, professional development for teachers and workshops for parents. Michele was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and is co-author of Make a Twist: Curriculum differentiation for gifted students.
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This article was published in Issue 8 of our print magazine, February/March 2015.