This post is of a very personal nature and one that I have considered not posting at all, probably because I know that in doing this I will be putting myself in a very vulnerable position. However, I am generally a believer that it is important to share our experiences as way of learning from one another and hopefully finding that others have had similar experiences. Having spoken to an incredibly supportive lecturer about this ‘issue’, I have been encouraged to open up and share this part of my own story.
Yesterday, we had an input about supporting the more able children in our classrooms, sometimes referred to as ‘gifted’. The National Association for Gifted Children (2010, p1) defines gifted individuals as “those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains.” Qualities that are recognisable in these children include having: high language abilities, including the ability to read before starting school (Gross, 1998); a drive to learn and a love for asking questions and absorbing knowledge (Dowling, 2002); an early ability to empathise and show sensitivity (Gross, 1989; Silverman, 1983); a good understanding of how language works and can therefore understand and use humour in a sophisticated way (Gross, 1999). Other aspects that were highlighted in the input yesterday include: excellent memory; long attention span; intense interests; vivid imagination; very concerned about fairness and justice; perfectionistic.
This is where I am wary of how to express the next section of this blog without coming across as arrogant, big-headed or seeing myself as better than others (which of course I do not, and this is probably the main reason why I have not felt able to talk to many people about this before). However, the reality is that I was one of these children who may be referred to as ‘gifted’. The purpose of this blog is not in any way to boast about this fact, rather to provide an insight into how a small percentage of children in our classes may be feeling in school but also the benefits and challenges that come with living with a high functioning brain. I hope that by being able to be open and honest in this way, that others may be able to better support ‘gifted’ children in their classes now and in the future.
I suppose I should start by saying “Welcome to my brain”- watch your step, it’s pretty crowded in here! Using humour has been my absolute saviour when navigating my way through social situations. By creating an upbeat, jolly persona that can brush off awkwardness and uncomfortable silence, and have a bit of fun, I have been able to make friends in different situations. However, one of the biggest challenges of being someone with a highly intellectual brain is often experiencing extreme feelings of loneliness. For any of my friends who happen to read this, please do not think this is anything to do with you! It is simply that because there are not many others whose brain works on ‘overtime’, as some might describe it, it can be very difficult to relate directly to other people. I have always had the ability to empathise with others and see people for who they are, however, it can be frustrating when others just ‘don’t get something’ that my brain sees as obvious. It can also appear as if I am often overly dramatic or overthink/ overcomplicate issues that others may consider to be fairly straight forward. In this respect, I often find myself holding back in social situations, as I am aware of how overwhelming I can be at times.
One of the other aspects that was highlighted in our input yesterday was that ‘gifted’ children can be overly sensitive to things. This is something I can relate to in a big way. I am someone who feels things very deeply and I am a very emotional person – something that I have learned to embrace over the years. However, it is also little things like being overly sensitive to labels on clothes, listening to music that is too loud, having my hair tied up too tight, scented candles, strong perfumes and spicy/ strong tasting foods e.g. strong cheeses. This is arguably due to the fact that because my brain is already on high alert the majority of the time, it is difficult to deal with any extra stimulants.
By this point I will have either lost your interest or you may think I am overanalysing things, so I will try my best to clearly explain how my brain may work slightly differently to my peers (again, this is not to suggest any sort of hierarchy, just to share an experience). For those of you who know me well, you will probably agree that I have a love for learning. I was one of those rare children who absolutely loved school and argued with my mum to let me go even when I was too ill! It is difficult to describe having a passion for knowledge, but I suppose it had a large influence on my decision to embark on a teaching career. I appreciate that it sounds weird and unrelatable, but this is the exact reason that I have actively avoided speaking openly about this part of who I am. Don’t get me wrong, I still loathed homework as much as the next person and I am the world’s worst procrastinator when it comes to writing assignments, but I get a lot out of intellectual discussions and the social interactions that come with them.
For that reason, I have always gotten a lot out of conversations that have taken place with adults (when I was a child) and those who have a high level of knowledge in a particular area e.g. other teachers/ lecturers. Again, this has presented itself as a challenge over the years, as those in my peer group were not as likely to want to socialise with these groups of people. This is where terms such as ‘teacher’s pet’ could have been particularly damaging if I had not used humour to cushion some verbal blows. However, I am extremely lucky to have friends in my peer group who value me as I am and really appreciate the amount of time many of them have taken to try and understand/support my complicated brain!
By focusing on some of the challenges that I have experienced, I do not want to come across as someone who is struggling or by any means ungrateful. I am extremely fortunate to have grown up in a family where I was completely valued and supported as I am. Over and above that, I was recognised for my achievements but not labelled as ‘gifted’, which was extremely important for me throughout my development. One of the big things about having a brain like this is the insane amount of pressure that I put on myself ALL the time. This is something that my parents never added to. They could have easily seen my academic potential and focused solely on that aspect of my life but instead they took a more balanced view and gave me/still give me enormous amounts of emotional support! This has allowed me to express when I am feeling overwhelmed by my own brain, which is potentially something that others struggle with.
This is a topic that I could talk about at length – it is literally my life! It is a big step forward for me in terms of opening up about who I am, and I hope it will provide a useful insight for anyone working with children who possess similar qualities. Although I do not have all the answers for how to best teach these children, I would like to finish this post with some top tips on how to make these children feel recognised and valued.
Top tips for valuing ‘gifted’ children:
1. Allow them to enquire, explore, question and further their knowledge BUT do not forget that they are children too. Allow them to be relieved from responsibility, to play, to dance to run around and to express their emotions (they may need more encouragement to do this).
2. Recognise their achievements in subtle ways without singling them out – as a looked up to adult, your praise will probably make their day if it is genuine!
3. Do not be scared of their abilities and not provide enough challenge because of your fears of not knowing all the answers – explore together.
4. Don’t label – see the child as who they are and not as their abilities. This is something that could be easily transferred to all of the children in your class.
5. Be open to conversations with parents and management about what is best for these children and please do not forget about humour and fun!
Gross, M. (1989) ‘The Pursuit of Excellence or the Search for Intimacy? The Forced Choice Dilemma of Gifted Youth’, Roeper Review, 11(4), pp. 189-194.
Gross, M. (1998) ‘The “Me” Behind the Mask: Intellectually Gifted Students and the Search for Identity’, Roeper Review, 20(3), pp. 167-174.
Gross, M. (1999) ‘Small Poppies: Highly Gifted Children in the Early Years’, Roeper Review, 21(3), pp. 207-214.
National Association for Gifted Children (2010) Redefining Giftedness for a New Century: Shifting the Paradigm. Available at: https://www.nagc.org/sites/default/files/Position%20Statement/Redefining%20Giftedness%20for%20a%20New%20Century.pdf (Accessed 23.01.18)