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Intellectually gifted children need support of everyone to realise their potential

By Antoney Luvinzu | June 21st 2021

Teachers need to acquire essential knowledge and skills to be effective in teaching gifted and talented students. [Courtesy]

The story of five-year-old Elias Muthomi was enthralling, if not riveting. An exceptionally high level of intellectual prowess for a kid his age. His grip on matters aviation and clarity on his career choice spoke of an exceptionally gifted kid. At the tender age of two, apparently, Elias could read even without any formal learning. With the ability to comprehend material several grade levels above his age/peers, it is safe to argue that his mental ability is way beyond his age. An intellectually gifted child, for that matter.

This story brings into sharp focus our ability as a country, or lack of it thereof, to nurture exceptionally gifted children, both in terms of policy framework and resources. 

At its core, the quality of being gifted or not is a brain-based difference that contributes to our vibrant and neurodiverse world. This neurological difference means exceptionally gifted students experience a different intellectual, academic and social-emotional development trajectory than neurotypical individuals.

So what, exactly, are the pointers of an intellectually gifted child? Like most people, highly capable students are unique individuals with varied and multifaceted talents and interests. Some demonstrate mastery in multiple areas while others excel in a single subject. 

Some polished qualities exhibited by gifted children may include absorption of information quickly with few repetitions needed, ability to comprehend material several grade levels above their age peers, surprising emotional depth and sensitivity at a young age, a very strong sense of curiosity, enthusiasm about unique interests and topics, quirky/mature sense of humour, creative problem solving and imaginative expression, incredible self and/or social awareness, and an opulent awareness of global issues.

However, the balance between their social life and academic life remains an impediment to their normal growth as children, and as such should and must be handled with utmost care and expertise. Managing academics based on their intellectual ability and the social interaction at their age should be of utmost priority and clear guidelines should be placed to map it out perspicuously. 

In a 2017 research done by Catherine Wormald, a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Wollongong in Australia, she advocated that “students who are gifted have specific learning needs that require: tailored learning strategies, education supported by a challenging curriculum, teachers trained in gifted education, more exposure to students of similar ability and the opportunities for acceleration.”

These students are future leaders, problem solvers and innovators. Failing to provide an appropriate education for students who are gifted increases the risk of mental health issues, boredom, frustration, developing behavioural problems both at school and at home, consequently leading to disengagement.

Despite their impeccable abilities, they are, after all, human and kids at that. Like every other learner, gifted learners too face their fair share of challenges in learning.

Role of parents/guardians

Usually, parents/guardians are often the first to notice their child learns more rapidly, remembers more, does things in more advanced ways or learns differently from their peers. Most educators have heard a parent say: “I think my child is gifted.” And sometimes the parent is correct, sometimes not. Parents/guardians of such children have tremendous responsibility in their upbringing.

To ensure the needs of the gifted are catered for, it is imperative to recognise some of the struggles that gifted learners face and what parents can do to provide greater support to them in their educational journey. The key roles of parents and other members in the family to a gifted child are basic home experiences, love, security, understanding and acceptance.

Sometimes it could lead to personality adjustment of the other sibling(s) whose self-concept may be affected by the belief that they are the “non-gifted” one in their family to feel motivated enough to excel. In this case, parents have to establish the value of self-belief in their children and ensure a healthy relationship among the siblings is constantly maintained.

It is natural for parents to develop and facilitate the gifted child in his academic pursuits for excellence, nurture his gifts and talents when the child exhibits such potentials in an early age. However, gifted children often internalise a great sense of stress when they experience pressure from their parents and relatives that typically arise due to their giftedness.

While the abundant praise they receive can strengthen their motivation, frequent and excessive acclamations may have adverse effects on their self-belief as they become too reliant on such extrinsic motivation that they find it difficult to function without continuous praise and reinforcement.

While trying to conform to the expectations of parents and adult mentors, those with unrealistic perfectionism will attempt to achieve perfect grades or attain all aspirations and goals for fear that they would disappoint the adults who held high hopes for them, especially those with multi-potentiality. Being extremely self-critical, their self-esteem may be affected when they find it hard to respect their own mediocre performance and feeling guilty for neglecting areas where they could have done better.

Parents, therefore, have to be more aware of their children’s ability and adjust their expectations accordingly so that their gifted children will not be overly pressured to perform, and yet be able to enjoy their achievements. It is an intricate balancing act.

Giftedness is the greatest natural resource one could have. Dr Jordan Patterson, a Canadian professor of psychology, clinical psychologist, YouTube personality and author, calls it the genetic lottery.

With a good understanding of giftedness, proper and continuous nurturing and guidance from their supportive parents, gifted learners will be able to have greater motivation in what they do, realising their potentials and transforming their gifts into talents.

The teachers

Teachers need to acquire essential knowledge and skills to be effective in teaching gifted and talented students in the classroom. This knowledge is relevant for teachers of gifted and talented students because they need to respond to their students’ special requirements. Educators need to know the professional standards in their field to maintain high levels of professional competence. Applying these standards into gifted education will only be possible if teachers are informed with appropriate knowledge about gifted students’ educational needs.

It is well known that teachers have a strong influence on their students’ learning. Having a positive attitude towards their gifted students is critical to being an effective teacher for them, and teacher development can influence positive changes in teachers’ attitudes and perceptions. We must appreciate just how imperative teacher development and capacity building in gifted education is.

Professional development in gifted education should aim to provide information at a theoretical level, but also about how to apply that knowledge in practical scenarios. This is important because in many cases, theoretical professional development fails to enrich the practice level – it is more or less like motivation speech whose effect wanes off with time – and its impact in the classroom. This knowledge will influence teachers’ attitudes and decisions about which provisions might effectively address their gifted students’ needs.

Policy framework

Let’s take the case of Australia, one of the most developed countries with clear established policies and strategies to identify, understand, teach and nurture exceptionally gifted children. In the identification of gifted children, teachers plan for the fact that students who are gifted or talented in one or more domains are present in every school. These students are identified using data from a range of sources. The identification process ensures gifted and talented students are not educationally disadvantaged on the basis of racial, cultural or socio-economic background, physical or sensory disability, geographical location or gender.

A collaborative team approach is used in the management of curriculum provision to gifted and talented students to provide consistent and continuous identification processes school-wide. For gifted and talented students, teachers deliver the curriculum at a level, pace, degree of abstraction and complexity beyond learning expectations for their age peers.

Curriculum provision for gifted and talented students addresses their specific learning needs such as a faster pace, processing more complex information and use of higher-order thinking, opportunities to engage in learning with students of the same or higher ability, opportunities to undertake challenging work, which enables them to develop strategies for persevering with difficult problems. Many gifted and talented students can be catered for through differentiated teaching and learning, which responds to the diverse needs of all students in the class.

Teacher Training Programme for Gifted Education (TTPGE) in Australia is a productive initiative; especially the pedagogical qualifications of the instructors, the satisfaction of the programme and qualifications of the instructors related to the field. Gifted children need differentiated, enriched and accelerated learning experiences.

“Challenging” is the key of an effective training programme for gifted children. Brain research also supports this and suggests that learning occurs only when the brain is adequately stimulated. In 2001, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia found that 75 per cent of gifted children were unsuccessful at school and 40 per cent had left school without completing 12 years. Subsequent studies also reveal the role of educators in the development, learning, participation and success of these students. 

The earlier a child is identified, the better the opportunity to engage them in appropriate educational challenges when they start school, or even before.

In her research, Catherine Wormald states that gifted students need the opportunity to be grouped together in specialist schools or classes, providing a solution for geographically isolated students. Bringing these students together academically and geographically allows them to be challenged and stretched to reach their full potential. These students need faster-paced learning, independent, self-directed learning opportunities, complex and challenging tasks that promote higher order thinking and enhance problem-solving skills, and meaningful tasks with real-world scenarios.

When these students are academically isolated in non-selective schools, they can “dumb down” and underachieve to improve social acceptance by their peers and minimise the risk of bullying and social isolation. Grouping these students with like-minded peers of similar abilities and interests can provide important emotional and social support.

Lack clear policies

Over 30 countries have established clear policies for intellectually gifted children. Such guidelines are yet to be established in Kenya. We lack clear policies, infrastructure and qualified personnel to achieve such a dynamic and demanding initiative. There is also a noticeable gap in identifying special intellectual abilities.

As the emergence of such students continues, the government should be setting up infrastructure and establishing policies to aid in identifying, understanding, teaching and nurturing intellectually gifted children. Such children require education supported by a dynamic and flexible curriculum. Which is why the enrolment of CBC should be the perfect time to take this all important shot. The new curriculum should establish clear measures to recognise and nurture such abilities.

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