EARLIER THIS MONTH, a four-year-old British girl became one of the youngest people to join Mensa when she achieved an IQ score of 159 – just one point below Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.
Heidi Hankins from Winchester, now classified as a genius, taught herself how to read and was able to count to 40 at the age of two.
However, even children with exceptional intellectual abilities face challenges – personal, social and even academic. Perhaps most importantly, their abilities are often misunderstood by their peers and teachers, says Colm O’Reilly of the Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland.
O’Reilly says that gifted young people generally face a mixture of obstacles, not least of all the perception that they are all “geniuses” and widely talented academically – when, in fact, their talents can be focused in very specific areas.
Different children have different talents, O’Reilly explained. Talents can relate to a variety of areas – from mathematics, music, spatial awareness, linguistics, art and so on – but if a child does not receive support in the specific area that is needed their performance can suffer.
“We can bring together a bunch of young people interested in maths and give then tuition but, of course, it’s important that they’re interested in maths in the first place. Some kids would love taking part in an astronomy class, others just don’t see the attraction.”
CTYI assesses children aged from six to 17-years-old, and provides special workshop classes based on their talents and interests, he explained.
Not enough support
There can be a misunderstanding of what it means to be gifted – with many people unaware that a child can have trouble coping with his or her intellect.
“Awareness is the key” O’Reilly said. “It’s important that people know there is support out there. Places like CTYI are not for everyone, but it’s better to know about it than find out later when it’s too late”.
There is little support for exceptionally-abled young people in conventional schools – generally because of the perception that they will do well ‘no matter what’, he says. However, that is not the case: gifted children can be deemed to have special educational needs or learning disabilities. In other words, a child may have a natural intellectual capacity but if this is ignored, or not properly nurtured, they can miss out on developing their talents.
“If there is a lack of academic stimulation, if a child is not being challenged enough, it means they can just switch off,” O’Reilly explained.
Several problems can arise from this: a child who is bored can begin to act up in class and subsequently be labelled disruptive – sparking a negative relationship with schooling. Similarly, a child accustomed to not being challenged academically can forget how to ‘switch’ back on again when studies reach a suitable level, which can lead to intense frustration.
A stereotype exists about gifted young people – namely that they are ‘socially awkward’ and unable to communicate normally with their peers, O’Reilly says. And while that can sometimes be true, he tactfully points out that this is a charge that can be put to most teenagers – gifted or not – and that the remedy is broadly the same: giving a young person space to make friends and be themselves.
“Gifted young people are sensitive to the perception they are socially inept,” he says. “And, yes, it can be difficult for them. Their interests may be different to their age-group’s or they might have more adult tastes in clothes or music. They need to mix with people who have similar interests, so we try to create an environment where they can do that and be comfortable”.
Mainly, he says, it is the sense of community that helps: “Academics are not the most important thing in teenage years, social experience is more important to a 17-year-old,” he says. “So, here, they can make friends and talk about whatever they want – comics, girls, cars, sports, whatever – just like any other group of kids.”
Creating a nurturing space for young people’s gifts can also help with frustrations that may exist within their conventional learning environment, leading to an overall better quality of life. “Certainly, many do not feel enamoured with the education system as they feel it doesn’t cater for them in any way, so time here can help them to see beyond what is directly in front of them,” O’Reilly said.
What’s available to them?
O’Reilly says that, barring CTYI and the Dublin Science Gallery, there are limited resources available to gifted youth in Ireland. Therefore, many young people nurture their talents by pursuing their interests independently, whether through playing a musical instrument, forming a study group, or some other activity.
CTYI accepts young people from the top 5 per cent of ability outer level testing, he says. “So, to explain, if you had 100 ten-year-olds and gave them a test for their age-group, most of them would score 90 per cent or so. So, instead, we would give them a test for 13-year-olds”.
However, funding for programmes can be a problem. O’Reilly says there are inequalities regarding how money earmarked for children with special educational needs is shared out on either end of the spectrum: “Much of the resources available are put into kids in the bottom 5 per cent,” he says. “And while of course they should get attention, there also needs to be a similar modification at the top 5 per cent. Kids at the top end of the spectrum are often just left to their own devices”.
There are also challenges in helping gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds: “Disadvantaged kids are particularly at risk. There is a little bit extra funding to help out those who don’t have the money, but there should be more”.
“Middle-class kids get more opportunities – but opportunities shouldn’t just exist for those who can afford it,” he adds.
According to Mensa, there are a list of behaviours that may indicate that a child is gifted. An exceptionally-able child may display one or many of the following:
- An unusual memory
- Passing intellectual milestones early
- Reading early
- Unusual hobbies or interests or an in-depth knowledge of certain subjects
- Intolerance of other children
- An awareness of world events
- Set themselves impossibly high standards
- May be a high achiever
- Prefers to spend time with adults or in solitary pursuits
- Loves to talk
- Asks questions all the time
- Learns easily
- Developed sense of humour
- Likes to be in control
- Makes up additional rules for games
A checklist for teachers also helps educators to spot gifted children in class.