It is only an estimated five to seven percent of children who are considered intellectually gifted and while there are tests which can determine if your child falls into this category, Professor Shirley Kokot, an educational psychologist and president of the National Association for Gifted and Talented Children in South Africa, says that identifying the gifted child is not always necessary. “If a child is easy-going, enjoys the social life at school, loves doing well academically and has the personality to tolerate frustrations, there is often no reason to subject him to testing,” says Kokot. “It’s children who are experiencing problems at school that need to be assessed, so that the reason for their behaviour or unhappiness can be ascertained and better understood,” she adds.
Most gifted children don’t struggle socially, but the degree of giftedness plays a role in how they interact with others, says Kokot. “Some gifted children thrive in leadership roles and if they are naturally sociable and gregarious, they find great fulfilment in being respected by their peers, while others find it difficult to relate to the ‘normal’ range of people with whom they come into contact and they tend not to know how to interact,” she says.
Missing the Mark
According to Dr James Webb, clinical psychologist and author of Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults and A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, intellectually gifted children are often misdiagnosed with ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Mood Disorders, namely depression and bi-polar disorder. This stems from ignorance about specific social and emotional characteristics of gifted children, which are then mistakenly diagnosed as signs of pathology, he explains. In fact, 23 of the common markers for ADHD, expressed positively and not negatively, can also describe a gifted individual. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Although gifted children generally do well, they may show behaviours that mimic ADHD. For example, they may appear hyperactive because they ask many questions and are so excited about learning. Or, they may fail to participate in age-expected activities because of their over-focus on an area of interest. Finally, boredom can lead to inattention as well as feelings of depression.” It’s unsurprising then that the truly gifted child is not always top of his class, yet gifted children are often expected to be better than their peers at everything, something Webb cautions against. “Educators need to understand that these children cannot be brilliant at everything. A child may have an incredible vocabulary and the ability to hold her own when interacting with adults, but she’s still a child and needs to be allowed to behave like one.”
Harsh Reality on Soft Issues
When it comes to gifted children, parents need to ensure they don’t confuse intellectual ability with emotional maturity. Gifted children are fully aware they are different and often have heightened sensitivities, making them acutely aware of people talking about them, which can have a huge emotional impact.
According to Lisa van Gemert in an article written for American Mensa: “Gifted children often have different challenges than their typical learner peers. All children struggle with fitting in and finding their niche, and for most children this is about wearing the right clothes or watching the popular movies and TV shows so they can be like other children. While gifted children may not care about those things, they do care about fitting in. And what they may really want is to be directed to other children or adults who share their interests.”
Get With the Programme
Kokot stresses the importance of offering children educational challenges at their level of capability, just like you would for a talented sportsman. There are various organisations that offer special programmes for talented children. Participating in these gives them the opportunity to spend time with other gifted children, which is very important for their emotional and social development. In addition, these programmes give children the chance to satisfy their curiosity and need for mental stimulation. Ethan* is one such example. An intellectually gifted child, Ethan was interviewed for and accepted into the LEAP (Learning Extension and Acceleration Programme) class at his school in Grade 5 and now gets all the stimulation he needs and finally feels that he belongs.
Sadly, the South African curriculum does not include special programmes for gifted children and very few schools offer them. “South Africa needs educators and parents who understand giftedness and its ramifications. It is a huge tragedy that giftedness has been deleted from teachers’ training,” says Kokot. “I suggest parents of gifted children sit in the principal’s office and refuse to budge until someone takes action. Work with the teachers and offer to help in supplying additional materials for enrichment projects.” Parents of gifted children need to have tenacity, endurance and the energy to keep up with the mental gymnastics and questions of this journey.
- Mensa This is an international high-IQ society. The only qualification for membership is having an IQ in the top 2% of the population. There are Mensa chapters throughout South Africa. Visit mensa.org.za
- Gifted Children South Africa An organisation dedicated to helping parents and teachers of gifted children in South Africa. Visit giftedchildrensa.co.za or Facebook.com/GiftedChildrenSouth Africa
- Radford House A small, private primary school in Joburg, catering for the unique needs of high-potential or “gifted” learners. Visit radfordhouse.co.za for more.
* Names have been changed