Like a round peg in a square hole, Eva was unable to cope with spending her school day with children who had a vastly different set of cognitive needs.When Eva Veerman was five years old, she was reading chapter books by Roald Dahl and David Walliams. She could write a creative story filling an A4 page, using correct grammar and punctuation, and complete arithmetic problems at a Year 2 level.
It was clear that Eva was gifted – but that didn’t mean she thrived at school. “Like a round peg in a square hole, she was unable to cope with spending her school day with children who had a vastly different set of cognitive challenges, maturity and needs,” says her mother, Anna Alexander-Reid. “She simply stopped communicating outside of the home environment in Year 1. This was highly distressing for her and us and left the school staff clueless and unsure of how to ‘handle’ her.”
Eva was so unhappy at school, says Anna, that she started to develop anxiety and depression. It wasn’t until she switched schools and skipped several grades, moving from pre-primary (the first year of school, equivalent to Kindergarten depending on your state) in 2014 to Year 8 in 2018 (when she should have been in Year 4), that her symptoms subsided and she started to enjoy school.
It's not a perfect arrangement, acknowledges Anna, but “it is far better, and she is not tortured or at risk of mental harm and currently will happily now attend school.”
“She simply stopped communicating outside of the home environment in Year 1. This was highly distressing for her and us and left the school staff clueless and unsure of how to ‘handle’ her.”
Eva’s experience is a common one in an education system that does not adequately cater for high ability students. Gifted kids are a special needs group, says Anna, yet they are not a priority. The assumption that they will get by at school with little support reflects “a lack of understanding of this subgroup and their diverse needs.”
Anna, the mother of four gifted children, is well accustomed to being that parent – the one that is always advocating for their kids and has a reputation for being demanding. “If you are the parent of a child that requires remediation and disability support, there is less stigma and more understanding afforded your circumstances,” she says. “If you have kids at the other end of the spectrum you can be interpreted as being greedy or self-serving, or…lucky.”
Many gifted children struggle in the education system, says Andrew Martin, Professor of Educational Psychology at UNSW. Some children suffer when their sense of self-worth is linked too closely to their academic achievements. “There's the well-known ‘big fish, little pond’ effect where we find that as high ability students move into, for example, a selective school, their self-esteem declines because they’re moving from being number one, two or three in a smaller school to number 50, 60 or 70 in a larger school,” he says. “Children have difficulty wrapping their head around that.”
Others cruise through primary and early high school, only to come unstuck in their senior years, not having developed the skills and discipline they need to apply themselves to learning properly. “Some of them don’t learn what I call the effort lesson,” says Dr. Martin.
He advocates a “differentiated instruction” model, which caters for students of all abilities in one classroom. “For high ability students…it’s not a matter of just giving more work, it's more work that is qualitatively challenging and more complex.”
Acceleration has meant Eva Veerman is finally switched on in the classroom. “The school work is finally far more complex…and demanding,” says Anna. “She has spent the year switching her learning muscle back on and learning to face problems she cannot immediately answer…It is very satisfying seeing her learning to learn.”
Gifted kids in remote areas
Lenny lives in Darwin with her husband Henri and their children Peter, 11, and Eva, nine, who are both gifted. The failure of the education system to identify her children’s learning needs and modify the curriculum saw them become bored and disinterested in class, she says. Both kids, especially Peter, often refused to go to school or looked for any excuse to stay home.
After a “long battle” and a change of school, Peter and Eva were accelerated three and two years respectively. “They are happier at school as acceleration enhances their learning experience,” says Lenny. Still, she says, “there is a lack of programs for gifted children in our local area. We have to travel interstate or overseas to access such programs, requiring a lot of time and money.” Recently Peter attended a maths camp at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in the US and the RoboCup Junior 2018 Australian National Championships in Melbourne, while Eva travelled to Brisbane for a maths camp.
Lenny is also concerned that her children have limited interaction with other high-achieving students. Peter and Eva have joined Mensa but are the only two children members in the Northern Territory.
The difficulties in negotiating the education system have inspired Lenny to complete a postgraduate degree in gifted education, “so that I can advocate for not only my children but also other children,” she says.
Social lives of gifted kids
There is more to school than academic success. Many gifted children struggle socially at school. Some, like Eva Veerman, simply don’t fit in with peers of the same age. “Specialist assessment has suggested she may always find it difficult to socially mesh due to her IQ,” says Anna, who was told that Eva may not find a social comfort zone until university. Fortunately, she is finally making friends with her Year 8 classmates. “I’m relieved she has found a few much older girls to finally enjoy conversing with and spending time at recess and lunch when she usually self-isolated for years in the school library,” says her mother.
Acceleration can have mixed results when it comes to a student’s social life, however. When he skipped grades, some of Peter’s older classmates bullied him on account of his age. After witnessing an incident, the principal agreed to accelerate Peter again, and he found a more welcoming peer group in the year above. Now in Year 9, Lenny says Peter is thriving. “His classmates respect him and admire him for not only his ability but also his values.”
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath
A new six-part SBS series Child Genius hosted by Dr Susan Carland follows the lives of Australia¹s brightest children and their families and will see them testing their abilities in maths, general knowledge, memory and language.
The quiz show will be broadcast over two weeks starting November 12.
Episodes will be aired Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm.