Sleeping with the enemy

20th September 1996 at 01:00
It is not easy to be a gifted child: many teeter on the brink of exclusion or expulsion from school. It is, says Sally Ballard, as if their intelligence is a threat rather than an asset. Robert could be described as every teacher's nightmare. His precocious manner, his mid-lesson questioning of teaching methods, his repartee which is quick, comic, articulate, bordering on the rude and certainly disruptive, tries the patience of the most dedicated.

Last term he gained the 12 A grades expected of him in his school report - and two suspensions. His academic future cannot afford any more slips. Next time he will be out, says his grammar school head.

This is a 15-year-old with an IQ of 142 who is teetering on the brink of make or break. Like many such children, his intelligence is his own worst enemy. It brings on snatches of bleak depression, hampers friendships with "ordinary" children and alienates some adults. It saps his motivation to excel at work which he rattles off with very adequate results in a matter of minutes.

The greatest sadness of all is that Robert doesn't even believe in his own aptitude.

It is for these children - the very able with their own special needs - that the National Association for Gifted Children is from this month aiming to raise its profile. And the National Lottery has just awarded the association a Pounds 158,000 grant to run a youth programme offering advice and support.

It is not easy being a gifted child. Far from shining like the brilliant stars they could be, many become depressed, disruptive and destructive. They are labelled the class clown, the class trouble-maker, stupid and difficult. Sometimes their brilliance is never recognised. Expulsion or exclusion from school is not uncommon.

The NAGC, on its annual shoestring grant of Pounds 21,000 from the Department for Education, Pounds 35,000 from membership and the Pounds 50,000 it has to raise itself, has for nearly 30 years helped gifted children, their parents, teachers and schools. It offers a free advice line, junior clubs, access to counsellors, educational consultant and subsidised in-service training. There is a sister organisation in Scotland.

Until now its profile has been patchy, with primary and early secondary age groups benefiting most. Now the organisation wants to spread its net further up the age range. The association's Gail Delvin-Jones says older children have just as many difficulties getting through secondary school and university.

The lottery money spread over three years will be used to set up a youth phone helpline and to employ a youth co-ordinator from January who will liaise with schools and colleges. He or she will also be responsible for setting up NAGC Virtual Branch UK, a scheme to encourage gifted children to contact each other through the Internet.

"That way these children can find someone to share some great interest they might have that nobody else they know seems interested in," says Delvin-Jones.

The NAGC, a charity whose membership represents some 1,800 families and 200 schools and colleges, hopes to convince headteachers and governors of the benefits of membership. It could include, for example, training days to help teachers enrich the curriculum for gifted children and recognise the warning signs that a difficult child may be exceptionally bright. The association also wants to encourage direct contact with schools to discuss individual children's needs.

"We need to get training sorted so that teachers know that these children exist and not to be scared of them. We need to see flexibility in schools so the children don't have to do everything by age. Acceleration is not greatly favoured as although bright children can have high IQs, they can be emotionally mixed up," says Delvin-Jones.

"Giftedness is supposed to be wonderful but in the end some children don't have anything at all. It can become a great problem. Some teachers feel very, very threatened by it. The child does not have the tact born out of experience to be able to handle situations; other kids leave them out because they are seen as a know-all; they can be seen as bossy because no one will play by their set of rules. Girls in this situation tend to sit quietly and under-achieve while the boys will cause trouble."

But she says there are some gifted children who "fit in anywhere. Somehow they have managed to gain an inner strength and self belief, and are looked up to rather than ostracised. But rarely do we get the happy ones; generally parents have to be in a bad way to contact us."

The charity ChildLine supports the idea of a phone line targeted at bright children. A recent survey showed that many teenagers felt under unbearable pressure - 79 per cent worried more about exams and school work than about anything else.

Natasha Finlayson, ChildLine spokeswoman, says these children need help with all sorts of things as much as other children - "often their problems are compounded by their intelligence".

Difficulties often start when a gifted child, thrilled with the idea of starting school, is disappointed by what is on offer. Jane was told by her primary teacher to modify her "grown up and complicated" language because the other children in the class would not be able to understand her. Philip was not allowed access to reference books and encyclopedias which he had read avidly before starting school as the material was felt to be "too advanced". He was offered the school's reading scheme instead in which he had little interest.

One headteacher told John's parents to make his home life less interesting so he would not be so bored at school.

Kate, a teenager, had been excluded from school three times for bullying, kicking and fighting - a catalogue of behavioural problems. She was referred to one of the NAGC's 14 Relate-trained volunteer counsellors and has now been offered a place at Oxford University. "Just having her abilities recognised was all she needed. She didn't feel anybody valued her," says Delvin-Jones.

But it is not just the gifted child who has a problem. Parents and other children in the family can also suffer. The gifted child can bring emotional chaos, unhappiness and disruption to their own home. They are striving to find an inner contentment and direction in their lives that the average child does not consider looking for until late adolescence.

NAGC cites examples of children as young as six contemplating suicide. They have intelligence that far outstrips their peers, the perception of an adult and yet the sensitiveness of a child. Such a combination of abilities can seem more of a threat than an asset.

But wasting such assets has national implications too: latest Government figures show that the number of British school-age children with IQs in the top 2 per cent bracket is 166,380.

Sally Ballard has three children aged 10, 13 and 16 who are members of the NAGC. In preparation for its 30th anniversay next year the association is trying to trace former child members to see how life and their intelligence has treated them.

Contact NAGC, National Centre for Children with High Abilities and Talents, Elder House, Milton Keynes MK9 1LR. Tel: 01908 673677


Membership or help from the association is not based on the child's IQ. The charity does not draw a distinction between able, bright and gifted; it takes the attitude that many bright children have problems and the higher the IQ, the more problems the child is likely to have. Instead it suggests that parents and teachers look out for certain types of behaviour which might indicate the child is very able or gifted: * walked and talked early * never stops asking questions * read from an early age * has an extensive vocabulary * quickly grasps new ideas * shows keen powers of observation and reasoning * has never needed much sleep * pays extraordinary attention to detail * has great physical and mental energy.

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