Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A Gifted Child is a Challenge

13/01/2017: See also Garbage


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See also: Parenting a gifted teenager

A certain letter of mine was published in the Straits Times today and I am being torn to shreds by readers.

Readers of Letters to the Forum should bear in mind that writers have 400 words and often cannot dwell on related topics to make a holistic or "joined-up" argument.

Editors also make changes outside of our control so that the original intention might be obscured. Eg the third and fourth points in print were one point in the original letter: MM Lee first alerted us to our limited gene pool back in 1984. What has been done since to preserve/enhance this gene pool? Has the “foreign talent” initiative superseded this urgency?

My (subtle? rhetorical?) question  was whether politicians are now happy with just buying foreign talent instead of investing in and nurturing our own. By breaking this one point into two it sounds like I was paying homage to MM Lee. As if.

This letter was written with the purpose of reiterating a need to support parents who might wish to take a career break so that their children (of whatever ability) could benefit.

The focus was on better-educated mothers because a PhD was at the root of this controversy. Such mothers find it harder because society makes them feel they "owe" it to society not to "waste" their education. The nature of their professional jobs also makes it more difficult for them to get back to work. I am saying, let's not forget to support these parents.

I noted breast-feeding to point to how "nurture" is just as important as "nature". I did not have space to say how much we should support mothers of all education levels who breast-feed. Babies breast-fed for more than six months (or is it 12?) are some nine (NINE!) IQ points ahead of their mums.

Imagine the results if every baby born has the privilege to be breast-fed by mothers for at least a year, by mothers who are not stressed about returning to work, pumping, freezing and transporting breast milk, etc?

I also hoped to encourage more young men to marry women who happen to be better-educated. I wonder how many male readers have, hand on heart, also walked away from women simply because of the women's education. (Let him who is without any sin .... )

I did not say anything about women who refuse to marry men they deem not clever enough for them.

In short I encourage women to do their PhDs if they are so inclined. I am also aware of the issues that cleverer (and this word is used in Britain) women face in terms of marriage, having children and nurturing them.

My father had at best two years of schooling in his village before coming to Singapore from China. My mother had four years of education before it was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. They taught themselves to read the Chinese newspapers.

Would they have gone far in formal education? Precisely because of my own background I believe that giftedness is not restricted to those who have well-educated parents. I was also blessed with being nurtured by five older siblings who all did well at school.

What has been done to enhance this gene pool? Does our education system identify such gifted children who are hidden in neighbourhood schools, eg? What has happened to our meritocratic system which allowed children of factory workers, taxi-drivers, or butchers in my case, to get to university?
I made the point of my son having a high IQ. But I did not have room to say that at school he is classified as having "special education needs", like those who have dyslexia, autism, asperger's, etc.

To those who do not yet have such offspring a high IQ might seem a godsend. Let me assure you, having a child with an IQ in the "gifted", "highly gifted" or "exceptionally gifted" category is a real challenge to parents.

I think mine falls between the first and second categories (or "moderately gifted") and I thank God that he is not "exceptionally gifted".

My son exhibited quite disturbing behaviour at school when he was seven years old. We were told to engage an educational psychologist to assess him.

We did, and after careful assessment her conclusion was that he has a very high IQ (nine points above mine), a reading age about twice his real age, etc., but very poor skills in reading facial cues. But she discounted borderline Asperger's syndrome which so often comes with the territory.

Up to this point we thought, "Wow! Clever child, no problems there." We assumed that because he was so clever that he, like cream in milk, would naturally rise to the top.


I read all I could find about gifted children and helping a gifted child. Clearly this child needed a lot of help.

The good news is, four years later, he has shown great improvement and we are now confident that he would be able to cope in most new situations.

Some of the lessons I learned are:

  • their intellectual development is not in step with emotional/physical development. So while he could think through problems his fingers and fine motor skills did not develop at the same speed. Eg he came up with very convoluted story lines, but because his handwriting had not developed to the same level he could not finish writing in the given time. He hated, absolutely hated, his own handwriting which was not "perfect" enough for him. At one point he refused to write a test -- which alerted us to his special needs. In the last few years he was "invited" to join the handwriting club. He has since "graduated" and is now able to write quickly and fluently. (Some experts recommend that such children be allowed to type their exams instead or be given more time to write.)
  • they may have physical sensitivities. I have lost count of the times I've been asked to cut off clothing labels because they irritated him. He prefers to wear his socks inside out so that the seams do not bother him. He could not cope with being in a shopping centre because the echoing sounds disturbed him. Travelling in a bus with lots of other children was a torture because sounds were coming in all directions. (A friend who suffered trauma to her head has the same problem.) He felt the need to process every sound, which of course he could not. Thankfully he has learned to cope by eg focussing on one sound, one stream of conversation, but even this becomes very tiring. The GP advised using an iPod!
  • these children have an enhanced sense of right and wrong. He found it most difficult when a boy in class refused to obey instructions like sitting down. He felt it was wrong. He had come home complaining, "I learned nothing new today!!" What he did not say was this boy had disrupted the class so much he did not learn anything new and it is right that he should learn something new at school. When this boy left the school, my son became almost instantly a much happier boy.
  • I used to tell him off for being a "perfectionist". I learned from my research that he could not help it. You cannot say to a child her hair is too brown. Please make it less brown. You cannot ask a gifted child to be "less perfectionist". That's the way they function. That's the way they make sense of the world. I apologized to him and learned to accept him for what he is.
There is hope, I have learned, for such children. I spent many hours briefing and debriefing him. I began to recognize how when he is tired, when he's been "compensating" for a long time with his disappointments and frustrations, he blows up.

We had a "disaster scale" which we drew up together. It helped to remind him that things are not as bad as what he makes it out to be (gifted children suffer from extremes in emotions, every day was his "worst day of my life").

We had a debriefing routine at the end of the day, going through a checklist of emotions he went through and how he coped with it.

We "banked" good experiences so that when he had bad days we could draw on these happy memories.

I also had to supplement learning at home. Whenever he felt inclined to discuss a subject we would spend time doing this, whatever the subject.

What do you say to a six-year-old (he was six then) who wanted to discuss "artificial intelligence"? Or when he comes up with the statement "There's no right in doing wrong, and there's no wrong in doing right."???

Most of all as he moved up the grades where football prowess was not the only "social capital" on the playground, his confidence level rose.

I've lost count of the times he came home crying "We played football. Or I tried to. I was the last one to be chosen by the team captains. Nobody wanted me on their team."

I cried with him, too.

Then one day he came home to say, "We had a music quiz and I was the first one to be picked by a team captain."

Eventually the boys learned that to win a general knowledge, science, music (whatever) quiz, it's best to have him in their team.

They also started playing other sports. He discovered that he has inherited his grandfather's genes and was quite good at hockey. And he skis rather better than all his mates. (He is mix-handed which suggests that he has a more centred centre of gravity which makes slalom easier for him.) No one in the whole extended family skis.

Our son entertains us with some really good and original jokes. Unfortunately his mates at school often did not understand the word play. Now that these other boys are older, they are beginning to appreciate his sense of humour a bit better.

I am pleased that my son has a high IQ, but he is very hard work. I thank God that he is not "exceptionally gifted" with an IQ in the 160s or above ("profoundly gifted"). Such children find ordinary life even more difficult.

Clearly it was imperative for me to stay home to support him. He was more important to me than making use of my PhD.

We are also grateful to his school teachers who "extend" him in class as we are not in favour of accelerating him (skip grades). What's the point of doing 'O' Levels, say, at age 11? What does he do after that?

We want to let him enjoy being his own age, to be amongst his peers, have sleepovers with friends, etc. We only agreed to let him skip a year in Maths this year because it has come to a point where it would be cruel not to do so (having beaten the most able boys two years older than him in a national Maths competition last year). It is the subject he complains about the most. Now he's enjoying Maths again because it is a challenge again.

Over the years we have struggled to keep his emotions on an even keel. Slowly we have more calm times than tantrum/disaster/the-whole-world-is-against-me times. I think in the last year or so he has, at last, come to a kind of equilibrium. Long may it last.

The danger is that very often gifted children go unrecognized. In their frustration they begin to manifest behaviour which school teachers consider disruptive. "Why show working in Maths when I have already computed the answer in my head?" They get side-lined, labelled as lazy, uncooperative, trouble-makers, nutters, whatever.

Parents who struggle with gifted children please feel free to get in touch.

And my husband would object to being called "Caucasian". He much prefers "gwai-lo" as in my original letter.


Ken said...

Hi, after reading your story above, I realized that I'm very similar to your son. I'm very very bad at reading facial cues and body language, and often end up offending people without even knowing it. And because of this, I even have difficulties finding a girlfriend.

Also, I have the same issues as listed in the four bullet points above. But I'm already 28 now, and my parents weren't aware of these issues then.

Are there any ways to help me solve these problems as well?

I also have so many issues within me but I can't find anyone suitable to talk to. It's exactly like what you mentioned, 'What do you say to a six-year-old who wanted to discuss "artificial intelligence"?'

Lastly, I seriously find ordinary life very very difficult. Can I be "changed"/"taught" now?

By the way, my name is Ken, also a member of Mensa Singapore. Hope to get in touch with you soon.

LSP said...

Dear Ken, do note that I am neither a psychologist nor professional counsellor.
Thanks for your comment and I can only suggest the following:

(1) Join in with as many Mensa activities as you are able to. They seem fun.
(2) Make as many different kinds of friends as possible: married, single, male, female, happy friends. I believe that God made me complete, so I don’t have to go looking for “the other half”. I decided that I have to be happy as a single or I won’t be happy as part of a couple.
(3) Accept yourself for what you are: special, gifted, but for now, still trying to fit in with the rest of society.
(4) Talk to your parents. Are they now aware of the reason why you were (perhaps? I’m not assuming) quite difficult at school? Talk through these issues without apportioning blame and ask them to support you in understanding non-verbal cues.
(5) No harm in asking what people actually mean in language and gestures. Be honest. Explain that this is like “cross-cultural communication” to you. (Why do I suddenly get pictures of those characters from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?)
(6) Seek professional help. We were greatly helped by a professional. It does not imply that you are mentally ill or lacking in some way. Our psychologist, eg, gave practical advice to both the school and us. Maybe a professional counsellor or personal coach could help?
(7) Identify your special gifts. Then use these to bring lots of joy to other people. Eg do you paint, play music, do origami, perform magic, build matchstick models, cook, etc? Whatever you do, don’t stay cooped up in your room staring at a computer screen all the time.

Hope this helps.

Lila said...

I read your blog post, then I read the ST letter and the comments that followed.

I have to say that the overall tone of the two pieces was very different. I don't know how much of that is due to the necessary editing that takes place before publication in the Straits Times.

In your blog post, one can see the valid and valuable point you were trying to make, about supporting parents. This point did not come through at all in the ST version.

Many of the ST commenters said you came across as arrogant and boastful. I have to confess that that was the impression I got from the ST version too. I think it is because you unwittingly pressed a number of emotional triggers that annoy and irritate Singaporeans.

The first came immediately with the reference to the Caucasian husband. That's a strong emotional trigger; many Singaporeans still have significant post-colonial hangups. It sounded boastful. 'You sad yellow men couldn't deal with my intelligence but never mind, I got a better deal from a white man.'

(Mind you, I do think that yellow men in general do have problems accepting smart women, and that this is a serious societal problem in Singapore. The ones left on the shelf are the well-educated women and the poorly-educated men. But it wasn't really necessary to mention that your husband is white. The point is that some other men, whether black, Hispanic, purple, green or Klingon, don't have hangups about smart women. Or even yellow - Lee Kuan Yew got interested in the late Mrs Lee upon finding out that she had beaten him in school exams.)

The next section is about your son. I don't know if your very interesting comments about the challenges of raising a gifted child were in the ST version originally. But as it stands, that whole section did come out sounding boastful. Singaporeans are so competitive and this would have grated on those sensibilities.

The mention of your son's IQ was another trigger. For some reason Singaporeans are obsessed with IQ, as if it actually improves your life. But they obsess about it almost like property prices.

I was intrigued and a little worried to read in your blog post about the link between IQ and breast-feeding. If all goes according to plan, I hope to breastfeed my little girl when she arrives at the end of the year. But this is now giving me some second thoughts, because an IQ of almost 170 is going to make all our lives even more challenging.

LSP said...

Dear Lila

Thank you for your very insightful comments.

For every letter of mine that is published, about 8 go unpublished. Soon one learns to pare everything down and just make the point (usually connected points in my case).

Context is lost. Eg “he says with a wink” or that I reply “He only married me for my Singapore passport”, etc.

I chose deliberately the term “gwai-lo”, a pejorative term. “Caucasian” has quite different implications. Perhaps I should just have said “non-Singaporean”.

We had protracted discussions back in 1984 when I lamented over how I would not have been born if the “stop at two if you are not educated policy” was in place. Then and now I am arguing for more to be done to nurture what we already have, hence the note on breast-feeding.

I do not like the massive FT influx. Forty years down the road we would have an even bigger problem with ageing.

I write when I feel strongly about something, in this case Ms Sim's treatment, to support her, noting that it is probably not her fault that she does not yet have a boyfriend, based on my own experience.

Men tell me that they choose pretty wives because they want to have good-looking children. What I said about marrying clever women to get clever children is simply an extension of that. No?

I was completely taken aback by the negative response. Clearly I've lived too long away from Singapore to be unaware that children's IQ is a touchy issue. I wanted to highlight how we work with the teachers to keep him with his peer group till it became counter-productive to hold him down. That got lost, but in my own paring down.

My son looked at some comments and said, “They are all ranting at you, Mum.” I said, “Yes, but they are entitled to their opinions. This is called freedom of speech.”

As to your personal situation: breast-feeding is the best gift that parents could give their new baby. I say “parents” because both mum and dad must agree to it. My husband felt very left out in the care of our new baby.

I had not read studies about IQ and breast-fed babies then. I just wanted the best for my baby. And I was lazy. Breast-feeding is so fuss-free. We were also planning to fly when the baby was about eight months old. Breast-feeding was critical for the take-off and landing procedures because young babies cannot suck on sweets to adjust to changing cabin pressure.

An IQ of 170 will be an issue. Just think your child could be the first Nobel Prize winner from Singapore. But I can say, hand on heart, despite the heartaches we went through, our child is delightful. There were times I seriously considered home-schooling him. We were very blessed that the school saw that he was a boy worth supporting and did so in every possible way.

They time-table lessons so that he could learn with older boys. We “slow him down” by taking him out of lessons for music classes (all at school). We made it clear we did not wish him to be accelerated. We asked that he learned “around” the subject instead of just moving up the syllabus. For one year we focussed on his social skills, and not discuss school subjects at all.

But you would probably have to deal with issues like “Why must I do homework? I've already done this at school.” “Why do I have to do TWO HUNDRED of these sums?” How are grandparents, domestic helpers, other carers able to cope with this?

Be prepared to make really difficult decisions. Our view is that it is our child, if we don't do our part, how can we expect others to do their part?

I have two objectives as a parent: that when my child grows up he would (1) be an independent man able to make his way in the world, able to cook and clean for himself, etc. and (2) is able to look back to his childhood and say, hand on heart, “I enjoyed my childhood.”

Children grow up so quickly. Too quickly.

Sorry for this long answer. All the best with your pregnancy. Enjoy! (I had to restrict my reply to 4096 characters!)

Coreen said...

Hi there, I chanced upon your post researching the GEP programme after receiving news about my son's selection.

I can relate to many of your son's traits to my boy as he too constantly complained about chafing from clothing tags and how he hated his handwriting. We had years of complaints from his teachers who tell us he is disruptive in class with his warped sense of humour as well as his constant sharing of knowledge in class.

Although we realise he is advanced in certain ways, we never imagined him gifted as we come from very humble academic backgrounds. My husband only has 1 'O' level pass and I only had 5 passes that aggregated an ITE path.

And now as we finally understand that all his constant insistence on right and wrong is due to his giftedness, it is a huge sigh of relief as I worried if he might have autism as my brother and I showed clear signs but were never diagnosed.

What started off as shock last week is now slowly coming to a reasoning as I see why we should give a chance as GEP when I was so adamantly against it before. It would be unfair for him to be always singled out for not paying attention in class. In fact, we are amazed by the results he churn out yearly despite not receiving any help from school and home. And now our anxiety is slightly relieved as we come to understand better why he is how he is.

Thank you for this insightful article. I was debating earlier but have come to a more informed decision after reading your post. We are also worried that others might perceive us boastful or proud but they will never understand the other difficult quirks that come along with a gifted child.

LSP said...

Dear Coreen
Thanks for your comment.
A "gift" is something received when none is expected. "Giftedness" in children is not dictated by parents' abilities alone. I thinks it shows God is fair!!!
I wish you and your family all the best and hope that your son enjoys his GEP, and that you would also help to identify other gifted children and advise their parents.

Lisa said...

Thank you for your post! I have had all these same challenges with my son, obsession with removing clothes label, resistance to haircuts, emotional intensity and sensitivity, handwriting issues and most of all, being left out of football games in his kindergarten class (my heart broke when his teacher told me that).

We had him tested for dyslexia and found out about his giftedness. We were advised to find a school that can accommodate his needs as he will be going to P1 next year. Do you have any suggestions or advice? Not sure if MOE has anything for children at this age.

LSP said...

Dear Lisa
Just a quick response as I am due to catch a train to Oxford. Search on the internet every bit of info on parenting gifted children. Between you and your husband, be prepared to make sacrifices. BE THERE for your child. We feel that we have only one chance of getting it right. Take fewer holidays? So be it. Sorry, can't advise on Singapore schools. Perhaps a parents forum might point you somewhere. Talk to MOE as much as you can. Show evidence (my blog post?:)) Show willingness to do your part. DON'T LOSE HOPE! If you read my blog on parenting teenagers you'd find it could get worse!! But eventually their emotional development catches up. Meanwhile we just must be there to pick up the pieces, console and comfort. Contact again if you need further help. Best, sp

ES said...

Thanks for your post and I would say it is very informative to me.
I am facing with some challenges with my 6 year old son (just turned 6 in Dec 2013) and of course comes the question of whether he is different.

He started asking questions on life and death and also on sexuality. He constantly says that he has bad thoughts (sometimes good) in his mind (thinking about evil or harm falling onto people that he knows, thinking about girls and whether it is right to touch/ brush across their hands/ body, he has bad dreams about events happening and some people that he knows dying etc.). He seems to be having lots of thoughts (that I thought is a bit too abstract for a kid at his age) in his mind and he is rationalising whether it is good or bad or right or wrong. I am trying to guide him to focus on his thoughts but sometimes he says that these thoughts are just streaming into his mind, and I can feel that he is struggling , as his young mind does not have a "framework" to handle those thoughts.

He started reading at about 4 years old (recognising many words)and at 5-6 years of age, he can read short paragraphs and when I show him a letter or the papers, he can read the words (most of them) easily. For story books, he will normal silent read and you can see his eyes scanning through the sentences. He throws out some new words which I sometimes wonder where he heard/ seen it from (as I am sure I have not said those words to him before). He is also a hyperactive kid and has a good memory, able to throw out instances that happened in the past and pinpointing when and where exactly it happened. He does complains about clothes labels and seams in his socks. He seems to be alert and very sensitive to what people are saying and catches on very quickly on the context of what was being said.

Basically I am at a stage whereby I want to find out what is happening to this boy. Of course this may veer into the area of whether he's gifted but I will upfront say that I am not feeling proud or arrogant in any way even if he's proven to be gifted. More importantly, the key point in this message is for me to find out what's the sensible next step for a parent to take, so that I can find an appropriate learning route for my son, to help him grow and develop optimally.

At this juncture, I am not sure whether he has a problem. Your post contains instances that I can relate to in my interaction with my son. Hence, can you comment whether you are at this stage with your kid's development? If so, what did you do? Is there a need to bring him to a psychologist? If so, any recommendation?

Presently, I am frustrated because I am not sure what is wrong with my son and what should be my next step.

Can you please share your experience?

LSP said...

Dear ES
Thanks for comment. Do read the other replies I have made here. What many parents often worry about is to find out that their child is not only 'gifted' but also suffers autism or Asperger's, dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc. Gifted children are often 'twice exceptional' (2e). Go on, google it. Looking back I think one of the best things we've done was to pay for a private educational psychologist to assess him. Because it is only when we know what is the 'baseline' are we able to help our child. If nothing else you can go to the school/MOE and say these are your child's needs.
You refer to yourself in the singular. Is there another parent who is there to support both yourself and the child? Couples have fallen out over children with special education needs. Gifted children have special education needs, but of a different kind. There are lots of websites offering advice from parents who have struggled. Research, collate and try recommended solutions. ACCEPT your child for what he is. He wants to be perfect. You want him to be perfect. Giftedness equals 'not perfect', I'm afraid. Don't worry about grades. Focus on the shortcomings that hamper their natural gifts (eg handwriting, social skills, class behaviour). Interest him in 'outside' interests. I discovered that my son enjoyed reading philosophy with me. Morality, existentialism, theology, etc piqued his interest. If your child is gifted (and he shows many signs of this in his asynchronous development -- emotions not in sync with intellect) then your life will become a roller-coaster. Be prepared. Ups and downs, fears and intense pleasure. Hang in there, he will come good, with your support. Please get back (in a few years time?) and tell me if this helps. All best.

Theexpat Counsellors said...

Great post I must say. Simple but yet entertaining and engaging... Keep up the good work.

Child Psychologist Singapore

ES said...

It has been 3 years since my post and I thought that I share some of my experiences.

Thanks for the advice. After reading more about "2e", I was naturally worried. However, from my observation, my son doesn't fall at the extreme ends of autism, dyslexia etc. and I am very thankful for that.

He had his fair share of exchanges with his teachers when in lower primary, as he does have his own firm views and opinions about things and especially what he thinks as right or wrong. I also realised that he feels awkward in the company of his classmates who are girls and he doesn't know how to carry himself. Consequently, he will respond in a manner that often gets him into trouble. That said, he does get along fine with his classmates who are guys.

We spoke to his teachers (and I empathised with them) about his behaviour but the challenge of handling 40 other pupils in the same classroom is that the teacher will not be able to cater to this 1 boy at the expense of all the other kids. Unfortunately this is the stark reality in a classroom setting in a Primary school. I am not saying that this situation is due to anyone's fault.

He managed to get into the GEP program and we hope to see him develop further. One notable change is that his handwriting has improved and he is able to handle his temperament and hyperactivity much better now.

And yes, many ups and downs...

Unknown said...

Hi! I am so glad to come across this site. My 7yo boy has been suspected of being 2E since he was 3yo. Now that he is in Primary One, new challenges come. I am searching for strategies and ideas to help his teachers on how to handle him better. I would love to keep in touch!