Sunday, 5 May 2013

Parenting a gifted teenager

Last Friday was a really strange evening. Son had spent the early part of the week sitting a scholarship exam at a school where 'it's OK to be an egg-head'.

After a test and interview two years ago for which he received no coaching he had been offered a place at the school subject to a 'common entrance exam'. It means the chances of him failing to gain admission were very remote.

As he is miles ahead of his mates at current school, he decided to sit the scholarship exam, to find out where he stood in his ability.

He did receive some coaching this time from his school teachers. Their responsibility was to get the pupils to the school of their choice. However the 'school of their choice' was decided in conjunction with the Headmaster, the teaching staff and parents.

The Headmaster would not have supported our son's application for a sports scholarship, for example.

One of the most popular posts on this blog is that of raising a gifted child.

That gifted child is now a teenager. Ooh-aah!

When 'trouble' began due to his inability to cope with the slowness of lessons, I put my career on hold for the third time.

For a year or two we did not discuss schoolwork AT ALL. My 'job' was to debrief him straight after school.

'Tell me three things that made you happy at school.' Sometimes he struggled, but I helped him to see the good side of experiences. Only then was he allowed to tell me what was so wrong/bad at school.

Bed-time: I went through an emotions check-list with him every day, to help him identify what he was feeling and talked about how he coped with it. Did he do well or did he do bad, and what he could do better the next time.

He often descended/crumpled/disintegrated into an inexplicable knot of incoherent mumblings about life and how it was unfair to him. There were times I could not 'reach' him at all. Very (very) dark times.

It was tedious. It was not something I could farm out to an employee. Still, slowly we noticed that there were more good times than bad times. He was clearly maturing. His emotions were catching up with his mind. His confidence grew.

At the end of what we call Year 6, when he had just turned 11, he was invited to take a Maths Challenge with the oldest boys in school. Knowing that he would not take part if he were the only Year 6 boy, the teacher wisely invited two other Year 6 boys to take part as well.

The most able mathematicians from Years 6, 7 (aged 12) and 8 (aged 13) took part. He managed to beat the top Year 8 boy. The teacher approached me to say, 'We have discussed amongst the staff, and with your and your husband's permission, we are going to move him up one year to do Maths next year.'

All the staff knew how I was against 'accelerating': making him learn the syllabus of a higher grade earlier. They have our permission to 'extend' him but not accelerate. Because he would be bored again the following year if he were merely accelerated.

Extension was much harder work for the teachers. They have to find a different type of work for him to do. But I heard him moan so much about Maths that I jumped at the chance for him to skip Year 7 Maths. I was assured that when he goes to Year 8, he would be found suitably challenging Maths to do.

It was with some apprehension -- to us, his teachers, and himself -- when he joined Year 8 in Maths. But he soon proved himself, always scoring well enough to rank amongst the top three. And the Year 8 boys? They loved him. (One boy kept copying answers from him.)

He became good friends with a couple of the older boys and was sad when they left for senior school. That year he also starred in the school play, speaking, singing and dancing with great confidence.

And just as we thought, 'Ah bad times are over,' it hit.

Just after this time last year, life was the pits.

I had anticipated difficulties in the run-up to his teenage years, but when they happened, it knocked us out for six. He had just turned 12. He was miserable. I was miserable. His dad was miserable.

The problem was his emotional development could not keep up with his intellectual growth. His mind was making him ask those questions we all ask come adolescence, but his emotions did not yet have the range and depth to cope with the answers. It was HELL.

We prayed. Family prayed. Friends prayed. How could bad things happen to good Christian people?

We sought professional help. And we, thank God, was led to good professional help.

My son needed not a psychiatrist but someone outside the family to talk about these things. You know when I was a teen I could not tell my parents a lot of things. I talked instead to teachers and church counsellors, older siblings and aunties.

My poor child does not have older siblings or even an auntie or uncle he could turn to where we live. So we had to find him a surrogate aunt. The fact that she is a trained counsellor helped.

As his emotional development caught up, he was back to his happy, witty self.

Part of this struggle was the exams he was scheduled to sit. We did not tell him to sit those exams. The teachers checked and the counsellor checked. My son was the one who wanted to do those exams. We kept saying, 'Forget those exams. Just sit the ordinary exams.'

But he wanted to do the scholarship ones.

And here's the catch. These scholarship exams do not test knowledge. They tell us right from the start it is not that sort of exam that you can study for.

Knowledge, comprehension, application, these are the lower-order types of knowledge according to Bloom's typology of knowledge. The scholarship exams require him to analyze, synthesize and evaluate.

Translation: It's no good knowing all the elements in the Periodic table, all the names of rivers and their tributaries, etc. That is knowledge, knowing facts, factoids, trivia. We have the internet to check knowledge, but what can one do with this knowledge?

When the teachers gave him scholarship exam papers to 'try' at home, he was stunned that he could not answer the questions. The answers could not be found in the text, between the lines, etc. He needed to evaluate, form an opinion, and he was not used to doing that.

Over the year he realized that often there were no single correct answers to these questions. We used the term 'open-ended'. He could be as simplistic or complex in giving answers.

Of course he needed to know the knowledge as well, but knowledge is not good enough for this scholarship exam.

So it was that when this time last week (Sunday) we dropped him at the House where he has already got a place, he was cool as a cucumber, totally relaxed.

Monday he was told at the start of the exam, "We do not want to know what you know. We want to know what you think." He had more than six hours of exam in one day.

Tuesday he turned 13 without any fanfare. Interview and audition.

Wednesday evening he was a happy bunny when we picked him up. He had made friends, learned that watching football on TV could be fun, and enjoyed (enjoyed!) sitting those exams. He decided that he would also be happy to be an ordinary student because the boys at this House were so cool.

Last Friday: we were told that successful candidates would be notified by phone after 6pm. We waited, a bottle of champagne was being chilled for the occasion.

No phone call. 6.30pm I said to son, "That's it. I don't think you got in."

"That's OK, Mum. I enjoyed it, any way."

We cooked, ate, rationalized. (Honestly I could not believe that my son did not make the cut.) Ah, the non-scholar House would be more fun. The Master is in charge of hockey. Perfect for our son (who incidentally won the 'Most Improved Player' in hockey this year).

We sat down to watch TV at about 9pm. Phone rang. Went dead. Phone rang again. Husband took the call and walked away.

When he eventually came back he disclosed it was the hockey-playing Master of the House that son was staying in. He rang to say how sorry he was that son will not be in his House come September.

Why? My husband asked.

"O! Haven't you heard? He's been given a scholarship."

All hell broke loose. My son 'danced his epic dance of danceness'.

Later on I emailed the Master of the scholars house, giving him our phone number. He rang back straightaway. He had been calling the wrong number.

We slept very little that night. Adrenaline on overdrive.

So for parents of gifted children out there, be prepared for that transition to teenagerhood. Don't give up on them. Give them someone they trust they can talk to.

Being a teenager is difficult enough. Being a gifted teenager ... well ... if you are/were one, feel free to add your thoughts.

No comments: