Engaging with school – A Parent’s Perspective

This is the first in what I hope will be many guest posts offering different perspectives to teachers with Exceptionally Able children in their classrooms.

Elaine Mackey writes powerfully about her experience as a parent.

I’m very new to this.
Our son’s (age 7) school suggested we have him educationally assessed, primarily to ascertain whether his behaviour problems were due to an unmet special need. We dithered and resisted but eventually acquiesced as we felt that in spite of our reluctance to ‘label’ him, we owed it to him to engage with the school, particularly as his unruly behaviour was mostly confined to the classroom and playground. We did feel that the exercise was expected to identify an AD(H)D diagnosis or something similar. Being uncomfortable with these labels and more specifically the pharmaceutical treatments that are all too common these days was only one of the many reservations we had.

So imagine our surprise and delight when we were told that he was not ‘special needs’ but ‘gifted’. It explained so much and felt like we had been given something, when we had expected to have some hopes, dreams or expectations taken away.

The initial relief was short-lived as we soon realised that this meant that he had a special need that was largely un-catered for in our education system. Had he been suffering with AD(H)D, Aspergers or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, he would qualify for resource hours or learning support. As a gifted student, he gets nothing.

I began my own education in the fields of child behaviour, dyslexia (of which our son shows signs) and giftedness. It was clear that ignoring these issues was not an option but more importantly, that they were all connected. Would this child lie on the floor in class, fail to achieve reading and writing levels in line with his obvious verbal and cognitive talents, have difficulty playing with his classmates and complain constantly of boredom if he was fully engaged and challenged?

The fact of his giftedness is the key to understanding his problems, and I was frustrated to realise that while the school wanted to help, their concern was mainly that he behave well, so that they could get on with teaching the majority of the kids. The idea that Irish schools aim to educate all abilities in one classroom is an admirable one, and this inclusiveness is all that I want for my children. In fact, the provision of support outside the classroom for other special needs children may contravene this aim, but their parents are no doubt relieved that they are being catered for, however that may be. I really believe that my son needs to learn with other children, that he can learn from them and they from him – this is not about getting him a ‘special program’ or taking up resources, but simply about his teachers understanding that he and 5% of the kids in their classes, require an adjustment in teaching, because they learn differently. Neither am I living in the mistaken belief that teachers have boundless time, energy and resources with which to do this, so I offered my help, my time, my insight into this gifted child, and continue to do so.

I prepared a behaviour plan , which, as well as helping to ease the disruption caused at times by my son, also linked in to his giftedness, his dyslexia and his peer relationships, something which we had been doing at home, without realising to. I was comforted by the reaction of the teacher, she did see all of the kids as individuals with different needs, and as far as she can, given a full class of all abilities, is working with him and with me to improve things. And it’s beginning to work. We now practice a collaborative problem solving method with my son, which involves him in solving the issues we face, and requires constant examination of the causes that lead him to misbehave or be inattentive.
The teacher and I talk regularly about his progress and his happiness and work together to keep him moving forward. One of the striking things about this approach is the project work which he is encouraged to present to his classmates. He is beginning to be respected by the other children, as an articulate and interesting person, instead of a kid they just didn’t ‘get’! It’s not a quick or an easy solution, but we have a calmer child who is happier to go to school and who is now beginning to see value in the skills and abilities that had previously alienated his peers.

Being our first child, we were surprised to learn that the intensity we had experienced in raising him thus far was not usual, though the arrival of our second and much ‘easier’ child had led us to wonder…! As parents, you give each child what they need, without question and to the best of your ability. I find it difficult to pass my children to an education system which in practice, doesn’t recognise their right to be helped fulfil their potential. So I cannot walk away. Until there is greater awareness of gifted children in the classroom I have to bring his abilities and challenges to the attention of his teachers.

Most teachers that I have come across are diligent, good-hearted and professional and some are exceptional. These are the people we need to reach with the message that gifted kids are in every school, and simply being aware of them, talking with parents and helping to steer them onto the right track will be a major change for the better.

5 Comments

  1. Your post is very interesting and inspiring. I came across it completely by accident. I myself am familiar with the challenges that the Irish educational system has with children who are particularly talented.

    Your son seems to have faced a range of issues with the system and I admire you and him for overcoming them. However, I would agree with the school that they would like to get on with teaching the majority of the class who are presumably behaving well.

    Wishing you and your family well in the future!

  2. David, you’re quite right. The issue wasn’t from the school but rather school as it is structured in Ireland at the moment. Absolutely the other children (majority or not) have to be taught. Though clearly, whether they come from a gifted child or not, once the issues which cause poor behaviour are addressed, then everyone can get on with the business of school. Children are very ego-centric in this regard without necessarily meaning to be – they experience a problem and no doubt want it solved as much as adults but they don’t have the tools to do this. I think this particular school has been exemplary in dealing with the issues faced by the child. But best of all, it shows what can be achieved when parents and teachers work together in the interests of the children in the classroom. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment.

  3. I congratulate you Elaine for your involvement in the school system. The education system in New Zealand suffers from the same obstacles, difficulties, challenges, funding issues, educational constraints etc as the Irish system. I believe that if you have a gifted or twice exceptional child then involvement with the school is vital if disruption to the rest of the class is to be minimised. Education of a child should be a collaboration between parent and school, working together to provide the best education solution for a particular child. It shows that by dealing with the situation in a slightly different way, can have a huge impact not only on the behaviour of the gifted or twice exceptional child but only the class as a whole. It should not be the sole responsiblity of the school but a partnership with the parent

    As the parent of a gifted child who can be troublesome in school if not fully occupied I fully understand some of the isssues that you face. I talk to the teacher on an amost daily basis and am available for help within the classroom environment, however, I have found that having my child attend a GATE one day school programme that the need for my presence in school on the remaining days is reduced as my child seems more able to cope with the boredom of everyday school, as he is obtaining stimulation elsewhere one day a week. Allowing the child to participate in a gifted online programme during school hours also helps with this.

    Socially it is great to have my child in a mixed ability classroom as he has the opportunity to interact with children of the same age. It is important that he remains grounded and can see how his peers act. Attending an outside programme allows him to interact with other children that think and act a little outside the square, but I feel it is also important to be intergrated into a mainstream system. Whether my child has a good year at school is very much dependent upont the teacher and the way they ‘handle’ the child in the classroom environment.

    Your story proves that with a little thought and input from parent and school many issues arising from educating a gifted child within a main stream system can be minimised. Always assuming that the teacher is willing.

    Good luck with dealing with school over the next few years.

  4. Thank you David and Janine for your comments.

    My son also attends CTYI at DCU and this provides him with access to children of his age with similar abilities, something we feel is vital for him, as well as challenging work that stretches his ability. At his recent keynote address at the CTYI Annual Conference, Dr Tracy Cross stressed the importance of gifted children having access to their intellectual peers, and I agree with him. Access to programmes like CTYI are invaluable to these students.

    Acceptance for who you are, as you are, is vital for the emotional wellbeing of all children, and no less so for Exceptionally Able children. I need to work with his school so that they can understand him and ultimately accept him and his differences. We can, together I hope, ensure that all of the children in his class gain from the experience, learning that each child, regardless of ability, is valuable and must be included and that a more mindful approach can improve the classroom environment, for everyone.

  5. Elaine – it sounds as though we may be on a similar path to yours, though our daughter isn’t yet 4. As a fellow parent of a Gifted child, I greatly admire your passion and determination, and am delighted your son’s school seems to be keen to work co-operatively with you (which, I appreciate, should benefit all!). Best of luck.

    Kind regards
    Rochelle

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