Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to tell if your child is intellectually gifted

This is a follow-up of the post I wrote on my experience as a parent of a child in the Singapore Gifted Education Programme (GEP). Crucial to effectiveness of the programme is whether the child is truly gifted, which of course, begs the question, "how do I know if my child is gifted?"

First, I want to state up front that the info I have is mostly taken from this book "A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children" by Webb, Gore, Amend and DeVries. This is truly an exceptional book - it is a must-have for all parents of gifted kids. It's well-researched and answered all the questions I had clearly and comprehensively. I've read other books on gifted kids, but none even came close to matching this one - it gets the gold star.

Some basic information (and common misconceptions):

There are many types of giftedness.
Gift in the arts, in sports, in leadership, etc. For purposes of the GEP, we are refering specifically to the intellectually gifted. However, while as a group, these kids have high IQs, they are not necessarily super in every academic subject.

Giftedness is generally inborn.
In other words, you're either gifted or you're not. However, environment does play a role. A supportive and nurturing environment up to the ages of 7 or 8 can increase IQ scores of 20 points or even more. But generally, test scores for giftedness will remain pretty much stable by the time the child is 8. Because of this, the recommended age for intelligence tests in schools is 8 or 9, otherwise time would have been wasted with gifted kids having their talents unidentified and untapped (The Singapore MOE has probably read all the research, that's why they do the GEP tests in P3!)

Being gifted and being "smart" is not the same thing.
People have often argued that the GEP is discriminatory because there are late bloomers who do pretty well later on in life. I think this arises because there is a confusion between being gifted and being smart. It's probably safe to say that all gifted children are smart, but not all smart children are gifted. Research shows that in general, about 1% of each cohort is intellectually gifted. Again, MOE follows this closely, the top 1% of each P3 cohort who take the selection tests are offered the GEP.

Those are the basic parameters. So we go back to the question, "how do I know if my child is gifted?" Here are but some of the common characteristics as listed in the book mentioned above, and my own experience with Lesley-Anne (ala how I was finally convinced she's gifted).

1) Strong verbal abilities from a young age. Many gifted kids start talking and reading early. Some on the other hand, start later but when they do, it's with astonishing maturity and complexity. Lesley-Anne didn't speak until she was way over 2 years old, but then she spoke in whole sentences and her understanding of instructions was very good even at age 1. In pre-school, her teacher commented that she "spoke like an adult". Gifted kids also usually have large vocabularies and can distinguish between similar words like "angry" or "irritated".

2) Overactive imagination and creativity. Gifted kids tend to like experimenting and can flit from one interest to another. They can live in an imaginary world with imaginary friends and imaginary pets. When she was 5, Lesley-Anne told me she had a new best friend in school called Sally. I got curious when she told me Sally was the same height, same weight, had the same haircut as her. I called the school and found out there was no such person!

3) Extreme sensitivity and intensity. This one really hit home when I read about it. I was despairing over Lesley-Anne because she was truly the most sensitive child I had ever come across. Every word could be deemed a criticism. She would be hurt by seemingly harmless gestures and any sort of unfairness would cause an intense reaction. When she was about 3 and watching Bambi on video, she burst into tears when Bambi's mother was shot and kept asking me why the hunter had to shoot her. From then, everytime she watched the cartoon, she would fast forward that scene. Even today, when she has learned to reign her emotions better, I would get comments from her piano teacher: "Aiyoh, just told her what she played wrong and the tears started flowing! I can't bring myself to scold her."

4) Super learning ability and memory. The difference between gifted and smart children are that while both can learn new things quickly, the smart child tends to learn age-appropriate things. Gifted children, on the other hand, have been known to grasp concepts way beyond their years. One of Lesley-Anne's classmates had finished reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings several times over by age 9 and at 10, was poring over adult astronomy reference books. They also tend to have great memories. I remember watching Jumanji on tv with Lesley-Anne when she was 7. Before the next scene, she would tell me what would happen and even spout the exact words the actor would say. All this she remembered from watching the show ONCE when she was 4.

5) Need for reasoning and rationality. Gifted children tend to question everything and they need to have answers that satisfy their intelligence. The worst possible thing I can say to Lesley-Anne when she questions my instruction is: "Because I said so." This sort of autocratic answer with no logic upsets her, she needs to see the reasoning behind it. Once, she accidentally scalded her fingers on hot soup. When the pain had not abated after putting ice on her fingers, I offered to give her a dose of paracetamol. She immediately asked to know how paracetamol would work since it was to her, a medicine for fever. When I said it numbed the pain sensors, she questioned how it would know to numb the ones in her fingers and not anywhere else. All this while she was in pain. Basically, gifted kids are unlikely to take anything at face value, they will question you to death if necessary.

There are several other characteristics, but it would be too long to list everything. This is a summarised version. If you want to know more, I really recommend you get the book!

Finally, I just want to stress that giftedness is a blessing. If your child has it, embrace it. But he cannot claim credit for it anymore than a child born into a rich family can boast about having earned his wealth. And at the end of the day, it's not about possession but what you do with the giftedness that counts.

One parent's experience with the Gifted Education Programme

My daughter, Lesley-Anne, now in P5, is in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). When she first got the news 2 years ago, I was truly surprised and had some misgivings. She had generally done well in school, but I had always attributed it to her being conscientious and hardworking. The GEP doesn't have a great rep and like many other parents, I had heard horror stories about how the kids turn out to be elitist brats, how some kids can't cope with the syllabus and become overly stressed, etc.

So my husband and I tried to find out more (we weren't given a lot of time, basically about a week to decide). The MOE talk was very enlightening. It gave a lot of info on what the programme tries to achieve and why it was necessary to create a different type of education for this group of children. We thought it sounded quite promising, but we left the decision to Lesley-Anne, and told her we would support her whatever she decided. She decided to give it a try. And we knew that if it really became too much to take, she could always opt out of the programme and return to the mainstream curriculum. There wasn't too much upheaval as her school offered the GEP anyway.

So two years on, what are my thoughts? I would say unequivocally, it was the best thing that could have happened to Lesley-Anne in terms of education. Before GEP, she was a painfully shy, introverted child afraid of taking a wrong step. In P3, she was in the top class in the school, but she was miserable because it focused on drills and exercises, all designed to sharpen the exam skills. She was never remotely near the top of the class, in fact in one exam, she came in 4th from the bottom.

Today, she enjoys school because the work is focused on exploring concepts beyond the normal curriculum. For example, they examine patterns in maths, the historial evolution of maths in different empires. Projects feature greatly, instead of say, just going through grammatical skills, they have to do analyses of different genre types and even try to write them. For instance, this term, Lesley-Anne had to write a detective story after reading mystery books and discovering the unique aspects of this genre. The emphasis is on discovery, not on exams, which explains why GEP kids don't always have the top scores in the PSLE. She has also opened up considerably because the programme encourages expression. Although she's still an introvert, she's much more confident and is better able to express her thoughts.

Oftentimes, I feel the views on GEP are very blinked. Parents who have all their kids in the programme tend to laud it, parents without tend to slam it. Many views are given with very little knowledge or just anecdotal evidence which supports what they want to believe. I have one child in the programme and another whose chances of getting in are as good as winning the $3.2 million lottery. So I do feel I have at least some objectivity in this. I don't believe one programme is superior to the other, it should be, let me stress this, according to the needs and abilities of the child.

So here's my take on the GEP:

1) It is not a programme just to make smart kids smarter. The GEP is a programme which caters to the learning needs of the intellectually gifted child. It is like a sports regime tailored to suit a kid talented in sports. Or an arts programme for artistically inclined kids. The ambiguity arises because "intellectually gifted" tends to be associated with "smart" so people commonly mistake it as a special, intensive booster programme. Ironically, the same people who tend to call the programme elitist are the same ones who will turn around and criticise it when the kids don't top the PSLEs to say it has failed. It hasn't. It simply isn't the goal of the GEP. If you want your kid in the programme because you think it's an enhanced tuition programme for 4 A*s, then think again.

2) It is not for everyone. The majority of gifted kids do enjoy the programme, mainly because it is specially designed for them. But the caveat is that the kid needs to be truly gifted. While I think the sorting tests are quite reliable, I do believe it does occasionally slips in a few kids who are "smart" but not gifted. Because it has been shown that you can improve your scores slightly if you do a lot of these types of tests (not much but maybe enough to squeak by). If the child is not really gifted, the programme can be a nightmare simply because the concepts it teaches can be completely beyond the child's ability to assimilate. Again, this sort of ability is mostly inborn, it can't be taught. It took me a while to be convinced that Lesley-Anne was not just "smart" but gifted. I will elaborate on the differences of the two concepts in another post.

3) The programme will not determine how your child will turn out. The GEP has been blamed for churning out elitist snobs. My take on it is, it's a combination of factors. If you keep telling your child how wonderful she is because she's in the programme, treat her like a special jewel better than other kids and wait on her hand and foot, of course she's going to be a brat! Don't need to be a psychic to know that. Under the GEP, the students have to do a service learning project every year. Lesley-Anne has given tuition to P2 kids (with worksheets that she prepared), and prepare math lessons in a group to teach other classes. Studies have shown that upon adulthood, a higher percentage of ex GEP kids continue serving the community as compared to their mainstream counterparts.

What I like about Lesley-Anne's school is that although it has a great academic reputation, it's still a neighbourhood school in the heartlands. No hordes of merces or beamers, many kids cycle or walk to school. (This is not a judgement against other schools, this is just my personal observation and preference). I have met parents of GEP kids who are simply obnoxious - they adopt an attitude of entitlement and behave like everyone else is beneath them. With parents like that, it's not hard to see why some children turn out the way they do.

I just want to stress again that as parents, it's important to do the usual check as with any other child - check out the friends they hang out with, the type of activities they do and so on. Keep them grounded.

How (not) to be creative in English Comprehension

Sometimes, I think God has a strange sense of humour. Here I am, a writer by profession, with a son who can't write to save his life. It's like David Beckham's son having two left feet. Not that I'm comparing myself with David Beckham. Ok, now that's confusing. Anyway, you know what I mean.

It's funny, considering we speak English at home and Andre does read a fair number of books. (For those who are not aware, Andre is 7). But I've since realised that speaking and reading doesn't automatically translate into having a good grasp of the language. Maybe it has to do maturity. For instance, Andre is very literal. If he reads "nothing escaped his teacher's eyes", he thinks there could be something literally shooting out of the teacher's eyes, like in an alien movie.

It probably also have to do with the fact that Andre's attention span is all of 2 minutes. In a typical primary 2 exam paper, you have something like 8 pages of exercises before you finally reach the much dreaded open-ended comprehension questions. Here's where many kids stumble but for Andre, it's not just a problem with comprehension, it's compounded by the fact that he is already very bored and wants to finish up the paper NOW. So throwing all caution to the wind, he will proceed to answer questions not by trying to understand the passage but by harnessing his extremely creative powers (honed from many hours of tv and computer games).

There was a mock test paper he did in school about a boy called Pipo who saved the day by using his intelligence. The last question was: "What kind of boy do you think Pipo is and why?" Andre's answer: "I think Pipo is a hippo because it rhymes with Pipo."

Another passage talked about the five senses - sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. One of the questions was: "How do you know it is cooler in an air-conditioned room?" Andre: "You can see the air-conditioner is on in the room."

And sometimes, just for fun, the paper will throw in one of their favourite types of questions: "What word in the passage has the same meaning as 'lively'?" The correct answer was "energetic" but Andre had no idea what energetic meant. Heck, he couldn't even remember what lively meant. So he wrote: "The word is 'the'."

Often, I end up yelling at him, yet am curbing my desire to laugh. I'm not sure how fruitful that is. Anyway, I think Andre scores A* for creativity, unfortunately, it doesn't count when it comes to exams in Singapore. And that's why he's going for English tuition.

Tuition Centre teachers... and one arrogant ang moh

So my 7-year-old son, Andre has been having some difficulty with English composition for a while. Since he was in P1 last year, I had been coaching him, but as most mothers probably know, we are hardly the best teachers for our own kids (I have no idea how parents home-school their kids without killing them). Basically, Andre's idea of a good composition is a long one. He comes home and tells me he wrote 243 words. Even if it was mostly rubbish and incoherent.

So after he came home with a 6/10 for his latest CA2 composition exam, I thought it was time to seek some professional help. Being the ever practical mum, I checked out the ones nearest my home first. This one was called I Can Read. It's an Aussie franchise and they mostly teach reading to pre-schoolers, but I had read that they also had a writing/exams module for primary school kids, so I thought I'd explore that. I was told I could bring Andre in for a free assessment so I did. This horizontally-challenged ang moh called Ken brought us into a room without so much as a hello, and sat us down. After the preliminary name-taking, etc, he asked Andre to read a list of words. Andre did ok until the last word - "obnoxious". He didn't know it so he said "ambitious". Ken immediately looked at me accusingly and said "that's a P1 word". Now, I'm pretty sure Andre has never seen that word before. I'm also very sure there are many P1 kids who don't know the word. But hey, give the guy a chance, right? So I didn't say anything.

Next, Ken asked him: "what's a noun?" Andre didn't have a clue. Now, at his school, they don't teach the names of word types at P2. I don't know about other schools in Singapore but I'm pretty sure it's not the only one. Ken proceeded to give a list of examples of nouns, then asked "what's a verb?" followed by "what's an adjective?" By then, Andre was looking completely bewildered, so I told Ken he didn't learn these names in school. Now, to my astonishment, he went on a verbal barrage (with a sneer on his face that I was so longing to slap), telling me how he has designed the school syllabus for MOE, how teachers are supposed to teach it but many don't, why he therefore doesn't send his kids to Singapore schools but to schools in the US instead, how his kids knew these things by age 5, blah blah blah.

Now, I don't know how other Singaporean parents would react to this, but if there's anything that really gets my goat, it's b****y patronising, arrogant expats who come here, live here, earn a good living here, and yet see fit to criticise everything about Singapore. So I retorted that every education system was different, that I had absolutely no interest in his kids and I didn't know why he was telling me about them. I think he was annoyed that I didn't act like the meek Asian mum and asked whether I would like to wait outside. I stood up, took Andre and said "Actually, I think we're done. I have no wish to sit here and listen to someone who thinks he's so much better than anyone else."

At this point, he started blustering and protesting. By then, I was fuming and told him "well, then you're not very good at communicating because that's exactly the message I got. For someone who's supposed to be teaching communication, you sure suck at it." I didn't plan to say it, it sort of just came out. I know it was rude but I have to admit I took satisfaction in walking out on him sitting there, looking dumbfounded.

I'm pretty sure he just dismissed me as an ignorant, over-protective mum. But I was perturbed to know that there are such judgmental jerks here who parents entrust their kids' education with. Because many parents are desperate for their kids to have better grades, we think the professionals would know better. But attitude is everything (almost) and what kind of self-esteem would our kids have if they learn under a teacher who tells them that they know less than they should? So avoid this centre like the plague - I Can Read.

Anyway, I walked over to Morris Allen two doors away and signed Andre up there. Ironically, another expat centre. Let's see how that goes.
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