Why the academically gifted also have Special Educational Needs?


 Gifted pupils have the potential to be tomorrow’s leaders, inventors and artists yet they often become today’s drop-outs and delinquents because their educational provisions in schools are often overlooked.

 In some cases, they would be ignored by teachers who would continue to teach them as part of the group of average pupils.

In most classes in our common school settings, such learners would quickly work on their regular class work and are made to sit still and wait until the rest of the class has finished a particular learning task.

The gifted are largely ignored because most teachers are not equipped to deal with them and they may end up finding little meaning in a school day.

Without sufficient understanding and support, gifted pupils face an increased risk of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem along with social and academic problems.

Current experts estimate that up to 1 in 50 gifted pupils drop out of school, while many more fail to live up to their academic potential.  

It is hoped that such a constituency of pupils be identified and supported in an inclusive classroom set-up failure of which has a negative effect on their self-concept, motivation and achievement

But who are these gifted pupils? They are the group of children who lie in the top 2% of any normal distribution curve of special ability such as intellectual, creativity, artistic, leadership capacity or specific academic fields.  

They are therefore children with exceptional abilities in terms of their attainment level. A well- known case of an identified academically gifted pupil is that of Moud Chifamba, a Zimbabwean who as of 2012 was the youngest university student in Africa.

She had sat for her Grade 7 examinations at the age of 10 and her A-level at the age of 13. In 2005 when she was in Grade 3, during mid-year exams, she was mistakenly given a Grade 4 exam paper on which she scored 100%.

The following term during the same year, she requested a Grade 5 test paper, on which she achieved the highest score. She proceeded to Grade 7 and she attained 4 units. Another interesting case is that of Tadiwanashe Mavetera, a Ruya Adventist High School whizkid who got 20 A’s at ‘O’ levels in 2020.  

Tafadzwa Petros Matangira, a Terry Goss High School Form 2 pupil raised the Masvingo Province flag high when in 2014 he sat for ‘O’ level examinations and scored 7As  3Bs and 1C and a Credit in HEXCO examinations.

 Such are a few typical cases. Giftedness is determined by screening and assessment. Most often, this involves use of standardised tests and observations by qualified personnel, eg Educational Psychologists in the Learner Welfare, Psychological Services and Special Needs Education Department (formerly the Schools Psychological Services).

The process also involves reviewing the child’s school performance. Giftedness is often linked to an Intelligent Quotient (IQ) score of 130 or more. (the average IQ is 100).

 With ‘special educational needs’, it implies that these pupils have needs that are different from those of the average counterparts.

This obviously makes their needs a unique case. In short, they have special educational needs when teachers find it necessary to make special modifications to their teaching in order to assist that pupil or group of pupils. The concept of special needs has been commonly understood in the context of educational provisions for pupils with various categories of disabilities or other conditions that warrant specialist intervention, for instance the intellectually challenged, hearing or visually impaired, those with learning disabilities, to mention just a few.

This is because special needs education was traditionally designed to meet only the needs of such pupils. Since the gifted pupils lie outside the range of normality, they are unusual and therefore also in need of special treatment.

It is critical that such pupils be taught by teachers who understand them and can give them special work and the individual attention they need. Whole-class teaching methods even in top streams are not satisfactory.

 Such teachers can hardly be expected to cope without special training because one has to select appropriate learning resources and be able to stimulate and stretch the intellects of the specially gifted children.

Gifted pupils can display characteristics which can easily be confused with other causes. This makes it very difficult for them to be recognized as such by their parents or teachers.

They are ready to go, first thing in the morning and stay alert in school but may get frustrated and act out if an opportunity is not given to release pent up energy.

They may become restless and have trouble paying attention and it may be assumed they have a learning disability or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). If this happens, his giftedness may go unnoticed because the adults will tend to focus on his learning problem.  

Unless the gifted child is recognized and encouraged by his parents and teachers, chances are high that he can easily become deeply frustrated and rebellious and may be thought to be just a naughty child.

The gifted pupils have insatiable curiosity. This is recognizable by their high verbal ability and non-stop questions and an early but obvious desire to find out how things work.

Their high verbal proficiency may be noticeable at a very early stage of a child’s development.  How wonderful it is to have a child who can express himself/herself clearly, colourfully and eloquently.

In any case, communication skills are important in school and in life, but other children of age may fail to understand what he/she says as the gifted  may use such strong verbal skills to satisfy their curiosity. They may want to know something about everything (and everything about something) and they are not shy about asking.

As they continue to grow, they demonstrate a thirst for knowledge of subjects outside most children’s interests. Since the gifted have the ability to comprehend material several grade levels above their age peers, they resultantly make friendships with older peers because of the need to match their wits and interests.

So parents, don’t be surprised to find your gifted child having one set of friends who are the same age as he/she is, and another set who are intellectual equals.

 Since his abilities separate him from other children of his age, the gifted child can feel intensely lonely and this can lead to an emotional crises.

Such individuals may end up falling into depression, may experience eating disorders or end up indulging in drug and substance abuse. In worse case scenarios, the depression may degenerate into suicidal ideation.

These are thoughts about committing suicide or killing oneself and a prompt and appropriate intervention will be necessary as soon as there are typical behavioural manifestations.

Faced with the loneliness of their condition, some gifted children may deliberately do less at school than they are able to. Many find it difficult to fit in easily with their classmates and tend to live and behave very independently.

Their situation is made worse if schools do not provide them with a stimulating environment, eg one with books and other reading material so that they can engage in independent study. This can help them to work at their own pace on programs that fit their special abilities and/ or interests.

Gifted children need to be challenged. What it implies is that general education classes frustrate them as they do not find favour in repeating or practicing things they already know.

The usual and standard practice of refreshing memories by way of re-cap of previous lesson’s content in order to introduce a new lesson will make the gifted learner feel bored and may not even pay attention to the teacher. They need work which is more challenging than the average pupil.

This therefore calls for educational programs beyond those normally provided by the regular classroom curriculum. Use of places other than the school for teaching and learning can be a good starting point to expose such pupils to a variety of challenging, exciting and different experiences to help them learn.

Gifted learners are also very creative and if such pupils are to realize their creative potential, particular attention must be paid to their promotion and maintenance of their intrinsic motivation in the classroom.

They have endless energy for the things they love to do. They are excellent problem solvers because they can see solutions that rarely occur to other children. This reminds me of a lower 6th pupil from a local boarding school who invented a ‘smart’ walking stick suitably designed to make life easier for the visually impaired people.

Gifted pupils easily get frustrated if tools and materials they need are not provided so that they express themselves.

What are the main approaches to gifted education? There is enrichment and acceleration. Enrichment refers to the presentation of curriculum content with more depth, breath, complexity than the general curriculum.

It should be borne in mind that this approach does not advance a pupil to a higher level or grade. Rather, it just adds additional content that focus on higher level skills like divergent thinking, problem solving and creativity.

  In other words, an enrichment program teaches additional deeper material, but keeps the pupil progressing through the curriculum at the same rate as other pupils.

Such enrichment in education enhances gifted pupils’ eagerness to learn as they engage in projects and activities beyond the pages of a book. It also develops the children’s curiosity to learn something new and also have fun.

Acceleration refers to the practice of presenting curriculum content earlier or at a faster pace. This is when pupils are advanced through grades ahead of the usual age or date.

The assumption is that when children are allowed to learn at their own pace, they are more motivated to learn, feel better about themselves and have fewer social problems.

Infact, keeping a child who can do Grade 6 work in Grade 3 is not only saving that pupils’s childhood, but instead robbing that child of the desire to learn.

There is however some opposition to grade skipping as some people claim that children suffer emotionally when they are removed from their age group.

Our education system must develop a means of identifying the gifted and talented pupils at a tender age as any county’s future is interwoven with the potential of such citizens.

Once identified, they should be able to be managed in a classroom situation in ways that are not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop their capabilities.

The community, especially development partners and stakeholders need to make a greater investment in the education for the gifted.

 John Madzivanyika is an A/Educational Psychologist in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.  For feedback,

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