Falling by the Wayside

In category Gifted & Aspergers

This article was commissioned and published in 1996 as an article to parents of gifted children struggling to understand why gifted children often seem to drop out of school for no reason while their less intellectually inclined classmates pass them by. The term gifted is problematic but nobody seems to be able to come up with a better one to describe the children who seem to learn that much faster than their peers. The article is included in this site because the signs of chronic stress shown by these children are often the same as the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Remember the fable about the tortoise and the hare? Who did best? The tortoise of course. And as for the hare, it was all its own stupid fault for being lazy, over-confident or just plain complacent. Our schools are full of tortoises and we encourage them to do their best. When they do, they are justly rewarded. But what happens to the hares?

Perhaps the hares go to sleep half way through primary school. Trying to keep them motivated seems an unwinnable battle. To keep contact with the tortoises, the hares must cripple themselves or run around and around in circles. To keep running they must have either fellow hares for company or maintain enough faith in their goal to justify the isolation. If the hare without peers loses faith in that goal, what motivation remains to run or even walk?

In today’s society, we tend to present all our children with one track, leading through school, to tertiary study, to a career. The stewards are the teachers, the measures of success along the way school grades, the winning post a high score, and the lap of honour is university. We don’t insist that they win, just that they finish school. And of course they will, the faster tortoises and most hares, but not our sleepy hare who has fallen by the wayside.

What happens to that hare? At first the stewards might try a little persuasion and, if that fails, coercion. But when the hare — for it is an independently-minded creature — is unwilling or unable to comply, the stewards must abandon it to its fate while they concentrate on those who are more appreciative and willing and compliant. From where they stand, the hare appears to be merely wilful, selfish and arrogant.

Those a little closer to the hare may see the confusion, the disappointment and the desolation. As parents, we cannot abandon our young hares. But what can we do? If we continue to push them back into the school race, they will grow to hate us; if we don’t we will be branded inadequate parents and they will be branded underachievers and dropouts. Worst of all, we will both have to cope with watching all those tortoises go by.

So what is the answer? What would it take to keep our hares running, or even on that track? I have been grappling with this problem for over a decade, read volumes about education, gifted children and academic underachievement, talked to professionals and support groups, negotiated with varying degrees of success with schools and found little to help. Some research acknowledges and even describes the problem, a very few teachers could see the problem, and an occasional guidance officer/school counsellor half understood what was happening, but nobody offered any real understanding or constructive answers.

So here, I offer to other parents in the same situation, some of the lessons I have learned the hard way:

  • Try to see what your child has to deal with for yourself. This is certainly easier in the earlier years of school when parents are asked to help in classrooms. In later years, try to talk to the teachers as much as you can. What they say, how they say it and the language they use will tell you far more than any school policies and prepared speeches. This is not meant as a slight against teachers, for it is just as effective for telling which teachers will be good for your child as well as which will be ineffectual or downright dangerous. The other advantage of helping in classrooms is it makes you realise just how different your child is. We all tend to think of ourselves as normal, and assume that most people are like us. At home, we talk and respond to our children as individuals; at school, they are treated according to their age. What may be an appropriate way of talking to an “average” child, can seem extremely patronising and inappropriate to your child.
  • Stand by your child. Teachers will often tell you to take what your child says about school with a pinch of salt. Yet, in almost every situation, I have found that my children understated rather than overstated the gravity of the situation. When there is a dispute of any kind, the school will place pressure on you to take its side against the child. You must remain as either an independent third party or your child’s advocate.The gifted child’s family is often the only place where they are fully accepted and able to be themselves. Never allow schooling to come between you and your child. This doesn’t mean let them do what they want. It means the parents are in charge, not the school. It’s you, not the school, who decides whether your child should or shouldn’t go to school, do inappropriate homework or run at sports day. You will probably be told that your child is manipulating you. Consider who is using the word and why. Manipulation is only necessary when honest discourse is unwelcome or has failed. Sometimes it is a case of the accuser feeling that they have been out-manipulated.
  • Be wary of the “gifted and talented” teacher. Some of these teachers define gifted students as the achievers and are extremely hostile to the non-conforming gifted student. These teachers can be the most dangerous of all for an extremely gifted and creative student. For more information on this, I’d recommend Exceptionally Gifted Children by Dr Miraca Gross. For teachers who find this statement outrageous, I can only suggest that you carefully examine from what perspective you view the situation. If you can’t see it from at least two, yours and the child’s, you cannot expect to cater for all children.
  • Accept the fact that their education is your responsibility Schools, and teachers, can cater only for children within a certain range. Parents with children who are very different for any reason will find that they will never be able to relax and assume that a school will provide an adequate education for their child, no matter how carefully they choose the school or how much money they spend. I realise that this statement may be unacceptable to many educational professionals but it has been proven to me many times.
  • Learn to recognise the danger signs and when to get the child out. Signs that serious problems are developing will show up at home long before they do at school. Those signs vary from child to child and are quite possibly only apparent to parents. Some indicators of trouble are: persistent irritability, difficulty getting to sleep, general lethargy, psychosomatic and stress-related illnesses. Trust your judgement. As soon as you find school is doing your child serious harm, do whatever it takes to remove the child from that situation. There is a big difference between a child who doesn’t feel like going to school one day, to the child whose evenings, weekends and holidays are dominated by the dread of returning to school. The official school line will generally be that everything is all right and that the child is overreacting, exaggerating or needs to learn to adapt. Some of the more knowing teachers will sometimes tell you off-the-record that the problem is serious. These teachers can be a valuable source of information and support, but never expect them to support you publicly. This is not a criticism of the teachers, it is just the way institutions work.
  • Find alternate routes for your child. If you maintain the stance that there is only one acceptable path for your child to follow, and they lose faith in that path, there is little they can do other than curl up by the roadside.It is better for your child to drop out of school before serious emotional problems develop and return to study later in life than to stay at school until they self-destruct. School is not the only route to university or a job, it is not even the shortest. You will need to look hard to find the alternatives but they are there. Open University is one alternative to high school. Don’t expect schools, guidance officers or counsellors to give you this information, you will need to find it yourself. Join support groups for information about what other people have done.
  • Be wary of counsellors, psychotherapists etc. Like teachers, these professionals have training and expertise but not necessarily in gifted children and certainly not in your child. Nobody knows your child as well as you do. These professionals will also tell you that, but will not take it kindly if your analysis disagrees with theirs. Remember you are still dealing with people who are looking at the situation from a particular professional framework and who are trying to fit your child into a box they recognise. Their goal is to help your child fit the system. If your child is “a square peg” they will try to round off the edges which for some children may do more harm than good. It may be better if you simply found a “square hole”.
  • Find your children an array of role models All children need to have faith in the adults around them. The adults must be, and be seen to be, more knowledgable and more experienced. All teenagers need adults they can respect and admire, a gifted teenager needs regular and long-term access to gifted teachers if they are to retain their faith in education and school. Many will disagree with this statement, but consider how demoralising it is when you to discover that your doctor, lawyer, accountant, chef or any other professional knows no more about their speciality than you do. It is not enough that they are nice, understanding and conscientious people. Gifted teachers and other gifted adults have a responsibility to seek out and inspire gifted children, particularly gifted teenagers. Whether we like to admit it or not, it is only those who are exceptionally gifted themselves who can draw our sleepy hares back into any race and give them the company and faith they need to stay there.

Summary In our adult life we can make lots of choices. Some people like to work in large organisations, others can only work as sole traders. Some like the security of employment, some are entrepreneurs. Some like to socialise a lot, some have a few select colleagues and friends. Nowhere are adults expected to conform to the extent they are at school. Listen to other adults talk about their lives and you will find few have followed a straight track. The most interesting and successful have often wandered along many tracks before finding that which suited them best. We must allow our children that same freedom. The freedom to try different paths, to reject the obvious path, and to make mistakes. Gifted teachers, parents and other adults can help them by showing them the many paths they have chosen in life. This must include the deadends, back-tracking and detours to illustrate that making mistakes is a necessary part of exploration and not a cause for losing hope. And for as long as possible, we must ensure that there are some adult hares out in front for the young hare to follow.

Reading
Read, and encourage your child to read, essays, autobiographies, and fiction to reinforce the idea that there are many paths available and to help them recognise the means by which people and society will try to influence and control them. For the extremely gifted, books may be the only place they can meet others of the same intellectual ability. I have listed some material which I have found particularly relevant at the time that this was written. Most are about life, not gifted education, because what our children need is the same as everyone needs: love, friendship, hope, faith, challenge, acceptance. It is their circumstances that can make their life so difficult; if they lived in a world where they ran with fellow hares, and mixed with tortoises at play, much heartache would be avoided. Your list, of course, would and should, be different.

© Gayle Dallaston, 1996

References and recommended reading

Conway, Jill K ? The Road from Coorain London : Mandarin, 1990.
Dessaix, Robert – A Mother’s Disgrace Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994
Fairclough, Norman – Language and Power Essex: Longman, 1989
Gross, Dr Miraca – Exceptionally Gifted Children
Humphries, Barry – More Please London:Viking, 1992
Knight, B.A. (1995) – The Influence Of Locus Of Control On Gifted And Talented Students in Gifted Education International Vol 11 No 1 1995 p31.
Rowe, Dorothy – Wanting Everything London: Fontana, 1992 particularly on education
Whitmore, Joanne Rand – Giftedness, Conflict and Underachievement Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1980
Zinsser, William ‘The Right To Fail’ in Prose Models 6th Edition, ed by Gerald Levin San Diego:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984
plus many fantasy and SF novels

published in the NSWAGTC journal Gifted October 1996 published in Mindscape, journal of the QAGTC

Copyright © Gayle Dallaston

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