Have you ever noticed that your child will spend hours engaged with something they enjoy and can tackle with competence? But, when presented with a new challenge, or a problem that’s beyond their current capacity, they are inclined to ‘chuck a wobbly’ and resist any attempt to work through to a resolution?
Have you ever thought that your bright child is underachieving? Do you sense that they have potential that is not being realised? How do we best support them in developing their gifts and talents?
Often, we rely heavily on the opinions of teachers and results on report cards to discern our children’s intelligence. Although these form a useful guide to our child’s progress relative to their peer group, they are of necessity a relatively blunt tool when it comes to assessing their potential to learn, and the true nature of their strengths.
Michele Juratowitch is a leading expert in the field of giftedness in children and adolescents. She has worked for many years with families, schools and universities to develop ways to keep these children engaged in education.
In this conversation, Michele challenges us to draw on our own knowledge of our children, their strengths and weaknesses, and their capacity to absorb information that fascinates them. She offers an empowering perspective for adults and children alike, calling us to consider whether we can support and encourage potential while addressing some of the common barriers to achievement.
Some of these common challenges gifted students face include social isolation, perfectionism, anxiety, and a tendency to ‘shut down’ when learning does not come easily.
Does this sound familiar?
The audio is unstable in parts of this interview: please find below a summary of some of the key points Michele shares from her deep wisdom and experience.
Michele draws from the Françoys Gagné Model of Giftedness and Talent (below):
A person might be born with a gift in a particular area, but talent is developed through practise and application. Often, this is dependent on the gift being recognised in the first place, and then an environment that supports the pursuit of skills and discipline that allows this to be developed.
For example, this might include a supportive family, responsive educators, an adequate diet. It’s worth noting here that, in our present day, there remain cultures that do not support female education, and that there are still inherently racist environments that differentiate between students of different ethnic backgrounds, which means that there is still an inherently challenging context for developing gifts in students on both a local and a global scale.
Of course, the drive, commitment and effort the individual is able to bring to the development of their gift is crucial. Not even the most ardent encourager can make a child learn if the child is not willing to learn.
A powerful driver for many children (and, let’s face it, for many adults too!) is the desire to fit in: to conform to the dominant social and cultural mores of the time. Often, this is for good reason: it is important to live in community with others, and no human is able to operate healthily in total isolation.
Michele references the work of Miraca Gross at the University of New South Wales, who observes that if a child’s primary drive is to develop their gifts, they may well have to forego the privilege of close friendships. This is because, at a young age, mutuality of interest and conformity of opinion form the bedrock of many friendships. If, on the other hand, the desire for friendship and community is the key driver, the gifts may remain dormant, hidden to avoid the student being perceived as ‘different’.
Michele’s perspective on the unique challenges of gifted education might have been influenced by her own upbringing.
Her own schooling was initially under the distance education model. Her family lived in Thailand, and there was a three-month turn around for her school work given the vagaries of the post to and from Australia. Seated at the dining roomn table with her mother, she would be required to work unless her father returned from work or, intriguingly, they heard the elephants.
Their home was situated in the middle of the Thai jungle, and a working elephant had a bell tied around its leg to ensure that if they went missing from their work carrying logs, they could be quickly located by their owners. Michele would watch these magnificent creatures pass by her garden, including one three-day old baby. A memorable encounter for a child, and undoubtedly more pleasant than the scorpions that would scurry under her feet when reading!
Michele suggests that this experience led her to develop self-reliance, as well as a precocious reading ability, a necessity when the few books available to her in her remote jungle home were Agatha Christie novels.
Michele returned to Australia to attend boarding school at nine years old, and was able to see her parents only once a year. In one memorable experience, returning to Penang for holidays, and without any prior knowledge of trouble, she was caught up in terrible racial riots, met at the airport by a gun-toting guide, bundled into a van and driven to meet her parents. Hearing about attacks on friends who were beaten with lead pipes, and attacked with acid, encouraged a strong sense of justice in the young Michele.
It might be this strong sense of justice that impelled Michele to the work she has dedicated her life to. Often, the children she sees exist on the outside of mainstream society, a conclusion that is supported by two bipartisan Senate Select Committee reports by the Commonwealth Government of Australia. This identifies a gap in professional training: unless someone specifically pursues additional training in gifted education, there is no development of resources tailored to educate the approximately 10% of all students who would qualify for a definition of gifted, so that most people are not trained in ways to offer optimal support.
It is relevant to suggest that many of the students that would fit into this 10% definition of giftedness would, in fact, be missed as their talents might not conform to conventional forms of assessment.
This is particularly true of students who might fall under the definition of twice-exceptionality, sometimes written as 2e: ie. students who have a talent in one area, and a disability in another. In our culture, Michele identifies a tendency to be deficit focused - to concentrate on areas of weakness, rather than catering to individual strengths.
Instead, the ideal would be to support the areas of weakness, and offer encouragement, challenge and extension in the areas of giftedness.
Models for Supporting Gifted Kids
Michele is an advocate for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ model, in which a balance is sought between existing skills and an appropriate level of challenge on a particular task, in order to stretch a student’s learning. Michele terms this the ‘Goldilocks’ zone: not too easy, not too hard.
Disengagement from learning (usually heard as “I’m so bored!”) can come when the child has a high degree of skill, but a low level of challenge.
If the challenge is high, but the skills aren’t yet developed to an appropriate level, the result is a heightened level of anxiety.
This model could be visualised as steps: providing a challenge, and then an opportunity to meet the challenge, followed by a new opportunity to follow the process at a higher level. Michele likes to remind her students that they can't fly: they’re not wearing a cape, nor undies outside their trousers, so expecting them to fly to a new level of challenge can be unrealistic.
Instead, this process requires challenge, effort and mastery. Fundamental to this is the idea of effort: often gifted students have been able to easily learn in the early years, but haven’t learnt the way to apply effort to master new skills.
If effort hasn’t been applied, the brain can quickly switch to anxiety, so teaching students that E= R: that is, Effort = Results is one helpful way to circumvent this. Of course, relaxation can be one way in which inspiration strikes (Einstein; Archimedes), but prior to this considerable effort and application must be expended, so ‘sticking with’ a task when it’s difficult is crucially important.
Michele advocates awareness of the need for rest, nourishing food and hydration. Although our brain takes up around 2% of our body mass, it consumes approximately 20% of our energy. Michele’s studies helped her conceptualise the brain as an emptying water bottle: if we’re not nourished, hydrated or well-exercised, the brain’s performance will not be optimised.
Michele also shares the insight that exercise is best done in the morning, as it helps to reduce our stress hormones, and build up the happy brain biochemicals, recalibrating our moods, both for students and adults. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t have to be for long periods: high intensity, short burst exercise can be really beneficial.
It’s particularly important to remember to exercise before undertaking demanding exams or assignments.
Online gaming can be a great way to establish social relationships online, especially for gifted children, although parents are frequently terrified of the ramifications.
Michele suggests that gaming allows gifted children to manage the level of challenge and develop new skills, as well as controlling the length of their new learning experiences. This process contributes to a surge of dopamine, which is a feel-good biochemical, but can trigger addictive behaviour. As Baroness Susan Greenfield has observed, there are other ramifications too: close focus on a screen means we are not learning broader social skills and ways of engaging with humans around us.
Nevertheless, gaming can also provide a useful challenge for students who are not receiving optimal experiences elsewhere, and mastery in gaming can improve a child’s ‘social capital’, helpful if solid friendships have proved difficult to establish.
Michele suggests that powering a game through your own physical activity (cycling, a treadmill in much the same way as early radios used by students of the School of the Air were powered by students pedalling) could be a great way to overcome some of the physical inertia that comes with too much screen time: perhaps she has initiated the ‘next big thing’?
It’s clear from our conversation that gifted and talented students are at risk of being missed in our education system as it currently exists. If you’re a parent who has identified particular strengths in your child, especially if they fall outside the mainstream ‘3 Rs’ of education, please trust your intuition and consider ways to provide an appropriate level of challenge and reward to encourage the development of these gifts and ways in which they might contribute to new ways of seeing and understanding the world around us.