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Choosing a school for your bright spark - advice for parents

Wed, 08/10/2014
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It’s that time of year when parents of 10 and 11-year-olds are faced with the million dollar question – which secondary school to choose?

It’s a difficult decision for all parents, but those with particularly bright children can find themselves agonising over what’s best.

Mensa offers advice and support to parents coping with children who are often “square pegs” in the education system.

Lyn Kendall, British Mensa’s gifted child consultant, said: “Modern schooling was developed at the peak of the use of production lines in industry and is very much modelled along those lines.

“The aim is to educate the masses. You put children in at one end of the system, and get well rounded, educated young people out at the other. I know this is an over-simplification but the truth is it works pretty well for most children.

“Sadly, the square pegs of this world don't fare as well. If you learn more quickly than other children, your passage through the education system is far from ideal. So already schools have a problem - you've sent them a square peg.”

Earlier this year, researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, argued that high intelligence should be treated as a special need in schools, and that very clever children should get the same targeted attention and support as those with learning difficulties.

But the UK government has cut funding for gifted and talented programmes in state schools and many parents – and teachers – can find themselves floundering around in search of the right support.

Lyn said there were key questions parents should ask of schools before making their choice, including what expertise the staff had with teaching gifted children, and how keen they were to take on the challenge.

While the ability to learn quickly and master tasks easily might seem amazing for those who struggle at school, gifted children face a whole series of potential pitfalls which schools need to be aware of.

Very clever children often seek to hide their intelligence in the classroom to avoid “standing out” from their friends and to avoid becoming a target for bullies.

They might avoid putting their hand up to answer questions, not join in class discussions or, in extreme cases, deliberately add mistakes into their work to be seen as more “normal”.

But one of the biggest problems, said Lyn, is that bright children are often allowed to cruise through school and fail to “learn how to learn”.

This means they can sail through all the tasks and exams set them but don’t develop an interest in learning for its own sake, which can cause problems when they reach university and are expected to initiate their own work rather than just soaking up information.

Lyn added: “Learning comes naturally to these children and they soak up information like a sponge. The difficulty is, by the time they get to university level and they are learning among intellectual equals for the first time, they have no idea how to study and when, suddenly, they aren't top of the class it can be a hard lesson.

“Exceptionally bright children can also get bored very easily at school, which can lead to behaviour issues, and become isolated from other children who can’t communicate on the same level.

So, how do you know if your child is highly intelligent? And how do you do something about it without being labelled as a “pushy parent”.

Lyn has identified a set of behaviours and character traits which might indicate a high IQ. The list is not exhaustive, and a child does not have to tick all the boxes to be highly intelligent.

They include

· The preference for the company of adults or older children.

· An interest in subjects or events that would not normally interest children of that age.

· A deep interest in or knowledge of a certain subject.

· Speaking, reading or writing earlier than other children.

· An outstanding memory.

· Likes to be in charge and make the rules or prefers their own company and spends long periods of time involved in their own activities.

· Academically ahead of children the same age.

· Takes competitive games very seriously.

· Shows a high level of frustration with their own efforts.

If your child is well adjusted and happy at home and school, said Lyn, then you need do no more than offer support and encouragement.

Help them to follow their interests and introduce them to new ones. Respond positively to their ideas and talk through their concerns and difficulties with them. Remember that just like everyone else, the gifted child is not, and does not have to be, good at everything.

Being the parent of a gifted child can be a bewildering and lonely experience. Talking to the parents of other gifted children can be of real help. You have the opportunity to share experiences with others but also to gain from the experience of other people in similar situations. Most gifted children’s organisations have local support networks for parents.

Most education authorities have a gifted children’s advisor and in the case of a disagreement with your child’s school, you may choose to contact them.

Potential Plus, formerly the National Association for Gifted Children, can also offer support and advice, as well as stimulating activities and social events for bright children and IGGY, based at Warwick University, is a social network which offers the brightest young minds resources and the chance to work with academics and peers to reach their full potential.

One of Mensa's core aims is to 'identify and foster human intelligence'. The society’s gifted and talented support programmes help teachers work with gifted young people and support young members and their families.

British Mensa has about 1,300 Mensans under the age of 18. These are full members of the society, and are offered the same range of benefits as adult members - magazines and newsletters, special interest groups and social events. They are encouraged to join their own special interest group - Junior & Teen SIG - and some regional groups may organise family friendly events such as days out, walks, or games afternoons.

The Mensa supervised IQ test is suitable for children over the age of 10 and a half. Younger children are admitted to the society on the basis of evidence from an educational psychologist that they have an IQ in the top two per cent of the population.

Mensa’s teacher support packs have been developed by Lyn, who is a highly experienced G&T teacher from Coventry. She has previously organised gifted and talented summer schools, advised the DfEE and local education authorities on their policies and has long worked with gifted children organisations such as CHI and MFGC.

Parents looking for help and advice about their gifted child can email Lyn at lyn.kendall@outlook.com.

For more information about British Mensa visit www.mensa.org.uk or call 01902 772771.

Potential Plus UK can be contacted through http://www.potentialplusuk.org/ and IGGY through https://www.iggy.net/

Lyn's top tips

WHAT THE SCHOOL SHOULD HAVE:

1)      Knowledge: They need to demonstrate that they understand that there will be a discrepancy between intellectual development and social and emotional development and that they have the ability to deal with that.

2)      Flexibility: about teaching and learning arrangements. Are they prepared for your child to spend time in higher classes or are they prepared to bring work from older age groups into the classroom for your child? Are they prepared to ask for help and advice from outside agencies, other schools or experts?

3)      Positivity: Are they going to welcome your child as an asset or simply put up with them? Will they look at providing an education for your child as a challenge or a chore?

4)      Proof: Ask them to tell you about one of their bright children and provide evidence of the sort of things that they do.

WHAT PARENTS SHOULD HAVE:

1)      Perspective: To you, your child is the most important thing in the world. To the school, he or she will be one of several hundred all of whom are equally important. Having a bright child does not mean you get preferential treatment.

2)      Patience: With teachers who may not be experienced in working with very bright children. With schools who are keen to help but may not move as quickly as you would want them to.

3)      An ability to support: It’s very easy to sit back and criticise but this just creates conflict between school and home, and a child who picks up on the stress between both parties. Try to keep the relationship positive and let your child see home and school working together for his or her benefit (however difficult that may be at times!).

4)      Understanding: It is quite common for children not to perform in school as well as they can do at home. In nature, any animal that makes itself stand out tends to get picked on. This may be a conscious or subconscious act on their part but it is happening for a reason. 

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