my child seems happy at school is everything fine?
That was the short answer:
it'll take a lot longer to explain in detail.
Let's state the fact which there's no getting away from: a gifted child at his or her normal chronological level in a normal school, is by definition a peg in a hole which is made for pegs of a different shape - such a child has to make many compromises.
When thinking about whether a gifted child can be happy in a normal classroom, one can draw a direct analogy with a child who is gifted at sport: let's do the "thought experiment" that we live in a society which is based on athletic ability and achievement. Only sports and athletics are taught in school, and good achievement in sports and athletics is highly valued. However, all children still go through school according to age, and no matter what their ability level is, they stay in their ordinary age-structured classroom, where the teachers concentrate very hard on the "average" child and the children who have difficulty with sports, because it's very important to this society that all children are able to achieve a basic level of competence. Children who do outstandingly, and who are constantly better than the average child, may be nicely treated depending on the teacher, but they quite often get feedback of the type: "Let the others have a chance"; and most teachers aren't very interested in any sports the child demonstrates which is above the level for his or her age.
Now let's imagine that we have a child who is gifted right across the range of athletic and sporting activities, that this child is attending a school whose curriculum is made up of a mixture of general athletic activities, and several specific sports, and that the child is in the normal class for his or her age, with children of the normal range of athletic ability. The school week is made up of general gymnastic and track and field activities, with specific lessons in tennis, basketball, golf, and various other sports. Is a child who is gifted far above the average in sports going to be happy in this situation? - given, as I said, that if the child performs far better than others in the class, he or she doesn't get promoted to a class for more gifted athletes, or a class at a higher level in the school. The child stays in the ordinary class where the lessons go along steadily day after day, teaching the basics of athletics and the various sports, regardless of the fact that this child already knows this material and may be as good as, or better than, the teacher at some of the sports.
Obviously this isn't the way the teaching of athletics and sports is handled in our society, because for some reason, when it comes to sport, we have more sense. But this is the way academic studies are handled in most schools in the Western world.
It's interesting to pause for a moment and ask ourselves, how many children who were gifted in athletics and sports, would we expect to achieve to the level of their potential, without any additional help, in the school system described above? I don't think many people would expect such children to achieve highly - why not? Thinking about this helps one understand far better the seemingly puzzling fact that many gifted children don't do well in school, and don't achieve to their level of potential.
Back to our thought experiment: now, we want to know: "Is it possible that this child could be happy at school?" I think most people would respond without hesitation "No way!", because our understanding of the need for competition at our level of achievement in sports, and the many other factors involved, is very clear as far as athletics and sport are concerned.
One thing is certain: if, when you asked the question "If my child seems happy at school is everything fine?" you meant, does it mean that your child's needs re her or his ability at athletics and sports are being met, and that he/she is getting all the appropriate help and instruction she/he needs with respect to her/his athletci giftedness - if that's what you mean when you ask this question, then the answer definitely is: I'm sorry, no, things aren't fine at all. How could they be?
However, suppose we have a child who insists that he or she really is happy at school. What are the various options that could be happening here? What factors are there that could possibly make a situation like this a happy one for this child?
The thing is that there are a few other things going on at school besides teaching athletics and sport. The teacher may be a nice person, and may make the classroom a relatively pleasant place to be in; and one can socialise with the other kids. Our society makes it very clear that school attendance is a "must" - even a child too young to be able to define the term "legal requirement" very soon gathers that parents don't have power over school attendance. Except for very unusual circumstances, it's something every child has to do. So it's possible to make the best of things - to enjoy the socialisation with the other children, enjoy the interaction with the teacher if one's lucky enough to have a nice one, and as far as the whole issue of one's personal development in athletics and sport is concerned, just "jog along" (no pun intended) with the others, trying not to take it all too seriously.
There's life outside school, too, and if the child is lucky the parents will make sure that he/she is able to take part in athletics activities that are closer to her/his ability level. So, with a bit of luck, a philosophical attitude, and a few extracurricular activities where the child can excel more appropriately, a child can say that he or she is happy.
In a comparable way, this is how some gifted children can seem happy at school. Also, if we now come back out of the “thought experiment”, and think about the schools we actually have in our society, there are two additional factors which might help a gifted child to be happy in a normal school – these factors are sport itself, and music. Many academically gifted children are also gifted at sport and some aspect of music – and our strange society has relatively no difficulty handling giftedness in these areas, so a child who is gifted in either or both of these areas does have at least 1 or 2 areas in which he or she can excel and achieve at her or his real level, and for some children this can give them enough help with the overall pattern of their life for them to take things easy, make the best of them, and be reasonably happy on the whole. If the child is able to make one or more good friends at school, this is also something that can be a huge factor in helping them be happy there.
But: in our thought experiment again, there's one type of child who can get into serious trouble by "being happy" in this way, and that's a child who cares desperately about sport and athletics, who has all the urges of a gifted athlete to set high standards and to excel, but who makes the choice to try to be what everyone else seems to want: to fit in with the other kids and be "one of the gang"; not to rock the boat in the classroom as far as the teacher is concerned; and to say "Yes, I'm really happy" to parents who ask. This type of child can, deep inside, become little by little seriously depressed to the point of feeling suicidal.
And now it's important to come back out of the "thought experiment" and remember that we're really concerned not with athletes, but with intellectually gifted children. Because our intellect is a far more integral part of ourselves than our sporting ability. In order to grow up happy, children must gradually come to an understanding of who they are compared to the other people in their world - an important part of "who they are" meaning what they're capable of, what they can realistically achieve and aspire to in life.
Child psychologists have realised that an important factor for happiness in children as they grow through the primary years is that they have opportunities to experience successes, and fundamentally this is because a success gives us feedback about what we're capable of, and tell us part of who we are. We can build on a success and move on to another success, and this process makes a big contribution to our building a happy concept of ourselves. Some gifted children, by trying too hard to fit in and “be happy”, to do and to be all the things which those around them seem to want them to be (including the effect of peer feedback & the need to be accepted), quietly become desperate because they're just not able to build a happy and successful concept of themselves in these circumstances.
Therefore any small or intermittent signs that a child has a part of themself, or a part of his or her mind, which is very far from happy, should be monitored carefully and taken very seriously, and parents should take definite steps to try to understand what the truth is – is this child genuinely happy, or is he or she only trying to be so because that seems to be what everyone wants, or because he or she doesn’t want to “stand out”. If there’s a reality that internally the child is actually desperate & depressed, it’s very important to find this out and take action immediately to change things in that child’s environment so that this desperation or depression doesn’t progress. Any gifted child who seems blithely happy at school and in most other settings, yet out of nowhere suddenly seems inexplicably bitter or desperately unhappy, or expresses hopelessness, is seriously NOT fine at school, and very clear and definite measures need to be taken with the guidance of a professional experienced in gifted children's issues, to help him or her.
However, deep unhappiness, hopelessness or desperation which aren't directly related in an understandable way to events in the child's life, and which are inconsistent with the child's normal "front" that he or she is happy at school, are a concern. They should be talked about carefully, monitored carefully, and action should be taken to get professional help if they persist for too long, because the consequences of allowing such feelings to eat away inside a child who's trying to pretend to be happy, can never be good, and can often be serious.
Returning to discussing the majority of the "gifted children who seem happy at school" by taking things easy and making a few compromises - is this situation all right? Is what I described above acceptable? The answer is that in an ideal society it wouldn't be, but we don't yet live in an ideal society. School attendance is a legal requirement, and most families don't have many school options to choose from. This gifted child has to deal with that reality in one way or another, and taking the situation lightly, not rocking the boat, and concentrating on the things which can be enjoyed in the situation is about as good a way as I can think of to deal with a situation which suits him or her hardly at all, but which has to be lived through.
No gifted child, however, should have to do this without understanding and support at home, and a few important measures being taken at home outside school hours. This is the really important way in which everything isn't "fine" - it's not fine in the sense that the parents can relax knowing that the child's welfare is being well catered for. Quite the contrary, these parents should be on alert that they have an important job to do, addressing the needs of their child which the school isn't meeting. If at this point you still wonder "What do you mean, not meeting the needs? If the kid's happy what's the problem?", you need to go back again and read through the thought experiment about the society based on athletics and sport. In fact, let's look again at that though experiment, because most of us would have a very good feeling for what needs doing to help an athletically gifted child trying to be happy in an athletically average school.
We'd realise that it's important that the child understands really well that he or she is capable of higher standards than those which are taught at school. We'd put a lot of effort into telling the child "OK, it's bad luck you have to go through this average school, but you have to understand that you can do more than those other kids. It's not that they're not as good people as you are, they're just not as good at sport as you are." We'd understand that it's really important for the child to build a confident concept of themself in this respect if they're ever going to achieve in athletics and sport to the extent their abilities fit them for. And since we know the school isn't helping them to understand this, we'd realise how important it is for the parents and if possible the whole extended family, to help them with it.
And the immediate next thing we'd understand is that it's important for this child to have as many other opportunities as possible to participate in sport which is at their standard, and to meet, interact and compete with other kids who are gifted athletes like they are.
We can come back out of the "thought experiment" for the last time now. The intellectually gifted child in an average schooling system has exactly these same needs, but somehow when they're put into the words which are relevant for intellectually gifted children they immediately have a vaguer, more touchy-feely sound to them. The gifted child who's being happy in a normal school needs his or her parents to learn as much as they can about gifted children and their needs and issues, and to teach and help their child to understand what a gifted child is, and that they are one. The child will need constant and ongoing support with this, because it will need to be built into the layers of their understanding of themself, as they build that up month by month and year by year. After all, the school is showing them "average, average" for about 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. As parents you need to work to offset that, and it can't be done by saying only once or twice "You're a gifted child".
The need to provide as many activities as possible outside of school hours, which are suited to the child's giftedness, is easier to understand, and luckily in all but the most isolated rural areas such activities are relatively easy to find. Chess clubs, maths clubs, clubs associated with Museums and Zoos, and online courses and activities specifically designed for gifted children, aren't too hard to get involved in. In isolated rural areas online activities and online contact with other gifted children will have to do most of the job.
Do these things, and you're probably justified in feeling that your child is happy at school, and everything is relatively fine as long as you support your child emotionally, teach her or him to understand his/her giftedness, and fill in as many as possible of the gaps left by the school. But always keep in the back of your mind the fact that the price of this compromise is more than some gifted children can manage to pay, and always watch carefully for any signs that your child is getting into serious emotional trouble of the sort I've already described.
I've already mentioned how helpful sport and music can be to gifted children, because our society accepts quite easily giftedness in these fields. Drama is a related area which can be similarly helpful. This simple fact can't be over-stated or over-used in helping gifted children, so unless your child is totally anti-sport, anti-music, and anti-drama, do give him or her plenty of opportunities during the primary years to learn an instrument, sing in a choir, join a drama group, and take part in different sports. It doesn't matter if these aren't your child's areas of greatest giftedness, they may still be of great help to her/him. If he or she hasn't taken to them by the late primary years, you can stop pushing sport and music opportunities at your child - but always be ready to support them again if he or she makes a late start at them.
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