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New school year - Dr Anne Grant

A new school year for highly able children

by Dr Anne Grant - EGM Early Learning, Born to Soar

Thinking about young children and the beginning of the new school year – in particular those children who are developmentally ahead of most of their age group. Some people call them children with high levels of ability or children who are gifted. But usually in very young children what is noticeable are areas of development that are advanced - for instance, skill with language, extensive knowledge on a special topic, or behaviours that seem different - a greater interest in talking to adults or older children rather than their own age group.   
 
Such differences can be observed even in children as young as two or three years old. So advanced children are to be found in early childhood programs as well as in the early years of school. If you are aware of new entrants who are developmentally ahead or you discover them as the weeks go past, you also need to be aware that they will see some things about their new program differently from their mainstream age-peers.
 
We know that children who are developmentally advanced have different expectations of their new teacher, their new program and other children they will join in with. Usually their greatest expectation is of new learning and an opportunity to share their latest special interest - carnivorous dinosaurs; how electricity works; playing chess, etc. Their expectations of a new teacher may well be that they will be available to support the child’s own learning goals – much as parents at home may have done. When this is an unrealistic expectation then you and parents need to explain to this new entrant the difference from home and help them make this transition to an alternative way of learning in this new setting. They are too young to grasp the whole picture by themselves.
 
Some high ability children, think more deeply than their age-typical peers about possible scenarios, the right or wrong way to do things or what their new teacher will expect them to know already and as a consequence become quite worried about how they will cope in the new program.  They may need to talk about their concerns in the safety of home but will also need reassurance that their feelings are normal, and the adults they know have confidence they will manage perfectly well.  
 
High ability young children are usually more focussed on the excitement of new learning than others of their age. However, often in a preschool program or in the early years of school the teacher is largely focussed on ensuring all children are engaged and have the opportunity to be successful in their new learning. Advanced learning or following idiosyncratic interests is not a priority.  While this is a generally satisfactory approach the advanced child may learn as a result there’s nothing here for me to learn.  Their disappointment leads in turn to them failing to become engaged in the new learning environment – they may start to cry readily when things go wrong, or argue about having to attend the new program. In the long run this can lead to school refusal.
 
 If a child changes from an eager enthusiastic learner to a difficult reluctant member of a group or class, teachers need to invite parents to a discussion about why problems are occurring and how together they can solve the difficulties. A young advanced child needs to learn – and indeed is entitled to learn – that a teacher has new topics to offer them, even when it is advanced on the usual content. 
 
Another challenge for the child who is developmentally advanced for their age is they have a different understanding about friends. So finding a friend can be difficult within a class or preschool group that is likely to consist only of other children of the same age, and similar level of social development. Children who are advanced often seek out older children more likely to share their level of knowledge and understanding, but the structure of preschool or school does not usually make this easy. 
 
Again teachers and parents need to step in with support if social interactions are not going well. Talk together about ways to help this child to find friends who are like them – these probably won’t be in the same age-group. For instance, introduce them to other children who share their interests or provide opportunities to be with children in older groups or classes – both within their educational setting and outside it. It may help as well if teachers or parents explain to this child - in non-judgemental ways - why other same age-children may not think in the same way or are not interested in the same games. Your brain works differently so that you are interested in …. That’s Ok, everyone has their strengths
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These young high-ability children can be quirky, interesting, challenging – make the most of them. Everyone is richer in the end.

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