Helping gifted children

Sunday December 16, 2012



Skinner during an informal discussion with participants. She spoke of the iPad, as an educational enrichment tool for the gifted as it offers a rich learning experience.Skinner during an informal discussion with participants. She spoke of the iPad, as an educational enrichment tool for the gifted as it offers a rich learning experience.

The recent Gifted Education Conference 2012 brought together experts, parents and interested parties to share views on how best to approach the subject of ‘giftedness’.

THERE are many kinds of minorities with special educational needs. There are the autistic children, who comprise almost 1% of Malaysian children; those with developmental abnormalities, such as Down Syndrome; and those whose IQs are too low to function adequately in mainstream schools. There are also children who are blind or deaf.

Most societies understand the necessity of addressing their needs, and do so. Yet, there is one minority that is often forgotten, amongst all the others clamouring for attention: the gifted. In most countries, the fact that the gifted have special needs goes unrecognised, and too little is done to give these children the opportunity to reach for their best, for the benefit of us all.

The first step to addressing a special need, is first to recognise it and understand it. This depends upon raising awareness of the particular needs of the gifted.

To do so, the National Associa-tion for Gifted Children, Malaysia (NACGM) and the Australian International School Malaysia (AISM) have formed an alliance to support the gifted children of Malaysia and to educate the public about what they can do to help gifted children. This collaboration resulted in the Gifted Education Conference 2012, held last month at the school, subtitled: “Building connections, enabling giftedness.”

At the conference, the invited speakers sought to educate the attendees about how to best approach the matter of giftedness and help their children grow to their fullest.

The main panel discussion for the day was entitled: “Should the gifted receive special educational provisions?”

Sitting on the panel were Zuhairah Ali, president of the NAGCM; Kylie Booker, head of the Middle School at AISM, Florence Wong, mother of six-year-old art prodigy, Reese Matthew Kam; and myself, Valentine Cawley, father of 12-year-old scientific child prodigy, Ainan Celeste Cawley.

I opened the panel discussion with an argument that special education for the gifted should be a basic right — just as special education is for disabled children, since both have special needs, which must be met if the child is to achieve its best.

No one on the panel disagreed with me – and the audience gave the speech a rousing applause, so it looked like my idea was widely supported by those interested in the gifted. The panel then went on to discuss the various ways these special needs could be met.

The debate was lively, since the experiences of each panel member were often different and so too, were their views.


Florence Wong argued that home-schooling gave her the freedom to teach her artistically-inclined son, Reese, in a way that was best suited to him. She revealed that he would spend hours drawing each day. She noted that, if he had been in an ordinary school, he would not have had the time to develop his talent to the same degree.

Kylie Booker countered this. She observed that while home-schooling was working for Reese, she had personally met many home-schoolers who seemed to have been poorly educated.

It was clear to her that many parents were not ready to take on educating a child. Kylie argued that most children would be better off in a formal school setting, unless their parents were particularly well prepared to take on their education properly.

Educational acceleration was mooted as another means of meeting the special needs of gifted children. Both Kylie and I agreed that whether it was appropriate would depend on the individual situation and maturity of each child, though Kylie seemed to be more inclined to deploy differentiated curriculum approaches, in a same age setting, as a primary measure.

I pointed out that my son, Ainan, was much happier at Taylor’s Univ-ersity, than he had ever been at primary school.

It seems strange to say it, but our 12-year-old is much happier being educated with older people, than he ever was with his own age group. What had been lacking was mental stimulation – but acceleration has made up for that.

The audience had before them three options to help educate their gifted children: acceleration, homeschooling, and formal schooling from a school that supports gifted education like AISM. At this point, I proposed the ideal solution: acceleration without acceleration.

By this I meant that there should be a special school, in which gifted children could study an appropriately high level of material – including tertiary level – whilst being surrounded by children of their own age. There is such a school called the Davidson Academy, in Reno, Nevada, for profoundly gifted children.

I closed my discussion by expressing the hope that Malaysia too would have such a school one day, where the nation’s brightest children could study at a stimulating level, whilst enjoying all the social advantages of being with other young children. Were Malay-sia to establish one, it would be at the leading edge of gifted education provision in the region.

The rest of the conference consisted of workshops.

Kylie’s presentation, “The right book for the right child at the right time”, addressed the question of how to nurture the interests of gifted readers (and readers in general).

Kylie drew an important distinction, however, between “gifted reader” and gifted child.

In her view, only about 70% of gifted readers were actually gifted. She highlighted the problem of gifted readers losing interest in school, because they were not being given access to appropriate reading materials.

On the other hand, she also raised the issue of young readers who simply read TOO much – and had to be stopped from doing so, to encourage them to develop social and physical skills too.

Identifying talent

Jane Kilpatrick’s talk, “Identifying gifted and talented children”, introduced the three primary ways that gifted children may be identified: standardised intelligence testing, teacher nomination, and parental nomination.

The latter two had drawbacks in that not all teachers were aware of what to look for, in gifted children – and not all parents are objective about their children’s abilities. Yet, a combination of these measures would have the best chance of spotting a gifted child.

Lalitha Nair’s talk, “Facilitating teaching and learning for the gifted: a pragmatic local approach”, introduced ways that parents could meet the needs of gifted children in their home or other local environments. She also offered the Future Problem Solving Programme, as a way to stimulate gifted young minds.

Susie Skinner’s presentation, “Enhancing learning through the use of mobile devices”, outlined the use of the iPad as an educational enrichment tool for the gifted. She surveyed the wide range of educational apps available for the iPad, which offer a rich learning experience to any child.

The powerpoints for all the talks are available for download on the Gifted Education Conference 2012 Facebook page set up by AISM.

There were also booths on behalf of organisations with a gifted orientation, including MENSA and the NAGCM among others.

The conference clearly addressed a national need, that is deeply felt by some, since attendees came from as far as Penang and Kuching. The collaboration between the NAGCM and AISM is intended to be a long-term one, and there shall be many more conferences, in years to come, to educate the public on how to raise gifted children to be their best.

The writer is a psychology researcher focusing on giftedness. He is also chairman of the Research Committee of the National Association for Gifted Children, Malaysia (NAGCM). He is a graduate in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and has had a lifelong interest in giftedness. He keeps a blog on giftedness at