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‘Hold them back’ bias against gifted children

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Australia’s tall poppy syndrome starts early, says Dr Mimi Wellisch, with the nation overlooking potential future Einsteins in the population even before school-age – holding back children in an attempt to make them fit in socially.

At a conference for school counsellors in Melbourne on 5 October, Mimi will say there is a stark contrast to the focus on providing for children with other additional needs.  Children requiring challenges are discouraged through a lack of recognition and programs to cater for clever kids, the conference will hear.

Psychologist and founding director of Clever Kids Consultancy, Dr Mimi Wellisch shares her research with Amplify today in a report which also fits well with our Transition to School series. Tell us what you think in the comment box, or even write your own article in response.

The ‘hold them back’ bias

I will be talking at the 2017 Australian Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools conference [6/10/17] about my recent research and telling the conference that there is a general ‘hold them back’ bias among early childhood educators against sending children to school early, including those children who are gifted.

The predominant view of the early childhood educators interviewed in my research was that it was more important to be socially ready rather than academically advanced in determining whether a child was school-ready.

I contacted 10 universities NSW that offer early childhood degrees to background my study. Only one provided a compulsory undergraduate unit about giftedness, whereas all undergraduate students must learn about children with other additional needs.

According to the study, early childhood teachers know almost nothing about young gifted children when they commence their careers in children’s services.

Transformed by knowledge

The research showed that:

  • early childhood teachers struggle to provide an adequate program as a result of lack of information;
  • they do not know where to refer parents for services; and
  • educators who had undertaken training about gifted children, who have additional needs due to their advanced development, their approach was usually transformed.

An early childhood teacher I interviewed, who later specialised in gifted education told me:

Once I began to know more about [giftedness]…a whole new…way of looking at life and looking at children opened up that I had not been exposed to.

The same teacher said that now each year she identifies two or three children in a class who are gifted, which contrasts starkly to colleagues who had no such training.

Social benefits in acceleration

The challenge is often in identifying moderately gifted children – not necessarily Einsteins but children who would benefit greatly, both intellectually and socially, from an accelerated learning program and placement amongst like-minded peers.

These children are more numerous and may not stand out as much as those who are highly or profoundly gifted, and yet in not catering for them, we may be dumbing down the coming generation.

Some teachers told me that they find out about giftedness through the media and the internet. Other educators, who had undertaken training about giftedness subsequent to their degrees, had significantly improved attitudes towards gifted children even if they only participated in a short professional development course.

For example, they were more likely to feel comfortable about describing a child as gifted, much more likely to understand that it wasn’t the parents who were ambitious or pushy, feel more confident that they could identify a gifted child, and more than twice as likely to recommend that parents have their gifted preschooler tested for giftedness than those without such training.

Unaware of NQS obligations?

The study also found that few educators had heard about Early Entry – an acceleration provision for young gifted children to enter school before the minimum age of 4 years and 7 months. This is a provision that has been part of the NSW Department of Education’s gifted policy for the past 26 years.

NQS cover
The Guide’s glossary includes ‘gifted’ under Additional Needs

In addition, Early Childhood Education and Care Services Regulation 160 (3)(h) requires that a record be kept of a child’s special considerations, such as additional needs – and it appears that this is indeed where young gifted children may be found, according to the Guide to the National Quality Standards under the definition of additional needs on page 197.

Additionally, early childhood services have an obligation under the National Quality Standards, Quality Area 6, Element 6.2.2 (Current information is available to families about community services and resources to support parenting and family wellbeing) to refer parents who need additional services.

There are actually currently three elements in Quality Area 6 Collaborative partnerships with families and communities of the National Quality Standards rating system (6.2.2, 6.3.1, and 6.3.3) that are unlikely to be met by most early childhood services in relation to young gifted children.

‘They think it’s just for prodigies…’

Together, these findings indicate that young gifted children’s needs are rarely being met in early childhood services.

One parent whom I interviewed, a mother of two gifted children, told me that

…Early Entry is an educational intervention, it’s a valid one…[It is] not understood by parents, they don’t even know it exits, that it’s an option and they don’t know how to do it. I think it’s also not understood by teachers. They think it’s just for prodigies, you know, for really extreme cases of giftedness…I wish that school counsellors knew about it…two school counsellors…said to me that this is the first gifted children that they have actually dealt with…there needs to be some training and some understanding out there because I think some kids need it, not all gifted kids, but some gifted kids really do need it, and my son was one of them….

My research suggests that universities should include a compulsory unit or at least a few lectures about giftedness in their early childhood degrees and that school counsellors should undertake training in giftedness – to ensure gifted children receive an adequate education, fulfilling their needs while ensuring a better society as a whole.


Related stories

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Around Australia series, transition to school – South Australia

Around Australia series: starting school in Tasmania

Around Australia series: approaches to school transition. Victoria!

An Around Australia series: transition to school stories, starting in NSW

Nothing takes the place of face to face: a personal approach to school transition

Smallest to tallest: one of our sector’s ‘middle children’ sets the bar high for school transition

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Dr Mimi Wellisch

Dr Mimi Wellisch is a registered psychologist, holds Bachelor and Master degrees in Early Childhood Education, taught pre-schoolers for over two decades, and is the Director of Clever Kids Consultancy. She worked as a Children’s Services Adviser for eight years licensing, funding and regulating children’s services. Mimi’s journey in gifted education began through a chance choice of an elective unit in gifted education during her Bachelor studies. Her passionate interest led to her 1997 research of NSW North Coast educator attitudes to gifted pre-schoolers for her Master degree. Mimi is author of books and peer reviewed and other journal articles, has presented at many local and international conferences, and has been President, Vice President and Treasurer of the NSW Association for Gifted and Talented Children. She was awarded a PhD in Psychology in 2015 in relation to her research on the association between attachment and IQ, and assesses children for giftedness at her Clever Kids Consultancy. She has recently completed a partial follow-up study of NSW educator attitudes to giftedness that was expanded to include Early Entry and interviews with parents of gifted children to compare and contrast their experiences with the views and experiences of early childhood educators.

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2 thoughts on “‘Hold them back’ bias against gifted children

  1. A very interesting read. I am lucky enough to run a Pre-Prep and we have gifted children enroll. Being a Pre-Prep, we cover more explicit curriculum content than a ‘regular’ preschool setting. I have found that gifted children thrive when they can explore challenges and work with other like-minded peers. We also teach social skills explicitly and this assists, not just the enrolled gifted children, but all the children in our service. (I have found from past experience that some gifted children can also have a diagnosis if Aspergers and therefore, the explicit social skills instruction is essential to their overall development and wellbeing). The problem that I often witness though as when the gifted children start school, sometimes the content that is taught to the gifted children in school is a step backward in their learning and development. Whilst the teachers say that they are ‘differentiating the curriculum’, (and they probably are to a large degree) it doesn’t seem to be quite ‘differentiated’ specifically enough to suit the needs of these particular children. So I definitely agree with Mimi in that there needs to be education on giftedness in teaching courses (early years and primary) and also the type of content that needs to be covered for gifted children should be included, i.e., open-ended tasks, etc. Thanks for a thought-provoking article, Mimi.

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