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Wednesday Wisdom

Enabling the Able

- Reflect -

Just last week, a parent got in touch to ask how he might best support his very able daughter. His daughter (aged 11) is a whizz at most subjects, routinely breezes through classroom activities and has a particular aptitude for maths.

In the grand scheme of things, this parent’s question is uncommon. I am much more likely to receive an email from a parent when their child is struggling academically or feeling unmotivated. Whilst some parents choose to talk proudly and openly about their child’s brilliance, others may feel embarrassed to bring it up. For the latter, when other parents are worried that the homework is too hard but your child is complaining that it’s too easy, it can be tough to join in the general chat. 

Our sympathies and interests are often drawn to the less able and strategies are put in place to boost engagement. However, the more able are just as entitled to their needs being met and parents are entitled to ask whether they are being supported optimally. 

Back in the day, “gifted” referred to those with the potential to succeed academically, and “talented” were those deemed to have promise in the creative arts and sport (Senior, 2014). Any sort of official national scheme petered out in England over ten years ago, although Wales and Northern Ireland chose to retain the terminology

These days, a variety of descriptors are bandied about. NACE (National Association for More Able Children in Education) prefers the term “more able”, though, for a small group of learners, they also have the label “exceptionally able”. The Welsh government uses the terminology “more able and talented”. Currently Ofsted and the Department for Education use “more able”, “most able” or “higher attainers”. 

You might be reading this wondering if your own child could ever be described as “gifted”. It’s a question that can generally only be answered via professional assessment. However, this definition by Potential Plus UK provides some hints: “Children with high learning potential are much more than high IQ scorers. These children are fascinating, complex, challenging, brimming with vast potential and an incredible thirst for knowledge.” A long list of characteristics accompany this definition. Remarkably, not all of them are particularly positive.

- Motivate -

Just as the parents of highly able children might struggle to talk openly and honestly about what their child is capable of, their bright children may face a range of social and emotional challenges.

Able kids can struggle with self-esteem issues too, and may have to tolerate additional teasing or both social and intellectual loneliness. Whilst not the case for all very able children, they may be more prone to perfectionism, performance anxiety and be intolerant of perceived failures. Many of the exceptionally able may also have a range of additional needs, a point that is frequently overlooked. 

Before we start mapping out how to support the able child intellectually, their emotional wellbeing should be at the front of our minds. They should be loved and valued for who they are, not just celebrated for their achievements. Perhaps counterintuitively, parents might ensure that their bright child also has access to some activities and experiences where they see other children thriving and find themselves struggling. Mistakes need to be normalised in family life and viewed as part and parcel of learning and innovation. When you are used to getting everything right, the day a mistake is made, it can feel catastrophic. This is why exercising ‘mistake muscle’ should be front and centre of parenting the exceptionally able.

Paying attention to their emotional responses to struggle will be an important part of sensitively responding to their needs. Praising them for spotting mistakes can be helpful, as can modelling your own response to something that you find complex and challenging. They need to know that you value the struggle and can be comfortable with the discomfort and process of figuring things out. 

Parents should pay particular attention to any negative self-talk that children use, taking it seriously and exploring it with their child, and work hard to ensure their child has time in their social and family calendars for a whole lot of fun. Fun shouldn’t be thought of as an added extra or reward. As our forthcoming Researcher of the Month, Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, tells us, it’s utterly fundamental to young people’s self-concept and self-esteem.

If you are reading this and your very able child is happy, thriving and doing well academically, rather than tweaking too much, give yourself a pat on the back and consider maintaining the status quo. 

- Support -

It’s worth remembering that the support needed by very bright children is largely the same as that needed by all children. We need to listen and attune to who they are and what they are interested in (no matter how quirky) and we need to ensure that we give them access to books, people and experiences that they will find enriching.

Around the dinner table, we should seek their opinions and ask great questions to open up and encourage risk-taking in their thinking (we don’t need to know all the answers). Ask them to evidence their beliefs and nurture their discursive and debating skills. 

The more able child may be an impatient one too. Having to wait for a sibling to pipe up with an answer to something that was entirely obvious, requires restraint. Teach them to have a modicum of patience and to behave kindly towards those who don’t find everything quite so easy. An additional and simple step that can be both self-esteem boosting for the child and good for the sibling or friendship bond, is to encourage the able child to give back. Helping another child or parent demands both the retrieval of knowledge, flexible thinking and a degree of emotional intelligence. It is only when you have to explain something that you truly test your own knowledge and it is both character building and intellectually challenging to find ways of conveying information in terms that a struggling peer or parent can understand. 

Happily, there are organisations, summer camps and charities that are focused on nurturing potential. Perhaps your gifted musician requires funding to pursue their passion? Perhaps your Classics loving teen needs to be among like-minded peers? There are various exciting websites offering enrichment activities for budding mathematicians and charities offering young people from non-selective state schools the experience of university-style tuition. Schools themselves can get young people debating, enjoying competitive quizzes or developing their thinking using ready-made, inspirational resources

As half-term approaches, whether you are an educator or a parent, there are lots of juicy, intellectual opportunities available on and offline which are worth checking out. Our top pick would be the online sessions by The Philosophy Foundation for 7-11 year olds. As you consider these enrichment activities for your family, always remember to confer with your children, research the options beforehand and pay attention to what sparks their interest. If they think an activity sounds fun, they are more likely to engage with it. 

A general rule of thumb when it comes to nurturing academic potential is that we nudge rather than push, ensure learning is fun and not frustrating, and intuitively attune to our child’s likes, rather than impose interests upon them. 

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

Any Tooled Up parents who want to learn the best evidence-based tips to help children thrive academically are invited to join me for a webinar on 9th March at 8pm GMT. Book your free place now. It’s just one of many live events that we are hosting over the next two months. Check them all out on the Tooled Up homepage

If you’re interested in broadening your child’s thinking, why not consult the resources that we’ve made in collaboration with The Philosophy Foundation? Listen to our interview with founder, Peter Worley, learn how to encourage children to process feelings of intellectual uncertainty, discover strategies for asking great questions, or browse our list of books for enquiring minds. You will also find numerous resources on promoting dinnertime chat, developing vital oracy skills and being a resilient learner (for both younger children and teens). 

If your child has high sporting potential, we’d suggest watching our webinar with top athlete Holly Cram, who is also an expert in sport scholarships, and looking at some top tips from performance nutritionist, Dan Richardson. Both webinars are accompanied by detailed notes if you are short on time. 

As I mention above, the importance of normalising mistakes in family life can’t be stressed enough, for all children. Take a look at our tips to find out why. You might also like to listen to our podcast with Dr Thomas Curran, a renowned expert on perfectionism, or consult our list of books that can help. 

Finally, keep your eyes peeled for our interview with Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden on the importance of fun, coming soon to the library.

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Have a great week.