Exceptional problems

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am


When Anne Damrall's elder son was two years old, he was returning from a trip to the beach with his father when he said: 'You know, Daddy, I think the world is made up of numbers and letters.'

'That's what he told my husband,' said mother-of-two Damrall. 'We were a bit dumbfounded. But we didn't think much more about it, he was our first child.'

It was when her son - let's call him Jason - was in his last year at kindergarten that the teacher recommended he be tested by a child psychologist to see if he was gifted. She had noticed he was very distracted in the classroom, though he would be listening.

So Jason was tested. Yes, he was exceptionally gifted, scoring 98 per cent, but he also had ADD - or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dysgraphia - which, as Damrall describes it, is a disconnection between the motor neurons of the brain and his hands.

It was hard for Jason to produce good handwriting so the child psychologist, John Shanahan, suggested he do many more things on a computer.

In the tough educational environment of Hong Kong, many parents would love their children to be gifted, but it can be incredibly demanding on both parents and child. While Hong Kong is improving its services for gifted children, it still has a long way to go, according to Professor Daniel Shek Tan-lei, the chair professor of applied social sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Shek warns that in assessing whether a child is gifted or not, parents and teachers should not just focus on a child's IQ and the traditional number of 130 or above. Based on this criterion, he says, the number of gifted children would just be 1 to 2 per cent, but there are children with creativity and leadership skills that come under the same category - which can raise this to 10 per cent.

'Some are really good at music, others are creative, some have good leadership skills, so for me one-tenth would be a conservative estimation,' he said.

Gifted children can sometimes also be 'twice exceptional' - meaning that not only are they gifted, but they also have dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADD, autism or Asperger's Syndrome among other special educational needs (SEN). As SEN is a mandatory component of Hong Kong's education structure, it is often the special need that is identified before the child's giftedness.

Since 1990, the Education Bureau has taken an inclusive approach to giftedness and while a SEN section is seen as a mandatory part of schooling, as yet giftedness is not. The teaching involves three tiers whereby children are taught in mainstream schools rather than being singled out. However, teachers will sometimes identify those children and, through differentiation, attempt to appeal to the student's level of inquiry and analysis. Or the children are pulled out for extra programmes.

Dr Stephen Tommis is the founding executive director of the partially government-subsidised Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE). Working with the EDB, Tommis says he strongly recommends that schools have two dedicated posts for gifted education - a GE (gifted education) manager and a GE co-ordinator. The manager would help facilitate and provide resources for gifted children to be taught, while the co-ordinator would do the teaching and also help make other teachers more aware of the issues concerning giftedness.

Damrall is adamant that the first step for parents wondering if their children are gifted should be for them to be tested. It is not only the test that helps, but also the support and suggestions provided by the educational psychologist.

'Having them tested is a blessing, but it also puts a weight on your shoulders,' she said. 'I would love my child to be seen as a whole person, rather than a child with ADD or gifted.'

Patrick Lam Hak-chung, an associate director at the academy, would like to see many more educational psychologists in schools to help identify gifted children. At the academy, the WISC IV (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, fourth edition) test is provided by educational psychologists. He says, while the test is free in schools, children can sometimes wait one or two years.

Both Tommis and Lam were reluctant to identify specific schools that were better or worse for gifted children, but said that there were key areas parents could look at to find out if a school had a giftedness policy. Lam said parents should not make decisions based on whether a school had a GE manager and co-ordinator. 'Sometimes these schools may only have pull-out programmes, but schools that do not have these roles may embrace the idea of creativity and higher order thinking [the ability to analyse as opposed to just rote learning].'

Lam recommends that parents look at school websites to see what the school lists on its agenda for development. 'Nowadays, all schools should have an annual plan or agenda with two to three areas of concern - so that is another indication whether the schools are prioritising gifted education,' he said.

Anne Button-Smith is the special education needs adviser (primary) at the English Schools Foundation (ESF). She said ESF followed a similar inclusive model to the government, where guidelines were provided to each school, but it was up to individual schools as to how they were implemented.

'We have a set of guidelines at the centre,' said Button-Smith, whose daughter is also gifted. 'We've been working with providing professional development for our teachers - teaching at a more abstract level, being more creative, valuing in some of the extra-curricular activities that they do.'

At the academy, both Tommis and Lam have been working on providing conferences, seminars and workshops for teachers and parents and also programmes for gifted children as well as mentoring programmes.

Lam says it is important to convince teachers that a band three school can have a child who is gifted. It could be that because he or she is dyslexic or has other special needs that the giftedness has not yet been identified.

There are specific schools - one a direct subsidy school, others private - that cater for gifted children, but Lam warns that the whole child needs to be addressed not just their gift or talent. For example, while a gifted eight-year-old may be several years ahead of his peers in a subject, his emotional development is still often that of an eight-year-old.

Shek warns that gifted children can be highly strung, suffer from depression and have an extreme sense of perfectionism, which leads to unrealistic expectations.

There are a number of parent and focus groups in Hong Kong in both Cantonese and English, but Damrall has specifically found the academy helpful, not only international professionals who have come to give talks on the subject but also the sense of camaraderie that she garners from being with other parents in the same position.

Lam and Button-Smith would like to see a situation where for twice-exceptional children their giftedness was identified before the ADD or autism, to help boost the child's confidence.

Tommis emphasises that the academy has three stakeholders - parents, students and teachers. There is both a hotline telephone number and hotline e-mail for parents with inquiries and concerns.

For more information on gifted education in Hong Kong:

Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education: www.hkage.org.hk

Centre for Child Development, Hong Kong Baptist University: www.hkbu.edu.hk/~ccd/index.htm

Education Development Programme, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology: www.edp.ust.hk/index_e.html

Programme for Gifted and Talented, Chinese University of Hong Kong: http://www.fed.cuhk.edu.hk/pgt/index.php?id=aboutpgt&lang=en

Gifted Education Section, Education Bureau, HKSAR: http://www.edb.gov.hk/cd/ge_e

Hong Kong Federation of the Exceptionally Gifted: http://www.hkfeg.org/