Who's a clever kid, then?

October 8th 2005

Article from Jane Cadzow in The Age

Are children getting smarter, or do ambitious parents and some experts just believe so? If we are producing more budding geniuses, should they be hothoused or lumped in with the rest? Jane Cadzow ventures into the world of the gifted and talented.

Rachael Sowden has two very clever daughters, nine-year-old Hannah and seven-year-old Rebeccah. No, not clever ... that's an old-fashioned term. "Hannah is highly gifted," says Sowden, "and Rebeccah is profoundly gifted."

To meet them, the girls are sweet, cheerful, unremarkable. They look and act like normal kids but their mother tells tales of startling precocity. When Rebeccah was just five months old, "she used to point at the light and go, 'That's a light' ... At 16 months, she had the vocabulary of a seven-year-old. At two, she was reading absurdist books."

The first time Rebeccah sat for an intelligence test, she was assigned an IQ of about 130, placing her in the top 2.5 per cent of the population (the average IQ is 100). 

But Sowden suspected her daughter had under-performed: Rebeccah "didn't like the lady who gave her the test. And it was the end of the week. And she was three." On her next test, she scored 165 - a level of brainpower found in fewer than one in 10,000 people. Meanwhile, Hannah's IQ was assessed at 141, putting her in the one-in-250 category.

When I whistle with amazement and ask where the girls got their brilliance, the amiable Sowden looks slightly affronted. "It's not totally unexpected," she says, pointing out that three of their grandparents have law degrees and that she and her husband are university graduates. Both are teachers, though she has withdrawn from the paid workforce to devote herself full-time to raising Hannah, Rebeccah and their younger siblings, aged four and two (IQs as yet unknown).

The family lives in the northern NSW town of Uralla, where Sowden closely monitors her daughters' progress at the local primary school. She is determined they will have every opportunity to fulfil their potential - not just for their own benefit but for the good of humanity. "Without sounding boastful, my child could be the one who finds the cure for cancer," she says.

How many gifted children are there in Australia? A lot more than a decade ago, some experienced classroom teachers will tell you with a sigh. Such a description used to apply only to prodigies, says Mary Bluett, president of the Australian Education Union's Victorian branch. "Now, if a kid is just bright or clever, we want the label 'gifted' to be attached to them."

Recognising whiz-kids like Hannah and Rebeccah Sowden is one thing, but it seems to Bluett that the general push to classify children as gifted - in other words, as inherently more capable than others - is a symptom of an increasingly competitive society. "The moment a child shows any academic bent at all, it's something that parents immediately focus on, cultivate and want to advance," she says.

It's no longer enough that our offspring are happy and healthy. It's not even enough that they do well at school. What we want is a diagnosis that confirms their superiority. "What we want," says Bluett, "is a gifted kid."

To qualify for the label, children have traditionally required an IQ of at least 125, putting them in the top 5 per cent of the population. "One child in 20 - that's a worldwide rule of thumb," says Melbourne psychologist Gail Byrne, chair of the Children of High Intellectual Potential (CHIP) Foundation. But some of the growing number of specialists in the education of gifted children have lowered the bar to include kids with IQs of 115. By this definition, one-sixth of the population is gifted - whether "mildly", "moderately", "highly", "exceptionally" or "profoundly" (see box overleaf). That's three or four students in every Australian classroom: a total of 550,000 kids. Even a one-in-20 calculation gives us more than 160,000 gifted children. Either way, it's a lot of proud mums and dads.

No wonder there is a market for journals such as Gifted and Talented, Gifted Child Quarterly and Gifted Child Today. Websites galore cater for the interest in gifted children - "Welcome to GT (Gifted and Talented) World!" is the cheery greeting at one - and a search for books on the subject at amazon.com gets more than 1200 results: from Gifted Children: Myths and Realities to Helping Gifted Children Soar and Grandparents' Guide to Gifted Children.

Then there is the essay by American satirist Lewis Burke Frumkes, who may have heard one too many my-child-is-a-genius anecdotes at dinner parties. In How to Raise Your IQ by Eating Gifted Children, Frumkes writes that "two teams of researchers, one on a diet of gifted children, the other on a placebo, have turned in amazing results. The team eating only gifted children succeeded in raising their IQs an average of 15 points over a period of two years, while the placebo group remained as stupid as ever. The implications are enormous. Not only may it be possible in the future to raise one's IQ by ingesting an occasional gifted child (there are approximately 2.5 million in the US alone, 5 million drumsticks, etc) but it may provide ecologists with a partial solution to a runaway population..." Topping a list of accompanying recipes is Gifted Child En Papillote.

If gifted children suddenly seem to be everywhere, it might be not just that we have broadened the definition and are determined to find them. Perhaps the human race is getting cleverer. The results of intelligence tests in different countries indicate that over the past century, average IQ has increased at a rate of about three points a decade. The so-called "Flynn effect" - named after New Zealand political scientist James Flynn, who discovered the trend - has no simple explanation. Flynn himself suggested that IQ tests don't so much measure intelligence as some kind of "abstract problem-solving ability". Maybe we are just getting better at doing IQ tests. Or maybe improved nutrition is boosting brain function, meaning each new generation is not only taller but smarter.

Scientist Francis Heylighen suggests another factor could be that parents pay much more attention to their children than in the past, stimulating their cognitive development. Because people have smaller families, they have more time, energy and money to lavish on each child, says Heylighen, founder of an international discussion forum called the Global Brain Group. He proposes also that society as a whole now functions at a higher intellectual level, exposing the curious child to more information and more intellectual challenges. For instance, the use of computers for education or games at an early age is likely to increase general knowledge and mental dexterity, he says. And "just using everyday appliances such as VCRs and microwave ovens demands a more abstract type of reasoning of which the older generation is often incapable. The increased complexity of life is likely to stimulate an increased complexity of mind."

Most of the literature on budding Einsteins emanates from the United States, but according to Karen Rogers, former director of gifted education at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota, the number of advanced learning programs for top performers in US classrooms has fallen in recent years, replaced by a focus on back-to-basics schooling as required by the Bush Government's No Child Left Behind Act. "I see more emphasis [on giftedness] in Australia than I do in North America," says Rogers. 

We haven't always celebrated intellectual prowess in this country. On the contrary, says Miraca Gross, the nation's leading gifted education authority, Australians have a sorry history of anti-intellectualism and, even now, a regrettable tendency to deride the whole concept of giftedness. "There still is an enormous amount of misunderstanding and a lot of resistance," says Gross, director of the University of NSW's Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre. "There still is a reluctance to do anything for kids who seem to have it all already."

But our interest in the best and brightest is growing all the time. While the Federal and State governments work together to develop a national gifted education strategy, increasing parental demand for IQ testing of children is providing a lucrative sideline for psychologists, who charge about $500 a time. In NSW, which already has 31 selective high schools for the academic elite and 72 primary schools offering "opportunity classes" for gifted students, the state Education Department has just embarked on a plan to offer extension programs for the gifted at all comprehensive high schools. Victoria has three selective high schools and another 26 offering accelerated learning programs for gifted pupils. In addition, children at regular schools can be jumped to higher grades, either permanently or for a couple of hours a day. When it comes to identifying and nurturing bright sparks, says Rogers, "Australia probably is one of the leaders in the world".

Some fear we are moving towards a two-tier education system - first-class schooling for the highly intelligent, second-class treatment for the rest. Though plenty of brilliant kids come from poor families, suspicions linger that it is the children of affluent, ambitious parents who end up in large numbers in gifted education programs. "There are more 'gifted and talented' children who are called Emily and Felicity ... There seriously are," says Jennifer Leete, deputy president of the NSW Teachers Federation. "I think teachers are a bit cynical about it. If you go to a school that is serving the needs of a so-called upper-middle-class area, surprise, surprise, what do you find? There are a whole lot of people there who are apparently identified as being gifted and talented. You go to schools that serve more disadvantaged communities and guess what? There don't seem to be as many gifted and talented people in the school population."

In New York, Syracuse University inclusive education professor Mara Sapon-Shevin has long maintained that offering intensive tuition programs to high achievers entrenches social inequality. "Who's chosen for gifted programs?" asks Sapon-Shevin, author of Playing Favourites: Gifted Education and the Disruption of Community. "Not surprisingly, it tends to be white upper-middle-class children - kids who test better, perform better and have had many more opportunities. So the rich people get a better education and they stay privileged."

When her own daughter was offered a place in a gifted class, Sapon-Shevin had no hesitation in turning it down. "I would never have wanted to raise a child who thought that she was better or smarter than other people," she says.

On a sunny school-holiday morning in Sydney, more than 200 bright-eyed seven- and eight-year-olds stream through the gates of the University of NSW at Kensington to attend workshops for gifted children. Some of the parents they drag behind them have a mildly long-suffering, I'm-with-Smarty air. You get the impression that they're used to being beaten at chess and are all too familiar with The Mensa Book of Puzzle Challenges. Otherwise the adults seem a varied lot: confident, retiring, flamboyant, conservative, owlish academics, outdoorsy blokes, corporate types, people who have travelled from far-flung country towns and others who have driven from the outer suburbs. This is not an impoverished crowd - the courses in science fiction, philosophy, medieval history and so on cost about $50 for each half-day session - but they don't look like members of a master race either.

Carey O'Callaghan, from Saratoga on the NSW Central Coast, says she became aware of her son Conor's love of learning when at age three he immersed himself in books on volcanoes and Egyptian mummies. At eight, his favourite subjects are spiders, birds of prey and the Arsenal football club but at the workshop he has chosen, he will be pondering the question "Did the Dinosaurs All Die?" O'Callaghan says all four of her children are gifted - though that's not a word she bandies about, having noticed that it sets other parents' teeth on edge. She and a friend with a similarly endowed child laugh about this. "We call it the 'g' word."

For O'Callaghan, it is fun but exhausting living in a household with so many active minds. "They're very opinionated," she says of her offspring, aged five to 11. "If it's quiet when my husband comes home from work, it might be because we're discussing 'Is there a God?' " Gifted children have their uses, of course. Her eldest, Karina, was just six when she started helping O'Callaghan with the morning crossword. "Talkative, 10 letters," said the little girl, peering over her mother's shoulder. "Chatterbox."

Conor, her third child, is not only mentally agile but a dazzling athlete - "amazingly physically superior" to most kids his age, says O'Callaghan. But being good at everything can have an isolating effect: "Every now and again he just cries because he's different to other children and he says he doesn't want to be." Apart from anything else, he knows that standing out from the pack can be dangerous. "He's seen the problems that my other children have encountered - that they've been teased and bullied."

Ostracism of very bright kids is common, says Rhonda Collins, president of the Parents' Association for Children of Special Abilities and co-ordinator of the Victorian Affiliated Network of Gifted Support Groups. "As parents of gifted children, we have always had the problem that our children are not liked," she says. "And we don't know why."

Jealousy, presumably. But judging by the hard time her elder son had in the playground, Collins thinks there's more to it than that. "From the time he started school, he was being bashed up," she says. "He would cry going to school, he would cry in school and he would cry coming home." Boys like him aren't targeted because they top exams, in her opinion, but because the other kids cannot understand them. "It's not just that they do good maths and good English. Gifted children are different. They're different in lots of ways."

Collins realised her second son was gifted a moment after he was born. "They put him on my stomach and he proceeded to push himself up on his elbows and turn his head from side to side, looking at things," she says. "At birth, babies cannot raise their chest off the ground. They cannot turn their head and they can't focus and look around. But there he was doing it. And I thought, 'I've got another one. "Oh God."

Early mobility can certainly be linked with advanced intellectual development, says Miraca Gross. As reported in her acclaimed book Exceptionally Gifted Children, Gross's research supports overseas findings that highly intelligent kids tend to get moving before others. In her study group of 15 Australian children with IQs over 160, the mean age for crawling was 7.65 months, compared with 10 to 12 months in the general population. The mean age for walking unassisted was 11.7 months, which put the gifted children more than three months ahead of schedule. They talked and learned to read early too, and seemed to require less sleep than others.

Another anomaly: in 1984, when most of the children in Gross's group were aged one to five, a national survey of 84,000 Australian mothers found that only 10 per cent of infants were still breastfed at the age of 12 months. By contrast, 12 of her 15 children (80 per cent) were being breastfed at this age. (The most common explanation from their parents was that they believed children should decide for themselves when they wanted to be weaned.)

As in previous studies of the exceptionally gifted, the kids in Gross's cohort tended to be the firstborn of small families. The parents were older than average, having delayed having babies until they had completed tertiary studies or achieved financial security. They and the children's grandparents were more highly educated than most people of their generation and more likely to be employed in professional or managerial positions. Children whose parents were born in Asia were significantly over-represented in the group.

Pushy parents were noticeably absent. Gross knows people think gifted children have overbearing mothers and fathers but she sees little evidence to support the theory. "You do get parents of gifted kids who go up to the school and complain and make demands," she acknowledges, "but they are the minority." In her experience, most of the parents are quite unassuming. If they suggest to a teacher that their child is bored and in need of more challenging work, it's partly because they know that restlessness can lead to bad behaviour (and when gifted kids turn their minds to mischief, watch out).

Anyway, the parents are likely to get a frosty reception, says Rhonda Collins. "As soon as you go to the school and say you're concerned about your child, the inference is that the teachers aren't doing a good job. And it's hard to get past that. The teachers will take it personally, no matter what you say."

Some people, wary of alienating friends and annoying teachers, keep quiet about their brainy children. Collins jokes that the parents in the support groups she supervises greet each other with a secret handshake.

Many gifted children are sociable, well-adjusted and all-round terrific - the sort of people we hope will run the country one day. At Melbourne's Monash University, gifted education lecturer Leonie Kronborg says precocious intellect is often accompanied by a highly developed ethical sense and a strong empathetic streak. A high proportion of the gifted children she meets are "not into winning and beating others. They're actually very preoccupied with social justice and equity and what is fair for everybody. They're driven by a need to find out the answers and the truth of a situation."

Others are fired by a need to excel. Perfectionism is one of the most pervasive traits of gifted kids, and failure to measure up to their own unforgivingly high standards can leave them feeling angry and frustrated. Unable to understand why they don't have copperplate handwriting at the age of five or six, they will gnash their teeth, scrunch up sheet after sheet of paper and lash out at family members. Or they might simply stop trying. Rachael Sowden vividly remembers her daughter Rebeccah taking decisive action when trailing in a race at the local swimming club. "She wasn't going to come first so she pretended to drown," Sowden says. "Another child's father jumped in to save her." (How did Sowden feel? "Very, very embarrassed.")

Advocates for gifted children say emotional intensity and extreme sensitivity often go with the territory, making it all the more important that parents and teachers keep them happily challenged intellectually while cushioning them from life's vicissitudes. A 2001 Australian Senate committee inquiry into the education of gifted children found that they needed special help at school just as surely as did children with intellectual and physical disabilities. "Psychological distress may be caused not only by the lack of appropriate curriculum but also more generally by lack of support and acceptance," the committee reported.

The burden of being gifted is highlighted in the media. "Mitchell was only six years old when he decided to commit suicide because he was too bright," began an article ("Too Smart for Their Own Good") in Melbourne's Herald Sun last year. Thankfully, Mitchell changed his mind but the story warned that "there are hundreds of children in Victoria at risk of self-harm because they are gifted and bored..." Books such as The Gifted Kids' Survival Guide urge them to stand up and be counted but apparently some children hide their talents, so desperate are they for acceptance. Miraca Gross has found that those who start school already reading fluently are likely to stop doing so unless their teachers immediately notice and encourage them. "The kid sees nobody else reading and doesn't want to stand out from the others," says Gross. "It's scary because this happens in the first couple of weeks."

Consequently, some gifted children perform way below capacity, even falling behind their non-gifted classmates. When the CHIP Foundation's Gail Byrne studied 50 highly and exceptionally gifted Melbourne students aged nine to 14, she was dismayed to find that 40 per cent were below-average in reading comprehension or mathematics. 

The NSW Teachers Federation's Jennifer Leete is sceptical about claims that kids at the bottom of the class could be undiscovered prodigies. "They're seriously gifted and talented but it's not manifested in a capacity to achieve in literacy and numeracy tests?" says Leete. "It's all a bit peculiar really."

The great debate in education circles is whether gifted children should be taught separately or kept within the mainstream. The teachers' unions believe their needs are best met in ordinary classrooms, where they can mix with kids of wide-ranging abilities. "We think that if you're terribly bright and gifted and talented, you need to be able to get along really well with people who aren't like that," says Leete. Teachers argue that they have been spotting and fostering academic talent for generations, and that, in any case, the days when everyone in a schoolroom was taught at the same pace are long gone: for key subjects such as reading and maths, classes are routinely divided into groups according to ability so that the fastest learners can work ahead.

Rachael Sowden worries nevertheless. "Sometimes with gifted kids, they're kind of put in a corner," she says. The attitude is, 'They'll be right, they can do the work by themselves.' Or, 'They can go and help the other children who maybe haven't caught on yet.' And you don't want that for your child, because you want them to be extended."

Thirty years' research shows that gifted children do better in selective classes, says Gail Byrne, who believes taking the brightest kids out of the regular classroom can also benefit those who remain. Once the children who answered all the questions have gone, others have a chance to participate and, perhaps, to shine. Anyway, selective schooling and grade-skipping may be justified on compassionate grounds alone. "Gifted children often use grammar and vocabulary that is so far beyond the children in their grade that the other kids think they're freaks," says Byrne. Placed with similarly intelligent children, they can relax and be themselves.

Our ambivalent attitude to giftedness stems from our egalitarianism, says Miraca Gross. Many Australians see high intellectual ability as "an inherited, and therefore unmerited, passport to wealth and status through success in school and access to higher-level employment".

Do bright children really grow into eminent adults? The biggest and most famous study of their development suggests that on the whole, they do pretty well for themselves. After following the fortunes of more than 1500 gifted subjects for 35 years, US psychologist Lewis M. Terman concluded in 1959 that "the superior child, with few exceptions, becomes the able adult, superior in nearly every aspect to the generality". By then, 31 members of his group had appeared in Who's Who and 70 in American Men of Science. The gifted had been credited with 230 patents, about 2000 scientific and technical papers, 33 novels and 375 short stories and plays. Terman conceded that some had led troubled lives, but said the rates of mental illness, alcoholism, poverty and crime were lower than in the wider population.

A survey of trainee teachers at NSW universities in the mid-1990s found that they liked average pupils better than gifted students. Yet a teacher at a government primary school in a wealthy Sydney suburb radiates enthusiasm as she tells me that she and many of her colleagues get a real kick out of working with the highly intelligent. "Those kinds of children often seek a really special relationship with the teacher because they are very comfortable with adults," she says. "A lot of the time when the other kids are playing, they'll be at my desk ... I get to find out what's going on in their minds. It's wonderful."

The teacher (who asks not to be named) says her school once sent home a form asking parents if they thought their children were gifted. No less than 80 per cent answered in the affirmative.

The brightest and the best?
Gifted children were once regarded as close to superhuman - not only highly intelligent but exceptionally wholesome, strong and strapping. US psychologist Leta S. Hollingworth noted after studying a range of kids in 1926 that "the gifted group has a median height of 52.9 inches [134.4 centimetres] as compared with a median of 51.2 inches for the children of average intelligence, and of 49.6 inches for the very stupid".

Leslie Margolin reports in Goodness Personified: The Emergence of Gifted Children that in the mid-1930s, Hollingworth had a panel of judges compare the faces, heads and shoulders of 40 gifted adolescents with those of a group of ordinary kids. "The photographed faces of highly intelligent adolescents are more attractive (more beautiful) to adult judges than are those of adolescents who represent the average population," Hollingworth wrote. Another early researcher, Lewis M. Terman, found that gifted children were "appreciably superior" in health and physique, "markedly superior" in moral attitudes and character traits and "vastly superior" in academic performance.

In 2001, an Australian Senate committee of inquiry into the education of gifted children concluded that "gifted" was a contentious word, with connotations of good fortune and general superiority. In schools, the widely used phrase "gifted and talented" (or "G&T") differentiates between children with high potential ("gifted") and those who are outstanding performers ("talented"). 

Making the grade
Level IQ range Prevalence
Mildly gifted 115-129 1:6-1:40
Moderately gifted 130-144 1:40-1:1000
Highly gifted 145-159 1:1000-1:10,000
Exceptionally gifted 160-179 1:10,000-1:1 million
Profoundly gifted 180+ Fewer than 1:1 million