Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Parenting the Gifted in the Land of Saints and Scholars!

It is an honour to be a part of the SENG National Parenting Gifted Children Week blogtour. Little did we think when we tentatively launched our blog last year, that we would be celebrating our first birthday in such prestigious company! We hope our contribution will offer a different perspective and give some food for thought among our international friends.

To celebrate NPGC week, SENG has published a free e-book
The Joy and the Challenge: Parenting Gifted Children.

For a nation which makes national sports of both put-downs and self-deprecation, being the parent of gifted children in Ireland can be like negotiating a minefield. Unless you tread very carefully, something is bound to blow up on you! First port of call after the suggestion of exceptional ability is usually the internet where most of the references are to programmes and research far away from our shores. It can be difficult to relate to discussion of GATE programmes, GT school coordinators and specialist teachers, AP programmes, G&T registers, One-day schools, acceleration or cluster-grouping when we have no such options available to us. Provision for gifted learners in Irish schools is largely a function of what individual schools and teachers can do within the confines of their classroom, their time and the school budget. As there is almost no teacher-training in giftedness, there is little real understanding of the issues involved in providing for these children. In addition, our Education Act of 1998 ensures that schools cannot enrol on the basis of a child’s ability, which leads to an emphasis on mixed-ability in all classrooms. This was underpinned by research from our Economic and Social Research Institute which found that streamed classrooms “do not boost the performance of the top group”.* We would love to know if any parents of gifted learners were consulted for that little bit of research!

What is universal however, is the experience of parenting gifted children. There we find we have much in common with our friends throughout the globe as we stumble through our parenting years as best we can. If there is no roadmap handed out in the delivery suite to any parents, it seems as if someone has actually tampered with the sat-nav of parents of gifted offspring. We are sent off on side-roads, dead-ends, even to the edge of cliffs at times before we start to find our way. Granted, it is a fascinating journey, but it can also be draining and exhausting. That’s where sharing our experiences with others can be a huge help. The thing is, there is no destination here, no neat platform to tell you you’ve arrived. So sharing with other parents is a way of making sure that you really are moving forward even when it feels as though you’re standing still, or heaven forbid, hurtling backwards!

So what’s different about doing this job in Ireland? Well, we admit to being somewhat envious when we read of parents “looking for a good school fit” in their district. Here, we have no school provision of programmes for exceptionally able children, so school choice on that basis is non-existent. Early enrolment in kindergarten or university is impossible in Ireland as children must be four years old to enrol in school and sixteen to enter third level education. In fact many parents hold off sending their little ones to school until they are at least five, sometimes very close to six because there is such an emphasis on the perceived advantage of being among the oldest in the class. This has a similar effect at the other end of the system where it is very unusual for sixteen year olds to go to university.

While trying to cope with all the usual issues of parenting a gifted child, in Ireland we must do this against a background where the education system barely recognises that our children have needs somewhat different to those of other children. It can be a heavy burden to bear and we find engagement with our global gifted friends through social networking provides us with support, inspiration and motivation to keep going. We hope that by encouraging other Irish parents and educators to join this community, we will eventually bring about positive change for our children.

*One of the ESRI researchers answers questions on Mixed Ability vs Streaming: What the Research Says, How Can Schools Make a Difference (02.29)


  1. What a fascinating post! I learned a lot about some of the similarities but, more important, the differences that parents in Ireland face. In our case, for example, it was actually someone from the school who suggested early entrance for our son. I won't take that for granted now. Thank you very much for enlarging my understanding and being a part of the blog tour.

  2. Take heart, I grew up in a small community many years ago that didn't have the support and differentiation necessary for gifted students. My mother was my sole support and found ways outside of the school system to challenge and support me. I was given my first tome of Shakespeare at 7, when I had surpassed her schooling in math; she made sure I was connected with others who had the knowledge to keep my challenged. Science was learned in the kitchen. There are so many creative ways to keep gifted kids engaged. And as long as you don't mind getting calls from the school because your little one snuck in a book to read in class, there are ways to get through the "Boring" school day. Take heart, your efforts now will pay off for many generations to come.

    Caryn Shepler

  3. Here in Australia I feel that we are somewhere between the situation you describe, and I what I read is available in the USA. I can't believe that Irish schools have such stringent age driven guidelines.


  4. It is sad to say, but the opportunities for gifted kids are steadily declining in the U.S. We are returning to a time when primarily the wealthy are the ones who are looking for schools with a good fit. There has been a lot of talk about pending legislation, but there is no national mandate for gifted education in this country either. Our Sec. of Education would never utter the words you quoted at the beginning of your post. So, I see hope for Ireland. Parents of gifted children in your country should appreciate that work you both have done on their behalf in collaboration with others who advocate for appropriate gifted education. :)

  5. The author of the research didn't offers any reasons why their research showed streaming didn't show improvements at the top. Could it be that the top students are the high achieving students and not those who could be top if they had proper provision. Nor was there a mention of why schools which select their intake are also those which top the university entrance tables. Like with all research, the size and structure of the sample means everything. I would love to know where and who they surveyed. Of course, no mention was made about whether the research asked how the 'top' students enjoyed their learning experience.