Gifted children are failed by the system
Deborah Orr – In all the furore surrounding Boris Johnson’s comments on IQ, one of the many respects in which he was utterly wrong has been barely mentioned. In fairness, this isn’t entirely Johnson’s fault. It is an endemic misunderstanding, the assumption that people with IQs over 130 are likely to sail through life, effortlessly achieving “success”.
It’s been good to see neuroscience getting a popular airing this week. One can certainly complain that a study from the University of Pennsylvania into mental illness in children and young adults, widely reported as having demonstrated brain differences between males and females, has been “reduced to pop psychology”. But, in truth, neuroscience does not penetrate our general culture nearly enough.
Even experienced psychologists, let alone “pop” ones, often fail to understand how high intelligence can isolate people, especially children. Yet, neuroscience tells us the difference between “normal” and “gifted” brains is significant. A 2006 study from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, found that more intelligent children “demonstrate a particularly plastic cortex, with an initial accelerated and prolonged phase of cortical increase, which yields to equally vigorous cortical thinning by early adolescence”. The study also demonstrated that maximum cortical thickness came at around five-and-a-half for its “average” group, eight-and-a-half for its “high” group and just past 11 for its “superior” group. The more intelligent a child is, the later their cortex will start thinning and the later it will become fully “sculpted”, as researcher Jay Giedd puts it. This all fits with previous psychological theories. Gifted children, it is accepted, exhibit “asynchronous development”, as described by the Columbus Group in 1991. This causes them all kinds of problems, not least because an 11-year-old can be one minute regaling captivated adults with their thoughts on the banking crisis, and the next throwing a tantrum because everyone else in the class can tie their shoelaces, while they can’t.
This theory incorporates an older theory, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, posited by the Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who suggested that gifted kids are prone to one or more of five “overexcitabilities”: psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual and imaginational.
Time and research has certainly borne him out on the first two. Gifted children are prone to learning disabilities – dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, all those conditions that cynics are prone to insist are manifestations of little Tarquin’s parents’ inability to accept that he isn’t as clever as they want him to be. But lot of the time little Tarquin’s parents are not deluded, not at all.
Gifted children tend to have particular problems with sensory processing, sensory modulation and dyspraxia. [pdf download] They are also more likely to be overwhelmed by their over- and sometimes underdeveloped senses, with their brain failing accurately to “read” what their bodies are telling them about their environment. This is not surprising, since they have so many neural pathways to choose from, in their big, messy cortices, and so much sculpting to do.
Sometimes these symptoms are merely a consequence of asynchronicity, and will sort themselves out. Dyslexia, for example, sometimes just disappears. But sometimes a gifted child with these deficits will become a gifted adult with these deficits. The cliches – absent-minded professor, computer genius who can’t drive a car, artistic giant with explosive temperament – chime with what neuroscience tells us.
Asynchronous development can also mean a child’s intellect is way ahead of his executive functions, the parts of the brain that manage cognitive processes. This will make him disorganised, unable to grasp spoken instructions or challenged by mental arithmetic. Even if his brain is generating ideas thick and fast, he may struggle to put them on paper.
In the US, it’s more common for a child to be recognised as being gifted and also learning-disabled. They call it being “twice exceptional” or “2e”. In Britain, however, virtually the only organisation that is really up on what they call “dual or multiple exceptionality” is the charity Potential Plus UK.
What all this means, contrary to Johnson’s banal non-observations, is that children with IQs of more than 130 can be very vulnerable. The selective private sector education system that blessed us with Johnson and his colleagues, and also the grammar school system he lauds, are not the infallible machines for attracting the finest minds he thinks they are. On the contrary, they test children before the smartest have even stopped growing, let alone started sculpting their neural pathways, and when their mental abilities may still be highly asynchronous. Someone who is good at maths and English will pass their 11-plus, while someone who is highly able at one but – as yet – terrible at the other, perhaps due to a passing learning disability caused by asyncronicity, will fail. Selective education identifies the children who are good at everything already, not the children with the greatest learning potential.
In the state system, these children do not always thrive either. They are often bored in class, especially if they have an unrecognised learning disability. Even if it’s recognised, a child may not qualify for extra help if that disability is not driving their academic performance below a bureaucratically fixed point. Which is like saying that a child doesn’t need a prosthetic leg because he hops quite fast. If a child has sensory processing issues, too, then just the stimulation of large classrooms will drive them to distraction, or “sensory overload”, causing an “emotional meltdown”.
Even for a clever child without such difficulties, school has essentially been designed to encourage them to become independent learners. A gifted child is an independent learner already, but is still expected to sit in class for 15 years being coaxed into thinking for herself. The writer, Jenn Ashworth, has described what torture all this was, without quite realising what she was describing. But Ashworth was one of the lucky ones. She found her own way, pretty much avoiding school altogether from 11 to 15, then gritting her teeth to get the exams that would take her to Cambridge.
Many gifted children are at risk of underachievement, or even of leaving education, entirely unaware that their problem is not that they are stupid, but that they’re clever. Potential Plus UK warns that vulnerable groups of students include, among others, those in low socio-economic groups, black and minority groups, and those with English as an additional language.
Yet, even the Tarquins of this world are hard to advocate for. The US psychologist James T Webb warns that gifted children are often misdiagnosed as having behavioural, emotional or mental disorders. Even when they do have such disorders, the chances are that the disorder will be attended to, but not the underlying ultra-brightness. They will be pathologised, rather than understood and supported.
There is indeed a male-female brain difference relevant to this matter. Female brains have larger basal ganglia, which help the frontal lobe with executive functioning. As Giedd says: “Almost everything is more common in boys – autism, dyslexia, learning disabilities, ADHD, Tourette’s … girls, by having larger basal ganglia, may be afforded some protection from these illnesses.”
So, as Britain’s politicians ponder the reasons why the UK is so far down the PISA mathematics list, they might want to consider funding some research from some paediatric neuropsychologists. Their endless arguments over whether it’s all the fault of the left or the right are unproductive. The answers lie in the brains of children, not of politicians.