When a teacher says they have never, in 25 years of teaching, met such a stubborn child, you know that you are in for an interesting parenting journey! In this family story, Emma describes the lessons she learnt as she advocated for the needs of her gifted son both in the Australian and the UK education system.

Ben* was our first child. As any mother knows, parenting doesn’t come with a manual and you learn on the job. As a new parent, I had little idea what I was doing. I had some support from a mothers’ group and the community nurses, but my family lived on the other side of the world and my in-laws ran their own business and worked long hours. We were figuring it out on our own.

As a baby and toddler, Ben met all of his developmental milestones, but what stood out to me was his alertness, his advanced communication skills and his early understanding of maths. By 7 months, he was saying his first words and by 12 months, he was starting to form two-word sentences. By 21 months, he could count to 10 and by two years old, he could figure out simple word number problems such as ‘if I have one apple, how many more apples do I need to make 4 apples?’. I found chatting with the mums at mothers’ group difficult, as my son was different, and I felt like they resented it.

Ben developed into an independent and spirited toddler. Leaving the house became a nightmare, as he would choose to run off all the time. Going to toddler groups was also really tricky as he wouldn’t follow instructions; whilst all the other children were sitting attentively for singing or storytime, Ben would choose to race around and around them doing laps of the group. He had a fascination with other children but struggled to play cooperatively.

At his three years old nurse checkup, he just wouldn’t follow instructions and instead proceeded to climb the filing cabinets. What followed were referrals to specialists – him to a behaviour specialist, a multi-disciplinary team and the paediatrician, and me to parenting classes. I listened dutifully to the parenting expert’s advice and implemented positive behaviour reinforcement strategies, but nothing worked. Ben knew the game plan and he wasn’t playing along with any behaviour chart manipulation!

At four, he started pre-school. Ben had been so looking forward to going to school to learn. However, it didn’t go to plan. He spent most of the first week on the ‘time-out’ chair. The pre-school teacher told me that she had never, in her 25 years of teaching, known a child as stubborn. When she told me this, instead of feeling upset, I felt a sense of relief. It wasn’t me – it was my child – he was a particularly tricky child to parent.

At five, he started main school and was an eager beaver from day 1. He was ready for learning. However, the first two terms were slow, and we had a few reports of him playing up at school. The school had a policy of not allowing children to learn to read until several terms into the year, so again waiting. We tried to advocate for him to get access to home readers early, but it was to no avail. In Year 1, they started streaming for maths and he got placed in the middle set. This was a child who had rationalised the concept of negative numbers in pre-school. Once again, I had to advocate for him. The school justified their group placing with the fact that he refused to show all of his workings out and his books were messy! He stayed in the middle set and was thoroughly bored. Meanwhile, he was being assessed by the local authority – they found sensory processing differences. Perhaps this was one reason he struggled so much to sit still and quiet. That year, he had to do school swimming lessons. On one occasion, he forgot his flip flops and as a result he totally refused to go swimming. He couldn’t stand the thought of having to put his wet feet (changing time was very limited) in his school shoes. That year, he also had an autism assessment, which concluded that he wasn’t autistic due to his capacity for empathy. However, psychologist friends disagreed.

By Year 2, he was becoming increasingly frustrated with school. In maths classes, he would ask for harder work. On one occasion, his request resulted in him being thrown out of class and made to sit outside the classroom for the whole lesson. That same year, he was assessed for giftedness using a WISC test and found to be in the top 1% for verbal reasoning, but with a processing speed of just 13%. This was a ‘frustration’ profile of a learner with dual or multiple exceptionality; who was extremely bright but struggling with skills such as the concentration and fine motor skills required for writing down his ideas. This inconsistent WISC profile was also very common in those on the autism spectrum which raised our suspicions of autism once again. I discovered that there is a great deal of overlap between autism and giftedness ‘symptoms’ and that giftedness can sometimes mask autism.

In Year 3, he started to really struggle with friendships. He told me that his one true wish was to have a friend. One day, the teacher did an exercise in which the students were each given a drawing of a stadium scene filled with characters. Students were asked to identify with a character from the scene e.g. the kids playing soccer, the people chatting in the stadium. Ben simply stated that he was none of them.

The ensuing years of primary school led Ben to become more and more isolated. He experienced difficulties making friends and over time stopped trying. School was a constant source of frustration. He hated the cookie cutter aspect and the emphasis on learning facts over creativity. He was bullied repeatedly and even tolerated a ‘friend’ repeatedly slapping him around the head in order to just have a ‘friend’. It was heartbreaking. School saw him as a difficult child and repeatedly passed him up for enrichment activities, such as teamwork days, due to his problems working in a team and his unpredictable behaviour. We connected with The Australian Gifted Support Centre and learnt all we could about giftedness as well as enrolling our son in a social skills class and a, once a week, gifted school. This help was invaluable in helping us support Ben. Armed with my newfound knowledge, I was able to advocate for my child. During the last years of primary, I was constantly called upon to advocate for his needs and to make them see that he was acting up because of his sensory and social difficulties and his boredom and frustration.

I was determined that high school would be a better experience. I advocated for advanced maths testing for my son and in Year 7 he scored 85% in Year 10 maths, which paved the way for acceleration to Year 10 college prep maths. This worked out well for a while and saw him re-engage with school during the first years of high school but, in the ensuing years, he was forced to repeat more junior maths as he had completed the curriculum.

My son is now in sixth form. We moved from Australia to the UK and have joined a fantastic school who are supportive of his needs. The right environment has made all the difference. He is now on track to achieve A grades. He even had an interview to read computer science at Oxford University and holds offers from top universities. What does the future hold? Life won’t be smooth sailing for him. He hasn’t got any friends at his new school (though plenty of people do chat to him) and he has been diagnosed with OCD, which causes a lot of stress and anxiety. All in all though, I am hopeful for the future…

The lessons I have learnt are:

  • Trust your instincts – you know your child better than anyone else.
  • Listen to your child – they are your best teacher.
  • Learn everything that you can – joint support groups.
  • Advocate, advocate, advocate – but know that teachers are busy. If there is something you can do to help them, do it – it’s a partnership.
  • The right environment makes all the difference – find a supportive environment and say yes to any support for any special needs.
  • Finally – just do your best and be there for them. Your best is enough.

* Ben’s name has been changed. Read about more genuine young people with high learning potential helped by Potential Plus UK in: Family Stories

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