Author Archives: Catherine Riordan

Fitting In Or Standing Out: The Dilemma of the Gifted

Fitting in or standing out

Theme for Wicklow/South Dublin GAS group meeting on Wednesday 22nd October

Fitting in or standing out is a perennial dilemma for the gifted, from early childhood to adulthood.  How many of us have been told that our kids have “social skills” problems? Indeed, how many of us have occasionally wondered about our own social skills?!

Young kids who can read and understand things in advance of their years, can have a hard time fitting in and making friends within their age group. For a start, their interests may be different to those of their friends, but their passion is such that they just want to talk about them all the time. An endless stream of facts about dinosaurs isn’t that appealing to a six year old who would rather play football. They may also be impatient when others don’t grasp things as quickly as they do and have the potential to be quite bossy and overbearing, especially if they are one of those who loves rules and complexity. At this age, it is a bit much to expect your gifted child to understand that he may be driving people away by just being himself, but it’s very hard as a parent, to watch your child constantly be isolated and rebuffed; the one who is never invited to the party. Sometimes, as parents, we can get drawn into thinking that there is something wrong with our child and we desperately try to fix things for them and to force friendships. It can be very isolating for us too, as most other parents don’t really understand the issues we are dealing with.

Later, just like any other teenager, they will feel a very strong need to conform. Their peer group from here on, takes on a much greater importance and, I’m afraid, your reign as the most important person in their eyes is about to come to an end rapidly! There is no escaping the fact that they are different to the majority, so they can’t be the same as everyone else and still be true to themselves. Some may well fly through these years with little trouble, particularly if we have managed to help them feel comfortable with themselves so far. However, many will purposely underachieve in order to fit in and be accepted, particularly girls. Others will embrace their “differentness” and may appear somewhat eccentric. All teenagers struggle to find their own identity but, for the gifted, it can be even harder. They tend to be very intense and to think things through in great depth and detail and can end up completely tied in knots. The dangers of going through this struggle alone and without an understanding ear cannot be overestimated.

What can parents do to help gifted children feel comfortable in their own skin and to find their place in the world? How can we best deal with the issues that are thrown up during their passage through the one-size-fits-all education system? How do we keep ourselves sane in the process?! These are the issues which the Wicklow/South Dublin Gifted Advocacy and Support group will be exploring at our next meeting:

Wednesday 22nd October 2014, 7.45pm

Glenview Hotel, Glen of the Downs

New members are always welcome, but we would appreciate it if you could let us know if you plan to come so that we have an idea of numbers. (gaswicklowdublin[at]gmail[dot]com) Details of the group can be found here.

For some reading in advance: 

Genes, Intelligence and Jumping to Conclusions

Statue facepalmLast Wednesday morning on his Newstalk Radio show, Pat Kenny had his weekly science slot with resident expert Luke O’Neill, Professor of Biochemistry and Academic Director of the Biomedical Sciences Institute at Trinity College Dublin. The chosen topic for discussion was genes, intelligence and the education system. (It begins at 31 minutes into this podcast).

The discussion was littered from start to finish with misrepresentations and misinterpretations. Given Professor O’Neill’s stature as an internationally renowned immunologist who has done a great deal to make science accessible to the general public, we were very disappointed that he was so casual about his remarks and that he had so little understanding of the science behind the topic he had chosen to present. In our last post, we discussed the application that Kenny and O’Neill saw for this study within our education system. Here, we look at the “science” upon which their conclusions were based.

For his opening remarks, Prof O’Neill stated “You’re born with a particular set of genes that sort of govern intelligence to some extent. And a big study just came out. 10,000 twins were assessed, which is a good group to look at ‘cos identical twins who are separated at birth and you can follow them in schools and so on and it’s 60% genes and 40% environment is what governs your ultimate intelligence. And for some subjects like maths it’s 70% genetic. So no amount of schooling, almost, is going to help someone who doesn’t have the genes to be mathematical.”

In 1994, Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioural Genetics at King’s College London, began the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a longitudinal study of all twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996. They are not all identical and none was separated at birth. In December 2013 an interim study was published, looking at the GCSE results of the twins who have now turned 16:  Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16. This, we presume, was the subject of Luke and Pat’s discussion.

As stated clearly in the study title, it was looking at GSCE results, or academic achievement rather than intelligence and, to quote Plomin himself, “GCSEs aren’t a great measure of what we would normally call academic intelligence.” So, this wasn’t actually a discussion of intelligence at all, something which is vastly more nuanced and complicated than GCSE grades and IQ scores.  Prof O’Neill casually sidestepped this and then went on to confuse the term heritability with inherited. The two are not the same.

The concept of heritability belongs to the field of genetics and can be quite tricky for a non-expert to get their head around. Heritability is a measure of the extent to which differences in the appearance of a trait within a particular group of people, can be explained by a difference in their genes. It refers to the group, not to the individuals and it does not refer to the passing down of a trait from parent to child. It is incorrect to say that if intelligence is 0.6 heritable, then 60% of a person’s intelligence is inherited from their parents and 40% is due to the environment.

Achillea growth in different environments

In the 1940’s, scientists Clausen, Keck and Heisey studied the growth of the yarrow plant, Achillea. In one experiment, they took seven Achillea plants and made three clones of each. One of each clone was planted at coastal height, one at mid elevation and one higher still, at the timberline.

In the diagram to the left, the seven clones are ordered from left to right according to their growth at the lowest elevation. The second line shows them in the same order at middle elevation and the top line shows them at the highest elevation, the timberline. The three clones of each plant are shown directly one above the other.

Comparing the clones of the same plant vertically across the three different environments, although each is genetically identical, their growth is very different. The difference in height cannot be explained by any difference in their genes, therefore height is almost 0% heritable.

Now compare the seven different plants at each elevation (horizontally). Here, the environment is the same for all the plants, so the difference can only be explained by the difference in their genes. The very same trait, height, is almost 100% heritable in this scenario.

You might also notice that the relative heights of the different clones is not always the same. For example, the plant on the far left is the tallest at sea level and at the timberline, but the plant in the middle, is the tallest at the mid level.

So, you cannot take the heritability of a trait as measured in a particular group of people in a particular setting and then apply the result to any old group of people you fancy and in any environment. Bear in mind also, that it is unlikely in the extreme that maths ability, or any other ability, is controlled by one or two genes. So, to extrapolate the results of Plomin’s study to say that anyone is born with the “wrong genes” for maths or any other subject, and that no matter how hard they work at it, they are wasting their time, is absolute nonsense.

It is this sort of misunderstanding that leads to the fixed mindset that prevents too many of us from trying new things or persisting in the face of difficulty. We may not all have the potential to be geniuses, but given the right “environment” and the right attitude, any of us can be perfectly competent at far more than we might think. It is a great disservice to our children to lead them to believe that they will never be good at something because they were born with the wrong genes.

Every Child is Gifted. Really?

Frazzled looking catMy head is melted! Someone called Glennon Doyle Melton wrote a blogpost called “Every Child is Gifted. Every Single One” which has caused something of a bruhaha in the USA. Numerous gifted advocates have taken to their keyboards in response, with blogposts flowing. Many  other parents responded saying they were moved to tears by the beauty of the article, one going so far as to say it was “the most beautiful thing I have ever read”. Late last night, I got sucked into reading a 765 comment long Facebook status update by the original author. I’m not the better of it yet!

At first, I thought that the problem centred around the use of the term “gifted”. Some use it in a loose, colloquial manner. Others use it in a strict technical sense to refer to those whose ability, particularly in terms of IQ, falls within the top 2%-3% of the population. Within educational psychology, there is no one accepted definition of gifted, which doesn’t help us make our case, but that’s a discussion for another day! Suffice to say that there are frequent calls for the term “gifted” in educational psychology to be changed, but I don’t believe that would make a whit of difference. Had Lewis Terman and Leta Stelling Hollingworth had a crystal ball when they first used the term back in the early 1920’s, they might have chosen differently. However, no matter what term we choose, it will also come with baggage attached.

I have now changed my mind, what is left of it! I believe that the real problem is society’s current obsession with telling every child that they are special. The term “gifted” is just an added complication. If it was considered normal to be average and ordinary, there would be no problem.

Taking the colloquial use, even here, we see several interpretations. Every child is a gift, has a gift, is gifted. There is absolutely no doubt that every child is a gift to their parents. To each of us, our children are special, unique gifts whom we love dearly and unconditionally. They may have a gift in the sense that each of them has strengths as well as weaknesses, something that they do relatively well. As parents, we must spot these strengths and encourage and nurture them. We must raise our children in an environment where they feel loved, valued and safe. However, to me, even in the loose colloquial sense, being gifted implies that you can do something better than a significant percentage of the rest of the population. Statistically, this is just not possible. For there to be a top, say 25%, there must also be a bottom 75%. So, every child cannot be gifted.

Society seems to have developed an overwhelming need to tell everyone that they are special, maybe not as marked in Ireland as it is in the USA, but we’re getting there. We don’t have Gifted and Talented Programmes in our schools, so there is less perceived benefit to being labelled gifted. We are also a nation of begrudgers so, rather than claim that every child is gifted, we are more likely to scoff at the idea that someone else’s is.

Do we really do our kids any favours by bringing them up to believe they are special? By handing out medals for everyone at the school sports day, do we not devalue the winner’s medal? By devaluing achievement in this way, do we not disempower and set our kids up for failure, disappointment and a lack of fulfillment? This commencement speech by David McCullough Jnr sort of sums it up for me and I love his quote “Climb the mountain so that you can see the world, not so that the world can see you”.

It is important to note that, when referring to our children as gifted, we mean in the educational/psychological sense. We aren’t saying that our children are better than anyone else’s or that they will necessarily achieve great things, not even straight A’s. We simply mean that they are different, in the same sense that children at the other end of the spectrum are different and that, because of this, they may need some special support and understanding as they grow up. The educational system, designed to meet the needs of the majority, is not always a good fit for them and, all we are asking for is that they are recognised and supported as they navigate their way through their early lives. Giving them a label is supposed to make it easy to identify them and understand their needs, in the same way as the label “dyslexic” is used to identify kids with dyslexia. Unfortunately, the term that was chosen for us almost 100 years ago, has come to mean something else that is currently emotionally loaded.

In Being Gifted is a Beautiful Mess, teenager Madison Kimrey describes eloquently her experience of being a gifted child. You should take the time to read it.  Every child is not like this. Every child is not gifted.

How I Learn Might Make You Think!

Picture of How I Learn coverI have just finished reading How I Learn, a crowdsourced book edited by Helen Bullock, aka @AnseoAMuinteoir, and it’s left my head spinning…in a positive way!

As you might guess from the title, each contributor has written about themselves as a learner. It is fascinating to read people’s personal reflections on what they understand by learning and how their learning style has changed over their lifetime or in different circumstances. Contributors range from nine years old to the far end of the spectrum. Some have had to deal with learning difficulties, others with exceptional ability in an inflexible education system. Some have come back to formal learning after long periods, others have never stopped actively pursuing new skills and knowledge. Particularly interesting are pieces by teachers who discuss their own learning style and experiences and how this informs their teaching practice.

Many of the contributors are people I have been following on Twitter for some time. It is really very interesting, and sometimes eye-opening, to read more than 140 characters at a time from them. A great deal of thought has gone into these pieces and, I would imagine, many have learned something about themselves in the process. Just reading this book has left thinking about my own learning experiences and what it means to be a lifelong learner. If I was a teacher, I imagine it would make me see some of my students a little differently. What this book illustrates very clearly is that, when it comes to learning, one size most definitely does not fit all. However, when the fit is right, everyone, regardless of age or ability, loves to learn.

Many of the authors are regular participants at #edchatie which takes place each Monday at 8.30pm when a group of teachers gather on Twitter for an hour to discuss educational topics relevant to Ireland. As a parent, it is just fantastic to see their enthusiasm for teaching and the ideas that they share. The #edchatie tag is also used as a way of flagging relevant information and comments during the week.

On the subject of Twitter as a learning and networking tool, if you have an interest in the area of giftedness, #gtchat is a very lively chat on Fridays at midnight Irish time. It is an international affair with many well-respected experts as well as “ordinary” teachers, parents and psychologists and it tends to move at quite a lick. For gifted issues with an Irish slant, you can check out #gtchatie.

How I Learn is the sort of book you can either read from cover to cover or dip in and out of. It’s thought-provoking, inspiring and well worth reading. All proceeds will go to the children’s charity, Barnardos Ireland, so you really can’t go wrong. Why don’t you take the plunge and buy a copy? You never know what it might lead to. In a mad fit of post-book enthusiasm, I signed myself up for an online course from Harvard…it seemed like a good idea at the time!

Purchasing instructions from Helen:

If you’d like to download the ebook you can get it on and the Apple iBook Store.

Or if you’d like to buy the printed version you can contact me through email: or tweet me @AnseoAMuinteoir or @HowILearn. The printed version is €15 plus €4 P&P. There’s a PayPal account set up so it’s hassle free and it’ll arrive to your door! I can’t say often enough that proceeds go to Barnardos!!

Evanna Lynch Launches Book at CTYI

Evanna Lynch at CTYIThere was great excitement at CTYI/DCU last Saturday evening for the launch of Words To Tie To Bricks, an anthology of works by the students of the creative writing class of Summer 2013. Not only were these teenagers there to see their work published in print, the book was to be launched by CTYI alumna, Evanna Lynch, aka Luna Lovegood of Harry Potter fame.

The highlight of the evening was Evanna’s speech. Having begun by saying she was no good at public speaking, she went on to deliver a wonderful message to the young people in the audience and one which merits sharing further.

Reading the book which she had been invited to launch, she was struck by the depth of the subject matter and the intensity of emotions expressed. As had been remarked by previous speakers, it was hard to believe the authors are so young. Then she remembered back to when she herself was that age, attending CTYI and beginning her acting career with the Harry Potter films. She too used to write, although she claims she rarely finished anything! People frequently remarked that she was too young to be writing what she wrote, too young to be acting; always too young for what she was doing, feeling or thinking. After a while, she began to feel as though she was wrong to be doing these things at all and felt somehow uncomfortable about it.

Now, in her early twenties, the message has become “you should be doing this” and “you should be doing that.” She is suddenly no longer considered too young to have such talent, but is expected to challenge herself and achieve more. Looking back, she says the constant message that she was too young was, in a way, quite damaging. It made her question herself and her ability and it prevented her from really enjoying doing what she loved.

Her message to young people is not to pay too much attention to those who tell you that you are too young. If you have a talent and you enjoy using it and developing it, then embrace it, be proud of it and really enjoy it now.

This is no ordinary book of poems and prose written by a bunch of teens, It is really well-written and a pleasure to read. If in doubt, take a look inside. Not alone that, but all proceeds go to St Michael’s House,  who provide vital community-based services for people with intellectual disability. What a wonderful way for the students of CTYI to use their talent. Please support them and St Michael’s House by buying a copy of the book. You will find links to all versions here, so no excuses!

Words To Tie To Bricks