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Wednesday, February 3, 1999 Published at 15:28 GMT


Young, gifted and a right handful

Curse or blessing? When it comes to super-intelligent children, the jury is still out on whether they are a good or bad thing.

While every parent wants the best for their son or daughter, the thought of a child prodigy in the family is somewhat daunting.

Looking after an ordinary child is hard work enough, but having to cope with the constant questioning of a little genius can be a full-time job - which explains why some parents of gifted children take education into their own hands.

[ image: Ruth Lawrence: An Oxford graduate at 15]
Ruth Lawrence: An Oxford graduate at 15
And there's the troublesome social side as well. A gifted child might be ploughing through novels before he or she is out of nappies but when it comes to "normal" behaviour patterns - playing with Tiny Tears or Action Man - their neglect can be cause for concern.

Social problems can only be magnified by the fact that gifted youngsters are sometimes treated as circus performers by the outside world.

Yet occasionally they can make a strong impression. Last month 12-year-old Hero Joy Nightingale, who cannot speak or use her body, won an international award from Cable and Wireless for the Internet magazine, From the Window, which she edits.

Mention "child genius" and most people think of Ruth Lawrence, the brilliant mathematician who rose to fame in the early 1980s after being tutored by her father and gaining a place at Oxford University aged 12.

Sibling success

A more recent example is the Yusof children. Sufiah Yusof earned a place at Oxford at 12 while her bother and sister, Iskander and Aisha, started at Warwick University at ages 12 and 16 respectively.

Educational psychologist Dr Peter Congdon, who runs the Gifted Children's Information Centre, says he has seen "plenty of Ruth Lawrences" in his time.

[ image: Iskander, 12, and Aisha Yusof, 16, starting at Warwick University]
Iskander, 12, and Aisha Yusof, 16, starting at Warwick University
He concentrates on identifying "intellectually gifted" children, as opposed to the other sort of child prodigy, the super-talented, who show a particular aptitude for a sport or playing a musical instrument.

They are judged on a rigorous intelligence test. An IQ score of 130-144 indicates "superior intelligence" and 145+ "very superior intelligence".

"I've seen hundreds in the 150s and thousands in the 130s since I started in this field in the mid 1970s," says Dr Congdon. He adds there is now a greater proportion of gifted girls because they are given "more attention" and predicts the split will soon be 50/50.

On the whole it's a positive thing, he says. "They are our best convertible currency. Economically it makes great sense to cater for them."

Open to exploitation

It was certainly the case with Ruth Lawrence, now in her mid 20s and a professor. She went on to the University of Michigan, researching a highly complex branch of mathematics called "knot theory".

[ image:  ]
The flip side is that some gifted children become virtual freaks to the outside world.

"Sometimes they are being exploited by their parents, who are living their lives and ambitions through their children," says Dr Congdon.

There are tell-tale signs to spotting if you're child is unusually gifted (see the above box). After that it gets complicated.

Local education authorities have an ad hoc approach to the syndrome. None provide psychological tests as a matter of course and an educational psychologist is often only called on when a gifted child becomes disruptive at school.

But Dr Congdon urges parents to pressure their education authority into action.

Otherwise the results can be detrimental. "Gifted children who are way ahead of classmates can become lazy and disruptive. They need to be motivated and driven."

It raises the age-old argument of grouping schoolchildren by ability rather than age.

"Children who are highly intelligent relate better to adults and older children. It's no more relevant to group children by height than it is by age," says Dr Congdon.

Staying in control

"George Bernard Shaw once famously said his education was interrupted by his schooling."

And the doctor offers reassurance to parents who fear being embarrassed by their child's superior brain power. He cites the example of an "infant autocrat" who would send her parents to bed while she stayed awake to watch television, as a case of "how not to do it".

"You've got the wisdom and you are also bigger than the child. One way to find out is to say : 'Let's go to our encyclopedia or dictionary.' They respect you for it."

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