The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A child prodigy in your class

"What to do if you have a child prodigy in your class?", asked a searcher from Hackettstown, New Jersey. I am unsure whether the searcher was a teacher or a student, though it was from a New Jersey Higher Education Network IP address. It struck me that this was a good question to ask and I shall.

Firstly, "child prodigies" are not aliens. They are young human beings - and often sensitive, and somewhat isolated ones, too. So, the first thing to do with a child prodigy, is to WELCOME them. Be warm. Be supportive. Be friendly. Be there for them. Make it clear that they are wanted and not shunned. Also, might I suggest not treating them as some kind of alien visitation - but as another student, of equal rights, and standing, at least, as all the other students.

A child prodigy will not have as much life experience as older students, so an awareness of their special situation will help the teacher - or student - integrate them, into class life. Be aware that whilst the child prodigy might know as much as anyone about the subject under study, that there may be lots of life experiences that they have not yet had time, to experience. Thus, they might feel "left out" of certain conversations, or not fully grasp the implications of others. This is not because they are lacking in reasoning powers, but because what is being spoken of is outside of their experience. Indeed, some conversations may be socially inappropriate in the presence of a child prodigy, so it would be wise to be tactful and watch the topics and contents of any conversations that are broached in and out of class. It would be unfair and somewhat unethical to raise certain topics with, say a ten year old, when everyone else is twenty and fully cognizant of the background to the topic in a way a child could never be.

Having a child prodigy in class, can be quite a complex matter. A teacher may be unsure how to handle him or her. So might the students. The most important thing to do is to make the child prodigy feel welcome - as you might any child in a situation in which they might feel apart and isolated. Make the child feel comfortable. I don't think, for instance, that having a class load of students who stare at the child prodigy throughout the day, is going to make that child feel welcome. It would make them feel odd and out of place. So, it would be a good idea to have a chat with the class before the child prodigy arrives on their first day, to ask them not to stare all the time - and not to treat the child as in any way "alien". Most of all, they should never, ever be hostile or envious towards the child prodigy. Remember this: the child prodigy did not ask to be gifted in the way that they are: they were born that way and should never be punished for it, socially or otherwise. They should be accepted for their differences, even celebrated for them - but never marginalized for them.

A teacher should evaluate the personalities of those in her class and choose a particularly warm individual, who is not overbearing, to sit next to the child prodigy. This role is more likely to fit the personality of a young woman than a young man. It is essentially a "mothering" role - that of being warmly welcoming, supportive and perhaps acting as a guide in the child prodigy's first days and weeks in class. The care with which this choice of class partner will determine, to a significant degree, how quickly the child prodigy is integrated into the class. The "mentor" chosen should also be someone who is, herself (or himself) accepted and respected by a wide range of other students that she or he can effect suitable introductions for the child prodigy and can act as a pathway to building friendships with the other classmates. It would help if he or she were also academically competent and NOT competitive - for they should be able to supportive of the child prodigy, without feeling any jealousy.

Some teachers make the mistake of always putting the child prodigy "on the spot" by repeatedly asking them questions, in front of the whole class, on academic matters. Sometimes a teacher does this to "test" the child - for they may have feelings of disbelief concerning the child's status or presence in the class. This is a big mistake since it will not be long before the child prodigy notices this difference in treatment from the teacher, and they will begin to feel "picked on". This will lead to the deterioration of the relationship with the teacher and a psychic withdrawal of the child prodigy from active participation in the class. This can spoil the attempt to integrate them into the class. With regards to questioning, the child prodigy should not be asked questions any more frequently than a typical student. If the child prodigy should be shy - and many of them are - it might be wise to be cautious over putting them on the spot at all, since they may just clam up in that situation, which might embarrass them. If the teacher wishes to assess understanding of any particular point, it would be better to talk to the child privately after class, rather than potentially embarrassing a frequently sensitive class of child.

The teacher should be aware of the fact that the child prodigy's educational background is likely to be unusual. The child may have great strengths in some areas, but not have had the chance to build up other areas. So, the teacher should find out what the child prodigy has covered and what they have not covered, so as to be able to address any lacunae and to be able to teach in the most efficient fashion.

The teacher should also be aware that some child prodigies may learn more quickly than the adult students in the class. The teacher should be careful not to bring this to the attention of the other students too often as this may inspire jealousy. The same can happen if the child is asked too many questions AND IS ABLE TO ANSWER THEM. This may bring shame to the other students, who may not have known the answer, and, again, may lead to social problems, including exclusion and isolation for the child.

The students should try to be friendly to the child prodigy, welcoming and warm. They should never be critical, or hostile towards the child and should never express jealousy or envy towards the child. Importantly, they should not engage in competitive games of comparative performance with the child, since the child prodigy may then start to dissimulate, dumb down and underperform, so as not to attract attention to themselves. This could severely damage their education.

Accept the child prodigy as another student - but never forget that they are child and conduct conversations and social interactions accordingly. Discussions of boyfriends and girlfriends and what you may or may not have got up to are entirely inappropriate for a prepubescent child to don't speak of such matters in their presence. So, too, swearing or poor and aggressive behaviour is inappropriate and may disturb the child prodigy - so behave as you would to the presence of a younger brother or sister: with a certain care.

I may write more of this matter at another time...for I am busy and have to go now. However, I hope that this is at least a partial answer for my inquisitive reader and others who might have similar questions.

The best advice I can give is this: care for and take care of the child prodigy in your class and all should go well. Good luck - and happy teaching/befriending (if you are a student).

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:24 PM 


Blogger tearsunderstars said...

Happy Birthday, Ainan!

9:32 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you. It is, indeed, his birthday. Well spotted.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic article. I would have loved to be in this classroom!

6:10 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Laktosefrei...I wish to encourage supportive classrooms...and this is one way to do it.

11:08 AM  

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