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by Jaye Lester
At 14 months my son pointed to a magazine and correctly read the name of a bank (Société Générale) printed on the back cover. I leaned in to see if he had recognized a logo or an image from a T.V. commercial but there was nothing but text on the page over an extremely blurry scene in the background. No logo or remarkable image, just letters.
At that moment a mixture of pride for his achievement and worry for his future school experience washed over me. I had started reading early myself but my mother had taught me. While I was delighted to read early, I knew what a problem being far ahead of other kids could present in school so I decided not to teach my son to read. My son figured it out entirely by himself from watching T.V. ads and weather reports.
From this point on, my husband and I encouraged him by playing a game that consisted of writing a few words on an erasable child's tablet to see if we could stump him in the evenings from time to time. At two, my son could read almost any 2 or 3 syllable word. We never had to explain anything to him besides what punctuation was (at his asking) and the sound that p and h make together.
We live in a major French city with highly regarded preschools. His first year with a group (2,5 to 3,5 years old) was spent at an excellent daycare center where he was able to choose his activities, had physical liberty and where there was a 1 to 5, adult/child ratio. The center's psychologist suggested a very progressive introduction. At the time he didn't talk much, was nervous in new situations and was highly physically active.
He started the Jardin Maternelle just one hour per day then gradually increased to 24 hrs per week. The experience went very well and our son felt happy and secure. Children in France usually start school at age 3. We were soon faced with the choice of enrolling him in the regular school or keeping him at home. Since the daycare experience had gone so well, we enrolled him in the local public school but it did not go well.
At registration I asked the ratio of kids to adults and the director explained that there was a teacher and an assistant for each class of 26 kids. I learned later that the assistants do not spend very much time in the class and have no teaching credentials. During the first few months there, my son often lay on the floor of the classroom, refused to participate in some activities and cried a little. I picked him up for lunch and kept him home two afternoons per week.
We hoped that things would get better. Since he wasn't making much fuss and was happy at home we decided to continue. Despite knowing that my son could read, neither the teachers nor the administrators tried to discuss his cognitive particularities with us at any time. We didn't really learn until late in his second year of maternelle that things were not improving much (teacher/parent conferences not being routine). At the end of the year m y son still cried on occasion when other children were reprimanded (teachers have a habit of scolding children in no uncertain terms here and his last teacher screamed in class many times per day).
I learned that public grade schools here offered nothing to gifted kids besides psychological assistance if necessary and that any academic intervention was at the discretion of each school's director. I asked the director of our local elementary school if she would consider grade skipping my son or including him in a reading group outside of class. She did not overtly refuse but neither did she volunteer to do anything. We then decided to enroll our son in a private elementary school with a very academic focus that sought gifted kids.
I felt sad to give up on the public school and did not relish putting my kid in a wealthy ghetto. Fortunately, however, my son rapidly adapted to the strict routine at his new school. The class work is heavily based on reading, writing and math, among my son's primary interests. He quickly started to thrive and shine.
This school, that practices the old-fashioned teaching style that the French public educational institution today reviles as being elitist and discouraging, is doing wonders for my son. At age 6 my son takes dictation in cursive with a fountain pen every day. All work is graded and brought home each night. The students are ranked on a weekly, trimesterly and yearly basis. The level of instruction is at least two years ahead of the the public school in the equivalent of first grade.
While my son loves the structure and predictability of this school, I am concerned that it fosters too much competition and not enough creativity. On the other hand I know that this school's approach is the best existing match for my son's learning style.
What is most worrying overall is that gifted kids in France readily fall into a series of chasms: political, educational, psychological, familial. It is not politically correct to speak of giftedness here. For the majority of left-wing types (most public educators included) it is an elitist notion from the start. For some traditional right-wing types giftedness is an unfortunate quirk, a weakness. For psychologists it often represents malaise or even illness. For schools and families it is more often seen as a problem than a gift.
At my son's new school I have spoken to several parents of other gifted kids over the past year. Some of their kid's are doing well and others are not. While this school boldly proclaims it's interest in gifted kids, they encourage the academically talented ones while often leaving those that struggle with their challenging but stale curriculum in distress.
While it has been difficult dealing with the French school system, there have been certain benefits of living here. The private school did not require an IQ test which I was grateful for since the attempt I made to test my son at age 4,7 failed. I believe there is a good chance that because my son started reading so early but his verbal skills lagged as a toddler (plus a few other behaviors), if we had been living in the U.S. he could have been labelled Hyperlexic. There are many early readers in my family and several individuals with high-functioning autistic symptoms. The fact that France is slower and more hesitant to label kids has probably been good for us in some respects.
Is it always useful for people who function at the edges of the autistic spectrum to receive labels? I know that my brother, for example, who today refuses to examine any relation he might have to the autistic spectrum, would certainly have been labelled on the spectrum if he were a kid today. My brother coped with his difficulties/difference by aiming to be as normal as possible and has had a remarkable level of success with this strategy. It is very possible that receiving a psychiatric label (especially for someone so who thinks so literally) could have destroyed or at least disrupted his determination to grow and function as well as possible.
On the other hand I think that many strategies used today to help kids on the autistic spectrum can be honestly useful, such as social stories, timelines, etc. The American mania for labelling and treating and the French tendency to ignore and regret differences are very polarized, extreme positions.
More time needs to be spent thinking all around about how to achieve the best result for kids while treating them with the most dignity possible in the short and long term. Whether concerning giftedness, Autism spectrum or both, the French need to know that recognizing differences is very important and Americans that rigid labels can be very heavy to bear.