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Challenges in French system for super-bright pupils

Some 2.3% of children in French schools are intellectually gifted, according to an Education Ministry estimate.

Until recently, they were called élèves intellectuellement précoces, but that was changed in February to the term élèves à haut potentiel so these children do not feel penalised for their brilliant minds.

Most integrate in mainstream schools, but the ministry said about a third have problems in class which could lead to difficulty with integration and school phobia.

The Association Nationale Pour les Enfants Intellectuellement Précoces (ANPEIP) is an national association that helps parents with gifted children and campaigns for better recognition and assistance.

Its president, Catherine Verger, said: “If your child is extra talented in sport, they will get plenty of support and help to progress, but if your child is intellectually ahead of others, he or she is more likely to be regarded as a problem and suffer rather than thrive.

“We think there are probably more than 3% who are in this category, as they are often never diagnosed.

“Girls, in particular, hide their differences so they might not show their full potential until lycée or university years.

“Boys are easier to spot.”

She said gifted children do not fit into mainstream schooling: “These children think fast, and school thinks slowly. They need adapted lessons.”

Bright children often jump a year, but Mrs Verger thinks this is only appropriate when the child is happy to do so.

She would prefer teachers to be better trained to understand how to assimilate them in their natural year group.

There is some help available for a child who is diagnosed by a psychologist as an élève à haut potentiel.

Each regional education authority has a person responsible for providing facilities for gifted children. Some collèges provide specially adapted lessons alongside the normal curriculum.

Parents can apply for a projet pédagogique adapté, where teachers will work out a special programme for a pupil.

This means a diagnosis is one of the first things to ask for if you suspect your child might be in this category.

It has to be done by a psychologist, and ANPEIP ( has a list of recommended ones. It has a questionnaire to help you decide whether your child is more than very intelligent. 

There is also an English language association, Gifted in France, set up just over 10 years ago by Helen Sahin Connelly, an American living in Paris.

She started the association after discovering her first child was gifted: “I did not know what this meant and I got an awful lot wrong. This led to a great deal of frustration.

“When I started reading up about it, I saw that there was a lot of misinformation around the subject and started the association to help other people in the same situation. 

“There is a knee-jerk reaction against supporting the intellectually gifted child.”

It is not always easy to know whether your child is exceptionally gifted: “They tend to be able to reason well from a young age, they are rapid learners and read almost without needing to be taught.

“They quickly accumulate a varied vocabulary and one of their trademarks is their sense of humour and use of puns. They have long attention spans in subjects that interest them.

“They have high levels of energy, and they are morally very sensitive. For example, they will get upset if they see a homeless person on the street.” Differences are not only linked to their intellectual abilities.

“They are hypersensitive in very many ways,” she said.

“A tag on their clothes will irritate their skin, or they will be unable to cope with noise, or they will be fussy over food.

“It is easy to think they are just being difficult and so they often get disciplined in the wrong way, and this can lead to constant struggle, both at home and at school.”

She said there are solutions.

“You have to get a correct diagnosis. These children have high energy and need less sleep so they are often labelled as hyperactive, and I know of cases where children have been given medication inappropriately for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). “You may want your kid to be just like other kids, but you have to accept they are different and that you will have to make changes – but there are tips out there to help you.

“It helps to read as much as you can about the subject.”

Unlike Mrs Verger, she thinks going up a school year is a good idea: “I am for grade acceleration, particularly when you look at all the studies that have been done.

“Often parents resist, because they think their child is not emotionally mature enough, but I think they need the extra intellectual stimulation.

“However, it has to be done well, taking into account the social and emotional needs of the child, as well as their intellectual needs.”

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