Catering for Students with Exceptional Ability

Research shows that, without the appropriate supports, exceptionally-able students can lose interest and become disengaged in their learning – leading to academic underachievement.

Simon Byrne, Principal of Scoil Eoin Phóil II Naofa, Tullamore, Co Offaly, a DEIS Band I All Boys Senior School.

Simon Byrne, Principal of Scoil Eoin Phóil II Naofa, Tullamore, Co Offaly, a DEIS Band I All Boys Senior School.

— By Simon Byrne

It is not an overstatement to suggest that the Irish education system is currently undergoing a transformation.

Catering for individual needs

A key element of the philosophy behind this change is the perceived importance of catering for the individual needs of each student as opposed to the collective needs of a classroom. This relatively new phenomenon is a far cry from the egalitarian philosophy of education introduced in 1831 during the birth of the Irish educational system.

As classrooms in Irish schools become more diverse in terms of ethnicity and student ability, catering for the needs of students on an individual basis is no mean feat. As educators endeavour to do so in already busy classrooms, it is those who struggle academically and/or exhibit challenging behaviours that are likely to receive the most attention.

The knock-on effect can be that the needs of other groups of students, such as the exceptionally-able, are forgotten or even ignored.

There are many reasons why this can occur.  For one, there is the common misconception that exceptionally-able students ‘know it all’ already, that they will succeed and make it on their own and, therefore, they do not require any additional supports in their personal development or learning.

Catering for the needs of the exceptionally-able

There are those, however, who argue that exceptionally-able students often do not receive support in the areas they may need it most. Research suggests that, although they may excel academically, they can often find it difficult to establish social relationships, struggle to cope with imperfection, or indeed easily lose interest and become disengaged in their learning – leading to academic underachievement.

During a recent Master’s study, I was afforded an opportunity to interview a group of exceptionally-able students and their parents.

The students were selected for this study based on their exceptional Leaving Certificate results.

When reflecting on their experience of school, opportunities to participate in initiatives such as the Green Schools committee, as well as subjects like Drama and Music, were a recurring theme. Homework for these pupils was also not deemed a chore, provided it was challenging and stimulating. Project work was also seen for these pupils as a way of guiding their own learning at primary level.

Enabling the cheetah to chase the antelope

Cheetah optimising his speed.To help ensure that his son would achieve to his full potential academically, a father told him the story of cheetahs kept in captivity. These cheetahs are fed rabbits, creatures that provide little or no challenge to the cheetah when it comes to hunting for prey. Cheetahs in captivity, therefore, are not afforded the opportunity to reach their full potential. Cheetahs in the wild you see, chase antelope a completely different proposition altogether.

With this in mind, when it comes to our lessons, we owe it to all our pupils to expose them to antelopes, not rabbits.

Sometimes exceptionally-able pupils frighten us as educators. The truth is that simple guidance and opportunities to express themselves and work independently go a long way towards catering for their academic and social needs.

As we move towards a more digital and creative educational landscape, the possibilities for these pupils are endless. The movement towards student councils in primary schools is a real way of giving all pupils a voice in their own learning. They will, after all, be the leaders of tomorrow.

What supports would work?

Exceptionally-able pupils could be included under the special allocation model in terms of social and emotional support, to help them build relationships with others or to deal with issues such as perfectionism. International research suggests that these can be very real issues for exceptionally-able pupils who, from a neurological perspective, may have developed very quickly academically but not so quickly from a social or emotional point of view.

The benefit of the new allocation model is that the school has the freedom to cater for these needs if they are aware of them and it may be a way of reducing anxiety in another cohort of children.

Counselling has been suggested as a specific support medium if pupils struggle with perfectionism or with building relationships, or even deliberately underachieve academically in an effort to fit in with their peers.


The term Neurodiversity as used by Adam Harris at IPPN Conference 2019 really resonated with me. My own research examined only academic ability. The NCCA draft guidelines reference many more kinds of abilities and types of intelligence. Finding an inclusive model of education to cater to them all is, as we all know, a work in progress.


This article by Simon Byrne was first published in Leadership+, the journal of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network.

Contact Simon at


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