MELBOURNE: When he was younger, Seth Yee was a real handful in childcare – his parents kept getting complaints about his out-of-control tantrums in class.
“The feedback from the teachers was that he already understood what they were teaching and he was just distracting the other kids,” recounted his father Mr Ray Yee. “Having to sit down and to listen to the teacher was like a prison to him.”
Unknown to his parents at the time, Seth was a gifted child. And he was typical of many such highly-talented kids who struggle with behavioural issues that can affect their social and emotional development, as the programme On The Red Dot explores in a series on Wonder Kids.
When he was one and a half years old, Seth could already differentiate between a hexagon and an octagon, and tell how many sides each shape had.
Said the prodigy: “When I code on the computer, I feel really excited because I might be able to programme an AI (artificial intelligence) and I can have virtual conversations with it.”
But it seemed clear Seth would not be able to adapt to the Singapore school system. And so, when he was six, his parents packed him up and moved to Melbourne, hoping that a change in environment and school would do their son good.
AT WIT’S END
Ms Daphlyn Gao recounted how her son’s behavioural issues cropped up when he was merely a baby. He would often throw tantrums when things didn’t go his way.
When he was four, he had an odd obsession with lifts – he could remember the different lifts and even how many buttons they had. On one occasion, he insisted on taking only a particular one.
“It happened that the lift broke down, so he had a very huge meltdown, throwing a tantrum and then lying on the floor,” she said. “It was very difficult for the both of us because they (the tantrums) can happen quite a lot.”
Frequent outbursts aside, Seth was a special kid who seemed to be ahead of his peers.
“When we brought him to shopping centres with kiddy rides, he would be looking at the mechanism of the rides, to see how it actually works and why it moves,” recalled Ms Gao.
Concerned that he might be autistic or have Asperger's syndrome, she and her husband sent him to a psychologist to be tested. The results were bittersweet for the couple - Seth was certified ‘gifted’ on the Stanford-Binet 5 Intelligence scale with an IQ of 134, in the top 1 per cent for children.
“He is highly intellectual, but that comes with other traits like asynchronous development,” said Mr Yee.
Which means that his social and emotional (skills) might be at the (level) of a four-year-old, but his intellect might be that of an eight-year-old.
WATCH: Raising a prodigy (4:34)
When Seth was six, he started playing with an online space flight simulation game, Kerbal Space Programme, which features a realistic physics engine.
Mr Yee, a software engineer, recalled trying it out with his son and finding it difficult to master. It involved configuring a complicated spaceship – which Seth eventually built successfully.
“I was quite amazed,” he said of his son’s feat.
He had started exposing his son to robotics and simple coding using the programming language Scratch. “I realised that Seth was actually creating programmes that some 17-year-olds are just beginning to do,” he said.
A COMPLETE CHANGE DOWN UNDER
For Seth’s sake, in 2015 the family of four – which included Seth’s younger brother Zane – moved to Australia. In part, they were attracted by the curriculum offered by a primary school in Melbourne.
They settled in the quiet suburb of Endeavour Hills with a modest population of about 25,000, a 30-minute drive from the city.
“We had to uproot our life, we had to give up our careers, leave our family and start a brand new life in Melbourne,” said Ms Gao.
Seth was enrolled at Wooranna Park Primary School where the students were given the autonomy to choose whatever they want to do on a certain day. Said Mr Yee: “I felt that for Seth, that would be a good thing.
We worked with the teachers, and he started to have fewer tantrums in school. Within a year, his behaviour had changed totally.
Computer teacher Kieren Nolan’s first impression of his new student from Singapore was just how intelligent he was for his age. “What struck me was the fact that he was so advanced. I honestly think that a lot of his thinking is at university level,” he said.
Mr Nolan currently teaches Seth coding, computer building and blockchain technology.
Fellow teacher Lizzie Maroni, however, noted that Seth needed to work on his social development and social awareness. It was initially tough to get him to join a group, and a relationship with him had to be built.
But they managed to make him feel that all the kids cared about him. “His transformation is absolutely amazing. Now he can do everything and really engage. He’s so social and so funny,” said Ms Maroni.
LESS STRICT THAN SINGAPORE TEACHERS
Seth says he has adjusted well to his new school, and that Mr Nolan, his favourite teacher, has taught him “a few cool things”.
“I like going to Wooranna Park Primary School more than Singapore schools because it’s more interesting here and the teachers are less strict,” he said. “You get to choose what you want to learn.”
Over the last year, Seth has even taken on the role of a teacher – conducting lessons two to three times a week on strategies to excel in the video game Minecraft.
“I think Seth is really happy to teach. Having that status as a teacher has given him confidence,” said Mr Nolan. “He is quite confident and is able to speak in front of a group of people, (something) he was not able to do a couple of years ago.”
On The Red Dot arranged a special surprise for Seth - to travel to the University of New South Wales in Sydney to see a new quantum computer developed by researchers.
Seth has always been fascinated with quantum computers (which are supercomputers capable of solving calculations in healthcare, climate modelling and aerospace that existing computers are unable to do). So he was understandably excited.
Dr Andrea Morello, a professor of quantum engineering at UNSW, showed the eight-year-old around and explained his research. His advice for Seth, if he ever wants to become a “professional scientist”: Have perseverance.
“The most important thing for a bright and very curious kid like that, is to at some point learn to stick to one thing and take it to the end,” he said. “He would have to decide that this is what he is going for, and become the best at something.”
For Ms Gao, uprooting to a foreign country for their gifted son’s sake has paid off.
“I felt that our sacrifice was worth it when we saw the change in him. He has learnt to care for the people around him,” she said.
“I hope that with the books he has read and with all the knowledge that he has in his brain, he will be able to create something that would help mankind.”
On the Red Dot profiles four children with exceptional gifts, exploring the sacrifices they and their families make, and the challenge of pursuing their potential without losing their childhood. Watch the series here. New episodes every Friday at 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.