Parents sometimes wonder at one point or another whether their child is gifted. Ken Phelan rounds up some basics to help you identify signs of giftedness in your child.
From the first gurgle to vaguely intelligible ‘word’, the first doodle to recognisable letter, most of us – particularly with our first child – are convinced of our child’s inherent and incontrovertible ‘giftedness’.
Our child’s first pictures are hailed as veritable Rembrandts, while random splodges of paint we proudly hold as Dali-esque masterpieces; their first jumbled utterances are held as intelligent and nuanced conversation, and an affinity for alphabet fridge magnets exhibits to us a latent literary talent of Shakespearean proportions. However, as she begins to walk before her peers, becomes obsessed with drawing numbers and letters and has taken to ‘reading’ the newspaper for up to half an hour at a time at two years of age you begin to ask yourself the question every parent asks: “how do I know if my child is gifted?”
Although there are a number of common characteristic traits found in gifted children, there is no single identifier that parents can look out for. However, early development compared to peers, e.g. learning to walk or talk significantly early along with unusual sensitivity, perfectionism and an ability to learn new things quickly are some indicators. Without proper assessment, though, it is very difficult to determine that most elusive of qualities, ‘giftedness’.
What is ‘giftedness’?
The term ‘gifted children’ was first coined in 1869 by eugenicist and anthropologist Sir Francis Galton, who used it to describe children who ‘inherited’ exceptional ability from their gifted or exceptional parents.
The concept was later expanded to include IQ then revised once again in 1926 by psychologist Leta Hollingworth, who stressed the importance of environmental factors as well as inheritance. IQ in itself was not seen as an all-embracing measurement of intelligence, and other factors such as environment and exceptional ability in a particular area also needed to be considered. In terms of IQ as a basic measure of intelligence, though, a score of 115-129 is deemed to be Mildly Gifted; 130-144 as Moderately Gifted; 145-159 as Highly Gifted; 160-179 as Exceptionally Gifted and 180+ as Profoundly Gifted.
As a rule, the further away a child is from the average score of 100 the greater their educational requirements will be. As stated, however, children may have exceptional ability in a particular area such as mathematics, literacy, music, etc, so that IQ on its own can be deceptive and misleading. Famously, Einstein did not learn to speak until he was aged four, and learned to walk at a relatively late age, so reaching developmental stages early can also be an unreliable measurement.
Even teachers may not be alert to signs of giftedness, though you should obviously look for feedback that may point one way or the other. It’s also very important to note that not all gifted children will have all of the listed characteristics, though they would certainly have some. For the purposes of the rest of the article, though, we’ll take it you’re still convinced your child is, in fact an ‘Albert’, and proceed from there…
“What do you mean he’s not a genius?”
Should you decide to speak to your child’s teacher about baby genius, you could start by voicing your concerns and asking for their feedback on performance, grades, etc.
If you’re still convinced of junior’s intellectual prowess, you may also wish to discuss whether he would benefit from any advanced in-school instruction, or what way the school caters for gifted children (if indeed he is so). You should also ask how your child socialises with and relates to the rest of the class, since this can sometimes be an issue. Should the response not be to your satisfaction, or perhaps if your child’s teacher doesn’t quite agree with your own assessment, you may want to seek some outside assistance.
While schools will endeavour to cater for the needs of all children, resources are, of course, limited; furthermore, you may be wrong in your belief about your child. The main concern is that your child gets what’s best either way, and of course that your own mind is put at ease.
To this end, an appointment with an educational psychologist will ensure that an assessment is carried out to determine any specific educational requirements, or indeed, if your child is in fact of exceptional ability.
Following the assessment, the psychologist would be in a better position to make recommendations in terms of particular social, familial and educational needs, if any. It is estimated there are over 27,000 gifted children in the Irish educational system, yet many, if not most, go unnoticed, or at best do not have all their needs met.This is why the route of psychological assessment can be important; your child may become bored due to unchallenging work, and ironically, may under-perform in school as a result.
Specific problems facing gifted children
There are specific problems associated with gifted children with which parents ought to be familiar. These can affect your child’s emotional, social and educational development;
- They may be able to participate in adult conversation but fail to have their own needs met as a child.
- Sensitivity: May cry at the slightest thing, or be troubled by ‘adult’ concerns such as war, poverty, etc.
- Can be argumentative and/or manipulative.
- May not fit in with peers, and may prefer older children or adults for company.
- May take criticism very personally.
- Be bored/under-challenged at school.
One aspect often overlooked is the pressure parents can sometimes place on gifted children; every parent wants only the best for their child, but often a parent’s own aspirations are projected onto that of the gifted child, ignoring the child’s own needs. We’ve all heard of straight-A students, children who are fully proficient at playing the piano at age eight but who never seem to go out to play – we’ve also asked ourselves how happy that child really is.
A child’s desire to please their mother and father is perfectly natural, but not to their own detriment, or to the loss of childhood.
What help is available for parents?
- The first port of call should be the teacher, or principal of the school.
- For pre-schoolers (yes, we do have baby geniuses!), speak to the crèche, other parents, family and neighbours.
- For children aged six to 16, DCU runs the Centre For Talented Youth, Ireland (CTYI) – an educational centre for gifted or exceptional children. Entry to the school is by referral via a child psychologist, or through CTYI’s own assessment procedure.
- Primary school students are educated in: multimedia, journalism, psychology, science and more, with a view to teaching at a level more suited to the particular child.
As you can see, determining whether your child is gifted can be very tricky. The best gauge perhaps is by comparison to their friends and peers and from feedback from teachers and other significant people. Every parent believes their child to be special, and rightly so. What’s important though, is not intelligence, but your child’s sense of happiness and worth, how they relate to their own little world, and the unconditional love you show them as a parent. Intelligence is not necessarily a predictor of happiness or success; gifted or not, every child is truly exceptional – without exception.
Common characteristics of gifted children:
- Reaching developmental stages more quickly (though not always). > A highly developed vocabulary.
- Use of longer, complex sentences.
- Always asking questions – ‘Why does it do that?’, ‘How does it work?’ etc.
- A tendency to speak quickly.
- Ability to learn new things quickly.
- Early reading/literacy skills.
- A tendency to become highly focused on one particular subject, e.g. reading, numbers – even dinosaurs!
Psychologist David Carey shares his expert advice.
“Many parents ask how they can know if their child is “gifted”. Giftedness, sometimes called Exceptional Ability, is a trait that occurs in a small number of children. Typically they are advanced readers, have advanced language, both receptively and expressively and are quick to grasp and master new information. They can be quite verbal, often talk very fast and sometimes have high activity levels. They may ask many questions and question the answers they receive.
It is not uncommon for gifted children to have social difficulties because their cognitive skills are advanced well beyond those of same-age peers. This results in them discussing things other children have no interest in. They can be quite intolerant of others as a result and sometimes are not included in play activities in school. Giftedness is recognised in Ireland as a special education condition, which entitles children to support services in school. These services usually take the form of advanced instruction in selected subjects to prevent them from feeling bored in the classroom”.
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