gifted child

Identify the signs of a gifted child

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.

gifted child

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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How to play with your toddler
How to recognise a learning disorder


Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….


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Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.