Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Do I Know if my Child is Gifted?

Elsewhere on this site I've explained that a gifted child is not a 3 year old who invents relativity; that that common myth of a gifted child is completely unrealistic. I explained that this myth does a lot of harm because it prevents so many parents & teachers from accepting "giftedness" in gifted children they do have.

So: if a gifted child isn't one who toddles about in nappies (diapers) composing symphonies and inventing hyperspace travel, what is it? This is rather like English spelling; it's a simple issue basically, but it does get complicated by exceptions, here & there... & there...

There's a widely-used checklist, along the lines "if your child does all or many of these, he or she may well be gifted". I'll number the checklist for easy reference for "exceptions".

A Gifted Child may:

1 pass developmental stages earlier than average (ie, sits early, crawls early, walks early; as a baby & toddler, he or she may need far less sleep than others, especially parents)

2 develop more advanced vocabulary than age peers

3 use fluent & expressive language

4 be very demanding, wanting constant interaction from adults; be very demanding in many ways, especially re 5,6,12,13,16,19 & 21

5 be alert & respond actively to visual stimulation (eg pictures) and stories

6 become easily bored with routine; seek out & enjoy new experiences

7 have a long concentration span for activities or projects which interest her or him

8 set her or himself high or perfectionist standards

9 be highly self-critical; (this goes in conjunction with 8)

10 teach him or her self to read without anyone really noticing how; or learn to read early

11 have a good memory - quick and detailed recall of information or events

12 enjoy amassing information, and develop detailed knowledge about topics of interest

13 have an intense joy & interest in learning (NOTE: not necessarily school, but learning)

14 develop high moral values and a strong sense of justice, early; this can begin around 3 or 4 years old regarding issues usually not understood by children of that age

15 (related to 14), understand implications re wider issues; this may show up particularly re environmental, world and social issues

16 show a high degree of genuine and deep curiosity

17 develop a sense of humour early, and of a type more adult-like than child-like

18 have a vivid and creative imagination, both re fantasising and re problem-solving

19 enjoy playing with older children; enjoy the company of adults

20 adapt readily to new situations and routines

21 tend to dominate or organise others; this may appear as showing leadership qualities

22 enjoy directing the activities of children around them, or taking on a teaching role

Some of the many exceptions and problems with this type of list are:

First problem: the main one, since this is being read by you, a parent who may have a gifted child, and may therefore be of above average intelligence yourself: you may need to make a major mental readjustment about all the above, because if you're gifted yourself, you also probably set your standards too high; you may accept early developmental milestones as the norm, not recognise advanced vocabulary as being advanced, not realise how short other children's concentrations spans are, etc etc.

Second problem: Many of the above (eg 4,5,6,16,18,21) are highly characteristic of all toddlers, and should remain characteristic of all children if not squashed out of them. These are the means by which nature has designed children to hurl themselves into the world around them, to achieve the immense amount of learning about it, that they need to get through. Dr Christopher Green, in his book "Toddler Taming" quotes his own experience, and many studies, to formulate an understanding of normal toddler behaviour, in an attempt to reassure parents who are convinced their toddler is the only 2 or 3 year old terrorist in the world. He emphasises the busyness of toddlers; their craving for attention, preferably more than 24 hours per day of it; their high curiosity; their creativeness at getting into anything and everything, especially if they shouldn't; and the high resistance of many of them to bedtime in any form, or at any hour.

Third Problem: People are individuals, humans are complex; gifted people especially so. Personality comes into all these things. Enjoying new experiences & routines (#6 &20) is something of a bipolar personality trait; some kids are just built so they hate them, including some gifted kids. Many kids pass physical developmental milestones early (#1); the normal range in this area is very wide. Very demanding, (#4); well, any kid can be this; spouses can be, family, pets, what's new? Numbers 5 & 6 are again part of the bipolar personality trait which has been characterised by the introvert/extrovert concept; so, many average kids can have these traits, and many gifted kids don't have them. Numbers 21 & 22 are easily confused with (and sometimes are) bossiness, a trait widely found in the whole population.

Major problem 1:

The little-understood neural glitches which show up as learning difficulties of some types, (the most common in our print-oriented society being dyslexia), are statistically as common among gifted children as they are in the normal population. Many gifted individuals through history are thought to have been dyslexic, (eg Leonardo da Vinci), or to have had broad-spectrum learning difficulties (eg Einstein).

So this fact naturally knocks out #10, which is the gifted trait which most easily impresses parents and school staff. In fact sadly, it's very hard to convince most people, including about 99% of education authorities, that a dyslexic child is gifted, no matter how high her or his IQ is. Learning difficulties can also affect #s 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, & 12. Many of these are affected not because the child can't do them, but because frustration & low self-esteem in the area affected by the learning difficulty, makes them avoid related activities (probably invoking setting high standards for themselves, #s 8 & 9).

Major problem 2:

Underachieving. All children want to feel accepted; most want to conform and seem like the others. Many gifted kids begin this process so early, they're already conforming and underachieving in play groups, before they start kindergarten. The earliest attempts at setting up special classes for gifted children, by asking their primary or secondary teachers to nominate the students they thought were gifted, failed badly partly because of this. By that time, many gifted kids were underachieving; others were just turned off due to boredom, so they were also well camouflaged. These are both very sad problems, because they can quickly become subconscious, meaning the child her or him self doesn't know he or she's doing them, and can't easily stop at will.

So: the indicators aren't always obvious. So: How do I really know if my child's gifted?

In my experience, there are 2 pretty fail-safe issues. First, I find the first 2 years of life, unless there's some factor like extreme ill health, usually give some very clear clues. The younger the child is, the less underachieving, or low esteem from frustration with learning difficulties, can muddy the picture. Very simple actions in the first 2 years can indicate giftedness. Highly intelligent behaviour very rarely happens by chance; it only has to be seen occasionally, & can be relied on fairly confidently. We've all heard the idea that given an infinite amount of time, a monkey could write Hamlet, and we understand that's an illustration of the concept of infinity. But to date, there are a lot of monkeys on the planet, quite a while's passed, and none of them have written Hamlet yet. Intelligent behaviour by sheer chance is not common.

Therefore something as simple as the time I saw an 8 month old child of a friend, draw a circle and mark in eyes, nose and a mouth, can tell you "This is a gifted child". (She's 8 now, and has been tested, and yes, she's gifted.) That's just not normal 8 month old behaviour; any of you who have access to an average 8 month old, try it. They scribble, some draw circle shapes; but the average child is around 18 months old, or more, before he or she fills in eyes & a mouth.

Parents usually notice the achievements of 1 & 2 year olds, because the wonder of it all is still so fresh, and because they make us interact with them so much. So if it seems to you that various activities of your child are unusual compared to children you see from the wider community, then your child's quite probably gifted. (Don't compare with children of your friends, or family members; they're likely to be to some extent a selected group. Because you're intelligent, your friends & family are likely to be of above average intelligence too.)

If your child is older, or as he or she grows, if you have that feeling "He or she seemed so bright as a baby & young toddler, but it seems to have faded as she or he's grown older", it's likely your child is gifted, but is underachieving and trying to conform. As already stated, this isn't always done consciously, so you can't simply ask him or her if that's what he or she's doing; in an older child not showing clear signs of giftedness, only a psychological assessment can now tell. But if you have that feeling "Where did all of what seemed such brightness in that baby, disappear along the way?", it's highly likely your child is gifted. I find the gut feeling parents get in those first 2 years is very reliable.

Second: Some of that checklist, I find, are very reliable if they do occur. The long concentration span on activities that interest the child, #7, is almost a decider on its own, because children within the normal intelligence range really do have short concentration spans. This can fail gifted kids with attention deficit disorder; but most of those do show long concentration span at times, or for a few special interests. The understanding of implications, #14, often leading to intense concern and worry re environmental and world issues, is another very reliable one. Humour is a surprisingly complex phenomenon, so #16 is reliable too, although the reverse, lack of humour, isn't; many people, including the gifted, don't have much sense of humour. The enthusiasm for learning, #13, is almost a definite on its own, too. The high curiousity,#15, is another good indicator, though not the common, endless, almost meaningless, "Why? Why? Why?" (This is often not real curiousity, but attention seeking.) When curiousity goes beyond "Why?" into detail and more detail, and really wanting to know all about this, then it's almost certainly giftedness.

Examples of these can illustrate the difference between a "the 2 year-old inventing calculus" myth, and a clearly gifted child - but examples are lengthy to set out. I'll give just one. A (just) 4 year old at our place, who wasn't reading at all (she turned out later to have profound dyslexia), saw a drink coaster, a tatty old souvenir from Bath, England; the well-known view from the Roman baths, looking up through the Georgian "pump rooms", to the Cathedral, showing 3 eras from English history, and asked "What's this?" "It's called a drink coaster; it's something you stand a drink on, to protect the table.' "No, I mean, what is this a picture of?" (I think: gosh, how do I make a simple answer of this): "It's a picture of a famous place in another country; it's called "Bath", because of that sort of swimming pool you can see there." "But why is this part all broken around the edges?" "Well, the people who built that big bath, lived a long time ago, so it's all got a bit broken because a long time's gone by." "What people were they?"

I was trying to avoid swamping this child with a lot of enthusiastic information I assumed would bore her stiff, about the Romans, their empire, and their fascinating relics in Europe, etc. But she wasn't bored by this, even though she was only just 4. By questions like those above, step by step over the next 2 hours, she drew out of me a (slightly expurgated) history of the Ancient Romans and their political methods, the organisation of their empire, the place of women & children in their society, their bathing, their architecture, and their mosaics. She sat among books and atlases, looking through postcards of Roman mosaics; she had waited patiently while I dug them out of cupboards. From that battered little drink coaster, she'd become so passionately interested in ancient Roman history that I let her borrow some of the books, & gave her some of the precious postcards of mosaics.

That order of curiosity, and that level of concentration span, indicates a very likely gifted child.

The checklist is good, if you remember all the differences between individuals, the special reasons why older gifted kids may not be openly doing the "gifted thing", and keep the learning difficulties issue in mind.

Most of all, remember the "gut feeling" you had when your child was young; research has shown that parents are the most reliable at detecting giftedness in their children - as long as they don't set their standards too high!

© 2000 Helen Dowland
This page was last updated on Sunday, 15 January 2006 02:10 PM


Chris said...

sometimes i think my daughter is gifted, sometimes i think she is just bright! :)

Chris said...

gifted or not, i am blessed to have a child who loves learning... thanks be to God!