The Gifted Child
To understand highly gifted children it is essential to realise that, although they are children with the same basic needs as other children, they are also very different.
So how do you spot a gifted child and what should you do to nurture their talent? Dr Stephen Tommis, former Director of NAGC (now Potential Plus), explains.
Gifted and talented children
There is much confusion in the minds of parents and the public at large about the nature of giftedness. The concept of giftedness is far from easy to define (and IQ alone is often a poor measure). No two professionals will agree entirely on what giftedness means and parents searching for common areas of agreement can be forgiven for finding the search difficult. Moreover, there are many misconceptions of the term, all of which become deterrents to understanding and provision for the needs of children identified as gifted.
Why is it important to know if a child is gifted?
All children, whether gifted, bright, average or below average, deserve the chance to lead a happy and satisfying life.
Gifted children have a great thirst for knowledge and it is vital that this need is recognised as early as possible so that parents and teachers can give them plenty of opportunities to develop their talents.
What does giftedness mean?
Understanding high intelligence is tricky but a microscope analogy helps.
‘If we say that all people look at the world through a lens, with some lenses cloudy or distorted, some clear, and some magnified, we might say that gifted individuals view the world through a microscope lens and the highly gifted view it through an electron microscope. They see ordinary things in very different ways and often see what others simply cannot see.’ (Linda Silverman).
This heightened perception can work in different ways for different children. For those with outgoing personalities there can be a degree of precociousness, even arrogance. Those who are less confident may acutely feel a sense of ‘being different’ and do all they can to reduce it and fit in with ‘normality’, thereby achieving at levels below their optimum.
Gifted means having asynchronous development
This asynchronous development occurs in the gifted, when advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. Asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. For example, conceptual ideas forged by 9-year-old minds may be difficult to reproduce on paper by hands with a motor skills age of 5 or 6 years.
Quite often the quality of handwriting in a young gifted child lags behind the cognitive level at which the child is thinking.
Nevertheless, our preoccupation with assessment of the written word means that this child may be labelled as having a special educational need! It is so easy to misdiagnose the real needs of the gifted child. Furthermore, advanced cognition often makes gifted children aware of information that they are not yet emotionally ready to handle, particularly over moral and ethical issues. They tend to experience all of life with greater intensity, rendering them emotionally complex and very vulnerable to dilemmas as they grow in awareness.
There are no ‘developmental norms’ for gifted children and comparisons with children of the same age become meaningless. They have more advanced play interests and are often academically far ahead of their age peers.
In most cases, the brighter the child, the greater will be the asynchrony and potential vulnerability. It is vital for parents to be aware of these inherent developmental differences in their children because there will come a time when, in mustering support for their needs, you will need to be their advocates if those around them do not understand their behaviour and reactions.
Giftedness and achievement do not always go hand in hand
There is a difference between ability and achievement, so a gifted child may have the capacity to achieve at a high level but there may be considerations such as a physical learning need (such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia), or problems with motor skill development or simply the perceived desire to ‘dumb-down’ that prohibit the realisation of a child’s true potential.
Are gifted children good at everything?
A 6-year-old with a mental age of 10 is likely to still write and draw like a 6-year-old.
Exceptionally bright children often show good hand-eye co-ordination, though sometimes their handwriting lags behind their reading and other skills. Some children may refuse to produce any work on paper because of the frustration caused when they are unable to live up to their own impossibly high standards in handwriting and drawing.
Others are particularly skillful in playing with ideas, in using their imagination and in being creative. Such characteristics do not always show up on traditional intelligence tests but parents who suspect their child may be gifted should not be afraid to talk things over with the teachers at school.
There is a group of children who are better at seeing and doing than at talking and listening. These are sometimes referred to as visual-spatial children. They may find difficulty in expressing themselves in words, but often show outstanding mechanical and artistic ingenuity.
Is a gifted child an advantaged child?
Most people think of gifted children as advantaged children who receive lots of press coverage and attention and who are well supported.
This may be true for the precocious musician, the potential chess grandmaster or the exceptional athlete. But these are the ‘exotic’ cases that form only a tiny minority of gifted children. Many, many more remain unrecognised and unsupported. They are the children who, despite their capacity for unrestricted learning and creative thought, frequently fail to be recognised and given the challenge that they need.
- Gifted children are not recognised when they deliberately respond to peer pressures by conforming to expectations, avoiding standing out from the crowd or avoiding bullying, instead of following their own aspirations. (Children may see themselves as different, but find it easier to appear to conform.)
- When their real needs remain unrecognised they become to the teacher no more than the theoretical average child – and are challenged accordingly.
- The gifted child may become invisible to avoid being squashed and constantly put down, rather than revealing potential in class when to do so might be seen as a threat (unless the teacher is extremely understanding and aware), be discouraged for always knowing the answer, or be viewed as disruptive for perceiving inconsistencies or questioning the purpose of an activity. Talents may then become hidden – hidden, that is, not from choice but as a response to the messages of disapproval received from society.
It is a truism that what you expect is what you get. There is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in expectancy and when this is low, the child will almost certainly under perform and conform to what is required.
Besides a ‘Gifted and Talented’ policy, schools are expected to have a Gifted and Talented co-ordinator (or Leading Teacher), and school inspectors expect that there will be evidence that shows that the policy is working.
Dr Stephen Tommis is a former Director of NAGC now Potential Plus. Potential Plus is the UK’s largest membership charity for gifted children and their families. It was founded by concerned parents and professionals in 1967, has local branches throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland that provide challenging activities at the weekend for young people and offers help and advice from its head office for anybody who wants help with giftedness or with a gifted child. Web: www.potentialplusuk.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Telephone: 01908 646433 (phone lines are open on Mondays 9am to 4.30pm; Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 9am to 2pm)
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