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Gifted is one of a number of issues in education that cause the blood to stir. For some, 'gifted' is an elitist concept that beggars definition; others do not see what all the fuss is about because a gifted child will always do well, won't they?

Gifted children develop cognitively at a much faster rate than they develop physically, emotionally and socially, posing some interesting problems. A gifted child quite likely:

  • Has a wide vocabulary, talked early.
  • Asks lots of perceptive, insightful questions and learns more quickly than others.
  • Has a very retentive memory.  Some may have a photographic memory; though it is the ability to use and apply what they learn that marks-out the gifted child.
  • Is extremely curious and can concentrate for long periods on subjects of interest; may get bored and fidgety when not intellectually challenged.
  • Has a wide general knowledge and is curious about, and interested in, the world.
  • Enjoys problem-solving, often missing out the intermediate stages in an argument and making original connections.
  • Has an unusual and vivid imagination.
  • Learned to read at an early age.
  • Shows strong feelings and opinions; may have an odd sense of humour.
  • Sets high standards and is a perfectionist but loses interest when asked to do more of the same.

For some, rapidly grasping what others cannot can lead to boredom, frustration and inappropriate behaviour. In all these cases there are challenges for parents, teachers and the child, who sees conforming to the norm as a major peer requirement.

Gifted or talented? 

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) distinguishes between gifted learners and talented children:

  • Gifted learners are those who have particular academic abilities;
  • Talented learners are those who have particular abilities in the creative arts (such as music, art and design, drama, dance) or PE.

Some schools (and parents) prefer the term ‘more able’ or ‘high ability’ children because they see these terms as being less elitist and  more inclusive, but the term ‘gifted’ is very much part of the official language.

Schools are free to determine now many of their pupils have high potential, but should be able to justify how they are meeting their needs.

Is my child gifted?

Some children have precocious talents and are readily identified from a very young age, with parents the first to recognise that their child is unusually bright for their age. Generally the identification process does not rely on IQ or test scores alone, but contains a portfolio of evidence from different sources including teachers and parents.

Some parents will have been sorely tested by the insatiable curiosity of their very young child.

Parents are the best placed people to observe whether their pre-school offspring are developing skills and talents significantly in advance of their years and peers. Early talking, unusual levels of concentration, and the ability to make creative connections to good ideas are good indicators. Parents may encounter problems at toddler group, playgroup or pre-school nursery because staff do not recognise that the child can easily do the things the other children are enjoying doing and so is quickly bored and becomes a problem. This should best be managed by discussion between parents and staff as to how flexible the activities can be to include extension tasks for the most able.

Looking after a gifted child

Within the school's structure there should be a dedicated teacher, often known as the gifted and talented co-ordinator or leading teacher, to oversee the implementation of the school’s policy on gifted and talented. This is the person who should be driving the gifted agenda, encouraging best practice amongst all teachers and ensuring the children are stimulated and stretched, perhaps via a special enrichment programme. Some schools have an ‘individual needs’ department responsible for both the most able and those who are struggling.

A good school will try to identify very able pupils and to meet their needs. The school will have developed an agreed policy on how their most able pupils are managed. It is very easy to destroy the self-confidence of any child and this is particularly so when they are talented, gifted and able. Their experiences with their teachers, their peers and their parents are crucial, and it is always important to look for the indicators which suggest that a difficult, unhappy or bored child has hidden talent.

Schools should have a written policy on how they manage their most able children and it should be openly available on request; school inspectors expect to see evidence showing that the policy is working. The policy should include how children are identified and what measures are put in place to stretch and challenge them at every stage of their school career. It should have the full support of the staff, the governors and parents and be widely available to all. In fact, each of these constituencies should ideally have been involved in the policy-making.

Problems facing a gifted child

  • Success does not equal popularity. Gifted children often get a poor deal because we live in a culture that finds celebrating success very difficult.
  • Gifted children are often misdiagnosed, bullied or disaffected.
  • It's possible to be gifted and have special needs; many have a learning difficulty (dyslexia, dysgraphia, auditory retention problems etc or a disorder such as Asperger’s) and the difficulties for a gifted child become compounded.
  • They have an intellect that is more developmentally advanced than their social and emotional needs.
  • Peer group mixing can be very difficult as the child thinks differently.
  • They may find work in the classroom painstakingly slow but must keep their head down as they don't want to seem arrogant and precocious.
  • Fast workers are often told to ‘do more more of the same', but repetition of the same concepts is anathema to a brain that picks up ideas quickly.
  • Boredom may set in if teachers do not understand how a gifted child thinks and works. This may lead to the child resorting to bad behaviour with ensuing punishment.

It is no wonder that young gifted children find their world very confusing at times. 

Naughty or gifted?

In school classes that do not differentiate work by ability, able pupils tend to become bored because not enough is being demanded of them.

Among the consequences of this may be:

  • switching off – eg day-dreaming
  • avoiding school (by, among other things, imaginary ailments)
  • disruptiveness, which may take the form of clowning or truculence.

It is a truism that what you expect is what you get. Children of whom little is expected will often underperform.

Do gifted children have special needs?

Giftedness or high ability does not legally fall in the category of special educational needs (SEN), so there are no additional resources available for a child assessed as highly able. If problems have developed, the child does not want to go to school, is bored at school, is unhappy or has become withdrawn, then parents need to work in partnership with the school, the class teacher and the head in a non-confrontational way. An assessment might be made if behaviour difficulties have developed. If parents are willing to have a private assessment undertaken, then this is best done with the full knowledge of the school and an understanding of what will happen in the school as a result of the findings.

If, after discussions with the school, parents feel that they need to know more about how they can manage their child but the school is not willing to proceed, they can still undertake a private assessment. This will provide the parents with additional information about their child's intellectual ability and potential. Parents can then make an informed decision on the way forward, accepting that this may be limited by the school’s position.

Identifying older children as having unrecognised abilities, gifts and talents is always a sad occurrence, for it represents a waste of earlier opportunities.

If abilities are not recognised and encouraged early, there is a risk that the child will become withdrawn, or will merge into the crowd, or will develop a disruptive pattern of behaviour. These may all result in their ability going undetected for many years. It is often when schools undertake a formal assessment on the basis of poor behaviour the truth is revealed – the child is a high ability low performer.

Providing the learning for gifted children

Once identified, the highly able child needs challenging learning experiences.

The roles of parents and of schools are of equal importance in building this provision. Through parents the child gets access to evening, weekend and holiday time activities and so can be involved with a wider range of ages and expertise than they encounter within the school system. This helps to ground the child’s emotional and social development.

How these learning experiences are managed within school will depend on the child’s age as well as the resources available in the school. Teachers in primary schools are used to managing groups of children of widely different abilities and they are well placed to plan individual extension or enrichment activities. Where the curriculum allows it, the child can work with other staff or older classes on agreed activities, always remembering that what can happen easily one year may be difficult the next.

The structure of the secondary school gives additional scope for differentiating the curriculum and placing pupils in ability sets, but the highly able child still needs to have extension activities built into each lesson. The strategies available to a school depend on its unique circumstances, but much good practice has been built up over recent years.

Should a gifted child be educated with older children?

The challenge of the gifted child is that of creating learning opportunities appropriate to their ability and age while at the same time keeping them emotionally and socially within their peer structure.

For this to be done successfully, parents and teachers need to work in partnership. For some parents the easy solution would appear to be to accelerate the child one or two years. This strategy works well for some children but is not a panacea: older children can be hostile to a younger child joining their peer group; the child may have the academic but not the social skills to copy; and many secondary schools are unwilling to admit children out of their proper year group.

With thanks to Dr Stephen Tommis former Director of NAGC for additional information. In February 2013 NAGC changed its operating name to Potential Plus UK. It is the UK’s largest membership charity for gifted children and their families. *Potential Plus UK now uses the term ‘high learning potential’.
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