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Hands raised in class | The Good Schools GuideGifted children develop cognitively at a much faster rate than they develop physically, emotionally and socially. Their high-level capabilities may be broadly intellectual or in specific academic fields.

Why is the concept of gifted controversial?

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?

And while many people might assume it’s a blessing having a gifted child, the reality is that 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.

Is my child gifted?

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.

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.

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.

Gifted toddlers

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 attempting and so is quickly bored and becomes a problem. This is best managed by parents and staff discussing how to to include extension tasks for the most able children.

What to expect from school

All schools should have a written policy on how their most able are managed. The policy 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 groups should ideally have been involved in the policy-making.

Every school should also have a dedicated teacher, often known as the gifted and talented co-ordinator or leading teacher, to oversee how this policy is implemented. This person should also drive the gifted agenda, encourage best practice among all teachers and ensure 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.

It is very easy to destroy the self-confidence of any child, particularly 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 talents.

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) which compounds their problems.
  • Their intellect is more advanced than their social and emotional development.
  • Because their thought processes are different from their peers, they find it hard to mix and make friends..
  • 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  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 switching off (daydreaming), avoiding school (by, among other things, imaginary ailments) or disruptiveness (which may take the form of clowning or truculence).

No wonder young gifted children find their world very confusing at times. 

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. Parents need to work in partnership with the school, the class teacher and the head in a non-confrontational way to solve any problems.

If the child has developed behavioural difficulties, their parents may want to have them assessed. If they are willing to pay for  a private assessment , it is best to keep the school informed and agree what will happen as a result of the findings. Even if the school is not willing to cooperate, an assessment will provide the parents with additional information about their child's intellectual ability and potential which can help them plan the best way forward..

If their 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 that the truth is revealed – the child is a high ability low performer.

Providing the learning for gifted children

Highly able children need challenging learning experiences at school and home.

Evening, weekend and holiday time activities which include children of a wide age range can help to ground the child’s emotional and social development.

Teachers in primary schools are used to managing groups of children of widely different abilities and to planning 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.

There is more scope for differentiation and ability setting in secondary schools, but highly able children still need to have extension activities built into each lesson, depending on the individual school’s resources.

Should a gifted child be educated with older children?

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 special thanks for additional information to Dr Stephen Tommis former Director of Potential Plus UK, a charity supporting children with high learning potential and their families (previously known as National Association for Gifted Children).
[email protected]
Tel: 01908 646433

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