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Is Your Child Gifted? What to Look for, Why You Should Know

Traditional screening methods aren't the only way to identify a gifted kid.

Key points

  • Identifying giftedness in kids can be tricky, particularly regarding those who test right around that "magic" cutoff point of 130 or so.
  • IQ tests are imperfect instruments and only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to measuring a child's level of giftedness.
  • Signs of a child being gifted include advanced language skills, being quick to learn, and having strong leadership qualities.

How do you tell if your child is gifted? Schools that have programs for gifted students are often able to identify them by using traditional screening methods, like group IQ tests, review of achievement test scores and past grades, observation, and getting input from teachers and parents. So, when it comes to discovering if your own kid is gifted, one option is to wait and see whether teachers or others at your child's school recommend testing for a gifted education program.

Yet you shouldn't be entirely dependent on the schools when it comes to identification. Keep in mind that many teacher training programs require little (if any) coursework in giftedness, so some teachers and school administrators may not have all the information they need to recognize gifted children. For this reason, your insights are important, and the more knowledge you have, the better position you're in to partner with others when selecting the best programs for your child.

In fact, parents should become familiar with the signs of giftedness even before their child starts school. Most school districts do not even start identifying children for gifted programs until the second or third grade, and parents of exceptionally bright or gifted children may want to consider private testing or alternative placement options (such as a private preschool school program or early grade acceleration) before that time.

Early testing and identification can be a controversial subject, but many advocates of gifted children believe that they should be identified as soon as possible so that their unique needs and talents can be acknowledged and nurtured right from the start.

Early identification is also important when a young child is showing behavioral or social differences — not fitting in, being highly focused on unusual interests, appearing more distractible or inattentive than others of the same age — and parents want to understand the cause. These characteristics may be features of giftedness, or they may be signs of an emotional problem, a condition like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), such as Asperger's Syndrome. Knowing a child's IQ can allow insight into their atypical development and help to avoid potentially harmful misdiagnoses.

Under-Identified Children

Some gifted children may not be particularly high achievers in the classroom. These students may have problems with attention (which may or may not be related to ADHD), have poor organizational skills, or simply not "mesh" with the teaching style in the classroom, and therefore may be overlooked when it comes to the selection of gifted program candidates.

I recall one boy I tested privately at the request of his mother. The boy, Mike, was in the fourth grade at the time. His mother was concerned, because Mike was getting poor grades, having conflicts with the teacher, and becoming more and more disinterested in school. He was having social conflicts too, being teased and picked on by other students who liked to see his "overreactions" when they provoked him. It had gotten to the point where homeschooling was being considered since it was getting harder to even get Mike out the door to go to school, which he considered "torture."

The school had never tested Mike for giftedness. Whatever screening process was in place had missed him. Possibly because he didn't fit the high-achieving, cooperative, wunderkind image that some teachers look for when making recommendations for gifted screening. Yet it turned out that his IQ measured in the Exceptionally Gifted range (fewer than 1 of 1000 kids score this high on an IQ test). His problems at school were not atypical for such children. Had he been identified earlier and placed in an alternative program, many of his academic and social problems might have been avoided. At the very least, Mike's parents and teachers would have had a better understanding of his problems and been able to collaborate from a more informed perspective to come up with solutions.

These types of scenarios are not unusual. In fact, some estimate that the majority of gifted children in the schools are never identified. That may not be a tragedy for some, but it very well could be for others, like Mike, who truly need special programming and support to get through school successfully.

Parents who are aware of the signs of giftedness can better collaborate with the schools to help assure that their own child's potential and learning needs are not overlooked.

How Can You Tell If Your Child Is Gifted?

As you've probably guessed, without proper assessment, there is no easy answer. There are no universally accepted traits that you can look for and no definitive signs that will tell you for sure whether your child is gifted. However, many gifted children share some common characteristics, and knowing these is a good place to start.

The reason for these common traits may have a lot to do with the physical characteristics of the brain. Giftedness is the result of both environmental and genetic factors, and both of these influences can lead to differences in the way that the brain works and develops. Some researchers believe that gifted children's advanced cognitive skills actually result — at least in part — from the ability of their brains to process information faster and more effectively than others their age.

The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells, or neurons, which communicate with each other by releasing and receiving chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals travel through dendrites, root-like structures which branch out and seek connections with nearby neurons at junctures called synapses. The more of these dendrites and synapses we have, the greater our "brain power" — our ability to process information, perceive, interpret, reason, problem-solve, remember, and do all kinds of tasks associated with learning. It appears that every time we do or experience something — read a book, have an emotion, look at a picture — a specific group of neurons associated with that activity "lights up," stimulating the growth of more dendrites and "exercising" those already in place, making them better processors of information. All else being equal, the denser and more efficient these neural connections, the easier it is to do the thing that is associated with that area of the brain.

Gifted children's abilities may be related in part to these enhanced neural connections, either because:

  • They were born with a denser-than-normal thicket of neural connections associated with the traits in which they are gifted, and had the right kind of experiences to allow them to use and retain, or further develop, these connections; or
  • They were born with a sufficient amount of neural connections and had ample opportunity to form more and more efficient connections through an enriched environment.

The denser, more efficient neural connections shared by gifted children could help explain the common characteristics many of these children share. But keep in mind that not every gifted child will show all, or even most, of these characteristics, and some will show traits that are quite contrary to what you might expect in a gifted child. It's commonly known that Albert Einstein learned to speak at a late age and didn't read until he was 7. Gifted children can be as different from one another as they are from the rest of society.

Below, I'll review some traits that gifted children may possess. But keep in mind that trying to identify gifted children by comparing their behaviors and traits against lists such as those presented here can be tricky. After all, many or even most children will show a lot of these same characteristics. The most important thing to do when considering your own child is to look at him or her in the context of other children of the same age. If there are consistent, noticeable differences, then advanced mental abilities may be present. Another clue may be that others — friends, relatives, teachers, neighbors — notice and comment on the same traits that you're seeing.

Language Skills

While most children are able to form recognizable sentences and understand complex language by about 2 years of age, gifted children often reach these milestones earlier. As they approach school age, other language skills may appear advanced or sophisticated.

Some of the traits of giftedness to look for when considering your child's language development in relation to others of a similar age include:

  • A highly developed vocabulary and the ability to learn new words easily
  • The tendency to speak quickly
  • The early use of longer, more complex sentences while using appropriate grammar
  • Early reading, if given some instruction and opportunity (Many gifted children have already learned how to read before entering school.)
  • Continually asking questions about what they see and hear, and wanting to receive thorough responses and explanations
  • The ability to understand and carry out multi-step directions at an early age (e.g., Go to the dining room, get the blue book on the table, and put it back on the shelf in your room, then bring me the clothes on your bed so I can wash them).
  • The ability to understand and participate in adult conversations (Gifted children often pick up nuances or double meanings early on — so watch what you say!)
  • The ability to change the language they use when speaking to different audiences (For example, a 4-year-old gifted child might use more advanced words and sentence structure when speaking to adults or older children, and then talk in a simpler, more childlike way when addressing his 3-year-old cousin.)

Learning Abilities

All children (all people, really, big and small) have an inborn desire to learn about the world around them — to seek out new experiences, figure out the relationship between themselves and their surroundings, discover, and learn. What distinguishes gifted children from others is the apparent natural ease and joy with which they go about doing this. Their brains appear to be mental sponges, effortlessly absorbing and incorporating new information and ideas.

Many gifted children are natural learners who show some of the following characteristics:

  • The ability to learn quickly and efficiently — to pick up ideas and skills effortlessly
  • A tendency to become highly focused on certain areas of interest (e.g., bugs, space, animals) and independently seek out information on these topics
  • The ability to ask questions that show advanced insight or understanding
  • A deep fund of knowledge — They know more about the world around them than you would expect
  • Excellent memory and easy recall of what they previously heard, saw or learned
  • A tendency to read often on their own and to frequently prefer reading to more physical activities
  • Little need for direction or instruction when beginning a new activity, learning a new game, or acquiring a new skill — They may also insist on doing things on their own, or in their own way.
  • Early development of motor skills involving balance, coordination, and movement — Gifted children may also be advanced in some purposeful fine-motor activities, such as assembling small objects (e.g., legos, transforming toys, blocks) or putting puzzles together. However, other fine motor skills may not be advanced. Some gifted children are poor at handwriting, although this may be more related to a lack of attention to detail or impatience with the slow and tedious task of handwriting practice than to problems with fine-motor control.
  • Pleasure in talking to older children and adults about topics that interest them
  • An understanding of their own thinking and learning processes — They may have preferred ways of learning and resist using other methods suggested by a teacher or adult. They are able to sense how much and what kind of studying they need in order to master a skill or topic.
  • Creative thinking — Gifted children may enjoy coming up with their own ways to solve problems and take delight in complexity and making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts.
  • The ability to concentrate on a topic of interest for an unusually long period of time — However, gifted children may quickly shift their attention or appear unfocused when doing something they perceive as unchallenging or uninteresting.
  • An inclination to see learning as fun — They take joy in discovering new interests or grasping new concepts.

Emotional and Behavioral Traits

Gifted children are often more emotionally intense than others. They can also be more sensitive to others' feelings and circumstances and may display a great deal of empathy in situations where others their age appear indifferent.

Other emotional or behavioral traits to look for include:

  • A high activity level — Gifted children can appear to have an endless source of energy, constantly moving, talking, asking, and exploring.
  • The tendency to think and talk fast — Because they may be trying to speak as quickly as they think, gifted children are often asked to "slow down" so that the listener can understand them. They can also become frustrated when they feel that others are talking too slowly or taking too long to "get to the point."
  • Strong leadership qualities — Gifted kids often make natural leaders who take charge and guide others in new directions.
  • Ability to relate to older kids and adults — Because their cognitive skills and interests can be advanced for their years, gifted kids have an easier time connecting with and learning from those older than themselves.
  • Enjoyment of alone time — While gifted children may enjoy spending time with others, including mental mates (whether their own age or adults), they can also enjoy spending time on more solitary activities, such as reading, writing, daydreaming, observing, or just thinking.
  • Appreciation of natural beauty and — Gifted children may particularly enjoy being around and pointing out trees, sunsets, flowers, the ocean, animals, and other things of inherent beauty. They can also show a deep interest in certain forms of art (paintings, sculptures, or music, for example).

Hidden Gifts

Some gifted children show only a few of the signs listed above, or show traits that are quite the opposite of what you'd expect. For example, some will start to speak late rather than early, some will be emotionally reserved rather than intense, and some appear to think and speak slowly rather than quickly.

Also, keep in mind that there are children who show gifted qualities when it comes to language or emotional traits, but who do not appear exceptional when it comes to learning or academics. While some of these kids may have a specific learning disability getting in the way of their performance at school, others may have learned early on to hide their abilities in order to better fit in with others their age or to avoid the pressures of higher expectations. And of course, there are children who show many of the signs here who do not measure in the gifted range once they are tested. Does that mean they are not gifted? Not necessarily. Many kids don't shine on IQ tests due to test anxiety — or sometimes because of the very qualities associated with giftedness. For example, IQ tests typically have timed subtests, meaning that the faster a child responds or correctly completes a task, the more points she earns. However, gifted children who are perfectionists may respond more slowly than others, taking their time, working carefully and methodically, and checking their responses for accuracy. A gifted child with a high energy level who has a hard time focusing attention on structured tasks may also be at a disadvantage when it comes to performing in the rigidly structured atmosphere of an IQ test.

In addition, it's true that children can be gifted in one area (verbal skills, for example), but show only average ability in others (such as perceptual or nonverbal reasoning skills, which are important for math achievement). While these children's full-scale IQ scores might not measure in the gifted range, they may still demonstrate some common traits of giftedness. For example, a verbally gifted child with average nonverbal reasoning skills may still be emotionally sensitive and have an excellent memory.

Identifying giftedness can be tricky, particularly regarding those who test right around that "magic" cutoff point of 130 or so. And IQ tests are certainly imperfect instruments and only one piece of the puzzle. Your insight and instincts, along with those of your child's teachers, can often be the most important pieces needed to truly understand your child's unique gifts and potential.

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