What to Do If You Think Your Child Is Gifted

Children help build their own intelligence, and IQ doesn’t tell that story.

Posted Sep 25, 2015

Woodleywonderworks Creative Commons via Flickr
Source: Woodleywonderworks Creative Commons via Flickr

This is the final article in the 6-part back-to-school series by Dona Matthews, Ph.D., and Joanne Foster, Ed.D. 

People used to think of intelligence as fixed, passive, and innate, something that could be measured once and forever by an IQ test. But emerging advances in neuroscience show a growing awareness that all intelligence is the result of developmental processes in which a person actively engages with ideas, environments, people, things, and circumstances. As with walking and other physical achievements, babies, children, and teens work to build their own intelligence, taking part in learning processes that are more complex than—but not as mysterious as—often imagined. 

Some children achieve one or more of the developmental milestones well in advance of others. This is as true for the cognitive milestones like speaking, reading, or doing mathematical calculations as it is for the physical milestones such as walking, throwing a ball, or demonstrating fine motor control. In some situations, that advancement is just earlier-than-usual development, but in some circumstances it can also mark the beginning of an accelerated pathway to gifted-level development.

What should parents do if they think their child is gifted? Here are three tips that emerge from our many decades of work in the fields of gifted development and education:

1. Ask the right questions. The best assessment questions are not "What is our child’s IQ?" or "Is my child gifted?" but rather “How does our child learn? What are her areas of strength and weakness?” “What does she need right now in order to feel both challenged and supported in her learning?” “What can we do to help?”

2. Assess what your child knows, needs to know, and wants to know. The starting point for answering the right questions is an assessment of the child’s current levels of achievement—his strengths and weaknesses, by subject area—as well as his interests.

3. Work with teachers. It may be necessary to adapt educational expectations to fit your child’s ability and interests. Things go best when teachers inform their daily instruction, activities, and expectations with their students’ current knowledge, abilities, and interests, and involve the children in co-creating the learning. In this way, educational practice transcends labels like "gifted," "learning disabled," etc.

The diagnostic approach described here is an excellent starting point for ensuring that children’s learning opportunities are suited to their capabilities. Parents who collaborate with the teacher and maintain open lines of communication with the school are well positioned to know what’s happening within the classroom, to determine if any further adaptations might be warranted, and to discuss whether additional assessment of their child might be beneficial.

The strength of this three-step approach lies in its practical applications. It ties the child’s learning abilities and needs to suitable academic challenges and supports. Another advantage is that it opens up a world of possibilities for every child—endlessly flexible opportunities that can extend each child’s learning, both within and beyond the classroom. The goal of assessment should not be to label children, then, but rather to consider their ever-changing learning needs, with an eye to practical implications for the classroom.

When gifted identification and education are done this way, parents become informed partners in a multifaceted and collaborative process of discovering and rediscovering what their child needs in order to thrive. It involves parents asking the right kinds of questions about their child’s abilities, and teachers engaging in daily diagnostic efforts, alongside the child’s active involvement in building his own intelligence. A careful and ongoing consideration of the role of assessment will help in determining the best course of action.

Perhaps most importantly, parents can help their child understand that over the years she will develop a wide range of intelligences, strengths of character, and insights that no IQ test could possibly measure, and that no label (gifted or other) could ever define.

For more on this topic:

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster 

Being Smart about Gifted Education, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster 

The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span, by Frances Degen Horowitz, Rena Subotnik, and Dona Matthews

Gifted and Talented Pocketbook, by Barry Hymer  

Ungifted, by Scott Barry Kaufman

American Education and the IQ Trap,’ by Scott Barry Kaufman

Intelligence, IQ, Tests, and Assessments,” by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster on the Resources Page at www.beyondintelligence.net 

Click here for the first five articles in this series, on building confidence, nourishing friendships, establishing balance, becoming an effective advocate, and starting nursery school or kindergarten.