Parents of gifted children know raising these kids is both a blessing and a children. This page contains two essays which provide valuable understanding of how to provide the support and guidance needed by gifted children. The page also contains links to resources including organizations, recommended books and stores selling educational toys and materials for gifted kids and teens.
How Parents Can Support Gifted Children
by Linda Kreger Silverman
Raising and nurturing a gifted child can be an exciting yet daunting challenge. Unfortunately, these complicated little people do not come with instruction manuals. The following new definition of giftedness highlights the complexity of raising gifted children.
“Giftedness is ‘asynchronous development’ in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” (The Columbus Group, 1991, in Morelock, 1992)
“Asynchrony” means being out of sync, both internally an externally. “Asynchronous development” means that gifted children develop cognitively at a much faster rate than they develop physically and emotionally, posing some interesting problems. For example, ideas forged by 8-year-old minds may be difficult to produce with 5-year-old hands. Further, advanced cognition often makes gifted children aware of information that they are not yet emotionally ready to handle. They tend to experience all of life with greater intensity, rendering them emotionally complex. These children usually do not fit the developmental norms for their age; they have more advanced play interests and often are academically far ahead of their age peers. The brighter the child, the greater the asynchrony and potential vulnerability. Therefore, parents who are aware of the inherent developmental differences of their children can prepare themselves to act as their advocates.
Some of the earliest signs of giftedness include:
- unusual alertness in infancy
- less need for sleep in infancy
- long attention span
- high activity level
- smiling or recognizing caretakers early
- intense reactions to noise, pain, frustration
- advanced progression through the developmental milestones
- extraordinary memory
- enjoyment and speed of learning
- early and extensive language development
- fascination with books
- excellent sense of humor
- abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills
- vivid imagination (e.g., imaginary companions)
- sensitivity and compassion
If a child exhibits a majority of these characteristics, parents may wish to have the child assessed by an experienced examiner to find out if the child is gifted. Firstborn children tend to be recognized more often than their siblings. When one child in the family is gifted, it is quite possible that others may also be gifted. Early identification is recommended (ages 3 through 8) because it permits early intervention, as important for gifted as for any other children with special needs.
Children learn first from their parents. Parents who spend time with their gifted child are more able to tune in to their child’s interests and respond by offering appropriate educational enrichment opportunities. It is important that parents read to their children frequently, even when the children are capable of reading to themselves. In the early years, parents can help their children discover their personal interests, expose their children to their own interests, and encourage their children to learn about a wide variety of subjects such as art, nature, music, museums, and sports. Children who are attracted to a particular area need opportunities to explore that field in depth. Home stimulation and support of interests is vital to the development of talents. Following the lead of the child will help the child flourish.
Gifted children often can exhaust and overwhelm a new mother and father. Gifted infants often sleep less than other babies and require extra stimulation when they are awake. It is helpful to have extended family in the home, grandparents who live nearby, a close community of friends or relatives, or a teenager in the neighborhood who can spend some time with the child so that the primary caretakers can get some rest to do other things. For single parents, such support is particularly important. From the time they can talk, gifted children are constantly asking questions and often challenge authority. “Do it because I said so” doesn’t work with these children. Generally, parents who take the time to explain requests get more cooperation than do more authoritarian parents. If these children are spoken to and listened to with consideration and respect, they tend to respond respectfully.
As children get older, a family meeting can be a good way of sharing responsibility and learning negotiation skills. Family meetings can provide a forum where children have a voice as a family member, and provide avenues for avoiding power struggles that otherwise can occur. It is important for gifted children to feel emotionally supported by the family–even when there are disagreements.
Gifted children generally benefit by spending at least some time in the classroom with children of similar abilities. Their educational program should be designed to foster progress at their own rate of development. Parents who become involved with the school can help administrators and teachers be responsive to the needs of these children. Open, flexible environments provide students with opportunities for choices, and enhance independence and creativity. “In Search of the Perfect Program” (Silverman & Leviton, 1991) includes a checklist of specific qualities to look for in a school.
Early entrance or other forms of acceleration may be considered when the school gifted program is not sufficiently challenging or when there is no opportunity for gifted children to be grouped with age peers who are intellectually advanced. Early entrance is the easiest form of acceleration, academically and socially. It may be best to accelerate girls before third grade or after ninth grade, when they are less bonded to their peer group. Boys are usually more willing to skip grades at any point in their school program. Excellent guidelines for acceleration are provided by Feldhusen (1992). When a child expresses a willingness to be accelerated, the chances are good that an excellent social adjustment will be made.
In the preschool and primary years, mixed-aged groupings are beneficial, as long as the gifted child is not the oldest in the group. Gifted, creative boys are often held back in the primary years because of so-called “immaturity”–the inability to socialize with age peers who are less developmentally advanced. When a 5-year-old boy with an 8-year-old mind cannot relate to 5-year-olds, nothing is gained by having him repeat a grade: he is then a 6-year-old with a 9-year-old mind trying to relate to 5-year-olds! The best solution is to find him true peers–boys his own age who are intellectually advanced. Retention is NOT recommended.
Gifted children need strong, responsible advocates, and parent groups can make a difference. It takes persistence of large groups of parents to assure that provisions for gifted children are kept firmly in place. Parents of children who are gifted need opportunities to share parenting experiences with each other, and parent groups can provide a place where that can happen.
It is important for parents of any children with special needs to meet with the teachers early in the school year. When parents and teachers work together, appropriate programs can be developed and problems can be caught early. It is helpful for parents to offer to assist their child’s teacher by making or locating supplemental materials, helping in the classroom or library, offering expertise to small groups of students, or finding others who can provide other enrichment experiences. Effective parents stay involved in their children’s education and informed about gifted education in general. When a teacher makes a special effort to understand or assist a gifted child, a note to the teacher or to the principal is generally appreciated.
The key to raising gifted children is respect: respect for their uniqueness, respect for their opinions and ideas, respect for their dreams. Gifted children need parents who are responsive and flexible, who will go to bat for them when they are too young to do so for themselves. It is painful for parents to watch their children feeling out of sync with others, but it is unwise to emphasize too greatly the importance of fitting in. Children get enough of that message in the outside world. At home, children need to know that their uniqueness is cherished and that they are appreciated as persons just for being themselves.
Feldhusen, J. F. (1992). “Early admission and grade advancement for young gifted learners.” The Gifted Child Today, 15(2), 45-49.
Morelock, M. (1992) “Giftedness: The view from within.” Understanding Our Gifted, 4(3), 1, 11-15.
Silverman, L. K., & Leviton, L. P. (1991). “Advice to parents in search of the perfect program.” The Gifted Child Today, 14(6), 31-34.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated.
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. RI88062007. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.
Nurturing Giftedness in Young Children
by Wendy C. Roedell
Versions of the following conversation can often be heard when young gifted children start school. “Bill doesn’t belong in kindergarten!” the parent cries. “Look, he’s reading at the fourth grade level and has already learned two-column addition.” The teacher or principal, having already decided this is a “pushy parent,” replies, “Well, Mrs. Smith, Bill certainly doesn’t belong in first grade; he hasn’t learned to tie his shoelaces, and he can’t hold a pencil properly, and he had a tantrum yesterday in the hall.”
The problem in this continuing controversy is that both parties are usually correct. Some gifted children entering kindergarten have acquired academic skills far beyond those of their age mates. Such children master the academic content of kindergarten when they are 3 years old. However, their physical and social development may be similar to that of other 5 year olds, making an accelerated placement a mismatch as well. The usual solution is to place a child like Bill in a program matched to his weaknesses, rather than his strengths. Bill usually ends up in kindergarten, where his advanced intellectual development becomes a frustration to his teacher, an embarrassment to his peers, and a burden to Bill.
Educators justify this placement by saying, “Bill needs socialization; he’s already so far ahead academically, he doesn’t need anything in that area.” There are two major problems with this rationale. First, educators are essentially telling such students that there is no need for them to learn anything in school. The second problem is revealed by examining the so-called socialization experienced by a brilliant 5-year-old like Bill in a kindergarten class of 25 to 30 students. A major component of early socialization involves a child’s feeling that she or he is accepted by others–teachers and children alike. If the teacher does not validate a gifted child’s advanced abilities and intellectual interests by making them part of the ongoing curriculum, the child experiences no feelings of acceptance from the teacher. If, as is highly likely, this child makes the additional discovery that she or he is quite different from most classmates and that communication is extremely difficult because of differences in vocabulary and modes of expression, then the child misses peer acceptance as well. In fact, this first school experience, which should furnish the impetus for future enthusiasm about learning, can be a dismal failure for the brilliant child in a lockstep kindergarten program. Often these children learn to hide or deny their abilities so as to fit in better with the other children. Or, they may develop behavioral problems or psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches, using parents to confront the school with justifiable concern.
Understanding Uneven Development
It is important to remember that these children very often do not develop evenly. In fact, young gifted children frequently show peaks of extraordinary performance rather than equally high skill levels in all cognitive areas. The child who learns to read at age 3 or who shows unusually advanced spatial reasoning ability, for example, may not be the child with the highest IQ or the earliest language development. Unique patterns of development can be observed within a group of gifted children, and uneven development is frequently evident in the pattern of a single child. In some cases, it seems as though children’s abilities develop in spurts, guided by changes in interest and opportunity. Reading ability, for example, might develop almost overnight. Children who know all their letters and letter sounds by age 2 1/2 may remain at that level for some time, perhaps until age 4 or 5, and then in a matter of months develop fluent reading skills at the third or fourth grade level.
Another area of unevenness in the development of gifted young children is found in the relationship between advanced intellectual development and development of physical and social skills. Evidence seems to indicate that intellectually gifted children’s performance in the physical domain may only be advanced to the extent that the physical tasks involve cognitive organization. And, although intellectually advanced children tend to possess some advanced social-cognitive skills, they do not necessarily demonstrate those skills in their social behavior. In other words, they may understand how to solve social conflicts and interact cooperatively but not know how to translate their understanding into concrete behavior.
It is not uncommon to find gifted young children experiencing a vast gap between their advanced intellectual skills and their less advanced physical and emotional competencies. For example, 4- and 5-year-old children may converse intelligently about abstract concepts such as time and death and read fluently at the fourth grade level, yet find it difficult to hold a pencil or share their toys with others.
Often these uneven developmental levels can lead to extreme frustration, as children find that their limited physical skills are not sufficiently developed to carry out the complex projects they imagined. These children may throw tantrums or even give up on projects without trying. Adult guidance in developing coping strategies can help such children set more realistic goals for themselves and learn how to solve problems effectively when their original efforts do not meet their high expectations.
Adults, too, can be misled by children’s advanced verbal ability or reasoning skill into expecting equally advanced behavior in all other areas. It is unsettling to hold a high-level conversation with a 5 year old who then turns around and punches a classmate who stole her pencil. Sometimes young children’s age-appropriate social behavior is interpreted as willful or lazy by parents and teachers whose expectations are unrealistically high. The only accurate generalization that can be made about the characteristics of intellectually gifted young children is that they demonstrate their unusual intellectual skills in a wide variety of ways and that they form an extremely heterogeneous group with respect to interests, skill levels in particular areas, social development, and physical abilities.
Understanding the unique developmental patterns often present in gifted young children can help both parents and teachers adjust their expectations of academic performance to a more reasonable level.
Choosing a Program or School
One of the few psychological truths educators and psychologists agree on is that the most learning occurs when an optimal match between the learner’s current understanding and the challenge of new learning material has been carefully engineered. Choosing a program or school for a gifted child who masters ideas and concepts quickly but behaves like a typical 4- or 5-year-old child is indeed a challenge.
Many intellectually gifted children master the cognitive content of most preschool and kindergarten programs quite early. They come to school ready and eager to learn concepts not usually taught until an older age. However, academic tasks designed for older children often require the learner to carry out teacher-directed activities while sitting still and concentrating on written worksheets. Young children, no matter how bright they are, require active involvement with learning materials and often do not have the writing skills required for above-grade-level work.
Since many gifted children will hide their abilities in order to fit in more closely with classmates in a regular program, teachers may not be able to observe advanced intellectual or academic abilities directly. If a kindergartner enters school with fluent reading ability, the parent should share this information at the beginning of the year instead of waiting until the end of the year to complain that the teacher did not find out that the child could read. When parents and teachers pool their observations of a child’s skills, they begin to work together to develop appropriate educational options for nurturing those abilities. Parents whose children have some unusual characteristics that will affect their learning needs have an obligation to share that information with educators, just as educators have an obligation to listen carefully to parent concerns.
When the entry level of learners is generally high but extremely diverse, an appropriate program must be highly individualized. Children should be encouraged to progress at their own learning rate, which will result in most cases in subject matter acceleration. The program should be broadly based, with planned opportunities for development of social, physical, and cognitive skills in the informal atmosphere of an early childhood classroom.
One primary task of teachers is to make appropriately advanced content accessible to young children, taking into account individual social and physical skills. Lessons can be broken into short units, activities presented as games, and many concepts taught through inquiry-oriented dialogue and experimentation with manipulatable materials. Language experience activities in reading and the use of manipulatable mathematics materials, as described in products such as Mathematics Their Way (Baratta-Lorton, 1976), are good examples of appropriate curriculum approaches.
An appropriate learning environment should also offer a gifted young child the opportunity to discover true peers at an early age. Parents of gifted children frequently find that, while their child can get along with other children in the neighborhood, an intense friendship is likely to develop with a more developmentally equal peer met in a special class or interest-based activity. Such parents may be dismayed to discover that this best friend does not live next door but across town, and they may wonder whether or not to give in to their child’s pleas for inconvenient visits. Probably one of the most supportive activities a parent can engage in is to help a child find a true friend and make the effort required to permit the friendship to flower.
In looking for an appropriate program for their gifted preschooler, then, parents must be aware of the learning needs of young children and not be misled by so-called experts who advocate rigid academic approaches with an emphasis on rote memorization and repetition. Rather, wise parents will look for open-endedness, flexible grouping, and opportunities for advanced activities in a program that allows their child to learn in the company of intellectual peers.
Allen, R. V., & Allen, C. (1970). Language Experiences in Reading (Vols.1 & 2). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Press.
Baratta-Lorton, M. (1976). Mathematics Their Way: An Activity Center Mathematics Program for Early Childhood Education. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Roedell, W. C. (1989). Early development of gifted children. In J. VanTassel-Baska, & P. Olszewski-Kubilius (Eds.), Patterns Of Influence on Gifted Learners (pp.13-28). New York: Teachers College Press.
Roedell, W. C., Jackson, N. E., & Robinson, H. B. (1980). Gifted Young Children. New York: Teachers College Press.
Spivack, G., & Shure, M. B. (1974). Social Adjustment of Young Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
(NOTE. Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Roedell, (1989). Early development of gifted children. In J. VanTassel-Baska, & P. Olszewski-Kubilius (Eds.), Patterns of Influence on Gifted Learners, the Home, the Self, and the School (pp. 13-28). (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.)
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated.
This publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract no. RI88062007. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.