Budding Genius? Here’s How To Find Out If A Child Is Gifted

Discovering if your child is gifted can be a complicated and overwhelming process. Here are the 6 most important clues to keep in mind.

November 9, 2017
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Every parent wants to see their child excel. If we can provide what’s best for their well-being and development, we know it will serve them well throughout their life. And it’s imperative that we tend to both their physical and mental development—just as we must nourish their body, we must nourish their mind, as well.

So what happens when you discover that your child has an above average intelligence? Or displays abilities far beyond their years? It can be exciting and rewarding to see their accomplishments, but it can be stressful, too. Finding out the best educational environment for their skillset can be daunting—extraordinarily gifted children don’t come in a one-size-fits-all category.

It can also be a confusing process to discern the difference between a child that is truly gifted, versus one who is bright (yes, there is a difference, as we’ll cover shortly).

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with how to best serve your gifted offspring (or need tips on how to determine if they fit into that category), we’re here to help. Let’s take a look at varying definitions of giftedness and what methods allow gifted children to capitalize on their innate talents.

Bright vs. Gifted

It’s easy to assume that all children who exhibit high intelligence are gifted, but it isn’t always the case. That isn’t to say that intelligence and giftedness aren’t linked (they can be), but the distinction is important, for often, gifted kids underperform academically if their skills aren’t properly identified. Likewise, bright, capable children may be placed in accelerated programs that could hinder their success.

“[Gifted kids are] so far ahead intellectually, and academically, and maturationally, and developmentally, that they need very personalized, tailored education.”

Gabriella Rowe, head of school at The Village School in Houston, Texas, cautions that determining a bright child from a gifted one is “a very hard distinction [for] a parent to make, because the line between really bright and exceptional and truly gifted is a much more complicated one.”

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She adds that truly gifted children are “not one step ahead of what’s happening in their class, but three, four, or five steps ahead. They ask questions that make connections with information that are well beyond their years,” and are “typically gifted in very specific areas: cognitive abilities and visual-spatial abilities.”

She also adds that truly gifted children are “are typically very hard to teach. They are so far ahead intellectually, and academically, and maturationally, and developmentally, that they need very personalized, tailored education.”

“They have a nonconformist mindset.”

Exceptionally bright children on the other hand “tend to be more widespread. … that child might be a grade level ahead of where they might be in a more typical age group. … they can be taught more uniformly in an accelerated fashion across their entire learning continuum.”

According to Andrew Loh from Brainychild.com, one of the most obvious differences between bright and gifted children boils down to their school performance. If your child makes straight A’s and a permanent fixture in the honor roll, odds are you have an extremely bright child—but likely not a gifted one.

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Bright children tend to be exceptionally well-mannered, respectful of authority. They actually enjoy going to school and relish turning their work in ahead of schedule.

Gifted children, on the other hand, may exhibit behavior that could be viewed negatively if misunderstood: they openly question authority, are considered rebellious and dislike convention. They tend to daydream, and get bored easily. They may talk in class, and are often ill-tempered, especially if they’re frustrated with not meeting the high goals they set for themselves.

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In addition, their advanced development often ostracises them from their peers, making them withdrawn and the target of bullies. As a result, a normally structured classroom environment might not help them reach their potential.

Joyce Nuner, an associate professor in family and consumer sciences, child and family studies at Baylor University, specializes in early childhood development, and says it’s important to understand that “Sometimes some of your most gifted children get overlooked because they may not make the highest grades—they have a nonconformist mindset.”

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Nuner emphasizes that a key sign of giftedness is “a great deal of creativity. There’s a relatedness between creativity and being gifted—that’s often the sign that can make us think towards the traditional definition of giftedness.”

Other Traits To Look For

For more specific indicators of giftedness, the National Association of Gifted Children offers an extensive list of traits and characteristics to look for. Let’s cover some of the most distinctive signs that could be major flags of giftedness.

  • Many gifted children can be distinguished even at the preschool level, reaching developmental milestones earlier than their peers and piecing together vocabulary and sentence structures at a faster rate.
  • Other examples include excellent memory, the ability to put together abstract concepts, and learning basic skills with minimal instruction.
  • Gifted children are also relentlessly curious, can engage in advanced intellectual thought and critical thinking, and tend to have an aptitude for the arts and/or advanced math skills.
  • It’s also worth noting that while gifted kids show a shortened attention span in general, they can become hyperfocused on specific tasks they find of interest.
  • Another major hint that you have a gifted child is if they exhibit a keen sense of imagination (including having imaginary friends). Likewise, gifted children tend to have a healthy sense of humor and a quick wit.

Rowe says the best way for parents to determine if their child is truly gifted (or exceptionally bright) is the MAP test: “the reason I like it for giftedness and exceptionally bright children is its adaptive. … for every question that a student answers correctly, the next, more complex and difficult question is then populated into the test. So everyone isn’t taking the same tests—it essentially morphs and changes based on the demonstrated aptitude of the child in the moment they’re taking test.”

Famously Gifted Adults Who Struggled As Children

If you need further proof that gifted children are often misunderstood and improperly diagnosed, look no further than Albert Einstein. The genius physicist who developed the theory of relativity had learning difficulties as a child.

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Einstein at age 3 (Wikimedia Commons via Science Alert)

“I think we can all agree that Albert Einstein was gifted,” says Nuner. “Some literature suggests he didn’t speak until he was almost four. Some have theorized that if he was alive today he might have been placed into a special education program as opposed to developing the type of scientific mind that he had.”

And he’s not the only noteworthy example. Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci struggled with dyslexia as a child, and he often had trouble following through on tasks, a trait strongly linked to ADHD.

And many would be surprised to find that famed author Agatha Christie struggled with reading herself, showing signs that experts say could have been dyslexia or dysgraphia.

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Christie (Electric Literature via History Things)

One can wonder if these figures would have reached even higher heights if they had the proper nurturing environment, as they prove the exception to the rule. Many gifted children will struggle to reach their lofty potential without getting the tools they need to succeed. Let’s look at some ways to do just that.

Ways to Positively Challenge Gifted Children

So, how do you help a gifted child maximize their potential?

Rowe states that “best thing you can do, and this applies to both gifted children and exceptionally bright children, is to give them big, meaty problems to solve. …enable them to solve real world problems that have high levels of complexity. Because that’s going to stimulate that intellect on many different levels.”

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Nuner suggest giving gifted children “free time and open-ended materials. That gives them an opportunity to show you what their gifts and talents truly are. We make the joke that a child likes a box to play with as opposed to the toy that came in it. For example, giving them recyclable items like cereal boxes and popsicle sticks and a whole variety of things that can be used in a number of different ways.”

Scholastic offers other helpful tips, including accelerated learning. Giving gifted children more advanced materials can not only bolster their skillset, but keep them from getting bored waiting for the rest of the class to keep up.

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Encouraging goal-setting, using modern technology and tailoring assignments that mirror their interests, can also be beneficial.

And one of the most important ways to keep gifted kids on their toes is by providing choices. Try giving them an alternative (and more advanced) book for a report, and see if they can pull deeper meanings in research topics that go beyond basic facts.

And remember how we mentioned that creativity is abundant in gifted learners? Let them put that into action, and express their knowledge through poetry, collages, music and more.

What can hinder gifted kids’ development?

Nuner says a packed calendar can be detrimental to gifted kids.

“In our current society, we have this tendency now to really over schedule our children in all of their activities,” she says. “Every minute is filled with something, and that doesn’t allow a lot of room for creativity to come out.”

Her solution? Allowing children free time to explore their creative passions, one to two hours per day of unstructured time with which to stretch their creative muscles.

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Rowe also says that “the worst thing you can do is tell them to wait until everyone else catches up” instead of giving them assignments that fit their aptitude. She also warns against telling them they’re superior, because it puts undue pressure on perfectionism: “as an educator, I can’t think of anything worse for any child than to prevent them from trying new things and experimenting and failing forward.”

Not every kid is gifted. And that’s okay, too.

And while all parents think their children are the best and the brightest, a preoccupation with harnessing giftedness can put undue pressure on children who simply can’t reach those heights.

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Nuner has seen examples of the that, saying: “there’s a lot of pressure on parents when they get in a group of … peers that all have children the same age. They kind of start start rattling off their children’s resume, so to speak, and it’s almost become a competition amongst parents.”

In other words, most children aren’t gifted. But we shouldn’t love or support them any less. It’s about building their self-esteem, not bolstering ours. The more time you can focus on building a relationship and letting your child be the best version of themselves they can be, the more you fulfill your role as a parent.

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So just remember, whether you have a gifted child, a very bright child, or an average kid (that shouldn’t be a dirty word), all of them deserve the best education that we can provide. And they also deserve all the love you have to give.

If a child feels respected, valued, and understood, they will do the same with others, and your bond will be unshakable. The world can be a very uncertain, scary, ever-changing place, and our duties as parents is to keep them prepared and to have the ample time and opportunity to let their gifts and spirits shine.

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