By Paula J. Hillmann, Ph.D.
All parents think their child is gifted.
Parenting a gifted child can be an overwhelming experience, one that most parents are inadequately prepared for. During a child’s first five or six years some of the most commonly exhibited characteristics are:
- Extraordinary vocabulary at an early age
- Varying sleep patterns and needs, often beginning in infancy
- Exceptional understanding of complex or abstract ideas
- Precocity in math and language tasks – knowledge and behaviors that are not taught or coached, but surface on their own
- Advanced sense of humor and understanding of jokes and puns
- Heightened sensitivity to feelings and ideas
- Amazing curiosity – questioning and touching almost everything (it seems!)
In general, giftedness is defined in terms of performances on tasks, skills, and understanding of concepts usually associated with children who are much older. Educational research suggests that opportunities to engage in cognitively complex tasks are essential to optimize potential. This has been affirmed by studies in psychology and neurophysiology, as well. MRI brain studies show that the developing brain is plastic during the first seven or so years of life and begins to network and “hardwire” based on the degree of exploration and level of complexity a child engages in over time. That is one reason it is crucial for young children to engage in exploratory, hands-on, meaningful discovery learning rather than static, directed learning. A note of concern and caution has been issued by groups such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the American Psychological Association (APA) on the misuses of computer technology during early childhood, for instance. (See Remote Controlled Childhood NAEYC; and Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds by J. Healy for more information.)
CHARACTERISTICS OF LEARNERS WITH GIFTED EDUCATION NEEDS
5 Areas of Talented and Gifted defined by the U.S. Department of Education
Talented and gifted students are identified in one or more of the following areas: general intellectual capabilities, specific academic subjects, creativity, leadership, and the arts. Following are some examples of commonly observed traits and behaviors of highly advanced learners. This isan abbreviated list – there are many more characteristics found in each of the categories. Also, it is important to remember that children and adolescents who are talented and gifted in these areas will exhibit many, but not necessarily all of the listed traits.
- Recalls facts easily
- Is very well informed about one or more topics
- Shows keen insight into cause-effect relationships
- Has exceptional ability to solve problems
- Has phenomenal memory
Intelligence in a Specific Academic Area
- Exhibits extended attention in math, science and/or humanities
- Displays a passion for a topic of interest
- Makes independent contact with or carries on correspondence with experts in the field
- Puts extensive efforts into a project - time is of no consequence
- Manages to change a topic under discussion to the discipline of his/her interest (e.g., a discussion on today’s weather soon becomes focused on meteorology or g
- Possesses strong visual thinking or imaginative skills
- Transfers ideas and solutions to unique situations
- Prefers variety and novelty and an individual way of solving problems
- Asks many and unusual questions
- Often has several projects going at once
- Resists external controls, test and challenges limits
- Relates to and motivates other people
- Organizes others for activities
- Demonstrates high levels of self-assurance when making decisions or convincing peers
- Sees problems from many perspectives
- Listens to and respects the opinions of others (or listens to, and debates the opinions of others)
- Shows very high ability in the visual arts, i.e., painting, sculpting, and/or arranging media in a unique way
- Possesses unusual ability to create, perform, or describe music
- Possesses unusual talent in drama or dance
- Uses artistic ability to express or evoke feelings
- Persists with an artistic vision
Coping with the challenges of parenting a child or adolescent with outstanding abilities can sometimes feel delightful, but also uncontrollable, isolating, frustrating, and confusing. To compound the problem, it is difficult for many parents to find appropriate resources to consult regarding their child’s advanced learning behaviors and the effects this has upon the family system as a whole. Whom can they turn to? someone in the school? the community? relatives? friends? Too often, parents find themselves facing much of this challenge alone.
Contrary to a popular myth that these children and adolescents will succeed on their own, many experience academic, social, and personal problems when they do not receive suitable encouragement from society and their families. Of primary importance in the recognition and development of their special abilities is the active, engaged support of parents both at home and in school. Learners with advanced abilities require developmentally appropriate curriculum consistent with their learning rates and passions. Most schools today believe that the exceptional educational needs of children can be best served within the regular classroom when outstanding content curriculum, effective teaching and learning practices, school-wide supports, and home-school-community partnerships are in place. Academic rigor, staff development, student services, parent involvement, and curriculum adaptation are essential components of gifted education and talent development programs. This philosophy of education should be absorbed into the total fabric of each school’s culture to serve the needs of the whole child.
What to Look For in Supporting Your Child’s Education
In examining schools and programs for highly advanced learners, look for philosophies, principles, and beliefs such as the ones below.
- While all students have academic strengths, not all students are gifted.
- Identification of students’ strengths should be linked with appropriate educational programming at all levels using a collaborative teamwork process. Students may have talented and gifted needs in one area or in multiple areas. For instance, a student may be accelerated in visual arts and science, but performing above average in language arts and average in music.
- Students may be “twice exceptional” – they may be identified with special education needs in addition to being accelerated learners in other areas. For instance, a student may be dyslexic but have profound potential in creative writing.
- Students’ advanced learning needs may vary in terms of uniqueness and strength. In other words, advanced talent strengths fall along a continuum, and are exhibited differently across time and situations. There is no one-size-fits-all way to address the exceptional needs of advanced learners.
- Students’ abilities may emerge at varying times throughout their K-12 schooling as a function of opportunities and experiences. Accelerative options should be available based on readiness, interest, learning styles, and self-motivation.
- Most students with high ability needs can have their strengths addressed and accommodated effectively within the regular classroom through the teacher’s appropriate differentiation of the school’s grade level curriculum. However, students identified with highly exceptional or profoundly exceptional gifted education needs will require services and resources beyond the classroom.
- School programming should foster maximum academic and personal growth, and provide suitable assessments to document achievement. Early responsiveness to the identification of advanced abilities in the form of systematic programming and continuity of services is essential. Identification and programming beyond grade 2 may be too late for some children, especially those from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds.
- Educational opportunities that accommodate students’ needs are a responsibility shared by classroom teachers, educational specialists, administrators, and families. Also, students must be active participants in and share responsibility for their own learning.
- Effective comprehensive and integrated education addresses the needs of the whole child, and support services should be available from school staff such as counselors, psychologists, as well as from agencies within the community.
The Importance of Parent Involvement
Parents know their children best, and several studies in gifted education have concluded that parents are accurate 80-90% of the time when it comes to the identification of their child’s abilities and an understanding of their needs. Therefore, collaborative parent involvement is a vital component of successful education. The National Association for Gifted Children (www.nagc.org) publishes issues of Parenting for High Potential for parents of gifted children several times per year. School resource centers, public libraries, college/university libraries, the Davidson Institute (www.ditd.org), the Hoagies Gifted Education site (www.hoagiesgifted.org), and Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted (www.sengifted.org) are some additional good sources for more information on giftedness and talent development.
Becoming an engaged, collaborative parent who provides support and advocacy on behalf of a child with advanced learning needs takes time, practice, and patience. The National Education Association (NEA) has offered several suggestions regarding the important role parents play in the development of exceptional capabilities in their children.
- Encourage your child to play an active, meaningful role in family decisions. Listen to suggestions, applying them whenever appropriate and possible.
- Try to encourage integrative thinking by drawing relationships among ideas and events. Discuss possible consequences of actions, both personal and social, building upon daily experiences and contemporary events.
- Encourage imagination – engage in storytelling and creative expression in the arts, for example.
- Support a child’s or adolescent’s calculated risk-taking and non-dangerous experimentation, even when the possibilities of success are slim. Help them understand how lack of success is part of lifelong learning, and encourage them to explore the causes of failure and alternatives to success.
- Guide your child in learning how to socially and emotionally cope with failure, AND with success.
- Provide opportunities to experience a variety of books, games, puzzles, activities, and publications that foster critical and creative thinking. Introduce them to situations that expand their horizons and help build an appreciation for diversity and an understanding of cross-cultural perspectives. Limit the time your child spends engaged in technology-enhanced activities such as TV, video games, and computer-based activities.
- Establish a collaborative relationship and partnership with teachers and school administrators about educating highly advanced learners. Understand policies and procedural guidelines that exist regarding accelerative options for your child. Help the school understand strengths about your child that they may not be aware of. Some parents assume that schools will automatically know about their child and about the educational opportunities that exist to help maximize potential.
- During parent-teacher conferences, provide anecdotes that illustrate your child’s exceptional capabilities and interests outside of school. For example, your child may be a very excited, enthusiastic learner by nature – but this may look like hyperactivity to some teachers. And remember that teachers may not see the same behaviours at school that you see at home. Because of their superior abilities, high ability children often work at only partial capacity. Ultimately this can lead to some children and adolescents acquiring extremely poor learning habits and their avoidance of higher levels of appropriate challenge.
- Seek other parents of children with advanced capabilities and share ideas and concerns. These communications will make you feel less alone, and may foster contacts with families who have children with similar interests as yours. This is also an opportunity to develop parent advocacy groups who work in engaged partnerships with their children’s schools.
- Explore activities and experiences outside of the school, within your local communities and state. There may be non-profit groups that provide opportunities for high ability students. An example in Wisconsin is the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (www.wcaty.org), a non-profit organization that provides programs for students on a statewide, year-round basis. Check with your school or your state department of instruction for information on centers for talent development.
You are your child’s most important advocate. Children and adolescents do not have the capacity and means of access that adults have. Guide your child in setting realistic goals and objectives. Help dispel any notions that highly advanced learners are expected to function at optimal levels at all times. Help them learn to stop doing, or to say “no” gracefully. Difficulties may arise from having an overwhelming number of choices, or from being capable of high performance at too many things. Discuss and model ways in which difficult but necessary decisions can be made when faced with too many alternatives.
All children and adolescents need trusted authority figures in their lives. Provide structure and boundaries for behavior. Often high ability individuals are able to argue very convincingly about their “rights” to be excused from conventional behavioral requirements. While reciprocal communication, trust, and collaborative decision-making are valued in effective adult-child relations, there will be times when the parent or teacher must make a “tough-love” choice and enforce the decision based on their maturity, experience, and an adult perspective. Help your child learn why this is important, and why respect and manners matter across life. Some parents worry as their children begin to grow up – it’s easier in many ways to give “roots” than to give “wings,” It may be comforting to bear in mind that in most situations, when children and adolescents are faced with serious decisions, they almost invariably seek out their family for support. Remember that above all – family matters.
Davis, G. & Rimm, S. (2004). Education of the Gifted and Talented. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Hillmann, P.J. (2007). Educating Advanced Learners in a Diverse Society, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin -Madison Press
Neihart, M. et.al. (2002). The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press
Webb, J. et.al.(2007) A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children. Scottdale, AZ: Great Potential Press
National Education Association, Gifted and talented children: How parents can help (Pamplet)
(A Parent's Guide to Giften Children by James T Webb can be found in our bookstore under the category "involving Parents," "Especially for Parents.")
Posted on April 2, 2011 by Paula J. Hillmann, Ph.D.
Dr. Hillman specializes in giftedness, creativity, and talent development. Located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she provides assessments, advisory services, and programs for children, families, and schools. She is on the faculty of the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serves on the National Advisory Board of the National ParentNet Association. Website
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