What does giftedness look like in young children and how can early educators and parents work together to provide the best opportunity for these children to thrive?
It is estimated that there is at least one gifted child in every early childhood service, but a recent study1 by psychologist and Clever Kids Consultancy founder Mimi Wellisch showed that most early childhood educators have had insufficient or no training about giftedness.
Furthermore, some traits shown by gifted children may be misinterpreted by parents and educators, leading to behavioural problems and disengagement.
Mildly and moderately gifted children appear bright but may go unnoticed as they are often polite and able to blend in quite well even when other children and the program bore them. Children at higher levels of giftedness (see descriptors at the bottom of the article) are more likely to be noticed.
My study found three specific interwoven areas often misinterpreted by educators in working with intellectually gifted children:
- children were often perceived to have under-developed social skills
- social skills were classed as more important than children’s additional need for intellectual stimulation
- parents were advised to hold children back as they seemed too socially immature for school
These mistaken perceptions can lead to children being prevented from social interaction with more suitable peers; their intellectual curiosity may wither due to lack of appropriate stimulation; forced to wait a year longer to attend school, they are likely to develop behaviour problems and become educationally disengaged.
Being different from other children can cause a child to feel out of place and anxious.
Helen, an early childhood teacher who participated in our study, was unaware of a child’s giftedness and thought there were social-emotional problems.
She was, I thought, just a normal little girl. A little bit clingy… a little bit, you know, emotionally immature.
What are our obligations to gifted children?
It’s not easy to find the obligations of services to children who are gifted, but they are there: page 197 of the 2017 Guide to the National Quality Standards, under additional needs. In practice this means that services must keep records of any special programming considerations to satisfy Regulation 160(3)(h).
There are also elements in QA 6 that relate to parents of gifted children. 6.2.2 specifically refers to effective partnerships that support children’s access, inclusion and participation in the program.
As educators we must not only adhere to the regulation requirements but also ensure that our obligation to gifted children is addressed, namely that they are identified, understood and enabled to thrive.
Meltdowns and social issues could be signs of frustration
Some educators in the study described gifted children as having low attention – flitting between activities – or bossy – insisting on how a game should be played; some had described frequent ‘meltdowns’, frustrations and disputes, for example when other children broke rules.
The social problems of the children described above, however, were not due to lack of maturity, empathy, or social skills. It was the context that was wrong: having to fit in with their age group.
What they needed was to be placed with children of their own mental age: to be paired with another child who was also gifted, or accelerated to an older group and readied for early entry to school, a provision that has been in place in NSW since the 1991 Policy for the Education of Gifted and Talented Students.
Question your view of play
Some parents told me that their children did not play, but had excellent relationships with their family and a preference for the company of adults and older children.
Sandra, mother of a moderately gifted child, told me, “She wasn’t the kind of kid who could sit on the ground and play with dolls… she needed to have a conversation and have interaction”.
For other gifted children, play was reading a book.
Finding the best pathway for gifted children means thinking outside the box: can inclusion funding be applied? Can she join the oldest children for special projects, will this hold her interest?
In fact, should educators, who may believe in ‘holding back’ based on experience with typically developing children, seek information about early entry and acceleration through preschool or school entry?
Sandra, who sent her child to school under early entry, recalled the difference between preschool and school:
“Going from a child who cried, was frustrated, to first day at [school] – I walked in, and she gave me a kiss and cuddle, bye, and off she went to school, happy as Larry, never had any of the tears or trauma we had with preschool.”
When it comes to gifted preschoolers, take your signal from their speed of learning and their ‘additional need’ – to know more – as well as their social-emotional mismatch. A cognitive assessment is needed and if a child is ready for early entry, you may need to reassure parents their child will actually not miss out on anything the service can offer the following year, because they are actually ready for school.
1 Wellisch, Mimi. (2019). Ceilinged Out: Gifted Preschoolers in Early Childhood Services. Journal of Advanced Academics, 30(3) 1-29.
Giftedness descriptors in early childhood
A guide to the descriptors for levels of giftedness in early years. Bear in mind that intellectually gifted children’s physical development, such as eye-hand coordination, will be at age appropriate levels or even lag behind.
About one in 100 children is moderately gifted. Most services have at least one moderately gifted child enrolled at all times.
Listens to books before 9 months, knows letters and colours by 20 months, counts, prints letters and numbers and asks a lot of questions by three. By four knows many sight words and may be reading.
Artwork or building creations will show complexity. Aware that they know more than others, they may appear overbearing or arrogant, take over play, and be seen as ‘bossy’. This can be addressed by acceleration into an older group and prepare for early entry.
About one in 1000 children is highly gifted. You may see this child every few years. Alert from birth onwards, loves books and understands language by six months. Solves 35+ piece puzzles and knows the alphabet by age two, and reads before attending school.
They are sensitive and may have occasional ‘melt-downs’. May enjoy working with technology and talking to the teachers. They may attempt to play with others, but their language and play is too complex for typically developing children. Accelerate into an older group and prepare for early entry.
About one in 10,000 children is exceptionally gifted and they may rarely appear in your service.
They will love books by three to four months and by 15-22 months they will have extensive and complex language with huge vocabularies, and know the entire alphabet. By age five they read for pleasure and information and play board games.
The lack of agency these children experience in a children’s service may cause them to have frequent ‘melt-downs’ caused by frustration at being placed in an unsuitable situation. They may spend much of the preschool day choosing to complete maths workbooks or reading. Accelerate into an older group and prepare for early entry.
Profoundly / Extremely Gifted
About one in 100,000 children is profoundly gifted. You may only meet one such child in your career.
They can be gifted in every possible area from an early age. Everything develops even sooner and with more intensity than at the other levels of giftedness. These children may require home schooling and mentoring.
They will have external social contact through sports, lesson in music or art, or events for gifted children. You can expect them to enter university early to ensure the pace and level of learning is suitable to their intellectual needs. Accelerate into an older group and prepare for early entry.
Source: Dr Mimi wellisch, referencing Ruf, D.L (2006). How smart is my child? http://www.iowatag.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/HowSmartisMyChild.pdf
Ruf, D.L (2005). 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options. Scottsdale, AZ: Great potential Press
The names of research participants have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Department of School Education(1991).Policy for the education of gifted and talented students. Sydney: NSW Department of School Education.
Lillard, A.S., Lerner, M.D., Hopkins, E.J., Dore, R.A., Smith, E.D., & Palmquist, C.M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: a review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1-34.
AUTHOR BIO 3. Wellisch, M., & Brown, J. (2013). Many faces of a gifted personality: Characteristics along a complex gifted spectrum. Talent Development & Excellence, 5(2), 43–58.