Is Your Child Gifted?
An interview with child psychologist Stephanie Meyer, PhD.
I was planting some tomato seedlings in the garden one day when our neighbor’s four year-old appeared next to me, calmly sat down, and proceeded to tell me with botanist-like detail all about photosynthesis and the life cycles of plants. I knew right away that there was something different about this curly-haired little girl and wasn’t surprised a few years later when she was admitted to her school’s gifted and talented program. But what is it exactly that makes a child gifted — is it more than just being really smart? And how can we as parents, teachers, and even next door neighbor friends, support the particular needs of these kids? For help answering these questions, we asked psychologist Stephanie Meyer, PhD, to give us some insight into this often-overlooked population. — Jacqueline T., TMC Content Producer
When kids are in the 4-6 year old age range, what are some common signs that a child may be gifted?
When I ask parents to describe their gifted child, certain traits get mentioned over and over. Very common characteristics of gifted children in this age group include advanced vocabulary and verbal expression and an excellent memory. Other signs of giftedness can include the ability to grasp advanced concepts (like already mulling the meaning of life or death at a very young age); early reading skills; interest in maps, puzzles, and clocks; heightened emotional depth and sensitivity; an advanced sense of humor; and an intense alertness and awareness of the world around them — almost from birth. Very young gifted kids may also display early mathematics ability, an incredible knack for telling stories, and advanced visual-spatial skills, such as playing with advanced Lego kits and other building toys.
How can gifted young children differ socially and emotionally from their same-age peers?
Dan Peters, co-founder of the Summit Center for Gifted Children has a brilliant take on this topic. He says that when it comes to social and emotional development, gifted children are “too old and too young” at the same time. What this means is that we often see gifted children gravitate towards older kids and adults, who may be more their intellectual equals. And at the same time, it’s not unusual for gifted kids to play with much younger children, probably because younger playmates tend to be more tolerant of their friends’ idiosyncrasies and personality quirks. When interacting with children in their own age group, there can — but not always — be the sense that the gifted child is lagging behind in social and emotional development.
In my preschool visits, I observe gifted children who are happy and content playing among their peers, and others who appear bossy, frustrated, or withdrawn. This can be due to the preschool setting. Gifted kids’s brains are geared to take in lots of information. They tend to display very powerful reactions to auditory and visual stimuli, including art and music. But when too much sensory information comes their way, such as in a play-centered preschool classroom where kids are dancing and singing in one corner and painting in another, this can lead to overload. A subset of gifted kids just does not cope well with long periods of unstructured play and may be better suited to a more academic setting, even at a very young age.
Why is it that so often gifted children are labeled as “intense”? How do parents handle this, especially when a child’s behavior requires correction?
As Dr. Susan Daniels, the other co-founder at the Summit Center, says, gifted kids come into this world wired to be alert. They are capable of taking in a great deal of information about their environment and this is backed by a heightened ability to interact with and interpret this information. Such sensitivity can lead to perceived intensities. Gifted children may also present with a high degree of interpersonal sensitivity, and may display increased responsivity to negative emotion in those around them. Parents often describe that when trying to address challenging behavior in their child, even using a mildly stern voice may lead to a heightened reaction.
Therefore, in discipline situations, it may be more effective to use a normal voice. Finally, some gifted children may show keen persistence and determination, often leading exhausted parents to view their child as “stubborn, strong-willed, or spirited”. In my experience, conventional parenting strategies may be less effective with this subset of children. Simply saying “no!” or “stop that!” to a gifted child can backfire and lead to power struggles. Gifted kids often benefit from a more democratic approach to solving challenging behavior. State the problem in a neutral tone, really listen to your child’s point of view, and then go on to clarify your own perspective. This gives the child the chance to absorb, process, and understand the information as you both collaborate towards a solution.
There is concern in the gifted community that some children are mislabeled as having ADHD. Why is this?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently extended their guidelines for identifying ADHD to children as young as four years old. Unfortunately, some of the traits used to identify ADHD: problems with attention span, frustration in a classroom setting, daydreaming and off-task behavior, could also be displayed by a gifted child who is simply bored or frustrated by an unchallenging school environment. There is concern that because identifying gifted children in preschool or kindergarten is still not widespread, these kids could be at risk for being misdiagnosed with ADHD. With that said, however, it is possible to be both gifted and have ADHD. What all this boils down to, clearly, is that appropriate testing and evaluation must take place before any kind of label is put on a child.
How can parents work with a preschool/elementary school to make sure their gifted child’s needs are being met?
Educate! It’s my experience that preschools really do want to serve gifted kids. At your child’s current school or as you look for preschools, approach teachers in a positive way to discuss what your child needs to thrive. For example, you may work out a plan that includes flexibility in what activity he or she engages in, the need for space or quiet time, and–of course– ways to keep your child intellectually engaged. Some preschools may have an enrichment program already set up or even be able to provide services such as occupational therapy, which some very sensitive gifted kids benefit from.
When can parents benefit from seeking outside help?
Seeking the help of a child psychologist can be a way parents confirm the suspicion that their child is gifted — and we’re also there for parents who feel overwhelmed with parenting a gifted child, when a gifted child is just not fitting in socially, despite accommodations, or when a child continues to demonstrate challenging behaviors. A psychologist can provide a formal evaluation of strengths and challenges, and help you both develop strategies to cope with and overcome these challenges. Checking in with a psychologist is also a great way for parents to find out about support groups and other local resources available to families of gifted children.
Dr. Stephanie Meyer is a child psychologist specializing in the comprehensive assessment of young children, with a particular interest in the unique challenges facing gifted preschoolers. In addition to her private practice (www.child-assessment.com), Dr. Stephanie Meyer also provides initial consultation for families being seen at the Summit Center, a new LA resource offering expertise in the needs of gifted talented and creative individuals. Dr. Meyer received her Ph.D. from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, and completed additional research and clinical training at the National Institute of Mental Health and UCLA. She is currently the Vice President of the Los Angeles Parenting Specialists Network (follow on Twitter @LAParenting)
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