EXPERT ADVICE:

Is Your Child Gifted?

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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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Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, School, Special Needs

Comments (12)

  1. Francene Mullings

    Thank you for this. My son who is 4 tick all your boxes. I started to wonder if he was ADHD but now I know for sure he’s not. His pre-school doesn’t know what to do with him. He was reading before he could talk. He speed reads through any book. He doesn’t forget passwords he learnt since he was 1. I caught him the other day doing additions. I know for certain now that I need to get him into a good school.

  2. Isaac Gooding

    My daughter was identifies as gifted and to this date has none nothing but play some mind games such as chess with the other gate kids. Nothing about work ethic to reach your full potential. nothing about moving moving on to

  3. nejuan turner

    I am currently tutoring a se ven year old girl who tested gifted at four but is struggling in reading at se ven, how is this?

  4. Donna

    I have a very bright 6 year old, she has always been advanced for her age. She even skipped kindergarten went from pre-k to first grade and is now in second grade. While academically she is always ahead, emotionally she seems to be struggling. Always in trouble at school for being argumentative, talking too much, unorganized, and wasting time. Her school work is too easy for her, she often thinks it’s silly work and doesn’t take it seriously. She is also overly sensative, the type that cannot deal with her socks feeling funny, or shoes that do not allow her to move her toes around, even brushing her hair is a nightmare. I even admit she pushes my buttons all the time, talking back and just always seems angry about everything. On the other side she is very intelligent and much older than her age. She often expresses that she hates school and her teachers, and sometimes I think because of how she is – the feeling is mutual so she tortures her teachers and they get so frustrated they make her life miserable with detentions, missing recess and bad notes. She doesn’t learn, she just gets more resentful, She is the only child that I know that gets straight A’s but a U in work habits and citizenship. I feel bad for her, but I also feel bad for her teachers because I know how difficult and stubborn she can be.

    • Amanda

      My 6 year old boy is the same way! He is so intelligent and so socially aware. He picks up on emotional queues and can analyze situations that most adults have a hard time with. He reads at a middle school level and understands what he reads. If he doesn’t, he asks. Mathematically, he is a whiz kid. We jokingly call him Rainman. He is FUNNY! His sense of humor is on a different level and so mature. On the flip side he is very emotional. He is very sensitive. He is not into sports and ‘boy stuff’ – to an extent. My BF who is a mans-man is always trying to rough house with him and my son has said several times, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t want to wrestle. I wish he would respect how I feel about this?’ (what 6 year old talks like that???) He can articulate his feelings better than most adults! He too, gets very upset when things are not how he wants them. If he can’t tie his shoe or is his underwear is a bit too tight or too loose… it is melt down city. He whips through his school work so fast and it is always right. He gets dinged on things like not capitalizing a noun. He knows he should, but to him – it isn’t important. He is supposed to draw out his math problems to demonstrate his answer, but he doesn’t. He looks at the problem and within a second has the answer and doesn’t feel it is necessary to ‘draw’ it, too. I cannot make him understand that it is the rule and he needs to do all the work. And punishments? pffft! I could put him in an empty room, with 4 white, brick walls, and he would be content! The only way to really punish him and to make him actually ‘care’ about consequences would be to send him to Guantanamo Bay probably. I don’t know what to do with him in regards to so many things… Sounds like you are in the same boat.

  5. Kizzy

    My 6 year old girl is very active, inquisitive, started reading at 2 years old, must know how everything is made and how it works, and thinks beyond her age level. As a first time parent who recently moved to Florida. I need help in finding a gifted program for her without being penalized for the school zone rules…please help..

  6. Vickey Brownell

    WOW… I will play with this

  7. Jean E. Rosenfeld

    Two stories: We were teaching our yr. old grandchild to sing, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and we forgot the a line in the last verse. “Wait a minute!” he said and ran into his bedroom to his bookcase of ca. 75 books. He took one book of rhymes and poems from the shelf, paged to the back to the song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and said, “Here it is! I found it for you.”

    Story 2: His mom and I took him to a natural park, where he loved to pick up sticks and stones at age 3. Mom told him that he could not take them home and that he should take only memories and leave only footprints. He murmured that over and over, committing it to memory. An hour later as we left the park, mom said, “Remember what I told you?”
    “Yes,” he smiled with his hands full of pet sticks, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”

    That’s 2 of many charming experiences with my bright little guy.

  8. Learning to be a Kid

    […] It’s troubling to me that there are still schools and communities that accept loads of homework or might even desire it.  Parents need to band together and confront the school administration about why kids are being pressured to learn in a way that is not conducive to creating engaged learners. […]

  9. Sensory Processing Disorder

    […] goal of Occupational Therapy is to foster appropriate responses to sensation in an active, meaningful, and fun way so the child […]

  10. Marianne

    Thank you, Dr. Meyer! I am pleased each time I see attention brought to the unique needs of gifted children. This is equally true in regard to those who struggle with either issues of twice-exceptionality or misdiagnosis. As Dr. Meyer states, it is important that testing and evaluation take place before placing a label on a child.

    SENG is currently in the midst of an international public awareness effort to decrease misdiagnoses in gifted children.

    News Release Page: http://www.sengifted.org/news/press-releases-media-kits
    Recommended Resources: http://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/suggested-online-readings-and-resources
    SENG Misdiagnosis Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XN7IOteagI

  11. Mari

    I really wish more was mentioned about kids who are both gifted and learning disabled because there are more of these kids than you would think and they fall through the cracks. Unfortunately, because of the disability, usually dyslexia, their IQ scores are not that high and might even be lower than average because of their failure to read or read well. In fact, I am often puzzled when I see early reading as one of the markers for giftedness. According to the book, “The Dyslexic Advantage,” http://dyslexicadvantage.com/group/dyslexic-advantage, learning to read is actually a simple, left brain skill compared to many of the more complex right brain activities many dyslexics are able to perform.

    My daughter is profoundly dyslexic yet she is a gifted artist, writes and designs her own comic books (she is a prolific writer even though she can barely read), is doing a school project involving how mechanical watches work (she is drawing each component, describing how it works, and even comparing them to components in other objects such as gears in wind up toys). Recently she has also shown a sophisticated understanding of math even though she struggled with math facts, coins, and is currently having trouble learning her times tables. Yet because of her IQ scores and profound struggles with reading my daughter would never be able to get into a gifted program. Fortunately her school (in a high performing school district in the Bay Area) does not seem to have such a program I think because many of the kids are very smart and have access to a wide range of educational opportunities, therefore they don’t need such a program. Still I am hoping that my daughter will persevere and that one day her strengths will become more visible than her disability.

    Mari