Gifted children, those who have advanced intellectual development beyond their years, generally 'draw the short straw' in our schools. There is plenty of information around about the integration of special needs children into our early childhood classrooms, but when I talk to early childhood teachers (and for that matter, to many parents) about catering for gifted and talented children, I find that most people question the need for any special program- and I am sometimes met with open hostility. Gifted children, I'm told, will be okay; they don't need help from us. They'll manage because they're clever. We should focus funding and attention on those who can't keep up.
Perhaps you agree. But gifted children have special needs of their own, and if those needs are ignored, they (and everyone associated with them) will have a hard time.
Consider these questions:
1. Is it okay to put a small child's intellectual development on hold until the rest of the class catches up?
2. Is it okay to let a small child in your care remain unstimulated until she becomes withdrawn or disruptive?
3. Is it okay to let a small child in your care remain socially isolated, without any meaningful relationship with either his peers or his teacher?
I hope your answers to these questions were, at the very least,
1. Umm, not sure, let me check my textbook...
2. Well no, but sometimes it's hard to please everybody...
If you didn't answer NO! to question 3, go find another job. But the answers to questions 1 and 2 are also NO!, and I'd like to explain why. Hopefully I can give you some help in recognising, understanding and assisting the gifted children in your room.
Finding the Gifted Child
Look around your classroom. Which of 'your' children do you think might become a leader of their generation, a politician or an environmentalist or a ground-breaking performing artist? Which might become an inventor of something wonderful, something that future generations think of as indispensable, like the computer or the mobile phone? Which one has the potential to become a mastermind of fraud or a corporate criminal if not gently guided towards something constructive? Those kids are out there somewhere. Are they in your room? There's probably at least one with some sort of gift or talent.
You need to know the signs, and let me tell you, the signs are not always something to celebrate- sometimes they're a darn nuisance. These kids are going to make more work for you, one way or another. Maybe they're already making your life a misery and you're at your wit's end trying to deal with them. Or maybe they're just putting up with their boredom quietly, and tuning you out.
You ignore them at your peril. My gifted 4-year-old son was bored enough on his first day of kindergarten to work out that the teacher didn't know all the children's names, so he quietly swapped all the name tags around on the desks. You have been warned. Creative naughtiness is just one possible outcome of ignoring a gifted child's needs.
If you're smart, you'll learn to work with them and for them, to let them help you while you help them, to bring out their charm and to celebrate and encourage their abilities- instead of resenting them for their difference, or just hoping they'll go away and not bother you with their weird questions.
Stories You Might Recognise
Here are some true stories of children I've identified as gifted.
Bryce, aged nearly 3, refuses to lie on his bed and sometimes has screaming tantrums at rest time. When staff try to comfort him he pushes them away and screams louder.
He loves books about animals, constantly returns to the plastic zoo animals and can play with them by himself for the whole free play session.
In the playground he follows the older boys around, and sometimes I catch them pushing him and swearing at him.
When I make a little joke with the children, he's the first to laugh. When I ask the children simple questions about colours and numbers, he shouts out the answer before anyone else can even think. He even points out mistakes sometimes, like that the Great White Shark is grey, not white.
When he's in family grouping in the preschool room, he pesters the staff constantly to use the computer and will sit at it quietly for as long as we let him, working through the activities designed for 5-year-olds.
The staff sometimes think he'd fit in better in the preschool room, but physically he's still falling over his own feet- and anyway, he's too young according to our promotion standards.
Bryce is showing some tell-tale signs of giftedness:
He needs less sleep than other children his age.
Gifted children often don't sleep during the daytime. They really, truly can't understand why you're trying to make them lie down and close their eyes- their brain is still going full bore, they're NOT tired, and they feel like they're wasting time when they could be doing something INTERESTING.
They won't come to harm from sleeping less than the other children, and you may be making their mum's life a misery if you actually do get them off to sleep, because they'll probably be up half the night. Hand them some interesting books (preferably about their current obsession); let them write or draw or do puzzles (the hardest ones! -or mix two or three puzzles up together and let them sort them out); put them in a quiet corner somewhat away from the sleepers, and ask them to be quiet because the other children need to sleep so their bodies stay strong and healthy and have time to grow.
Did you notice that I suggested you give a reason? Gifted children respond to logic much earlier than their peers, and they may demand reasons for absolutely everything. "Because I'm the teacher" just won't cut it with them. Some simple explanation of the functions of rest ("It helps stop your skin from looking wrinkly, so if you want to look like a princess it's a good idea to get your beauty sleep!" or "Your body grows when you're resting, so it helps to make you bigger and stronger") will sometimes encourage them to at least sit down.
He has an obsession, and an eye for detail. He doesn't care much about the company of his peers, but he seeks out older kids and he's desperate for your recognition and praise.
Gifted children often get fixated on an interest, to a point where they become little professors about it. Other children may show interest in the same thing, but not to the same extent. For example, most little boys love Thomas the Tank Engine, but my own 5-year-old went on from there and became obsessed with steam trains to the point where he wanted to talk endlessly with the other children, and with his caring adults, about the wheel configuration of different locomotives. (You can imagine how that went down with his peer group.)
These obsessions, the accompanying advanced vocabulary these children acquire, and the huge gulf between the complexity of their thought processes and those of their peers, together can create huge social problems for gifted children. They can become extremely isolated, with no allies at all in the childcare environment. They are different, and they can easily become the target for bullies- especially if they seek out older children in the hope of finding more equal verbal skills.
When I talk about bullies, I'm sad to say that I often see gifted children being bullied by staff as well as by their peers, often because their different needs are inconvenient ("go to sleep or I'll put you in the babies' room, I have to do this paperwork!" is a mild version of this).
The time spent playing alone as a result of this gulf in interests, needs and verbal ability, and the associated lack of feeling loved and cared for outside of home, often leaves them somewhat socially inept. Their intellectual skills far outstrip their ability to interact with the rest of their peer group, let alone with threatened or irritated adults.
Compounding this, they're often like only children, more used to talking to and relating to adults than to children their age. They really, really don't understand what they're doing in a room full of 'babies', and can feel persecuted by being left in care. They can become withdrawn and miserable, or they can use social referencing to become the class clown or the class thug by watching what more popular or 'outstanding' children do to get attention.
Is this what you want for them? Of course not. They need your help, just as much as the globally delayed child, the autistic child, the physically challenged child. If they're going to reach their potential and become those leaders of the next generation, they need to grow up with understanding (and without a monumental chip on their tiny shoulder).
Encourage their obsessions. Try to draw them out in group time with questions that let them express what's important to them. Make up a harder question to ask them in group time, one that makes them think.
Offer them open-ended craft activities, puzzles and books which fit in with that interest, but that allow them to go a bit further than their peers; for example, a robot-making activity using cardboard boxes, masking tape and pipe cleaners might produce very interesting results from a robot-obsessed gifted child.
Praise them when they do things well or show you what they know.
Spend some one-to-one time with them doing things above their age-appropriate level, while the other children sleep.
Talk to them at a higher level, use bigger words and more advanced concepts. Never, never, never talk down to them, and leave the fake 'talking to children' voice at home- they will pick you as patronising them (long before they know what that word means) and tune you out.
He has an advanced (and sometimes wacky) sense of humour and a great vocabulary.
Gifted children will 'get' your jokes, and will sometimes make rather advanced jokes of their own. They love the ridiculous, because they can understand when something doesn't make sense or is out of context. Some are early masters of the pun; my son at about 3 years of age drew a boat shape sitting on top of a capital C, and told me that it was 'a boat on the sea, mummy'.
Naturally, this implies that the gifted child has excellent language skills, and just talking to a child using open-ended questions will reveal giftedness very quickly. Sometimes you don't even have to talk- just listen.
A little boy who had just turned 2 came to us on his first day, and I overheard him playing on the climbing frame saying to himself "Here's the house. Up the stairs- climb the ladder." To have two words for this apparatus, 'stairs' and 'ladder', in his vocabulary at 24 months was a big hint that he was gifted. He was also creating and expressing a play fantasy in what would have been age-appropriate language for a 5-year-old.
If you can adapt your teaching vocabulary to a more adult style when you talk to a gifted child, they will start to respect you. If you can banter with gifted children and make their time fun and funny, they will adore you.
He seeks (and successfully completes) more stimulating activities than are provided for his age group, but his physical and social development just aren't at the same level as his intellectual abilities.
The biggest problem for these children is that their bodies and their interactions often don't keep pace with their brains. There's no easy solution to this.
You can advance them to a higher age group, watch that they're coping socially and give them support services for their physical and emotional development- though you may well find you can't advance them far enough in some cases, and they're still bored. Or you can keep them in their age peer group, make an effort to be there for them as an ally, and give them extension work for their intellectual development and support services for their social development.
Developmental imbalances are very common amongst these children. For example:
A two-year-old, who was bilingual and could already read, consistently screamed till he threw up when he was left in care by his father.
A five-year-old, who could hold up his end of any conversation with an adult, became 'friends' with another boy in care who had ADHD and spent all day screaming interjections, throwing toys and swearing just like him.
A three-year-old, who showed advanced understanding of abstract concepts and numbers but who had never crawled, couldn't walk in a straight line let alone run.
And a relative of mine with an IQ around 164- MENSA standard- was so badly bullied by his teachers and peers at age 5 due to his advanced vocabulary and poor social skills that he literally withdrew from socialising at all, and needed repeated treatment for depression later in life.
Of course, some very gifted children will balance their mental abilities with advanced development in other areas- but it seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Let's look at another anecdotal case.
Chandra, aged 5, has a large vocabulary and is very well-spoken. She tries to write her full name on all her drawings, in a very unformed hand but using the right letters, and shows interest in the words in picture books. She often approaches the staff for conversation, and although she plays with the other little girls, there are a lot of quarrels which sometimes get physical to the point where other parents complain about their children being scratched or hit by her. Chandra seems to get very frustrated with her peers unless she's 'calling the shots'.
At rest time she regularly throws a monumental tantrum, screaming loudly and keeping the other children awake until staff alternately plead with her and threaten her- without success. She seems to have worked out a different tactic for staying awake and arguing with each individual teacher, until finally the teachers give up and let her stay awake (or until Chandra drops from sheer exhaustion).
When a new teacher comes and puts on a play, casting her in the main part, the tantrums and violence stop immediately, she hero-worships the new teacher and she works brilliantly at her part. The day after the play performance, the tantrums and quarrels start again.
Chandra's tell-tale signs:
She has a long concentration span and is eager (to the point of ambitious) to learn about things she's interested in. Again, she has excellent language skills.
Gifted children will often stay at a task happily for a very long time compared to their peers. Find out what they're interested in, and capitalise on it.
If a gifted child shows interest in writing their letters, help them with their grip and hand relaxation (their fine motor control is not necessarily as advanced as their desire to learn) and give them some dotted letters and interesting words to trace and copy. It's a great activity for rest time if they won't sleep. I handed one 5-year-old an alphabet book, a pencil and some sheets of paper when I had to write up a report, and he'd copied every letter in the book completely independently by the end of rest time.
Gifted children can become very frustrated at school by their inability to write as fast as they think. Sometimes this leads to a refusal to complete any written work at all. Give them a head start- let them practise their writing skills early.
Pre-reading skills can also be taught to great effect using early learning computer programs, which the children can operate while you fill in your observations and evaluations.
To stimulate and encourage their interest in learning, try to ask them questions they can't answer without thinking. For example, when we were playing 'odd one out' with the coloured sorting items, I was giving the children three bunches of purple grapes and a yellow banana, or three red cars and a blue car (and some of them still couldn't do it)- but I gave one very bright 5-year-old two red cars, one purple car and a purple fire engine, reminding him that the odd one out was different from ALL the others. For once he had to think for a moment before correctly selecting the fire engine, and his big smile said it all- these children LOVE having to think.
This ability to classify using more than one criterion- shape and colour in this case- is a dead give-away of giftedness in preschool children.
Again, she doesn't want to sleep. She's excellent at manipulating both her peers and the teaching staff to get what she wants (in this case, to stay awake!), and she doesn't show any respect for the teachers just because they're teachers.
Most children will learn to press their parents' buttons sooner or later. Gifted children often learn to press all adults' buttons, and it's sooner, not later! It's important to be consistent with all children, but gifted kids will punish you the worst for inconsistency- they'll remember the time you didn't follow through and keep pressing that button till they get their way. They'll also remember anything positive you promise them, especially if you forget to do it. And they'll have no hesitation in fronting you about it and demanding justice- gifted children's respect has to be earned. They won't respect you just because you're older, or in a position of authority. They will question everything. This is one reason teachers may start to resent them.
Don't resent them- they are a walking self-evaluation tool. If the gifted kid is happy with you and behaving well, you're doing well. If the gifted kid is scowling at you, ask yourself what you just did that wasn't fair, or what emotional impact you just overlooked, or what needs more explanation.
Never, ever, ever threaten a gifted child with something you aren't intending to do. If you say you're going to call mum if they keep acting up, DO IT (though Miss Gifted may well see that as a desirable outcome, so be careful!). When they muck up, be one step ahead and work out what matters to them, then reason with them. "Can you please help me and sit quietly with your book? I'm going to get into trouble if I don't finish writing this down, so can you be kind?" is more likely to work than any threat of punishment, and "it's not fair that you're keeping everyone else awake, they need to sleep- so if you keep being noisy you'll miss your turn on the computer this afternoon" is a better persuader than most, because it's logical (being unfair to others means others will be unfair to you)- as long as you get tough and follow through.
She wants to be a leader of her peers- but because she doesn't really understand social skills, she has no real friends or allies. She seeks out staff 'friendships', but doesn't have adult emotional skills.
Gifted children often don't integrate well into their peer group and, as I've said before, there's really not a great deal you can do about this. They frequently don't have the same interests and abilities, and even if they learn how to be accepted through social referencing, it often involves having to 'dumb down' or picking up undesirable behaviours. The frustration of always having to adapt downwards can lead to repeated conflict with their peers.
Talk frankly to them (but with ethical boundaries) about the problems they are having. "I don't think Cara understands what you're trying to do. Would you like me to help instead?" will redirect them quickly and end any fisticuffs- adult company is their preference, and sometimes you need to be that adult who gives them someone to relate to without them having to think, talk and play below their own level.
Providing stimulation and being an ally doesn't mean spending hours at home preparing special work for them, or having them constantly at your side as your 'special friend'.
Let them lead in small ways; enlist their help as 'today's helper' or regular 'monitor' in charge of some small duty in an area they enjoy, like keeping the books on the shelves and tidying the writing area.
Let them count their peers to work out how many plates are needed at lunch time, and then hand them out.
Ask them for their ideas for interesting activities, and get them to help preparing the activities and setting them up.
Bring a picture book from the library or home which they haven't seen before, and ask them to work out a story to tell you (or the whole class) based on what's in the pictures.
Get them to draw a map of their bedroom, or the preschool room, or a treasure island.
Act out some of the stories the children enjoy (using props or costumes if you like), and ask the gifted one to play the main part.
Spend a few moments of your time just talking to them when you have a chance, then redirect them.
When given a challenge she enjoys, she seems to undergo a personality change- at least while the stimulation lasts. Then she regresses.
If you're in doubt about the cause of a child's bad behaviour or withdrawal, try some of the gifted-talented strategies and see if you get a different response. Talk to them like a much older child and see what happens; ask them very honest questions, like "I'm getting the feeling you don't want to be here. Is that right?" or "Are you bored with this toy?" Offer them a harder puzzle than the one they just threw all over the floor, if offering them an easier one or offering to help them complete it doesn't work.
I worked for a single day as a casual at one childcare centre, where 'Evan', aged 4, was considered a problem because of his silence and failure to interact at all with staff or his peers in a positive way, or to involve himself in any of the activities.
At group time I started to show the children some animal photos in a non-fiction book, and Evan's peers managed to identify a lion and tiger by the mane and the stripes. Because I'm in the habit of throwing in an advanced question just to see what happens, I asked what the animal with spots was. Unnoticed by me, Evan had been totally engrossed in this activity from the sidelines and spoke for the first time that day, saying very quietly "It's a cheetah."
What do you think Evan's problem might have been?
Would I have spotted this gifted child (no pun intended) if I hadn't opened the door by asking the children an advanced question to see what happened?
You don't have to rely on observations to find your gifted children. If you make regular opportunities for the gifted child to show himself, he will probably do so, with huge relief- as long as he hasn't been overlooked for so long that he's tuned out from everything you say and do.
Evan was waiting for something to stimulate his interest and to allow him to show his ability, rather as we might wait for a bus in the rain- looking bored and restless, and wondering miserably if the bus was ever going to appear at all. Similarly, Chandra was causing chaos- one might call it 'writing emotional graffiti'!- waiting for the intellectual 'bus' to arrive. When it came, in the form of a whole play to learn, she happily hopped on and loved the ride. The moment she was off that bus, she reverted to the only way of coping she knew.
But not all gifted children are as outgoing as Bryce and Chandra. Consider this child's behaviour.
Gavin, aged 4, has just arrived at childcare for the first time. The other children are playing a very noisy game and some are running around the room, with the staff speaking severely to them. Gavin is cowering by the bookcase howling tearfully, incoherently and loudly; every so often we make out the word 'MUMMY'. When other staff try to pick him up and cuddle him he pushes them off furiously and howls louder. When they offer him toys he throws them across the floor, but not AT anyone.
I watch this body language and try a different tack. I go over to him, but not too close; the moment he pulls back from me I stop and sit down on the floor. I say, "Are you missing mummy?" He sobs "Yes".
I say, "Do you want a cuddle?" He says, "No", but his eyes are now on me with interest.
I say, "Okay. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?" He says, "No."
I ask, "Do you know when mummy is coming back?" He says, "She finishes work at four o'clock."
My 'giftedness' radar goes off, as your average 4-year-old has no clue how to answer a question like this other than relatively, eg 'at night' or 'after lunch'. I say, "Do you know how to find out the time on the clock up there?" He looks up at it and says "No."
I say, "Would you like to learn how to read it, so you know how close we are to 4 o'clock when mummy's coming back?"
He says "Yes," and lets me pick him up to look at the clock closely. He knows his numbers already and within a few minutes he has the idea, right down to the half-past concept- so we spend the day reading books, doing puzzles and checking the time every ten minutes or so!
The next day when Gavin arrives he starts to howl all over again. I remind him he can watch the clock to see if it's four o'clock like he did yesterday. He stops crying long enough to say, "But that was a VERY long time!"
He goes on sobbing, but this time it's easier to get him involved in puzzles and books. Later we go outside to play, and I discover that he is passionate about playing cricket so we have a game; he knows all the rules and is actually very good at it.
Gavin has a totally different personality to Bryce and Chandra, but he's still got the signs of giftedness once you get through the emotional smokescreen.
He finds strange adults touching him without asking inappropriate, and responds with total aversion to regular comforting techniques and to the company of other children.
It would be very easy to 'diagnose' Gavin on the spot as a somewhat backward child with lingering separation anxiety issues; his behaviour was very like that of new children in the 1 to 2-year-olds' room, so the default position is to pick him up and cuddle him, or to distract him.
In fact, Gavin was a gifted child with a strong sense of personal space and turned out to have a sensitivity to noise. He was also an only child used to talking exclusively to adults, and he had been effectively dropped into hell.
I can't over-emphasise the importance of reading all children's body language before touching them. Many gifted children dislike physical contact with strangers, partly because they are often in their own little world and like to assess who comes in before they open the door- remember, you don't necessarily have their respect just because you're a teacher.
Nor can I over-emphasise the importance of monitoring the noise level in a room, and if things get a bit loud, monitoring the reactions of the quieter children and moving them away from the centre of the activity. Many children, including special needs and gifted children, react badly to auditory over-stimulation. There's enough going on in their heads already, thank you!
He has an advanced sense of time, and remembers what happened yesterday.
Gavin only took one day to learn that from 9am to 4pm was a 'very long time' in terms of emotional stress, and remembered this the next day.
The ability to think about time and what happened previously, or to think 'in reverse,' comes after the ability to sequence events in forward motion; most preschoolers can just about sequence morning tea, lunch and sleep time, but have little idea of how long it will be till the next change and no idea about time in reverse. A real concept of what 'yesterday' means is a good indicator of advanced thinking ability in a preschooler.
Similarly, addition and counting forward comes before subtraction and counting backwards. I picked one 4-year-old as probably gifted by asking the class "If it's Mia's birthday today and she's 4, how old was she yesterday?" There was a chorus of "FIVE!!" from the usual suspects before just one quiet child put his hand up, and said "Three." Again, he had to think (for once) before answering, and was very pleased with himself for getting the answer right. He was able to think backwards in time and number.
He responded immediately to having his space respected, being talked to in adult language and being offered a challenge to learn about something that interested him. He had an obsession, and pursuing it sometimes with a staff member became a 'positive' of coming to care.
Gavin turned out to have very advanced physical as well as intellectual development, but his emotional skills were constantly tested by what was, to him, a hostile environment- and very like my own son, his social skills were never going to be age-appropriate until he grew up, as he scorned 'dumbing down' to fit in.
While he was in care with us, Gavin never integrated with his peers or made any real friends amongst them, but he 'got by' once he was recognised as having different needs (and a special interest in cricket) by one staff member. Just one ally was enough to give him a foothold to help him cope with a completely foreign world.
Summing up, here are some of the indicators of giftedness which you are likely to notice fairly easily if they occur in your preschool room.
1. Little need for daytime sleep.
2. Complex vocabulary correctly used, including synonyms.
3. Advanced sense of humour, including wordplay.
4. Lack of respect for elders, challenging decisions made by them.
5. No friends, no need for friends or seeks out older children.
7. Long concentration span.
8. Logical thought, picking 'mistakes' and asking complex questions.
9. Acute sense of personal space.
10. Ability to think backwards or sort using multiple criteria.
11. Manipulative behaviour.
12. Attempts to lead peers, frustration when they don't follow.
13. Copies negative attention-seeking behaviours.
15. Noise sensitivity.
16. Eye for detail.
17. Seeks more stimulating activities.
18. Shows frustration with toys and puzzles available.
19. Seeks adult company and conversation.
20. Shows extreme anger and/or distress, especially on arrival.
None of these indicators is foolproof by itself, but when a child shows a number of these signs, you might start to think about how you're going to meet her special needs and set her on a healthy, happy life path in education.