Is your child gifted?

Small boy with maths equation

At a glance

  • About 10 per cent of the Australian population is gifted or significantly advanced in a specific area.
  • Kids can be gifted intellectually, creatively, socially or physically.
  • Kids who are gifted have exceptional reasoning and problem-solving abilities.
  • Children who are gifted often have advanced language skills early in their life.
  • If you think your child is gifted talk with the school to work out ways to support them in the classroom, the playground and extracurricular activities.

Does your child discuss topics like a pint-sized scholar? Feels personally responsible for the treatment of whales, learnt to read before starting school, or prefers playing chess to general board games?

When *Philip Beard's young son went shopping with his mum, people would turn and stare.

Even as a toddler *Isaac would have "extremely grown-up" discussions that were out of character for most young children, says Philip.

"My wife tells the story of people just goggling in the supermarket at the conversations we were having with a two-year-old. Their jaws would drop."

For the Beards, the recognition that their son, now in Year 6, was possibly intellectually gifted brought mixed responses. They felt comfortable about it but there were other people, including other parents, who responded negatively or anxiously.

"Immediately, if [people] heard a conversation or noted something a bit different the natural response was to worry about their own child, so you get very conflicted responses right from the beginning," Philip says.

The notion of giftedness in kids has become part of many parents' conversations. Yet ask anyone what 'gifted' means and the concept remains mysterious, sometimes stigmatised, and often perplexing for parents who think their child may be extremely bright.

Some of these children seem to learn to read spontaneously. Their play behaviour, too, may be very advanced.Angela Chessman NSW Department of Education and Communities

What is giftedness?

Contrary to popular belief, being gifted doesn't always mean being a carbon cut-out of Albert Einstein. To understand it in the 21st century, think Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, actor Cate Blanchett, choreographer Graeme Murphy, scientist Dr Tim Flannery or medical researcher Dr Fiona Stanley. Boomtown Rats singer and mastermind of Band Aid Bob Geldof, along with U2's Bono, also fit the bill.

Angela Chessman, an expert in the education department's gifted and talented program, says about 10 per cent of the population is gifted. That is, they are significantly advanced beyond their peers in at least one of four areas – intellectual, creative, social or physical. Those who add skill to their gift are recognised as gifted and talented.

Children who are gifted have characteristics such as:

  • exceptional reasoning abilities
  • rapid learning and abstract thinking
  • strong creativity and imagination
  • advanced analytical skills and empathy
  • excellent humour
  • superior insight
  • exceptional problem-solving abilities
  • high degree of social responsibility.

"If a child is obviously using language in a way that you would associate with a much older child, that's how you judge it," Angela says.

"That's why parents are often perplexed because they have a certain expectation of how little children should behave.

"Some of these children seem to learn to read spontaneously. Their play behaviour, too, may be very advanced. Younger children have very naive views of friendships but often these children are much more mature in the way they relate to others, so you often see them relating more to older kids than to children their own age," she says.

"They're also very curious and interested – the rapid pace at which they learn is something talked about when parents call me."

Identifying your child's gifts

There's a variety of ways to identify giftedness in kids including IQ tests, creative tests and behaviour checklists, but parents sometimes still struggle to decide whether their child is gifted. Even when they do recognise their child is gifted, knowing how to ensure the child's needs are met academically, socially and emotionally is also a challenge.

"Giftedness is not a homogeneous thing," Philip Beard says.

"It's a complex state of being; it's multi-dimensional and it's very individual for each child."

It's also "gappy", he says. "Some people will have giftedness in all areas; some people will have it in specific areas. Sometimes gross or fine motor and other skills will be way out of sync with the intellectual capacities of the child. The social interactions the child will have can sometimes be a bit fraught because they will just be on a whole other wavelength to the kids they want to play with. They can also have heightened sensitivities."

About one in six children to one in 40 children is mildly gifted and one in 1,000 children to one in 10,000 children is highly gifted. Child psychologist and author of Gifted Children – Meeting Their Needs, Dr Louise Porter, says while these children have normal psychological functioning they are more rare statistically, which is why understanding gifted children can be complex.

Few of the children Louise assesses are referred because someone believes they are gifted. Instead, they are often referred out of the belief they have behavioural issues such as ADHD or Asperger's syndrome.

"It's often assumed a child has ADHD because they're not paying attention. They may have learnt what's being taught in class two years ago and they're bored," she says.

Louise says giftedness is passed down genetically so parents of gifted children may also overlook the fact their child is bright because it may be accepted as normal within the family circle.

"They're gifted, their siblings are gifted, their nieces and nephews are gifted and their friends will be gifted. There will be a whole group of people almost all of whom have somehow excelled in life. Those people will cluster together and their parents will overlook the giftedness," she says.

You can't get everything from an education program in a school; sometimes it's important for parents to supplement ... the learning.  Angela Chessman NSW Department of Education and Communities

Working with your school

In the Beards' case, feedback from their son's Kindergarten teacher that he was misbehaving compelled them to seek an independent IQ test. Results showed he was globally gifted in all areas and highly gifted in several areas. What had been perceived as "naughtiness" was, in fact, "boredom" and "difference", Philip says.

The Beards used the test results as a communication tool to work with the school to get the support Isaac needed. They discussed an individual learning program with the teacher and principal. Gifted workshops were organised for several teachers at the school and arrangements were made for Isaac to have greater access to senior primary resources and to the library as a quiet place when he needed respite from the social environment.

Last year Isaac was accepted into a local opportunity class.

"For the first time ever on a Sunday he was saying, 'I wish I was at school'," Philip says.

"In a funny way it's only been in the opportunity class that it's been cool to be bright. When they had a mufti day they had a nerdy mufti day – that's even cooler."

Leanne Dixon, a teacher who coordinates gifted and talented programs in Western NSW, says the biggest challenge for parents is creating a positive partnership with their school so that the child's education can be directed satisfactorily.

"What they want most of all is for their child to be happy. They also have questions about the socio-emotional side and how to deal with the children being hypersensitive and over-emotional," she says.

"I tell them to approach the school but be open-minded – not to go in and be demanding but to share with the school or the teacher the child's background and experiences and what sorts of goals they hope their child will achieve. With a more open relationship things move further in school."

The department's Angela Chessman says the need for strong partnerships between parents and the school is vital to ensure there is an understanding of what is expected from both parties.

"It's about working with schools to support children. You can't get everything from an education program in a school; sometimes it's important for parents to supplement what children are learning through extra-curricular activities. There are lots of opportunities for kids," she says.

Support for gifted kids

Under the education department's Gifted and Talented Policy, children can sit for placement tests to have access to opportunity classes and selective schools as well as accelerated classes, and enrichment and extension programs. Schools can also provide checklists to help parents and teachers identify gifted children. The department has resources to support parents working with their schools.

The Beards also contacted the NSW Gifted and Talented Association and the Gifted Education Research Resource and Information Centre where parent support and stimulating extension activities are provided to gifted children through workshops and programs.

"He got on famously in those situations and really enjoyed those sorts of interactions," Philip says.

"That was really helpful because sometimes the socialisation with their age-related peer group can be difficult. They'll want to form friendships with older people."

Louise says it's important to give gifted children opportunities to meet intellectual peers "at least some of the time".

"It doesn't have to be all the time but just someone who gets the child, who thinks it's OK to sit in your room and read or be interested in physics."

Parents can often use their own experience as a guide on what would have worked for them "but basically the child is very bright and can teach the parents what he or she needs", Louise says.

"The main thing that the child needs is for the parent to go in to bat for them."

*Name changed.


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