What is a gifted child?
Intelligence & IQ
Testing Gifted Children
Highly Gifted Children
How Do I Know if my Child is Gifted?
Gifted Children: the Myth
Gifted Learning Disabled
A different way of thinking
Maths for Gifted Children
Helping Gifted Pre-schoolers
What do Gifted Children Need?
My Child May be Gifted - what should I do?
My Older Child May be Gifted
Gifted Children and Schools
Why do I get Different Advice?
Homeschooling for Gifted Children
If My Child Seems Happy at Schooi is all OK
Can You Help Your Gifted Pre-schooler?
This is one of the most common questions I'm asked by parents, and it's an
excellent one because there are very important things you can do during the
toddler years, which will help your preschooler greatly.
The pre-school period is quite critical in a gifted child's life. It's
the period when all children are learning insatiably about the world
around them, including laying down the basis for their own future personality
self-knowledge, self-confidence and self-esteem. This basis is like the
foundation for a house; your child's whole future personality and functioning in
life will be based on it, and if it was damaged while being laid down it's very
difficult to repair later.
What does a child need during this period? It can be helpful to read
Steve Biddulph's books "The Secret of Happy Children", and "More
Secrets of Happy Children", to get a feel for what's going on during
childhood. Although his books aren't directly about gifted children,
they can help us to understand the process which is going on as
children develop. This is a constant process of observation of all aspects of
the world around them, involving experimentation and interaction with it,
followed by gradual development of "understanding" of that world,
based on the feedback and messages the child gets. This especially includes all
social interactions and experiences.
Importance of the toddler years
Why is this period particularly important in the case of gifted children?
The most important single thing that every gifted child needs is a firm and
confident self-concept of his or her self as a gifted child, and a realistic
understanding of what he or she can achieve and aspire to. The process of
laying down this self-concept begins in babyhood, and continues very strongly
during toddlerhood. It then needs to be supported strongly through the
school years, but if it's not established strongly during the toddler years,
it's much harder to repair that later.
toddlers observe a wider sample of what's going on around them, in more
detail, and because of their intelligence, can extend and extrapolate,
understanding more implications and ramifications of what they observe - in
other words, the feedback they get from life all has more impact on them. Also, unless
strong specific action is taken to
prevent it, the socialisation they experience from other children and adults
during this critical time, the toddler years, won't usually be socialisation with children who are
their intellectual peers, or adults who are used to interacting with gifted
children. So the social feedback they get is mostly not likely to be
appropriate for them, and quietly, often without anyone noticing anything, they
can begin the processes which are seen in older children in the school years -
underachieving in order to fit in socially, being confused that they don't seem
to fit in, and becoming either anxious or aggressive about that, depending on
their personality - and deep inside, being very confused about who they are and
where they do or don't fit into the world.
Apart from interactions with loving and supportive parents and other family, the two most
important things that all children, including gifted children, need during the
toddler and preschool period, are:
wide range of activities and stimulation, both mental and
physical, so that the physical and developmental tasks of early childhood can
proceed normally with a balanced profile. This is why nature has designed
toddlers to throw themselves into everything, whether appropriate or not - so
that as far as possible they experience everything available to them, and
develop a full profile of knowledge and skills accordingly, that is,
without some areas being neglected because the child has very early become
interested in and focussed on a few areas only.
2 A range of social interactions, especially with other
children, which give them positive social feedback as they interact with life:
"Yes, I understand where you're coming from", "Hey, you do that?
I do that too!", "I like this about you!", "You did that
really well", "You seem a really great person", etc. They need
this feedback both from adults around them, AND from other children they
For gifted preschoolers problems can begin early in both the above
Regarding 1 above:
Because gifted children have a longer concentration span and higher intelligence
than most toddlers or preschoolers, they may begin early to spend more time
doing cognitive, sedentary tasks and play, to the neglect of the physical and
fitness developmental work all toddlers need. I've worked with groups of gifted
preschoolers, some of whom could read anything in the room, including any
instructions for the parents and teachers, yet during a
"kindergym"-type activity most of them were physically
"retarded" compared to a group of average children. The development of
fine and gross motor coordination which toddlers and preschoolers need, can't
proceed if the toddler is sitting reading or doing puzzles most of their waking
day. Thus their developmental "profile" can begin to become
unbalanced very early in life.
Regarding 2 above: Netting & Networking
To try to avoid both problems I've described above, I suggest a
process which I call "Netting and Networking". The word
used because I'm comparing the process to netting for fish in a pool,
or butterflies in a garden. "Networking" means that, having found the
"fish" or "butterflies", you actively network with them on
behalf of your gifted preschooler.
To go netting, you find out every possible type of activity in your
suburb, town or area, for toddlers and preschool children, make a list of
pleasant combinations of them, and systematically work through the list a few
activities at a time. You are not primarily doing this for the activities
themselves, although of course you can continue with any activity your child
enjoys, and the process of doing everything available will greatly help to
make sure your child has a full range of activities, and keeps a more balanced
developmental "profile", as described above.
Types of activities may be for example: playgroups, free activities at
your local library or council, several different kindergyms if
possible, "pre-kindergarten" afternoons at different kindergartens -
you'll find some are much better than others. Then there are the
more commercially provided activities such as "Music for
toddlers/pre-schoolers", swimming lessons, the various types of
dancing, pre-sport groups, Montessori pre-schools - anything you can find.
Activities provided by any Gifted and Talented
Association near you are an obvious place to try; but even here, the
activities themselves are not your highest priority.
In all these activities you are primarily "netting" for other gifted
children whom, with some encouragement from you if necessary, your child can
befriend. Parents who take their children to such activities are a sub-group
within the community, and there is likely to be a higher proportion of bright
children than in the population as a
whole. Even so, you may find none or only one other gifted child in
many activities; in this case, if your child doesn't enjoy the
activity, simply move on to the next on your list. It's important
always to keep some physical activities in your child's program even
if he or she doesn't like them much - kindergym is very good, as the
activities are self-directed and most kids can find something there
they enjoy. Be aware that most gymnasiums run "kindergyms", separate
from the "Kindergym Associations" as such; the better space and
equipment there may be more appropriate as your child grows older (2-3-4 years).
will you recognise another gifted child? You probably won't find it
difficult; among a group of children interacting and working at an activity, it
will probably be fairly clear if another child is working at a similar level to
your child's. In many cases your child will "find" any other gifted
children in the group, because they will be the ones she or he feels socially at
ease with. However you can't rely on this because gifted children can be
very task focussed, and if they enjoy the activity they may not pay much
attention to the other children. So don't leave it to him or her: interact
with the other children yourself, (thereby providing as a free social benefit,
some of the interaction with a range of supportive adults from which all
children benefit greatly), and you'll get a feel for any child in the group who's
Whenever you do find another gifted or bright child, it's time to start
networking. Invite him or her, with his or her caregiver, around to play, and
foster the friendship both for yourself and your child. If you leave that
activity to move on with your "netting", keep in touch. You'll often find that other parents of gifted children, whether or not they're
aware their child is gifted, are as glad to find you as you are to find them.
Even though they're probably not netting & networking as systematically as
you are, they'll almost always recognise the special value of the friendship
between their child and yours.
When you've found as few as
3-4 other gifted children, you can now move into the serious
"networking" stage, and begin to maintain these children as a small
peer group for your child. Even though they often don't remember them
clearly in later life, young children have a greater capacity for forming
ongoing friendships than adults usually realise. Their experience of such
friendships probably forms the basis of their capacity for long-term
relationships in later life, so by facilitating this type of experience you'll
be doing your child a double favour, and you'll know that among this group at
least, your child is now spending time among intellectual peers, and is getting
that crucial positive social feedback.
Try to organise at least one get-together of this peer group per week; if you
have a good yard for kids to play in, you can simply invite them around, probably
more often than once a week. When my daughter was a toddler we had no yard, but
I found that the other mothers I'd met were all casual tennis players. I found a
park with good children's play equipment, and tennis courts, and we had a
"tennis morning" every Thursday. We found a babysitter the
children liked, and each put in a $1-2 per hour for her to come to push the kids
on their swings, watch out for their safety and so on,
while we mothers played very casual tennis, or often simply sat and chatted - it
was an enjoyable peer group for us too.
This was simply a social and play occasion for the children, but the
importance of this can't be over emphasised. As much as the intellectual
stimulation many gifted children crave, social interaction with other gifted
children is probably their most important need. All of the 4-5
families who were involved in our tennis group over a 2-year period (from
approximately age 2 until the children began to start kindergarten) said it was
their child's favourite activity of
the week. Understandably, because this was the one where they were all
getting the "Hey, I like you, you make sense to me" positive feedback
If your child is one of the gifted toddlers who craves knowledge and
intellectual stimulation, "networking" can go a long way to meeting
that need too. Depending on the interests of the children & parents in the
group you end up with, there are really no limits to what you can organise with
a little thought.
Among our group, it emerged
that 3 of us mothers had learnt Japanese, but were now rusty and wouldn't mind
brushing it up. So after a while, when we had become a group of friends, we
decided we would have a "Japanese play-group" for the children. By advertising
at our local university and enquiring at the "Australian-Japanese
Association", we found a native Japanese speaker, and each put in $5 once a
week for her to come and play with our children at one of our houses for an hour
and a half, speaking to them "only" (in practise mostly) in Japanese.
This was an enormous success, but we were in for some eye-opening
surprises. When we began, our plan was that we would provide a craft
activity each week and all do it together, with our Japanese tutor directing the activity in Japanese and teaching us the Japanese vocabulary for
everything we were doing. We expected to have to practise vocabulary with
the children during the week, and kept notes of new words and phrases.
However by the third week, the children rebelled against this, took the tutor into
their bedroom to play with her, and shut the door on us. Almost with incredulity
we realised just in time to prevent ourselves turning this into a boring, inappropriate activity, that the children were learning so fast
and in such a different way from what we expected, that they were leaving us and
our original plan far behind.
We mothers never did get any
"brushing up" of our Japanese, but lapsed into chatting over cups of
tea. Through the bedroom door we
could hear non-stop chatting in Japanese by the tutor. Apparently our children had
no difficulty understanding her; they answered in English to begin with, but
with a mixture of English with more & more Japanese as the weeks went by.
Two of us mothers had done Japanese at tertiary level, but we couldn't begin to
the level of their conversation. It was a shame that we only began
this Japanese play-group about 5 months before some of the children began
kindergarten, because it was clear they would quickly have become quite fluent
at chatting and playing in Japanese.
I later organised a similar group for drama, again finding a drama
"leader" for the group by advertising at the local university. Once
you've networked your small peer group, however, any interests your children
have can easily be followed up in this sort of way - my
experience was that university students were charmed to have the chance of such
novel and enjoyable work; we never lacked for
applicants. I can imagine maths playgroups would work very well; if
any of the children have a second language, that could influence your choice for
a language play group; music would also be good, as the community
"pre-school music" groups quickly become boring for gifted
children. I can imagine that a "group" with a Uni electronics or
physics student, pulling apart some of the old cassette players, cameras, etc,
which most of us have in our sheds or garages, could also be a great success.
Be warned by the trap we nearly fell into, of underestimating our children, and
over-structuring our Japanese group. Try hard not to structure too
strongly any groups you form; your child will get years of over-structuring once
he or she begins school. It's a very healthy (if annoying) toddler
characteristic to want to be in charge, and to dislike being organised, even
when they don't have the wisdom to organise themselves very well. As
parents, by adulthood we should have learnt the patience to allow our toddlers
to be in charge of their play most of their time - whenever it won't cause a
life-threatening situation. Gifted preschoolers, who probably have more
creativity and intelligence, are often even more self-determined and should be
given all the scope possible to develop their confidence and organising skills. They are mostly
naturally self-directed, and should be allowed to enjoy it while they can.
Also, play is children's most important work during the toddler and preschool
ages. So if your peer-group tries to take charge of the maths, Spanish,
music, or whatever else you provide for them, and turn it into their play as our
children did with their Japanese, be alert to what's actually going on, and
unless you're sure nothing constructive is resulting, let them do it. They'll be
they need socially, and they'll probably be learning better than we yet
understand how to organise for them.
note that in the above, the issue which I'm stating is the very important issue
for gifted preschoolers is not rushing to make an early start on
schoolwork; it's helping the child in as many ways as possible to have positive
experience and develop social confidence with at least one group of other bright
children, and also to develop confidence in his or her own ability to function
at her or his intelligence level, that is, to lay down some confidence in him or
herself as a gifted child. This latter objective may obviously involve
some activities which come within the future school curriculum, but that's not
the main goal in making them available to the child. The amount of genuine
academic content in the 7 years of primary schooling is relatively small, and no
gifted child is likely to have any trouble mastering it in the future. In
the Australian school system most gifted children will have quite a few negative
experiences, and the greater the self-confidence in themselves and their level
of intelligence that has been laid down during their toddler years, the greater
the personal resources they will have to draw on to help cope with these.
The Super-demanding Gifted Pre-schooler
Some parents can be reduced to almost suicidal desperation by the
unceasing energy and demands of their gifted child. For these parents, I can
only suggest the following:
1 Again, it's worth knowing that super-demanding
behaviour isn't found only in gifted toddlers. It's worth reading Dr
Christopher Green's book "Toddler Taming", which explains that this is
perfectly normal behaviour of many toddlers, and yes, it can easily reduce
parents to suicidal desperation. It can help just a very little to know that
you're not alone, and that this behaviour's not even necessarily due to the
giftedness - although unfortunately the giftedness can make it more formidable.
2 Many activities, including "netting"
followed by serious networking, may be necessary for these super-demanding
toddlers. "Serious networking" means organising more activities each
week than other parents may need. You may need to go "netting"
until you can form two small peer-groups, and organise different activities with
each group, to meet your child's social and intellectual needs.
3 It's essential for you, the parents, to begin teaching
toddler something he or she, for all his or her intelligence, will
probably be very dense at learning - that there are limits, and that
parents need time off sometimes. So it's essential for you to plan at
least one or two times in the week, whether through the "Family Day
Care" scheme, or whatever other low cost scheme you can find, when your
child spends time somewhere else while you have a break. You should do this even
if you know that this time is not particularly stimulating or enriching for your
child - this is your sanity time, and you should be rigorous in giving it
Quite early, you can explain this time honestly but not derogatively to your
child: "You are a wonderful person, and I really love all the exciting
things you do, and that we do together. But Mummies (or Daddies) need some time
for themselves too." (Your child may gradually learn this concept sometime
during his or her 30's or 40's.)
It's much better to do this, and explain the reason for it, than to
try to soldier on, setting impossible standards for yourself,
inevitably cracking sometimes and shouting really damaging things like:
"You drive this whole family nuts! Why can't you just stop being such a
selfish little brat!" -- unfortunately your child will learn this type of
concept almost instantly, and will retain it; (there's not much fairness in
So, for the super-demanding gifted toddler - try to keep hold of
perspective about demanding toddlers - provide many varied
activities - and never fail to plan respite times for yourself.
Thinking Ahead - School
Sadly, in my experience, school, which we parents all hope will
provide our gifted children with the challenges & mental stimulation
they need, often brings its own problems and may even become the biggest problem time
in their lives. Our current Australian school system is simply not flexible
enough to meet the full needs of gifted children. Therefore, during these
toddler and pre-school
years, as you learn more about your child and the interests he or she develops,
it's worth spending time looking very carefully at every schooling option
available in your area, because if you can find a school which will suit and
support your child a little better than some other would have done, it will save
you all a lot of grief.
Don't forget to keep home
schooling in mind as an option, if it suits
your circumstances - it can be an ideal schooling option for many
gifted children, particularly during the first few years of school.