Highly Gifted Children
This is an immensely
complicated topic about which whole books have been written, yet currently we're hardly
beginning to understand all the issues involved. On this page and the
pages below it, I'll set out as much information as I can that may help parents
or teachers of highly gifted children.
On this page and the pages below it, I'll set out as much information as I can that may help parents or teachers of highly gifted children.
The need for information
statistical definition, gifted children are rare: between 5 and 10 in 100
children depending on which definition one uses.
Very highly gifted children are even rarer: fewer than 5 in 1,000; some
have an IQ as rare as 5 in 10,000. Extremely
gifted children are very commonly studied in research because they are the most extreme
examples of the phenomenon of giftedness. However in Australia currently my experience has been that it
remains very difficult for parents of a highly gifted child to get information
and help for their child. Currently
the state Gifted Children’s Associations may not necessarily have a great deal
to offer to these children who are gifted even among the gifted. Also, from
my experience to date, universities, even those with Departments for study and
research into gifted children and their needs, do not yet seem responsive to
approaches from parents requesting help for their individual highly gifted
therefore writing this section, containing all the information I have discovered
or developed over the past 11 years through working with families of highly
gifted children in Australia. I encourage any parents reading this site to feel
welcome to contact me, but I also encourage them to investigate all links on
this site, the Australian Mensa site, and anywhere else they can think of, for
any further information or possible contacts on this subject.
internationally accepted definition of a gifted child is a child who scores in
the top 5 percent of the population on an IQ test.
All the material in this website refers to these children, but clearly
the more gifted the child is the more important it is that his or her needs are
recognised and individually met.
There is no
definition of “extremely gifted children”, but they can be thought of as
children whose I.Q. is above approximately 150, or putting it another way, who
are above the top .5% of the population and higher; some are above the top .05%
or .02%. These children have
characteristics which are more extreme, and in some cases more confusing, than
in the case of other gifted children. In
this article I will use the terms “gifted child(ren)” and “highly gifted
child(ren)”, but it should be understood that this is simply a convention used
in this article; the terms generally used to denote different levels of
giftedness within the range of “gifted children” are shown in the definition
of IQ; and, as can be seen, the term “very superior” is used to describe
children in the top 1.33%, which includes children less highly gifted than I am
writing about here.
Highly Gifted Children
stated before, compared with gifted children, highly gifted children’s needs
are even more extreme, and it is more critical that they be met. In practice this means that parents and family need to learn
to understand as much as possible about highly gifted children, so they can be
positive, understanding and supportive of their child’s situation; and even
though it may be difficult, an individual education program has to be negotiated
for him or her. For these children
special provisions which are ideal for gifted children but which are currently
very difficult to negotiate within the Australian schooling system, are an
absolute necessity. Very highly
gifted children are at far greater risk of severe personality damage and lack of
achieving even part of their potential, unless the individual educational
programs which are required in order to meet their needs, are negotiated for
them. This process often involves
looking for primary & secondary schools which are willing to be very
flexible, and then usually also involves negotiation with the schools by
parents, supported by professional recommendations and direct involvement.
(This is part of the work I am happy to undertake as an Education
Consultant, bridging the gap between a psychologist and the Education system.)
is even more important than usual that highly gifted children are identified as
soon as possible. Whereas in the
case of gifted children I do not necessarily advise early IQ testing unless
there is some particular problem for which the information which comes from an
IQ assessment is needed, if there is any suspicion that the child may be highly
gifted it is essential that an assessment be carried out in order to get
this information as soon as possible. It
is then necessary, working with a psychologist or education consultant
specialising in gifted children, and ideally with experience dealing with the
highly gifted, to develop an individual plan for the child, and if necessary to
help the parents to approach school after school until a school is found which
is willing to be flexible enough to provide this program.
begin with, parents need to know:
What are the
indications that a child may be highly gifted?
Only an I.Q. assessment by a psychologist experienced in the area of the highly gifted, can definitely establish this; however, there are two main ways in which parents may notice indications that a child may be very highly gifted. The first is by noticing some types of intelligent behaviour which enable one to make a rough estimate of the child’s IQ based on the definition of I.Q. itself. “IQ” stands for “Intelligence Quotient”, and the concept has been defined to compare a child’s level of intellectual function, with that of a child which for his or her age is at the exact average of the natural distribution of intelligence in the population.
In the case of those highly gifted children who become interested in reading or mathematics, it can be quite easy for parents to recognise signs that their child is very highly gifted because these subjects are handled in such a standardised and age-related way in our society.
If the child learns (with or without help) to read by the age of 2 or 3, one can guess that he or she may be highly gifted - in our society we don’t leave children to teach themselves to read, so we don’t know at what chronological age the “average” child would learn that; but we can certainly say that the average child doesn’t teach him or herself to read by age 5 or 6. So if a child has done this by age 2 or 3, we have a simple comparison with an “average” child roughly twice that age, which strongly implies an overall IQ tending towards the high 100’s – that is,1 ½ to 2 times as intelligent as an “average” child of the same age.
Similarly in the case of a child who begins to discover late-primary-school mathematical concepts by the age of 3, 4 or 5 years old. Again, in our society we don’t leave our children to discover these concepts by themselves, but we do know that most children don’t discover these by twice, or almost twice that age. Again, this sort of behaviour strongly implies that the child may be highly gifted. Using the definition of IQ, it’s a matter of simple arithmetic.
However this method may not
be useful in many cases. Not all
very highly gifted children focus on reading or mathematics at an early age, in
many cases because at an even earlier age they’ve identified such activities
as unusual, or have received “surprised” or negative feedback about them
early in life, (often from adults and children outside the family), and have
decided that trying to be socially accepted matters more to them.
It’s also possible for very highly gifted children to have learning
difficulties such as dyslexia.
Highly intelligent behaviour
in other areas of intelligence may be noticed by parents, but isn’t as easily
quantified, because subjects other than reading and mathematics aren’t so
exactly age-related in our schooling system.
To give an example of unusual and intelligent behaviour which can’t be
so easily quantified, consider the case of a child who at the age of 3 & 4,
after seeing “The Sound of Music” and “Robin Hood”, began to ask
questions about Hitler & King Richard, how they administered their
countries, why they fought wars, whether in King Richard’s case being away at
wars could be accepted as an excuse for allowing such wrong-doing and corruption
to develop in the country during his absence; and whether heads of governments
should engage in wars at all. These
are certainly not the concerns of the average 3 or 4 year old, but since we
don’t teach issues of social administration in a standardised way in the first
few years of school, it’s difficult to make the same relatively easy
comparison with an “average” child. A
child such as that described above is definitely likely to be gifted, but he or
she may simply have very high emotional or social giftedness – it’s not
possible even to guess whether this is a highly gifted child overall.
One would need to watch carefully to judge whether problems seemed to be
gathering around that child, and if so, have an IQ assessment done.
even though other intelligent behaviours may not be as straightforward as
reading and mathematics, the point is that any intelligent behaviour
which seems more characteristic of a child of roughly twice the age, or perhaps
not even childlike at all, strongly implies that this may be a highly gifted
child, and this issue shouldn’t be ignored or allowed to wait for long.
Highly gifted children progress and change very quickly, and will immerse
themselves in the protective behaviours and confusion of gifted children even
more quickly, and even more damagingly than in the case of gifted children.
By the time it becomes urgent to tackle the situation, the problems will
be more serious and the solutions more difficult.
identification of a very highly gifted child can become complicated very early
in life, certainly before kindergarten entry, by the child’s social need to
appear to conform with other children his or her age, and by his or her personal
methods of dealing with the confusion of seeming totally unlike other children
and adults around her or him. The
relevance of the simple definition of Intelligent Quotient is that if parents
observe carefully, they are almost certain to see intelligent behaviour, perhaps
in privacy at home where the child hopefully feels more secure, which will give
a clue to his or her level of giftedness, especially if the child is one who
very early becomes interested in reading or mathematics.
The identification of a very highly gifted child can become complicated very early in life, certainly before kindergarten entry, by the child’s social need to appear to conform with other children his or her age, and by his or her personal methods of dealing with the confusion of seeming totally unlike other children and adults around her or him. The relevance of the simple definition of Intelligent Quotient is that if parents observe carefully, they are almost certain to see intelligent behaviour, perhaps in privacy at home where the child hopefully feels more secure, which will give a clue to his or her level of giftedness, especially if the child is one who very early becomes interested in reading or mathematics.
This leads to the second most common way parents may come to suspect their child may be highly gifted. Apart from noticing indicators which enable an “off the cuff” IQ estimate, the second thing parents may notice is that very highly gifted children are likely to show signs of more extreme personal distress in life generally than other gifted children, due to the far greater social isolation and identity confusion they suffer from (see the explanation following "The importance of the toddler years" in "Helping Gifted Preschoolers". I will list some examples, but I can’t emphasise too strongly that issues such as these depend very much on personality; any gifted child, depending on his or her social and school circumstances and personality, can become seriously distressed and display corresponding behaviour. Any child who shows signs of extreme personal distress, or extreme non-constructive social behaviour - meaning not only behaviour which is disruptive to others, but behaviour which is not good for the child him or herself - must be assessed as a first step in getting the necessary information to begin to help her or him.
Examples of behaviours which may indicate extreme identity confusion and personality distress can be any of the following:
Extreme withdrawal into daydreaming or a “world of their own” is often reported. This is a matter of extent and balance: daydreaming to some extent is very common among all gifted children, and compared to other possibilities, it’s a relatively good coping mechanism for them to use. It not only protects them from the sadness of social isolation, the boredom of school, and many of their other problems, but it can be highly creative; in “their own world” gifted and highly gifted children can often work on concepts more appropriate to their intelligence than those going on around them. Einstein emphasised the importance of time for daydreaming in his opinion, saying that all his best ideas had come to him when he was daydreaming. So don’t be critical of daydreaming, and certainly don’t try to discourage or disallow it; when used simply as a constructive retreat and escape, it’s probably fine. However if it’s used to such an extreme that the child seems seriously out of touch with reality, or hardly to be living in the same world as others, it indicates a high level of distress in that child, probably combined with highly inappropriate daily surroundings - and it may indicate a highly gifted child. Whether or not, when occurring to excess it definitely indicates a child who needs sympathetic handling, and an assessment to establish the facts.
Another common presentation for a highly gifted child is a child who has been identified as gifted, and for whom some acceleration or other involvement in gifted programs has been arranged at school, but who still seems to exhibit the signs of a “gifted child” – boredom with school, perhaps dislike of socialising even with the older children in the accelerated classes, and often but not always, a lack of high achievement at school. This situation may indicate a gifted child for whom the special provisions which have been made are still insufficient, or it could indicate a highly gifted child, for whom the provisions are even more insufficient; in either case an assessment is necessary to obtain the necessary information.
The Future – Happiness
Once an assessment has confirmed that a child is very highly gifted, what do parents need to do? Parents who find out their child is gifted come from various different backgrounds; some are well aware that they were gifted children themselves, and know a lot about the various issues affecting gifted children from personal experience; sometimes this is true of one parent more than the other. However I find in that most parents who contact me are apprehensive or even fearful about what lies ahead for themselves, and particularly for their child. One of the first things parents need very badly is to talk to other parents who have had the same or similar experiences – both parents and the child have a major need for a “peer group” of people in similar circumstances.
This aspect is, of course, far more difficult in the case of parents of highly gifted children. Parents of gifted children, and their children, can often find the social contacts they need by becoming involved with activities of their state gifted & talented association; but although parents of highly gifted children may initially feel they have found the social group they need, they quickly begin to realise that many of the issues in their child’s case are so much more extreme, that other parents in the G&T association community can’t fully become a “peer group” for them. Their circumstances are so much more statistically rare, that they are not likely to be able physically to meet with a large group of parents of other highly gifted children, unless at some time they become involved in a research program concerned exclusively with highly gifted children.
I see email contact becoming increasingly helpful both to highly gifted children and their parents, making possible contact with a peer group of appropriate people throughout Australia and the whole world. This sort of contact will inevitably increase with time, probably quickly. Keep in touch with the more active Australian or overseas G&T Association sites, chat rooms and email lists; post a notice asking for contact with other families in similar circumstances. There are a lot of other people out there in your situation; keep trying until you make contact with some of them, both for yourself and your highly gifted child.
Happiness and/or high achievement
A few parents are so overwhelmed with the abilities of their highly gifted child that they can see “happiness” for him or her only in terms of reaching his or her very high potential by outstanding achievement. Other parents, at the opposite extreme, are so concerned for their child’s personal happiness that they are very afraid of the whole “highly gifted” issue, and are inclined to resist strongly anything which feels to them like “pushing” the child towards high achievement. In fact happiness and high achievement are two separate issues, although obviously in many highly gifted children they may go together.
Of the two, the child’s happiness as a person should be everyone’s first and highest priority; with regard to any highly gifted child about whom I am consulted, it is certainly mine. The capacity for personal happiness depends on many factors, including individual personality traits which research increasingly shows may be strongly genetic. However it now seems clear that the possibility of being happy and secure in oneself is maximized in all children by a firm basis of good family relationships, love and support, and also positive and appropriate social interaction, beginning in childhood and continuing through life to as great an extent as possible.
It is well worth reading, or re-reading, some of the excellent books which are available nowadays, discussing the family and social issues and interactions affecting all children, because these same issues and interactions affect gifted and highly gifted children, perhaps even more strongly because of their greater intelligence and more acute perceptions. Even if your child is of primary age when you find he or she is highly gifted, it’s a good idea to go back and read “Toddler Taming”, “Secrets of Happy Children”, “More Secrets of Happy Children”, and other such books, processing the information they give you in the light of your knowledge of your child, and with hindsight; this can help you discover some areas which may need some “damage control” regarding the past, and some areas of family function which may need strengthening for the future.
In order for the child to have a good chance to be happy throughout life it is crucially important that the parents and immediate family, together with as many members as possible of the child’s extended family, read and learn about exceptionally intelligent people so as to be able to understand, accept and support him or her in life. Secondly, in order for the child to be reasonably happy during his or her school years, no matter how difficult it may be and no matter how many people’s help needs to be obtained in order to achieve it, schools (a primary and a cooperating secondary school) must be found which will allow an individual education program which is at least acceptable for the child. The basic security provided by family support, and the chance at happy schooldays provided by an appropriate education program, will be enhanced by any social contact the child is able to have with other highly gifted children.
Activities and Achievement
Once the family and social basis which any child needs in order to have a chance of being happy is working as well as possible, it’s necessary to look at the area of what activities and achievements a highly gifted child needs in order to be happy. This is where some parents become very worried about “pushing” their child. However, our intelligence is a totally integral part of ourselves, hardly separable from our personality and our sense of “self”. Furthermore research has found that an important factor in the happiness of all middle to late primary aged children is that they have some “successes” in their lives. In fact children need “successes” from the beginning, but during babyhood and the toddler years they tend to be provided by achieving the developmental tasks of those years. If you can still remember any of your children’s delight when they were first able to sit, stand, walk, jump, etc, you’ll be able to look at it in this new light: those were successes or achievements to your child at that time, and they were a huge source of happiness and feeling good about him or herself. The need for similar successes and achievements, building one on the other, continues throughout childhood.
The point I’m getting at is that it’s not very likely that a highly gifted child will be able to be a happy person without taking part in a lot of intellectual challenge and stimulation. It's definitely not possible for a highly gifted child to be happy in normal classrooms with the normal school curriculum.
Most people find the issues here easier to understand in the case of a child who is highly gifted in a visible area such as sport or music. If we were a society of beings whose whole day at school was spent doing sport activities, and if we imagine a child who is born with the innate ability and potential to be an Olympic gold medal decathlon champion - meaning that this child is highly gifted across the range of all sports - then most of us would have no trouble understanding that this child would be bored and unhappy if he or she were expected to progress through the schooling system in the normal daily sport lessons. We would understand immediately that this child would be much happier if he or she could learn the various sports at the level of his or her ability; it would probably seem natural to us that this child might become very enthusiastic about improving his or her sporting skills and abilities to a high level.
Children who are highly gifted intellectually are in a comparable situation; if possible it would be much more appropriate for them to go to school daily with other children of similar intelligence. Unfortunately this isn't yet possible because they're so statistically rare in our society that we don't have special classes or schools for them. But if special provision is made for them, by means of an Individual Education Program, then it's only natural for them, if they feel happy and confident about themselves as a person, and about their ability, to want to move ahead with their intellectual work, and function at the level of their ability, which will of course be well ahead of most other children.
It’s important for parents and family to become comfortable with this, and not to feel that they are “pushing” their child. Ideally, unless the highly gifted child has already become very unhappy and confused about him or herself, it should be quite clear that the drive for knowledge and challenging intellectual and creative activities comes from the child her or himself. It's also important for parents and family not to get so excited about the child's wonderful achievements that they do start pushing the child to do things he or she doesn't really want to do.
All happy children naturally have strong curiosity and exploring instincts, which leads to interest in activities and topics outside those provided by their schoolwork. This is even more so for gifted children; school covers such a small proportion of the subjects of possible interest in life, and even those it does cover, in many cases it covers too superficially for gifted children, so their own activities outside school are very important. In the case of highly gifted children, this aspect is even more extreme; they will very likely have many personal projects and intense interests of their own, from early childhood, throughout their lives; in fact this can be used as a sort of barometer of their internal happiness and mental health. Allowing for personal differences, happy highly gifted children should have many personal projects and interests; “should” in the sense that if they don’t it may be a sign that they’re seriously unhappy. It may very well be that their own projects and interests will be more important for highly gifted children than their primary and secondary school program – if they are a person who is going to become a high achiever in life, it may well be in one of their personal project or interest areas, rather than in one of their school subject areas.
To give gifted
and especially highly gifted children as many options as possible for a rich and
full intellectual life, I usually suggest that parents try to make sure, early
in life, that their children have a very good chance to develop an interest in
those areas which can provide virtually infinite pleasure, to the highest levels
of achievement, one's whole life long - art, music, languages and literature,
and music lessons are widely available in our society, and fortunately our
society copes quite well with children who begin to excel at art or music, so
making these opportunities available to highly gifted children is not usually
very difficult. The possibilities
regarding languages may need a bit more mental adjustment. If they have an interest in languages, highly gifted children
can learn 3 or more foreign languages. Often
there may be some ethnic history in the family which makes one or more languages
interesting for the child to study; or they may have an intense interest in some
subject in which the study of one or more specific languages may be implied –
for example a serious interest in Ancient Roman history may suggest the study of
any or all of: Latin, Italian, French and German (Italian, French and German
being the languages of the modern countries where the archeology of the Roman
Empire is now found).
other indications regarding which languages to learn, I usually suggest that
highly gifted children be offered the chance to learn Modern Standard Chinese,
and Japanese, together with whichever European or other Asian language their
secondary school offers. I suggest this because it’s clear that the influence
& involvement of the Chinese and Japanese in world and academic affairs is likely to grow
immensely during their lifetimes, so that whatever career area the child goes
into, being able to speak and write Chinese and Japanese is likely to be a great
advantage to them. They are also
both fascinating languages to study, being linguistically very different from
these options available if the child is interested in them, parents can play an
important part in helping the child follow up any strong personal interests he
or she may have, and here again email and the Net are becoming invaluable. Encyclopedia
Britannica is now available free on the Net at www.Britannica.com
and the site contains multiple links to high-quality sites with information
about almost every subject one could wish for.
Apart from such centralised starting points for finding information on
the Net, in almost every area of intellectual interest there are now groups of
fellow enthusiasts maintaining websites of information, and providing the
opportunity to contact others with the same interests.
In many cases, genuine research projects are proceeding via the Net, in
which people from all over the world are cooperating to further research in an
area of their interest, and these groups can be invaluable for gifted and highly
gifted children. One example is the
SETI project – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.
This famous project whose object is systematically to examine section by
section the entire immensity of electromagnetic information reaching the Earth
from the whole universe, searching for signs of any signal which indicates
intelligent life, has now widened the project to help get this gigantic task
done more quickly. The PC’s which
most of us have in our homes are powerful enough to process data from SETI’s
telescopes, so if one joins the project SETI provides the program, and sends
chunks of the data via the Net which can be processed whenever the PC is not in
use. Anyone who takes part in the
project could be the first human to discover signs of extra-terrestrial life.
The psychologist Piaget did a similar thing as a boy - when visiting a museum near his home in Switzerland, when he was about 10, he was lucky enough to catch the interest of one of the directors, whose specialisation was freshwater crustaceans in the Swiss lake they lived beside. Piaget worked with him every weekend, began publishing scientific papers with him, and when the director died, kept on with the research & publishing papers, and became widely known as an expert on the subject. Academics used to write wanting to meet him, and he always refused because he didn't want them to find out he was still only a 12 or 13 year old boy at the time. Piaget of course went on to become famous in the completely different area of child psychology, but this is an example of the level of achievement a highly gifted child can reach in a subject which is really only a childhood hobby.
Parents of gifted children sometimes ask me what is the outlook in life for their child – it can seem quite depressing, especially at times when schools are not being helpful, the child is miserable, or other problems seem to be clustering around. Parents of very highly gifted children are understandably even more concerned about this question: if their child is so intelligent that only 1 or 2 other people in every 1,000 or 10,000 that he or she meets is likely to be able to understand him or her intellectually, and if the education system is being obtuse and unhelpful, what sort of life can they look forward to for their exceptional child?
The short answer to this is
that it should be possible to achieve a happy and interesting life for the
child; but this shouldn’t be confused with guaranteeing that the child will become
a millionaire before the age of 30, or win a Nobel prize.
Many highly gifted children will achieve highly in life, but as with all
children in the community, some will live happy lives without achieving what
others may regard as commercial or worldly success.
This page is still being written, and there is still a lot of information to add here. If you are particularly interested in this page, please email me to let me know; of the pages on this site which are still incomplete, I will give higher priority to any about which I receive email enquiries: email@example.com
Links to articles re
highly gifted children:
1 "Life in the Asynchronous Family" by Kathi Kearney: http://www.homeeducator.com/FamilyTimes/articles/8-3article12.htm
2 "Is it a Cheetah?" by Stephanie
3 "Questions and Answers About Profoundly Gifted Children,"
"Stuck in Another Dimension: The Exceptionally Gifted Child in
"Highly Gifted Children in Full Inclusion Classrooms," by Kathi
7. "Don't Throw Away the Old Binet," by Linda Silverman &
8. "Current Use of the Stanford Binet Form L-M," by Barbara
9. The "Riverside Letter," concerning current use of the
Stanford Binet L-M
10. "A Study of 241 Profoundly Gifted Children," by Karen
References that came up during the conference:
The Buffalo State Creativity Center site also has an electronic "reading room" with many great articles, research and otherwise, about aspects of creativity and the creative problem solving process. It may be found here: http://www.buffalostate.edu/~creatcnt/reading.html
is a Gifted Child?] [Intelligence & IQ] [How
do I Know if my Child is Gifted?] [Problem
Analysis] [Testing Gifted Children]