HomeHealth & BehaviorLearning & Development

Is your child gifted?

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By Gail Robinson

Signs of being gifted: what to look for

"I'm always in awe of these parents who know really early that their kids are gifted, Stacia Taylor says. “We were the most clueless parents."

But that was then. With her first daughter, Taylor had to learn how to spot her child’s talents — and associated needs — from scratch. Now the mother of three gifted girls, Taylor can point to a number of signs beyond Kristin’s early penchant for advanced reading. All of her daughters — Kristin, Olivia, and Emma — have what she describes as an "incredible" ability to pull information from their surroundings. Her daughters mention things that astound her. "I'd say, 'How do you even know that?'" she says.

Experts cite a number of signs that may indicate your child is gifted, including (but, given the range of definitions and possibilities, certainly not limited to):

  • Exhibiting unusual curiosity and asking questions
  • Being good at solving problems
  • Reasoning well and understanding and adapting ideas
  • Having many interests
  • Reading avidly
  • Learning quickly and remembering what's learned
  • Communicating well
  • Enjoying intellectual challenges

But what if you see the signs and others — like your child’s teachers — do not? This is particularly likely to happen if your child is both gifted and has a learning disability — a combination known as "twice exceptional". Rich Weinfeld, a special education expert and author of Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties, who advocates for "twice exceptional" kids, says schools may see only the deficiency, leaving you to press the argument that your child is gifted, too.

Early signs of giftedness

You may see indications even earlier than Taylor did — when your child is still a toddler. Joan Franklin Smutny, founder and director of the Center for the Gifted in Glenview, IL, offers a number of tipoffs that a preschooler may be gifted, including if he:

  • sits through the reading of a long book and asks to hear it again
  • shows an early interest in the alphabet
  • remembers complex events
  • organizes or sorts things

There are even those who suggest you can see signs of early giftedness in infants. Take, for example, this article, "Is my baby gifted?" from the What to Expect website, that sees everything from being "particularly perceptive" to having “trouble sleeping" as clues that your infant is well on her way to toddling towards Harvard.

Whether or not your baby will grow up to be preternaturally precocious may not be clear for several years. While it’s fine to encourage your young child, there are limits, particularly for preschoolers. Researchers have found little to no benefit in so-called educational DVDs and games marketed to parents of gifted children, and most experts question the value of academically oriented preschool.

Is it giftedness or just challenging behavior?

Here’s one of the toughest pieces of the gifted puzzle: problematic behavior can also indicate giftedness. Obsessive interest in a particular subject — a fascination with how washing machines work, for example — may prompt a parent to worry if her child has Asperger's — but it could also be a sign of giftedness. Or both.

Or say your child is hypersensitive and has chronic intolerance to tags on her shirt. Is it Sensory Integration Disorder or giftedness… or both? Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski theorizes that the same sensitivity that lets gifted people pull information from the world around them can make them extremely sensitive in other ways (physically and emotionally), too.

Of course, not all sensitive or obsessive children are gifted. Neither, contrary to popular myth, are all children who do well in school or who love books.

How, then, is a parent to know? Try your best to separate objectivity from subjectivity: if you think your son is gifted, but people look at you a little oddly when you make the claim, consider the possibility that love could be clouding your judgment. That said, experts advise that, in the absence of any clear guidelines, parents should trust their gut. Pay close attention to your child. Listen when friends and family point out your child’s special talents, and always trust your instincts as a parent.

Gail Robinson is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer specializing in education and other public policy issues. Her work appears in many publications, including Inside Schools and the Huffington Post. She has two children who went through the New York City school system.