You do not have to be a budding Einstein to be considered gifted. "Giftedness" is a term that has been around for centuries and, like many features of education that refer to a minority, is shrouded in myth and misunderstanding. Children are generally regarded as being gifted if they are fast learners with a determined focus on topics that are of particular interest to them, and if they tend to perform at levels above their peers.
But there remains confusion among parents and professionals about how to recognise or identify gifted learners. As parents, we want to encourage our children to make the most of their abilities, but if we are not sure about what giftedness is, where do we start?
The conventional way is to measure a child's intelligence quotient (IQ). A full IQ assessment basically measures one's ability to reason verbally, non-verbally, and spatially. Most psychologists think this approach measures "general intelligence", in which this statistic is a surrogate measure of "potential". So, if the average IQ among students is 100, a child with a score of, say, 135 will be regarded as being well above average in intelligence and potential. The IQ measure dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and as such has a high perceived value in the identification of gifted youth.
By the end of the 20th century, though, we had begun to better understand the nature of intelligence and that there are probably more than seven or eight different types of intelligence. Therefore, to have a measure that summarises only three at best is only part of the story. It follows that "giftedness", too, must be more complex and not easily measured by a single statistic. The procedures for identification in this approach are more comprehensive; some still use IQ test results, but the evidence covers more observed behaviours.
So what information should parents look for? The answer depends, to some extent, on the age of the child. Some experts argue that parents should not try to look for signs of giftedness in the very young. Others disagree, thinking that a nurturing environment from an early age is vital.
Young children, under the age of say, seven years, develop unevenly. This is called asynchronous development. Gifted children tend to demonstrate this in more acute ways. For example, a child of seven may have a cognitive (intellectual) age of a 10- year-old but the emotional maturity of a six-year-old.
But if your child shows signs that she or he has some or most of the following characteristics, then there is a fair chance they may be gifted:
- Absorbs and learns things quickly through a focused curiosity
- Remembers what has been learned with apparent ease
- Takes to reading early and avidly
- Can concentrate for long periods on topics that interest them
- Can articulate his/her thoughts and understanding well
- Shows a marked ability to think clearly and use reason
- Shows creative talent (in art, music, literature, etc) and a vivid imagination
- Shows sensitivity to others and a vulnerability towards their own feelings
- Demonstrates intensity when excited about something
- Prefers older friends or the company of adults over peers
- Can be a perfectionist
Identification by parents is often accurate, despite the myth that all parents think their children are bright. Parents are in the best position to know what their child can do. It is difficult for a parent where there is no ready comparison ( in the case of an only or eldest child) or benchmark. And parents are often embarrassed to make comparisons with friend's children for fear of appearing to brag.
The value of identification lies not in identification per se, but in giving confidence to parents knowing that their child is gifted. It also helps direct parents towards providing a nurturing family environment to encourage whatever talent they have, and encourage the emotional and social development of the child so that they grow into confident and balanced adults.
Dr Stephen Tommis is executive director of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education