Young Gifted Children

November 1991 Masthead


Carol Story
Johnson State College

Giftedness – There are as many definitions for giftedness as there are researchers in the field. The two more popular ones in current usage are the Federal definition and the Renzulli definition. The Federal Office of Education issued the Marland Report in 1972 which defines the gifted as those youngsters possessing intellectual ability, scholastic aptitude, creativity, leadership, talent in the visual and performing arts, and/or psychomotor ability. The Renzulli definition (1978) describes gifted behavior as the interaction of above average ability, creativity, and task commitment as brought to bear upon a special area of interest. Variations of these definitions occur from state to state and ultimately they suggest the need for special programming for the top 2 to 20% of the population.

Characteristics – Gifted children make themselves known by their observable behaviors at an early age. These behaviors include using a large vocabulary and creating metaphors and analogies, demonstrating a long attention span, beginning reading at an early age, exhibiting curiosity, sharing a sense of humor with others, learning rapidly and easily, attending to detail, and displaying a good memory. These children may also have superior physical coordination and at the same time become easily frustrated by their lack of fine motor coordination. They often have many mature, in-depth interests, a strong sense of moral values, and highly developed imaginations which allow them to create stories and songs. The children may be unusually sensitive to changes in their environments, have a heightened awareness of their own differences, and make mental connections between the past and the present. They are also sensitive to other children’s needs and feelings and are often effective and efficient problem solvers in both social and academic settings.

Identification – Giftedness in young children is currently being identified through teacher and parent observations and rating scales, self-nomination via a tangible product, psychometrics, or creativity testing. An example of an observational scale for teachers is the Renzulli-Smith Early Childhood Checklist (Renzulli & Smith, 1981) and, for parents, Things My Child Likes to Do checklist (Delisle, 1979). Teachers should also note who other children follow or who directs activities, children who exhibit the characteristics mentioned above, or children who are advanced on developmental scales (see Beaty, 1986; Cohen & Stern, 1983). The most commonly used testing devices are the Stanford-Binet, the WISC-R, and the Goodenough-Harris Draw-A-Person Test (Harris, 1963). The Slosson Intelligence Test or the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test are often initial screening measures, but are less valid. Creativity measures include the Torrance Test of Thinking Creatively in Action and Movement (1981) and the Wallach and Kogan Creative Battery (1965). Caution should be exercised in using creativity tests as a measure for giftedness because of concerns about their validity. Multiple criteria are recommended in the identification process.

A Few Examples – Young gifted children do not come wrapped in colorful paper nor do they all exhibit the musical abilities of the young Mozart sharing his first composition at the age of four or five. The following cases are more typical.

At age three, Zachary was content to spend hours experimenting with the various types of equipment available at the science table. He observed the ball rolling through the elaborate tunnel structure hundreds of times and made the water flow through the water wheel hour after hour. He tried to understand what was happening and figure out how and why these things occurred. He used his problem solving skills in social situations, also. When Dominic stumbled into the cars and elaborate road structure in the block corner, Zach simply moved the structure out of Dominic’s pathway and helped Dominic begin his own building in another area.

Four-year-old Margaret sat with earphones perched on her head listening intently to a pre-recorded story. While this is not an uncommon activity in many preschool settings, Margaret’s eyes followed the words on the page. Later, she read some of the book to a younger school chum. Margaret demonstrated her writing skills when she produced a complete story unassisted and with very little invented spelling. She showed her leadership abilities when she told another child, “Make a capital A like this” because he was struggling with making the lower case letter modeled on the board. On the first day of school, Miles bounded into the first grade classroom reporting that, “At home we have a telescope and watch the stars and Mom and I feed the birds and would you like me to read to you from my book?!” Test results revealed that Miles had an above average intelligence and had mastered most of the first grade curriculum. The teacher modified the regular classroom program for Miles and allowed him to work independently at his own level. During the year, among many other activities, Miles wrote and illustrated a book about area birds, set up a bird feeding station outside the classroom windows, and made presentations to other classes about his area of interest. He also became an occasional peer tutor for less able classmates, often lead small group activities, and enjoyed the rough and tumble of the playground like any other six-year-old child.

Programming – Early childhood educators working with gifted children are often asked, “What is the best program for young gifted children?” The answer to this question is that no one program is best for every child. Finding the best program suggests developing one to meet a child’s individual needs and interests which also meets parental philosophies for educating children, as well as a program that is developmentally appropriate for young children. Several options exist for meeting the special needs of the young gifted child. One choice is between homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping. Heterogeneous grouping is usually recommended since children are not generally gifted in all areas and should be with age-mate peers, as well as intellectual peers. This type of grouping allows for the development of positive self-concepts more than homogeneous grouping does, but this is not often a problem for young gifted children. A second programming choice is for acceleration and/or enrichment. Grade acceleration is effective for children who are maturationally ready. Part-time acceleration (within specific content areas, i.e. math or reading) can also be appropriate if support is given to that concept by teachers throughout schooling. Enrichment encourages the broadening or deepening of curricular content. It can be a successful way to provide for heterogeneous grouping and, at the same time, meet the particular needs of the gifted child. One concern, however, is that one classroom teacher may not be able to meet the needs of the young gifted child within the classroom setting and, at the same time, deal with all of the other children without additional assistance (aides, administrators, parents). Recommended curricular content for young gifted children includes teaching basic skills, building knowledge, developing creative and critical thinking skills, and providing for affective development (Kitano, 1986). These curricular strategies are appropriate for all children. More differentiated content includes opportunities for creative productivity as previously illustrated by Miles’ bird book and feeding station described above or Mozart’s early compositions (Kupferberg & Topp, 1978; Sloan & Stedtnitz, 1984).

Common concerns – There are some concerns which surround young gifted children. They are addressed briefly in the following statements.

  1. Early identification of giftedness is important in order that the young child will be nurtured to his/her fullest potential and does not become an underachiever.
  2. Parents need to value and carefully nurture the whole child, not just the part of the child that achieves academically. Parents must also be careful not to pressure their child and create
    problems with perfectionism or with affective development (see also Elkind, 1987).
  3. Comparisons with other children should be avoided. Caution must be used when employing the “gifted” label lest siblings or peers be made to feel “ungifted” as a result.
  4. Parents and teachers must listen to gifted children. They should allow them time to think and to play and provide the opportunities for children to expand to their fullest potential as
    they indicate their specific interests and abilities.
  5. Gifted children need the guidance and wisdom of adults; they may possess a greater degree of ability in a given area, but they do not know everything.
  6. Gifted children have the right to an education that meets their special needs; well-informed advocacy is the role of both parents and teachers.
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