Early gifts, early school recognition
Smutny, J.F.
Understanding our Gifted
Open Space Communications
Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 13-16.
January/February 1995

This article by Joan Smutny relates the question: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" to today's gifted education. The author describes how parents of the gifted should pay close attention to their child and start advocating for them early in their life. It also explains that it is very important to let people that deal with your child, especially educators, know that they have special needs to prevent future problems.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? In today's landscape of gifted education, this age-old question renews itself, and the urgency of its answer is intensified.

As formal gifted education programs are cut back, whether by choice or by dictate, we can pose the falling-tree question, adapted to one of our precious and increasingly threatened natural resources, gifted students. When our schools eliminate gifted programs, does that mean there are no gifted children in our schools? Parents and teachers of young gifted children know the obvious answer. Regardless of current social, political and educational trends, gifted children, their extraordinary potential and their special intellectual and emotional needs, remain quite real and very present.

One Illinois school district typifies the current national trend towards the thinning of differentiated gifted programming. At the elementary level, this district at one time included a gifted education coordinator, an identification process, a pullout program for identified students in 2nd grade and above, and advanced math for eligible 4th and 5th graders. In one budget year, the coordinator position and the pull-out program were eliminated; the following year brought the exclusion of the advanced math classes. Then, finding itself without program options for gifted students, the district simply dropped its formal, systematic process of identifying them. As one discouraged parent aptly protested:

    Now, it's as if these children are a figment of our imagination. There is absolutely no formal process for identifying them anymore, not even for the benefit of [regular classroom] teachers who might use the information to identify their lesson plans or teaching styles to benefit these children. For all practical purposes, our school has simply turned its back on gifted children and made it more difficult for teachers to respond effectively to them.

If a tree falls...

Early identification of gifted children affords parents, as well as school administrators and teachers, a head start in planning individual responses to children whose academic needs are not met by the standard classroom curriculum. When gifted programs were popular, parents could assume that their gifted children would be identified and appropriately served.

Now, the greatest potential for response and progress may lie in the efforts of individuals --- of parents, early caregivers, pre-school teachers and advocates of gifted identification --- all of whom now form the most promising network of support for the gifted child. Traits of giftedness are often recognizable well before a child enters elementary school. The people in this group of early childhood supporters, then, become pro-active advocates, alerting one another to special abilities, needs and gifted behaviors.

If our objective is to provide all children with appropriate educational opportunities, then our initial responsibility is to identify their individual educational potential and subsequent needs. We cannot do this effectively unless we provide more realistic measures of assessment. Certainly, some gifted children present facets of their talents in striking simplicity, i.e., the 3- year-old reader, the math whiz, the musical prodigy. Most often, though, the picture is not so clearly drawn.

For centuries, researchers, in education, science, psychology, medicine and beyond, have been pondering theories and experimenting with instruments and methods for measuring intelligence. From this research have evolved several theories of multiple intelligences. Proposing an explanation for the great diversity of characteristics among gifted children, one such theory was introduced more than a decade ago by Howard Gardner. In his work he describes seven areas of relatively independent intelligences.

  • linguistic (verbal and written self expression)
  • mathematical (logical, strategy)
  • spatial (artistic perspective)
  • musical ability
  • physical skill (kinesthetic)
  • intrapersonal (self-knowledge)
  • interpersonal (adroitness in dealing with others)
    (Gardner, 1983)

Gardner opposes any single-number representation of a child's intelligence, such as that used to define the intelligence quotient, and those of us who work regularly with gifted children keenly appreciate this perspective. Giftedness may appear in any one, or more, of these seven areas and may look nothing like the classic "gifted" stereotype Viewed from this perspective, we may more easily identify gifted children and their particular gifts. Before, many children were missed or excluded because their abilities were not all equally exceptional. Artists, performers, young leaders, problem-solvers and many more are now recognized and cherished for the diverse abilities they possess. Another researcher, Robert Stemberg, poses his "triarchic theory" of intelligence, which is comprised of:

  • componential (involving analytical thinking)
  • experiential (involving creative insight)
  • contextual (involving the ability to manipulate the environment)
    (Sternberg, 1985)

Sternberg states that the most critical need in ability testing is to develop measures which are sensitive to real-world kinds of intelligence. He applies the IQ test to only one of the three areas of intelligence in his model, the componential, and only partially. He notes that using a one-dimensional scale such as IQ leads to the view that giftedness and retardation are opposite ends of a single spectrum; whereas, the attributes measured to identify intellectual giftedness are not at all the same as those whose abundance or lack will distinguish mental retardation. Sternberg further proposes that a key psychological basis of intellectual giftedness resides in "insight skills," such as superior ability to deal with novel tasks and situations as well as adeptness at applying effective intellectual capabilities in more commonplace circumstances, whether academic, artistic, or of any other genre.

These, and other, bigger-picture, more inclusive theories afford us great hope in terms of early and appropriate identification of our gifted young.

Parents often see themselves as biased or inadequate identifiers their young children's intelligent or potential, but in this author's experience, the most accurate identifiers of gifted children, from infancy through age 8, are indeed parents. The keenness and reliability of parents' observations come from the consistency and continuity of involvement with their child.

The following is a partial list of behaviors, tendencies and abilities, used by the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University near Chicago in helping parents identify expressions of giftedness in preschool and primary children. Exhibiting many, though not necessarily every indicator mentioned, a gifted child can be characterized as one who:

  • expresses curiosity about many things
  • asks thoughtful questions
  • has an extensive vocabulary and uses complex sentence structure
  • is able to express him/herself well
  • solves problems in unique ways
  • has a good memory
  • exhibits unusual talent in art, music or creative dramatics
  • exhibits an especially original imagination
  • uses previously learned information in new contexts
  • is well able to order things in logical sequence
  • discusses and elaborates on ideas
  • is a fast learner
  • works independently and uses initiative
  • exhibits wit and humor
  • has a sustained attention span and is willing to persist on challenging tasks
  • is very observant
  • shows talent in making up and telling stories
  • is interested in reading
    (Smutny, Veenker & Veenker, 1989)

Parents who are not afraid to affirm and support their young child's gifts once they identify or even suspect them can make a significant difference in actualizing the potential of that child. The parent, besides being mother or father, is caregiver, mentor, catalyst and friend. A child looks to that parent first and foremost as a continuous role model, someone significant who makes and implements choices about life values. It's an ever-evolving role that nonetheless remains a constant and common denominator for the growing child.

When their child begins school, parents often are reluctant, or ignorant of the need, to share with teachers what they know about their child's abilities. They assume that the teacher will recognize exceptional gifts and talents and respond to their consequent needs, or, at the prospect of being perceived as pushy they want to avoid labeling their child or are fearful that any distinction may place the child at a disadvantage in a classroom setting. On the contrary, parents who adopt the role of enlightened advocates for their child and provide insights and examples rather than emotional judgments are likely to be quite well received by teachers. In addition, these parents, not limiting themselves or their child by self-consciousness about his or her abilities, are those who invariably provide more appropriately challenging experiences outside the classroom as well as the advocacy needed within the school setting.

Parents should feel comfortable about taking appropriate steps to help educators identify the young gifted child and respond effectively. Some suggestions are offered below:

  • Create and maintain a portfolio of work, activities, interests and comments that reflect the child's intellect. A portfolio may include library book awards, preschool projects of merit, projects from home that are unusual, special awards for scouting or community service and video and audio tapes of performances or projects (although photographs am better, as they can be viewed at the time the portfolio is reviewed). It is important to sort through the portfolio periodically to remove items that are truly more family momentos and do not necessarily show the excellence of the child's performance. The teacher should not have to pour through items in profusion in order to find the "nuggets!"

  • Teachers are welcoming the portfolio technique more than ever before because it is so alive with the essence of the child - the multi-faceted thought process as well as the products of that intellectual energy. It's a tool they are coming to know and respect. The parent can bring the portfolio to the teacher before school starts or make an appointment to meet with the teacher as soon as possible after the school year begins, as opposed to waiting until mid-year to see if the teacher has identified the child's potential and needs.

  • Cultivate a partnership relationship with teachers. Begin with a sincere desire to communicate, which includes listening and responding to new information and an assumption that the effort of both will be appreciated. A parent who has been frustrated in previous attempts with teachers may unwittingly dump that "baggage" on the next teacher in line. It's better to begin fresh and remember that the best things can happen by sharing respect and intelligent understanding. A satisfying experience with parent and child adds depth to a teacher's understanding of the needs of the gifted, and successful responses add to a repertoire for use with other gifted children.

  • Maintain contact with the teacher throughout else year. If parent or child is particularly pleased with something a teacher has initiated, a positive note will affirm the teacher's efforts. Continued involvement of the parent benefits the child and provides the teacher with valuable feedback on specific efforts.

  • Volunteer to assist teachers in their endeavors to enrich the classroom environment. This involvement in the substance of classroom activities gives insight into the teacher's methods and objectives and a better understanding of the school environment. Most teachers welcome such help, especially when it is reliable, and a parent's willingness to make that commitment is role modeling at its best.

  • Become a familiar face at the school -- at PTO meetings, board meetings and through constructive comments in letters to the school board. If school boards and administrators realize, that the desire of vocal parents is not to negate or fight the school, but rather, to support and advance the cause of excellence in education, they will likely be receptive. If needed, encourage a review of the school's method of identifying and responding to gifted children. Many elected officials, as well as school families, presume that this is being done, and they may be surprised to discover that the procedures for identifying these children have been discarded along with the elimination of the gifted programs.

  • Network with other parents of gifted children to share community resource ideas, encourage friendships among children, and become a collective voice of advocacy for gifted children.

Parents of gifted children feel isolated and/or frustrated about the limitations they encounter can immediately find common denominators, encouragement and enlightenment by sharing and communicating with other parents of gifted. Some will have ready solutions for what others perceive as huge problems; some will learn lessons by hearing about others' mistakes or make strides by learning of others' triumphs. Likewise, gifted children frequently and intuitively find one another in a group; parents can help facilitate that process, thereby allowing gifted children to become resources for each other.

In forests everywhere, there are trees falling; in classrooms all across this country, there are gifted children waiting. As we encourage teachers to presume that these students are there, so can we encourage parents to assume that gifted children walk the halls of every school, and that, in these times especially, they need parents to be their advocates. If we acuminate the sensitivity of educators and parents to the need of identifying gifted children, then we hold the door open for their receptivity to the constituent programs and perspectives. If we show our willingness to help and be supportive, then we make it easier for educators to respond in meaningful ways; and when we encourage helpful responses in the classroom and the community, we strengthen the broader network of support. Earnest efforts such as these, by parents, educators and others who perceive the needs of our gifted young, are the harbingers of understanding that the need to provide our gifted young children with appropriate educational opportunities is as integral to the development of their potential as teaching the alphabet to any child capable of learning it!

Joan Franklin Smutny is Director of the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University in Illinois. She teaches graduate students and is the author of Education of the Gifted, A Thoughtful Overview of Gifted Education, and Your Gifted Child.


Gardner, H. (1883). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Sternberg, R.J. (1985). Beyond IQ. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smutny, J.F., Veenker, K. & Veenker, S. (1989). Your gifted child: How to recognize and develop the special talents in our children from birth to age seven. New York: Ballantine Books.

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