So Your Child is Gifted...
Olszewski-Kubilius, P.
Parenting for High Potential
National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)
Volume 1, Issue 3
December 2011

In this article, NAGC President Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius provides parents a number of tips and guidelines on what to do if their students have been recently identified as gifted.

If your child has been recently identified as gifted, you, like many parents, might simultaneously feel elated and also nervous about the label. You may be wondering what the term gifted really means and if and how it changes your views about your child and you expectations of him or her. Any search for "the" definition of gifted is likely to be unsuccessful as there are a multitude of different ones, only adding to your confusion.

If you have mixed feelings about your child being labeled gifted, you are not alone. Many people within the field of gifted education share your ambivalence about the term.

In many ways, the use of the word gifted reflects an older perspective on intelligence and ability that is not consistent with current research and thinking. This perspective emphasizes general intellectual ability or IQ as something that is a relatively stable characteristic of a person – something you are endowed with at birth, an unchangeable part of who you are – much like your hair or eye color. From that perspective, identifying who is gifted is the primary task of educators.

Currently within the field, there are many who prefer to use a different set of terms to refer to gifted children, such as academically talented, mathematically talented, or artistically talented, which capture the specific strengths and areas of giftedness for an individual child. And, some prefer the words talent development rather than gifted education to refer to their education and training.

Pretty confusing, right? Is this just semantics or a bunch of scholars being picky and pedantic? No, it isn’t. There are some very real and important distinctions between these perspectives. As a parent, though, you just want to know how to think about your child and his or her talents and abilities. What is important for you as parents to know about talent development that will affect your expectations for your child and what you do to support him or her? Here is my list of “gifted essentials.”

  • Individual differences in ability do matter in terms of learning and achievement and are the basis for gifted education practices and services. Primarily, these differences translate into rather large differences in learning rates. Gifted children can learn things faster than other children, with significantly less repetition, and this needs to be matched with an appropriate instructional pace within their classroom. Schools will likely need to respond to faster learning rates with some form of acceleration, whether whole grade early entrance to school, or acceleration within a particular subject area. The typical pace of one grade-level worth of material in one academic year is not appropriate for gifted child in his or her talent area.
  • Intelligence or ability may be innate but they are not fixed. Recent research shows that learning and practice can “increase intelligence”; that is, raise scores on ability tests. Environment and learning opportunities make a huge difference, especially for young children and for children from less than propitious environments. Psychologists agree that intelligence is malleable, but more important are parents’ and children’s beliefs about this. Believing that intelligence and ability can grow directly impacts how wiling students are to work at something, to study hard and practice, and how easily they will rebound from “setbacks” such as low test score or grades. If you believe that ability is a fixed, unchangeable entity, then “failure” may cause to question your ability. However, if you believe that ability is something that grows through learning, failures are more likely seen as opportunities for growth. Fostering this belief and perspective on intelligence and ability is one of the best things teachers and parents can do for gifted children (see Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, for some coaching on this).
  • General ability, like IQ scores, matters, especially for young children, but measure of specific abilities such as mathematical ability or verbal ability give is a better picture of those particular areas in which a student may have advanced levels of knowledge and/or need a faster pacing of instruction or an accelerated placement. As gifted children get older, they tend to have areas of strong ability and areas of less ability. Knowing your child’s profile can help you decide on which outside-of-school programs and courses to consider, whether to push for an accelerated placement in math or language arts, whether to expect higher achievement in particular subjects, and what career areas to consider with your child. For example, high scores in math combined with high special ability are found among individuals who pursue fields such as engineering and physics. Talent search programs, located at universities across the country, offer gifted students the opportunities to take tests to assess specific abilities in areas such as math, verbal skills, reading, and science reasoning.
  • Giftedness is not a state but a path to travel. Children start out with a potential when they are young – potential that is initially explored by parents and teachers by exposing children to lots of different area and then eventually channeled into those that especially interest and engage a child. Through learning in schools and outside of school, lessons, study, and practice, potential develops into competence and eventually into expertise – and perhaps eminence in adulthood. Different fields, such as music versus math, have different paths and different subareas within fields have different trajectories (e.g., voice vs. violin). In some fields, outside-of-school activities play a more significant role. For some areas, exposure and talent development start relatively late, in secondary school or college (e.g. a budding philosopher), while early exposure in others is critical (e.g., dance, gymnastics).
  • Achievement matters and this can include, but is not limited to, school achievement. It is better to think of giftedness as something that you can become over time based on hard work, commitment, and accomplishment rather than something you are by virtue of genetic endowment or a few test scores. Outstanding performance is almost always judged relative to others in one’s peer group. At some point along the path, investment and deep engagement – the kind that produces high levels of achievement in one or two areas – must be present. Depending on your child’s talents, this may be demonstrated in high school achievement, but it may also be shown via investment in projects or areas outside of school and in practice.
  • Social and psychological skills are critical for talented children, and these are teachable. Many gifted children do not end up as gifted adults, not because of any lack of ability, but because of lack of motivation, inability to deal with setbacks or regain self-confidence, or inability to work with other or negotiate difficult social situations. Many parents worry about their children’s test scores and grades, but more effort needs to go into helping gifted children acquire the social and psychological skills needed to cope with completion, stress, anxiety, and other challenges and acquiring good self-management skills and resilience – as not having these can keep gifted children from reaching their goals. Putting effort into the development of these skills is well worth your time and energy.

The most important to remember is that giftedness is a process of growth and development, not a category or label. Our job as parents is to monitor that process, provide or access opportunities, help children with challenges along the way, and provide love and support.

Suggested Resources

  • The NAGC Mile Marker Series
    A CD-ROM with a plethora of articles and resources available for purchase through the NAGC website (http://www.nagc.org)
  • Parenting Gifted Children edited by Jennifer L. Jolly, Donald J. Treffinger, Tracy Ford Inman, and Joan Franklin Smutny
    A collection of articles on many important issues related to parenting gifted chialdrne available for purchase through the NAGC website (http://www.nagc.org/) and Prufrock Press (http://www.prufrock.com/).
  • Bright, Talented, & Black by Joy Davis
    A guidebook addressing many aspects of gifted minority children available for purchase through the NAGC website (http://www.nagc.org) and Great Potential Press (http://www.greatpotentialpress.com/).
  • Talent search programs are conducted by the Center for talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University; the Talent Identification Program (TIP) at Duke University; the Center for Talent Development (CTD) at Northwestern University; the Center for Bright Kids in Denver, CO; the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at The University of Iowa; and the Carnegie-Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students (C-MITES) at Carnegie Mellon University.

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