By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach
I had no idea what giftedness meant when I had my son. So, when he spoke his first word at 4 months, I thought I was hearing things. One day, when he was two years old, I was nervous about something. He said, “Mommy, just breathe.” I had no context. I knew he was special, but I didn’t connect it to the word “gifted.”
What most people don’t know about giftedness is that it comes with different wiring and different psychological and medical needs. Gifted individuals can have one or all of the following: extreme sensitivities, intensities, creative and intellectual drives, and perfectionism. The more highly gifted, the more extreme these traits can be, paradoxically, making it more difficult to identify giftedness. (Most standard testing does not test into the higher ranges of giftedness. See my article, below.) The child’s struggles usually become noticeable once they are in the school setting. Boys often act out (getting the most attention,) while girls tend to use their gifts to fit in. The inner world of the gifted child can be much larger than he knows how to express and sometimes learning how to be in the world can be difficult. While many people associate the term “special needs” with children who have developmental or learning challenges, it means only that a child has “special needs” and gifted children are a special needs population.
As a result, we as parents, need to know what to watch for, when, and have some tools to identify and address what may be going on with your children. The most important thing is that you understand your child.
Today I coach and consult parents of exceptional children and give talks at schools, but when my own child was going through some difficult school years, I had already completed what I thought was a well-rounded training in the field of psychology. I had a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, with two years of post-graduate training (because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything,) and was a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In all that time, in school or in the field, the term “gifted” never entered into my training, even though special needs can come along with giftedness. Most professionals working with children have not had training in exceptional children. It’s not their fault. It’s just often not part of the curriculum.
One of my major goals in my work is to help parents identify their gifted children early enough to get them headed in the right direction (keeping in mind that it’s never too late!)
Know that nothing is written in stone as relates to the gifted, here are 6 signs to watch for that may indicate that your preschooler is gifted:
- Reads or is interested in books early
Gifted children, even those who cannot read, often show interest in books very early. Before my son could walk, he would take a book off the shelf and try to open it and turn the pages. Most gifted children are voracious readers.
One caveat: In my world, there are many highly to profoundly gifted people with unusual vision issues. I’m not sure how this is related, but I’m hopeful there will be studies. Though we had my son’s vision tested three times throughout his childhood, he wasn’t correctly diagnosed until second grade when we took him to a developmental optometrist. After vision therapy, he began to read. Key point: interest in books.
- Early Language
These kids are able to articulate things that many adults cannot. When my son was 14 months old, I was considering putting him in preschool and going back to work. I remember one day I was particularly torn and distraught. He looked at me and said, “I just want my mommy to be happy.” That was a big wow moment.
Another caveat: A child may have apraxia (a speech sound disorder) or dysarthria (a difficulty with strength or coordination of the speech muscles) which prevents him from articulating, but this does not necessarily mean there isn’t understanding. A 4-year-old couldn’t speak (and was in speech therapy), but I could see his eyes moving across the page of a book, as though reading. You may be able to see signs that the child is understanding complex language and ideas, even though they can’t speak.
- Has a constant drive to understand, explore, create and remember odd facts in their areas of interest
Gifted children are always doing something, talking about something or learning something. Hello, exhausted parent. They can have very specific interests that last a lifetime, or they may go deeply into a topic for months. My son, like many children, had
his dinosaur phase, his deep-sea creature phase, his machines phase, his I’m-a-scientist-and-I’m-going-to-experiment-all-day-phase (that was so fun to clean up after), the phase where our house felt like a rain forest because there were toy animals and bugs on the floors, countertops, walls. It’s like each mess had a theme.
During his deep-sea creature phase, at age 3, he had been attending a Spanish-speaking preschool. While he wouldn’t speak Spanish at home, we were told that he spoke it at school. One day, while looking at a book about sea creatures at a friend’s house, I overheard him correct the Spanish of a Spanish-speaking family friend. The adult told me later that what my son had used was actually a more precise Spanish word for a species than he was using. (As a side note, many gifted people are interested in what is hidden from plain sight. Things like what goes on under the surface of the ocean, the architecture of burrowing animals’ homes, fossils, or even the elephant in the room.)
These moments when we notice brilliance can be fun and should be cherished. But as parents of a highly to profoundly gifted child know, these children also have their challenges. If you see these signs in your child at such a young age, take notice. It may not be so cute in a few years if they get bored and become a bad fit for their education. Early intervention is important.
- Relates to adults easily
Often, gifted children exhibit an ability to interact well with adults. They can use language more akin to that of adults and talk about things at a deeper level. This is somewhat logical if their cognitive and interest skills are advanced for their age group. Does your child have long conversations with and seek out that scientist-neighbor more than kids his own age? Encourage the friendship. Who says we have to hang out with people our own age all the time.
The other side to this is that a gifted child may be socially out of sync with her peers. While much of the emphasis for these children, starting from preschool is to help them “get along” better with their same-age peers, finding peers who are wired like them is going to be more helpful initially. As they grow into an understanding of themselves and why they are different, they will be better equipped to socially interact with same-age peers.
- Can hold attention to a task longer than normal when engaged
Gifted kids can get into a book or video, create a project like writing a story or drawing artwork for hours with a sense of deep concentration. At the same time, giftedness can also bring intense perfectionism and frustration at not being able to master a task that they can so easily envision. Once older, most gifted children prefer to go deeply into a topic that they enjoy. These same children may appear inattentive in a typical school setting, and sometimes even as early as preschool.
One baby I observed could turn over onto his back, but not the other way around. As he tried to turn back the other way, he would get extremely frustrated. So much so that his usually patient mom had to control herself not to help him flip the other way. His frustration felt bigger than most babies’.
Once he was on his belly, he arched his back so that he could see in front of him. Positioned halfway between a rug and a hardwood floor, he looked at the floor and back to the rug. With deep concentration, his body struggling to keep his head up, he patted the hardwood floor and then the rug, then watched and appeared to be listening to the sound intently. His eyes were very intent and focused. It was as though he was conducting a scientific experiment on the difference in texture and volume, using sound, and sight between the two.
The person assessing your child will need to know that they have this ability. Often children who are in settings that cause different behavior, or are being asked to do tasks not in line with their ability (above or below, when other children do them easily) will cause behavior that looks like an inability to focus.
- Seems more sensitive than others, showing empathy in noteworthy ways
I’ll touch on this complex issue in later articles, but I find that some highly to profoundly gifted children are not only highly sensitive people but are empaths. This means that they are having a felt sense of what others are going through. (Like the baby in a room full of babies, who begins crying when he hears another baby crying.) They become empathic when they can understand this felt sense and help the other.
I don’t really know why I made this poor decision, but one Saturday, I took my two-year-old son to IKEA. It was Saturday, so of course, it was crowded and loud. My son had a meltdown. He was inside the large part of the cart and insisted on standing up as I was trying to whisk us out of the store. Needless to say, I wasn’t at my best at this point. Loud places are too much for both of us. When we got outside, heading toward the parking garage, I saw a little girl, about 4 years old, running behind us. My son was still standing in the cart, crying and red-faced. This girl ran up beside our cart, reached up over the bars and held out her hand to him. He slowed his crying, looked at her, held her hand, and sat down. Their fingers met through the bars. Little by little, his sobs subsided. He looked intently at her and listened to what she was whispering to him. Afterward: he fell asleep in the car on the drive home. Peace.
If you haven’t noticed already, these kids are a bunch of paradoxes. While they can often stay focused on a task or interest for long periods of time, many can take longer to learn tasks like cleaning up (boring!) or brushing teeth. Additionally, the sensitivities can cause them to shut down in the areas they are sensitive. While my son can tell me how the birds sound differently from one place to another, he can sometimes lose it in a loud, crowded place (like IKEA on a Saturday), because he is taking in the noise more intensely.
These sensitivities can sometimes make a gifted individual appear insensitive, such as the child who doesn’t easily make eye contact. For some, making eye contact is a very intense, even private act.
Once you’ve noticed signs of giftedness, make sure to seek help from professionals who know the difference between the gifted ranges and how this impacts all areas, not just education. It’s not unusual for me to get calls from parents of high-school-aged children who have had a trail of different diagnoses for their child. Understanding how your child learns and engages with the world as early as possible is the best gift you can give them.
©Teresa Currivan 2018 (Revised and updated 2020)
Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, and coaches parents at Help My Child Thrive Coaching LLC and The Right Place Learning Center. Teresa has connections to SF Bay Area schools including Big Minds Unschool, Fusion Academy High School, Academy of Thought and Industry, and others. She leads support groups for parents of exceptional children at The Right Place Learning Center. She writes extensively on topics related to differently wired children. She lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. You can find more articles on https://helpmychildthrive.com/. Contact her at TeresaCurrivan@gmail.com
Do you want to know more about differently tuned-in children and how they learn? Here is the Amazon link to purchase Teresa’s book, available on Kindle and paperback. It is also available at your local library or bookstore – just ask!
***Not sure what is going on with your child in school or elsewhere? Teresa is here to help. She offers free 20-minute consultations by phone. Enter your contact info and she’ll get back to you to set up a time:
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©Teresa Currivan 2018 (Revised and updated 2020)