Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Giftedness: How to Identify, Develop & Support It

Once giftedness was defined primarily in terms of intellectual skills and knowledge that could be tested with a narrow range of intelligence tests. But increasingly we recognise that giftedness has multiple dimensions (see for example my post on Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences). While some gifted children demonstrate exceptional abilities across a wide range of capabilities (e.g. memory, language, mathematics, problem solving etc), others are gifted in narrower and more specific ways (e.g. visual arts, music, leadership, sport etc). If you are interested in more information on supporting gifted children you can read a previous post HERE which covers some common territory but has additional ideas for older children.     
How do I recognise giftedness in my children?

6yr old drawing of Blue Tongue from predator view
If you live with a gifted child or have one in your class there is a good chance you will begin to recognise a number of characteristics that differentiate them from most children, even most capable children.  While many parents feel their children are gifted as they learn new things (we all think our kids are amazing), exceptional intellectual giftedness is much more rare. While some teachers tend to assume that gifted children can take care of themselves and so require less attention, this can be a dangerous assumption. Life for the highly gifted child can be an extremely frustrating, confusing and at times lonely experience if their giftedness isn't identified and supported. If your child demonstrates, to a significantly greater extent a large number of the following characteristics, they may be gifted and will need support, encouragement and some adaptation by teachers and parents.

  • The ability to invent or create novel or original things, or look at their world in unusual ways (and I'm not talking about a six year old making a paper aeroplane). 
  • The desire and ability to investigate their immediate world, to see the unusual and observe things that others don't notice.
  • Extreme curiosity demonstrated by experimentation, investigation and in depth study.
  • Using extended vocabulary, complex sentence structure and varied language forms.
  • Understanding and using imagery and metaphorical language at a young age (often under 5 years).
  • Exploring varied interests often at depth, well beyond their years.
  • Being able to learn rapidly and easily compared to other children.
  • Gaining great pleasure and excitement when they are learning new and difficult things.
  • Outstanding memory demonstrated by encyclopaedic recall.
  • A desire to spend time with older children or adults and to learn with and from them.
  • Being able to cope with the introduction of many new ideas, sometimes simultaneously.
  • Wanting to spend large amounts of time learning about a favourite topic.
  • Capable of generating many solutions to verbal or mathematical problems.
  • Enjoying and seeking out frequent intellectual challenges.
  • Demonstrating unusual imagination that is stimulated easily and sometimes independently.
  • Ability to generate multiple ideas and solutions to problems.
  • Showing preparedness to question assumed knowledge or ways of doing things.
  • Often preferring individual work rather than group work and able to work well independently.
  • Demonstrating a highly mature and unusual sense of humour.
  • Sometimes having expectations of themselves that are too demanding and unrealistic.
  • Demonstrating single-mindedness and extreme determination when pursuing interests.

If you think about the above characteristics it should be easy to see how they might well be misinterpreted by teachers and parents who don't understand giftedness. For example, wanting to work independently could be seen as anti-social, single-mindedness can be seen as self-focussed, questioning the assumed knowledge of the teacher could be seen as rudeness and so on. This is why the gifted need to be understood and supported; they are different.

Sketch of 'A Camel & Its Reflection' (Lydia aged 3yrs)
One aspect of giftedness is rich imagination. While all children demonstrate imaginative qualities at a very young age, many seem to lose much of their uninhibited almost natural ability. But some grow and demonstrate this to a greater extent as they age. The gifted demonstrate high levels of imagination, which in turn reflects high levels of creativity and significant knowledge. The latter is important, for creativity requires knowledge (e.g. knowledge of subject, language, mathematics etc), and in most instances associated high levels of skill and proficiency (e.g. hand-eye coordination, observation, computation, bodily dexterity, memory, verbal fluency etc).  

Imagination requires the mind to take existing data or knowledge and reintroduce it in a variety of new forms. If your child demonstrates to a significantly greater extent than most children - a large number of the following types of imaginative activity, they are likely to be gifted. If so, they will need support, encouragement and some adaptation by teachers and parents. I will list just some ways in which imagination is demonstrated and how each form can be stimulated.

1. The ability to invent or create novel or original things, or look at their world in unusual ways?

Here a 6 yr old looks at prey from above
Encourage children to look for different perspectives with lots of 'what if?' questions. What if the penguin's wing was bigger? What if we tried to do this another way? What if we had a small city in Antarctica? What if 'The Wind in the Willows' was set in Australia not England? What if you spent most of your life flying, how differently would you understand the world?

2. Using real world objects and knowledge in unusual ways?

Most 'what if' questions can end up here but there are other paths. It requires children to investigate their immediate world (this requires skills), to see the unusual and observe things that others don't notice.

Simple cubby made from a box
  • Make a cubby house from boxes, old sheets etc (see previous post on cubbies HERE).
  • Create a clubhouse in the back yard with membership rules, club motto, a logo and so on. 
  • Create a new board game with a theme of interest. You can use many formats adapted from existing games or create a new form. It requires them to think of a theme (dragons, 'Polly Pocket', Spider Man etc), a format (e.g. series of boxes with a start and finish), rules for playing and scoring etc. 

3. Encourage the child's extreme curiosity that is typically demonstrated by experimentation, investigation and in-depth study

Encourage the study of a topic of interest (but don't be afraid to nudge them on to new areas) by helping to find books, key websites, by taking them to movies, enrichment activities, museums, zoos, special sites, and by helping them to acquire knowledge, buying key tools (e.g. binoculars, microscope, sewing machine, tools). Help them to start an insect collection, a resource book on whales, a short history of your community, a study of one animal, a short talk on the challenges of interplanetary space, a short video on a topic (see my previous post on simple animation HERE), or write their own blog (see my post on children as bloggers HERE).

4. Encourage children to use extended vocabulary, complex sentence structure and varied language forms.

  • This is perhaps the easiest area to enrich. Immerse your children in a rich diet of poetry, literature and drama. Share literature and talk about it, make it a key part of the home or classroom. 
  • Play with language, rhyme, introduce new words and technical terms never use an approximate word in the face. 
  • Play with words as part of life, as you play with your children, drive with them in the car, walk with them along the road. 
  • Play word games with them and make it fun! Dr Seuss is a great place to start with general language silliness (see my post on Dr Seuss HERE). 
  • Give them new words in the midst of real life experiences. 
  • Introduce them to literature beyond their immediate experience.

5. Introduce your children to imagery and metaphorical language.

The gifted child will begin to become aware that language has more than literal meanings. Point out some of this richness, encourage them to observe it, and eventually to use it. Point out that language is enriched by simile, metaphor, homophones, homonyms and so on. Again, this can be done in everyday life as you play, travel, share meals (see my previous posts that deal with this HERE , HERE & HERE)

6. Encourage imaginative discovery in as many varied situations as possible.

Play is one way to achieve this, sometimes with adults, sometimes alone, and also with other children (see my previous post on this HERE).

Another way is to provide rich firsthand experiences from a very young age. Many of these are very basic:

  • The squelch of mud between toes on a wet day in the back yard.
  • Running on a sandy beach for the first time.
  • Watching a worm wiggle in the palm of a small hand.
  • Going outside on a dark and cloudless night to gaze and talk about the stars (if you have an iPad, you might use Star Walk).
  • Watching a bird build its nest in a tree in the playground in spring.
  • Doing hand painting.
  • Observing chickens as they grow bigger day by day, collecting the eggs, sweeping the cage.

7. Encourage your child to try to imagine and generate multiple solutions to problems of varied kinds

This will include problems that are verbal, mathematical, scientific and even practical in nature. Let your children see how you or others solve problems. Draw attention to novel solutions that engineers, doctors, builders and artists come up with. Encourage them to discuss and generate novel solutions to hypothetical as well as real problems.

Summing Up

Imaginative play starts early
Some will look at the above list and feel as if all children could benefit from them. There is truth in this, but it's a matter of degree and regularity. All children need to have their imaginations stimulated, not shut down. But the gifted child will experience painful boredom and frustration if their school experience is filled with repetitive and unchallenging work that does little to stimulate their imaginations.

You might like to consider some of the other ideas in my previous post on giftedness HERE
Jacob (4 years) draws Grandad from the unusual vantage point of the fish inside the aquarium looking out

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