Gifted and challenged
Learn why having a gifted child can bring a whole new set of parenting challenges, and how you can help your child develop her full potential

Learn why having a gifted child can bring a whole new set of parenting challenges, and how you can help your child develop her full potential

Anne thought she was hearing things when her 3-month-old daughter uttered her first word, but when her daughter continued to use that word and had a vocabulary of several words by age 7 months, Anne realised she was gifted. But, as Anne was to discover, giftedness in a child doesn’t mean an easier time for parents.

While all parents secretly hope to see signs that their babies will be just a little ahead of the pack, for a few, finding out their baby is advanced beyond the norm can be the start of an exciting, confusing and often extra-challenging journey. After all, if your child is gifted, her tolerance for frustration is going to be a little lower than that of her peers.

Types of giftedness

To explain giftedness one has to appreciate that the term is tied into our understanding of the word intelligence. We use the term intelligent to describe individuals that we see as bright or clever, but in reality there are various types of intelligence and thus, different types of giftedness.

The Director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, Joseph Renzulli, suggests two types of giftedness: School house giftedness and creative productive giftedness.

School house giftedness

The advanced ability to succeed in typical school-related learning activities. This type of ability is also tied into the typical IQ test and the ability to score highly in IQ tests is commonly linked to the ability to succeed in school.

Creative productive giftedness

The ability of a person to think in a way that is original or revolutionary.

Range of giftedness

When thinking about giftedness remember that there is a range of giftedness, just as there is for intelligence. Gifted individuals can fall into categories of mild, moderate or profoundly gifted. The question is, is giftedness purely genetic or can your child develop her abilities to the point where she is considered to be gifted?

Based on his research, Joseph suggests that a gifted child will display:

  • above average ability in areas like abstract thinking
  • verbal and numerical reasoning
  • spatial relations
  • memory
  • word fluency
  • adaptation to new situations and use and retrieval of information

Secondly, gifted children display what Joseph calls “task commitment” which involves:

  • an interest, enthusiasm and involvement, coupled with a capacity for preservation, determination and the drive to succeed.

The third distinguishing trait gifted children display is high levels of “creativity”, which allows for:

  • fluency, flexibility, originality of thought and openness to experience.

Despite the fact these three qualities are something a child is born with, interestingly, the home environment plays a role too. Socioeconomic status, the parents’ level of education, the parents’ personalities, the child’s family position, formal education, health and role model availability all help to shape the potential for giftedness.

Thus, giftedness is a dynamic entity - young babies can show signs of giftedness, but whether they get to develop it depends on environmental nurturing.

Spotting giftedness

Surprisingly, research has shown that parents tend to underestimate their children’s ability and are often surprised at just how highly their children actually function.

Signs of true giftedness occur very young. Gifted babies and toddlers are often described as:

  • very alert
  • having a long attention span
  • a good memory, a large vocabulary
  • being a quick learner
  • very observant and curious
  • creative
  • with a strong imagination and more than one imaginary companion.

Anne says, “I didn’t really believe people who said my baby was so alert. And when he grew into a toddler I’d often hear people say he was such a clever little boy. I’ve now realised that people don’t just make comments like this to every parent. If you get a lot of comments like this, there is a good chance your child is gifted.”

By age 2 most gifted children have recognised letters and first words and showed an interest in time.

By age 3 they can typically complete a 20-piece puzzle.

By age 4 they can sight-read an easy reader and sound out new words.

In addition, research has shown gifted children usually display:

  • a sense of humour
  • perfectionism
  • act maturely and choose older friends
  • like to play alone
  • are concerned with morality and justice
  • intensely react to frustration.

Like all children, gifted kids show peaks of extraordinary performance rather than high performance in all areas. Early development of speech, movement and reading appear to be high indicators of giftedness, especially if they occur together. But some gifted children have delayed speech as toddlers. For example, Albert Einstein only spoke at 4!

Some researchers suggest that the ability to read early is a better indicator of giftedness than early speech. These young readers are open to a whole world of information in an abstract, non-concrete level at a far earlier age.

Interestingly, gifted children tend to be a little “difficult”. They often have less need for sleep as infants, high activity levels and strong reactions to noise, pain and frustration.

Anne describes the downside of giftedness as she explains how her son struggles with boredom, and coupled with his large, sophisticated vocabulary he is sometimes perceived as “naughty”.

Testing for giftedness

Testing for giftedness in children under 3 is tricky as testing norms are only available from age 3. In South Africa children are tested on an instrument known as the Junior South African Individual Scales (JSAIS). Some experts believe that gifted or special needs children need to be tested at an early age in order to help them develop optimally and guard against any problems that could develop.

Testing younger children isn't easy

But testing a young child isn’t easy. Younger children get bored easily, don’t separate from their caregivers easily and often prefer to play. They get hungry quickly and fidget easily. This is especially true of gifted children as they have to answer a lot more questions on each subtest.

In the JSAIS test when children with normal abilities get answers wrong the examiner moves onto the next question. But because gifted children can answer many more questions the testing procedure is longer, even though their age makes it exhausting for them to continue.

This can cause a gifted child not to do his or her best and is why a psychologist trained in the special needs of gifted young children is required.

Keep a record

Shirley Kokot who ran the National Association of Gifted and Talented children in South Africa cautions against early testing. She suggests rather a record be kept of all milestones and achievements, which becomes useful as your child gets older.

Testing can be necessary to decide on preschools and junior schools, but for babies and toddlers waiting and nurturing is all that is required, along with parental awareness.

Tips for parenting a gifted child

Although romanticised, giftedness is still abnormal development. Therefore, while it increases your child’s intellectual capacity it also makes her vulnerable. When raising a gifted child, here are some important points to remember:

Gifted children can still have disabilities

  • Gifted children can still have disabilities. In fact their heightened intelligence can make them hide these disabilities more easily. Parents need to focus as much on what their child can’t do as what they can

Gifted babies and toddlers have difficulties playing with other babies

  • Some gifted babies and toddlers have difficulties playing with other babies as their play is so much more advanced. Where other toddlers are still engaged in parallel play a gifted toddler may require more interaction from their little buddy, leading to friction or rejection.

Get your gifted child to play with others

  • Many gifted toddlers prefer to play on their own, but playing with others is an important part of development and should be encouraged. This can be tackled by providing a variety of ages for your gifted toddler to play with, without excluding non gifted peers

Beware low frustration tolerance

  • Low frustration tolerance is very common in gifted babies and toddlers. Their advanced minds simply get angry with the limitations of little hands, feet and an immature body. Help your child by explaining that limitations are normal and things will get easier. But allow her to express frustration. Tantrums are a normal part of development for any child - gifted or not. Correct handling is just as important as with other children

Gifted children might require more complex handling

  • Make a point of researching various discipline techniques. Gifted toddlers are often one step ahead of their parents and need more complex handling

Gifted children experience life intensely

  • Gifted children tend to acquire a lot of information quickly and often of a more complicated nature than other children their age. They experience life intensely and often need their parents to be sensitive to this. They are often more sensitive to complex themes in children’s TV programmes and movies

Do "young stuff" with your child

  • Remember to keep doing “young stuff” with your child. Even if she can read at 3, spend time reading to her. Help her discover her personal interests and encourage all her abilities, even those she isn’t advanced in

Make time for fun

  • Make time for fun. The temptation is to over-stimulate your gifted child with formal learning, at home and in activities, but don’t forget to do fun things!

Realise your child has special needs

  • Realise that your child has special needs. She could sleep less than other babies and toddlers and be more demanding when awake, asking more questions and exploring and getting into more trouble. Seek support if you struggle to cope

Every child is unique

  • Be sensitive if you have other children that aren’t gifted. Reinforce that everyone is unique and has strengths and weaknesses

Remember your child's chronological age

  • Always remember your toddler’s chronological age. She may be able to count to 20 and speak in perfect sentences at 18 months but she could still fall off the jungle gym and refuse to eat vegetables

Keep a record of your child's achievements

  • Keep records of your child’s early achievements, lists of books read, ages, milestones etc to help with later assessment.


  • Shirley Kokot: (012) 664 2285, or:

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