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How to understand a gifted child

MOTHER CHILD
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Hint: it's not necessarily about good grades in school.

Only in recent years have educators and psychologists really been able to pinpoint the key factors that make some children gifted.

Surprisingly, it’s not strictly a question of being straight-A students, or being more advanced than their peers; in fact, gifted children may sometimes fly under the radar because they are not getting top grades. So, to help you recognize a gifted child — whether your own child, a grandchild, or a student — we turned to psychologist Jeanne Siaud-Facchin, a clinical psychologist, member of an esteemed cognitive functioning research laboratory in France, and president of Zebra (a center for gifted children), to shed some light on these extraordinary youngsters.

An above-average IQ

Last century witnessed the development of a number of tests to measure intelligence, including various IQ tests (the term IQ, short for “intelligence quotient,” was coined by German psychologist William Stern in 1912). This psychometric index, although not in itself sufficient, was seen as an effective means of identifying a gifted child. Measuring a child’s IQ originally was understood as measuring the ratio between the mental age and the real age of a child, from which it could be determined whether or not a child was functioning at the intellectual level of an average older child. If so, the child was considered intellectually gifted.

Later, in 1939, David Weschler developed a new intelligence scale that took into account factors other than intellectual ability which led to intelligent behavior. His new scale measured individuals of the same age group in relation to each other, not on the expected average performance of older or younger children. Thus, the scale no longer determined an advance or a delay in development, but rather classified children purely in function of their intellectual performance compared to their peers.

Weschler’s method of testing, which has been updated over time, is still commonly used today. The standard average IQ is ranked as 100, and each intellectual level is then separated by a deviation of 15 points. Therefore a result above, or equal to 130, is perceived as being gifted, as the child’s performance is situated two standard deviations above the average IQ. According to the National Association of Gifted Children, 2 to 3 per cent of the population score 130 or higher, while the very impressive score of 145 is attained by just 1 in 1,000 children.

Although these tests have gone a long way towards describing children’s intellectual capacity, a higher-than-average IQ is not their only characteristic; they also possess a different personality than most other children, on both an intellectual and an emotional level.

Thinking of gifted children differently

When we describe children, we often mix up the terms “precocious” and “gifted.” However, there is a real difference. In her book How to Help a Gifted Child Grow and Succeed, Jeanne Siaud-Facchin says, “A precocious child is ahead of others of the same age; his peers won’t reach that level or gain those skills for a more few years. (…) Yet, it’s not the fact of being advanced compared to others that characterizes gifted children, but rather the particularities in their intellectual functioning — their different way of thinking.”

Today, thanks to neuroscience, we know much more about the different way in which gifted children think. A gifted child doesn’t automatically adopt the implicit codes of common belief. They have a completely different way of thinking and interpreting instructions, such that sometimes they might leave a question unanswered, because the response seems far too obvious. Siaud-Facchin gives the example of a 13-year-old adolescent who, when asked, “What makes iron rust?” replied, “I don’t know.” The psychologist asked: “What don’t you know?” The young girl answered: “I don’t know the chemical process which explains the oxidization.” The answer “oxidization” was so obvious to her that, in her mind, it couldn’t have been the expected response.

This demonstrates beautifully how gifted children take words at face value; they expect you to mean exactly what you say. As a result, words must be used in their most proper sense. Gifted children need to understand everything, and are constantly asking why?, how?, what’s it for? This search for understanding is at the heart of their intellectual activity, and is what drives their thoughts. There has to be a logic to everything, because the slightest doubt, the slightest incertitude, is like a fly in the ointment in the mechanics of their internal logic. They don’t know how to deal with uncertainty: they become worried and unsettled. They can sometimes suffer the consequences of failing to make room for doubt.

GIRL SCHOOL
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Gifted children also possesses unusually good logical-mathematical reasoning; as a result, they are adept at mental arithmetic. Strangely, this logic, although very useful in elementary school, becomes an obstacle when learning multiplication tables by heart. If they have a hard time with it, it’s not due to lack of wanting — it’s because they don’t see the use of learning the tables by heart when they can get the right answer with their own speedy mental arithmetic, which uses addition and subtraction as the structural basis of their calculation. As they grow older, they won’t necessarily follow academic models, and might be unable to explain how they reached the right answer. This is why math can get more complicated in middle school, when pupils are asked to explain the reasoning behind their result. That can be tricky for a gifted child whose logical-mathematical functioning is intuitive.

This more complex reasoning stems from gifted children’s unconventional thought processes. Ordinarily, our thoughts are linear, progressive, keeping only the most immediately relevant information at each step of the thought process. Gifted children are over-flowing with ideas. They organize their thoughts more like trees, with every idea branching off into new ideas, associations of ideas, analogies etc. This characteristic network-style of thought, coupled with an exceptional memory, paves the way for great ideas, creativity, and invention. The downside is that this constant stream of thoughts makes it difficult to organize and structure them, and they can be very difficult to express. After all, how do you communicate in just a few words the multitude of connections that are simultaneously going on in your brain? A gifted child finds it difficult to gather these ideas and select the pertinent information. Managing this difficulty is key to adapting to the demands of the classroom.

A different emotional profile

Gifted children typically experience certain easily recognizable emotions that will help mold their identity. Siaud-Facchin identifies three of their most common distinctive emotions here:

Hypersensitivity. Gifted children often have a heightened experience of their five senses, such that they perceive what is going on around them with an acute sharpness. Consequently, they are constantly bombarded with sensory information picked up from their surroundings. They are unusually sensitive not only physically, but also emotionally; for example, they are particularly sensitive to any injustice. They may also tend to experience intense fears, whether related to external stimuli or to past experiences that impacted them profoundly.

Empathy. A gifted child is often extremely well-tuned to other people’s emotional state, to the extent that they may even pick up on an emotion that the person concerned is not yet even aware of.

Insight. With senses always on alert and remarkable intellectual abilities, gifted children view the world with an exceptionally lucid eye.

These are some of the distinguishing characteristics of gifted children. Of course, every child is unique, so these generalizations will apply more or less in each case, but we hope that these ideas can help parents of gifted children — or gifted children themselves — to recognize their strengths and challenges, and seek professional guidance, when necessary, so that all their great potential can be realized.

This article was originally published in the French edition of Aleteia and has been translated and adapted here for English-speaking readers.

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