Nurturing Giftedness in Young Children
ERIC Identifier: ED321492
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Roedell, Wendy C.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Versions of the following conversation can often be heard when young gifted children
start school. "Bill doesn't belong in kindergarten!" the parent cries. "Look, he's reading at
the fourth grade level and has already learned two-column addition." The teacher or
principal, having already decided this is a "pushy parent," replies, "Well, Mrs. Smith, Bill
certainly doesn't belong in first grade; he hasn't learned to tie his shoelaces, and he
can't hold a pencil properly, and he had a tantrum yesterday in the hall."
The problem in this continuing controversy is that both parties are usually correct. Some
gifted children entering kindergarten have acquired academic skills far beyond those of
their age mates. Such children master the academic content of kindergarten when they
are 3 years old. However, their physical and social development may be similar to that
of other 5 year olds, making an accelerated placement a mismatch as well. The usual
solution is to place a child like Bill in a program matched to his weaknesses, rather than
his strengths. Bill usually ends up in kindergarten, where his advanced intellectual
development becomes a frustration to his teacher, an embarrassment to his peers, and
a burden to Bill.
Educators justify this placement by saying, "Bill needs socialization; he's already so far
ahead academically, he doesn't need anything in that area." There are two major
problems with this rationale.
UNDERSTANDING UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT
- First, educators are essentially telling such students that
there is no need for them to learn anything in school.
- The second problem is revealed by examining the so-called socialization experienced by a
brilliant 5-year-old like Bill in a kindergarten class of 25 to 30 students.
A major component of early socialization
involves a child's feeling that she or he is accepted by others--teachers and children
alike. If the teacher does not validate a gifted child's advanced abilities and intellectual
interests by making them part of the ongoing curriculum, the child experiences no
feelings of acceptance from the teacher.
If, as is highly likely, this child makes the
additional discovery that she or he is quite different from most classmates and that
communication is extremely difficult because of differences in vocabulary and modes of
expression, then the child misses peer acceptance as well.
In fact, this first school
experience, which should furnish the impetus for future enthusiasm about learning, can
be a dismal failure for the brilliant child in a lockstep kindergarten program. Often these
children learn to hide or deny their abilities so as to fit in better with the other children.
Or, they may develop behavioral problems or psychosomatic symptoms such as
stomachaches and headaches, causing parents to confront the school with justifiable
It is important to remember that these children very often do not develop evenly. In fact,
young gifted children frequently show peaks of extraordinary performance rather than
equally high skill levels in all cognitive areas. The child who learns to read at age 3 or
who shows unusually advanced spatial reasoning ability, for example, may not be the
child with the highest IQ or the earliest language development. Unique patterns of
development can be observed within a group of gifted children, and uneven
development is frequently evident in the pattern of a single child. In some cases, it
seems as though children's abilities develop in spurts, guided by changes in interest
and opportunity. Reading ability, for example, might develop almost overnight. Children
who know all their letters and letter sounds by age 2 1/2 may remain at that level for
some time, perhaps until age 4 or 5, and then in a matter of months develop fluent
reading skills at the third or fourth grade level.
Another area of unevenness in the development of gifted young children is found in the
relationship between advanced intellectual development and development of physical
and social skills. Evidence seems to indicate that intellectually gifted children's
performance in the physical domain may only be advanced to the extent that the
physical tasks involve cognitive organization. And, although intellectually advanced
children tend to possess some advanced social-cognitive skills, they do not necessarily
demonstrate those skills in their social behavior. In other words, they may understand
how to solve social conflicts and interact cooperatively but not know how to translate
their understanding into concrete behavior.
It is not uncommon to find gifted young children experiencing a vast gap between their
advanced intellectual skills and their less advanced physical and emotional
competencies. For example, 4- and 5-year-old children may converse intelligently about
abstract concepts such as time and death and read fluently at the fourth grade level, yet
find it difficult to hold a pencil or share their toys with others.
Often these uneven developmental levels can lead to extreme frustration, as children
find that their limited physical skills are not sufficiently developed to carry out the
complex projects they imagined. These children may throw tantrums or even give up on
projects without trying. Adult guidance in developing coping strategies can help such
children set more realistic goals for themselves and learn how to solve problems
effectively when their original efforts do not meet their high expectations.
Adults, too, can be misled by children's advanced verbal ability or reasoning skill into
expecting equally advanced behavior in all other areas. It is unsettling to hold a
high-level conversation with a 5 year old who then turns around and punches a
classmate who stole her pencil. Sometimes young children's age-appropriate social
behavior is interpreted as willful or lazy by parents and teachers whose expectations are
unrealistically high. The only accurate generalization that can be made about the
characteristics of intellectually gifted young children is that they demonstrate their
unusual intellectual skills in a wide variety of ways and that they form an extremely
heterogeneous group with respect to interests, skill levels in particular areas, social
development, and physical abilities.
Understanding the unique developmental patterns often present in gifted young children
can help both parents and teachers adjust their expectations of academic performance
to a more reasonable level.
CHOOSING A PROGRAM OR SCHOOL
One of the few psychological truths educators and psychologists agree on is that the
most learning occurs when an optimal match between the learner's current
understanding and the challenge of new learning material has been carefully
engineered. Choosing a program or school for a gifted child who masters ideas and
concepts quickly but behaves like a typical 4- or 5-year-old child is indeed a challenge.
Many intellectually gifted children master the cognitive content of most preschool and
kindergarten programs quite early. They come to school ready and eager to learn
concepts not usually taught until an older age. However, academic tasks designed for
older children often require the learner to carry out teacher-directed activities while
sitting still and concentrating on written worksheets. Young children, no matter how
bright they are, require active involvement with learning materials and often do not have
the writing skills required for above-grade-level work.
Since many gifted children will hide their abilities in order to fit in more closely with
classmates in a regular program, teachers may not be able to observe advanced
intellectual or academic abilities directly. If a kindergartner enters school with fluent
reading ability, the parent should share this information at the beginning of the year
instead of waiting until the end of the year to complain that the teacher did not find out
that the child could read. When parents and teachers pool their observations of a child's
skills, they begin to work together to develop appropriate educational options for
nurturing those abilities. Parents whose children have some unusual characteristics that
will affect their learning needs have an obligation to share that information with
educators, just as educators have an obligation to listen carefully to parent concerns.
When the entry level of learners is generally high but extremely diverse, an appropriate
program must be highly individualized. Children should be encouraged to progress at
their own learning rate, which will result in most cases in subject matter acceleration.
The program should be broadly based, with planned opportunities for development of
social, physical, and cognitive skills in the informal atmosphere of an early childhood
One primary task of teachers is to make appropriately advanced content accessible to
young children, taking into account individual social and physical skills. Lessons can be
broken into short units, activities presented as games, and many concepts taught
through inquiry-oriented dialogue and experimentation with manipulatable materials.
Language experience activities in reading and the use of manipulatable mathematics
materials, as described in products such as MATHEMATICS THEIR WAY
(Baratta-Lorton, 1976), are good examples of appropriate curriculum approaches.
An appropriate learning environment should also offer a gifted young child the
opportunity to discover true peers at an early age. Parents of gifted children frequently
find that, while their child can get along with other children in the neighborhood, an
intense friendship is likely to develop with a more developmentally equal peer met in a
special class or interest-based activity. Such parents may be dismayed to discover that
this best friend does not live next door but across town, and they may wonder whether
or not to give in to their child's pleas for inconvenient visits. Probably one of the most
supportive activities a parent can engage in is to help a child find a true friend and make
the effort required to permit the friendship to flower.
In looking for an appropriate program for their gifted preschooler, then, parents must be
aware of the learning needs of young children and not be misled by so-called experts
who advocate rigid academic approaches with an emphasis on rote memorization and
repetition. Rather, wise parents will look for open-endedness, flexible grouping, and
opportunities for advanced activities in a program that allows their child to learn in the
company of intellectual peers.
Prepared by Wendy C. Roedell, Director, Early Childhood Education and Assistance
Program, Educational Service District 121, Seattle, Washington, and senior author of
GIFTED YOUNG CHILDREN.
NOTE: Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Roedell, (1989). Early
development of gifted children. In J. VanTassel-Baska, & P. Olszewski-Kubilius (Eds.),
Patterns of Influence on Gifted Learners, the Home, the Self, and the School (pp.
13-28). (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989 by Teachers College, Columbia
University. All rights reserved.)
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated.
This publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education,
Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract no. RI88062007. The
opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of
OERI or the Department of Education.
Allen, R. V., & Allen, C. (1970). Language Experiences in Reading (Vols.1 & 2).
Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Press.
Baratta-Lorton, M. (1976). Mathematics Their Way: An Activity Center Mathematics
Program for Early Childhood Education. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Roedell, W. C. (1989). Early development of gifted children. In J. VanTassel-Baska, &
P. Olszewski-Kubilius (Eds.), Patterns Of Influence on Gifted Learners (pp.13-28). New
York: Teachers College Press.
Roedell, W. C., Jackson, N. E., & Robinson, H. B. (1980). Gifted Young Children. New
York: Teachers College Press.
Spivack, G., & Shure, M. B. (1974). Social Adjustment of Young Children. San
Smutny, J. F., Veenker, K., & Veenker, S. (1989). Your Gifted Child: How To Recognize
and Develop the Special Talents in Your Child from birth to Age Seven.
A practical sourcebook containing a wealth of information for parents and educators of young gifted
children. Leads parents through infancy and early childhood, discussing topics such as
language development, creativity, and how to choose schools. Provides a
developmental checklist. New York: Facts On File.
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