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Monday, November 9, 2009

Ask Amanda: Understanding the behaviour of children identified as Gifted and Talented

Recently a Twitter friend asked me if I had any information about behaviour in children identified as Gifted and Talented. My mind immediately went back to the late 90s, early 00s when I was helping to coordinate the Gifted and Talented Support group in a country area.

I thought of one parent’s struggle to keep up with her child’s voracious appetite for creative outlets – dancing classes, band, drama, writing clubs...

Of another child’s social difficulties as they struggled to communicate in a way that their peers could relate to, ending in taking a leadership role and primarily acting as director of her peers’ play.

Of another child who told great, convoluted and engaging stories, but could not get his pen to keep up with his thoughts. Instead, he could only write random words that, when read by some one else, seemed to have no connection with each other.

Of other students who were getting in trouble at school because they found it hard to concentrate and stay interested in activities that seemed mundane and almost insulting in their seeming simplicity.

Of other children whose emotional sensitivity lead them to do things like refuse to eat, respond with deep remorse and guilt to the slightest reprimand or guidance, meltdown because they drew a wobbly line where they wanted a perfectly straight one…

But then there were also the triumphs. The academic and creative achievements. The special, caring natures evidenced as children protected peers and siblings from playground cruelties or worked for charity. The depth of insight as they discussed social issues. The incredible memories from right back into their toddlerhood years and the amazingly creative stories.

So what does it mean to be gifted?

The Queensland Association for Gifted and Talented Children has a great, quick summary to read on this topic. They highlight that some of the key characteristics of Young Gifted Children include:

- Reaching milestones such as walking and talking early

- Good long- and short- term memory, often with extensive knowledge of a topic of interest, and consequently a large and complex vocabulary

- A “thirst for knowledge”, constantly questioning, exploring, investigating, deconstructing, reasoning

- High levels of energy and activity

- Emotional intelligence, which usually includes a strong sense of justness

- Good understanding of abstract as well as concrete concepts, with quick understanding of new concepts

So what’s the problem?

Web, Amaned, Webb, Goerss, Beijan and Olenchak (2004) have a great table on the second page of their article. It clarifies how the strengths of a child identified as gifted can also lead to some social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

For example, their strengths in memory, understanding new concepts, reasoning and so on can lead them to be impatient with the “slowness” of others. It can also lead to boredom, or an unwillingness to participate in learning activities that help drill basic skills required for higher order skills. This can cause difficulties in the classroom with concentration and engagement in class activities. It may be that the child becomes the “class clown” and begins to under-achieve due to their disengagement.

Their ability to analyse and critique makes them good leaders, researchers… but can lead to them being seen as bossy or arrogant. It can also lead to perfectionism, which can be positive in that it helps motivate children to do their best. But it becomes a source of anxiety and can lead to depression if the child cannot ever be satisfied with their own attempts or achievements (Peters, 1996). It also means that rather than learning from mistakes and trying again (an important element of resilience), they give up and feel like a failure.

As Web et al describes, their emotional intelligence leads to emotional intensity, sensitivity and often idealism. This can again relate to perfectionism, where they see morals, justice and humanitarian issues in black and white, rather than recognising the shades of grey that exist in the complexity of human interaction.

Web et al also discuss how it is possible for children who are gifted to be diagnosed with mood disorders such as Bi-Polar Disorder due to the intense mood swings associated with their sensitivity and emotional intensity.

Finally, Web et al discuss how the energy associated with an active mind can be misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorders. This is because the behaviour that results from a mind constantly searching for knowledge, constantly active, racing with ideas just screaming to get out can look the same as ADHD – an inability to concentrate, impulsivity, blurting out ideas, struggling to wait for turns or follow another’s lead, and needing to be always physically and/or mentally on the move.

So what can we do?

Here are just a few hints and tips…


Micallef (2009) discusses some strategies. These include:

- Giving private feedback framed in positive language (rather than critique the child in front of others). For example, using phrases such as “Why don’t you have another look at this sentence?” or “How might you improve this?” This way you are tapping into their strengths such as their reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

- Maintain high but realistic expectations. For example, recognise that sometimes what they can think up they might not actually be able to execute. Their body might not be up to it – for example, a young child might be great at designing a complex lego construction, but their fingers might struggle with the fine motor skills required to actually construct it.

- Encourage a “have a go” attitude by modelling this yourself and encouraging attempts. For example, a child may not even try to write something, or draw it, if they cannot fully visualise the product. Encourage drafts, sketches, planning with explicit recognition that errors help you learn.

- Focus on praising the child’s efforts and the process of doing something, rather than just the end product. Avoid being “picky”, commenting on unimportant things or saying things like, “You could do better than that!!”

Perfectionism can lead a child to be overwhelmed by the perceived complexity of tasks because they might be looking at the “big picture” rather than breaking up tasks. Teaching them to break tasks down, make lists and prioritise can be very useful in combating this feeling.

You might also want to read

Emotional Intensity

Sword suggests the following:

- Validate your child’s feelings: acknowledge and talk openly without criticism

- Maintain consistent rules, values and behaviour expectations that are negotiated and discussed with your child.

- Use tools such as an emotions thermometer to help your child identify and manage their emotions

- Help them express their emotions through creativity – such as story-writing, poems, art work, music, an emotions journal and so on. If they struggle with writing, use a video diary.

- Remember that while they may seem like little adults, they are still children who need your support. And their physical and emotional capabilities cannot always keep up with their cognitive abilities.

- Counselling may need to be an option that you explore to ensure their emotional wellbeing.

I would also recommend the book Think Good Feel Good: A Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Workbook for Children by Paul Stallard. While still expensive, it is discounted on this site and may be in your local library.

You might also want to visit for more information.

Hyperactivity, impatience

I have already discussed the stop, think, do program in a previous post. You may be able to adapt this to help children who are gifted think about their response to others before saying things that might be hurtful. Use their gifts in empathising with others to come up with solutions to social problems.

For the hyperactivity, many of the strategies that are used for children with ADHD may also apply. Additional strategies will include keeping your child busy with creative and investigative activities (reading, researching, constructing, experimenting, gardening, craft, music lessons etc etc), as well as perhaps teaching them some relaxation strategies.

You might also want to print and pass on the Victorian Associat for Gifted and Talented Children's Article on Meeting the Needs of Young Gifted Children to your child's teachers. Or the National Childcare Accreditation Council's Working with Gifted Children for pre-school teachers. The South Australian Education Department's Gifted Education Policy is also interesting.

Just remember – challenging your child to create something out of things they can collect around the house is just as if not more effective than expensive craft and model kits.

Reference with no hyperlink:

Peters, C.C. (1996). Perfectionism. Our Gifted Children, 3(6), pp23-27.

You might also want to read:


Alison November 9, 2009 at 3:15 PM  

Thanks so much for this, Amanda! Some great info and great links here. I especially love some of the strategies for dealing with perfectionism.

Adelaide Dupont November 11, 2009 at 3:21 PM  

Love the private feedback in positive language, and also the emotions thermoeter.

Web's article is terrific too.

So are the examples of gifted children from the country. I can understand the random words, and also the director of other people's play.

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