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Is My Child Gifted?

How to spot the clues, navigate the testing, and enrich the learning even if he doesn’t earn that “gifted” label.

By Samantha Cleaver | April , 2011
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In first grade, Ryan Boik brought a toy helicopter to school for Show and Tell. As the other 6 year olds gathered around, Ryan proceeded to explain the principles of aerodynamics and to describe the differences between the way helicopters and airplanes fly.
     
Clearly, Ryan, who lives in Northville, MI, understood some advanced concepts. He also frequently asked in-depth questions and was reading at a fifth grade level. His first-grade teacher urged Ryan’s mom, Janette, to have her son tested for giftedness — but by the following year, when it came time for the testing, Ryan’s second-grade teacher disagreed. She thought that Ryan was most likely high-achieving, not gifted, and she advised against testing.

Janette Boik decided to go ahead with the testing for practical reasons. She felt that Ryan was bored and unhappy in school and needed a change. A gifted program could provide just that, she thought, without the financial challenge of sending him to a private school where he might receive more individualized attention. Ryan aced the test. Now 16, he’s been happily enrolled in gifted programs ever since.

Ryan’s story illustrates an issue many parents wonder about: How are we supposed to know whether our children should be tested for giftedness if we can’t all agree on what makes a child gifted in the first place?

A Starting Place

Definitions of “gifted” vary widely. By one measure, a child is considered academically gifted according to how well he does on an intelligence test. Using a standard IQ test with a score of 100 as the "norm," those children who earn 130 or above are considered gifted; 145 is profoundly gifted. In other instances, assessment may be based on a combination of intelligence test scores, creativity, and ability to focus on a task.  But many experts believe that a child’s ability to learn is more important than test scores. When Carol Horn, coordinator of advanced academic programs for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, VA, identifies gifted children, she looks for quick learners with exceptional memories who can apply knowledge in innovative ways.

To Test, or Not To Test?

If you’re considering testing your child for giftedness, first ask yourself an important question: Why? “Don’t test just because you want to find out how well your child scores,” writes Julie Zuckerman, principal of Central Park East 1 Elementary School in New York City, in a letter she sends home to parents in the fall. Zuckerman’s point is that every child is unique and gifted in her own way, and every child faces challenges.

Labeling a child and separating him from others may not improve his happiness or success; it’s far more important to make sure he’s doing work in school that interests and challenges him. (Shannon Harrison, young scholar program manager with the Davidson Institute for Talent Development in Reno, NV, advises parents to wait until their children reach elementary school before testing. If you test too early, she explains, the results may not be accurate.)

If you’re happy with your child’s school and confident that he’s making progress, a test might not be worth the effort. But if it seems that your child’s class is too easy for him, a test may be beneficial. Being assessed as gifted could allow him to enroll in a special program that might better meet his needs.

Does She Need the Label?

A “gifted” label isn’t what matters. “The more important question is what are you doing to challenge the child,” says Arlene DeVries, co-author of A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children.

The goal is to make sure that your child is learning something new every day and getting the attention he deserves. If that’s not happening, start by meeting with his teacher. Bring a portfolio of your child’s work and focus the conversation on his needs. “Avoid ‘hot-button’ words like ‘bored,’” recommends Harrison. Ask solution-oriented questions: “Can we give him a different list of spelling words?” instead of making demands such as “He needs new spelling words.”

The key to reaching all learners is differentiation — making sure that each student is working at his or her own level. Ask about specific differentiation for your child. For example, if Liam knows how to read but the class is working on letter recognition, can he spend the letter practice time reading instead?  

Gifted Programs

There are a variety of options for high-achieving kids, from special programs within a public school to private school to arts or science magnet schools. Each state has different requirements for programs, so check with your state’s department of education for more information. In the early grades, it can be simple for a child to move up a grade for reading or math lessons. Also ask about the district acceleration policy. “Accelerating a student to the next grade does not have many disadvantages,” says Del Siegle, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut. “Research shows that accelerated students do very well, both academically and socially.” 


Among gifted students, six percent are known as “twice-exceptional,” which means that they have a condition such as ADHD or a learning disability. The concern, says Janette Boik, whose son has ADHD, is that the two exceptionalities can mask each other. The disability may hide the giftedness, or the giftedness may allow the child to compensate for the disability. As a twice-exceptional child gets older, she will likely need accommodations that can be agreed upon by parents and school officials and put into writing with a document called a 504 Plan. Accommodations range from allowing the student to take classes at a higher level to receiving more time on tests.

Lifelong Learner

Whether or not you decide to test, and whether your child is assessed as “gifted,” it’s important to keep in mind that success in school — and in life — is about more than just a test score or a label. Success requires things like creativity, commitment, and inspiration. “Research shows that many people of great accomplishment have not been the highest test scorers,” points out Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented in Storrs, CT. 

We all want our kids to be lifelong learners, whatever their ability level. Even profoundly gifted students aren’t likely to get far without hard work; conversely, diligent work can pay off even when learning doesn’t come easily. “We do a disservice when we focus on [being] gifted too much,” says Horn. “It’s important for kids to realize that they need to be thinkers and problem solvers.”

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