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Gifted children

What is giftedness?

Highly efficient reasoning skills

Gifted or high potential children have above average intellectual capacities for their age category (in relation to their peers). They have particularly developed capacities in the areas ofabstraction, logic and forming categories. This means that their cognitive capacity responsible for Reasoning is highly efficient.

A possible dysynchrony

This does not mean that the entirety of their cognitive functions are highly efficient. A child said to be gifted, may have difficulties with cognitive capacities that are not focused on emotion, such as attentional or related to movement. They may for example, struggle with concentration or writing. Alternatively, they may have difficulties with cognitive capacities that are related to emotion and social interaction: they may be sad or find it challenging to understand the feelings of others.
This is what we refer to as “dysynchrony”: the child’s cognitive development may be heterogenous. It is not because one cognitive capacity is above average and particularly efficient (such as Reasoning), that the others are also. They may be simply normal or even below average.

What are the signs of giftedness?

Gifted children may show specific signs as listed below. However, it is rare for a child to have all of the signs or symptoms. For example, some gifted children do not necessarily enjoy reading and instead prefer sport, or are not hyper-sensitive. Others will have no difficulty socialising with their peer group. Everything depends on the child’s personality. Thus there are as many types of “gifted” as there are “gifted children”.All the more, there are many “normal” children with several of the characteristics listed below. This list can therefore not be used to replace a psychological assessment.

Alert toddlers

  • The baby is very energetic and holds their head up straight
  • The baby is observant and inquisitive: focus of attention by looking towards external stimuli and responding appropriately to new situations
  • The baby sleeps little: recuperates after short nights of sleep
  • The baby is communicative: behaviour and baby talk suggest a strong desire to communicate

Advanced comprehension and language skills

  • These toddlers understand ideas and concepts quickly
  • They speak at a younger age than other children, or speak late but with correct language
  • They use rich and precise vocabulary
  • Their sentences are well constructed showing advanced language skills for their age
  • They may have a sense of humour

Intellectual curiosity for topics associated with older children or adults

  • They have an extremely keen sense of curiosity and a strong desire to learn and understand. They remember concepts and ideas with ease.
  • They are often passionate about topics such as astronomy, space or the prehistoric age.
  • These children may wonder about existential themes regarding life, death, the world, the origins of humanity…
  • They take an interest in adults’ conversations – they listen, reply, and offer their point of view on subjects that are not usually relevant to children of their age.

Lack of interest for subjects and activities that do not stimulate them intellectually

  • They dislike repetitive tasks which they find boring.
  • If they are not interested in something, they rapidly become bored and lose motivation and concentration, preferring to retreat into day-dreaming and an imaginary world.

Drawn to intellectually stimulating activities

  • Reading: these children are keen to learn to read and write at a young age. They love reading. Sometimes they learn to read by themselves through games and observation. If they have not already been particularly exposed to books, then when they start kindergarten or primary school, they will rapidly and easily learn to read.
  • Games: very early on they will enjoy make-believe games and building toys. They may prefer chess over other board games or sport.

Difficulties socialising

  • At school they may find themselves isolated due to being different and having other interests to the majority of children in their class.
  • They prefer to spend time with older school children (who themselves may not be too happy about friendships with a younger child).
  • They may join in ball games at break time in order to fit in and be part of a group.

A conflictual relationship with education and learning

  • These children may find themselves at odds with their teacher when they do not understand the relevance of what they are being asked to do, or find it obvious or of no use. Gifted children need to understand the reason behind things.
  • As soon as they are not intellectually stimulated, they become bored and so may lack motivation and persistence with their school work.
  • As they are not used to needing to make an effort because they understand and retain information quickly, when school work becomes more difficult, they find it tedious. Particularly after primary school and around 9th grade, they may lack determination when faced with needing to make an effort with their education. They may find failure, previously unexperienced, very difficult to deal with.

Motor skills deficiencies

Their development is not balanced as they focus a lot more of the mind than the body and they may suffer from coordination disorders (dyspraxia).

  • General movement and coordination may be challenging: they may be clumsy, struggle to ride a bike or to catch a ball in the playground.
  • Fine motor skills can also be problematic: they may have problems holding and handling small objects such as pencils, scissors or a ruler. Writing therefore may be slow and messy.

Emotional difficulties

  • Whilst they understand things quickly, this may not leave them with the time to integrate and accept them. For example, a young child who understands the concept of death before the age of 6 may struggle to deal with the emotions that ensue and what it represents – the future loss of their parents and their own mortality.
  • They may be very empathetic, really feeling the emotions of others, but then have difficulty dealing with those emotions.

How to diagnose giftedness?

Let’s start by taking a look at how the brain works…

At any one point in time, our brain is carrying out complex procedures to gather and process the information it encounters. In order to do so, it uses what are known as "cognitive functions". Cognitive functions can be defined as the cerebral activities that lead to knowledge (cognition). They include all types of mechanisms for acquiring information, namely:

  • Functions non-focused on emotions: reasoning, attention, memory, language, motor skills, planning etc.
  • Functions focused on emotions: functions known as affective and social

It is thanks to the efficiency of our cognitive functions that we can participate in the world around us and learn. When a child has difficulties learning or being in the world, it means that there are deficits or at least difficulties with one or more of their cognitive functions.

Due to the complexity of the brain and it’s functioning, an exploration of the different capacities that may have an influence on the relationship with the world and learning, is essential. For example, children with autism often display varying difficulties that should be assessed, such as emotional, social, attention, language-based and mobility impairments.

Assessment of the cognitive functioning

Assessment for children under the age of 6 years

If a giftedness is suspected before the age of 6, a developmental assessment can be carried out. This involves assessment of the child’s stage of development in relation to that of other children of the same age. The following aspects are examined:

  • Intellectual capacities : especially non-verbal reasoning
  • Motor skills: fine and gross
  • Language: expression and comprehension
  • Life skills
  • Social skills
  • Autonomy

A developmental assessment enables the detection of deficits as well as helping to make diagnostic hypotheses and to orient and start psychoeducational strategies at school and at home.

Under the age of 6, the child is in a stage of phenomenal neuronal and psycho-affective development. The diagnostic hypotheses based on the developmental assessment should be verified around the age of 6 once the brain functions are not in such a major phase of development.

As the brain functions are still in the process of developing, we cannot expect, for example, a 3-year-old to have fully developed attentional capacities and to be able to concentrate. For this reason, this cognitive cannot be assessed. Certain cognitive functions cannot be assessed before the age of 6.

Therefore, a full psychological and neuropsychological assessment at the age of 6 allows for the diagnosis to be confirmed or otherwise and for an evaluation of the totality of the cognitive functions in depth. In the meanwhile, psychological treatment can be offered to assist the child in their development.

Assessment for children aged over 6 years old

In case of a suspected giftedness, for children from the age of 6 and above, a cognitive psychological assessment should be carried out. The full assessment links together cognitive development with emotional and affective development.

Cognitive psychological assessment examines some domains of the cognitive development. It analyses part of the intellectual functioning of the child in order to confirm or not a high level of reasoning. It examines mainly the following domains:

  • Intellectual capacities: verbal, non-verbal, crystallised, fluid reasonings
  • Visuospatial skills
  • Executive functions: working memory, processing speed

Other domains are analysed as well:

  • Attention: visual processing
  • Memory: verbal processing
  • fine motor skills

If some difficulties are detected during this assessment (emotional or social difficulties, difficulties in the areas of attention, executive functions, langage, visuospatial skills, motor skills) other assessments may be suggested.

When should an assessment be carried out?

As soon as giftedness is suspected, an assessment can be envisaged. It can help those concerned to explain the child’s behaviour by putting words and meaning to it.

An important motive for consultation would be boredom or a dismissal of education.

Assessment objectives

Sometimes parents are held backby modesty or a fear of labelling their child early on. However, assessment of intellectual giftedness helps to answer many questions:

What capacities and skills does my child have?

The evaluation can identify and define any advanced traits or capacities your child may have and consequently allow for a diagnosis or diagnostic hypothesis of giftedness. This can help in:

  • Better understanding your child
  • Understanding the nature of any highly developed reasoning capacities
  • Understanding the nature of any difficulties encountered by your child, for example emotional or attentional. This helps to determine if the child is ready or not to skip a year at school.
  • Ensuring that your child could adapt to potentially skipping a year. What capacities and skills do they have? What are their difficulties? How are their social skills and adaptability? Are they relatively stable emotionally?

How to help him to fully develop?

The evaluation can guide the follow-up treatment and maximise the learning potential and well-being of the child. The objective is to help the child to flourish on all levels - academic, social and emotional. The evaluation helps:

  • To provide parents with the knowledge required to explain their child’s needs and get them help from the relevant services.
  • To develop an effective therapeutic care plan adapted to the child’s needs if some difficulties are detected during the assessment (benefiting from the services of neuropsychology, psychology, occupational therapy, speech therapy etc.)
  • To develop an efficient individual education plan adapted to your child’s needs (psychoeducational strategies at school and at home for his giftedness, and his potential attention or motor skills disorders, skipping a year, collaboration with teachers etc.)
  • To provide the child with a vocabulary that gives meaning to the difficulties faced like boredom at school, social difficulties or attentional difficulties. Better understanding of the causes of suffering can provide comfort.

The big question of skipping a year

Not all gifted children skip a year.

If the child feels sufficiently stimulated by the pscyhoeducational programs in their class, then it may be appropriate for them to stay in the year that corresponds to their age. It is not a good idea to unnecessarily disrupt their relationships with their school friends.

If the psychoeducational programsare unsatisfactory in relation to the child’s need for stimulation then skipping a year should be considered. The primary risk is that the child may become bored and disengage from their education. The secondary risk is that they never experience making an effort intellectually and coping with the frustration of learning (when encountering difficulty). They may be ill adapted to the energy required for the more challenging demands of the years above that require considerably more intellectual effort than primary school.