Do you suspect your child is gifted? René Islas, executive director for the National Association of Gifted Children, will tell us the common characteristics and special needs of gifted children.
In this interview you will learn:
🔹 What is a gifted child?
🔹 When can a child be identified as gifted?
🔹 Can gifted children thrive in public school settings?
🔹 Is giftedness something you are born with or can it be cultivated?
🔹 Tips you can use at home to help your child reach for their personal best.
🔹 Resources provided by NAGC.
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: Renee, thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell a little bit about what you guys do or what kind of services you provide to people?
René: We’re the National Association for Gifted Children, and our mission is really to support all of those people who help gifted children reach for their personal best, whether it’s teachers in the classroom or parents at home or the broader community that serves gifted children, like universities and researchers that are doing the work to understand the nature and needs. We are their community and their support network.
Kelly: How do you know if your child is gifted?
René: We say that children are gifted when their ability is significantly above the norm for their age. Really, giftedness can manifest in one or more domains, whether it’s intellectual, creative, artistic leadership, or even in an academic field. Like my child is really gifted in math or really gifted in writing. Those are our ways that we know that they’re gifted if they are performing significantly above the norm for their age.
Kelly: I want to know when you know that they’re gifted? On your website for example, you have even for infants and toddlers, there are signs that they can be gifted. I mean, can you talk about those? Or how early can you identify a gifted child?
René: While we think that the labels are important because they help diagnose and give us information about what we need to do, it’s really not about identifying or labeling them gifted. It’s about figuring out where their needs are and how to support them, and this can happen across the age spectrum, whether it’s a parent looking at a two-year-old child who said, “Wow, my son or daughter really grabs onto books and has even started to learn how to read.”
That happens, but it’s less about calling them gifted and more about, for in the case of that parent, saying, “Wow, I need to really support my child in getting them more books, figuring out what they’re interested in, helping them develop the skills and talents that are appropriate for their age and even beyond their intellectual age.”
Kelly: I feel like my son, has from fairly early on just been so focused – he was doing puzzles at one and doing them backwards. He’s just so much more focused. My daughter is not as focused, but then she started talking, saying three-word sentences at 11 months old. They have different interests, and I don’t know if they’re gifted but I feel like they do something better than others in certain areas.
At what age do you challenge them more and how are they identified, I mean, labeled, I guess if you will, if they’re a gifted child later on?
René: It’s not about pressuring to be at the top or different than the other children in their classroom or in your neighborhood. It’s really about challenging them to be the best that they can be. Keep them engaged, keep them interested. Your daughter, help her figure out how to learn languages and maybe even learn and explore other languages that might be of interest to her, keep that engagement going.
When it comes to school, we enter into a different domain. Most schools or many schools across the country will start the formal identification process in second and third grade. That’s when things start to change.
Schools have a difficult situation. They are charged with educating all students from all backgrounds, whether they’re living in high poverty, whether they come from a racial and ethnic background, that is in a minority group, whether they are dealing with English language learners. Schools and the National Association for Gifted Children actually has a couple of pieces of guidance for schools as they’re looking to ensure that their equitably identifying their gifted students. We want them to test multiple times throughout the early years.
Second grade may be first for many school systems, but we also encourage them to keep the opportunities open down the road. Students may, especially those living in poverty or who haven’t had the exposure to different types of supports might take a little time to acquire that information in their schools, and then be able to show their talent as they get older. The other piece of guidance that we have is really about thinking about looking for talent where it’s not usually found. Unfortunately, we have data. The National Research Center for Gifted and Talented Education that is funded by the federal government has data that shows that students who are living in poverty, who are from minority groups, who are learning English are 250% less likely to be identified and served in gifted programs.
René: We have to do a better job at supporting spotting the talent and supporting their needs so that they too have the opportunity to flourish as human beings and contribute to society.
Kelly: So then they start identifying around second or third grade. My question also is if someone is performing, say, they’re second grade, they can do sixth grade math, how do you balance that socially because maybe socially they aren’t ready to be with sixth graders? How do you balance that kind of a thing?
René: Definitely is a challenge and something that makes all of us, whether we’re parents and helping our kids grow up to be a great people, or whether it’s teachers in the classroom worried about the social-emotional development of the student and their readiness to get into the other classroom. But what we’re finding from research and from organizations, like the Belin-Blank group out of the University of Iowa, is that acceleration strategies are really the most effective way to support these gifted learners in achieving their personal best. While we have those concerns, we need to also be open to discovering and determining whether it is the right thing to do to let our child skip a grade or maybe access the next grade level work within the classroom setting or even more things that teachers are accustomed doing such as grouping and grouping the kids with certain talents altogether in the same class.
There are different levels of acceleration, but we understand from research objectively that acceleration works, and it has, well, it might have an impact on social-emotional development many times is good for the social-emotional development because the gifted child understands that they have skills, they have talents, and they’re not frustrated with doing the same thing over and over again.
Kelly: Is a public school setting a good place for a gifted child or do they need to be going to a special kind of a school?
René: I’m going to give you an example of my children. I have four children. They’re all dramatically different. They have gifts and talents, but they all have gifts and talents in different areas, and not one school setting is perfect for each one of them. In our case, my wife, who’s also an educator, we had to look at the needs of our individual children and determine what is the right setting, where are they going to get the challenge, and where are they going to get the support to reach for their personal best.
In our case, two are homeschooled. One is in a traditional middle school, and then the other one is in a private school. It really depends on the needs of the children, and it puts a lot of pressure on us, the parents, to find out what is the right thing for that child. But I should say that it’s not about public, private, charter or any of those different combinations that’s going to be the right thing. It’s about the fit for the student, the school, and the teacher.
Kelly: Do you think giftedness is something that you’re born with or is it something that’s cultivated through the environment, the parents, and people that are raising them?
René: It’s both hands, right? We know that that difficult answer is sometimes hard as we think about various different topics. But when it comes to gifted children, we know that there is an ability, an aptitude that is innate, where children will be able to express faster rates of learning, deeper levels of understanding, increased interest, but that won’t express itself unless it has the stimuli or the inputs from their environment as well. It really is nature and nurture and why it’s so important for schools and our communities to really try to spot that talent wherever it exists.
Kelly: I also see sometimes the pressure can be put on, like you were saying not to put too much pressure, but a kid who is very gifted then you want to push them and challenge them more. Can you risk squelching their love of learning and curiosity by pushing too hard and accelerating them too fast?
René: You’re a parent, and I’m a parent. We know that we are scared every single day about how we’re trying to raise our children to be the best that they can be. There are times when we need to support them and challenge them, but there are other times when we need to step back and help them fit into where they need to be.
But there is when it comes to instruction and education, there is something called the zone of proximal development. It was a theory that Lev Vygotsky, an old child development expert, used to talk about, who showed that we learn best as humans, as children growing, but all of us in the human race grow best when we are in a sweet spot, that zone of proximal development. That means that we are right above where we can comfortably do things on our own. That’s the challenge that schools have to embrace and work with to cultivate learning in their students.
Can I figure out where this child is, what he potentially can do, maybe he can’t do right now, but needs instruction and support to get to the next level? Can I put him there rather than putting him back to the beginning with things that he already learned?
We know, for example, that children or gifted often know 60% of what will be covered within a full grade on the very first day of class.
René: We’re not doing a great job right now at a meeting that child in the sweet spot and helping them grow. What we need to do is shift our eyes, shift our focus, shift our understanding and work outside of the current box that we’re in. Maybe that is acceleration, skipping grades, or at least giving the content of the next grade to the student in the class that they’re in.
Can you give an example, a very specific example of a tip that you could give to a parent to help them challenge, I mean, something more tangible that you could take away?
René: Sure. Let me go back to your child who’s interested in languages and expressing herself through language, specifically English language. One of the things that children often do with, and maybe sometimes are challenged to do because we don’t ask them to do, is to write. They may be interested in reading, but we don’t always ask them to write.
When we’re asking them to write, one of the tips that we often use is actually to give what we call a mentor text or have them dissect the great poem or the great paragraph written in their favorite book and ask them to write something like that after having examined what made that passage really special to get into the mind of the author and to really think about it, but then cultivate their own talent to try to emulate it. Does that make sense?
Kelly: My son, who is extremely great at math, puzzles, just building, and kind of more mathematical mind, what’s the tip you could give to help, because he is just the most focused person I’ve ever seen?
René: Flush him with resources. Your son is a lot like one of my sons. I have four, so I had to pick the right one. But there’s one of my sons who is a third-grader who’s performing mathematics at sixth and seventh grade levels.
The best thing that I can do for him is really support him in exploring these math concepts. It’s really about teaching them the words, the problems, giving him the exposure to challenge his mind at the same time while giving him exposure to other topics.
Kelly: Thank you so much for coming and sharing your information and your resources that I think more people should be aware of what you offer.
René: Well, thank you for having us on the show. We’re at the nagc.org. We got hundreds of hits from here in the United States, as well as parents and educators from all over the world that are looking for support and really research-based information about the nature and needs of gifted and talented children. We’re available on the web. We also participate in events mostly here in the United States, but we even have a partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that is doing great work and supporting their kids.
Kelly: Thank you again. It was a pleasure, and I look forward to sharing all this information.
René: Great. Thank you. Thanks for having us.
About Rene Islas
M. René Islas is the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children. Prior to joining NAGC, René served as Sr. Vice President of Learning Forward, an international non-profit education association. For more information, visit www.NAGC.org.