Young gifted children — even four- and five-year-olds — are often hungry to make sense of the world in ways we may not expect from most preschoolers and early elementary students. These children desire to exercise and expand their minds intellectually and creatively.
—Joan Smutny, Ph.D., Sally Walker, Ph.D., & Ellen Honeck, Ph.D., in Teaching Gifted Children in Today’s Preschool Classrooms (2015)
Gifted children, who thrive in an environment specifically designed to challenge them at their level and to teach them at an accelerated rate, of course have to come from somewhere, and do not suddenly “become” gifted overnight just before beginning Kindergarten.
Rather, having been gifted since birth, they have been busily feeding their hungry minds — and, most likely, exhausting their parents — with their bottomless curiosity and thirst for novelty and for ever more knowledge. Seeking an environment attuned not only to their intellectual capabilities, but also to their unique social-emotional development can be a crucial, if challenging, undertaking. For these youngest learners, these two developmental trajectories are especially tightly-linked: their intellect is the “long pole in the tent” of their identities, even at a young age.
It is easy to imagine objections to any kind of academic curriculum for preschoolers: “These three- and four-year-olds are little children, first of all; how can they need the rigor or structure of a formal education until they are older?” “They’re only babies! Shouldn’t they just be playing and napping?”
While comments like this are common (and even understandable!), research confirms that the needs of gifted children are very different from the needs of typical children, and that those differences exist from the very beginning of their lives. Indeed, our experience at Grayson confirms this understanding, perhaps most clearly with precisely the children at issue. In our Kindergarten, it is evident from the very beginning of the school year that the students are not only ready for, but hungry for, challenging intellectual engagement. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that their needs were radically different only a few months prior, when they left preschool.
Is there such a thing as a gifted preschooler?
“They can be rattling off the price of the green beans they notice from the seat of the shopping cart one minute and having a tantrum because their mother did not buy the cookies they wanted the next.”
—Nancy B. Hertzog, Ph.D., in Early Childhood Gifted Education (2008)
To begin at the beginning, there are those who doubt the very existence of such a creature. Ask the parent of a child who is well ahead of developmental milestones, though, and you will quickly discover that, yes, they exist. In fact, “more than 80% of parents can identify their child’s giftedness by age 4 or 5,” according to Joan Franklin Smutny, Ph.D., in her book, Teaching Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom. Like all gifted children, they are by definition a very small proportion of the population (generally in the top 5% in intelligence). Preschoolers whose giftedness is identified are a rare breed even within that very small group, because they have not yet been to school and an educational professional is therefore not usually the one to call attention to their needs.
Instead, parents are generally the “canaries in the coal mine” for these children: they notice that their child can recognize and name all the letters; or knows all the shapes and colors; or can already count to 20 and knows basic addition. Whatever the specifics of the ability, they gradually become aware that they have a child on their hands who is clearly outside the norm. A child who is reading, for example — truly reading, with comprehension — at age three, is clearly intellectually advanced well before he or she sits for an IQ test.
But can we actually identify them?
The most important step is not to make assumptions about the child’s level of accomplishment based upon age or upon grade, but rather select test materials that will permit a young child to demonstrate high-level skills in a variety of areas.
—Julia B. Osborn, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, from “Assessing Gifted Children,” in Understanding Our Gifted (1998)
At Grayson, we often jokingly remark that perhaps the best place to find gifted preschoolers is the grocery store — they are the ones reading all the signs, or talking about prices and money, or asking why the strawberries come from Colombia (and where is Colombia, anyway? and how do they get here? and do they have to go to the airport like we do? and does that mean that the strawberries speak Spanish? etc.). A review of the literature yields the following characteristics of gifted children of preschool age: alertness in infancy; faster pace in reaching developmental milestones; interest in the alphabet and symbols; early language development, including advanced vocabulary and complex speech patterns; intense curiosity; sustained attention; abstract thinking; excellent memory; early reading; early development of empathy; emotional intensity/sensitivity; and a mature sense of humor. [i]
While these characteristics are undoubtedly useful in identifying these children, there are also actually formal psychometric instruments which can be used to measure intelligence even in the very young. Perhaps the most commonly used IQ test is the Wechsler Preschool & Primary Scales of Intelligence (WPPSI), which is designed and normed for children ages 2.5 to 7.6 years old and has been in use for 50 years. Additionally, the Stanford-Binet V, Woodcock-Johnson IV, and other tests are also used for children as young as 2, so there are reliable, valid ways to measure intelligence in children of preschool age.
What do these young gifted minds need from preschool?
Highly gifted minds can consume large amounts of information in one gulp, and they thrive on complexity. Giving these children simple bits of information is like feeding an elephant one blade of grass at a time — he will starve before he even realizes that anyone is trying to feed him.
—Stephanie S. Tolan, Newbery-Award-winning author and advocate for gifted children
Preschoolers who are gifted need many of the same things that typical preschoolers need from their first experiences with school: time to play, to rest, to read, and to explore. At 3 and 4 years old, what they really need to learn from preschool is not just curriculum. They need to learn how to play with others, to share, to be part of a group, to wait their turn, and to be a friend. All children need time for playing indoors and out; for dressing up and for sitting quietly with a book; for getting dirty and for learning to clean up; for running around and for napping; for fingerpainting and for fingerplays.
Parents of a gifted child should seek a program that offers those things and what their young learner needs, scaled-down to a preschooler’s level and with an awareness of their stamina: instruction on their level, at their pace; opportunities to explore topics of interest in depth; social-emotional support; teachers who have training specifically about young gifted children; intellectual and social peers; and flexibility in what and how they learn. A program where their passion for learning is accepted and valued, right from the beginning, is important as they begin their school “career.” Just because they are small does not mean they cannot ask complex questions, think deeply, and put their considerable intellectual gifts to work as they explore their world.
Very young gifted students need opportunities to experience acceptance, growth, and challenge; to appreciate the work and ideas of others; and to get feedback from peers and adults. They need to be able to express their thoughts, wrestle with big ideas, and problem-solve. They especially need to learn that it is okay — and, in fact, desirable — to take risks and to fail, because that is when we learn something new…and when we learn how to regroup and try again. In fact, preschoolers, perhaps by virtue of being not terribly far removed from their days of falling down while learning how to walk, can be far more resilient in the face of initial failure than much older children. It is a benefit of early gifted education that this innate resilience and fearlessness can be an intrinsic part of their foundational, initial experience of school.
Meeting the pace and needs of these young minds
Typically, young gifted students come to us already knowing a great deal. Yet, regardless of their advanced knowledge, they enter our classrooms with intellectual and emotional needs that are universal: to be recognized, to be accepted, and to experience the challenge and joy of learning. To meet these children’s needs, we need a curriculum that offers developmentally appropriate opportunities for challenge, discovery, mastery of new skills, and sharing of new knowledge.
— Smutny, Walker, & Honeck (2016)
We understand that 3- and 4-year-olds are by nature ready for exciting new adventures; in fact, getting to start school is one of those adventures. Seek a program intended to capitalize on the energy and enthusiasm for exploration that your child has for learning, to nurture the extraordinary intellectual potential that sets them apart, even at this young age. This requires mindful attention to both free play and learning, and to both social-emotional and cognitive development. While your child will move through typical milestones, they can also learn at a remarkable pace that they find exhilarating.
Engaging their natural zeal for exploration must be a central focus: like preschoolers everywhere, they will plant seeds and talk about water and sunlight — but they can also hear words like “photosynthesis” because it’s so fun to say (especially with what remains of a toddler lisp) and makes them feel very grown-up, indeed. Similarly, like their chronological peers in other preschools, they will learn about habits that are important for a healthy body — but they may also see germs under an ultraviolet light after talking about the importance of hand-washing. These lessons are not wildly different from other preschools; they are just deeper and more enriched to support the advanced verbal and analytical thinking skills of these extraordinary little minds.
In the words of Del Siegle, past President of NAGC,
“Every child deserves to learn something new every day.”
[i] This list of characteristics is largely (though not entirely) from pages 5-6 of Early Childhood Gifted Education by Nancy B. Herztog, Ph.D. (Prufrock Press, 2008). Dr. Hertzog, herself, refers the reader to this list from the Frances A. Karnes Center for Gifted Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi, which has a brochure on the topic.
If you are interested in more information about very young gifted children, here is a sampling of some of the research-based sources that we have found to be helpful in understanding their unique intellectual and social-emotional characteristics. Sign up for an upcoming Open House at our school if you would like to learn more about our Pre-K to grade 8 program for gifted students.
- Ann Gadzikowski, Challenging Exceptionally Bright Children in Early Childhood Classrooms (2013), National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Redleaf Press.
- Nancy B. Herztog, Ph.D, Early Childhood Gifted Education (2008), Prufrock Press.
- Miraca U. M. Gross, Ph.D., Exceptionally Gifted Children (2004), Routledge Press.
- Sylvia G. Feinburg, Ed.D., & Mary Mindess, Ed.M., Eliciting Children’s Full Potential (2004), Brooks Cole Publishing Company.
- Joan Franklin Smutny, Ph.D., Sally Yahnke Walker, Ph.D., & Ellen I. Honeck, Ph.D., Teaching Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom (2016), Free Spirit Publishing.
- “Assessing Gifted Children” by Julia B. Osborn, Ph.D., in Understanding Our Gifted (Winter 1998), pp. 9-12.
- “Characteristics of Gifted Preschool Children” by Ann E. Lupkowski, Ph.D., presented at the 63rd Annual Convention of the Council for Exceptional Children in Anaheim, California (April 1985).
- “Early Enrichment for Young Gifted Children” by Keri M. Guilbault, Ed.D., on Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education (MCGATE) website, posted March 20, 2012).
- “Small Poppies: Highly Gifted Children in the Early Years” by Miraca U. M. Gross, Ph.D., in Roeper Review, (Vol. 21, No. 3) pp. 207-214.
- “Stuck in Another Dimension: The Exceptionally Gifted Child in School” by Stephanie S. Tolan, in Gifted Child Today (Nov-Dec 1985), also available online here.
- “The Importance of Being Early: A Case for Preschool Enrichment” by Ken McCluskey, Ph.D., in Parenting for High Potential, a publication from The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), pp. 8-13. Available here.
- The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at Vanderbilt University (CSEFEL).
- The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), especially these pieces: Position Statement on Early Childhood Learning (2006), Pre-School and Kindergarten Programs, and Young and Bright Children
- Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG)
- Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education (PAGE)
- The Davidson Institute
Please visit the Hoagie’s Gifted Blog Hop where you can read more great articles on this topic!