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Parenting the gifted child

Last updated: 27 July, 2011

HANDLE WITH CARE

In order to help a gifted child, parents need to pay attention not only to his potential and interests but also to areas in which he may be lagging behind, says Maithreyi R

“I know he’s frustrated and bored to tears with school, but I don’t know what to do. He’s refusing to go to school, because he knows everything they are teaching him already.”

“She acts so smart all the time, so other children don’t like her. I don’t know why she has to ask so many questions or tell other children how to do things! She’s just being difficult…”

These may sound like familiar scenes to parents of gifted children, i.e. children who may show actual or potential abilities that are advanced for their age or in comparison to their peers.

The frustration may stem from two sources: a lack of knowledge about developmental issues among gifted children; or a good understanding of their children’s frustration but inability to ease their difficulties.

Thus, both children and parents may be bewildered by the process of ‘growing up’. The difficulty may be greater for those for whom the cost of getting the required help for identification and nurturing may be too large. Even when help is sought from schools or other agencies, it may be slow in coming, due to the lack of awareness or systematic policy development on issues of identification, nurturing and schooling.  However, a few simple steps and sensitive parenting can ease this journey to some extent, and make it more enjoyable for the child and the parent. The journey of parenting a gifted child

Two main tasks lie ahead of parents of gifted children — identification and nurturing.
How does one identify a child as gifted, when children can be gifted in so many innumerable ways? The first strategy for this is to keep our eyes open, right from infancy, to the child’s development.

Advanced developmental milestones (theoretical indicators of expected behaviours for particular ages) can be early signs of giftedness. These could be in the physical (e.g., early head control, ability to sit or walk, etc.), cognitive (e.g., eye-hand coordination, joint attention, etc.), socio-emotional (e.g., social smile, imitation etc.) and language domains (e.g. cooing, babbling, naming objects, etc.).

Some milestones such as the first step or first word may be part of our collective common lore; others can be easily checked with the pediatrician during regular check-ups or using reliable child development books and websites. These resources can help us be aware of simple early differences between the gifted and other children.

However, it is not uncommon to find late bloomers.  The lack of early advances in development should not deter us from identifying later accelerated developments. Some potentials may appear later in the developmental sequence and cannot be identified earlier. Early developments may also be hidden by the child’s shy or difficult temperament, or asynchronicity in development.  Hence, the key is to remain a close observer as children’s development unfolds over the long span of childhood.

Another method is to closely follow the child’s natural interests that often translate into overt behaviours. Gifted children may display advanced interests for their age (e.g. reading complex material; sophisticated art-work, etc.).  Recording and nurturing children’s interests can not only be helpful for gifted children, but for all children by cultivating their interests, potentials, and increasing their satisfaction.

Both these process require detailed observations and records. Many parents themselves maintain baby biographies, video recordings or diaries of their children’s development. These are important documents not only for parents themselves, but for schools, medical professionals working with the child, and researchers trying to advance the understanding of this area.

Identification is but one half of the challenge. The second is mentoring or nurturing. Age-appropriate academic tasks may be frustrating if acceleration is present in some domains. Options need to be explored in tandem with schools and the education departments for taking advanced courses or accelerated schooling. However, these should be carefully done with help from teachers and other experts, since issues of acceleration have their own problems for adjustment.

Children may require additional inputs outside school such as access to advanced learning material, laboratories, and peers they can discuss ideas with. Personally working with the child on projects or interest at home, when possible, may be useful. Getting in touch with scientists or other experts in their field with a short write-up on the child’s interests, activities and ideas can also be helpful in putting him or her in touch with mentors.

Helping children prepare and apply for scholarship programmes for advanced learning, such as the Kishor Vaigyanik Prothsahan Yojana—(KVYP, www.kvpy.org.in/main/), the mathematics or science Olympiads( www.icbse.com/category/olympiads/), in their area of interest, can help give him/her direction in pursuing their interests on a long-term. 

Nurturing requires attention not only to children’s potential and interests, but also other domains in which they may be lagging behind. While many children may be well-adjusted, some may show socio-emotional difficulties stemming from personality factors such as perfectionism, shyness, superiority, etc.

Here, understanding the children’s problems, supporting their efforts at overcoming it with firm but gentle directions for behaviour (e.g., how to ask questions in class without disturbing peers; how to engage one’s self after completion of class activities; how to interact with peers without putting them down, etc.) may go a long way in increasing socio-emotional adjustment.

In summary, there are three tasks that lie before parents of gifted children – sensitivity in recognition of children’s gifts and interests; providing direction and nurturing children’s advanced abilities; and identifying asynchronicity in development, and providing support and firm guidance in achieving a balance. Sensitivity in parenting also requires an acceptance and firm commitment to not push the child too far, pressure the child into excelling, mindlessly enrolling him or her into classes, or using them as ‘show-pieces’.

It is important to respect children’s need for a normal and unpressured childhood and protect their mental health. Early developments could wane at later periods and acceptance of this is important to ensure children’s psychological health. It is important to prevent ‘labeling’ or developing ‘stereotypes’ that could be a source of pressure for them to behave in conforming ways.  For more information, contact the Gifted Education Team of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

(The writer is part of NIAS’ Gifted Education Programme team. This article is a continuation of ‘The many definitions of giftedness’ which appeared in Education on June 23, 2011)


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