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Elaine Hook makes a plea for better understanding of gifted and talented children

Labelling any child is unhelpful; if we are not careful, the label we give is self-prophesying, only serving to reinforce itself. Labelling is disrespectful. I am not talking about the use of stickers or name badges. There are times when giving a name badge or sticker is useful to keep our children safe or give praise for a “wow” moment in their learning and development, but the use of labelling as a way of diagnosing or categorising a child, I believe, is not the way to go.

Working with gifted and talented young children and youths, I come across labels all the time and while some families and individuals find this useful or comforting, many do not. To the child or young person it can have detrimental long-term effects and even lead to lack of confidence, underachieving and depression.

It is very common for highly able children to have characteristics, traits and quirks that mimic or overlap with other needs or disorders. This can easily lead to the misdiagnosis of conditions such as ADHD, ODD, OCD, autistic spectrum disorders and even bipolar disorder.
There is a constellation of characteristics that are common to gifted and talented children and many of these children show at least eighty percent of these characteristics most of the time, although some will show more. Many of these characteristics will carry over into adulthood and are mostly representative of social and emotional behaviours. Of course, there are some children who will be twice exceptional (2E), who are intellectually gifted but also have SEN. Their gifts and talents must be acknowledged and catered for alongside their special needs.

Gifted young people can find themselves out of step with their peers. Gifted young people can find themselves out of step with their peers. Children and young people of high ability often display subtleties of language and have large vocabularies, use complex and adult sentence structures, display high levels of curiosity and ask endless questions, and have unusual memories enabling them to retain complex information effortlessly. They often teach themselves to read or write, have an imaginary friend and a quirky sense of humour. They have long attention spans and excellent concentration skills when working on a subject that interests them, but cannot stay focused when bored. They often have higher level and divergent thinking skills and can debate like an adult on difficult subject matters, such as poverty, racism or politics.

Highly able children often develop “out of sync”, or asynchronously, and therefore tend be socially and emotionally immature but cognitively way beyond their chronological age. Many gifted children and young people find themselves out of step with their peers and do not fit in, which can lead to teasing and bullying and in some cases a very lonely existence. Asynchronous development can cause confusion for the child in question, the family and professionals.

If misunderstood or misdiagnosed, highly able children can dumb down, underachieve and become depressed. Universal characteristics of gifted children and young people include intensity and sensitivity. These children tend to be obsessive and pedantic about almost everything, to the point that they have “excessive personalities”. Research has taught us that children of higher intelligences are more likely to have inborn insensitivities that result in a heightened response to stimuli around them; this is referred to as over-excitability. Consequently, their reactions, feelings and experiences tend to far exceed what one would normally expect.

Encouraging children socially and emotionally, to love to learn and to fit in to society is far more important than finding a label that may hinder them for the rest of their lives. It is imperative that we acknowledge that the misdiagnosis, or labelling, of highly able or twice exceptional children is inappropriate, and can affect them even more strongly when intelligence levels increase beyond IQ 130. Intensity and sensitivity is still the most overlooked and misunderstood characteristic of gifted and talented children today.

Further information

Elaine Hook is a freelance education consultant.

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