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Gifted Children Have Special Needs, Too
By Nancy Symmes Sweeney

Young children with special needs have been the focus of increased attention since the passage of federal legislation, PL 99-457, in 1986. This law is a downward age extension of earlier legislation which guaranteed the provision of special education services in the public schools. One of the many concepts associated with this legislation is early intervention, the provision of services that will both facilitate development and act as a preventative to secondary handicaps that may result if such attention were not provided. The intention of early intervention, therefore, is to mitigate the effects of disabilities or circumstances that put children at risk and thus help prevent underachievement for these children.

While early intervention is frequently defined as the provision of services for children with disabilities (Wolery & Wilbers, 1994), nevertheless "a growing number of authorities in the field of gifted education have pinpointed early benefits of early intervention" (Stile & Hudson, 1993, p. 127) as also essential for young gifted children. Not only is the prevention of underachievement important in the personal lives of gifted children, but also, the effects of this loss of talent are felt at both national and global levels (Butler-Por, 1993; Gallagher, 1991; Marland Commission, 1972; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983; Whitmore, 1980).

Early Intervention and Young Gifted Children
The importance of the early years in setting patterns of learning is widely held (Bloom, 1964a; Clark, 1992; Hunt, 1961; Piaget, 1952). Difficulty with the establishment of these early patterns for learning has been mentioned as a potential source of underachievement in the gifted (Butler-Por, 1993; Clark, 1992; Karnes & Johnson, 1991; Whitmore, 1980). Early intervention for gifted children during the preschool years has been indicated as a preventative for this potential underachievement (Butler-Por, 1993; Stile & Hudson, 1993; Stile, Kitano, Kelley & LeCrone, 1993). It is based upon the view that a rich and stimulating environment is essential to supporting the development of positive patterns for learning and achievement.

Since young gifted children are often more advanced that their peers in a variety of ways, there is a legitimate concern that special adjustments needed to challenge young gifted children may not be readily available in the preschool or child care setting. Special accommodations including a broad variety of challenging activities are necessary to maintain a rich and stimulating environment for these children, and to maintain and enhance their motivation to achieve. However, the need for these special accommodations raises two obvious but important questions. One relates to identification: "How will the teacher know that a child is gifted?" The second relates to instruction: "What are the special activities and accommodations that should be provided for the young gifted child in the early childhood classroom or child care environment?"

Identification of Giftedness
The first question, "How will I know that a child is gifted?" has generated much discussion in the professional literature (Horowitz, 1992, Perleth, Lehwald & Browder, 1993; Robinson, 1993).

Certainly, it seems appropriate to identify these children to ensure that the necessary approaches and activities are available to them. However there are two important difficulties imbedded in identification: one with definition and the other with response of young children to formal assessment.

The variety of definitions used in the literature and in practice run a broad gamut. Some view giftedness as an unusually high level of development in abstract reasoning skills (Gallagher, 1975), while another view is to perceive giftedness as "exceptional potential for learning and academic achievement in relation to chronological age peers" (Whitmore, 1985, p. 85). Renzulli's "three-ringed" approach (1978), on the other hand, defines giftedness as the convergence of three traits (above-average intelligence, creativity, and task commitment), while others have used Gardner's (1985) multiple intelligences (linguistics, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal) to define giftedness as superior performance in any one of these areas (Maker, Nelson & Rogers, 1994; Matthews, 1988).

Despite this obvious lack of agreement, there appears to be one commonality in all definitions: Giftedness is regarded as a high level of performance or the potential for such performance beyond what is expected of typically developing individuals (Clark, 1992; Heller, 1993).

The second area of difficulty with identification is related to the nature of the early childhood years and specifically the response of young children to the process of assessment and testing (Neisworth, 1993; Peterson, 1987). Some of the problems in evaluating young children include the difficulty they have paying attention during testing. Accompanying this aspect of a shortened attention span is the tendency of young children to become easily distracted and to be less concerned with performing in order to please adults. Even more important is the high variability that young children demonstrate on a day-to-day basis. Thus a child may perform at a very high level on a task one day, but be unwilling or apparently unable to perform at that level the next day. Therefore, the information gathered for identification of young gifted children has been viewed as less dependable than that for older children. As a result, identification in the traditional and more formal sense has often been delayed to a later period in childhood when there is more confidence that the process is providing secure results (Horowitz, 1993).

The difficulties with definition and identification seem daunting indeed and give rise to another question: Is it possible to provide early intervention without formal identification? The answer is a strong yes, and the support for this position is based upon the concept of developmentally appropriate practice (Bredekamp, 1987; Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992). This important concept focuses on providing for children in ways that are both age appropriate and also individually appropriate.

In early childhood classrooms and in child care settings, teachers and caregivers first need to observe the child's performance in the early childhood setting across the traditional early childhood domains (i.e., cognitive, language, motor, social-emotional, self-help, and aesthetic). Second, teachers should relate these observations to the expected behaviors for a child of that age as well as the characteristics and behaviors which might indicate potential giftedness (Roedell, 1986).

Teachers, while not formally identifying these children as gifted, should design activities on an individual and group basis that provide and expand the child's areas of strength as well as support any needed areas. Essentially, the teacher will be following best practice or developmentally appropriate practice with an eye to an expanded notion of developmental expectations. This expanded view of developmental levels includes many or all following characteristics that are usually associated with giftedness in the early years (Robinson, 1993). Young children who are potentially gifted often:

1.       Excel at memory activities beyond what one would expect at the given age level.


2.       Demonstrate unusually mature thinking on tasks that are complicated, learn very quickly new information or ways of doing things, or perceive hidden meanings.


3.       Show advanced understanding or precocious development of a specific skill area, e.g., early reading or mathematics without having been directly instructed, or rapid development when provided the opportunity in the arts.


4.       Are self managers in their own learning.


5.       Have a high need for a variety of experiences, seek new and different opportunities to investigate, and seem to delight in novel problems to solve.


6.       Seek older children as playmates and engage in especially creative imaginative play scenarios.


7.       Have an advanced vocabulary and enjoy playing with words or other means of symbolically representing their world.


8.       Demonstrate notable variability between very sophisticated thinking and behavior in other ways that indicates they are still young children.


Early childhood teachers and other child care personnel should observe carefully the needs of the various children in the center and make accommodations for those children exhibiting all or many of these characteristics. The accommodations should be based upon the following considerations.


Recommendations for Accommodations


1.       Remember that no two gifted children are alike. These children vary among themselves as much as they do from typical children.


2.       Bear in mind that being gifted or highly able is not a reward for anything. It does not necessarily place children at an advantage over other children. In fact, in some circumstances gifted children may find it difficult to fit easily into the average setting. Therefore, do not place additional burdens on these children by expressing the view through your language or non-verbal expressions that "If you're so gifted or smart why can't you-" (The use of the term gifted with gifted children is problematic anyway, since it has little meaning to them. Furthermore, using the term with children and their parents before formal identification is inappropriate. The point here is that criticizing children in this way is very poor practice and should be avoided.)


3.       Gifted children remain children, regardless of their talents. Therefore expect that they will experience some unevenness in development among the various domains (Roedell, 1986). For example, they may be quite exceptional in figuring out the answer to intellectual problems or read at an early age (without having been directly taught), but have difficulty with fine motor skills, being responsible for their belongings, or making friends.


4.       Consider the needs of gifted children to interact with mental peers (children who are on the same thinking level). Therefore, gifted children may prefer older children as playmates. Provide opportunities for cross-age groupings and activities with older children in the child care center whenever possible. Permit individual gifted children to spend time in the older group, perhaps during story time or dramatic play periods.


5.       Provide opportunities for gifted children to think divergently as well as convergently. For example, they need to have many educational experiences and problems for which there is more than one correct answer. Questions such as "How many different ways can we ...?" imply that there are many answers possible.


6.       Assist gifted children to understand that all individuals have something special to contribute and to respect others who may not grasp something as quickly. Therefore, set up social situations in which gifted children can be followers sometimes and leaders at others.


7.       Be careful not to emphasize upper-level academic activities that use pencil-and-paper production. While gifted preschool children may often learn to read and understand content from the early grade levels and beyond before they enter school, they are still young children and the "sit down and complete" (fine motor skill) tasks are not developmentally appropriate (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992). Instead, provide for higher-level intellectual exploration needs through such activities as a science corner with a variety of books and objects that present advanced ideas, as well as more advanced books in the library corner where children may choose according to interests and ability level.


8.       Discourage parents from forcing academic skills on their children, as some parents may wish to encourage the development of "school skills" because the child demonstrates advanced understanding. Rather, encourage them to answer children's questions and provide many opportunities that allow for active intellectual exploration such as "hands on" museums, youth concerts, children's libraries, etc.


9.       Adapt curriculum to a thematic approach. Theme units should be based on the emergent curriculum approach that is designed to focus on children's interests as well as on the action-oriented approaches of play-based settings (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992; Stile & Hudson, 1993; Jones & Nimmo, 1994). Modifications for children with disabilities should be built into the various levels, as it is possible to have gifted children with disabilities, also. There are a variety of already prepared materials for teachers to use in this process. Many of these, however, are developed with school-aged children in mind. For a discussion of specific programs for young gifted children, see Karnes & Johnson (1991).


10.    Collect information that demonstrates the child's exceptional talent, a portfolio that can be shared with the teacher (with parent permission, of course) at the next level (Shaklee & Viechnicki, 1995). Ask the child to select items to be collected and to record his or her reasoning and reflection on the work. This should include all the developmental domains in order to present a picture of the whole child, and might include art products, dictated stories as well as videotapes of dramatic play or creative dramatics, audiotapes of conversations or book readings, photographs of block constructions, etc.


11.    When the time for gifted preschoolers to enter kindergarten arrives, remember that gifted children require activities that challenge them intellectually. Therefore, even children with birthdates that make them youngest in the class may be quite ready for school. Blanket recommendations that all children who have birthdates that make them younger in the kindergarten class should be held from school are developmentally inappropriate for all children (Bredekamp, 1987; Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992), but may be particularly harmful for gifted children (Sweeney, 1995). Any delay of entrance is a functional retention and may run counter to the best interests of the young gifted child. Instead, recommend that the parents seek individual professional evaluation to assist in decision-making about school entrance.

Young children with special needs have been the focus of much attention since the passage of federal legislation, PL 99-457, in 1986. While much of this attention has been focused upon children with disabilities, young gifted children too have special needs that place them at risk for underachievement. Young gifted children have advanced understanding and/or performance in a variety of areas which require the development of a challenging curriculum and appropriate educational interventions which are still sensitive to the developmental needs of these children. It is important that we design developmentally appropriate educational practice for all children-and that includes our young gifted children, too.

Nancy Symmes Sweeney, Ph.D., is with the Department of Special Education at Youngstown State University, Youngstown, OH.

Bloom, B. (1964a). Stability and change in human characteristics. New York: John Wiley.

Bloom, B. (1964b). Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: David McKay Company, Inc.

Bredekamp, S. (Ed.) (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children birth through age 8. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Bredekamp, S. & Rosegrant, T. (1992).Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children, Vol. 1. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Butler-Por, N. (1993). Underachieveing gifted students. In K. Heller, F. Monks, & A. Passow (Eds.)., International handbook of research of development of giftedness and talent(pp. 649-668). New York: Pergammon.

Clark, B. (1992). Growing up gifted. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Gallagher, J.J. (1975).Teaching the gifted child.Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Gallagher, J.J. (1991). Personal patterns of underachievement.Journal for the Education of the Gifted. 14, 221-223.

Gardner, H. (1985)Frames of the Mind. New York: Basic Books, Inc. Horowitz, F.D. (1993). A developmental view on early identification of gifted. In P.S. Klein, A.J. Tannebaum (Eds.),To be young and gifted. (pp. 73-93). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Hunt, J. McV. (1961).Intelligence and experience. New York: Ronald Press. Karnes, M. & Johnson, L. (1991). The preschool/primary gifted child.Journal for the Education of the Gifted. 14 (3), 267-283.

Jones, E. & Nimmo, J. (1994).Emergent curriculum. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Maker, C.J., Nielson, A.B. & Rogers, J.A. (1994). Multiple intelligences, giftedness, diversity, and problem-solving.Teaching Exceptional Children. 27 (1), 4-19.

Marland, S.P., Jr. (1972). Education of the gifted and talented. Report to the Congress of the United States by the United States Commissioner of Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Matthews, D. (1988). Gardner's multiple intelligence theory: an evaluation of relevant research literature and its consideration of its application to gifted education.Roeper Review. 11 (2), 100-104.

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Neisworth, J.T. (1993). Assessment. In DEC recommended practices: Indicators of quality in programs for infants and young children with special needs and their families. (pp. 11-16). Pittsburgh, PA: Division of Early Childhood, Council for Exceptional Children.

Perleth, C. Lehwald, G. & Browder, C. (1993). Indicators of high ability in young children. In K. Heller, F. Monks, & A. Passow (Eds.).,International handbook of research of development of giftedness and talent(pp. 283-310). New York: Pergammon.

Petersen, N. (1987). Early intervention for handicapped and at-risk children. Denver, CO: Love Publishing Company.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence. Second Edition. New York: International Universities Press.

Renzulli, J.S. (1978). What makes giftedness? Re-examining a definition. Phi Delta Kappan. 60, 180-184.

Robinson, N. (1993). Identifying and nurturing gifted, very young children. In K. Heller, F. Monks, & A. Passow (Eds.).International handbook of research of development of giftedness and talent(pp. 507-524). New York: Pergammon.

Roedell, W. (1986). Socioemotional vulnerabilities of young gifted children. In J. Whitmore (Ed.),Intellectual giftedness in young children. (pp. 17-30), New York: The Haworth Press.

Shaklee, B. & Viechnicki, K. (1995). A qualitative approach for portfolios: The early assessment for exceptional potential model.Journal for the Education of the Gifted. 18 (2), 165-170.

Stile, S. & Hudson, B. (1993). Early intervention with children who are gifted. In DEC recommended practices: Indicators of quality in programs for infants and young children with special needs and their families. (pp. 127-139), Pittsburgh, PA: Division of Early Childhood, Council for Exceptional Children.

Stile, S.W., Kitano, M., Kelley, P. & LeCrone, J. (1993). Early intervention with gifted children: A national survey.Journal of Early Intervention. 17 (1), 30-35.

Sweeney, N. S. (1995). The age position effect: School entrance age, giftedness and underachievement.Journal for the Education of the Gifted. 18 (2), 171-188. Whitmore, J.R. (1980).Conflict, giftedness and underachievement. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Whitmore, J. R. (1985). New challenges to common identification practices. In J. Freeman (Ed.)The Psychology of Gifted Children (pp. 93-113). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Wolery, M. & Wilbers, J.S. (Eds.) (1994).Including children with special needs in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Suggested Additional Readings
Bredekamp. S. & Rosegrant, T. (1992). Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children, vol. 1.Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Karnes, M., Amundsen, J., Cohen, T. & Johnson, L. (1985). Bringing out Head Start talents. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois.

Karnes, M. & Johnson, L. (1991). The preschool/ primary gifted child.Journal for the Education of the Gifted. 14 (3), 267-283.

Jones, E. & Nimmo, J. (1994).Emergent curriculum. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Leonard, J., Hoyt, M., Malley-Crist, J. & Greene, J. (1978).Planning guide for gifted preschoolers. Winston-Salem, NC: Kaplan Press.

Snowden, P.L. (May/June, 1994). Activities for young gifted children.Gifted Child Today, 14-19.

Stile, S. & Hudson, B. (1993). Early intervention with children who are gifted. In DEC recommended practices: Indicators of quality in programs for infants and young children with special needs and their families. (pp. 127-139) Pittsburgh, PA: Division of Early Childhood, Council for Exceptional Children.

Whitmore, J. (Ed.) (1986).Intellectual giftedness in young children. New York: The Haworth Press.