in Young Children
ERIC Digest #E487
Author: Wendy C. Roedell
Versions of the following conversation
can often be heard when young gifted children start school. "Bill doesn't
belong in kinder-garten!" the parent cries. "Look, he's reading at
the fourth-grade level and has already learned two-column addition." The
teacher or principal, having already decided this is a 'pushy parent,' replies,
"Well, Mrs. Smith, Bill certainly doesn't belong in first grade; he hasn't
learned to tie his shoelaces, and he can't hold a pencil properly, and he had
a tantrum yesterday in the hall."
The problem in this continuing
controversy is that both par- ties are usually correct. Some gifted children
entering kinder- garten have acquired academic skills far beyond those of their
age mates. Such children master the academic content of kindergarten when they
are 3 years old. However, their physical and social development may be similar
to that of other 5-year- olds, making an accelerated placement a mismatch as
well. The usual solution is to place a child like Bill in a program matched
to his weaknesses, rather than to his strengths. Bill usually ends up in kindergarten,
where his advanced intellectual development be- comes a frustration to his teacher,
an embarrassment to his peers, and a burden to Bill.
Educators justify this placement
by saying, "Bill needs so- cialization; he's already so far ahead academically,
he doesn't need anything in that area." There are two major problems with
this rationale. First, educators are essentially telling such stu- dents that
there is no need for them to learn anything in school. The second problem is
revealed by examining the so called "socialization" experienced by
a brilliant 5-year-old like Bill in a kindergarten class of 25 to 30 students.
A major component of early socialization involves a child's feeling that she
or he is ac- cepted by othersQteachers and children alike. If the teacher does
not validate a gifted child's advanced abilities and intellec- tual interests
by making them part of the ongoing curriculum, the child experiences no feelings
of acceptance from the teacher. If, as is highly likely, this child makes the
additional discovery that she or he is quite different from most classmates
and that com- munication is extremely difficult because of differences in vo-
cabulary and modes of expression, then the child misses peer acceptance as well.
In fact, this first school experience, which should furnish the impetus for
future enthusiasm about learning, can be a dismal failure for the brilliant
child in a lockstep kinder- garten program. Often these children learn to hide
or deny their abilities, so as to fit in better with the other children. Or,
they may develop behavioral problems or psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches
and headaches, causing parents to confront the school with justifiable concern.
Understanding Uneven Development
It is important to remember
that these children very often do not develop evenly. In fact, young gifted
children frequently show peaks of extraordinary performance rather than equally
high skill levels in all cognitive areas. The child who learns to read at age
3 or who shows unusually advanced spatial reasoning ability, for example, may
not be the child with the highest IQ or the earliest language development. Unique
patterns of development can be observed within a group of gifted children, and
uneven develop- ment is frequently evident in the pattern of a single child.
In some cases, it seems as though children's abilities develop in spurts, guided
by changes in interest and opportunity. Reading ability, for example, might
develop almost overnight. Children who know all their letters and letter sounds
by age 2 1/2 may remain at that level for some time, perhaps until age 4 or
5, and then in a matter of months develop fluent reading skills at the third
or fourth grade level.
Another area of unevenness
in the development of gifted young children is found in the relationship between
advanced in- tellectual development and development of physical and social skills.
Evidence seems to indicate that intellectually gifted chil- dren's performance
in the physical domain may only be advanced to the extent that the physical
tasks involve cognitive organiza- tion. And, although intellectually advanced
children tend to pos- sess some advanced social-cognitive skills, they do not
neces- sarily demonstrate those skills in their social behavior. In other words,
they may understand how to solve social conflicts and in- teract cooperatively,
but not know how to translate their under- standing into concrete behavior.
It is not uncommon to find
gifted young children experiencing a vast gap between their advanced intellectual
skills and their less advanced physical and emotional competencies. For exam-
ple, 4- and 5-year old children may converse intelligently about abstract concepts
such as time and death and read fluently at the fourth-grade level, yet find
it difficult to hold a pencil or to share their toys with others.
Often these uneven developmental
levels can lead to ex- treme frustration, as children find that their limited
physical skills are not sufficiently developed to carry out the complex projects
they imagined. These children may throw tantrums or even give up on projects
without trying. Adult guidance in developing coping strategies can help such
children set more realistic goals for themselves and learn how to solve problems
effectively when their original efforts do not meet their high expectations.
Adults, too, can be misled
by children's advanced verbal ability or reasoning skill into expecting equally
advanced behavior in all other areas. It is unsettling to hold a high-level
conversation with a 5 year-old who then turns around and punches a classmate
who stole her pencil. Sometimes young children's age-appropri- ate social behavior
is interpreted as willful or lazy by parents and teachers whose expectations
are unrealistically high. The only accurate generalization that can be made
about the characteris- tics of intellectually gifted young children is that
they demonstrate their unusual intellectual skills in a wide variety of ways
and that they form an extremely heterogeneous group with respect to in- terests,
skill levels in particular areas, social development, and physical abilities.
Understanding the unique
developmental patterns often pre- sent in gifted children can help parents,
and teachers as well, ad- just their expectations of academic performance in
young children to a more reasonable level.
Choosing a Program or School
One of the few psychological
truths educators and psychologists agree upon states that the most learning
occurs when an optimal match between the learner's current understanding and
the chal- lenge of new learning material has been carefully engineered. Choosing
a program or school for a gifted child who masters ideas and concepts quickly
but who behaves like a typical 4- or 5-year- old is indeed a challenge.
Many intellectually gifted
children master the cognitive con- tent of most preschool and kindergarten programs
quite early. They come to school ready and eager to learn concepts not usu-
ally taught until an older age. However, academic tasks designed for older children
often require the learner to carry out teacher-di- rected activities while sitting
still and concentrating on written work sheets. Young children, no matter how
bright they are, re- quire active involvement with learning materials and often
do not have the writing skills required for above-grade-level work.
Since many gifted children
will hide their abilities so as to fit in more closely with classmates in a
regular program, teachers may not be able to observe advanced intellectual or
academic abilities directly. If a kindergartner enters school with fluent reading
abil- ity, the parent should share this information at the beginning of the
year instead of waiting until the end of the year to complain that the teacher
did not find out that the child could read. When parents and teachers pool their
observations of a child's skills, they begin to work together to develop appropriate
educational options for nurturing those abilities. Parents whose children have
some unusual characteristics that will affect their learning needs have an obligation
to share that information with educators, just as educators have an obligation
to listen carefully to parent concerns.
When the entry level of
learners is generally high but ex- tremely diverse, an appropriate program must
be highly individual- ized. Children should be encouraged to progress at their
own learning rate, which will result in most cases in subject matter ac- celeration.
The program should be broadly based, with planned opportunities for development
of social, physical, and cognitive skills in the informal atmosphere of an early
One primary task of teachers
is to make appropriately ad- vanced content accessible to young children, taking
into account individual social and physical skills. Lessons can be broken into
short units, activities presented as games, and many concepts taught through
inquiry-oriented dialogue and experimentation with manipulatable materials.
Language experience activities in read- ing and the use of manipulatable math
materials as described in products like Mathematics Their Way (Baratta-Lorton,
1976), are good examples of appropriate curriculum approaches.
An appropriate learning
environment should also offer a gifted young child the opportunity to discover
true peers at an early age. Parents of gifted children frequently find that,
while their child can get along with other children in the neighborhood, an
intense friendship is likely to develop with a more developmentally equal peer
met in a special class or interest-based activity. Such par- ents may be dismayed
to discover that this "best friend" does not live next door but across
town, and may wonder whether or not to give in to their child's pleas for inconvenient
visits. Probably one of the most supportive activities a parent can engage in
is to help a child find a true friend and make the effort required to permit
the friendship to flower.
In looking for an appropriate
program for their gifted preschooler, then, parents must be aware of the learning
needs of young children and not be misled by so-called experts who advo- cate
rigid academic approaches with an emphasis on rote memo- rization and repetition.
Rather wise parents will look for open- endedness, flexible grouping, and opportunities
for advanced ac- tivities in a program that allows their child to learn in the
company of intellectual peers.
Allen, R. V., & Allen,
C. (1970). Language experiences in reading (Vols.1 & 2). Chicago: Encyclopedia
Baratta-Lorton, M. (1976).
Mathematics their way: An activity center mathematics program for early childhood
education. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Roedell, W. C. (1989). Early
development of gifted children. In VanTassel-Baska, J. & Olszewski-Kubilius,
P. (Eds.), Patterns influence on gifted learners (pp.13-28). New York: Teachers
Roedell, W. C., Jackson,
N. E., & Robinson, H. B. (1980). Gifted young children. New York: Teachers
Spivack, G., & Shure,
M. B. (1974). Social adjustment of young children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Smutny, J. F., Veenker,
K., Veenker, S. (1989). Your gifted child: How to recognize and develop the
special talents in your child from birth to age seven. A practical source book
containing a wealth of information for parents and educators of young gifted
children. Leads parents through infancy and early childhood, discussing topics
such as language development, creativity, and how to choose schools. Provides
a developmental checklist. New York: Facts On File. Also available from The
Council for Exceptional Children/ The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and
Wendy C. Roedell, Ph.D.,
is Director of the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program at Educational
Service District 121 in Seattle, Washington and senior author of Gifted Young
Note. Adapted by permission
of the publisher from VanTassel- Baska, Joyce L. and Olszewski-Kubilius, Paula,
Early develop- ment of gifted children by Wendy C. Roedell from Patterns of
in- fluence on gifted learners, The home, the self, and the school. (New York:
Teachers College Press, ) 1989 by Teachers College, Columbia University, pp.
13-28, All rights reserved)
ERIC Digests are in the
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of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract
no. RI93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect
the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.
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