Help for the Gifted Child

To nurture kids' abilities, parents must expand their definition of talent and look beyond the classroom for challenges
kids in the classroom
“You can look for resources in your community—in your school and church and at local colleges—as well as on the Internet,” says David Henry Feldman. Photo: iStock
February 15, 2012

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David Henry Feldman has been exploring the world of gifted children and prodigies throughout his career. His collaboration with Howard Gardner at Harvard helped set the groundwork for what has become known as the theory of multiple intelligences, the idea that there are many types of intelligence.

For parents who believe their young children are gifted in some way, the question becomes how do educators foster those gifts? Feldman, a professor of child development in the School of Arts and Sciences, says that definitions of giftedness are at best a guideline, and often it is the parents who can help their children the most.

Tufts Now: How do you know your child is gifted?

David Henry Feldman: There’s the official way, the standard IQ test, which is straightforward and traditional but very limited. If your child scores high enough—probably in the high 120s and up—your child is considered to be gifted.

One complication is that different IQ tests come up with different numbers. One of the myths about IQ is that you always get the same number no matter what test you use, and that’s not the case.

What is a better way to determine if a child is gifted?

My own work has been to try to make that definition more diverse, loosen it up and explore things more deeply. I certainly agree that each of us naturally has more—or less—potential in different areas, and it’s not straightforward to try to get a measure of that. I prefer to focus on activity, passion and involvement.

Are IQ tests at all valuable?

There is no doubt that someone who does well on them has some kind of special ability. But a kid who has an incredible passion for the visual arts, for instance, may or may not test well. I wouldn’t say that child is more or less gifted. I don’t really know, and you won’t know until you see what happens over time.

David Henry FeldmanWhat should so-called gifted and talented programs in schools provide?

More often than not, these programs have children do accelerated work in traditional areas. It’s a technique that works pretty well for a lot of kids. All it means is the school will try to find where that child can be placed, so they are at an academic level closer to where they are functioning.

So if a second-grade kid is ready for fifth-grade math, the school system will look for a way for the child to have access to that kind of math. It doesn’t mean they change the child’s whole life; they try to do it selectively. What I like is that it’s specific to an area and recognizes that children don’t all move at the same pace at all things.

What can parents seek from school systems if they think their child has special abilities?

If you’re in a state that has mandated resources for gifted education—and Massachusetts doesn’t—you can have your child tested, and use that as leverage to get whatever the system has available, perhaps an afterschool enrichment program or a gifted and talented program. But beyond that, it’s very difficult.

What can parents do at home to help their children?

Take a family inventory in which you think about the kinds of things you and your partner and other relatives like to do and are good at. The chances are your children will enjoy and be good at the things you and your family love and are good at. If your house is filled with classical music all the time, that’s not trivial; or if it’s filled with rock and roll, that’s not trivial either.

If you’ve done this well and notice things about your child, then you can look for resources in your community—in your school and church and at local colleges—as well as on the Internet.

What if your child doesn’t have the same interests you have?

It may turn out your child has very different gifts and talents than the ones you know and understand and love. You may never have played a game of chess in your life, and think it’s for nerds. Yet your three-year-old is mesmerized by the knight and pawn sitting on the table and can’t take her eyes off them, and moves the pieces around. Don’t ignore it. She’s telling you something. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have a little chess whiz, but you might.

What pitfalls should parents watch out for?

If you’re trying to understand something about your child to learn where to provide more enrichment, or figure out where to go to have your child explore capabilities, that’s one thing.

If you’re in it because you’re looking for ways to give your child an advantage getting into an elite preschool, then that’s really something very different. I’m certainly not judging parents’ goals one way or another, but it makes a huge difference. Parents need to be honest with themselves about why they’re interested in their children’s abilities, and what they as parents are looking for.

What would you like to see parents and schools do to help gifted children?

I believe in seeing how people change and develop over time. I’m interested in every one of us fulfilling our potential. To me, the most important challenge for parents, teachers and caretakers is to have as many opportunities as possible, for as many of us as possible, to fulfill our potential in a socially responsible way.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.