No Child Is Just Born Gifted: Creating and Developing Unlimited Potential

Observing what a little child is capable of is always exciting. Many of the limits we thought children had do not seem to be as absolute as we once believed. The more we study children, the more we discover that what is limited are our beliefs, not the children.

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The potential for giftedness or a high level of intellectual development begins very early in a child’s life. Studies since the early 1970s consistently show that such development is the result of an interaction between the child’s genetic endowment and a rich and appropriate environment in which the child grows. No child is born gifted—only with the potential for giftedness. Although all children have amazing potential, only those who are fortunate enough to have opportunities to develop their uniqueness in an environment that responds to their particular patterns and needs will be able to actualize their abilities to high levels. Research in psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and early learning can help parents create responsive environments that allow their children to develop their potential to the fullest—that is, to create giftedness.

Giftedness Is a Changing Concept

Giftedness can now be seen as a biologically rooted label for a high level of intelligence, which indicates an advanced and accelerated development of functions within the brain that allow its more efficient and effective use. While old ideas of intelligence and giftedness generally were limited to analytical and rational thinking, giftedness really includes an interaction of all of the areas of brain function—physical sensing, emotions, cognition, and intuition. Broader concepts of intelligence and giftedness may be expressed through problem solving, creative behavior, academic aptitude, leadership, performance in the visual and performing arts, invention, or a myriad of other human abilities. High intelligence, whether expressed in cognitive abilities such as the capacity to generalize, conceptualize, or reason abstractly, or in specific abilities such as creative behavior, results from the interaction between inherited and acquired characteristics. This interaction encompasses all of the physical, mental, and emotional characteristics of the person and all of the people, events, and objects entering the person’s awareness. Our reality is unique to each of us.

What Is More Important, Nature or Nurture?

An endless interaction between the environment and our genetic framework creates our intelligence, even our perception of reality. This process begins very early, as soon as the fertilized egg attaches to the wall of the uterus. As the cells divide and the fetus begins to grow, the environment already begins to exert a determining influence. One could not say from this interactive point of view which is more important—the inherited abilities or the environmental opportunities to develop them. Restriction on either nature (genes) or nurture (environment) would inhibit the high levels of actualized intellectual ability we call giftedness.

Our genes are not a limit, but provide a rough outline of the possibilities for our life. While genes provide us with our own unique menu, the environment makes the actual selection within that range of choice. Any reference to “high-IQ genes” must be seen as a misnomer because the discernible characteristics of an organism always depend on its particular environmental history.

Environmental interaction with the genetic program of the individual occurs whether planned or left to chance. By conservative estimates, this interaction can result in a 20- to 40-point difference in measured intelligence. Teachers and parents must be aware that how we structure the environment for children changes them neurologically and biologically. Without opportunities for appropriate challenge, talent and ability may be lost. From an overwhelming body of research, we must conclude that the development of intelligence includes both nature and nurture.

Who Are Gifted Learners?

At birth the human brain contains some 100 to 200 billion brain cells. Each neural cell is in place and ready to be developed, ready to be used for actualizing the highest levels of human potential. With a very small number of exceptions, all human infants come equipped with this marvelous complex heritage.

For example, two individuals with approximately the same genetic capacity for developing intelligence could be regarded as potentially gifted or as intellectually disabled as a result of the environment with which they interact. Although we never develop more neural cells, it is estimated that we actually use less than 5 percent of our brain capability. How we use this complex system becomes critical to our development of intelligence and personality and to the very quality of life we experience as we grow. Those who work with gifted children must acquire an understanding of the power of the interaction between the organism and its environment.

When the brain becomes more accelerated and advanced in its function through this interaction, the individual shows characteristics that can be identified with high intelligence. Some of those characteristics can be seen as the direct result of changes in brain structures. These changes continue to occur as long as appropriate stimulation is available. Over and over, brain research points to the dynamic nature of the brain’s growth and the need to challenge the individual at that individual’s level of development for growth to continue. Unchallenged, the individual will lose brain power.

Although each child will express giftedness in his or her unique way, behaviors often observed among these children include intense curiosity, frequent and sophisticated questions, an accelerated pace of thought and learning, complex thinking, often connecting seemingly disparate ideas, persistence in pursuing interests, and early development of language and mathematical skills.

Emotionally gifted children may show a heightened awareness of “being different,” unusual sensitivity to the expressed feelings and problems of others, early concern for global and abstract issues, idealism and concern for fairness and justice, and high expectations for self and others. Gifted children often show an unusual asynchrony or gap between physical and intellectual development and a low tolerance for a lag between personal vision and physical abilities. Most interesting is the gifted child’s early awareness and expression of heightened perceptions, preference for creative solutions and actions over predictable ones, and early use of hunches and best guesses.

The best way to identify high levels of intellectual development, or what we call giftedness, is to observe the child at play in a rich, responsive environment. During the early years, it is important to provide many opportunities for children to interact with interesting, novel, and unusual experiences that allow them to stretch just beyond their current ability level. All children must have experiences at their level of development because it is during early childhood that intelligence is nurtured and giftedness is developed. The most important challenge for teachers at home and at school is to stay just ahead of the child in presenting materials and experiences—not too far ahead and yet not too much repetition. Creating an environment and experiences that respond to the child with an appropriate balance of the familiar and new is the best way to provide for optimal development.

Provide for Early Learning

Parents are their children’s first teachers, and they need to provide a rich, responsive environment and guidance based on the unique needs and interests of their children. You will be most effective when you create the appropriate emotional and social climate and are sensitive to your infant’s unique personality and development. Allow your child to dictate when and how long an activity lasts. By adding ideas and enthusiasm, parents introduce the world of learning to their child in exciting and pleasurable ways. Love of learning and discovery is a deep motivation for every child; all the parents need to do is encourage and respond.

The Importance of Parenting

Families have long-term effects on their children in many ways. They create the attitudes and expectations that allow high levels of development. Some of the most important parenting factors are articulating your beliefs about success and failure and your aspirations and expectations for achievement, teaching and modeling strategies for self-control and responsibility, providing a variety of language opportunities, and developing a close family environment.

As gifted children grow, they will require more complexity and more opportunities to nurture their rapidly expanding and curious minds. The following are a few activities parents can provide from kindergarten throughout their child’s school life:

  • Give your child access to new ideas and information by including him or her in discussions at dinner and during family conversations.
  • Research ideas together; show your child how you gather information for your work and personal interests.
  • Share your enthusiasms with your child.
  • Provide choices and alternatives as much as possible and include your child in decision making whenever appropriate. As soon as children can understand the consequences of an action, they should be part of the decision.
  • Model clear and open communication principles such as not blaming others, making expectations known, and identifying and speaking from one’s own beliefs while accepting the beliefs of others. Help your child use these principles in communicating.
  • See and use problems as opportunities for learning, and help your child do this in his or her life.
  • Reduce tension for your child, as gifted children are known to put excessive pressure on themselves to achieve or to be “perfect” in what they attempt. Share your strategies for accepting less than perfection in yourself. Also, have flexible rules that change appropriately and with discussion, share the establishment of guidelines and goals, and acknowledge and point out strengths, as well as areas in need of development.
  • Acknowledge your child’s accomplishments even though everyone may expect him or her to do well.
  • Help your child understand what giftedness is and the implications of this level of brain growth, including the responsibilities your child has to help nurture this dynamic process.
  • Provide a safe place for your child to discuss problems. Listen without judgment as your child explores his or her feelings and possible solutions. There are many people who will not understand gifted children’s intensity and the needs that relate to their advanced and accelerated brain processes. Your home may at times be the only place your child feels protected.
  • Mostly, just enjoy living with your gifted child. Although it is a never-ending challenge, it is an unbelievable joy!

The newborn child is amazingly competent and able to learn. With love and careful attention, parents and teachers can provide the opportunities to optimize every child’s potential and realize each child’s giftedness. No child is just born gifted.

Barbara Clark is a past-president of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).This piece is an excerpt from Parenting Gifted Children

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and on Fordham's Flypaper