Gifted Tots

Gifted tots develop skills in the same sequence as everyone else, but they do it faster. When the backgrounds of geniuses were examined, one study found that they had begun talking at an average age of nine months! And since that's an average, many began much earlier! Still, many were far less precocious, so even exceptionally late talkers aren't out of the running for a Nobel Prize.

Currently, it is not possible to assess intelligence in toddlers reliably. For older children and adults, genius means performing at an exceptional level in one or more of the following areas:

  • Linguistic intelligence. Exceptional abilities at speaking or writing characterize a genius orator or writer.

  • Logical-mathematical intelligence. Gifted scientists have special abilities to think and reason abstractly.

  • Spatial intelligence. Talented architects, choreographers, and engineers are able to visualize forms and shapes and comprehend spatial relationships.

  • Interpersonal intelligence. The hallmark of great leaders and therapists is their capability to understand and influence people.

  • Intrapersonal intelligence. The uncanny ability of some special people to plummet the depths of their own mind has transformed the world. Metaphysicists like Carl Jung and Jean-Paul Sartre are in this group.

  • Kinesthetic intelligence. Outstanding athletes and dancers possess special physical abilities.

  • Musical intelligence. The special talent of musical geniuses is the ability to tune into subtle nuances of sound and rhythm.

In one study on children ages 2½ to 12½ with IQs at the top of the chart, parents reported the following personality characteristics:

  • 90 percent were described as “sensitive”

  • 83 percent liked to concentrate on one activity at a time

  • 79 percent had high energy or activity levels

  • 50 percent needed less sleep than other children

  • 44 percent were sensitive to clothing tags and other tactile sensations

Some studies have found that gifted children appear to have short attention spans because they become bored so easily. Others have found them to be overly excitable and unusually intense, with greater emotional extremes, including more compassion, sadness, and depression.

More intelligent toddlers are likely to have more frustrations to contend with than other youngsters. Their minds can concoct projects, problems, and solutions, but they are blocked by their physical limitations. For example, they can figure out how to solve a puzzle but lack the motor coordination needed to fit it into the proper place. Or they may have complex ideas to express, but don't have the verbal skills to communicate them.

According to a quotation from writer Pearl S. Buck, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.”

The exquisite sensitivity that enables them to note subtle differences in texture, movement, color, and shape means that what others perceive as a blank wall can appear to them as a vibrant palette. Because they are constantly bombarded with sensory stimuli, they are more stressed. The extreme interpersonal sensitivity causes some tots to tune into other people's feelings. They are aware of hints of criticism and displeasure that other toddlers don't notice.

Ironically, the combination of extreme sensitivity, high energy level, and reduced need for sleep are characteristics of children often diagnosed as “hyperactive.” There may be a lot of very misunderstood toddlers out there!

Gearing Up for Greatness

Programs designed to nurture toddler genius, ranging from the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential headquartered in Pennsylvania to the Yew Chung International Schools in China, are firm that at this stage, the following should occur:

  • Focus on the total child, including emotional, behavioral, and social development.

  • Toddlers should be free to follow their own inclinations by having a range of materials available for them to explore.

  • Toddlers should not be pressed to pursue structured learning activities.

  • Use a loving and nurturing approach when working with toddlers.

  • Participate actively; your role in learning is central.

Giving lessons is often a struggle. The time you both spend trying to get her to pay attention would be better spent if she worked on her own. Teaching children how to do puzzles and solve problems with toys actually inhibits learning, if you think about it. The ability to mimic someone else's solution to a problem doesn't require much intelligence. In-depth, complex, high-power thinking takes place as children struggle to figure things out for themselves. Anyone who says, “She's just playing” doesn't understand how toddlers learn!

Teaching strategies appropriate for older children actually inhibits toddler learning. Toddlers seem to have an innate sense of what they need to learn next; structured learning activities imposed by adults distract them from the work they know they need to do!

Genius Troubles

If your toddler is exceptionally difficult to manage, it could be because he's literally too smart for his britches! An estimated 20–25 percent of gifted children have social and emotional problems — twice the normal rate, according to Ellen Winner, Ph.D.'s article entitled “Uncommon Talents: Gifted Children, Prodigies, and Savants” (Scientific American, February 28, 1999). Meanwhile, for moderately gifted children, the rates of maladjustment were the same as for average children. Similar problems with hyperactivity and attention have been found among highly gifted (IQ from 140 to 154) and learning-disabled boys.

If your child truly is a handful, don't think Ritalin. Think Harvard!

Early Achievement

In this same study, reported characteristics of genius toddlers included:

  • 94 percent were very alert as infants

  • 94 percent had a long attention span as an infant or toddler

  • 91 percent showed early language development

  • 60 percent showed early motor skill development

  • 48.9 percent were ambidextrous at some period of their development

  • 37 percent had imaginary playmates

It's also interesting to note that the age at which mothers of gifted children gave birth was much older than average — 30.8 years. Is that because older moms tend to be more patient and tolerant than younger ones and work with them more? No one knows.

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