What Does it Mean to Be a Gifted Child?

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When we think of what a gifted child looks like, people like Mozart and Einstein might come to mind. Mozart was a child prodigy, composing music at the age of five and playing for the Viennese Imperial Court at six. At a similar age, Einstein was struggling with speech, language and social issues. His grades were good, though not exceptional, and he disliked school feeling it was too rigid an environment. It wasn’t until Einstein was about 16 years old that he showed his natural abilities in mathematics and science. These two situations illustrate very different ways in which the gifted child experiences and copes with their abilities. 

A gifted child’s natural abilities may take many forms and are not always easy to spot. If your child is gifted, you may notice natural abilities beyond their age in the way they learn and develop. It’s possible for children to be gifted in any area of ability and also in more than one area. Look out for extraordinary natural abilities in intellect, coordination, memory, social/emotional maturity and creativity. Does anyone else in your family exhibit giftedness? It would make sense since this is often genetic. 

How to Identify a Gifted Child

A wide definition of giftedness – covering aspects from cognitive domains and leadership, to music and sports – is typically adopted today. Multiple assessment criteria are employed to better identify and nurture natural abilities, including teacher, parent and peer nominations, behavioural checklists and standardised tests. Parents seeking to have their child formally assessed can approach a child psychologist or The Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE).

Parents and teachers play a critical role in identifying giftedness. While it is a common assumption that every parent believes their child is gifted, the reality is many parents in Hong Kong shy away from vocalising this, perhaps to avoid being seen as boastful or pressuring their child. Professor Ng Tai Kai, former executive director of the HKAGE, emphasises that while there may be some parental bias, this is outweighed by the fact parents know their children best. Parents who suspect their child is gifted should be more proactive in identifying and nurturing their abilities, keeping updated on educational developments, reaching out to relevant organisations and enlisting school support in nominating their child for suitable opportunities. Teachers may also identify giftedness, whether in the classroom or during extra-curricular activities, and can bring this to the attention of the child’s parents and school.

Arunav’s mother first suspected her son was gifted when his teacher mentioned his advanced levels in mathematics and reading – he finished the Harry Potter series by the age of six! As there wasn’t any gifted programme at his school, she didn’t have much information and no clear direction. However, she was also concerned that he had trouble fitting in with his peers, a common issue among gifted children. She approached The Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre for formal assessment, which concluded Arunav was gifted across multiple dimensions. His mother found this very helpful in giving her a better understanding of the challenges Arunav was facing, and the clarity to seek available options.

child doing maths on a school board

School Support

Many schools in Hong Kong do not currently have a gifted programme, in contrast with countries such as Singapore and the US, which have very developed gifted education systems. Hong Kong implements a policy of encouraging mainstream schools to cultivate high ability students through school-based programmes. The idea is to ease the pressure on gifted children and help them adjust socially, by not separating them from their peers. The downside is the gifted child may become bored with the normal school curriculum, leading to behaviour such as apathy, hiding their ability or disciplinary issues in class. Teachers in mainstream schools face the challenge of not only identifying gifted children, but balancing their needs against the majority, particularly given large class sizes and limited resources. While the Education Bureau supports schools in gifted curriculum development and provides teacher training, these are elective and depend upon the individual schools’ and teachers’ initiative.

According to Professor Ng Tai Kai, international schools usually have more flexibility to nurture gifted children, with some offering opportunities such as grade advancement, specialised programmes, a wide range of extra-curricular activities and access to international resources. Mary Ellen Ryan, enrichment specialist at the Hong Kong International Upper Primary School, describes their enrichment programme as a three-tiered approach comprising grade-level work, in-class enrichment and a pull-out programme where students participate in more challenging environments, such as working with older children. While this is more focused on mathematics, writing and reading, students gifted in other fields, such as music, athletics or art, can participate in the many extra-curricular activities and clubs available.

Another example of a mainstream school in Hong Kong with a strong gifted programme is The Harbour School (THS). Christine Greenberg, vice principal of THS explained that with their low student teacher ratio of six to one and specialised learning enhancement coordinators, teachers can offer their gifted students a highly customised educational experience and cater to their individual needs. THS previously piloted a mentorship programme which paired up interested and gifted children with an experienced mentor in their field of interest, from marine biology to architecture.

child playing musical instrument

Overcoming Challenges

Being gifted does not always offer an easy path. Mary Ellen Ryan explains that, from her experience, gifted children tend to be more complicated, defiant or socially uncomfortable with their peers, preferring those on a similar wavelength. Many do not know how to cope with failure and are vulnerable emotionally, although they might appear very mature. The pressure to succeed can be intense and may exacerbate social and personal development issues. It is tremendously helpful if parents are aware of the challenges their child is going through and can provide the necessary support.

In the end, as for all children, the right path for a gifted child is probably the one that leads to their overall happiness and well-being – whether it is seeking the most stimulating environment for them, or simply letting them be children. While Arunav’s family has moved to Singapore, which offers a comprehensive range of gifted educational options, his parents decided to keep him in a mainstream school and focus on his social and personal development for now. His mother explains their decision saying, “As long as he is happy, his gifts will shine.”

When Gifts Become Talents 

When gifted children are developed and nurtured, their gifts become talents. Their natural born abilities can turn into amazing talents with the right guidance and support. If you have gifted children and can give them opportunities, they are likely to develop a talent if they are motivated. 

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