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Who are young gifted children?

Gifted children reflect our human diversity. They represent all socioeconomic and ethnic groups, all genders and family structures. They may have parents who are highly educated or with little formal education. They may have challenges and delays in addition to their intellectual gifts.

Gifted children differ in their temperaments, learning styles, interests and abilities, yet they do share some characteristics and needs that differ from the norm.

Characteristics of Young Gifted Children

“Gifted preschool children tend to initiate their own learning.”  

Deborah Ruf, Ph.D., author of Five Levels of Gifted

A gifted child younger than age 3 may demonstrate:

  • Unusual alertness and activity

  • Less need for sleep during infancy than average babies

  • Intense reactions to sensory input

  • The need for seemingly constant stimulation and interaction

  • Early developmental skills, speech and/or reading


A gifted child between the ages of 3 and 5 may demonstrate:

  • Excellent memory and an ability to learn quickly

  • Advanced vocabulary and use of language

  • Early interest in reading

  • Intense curiosity and observation

  • Vivid imagination (for example, having highly developed imaginary friends)

  • Creativity, originality, and a willingness to challenge conventions

  • Ability to solve problems in unique ways

  • Long attention span for self-directed activities

  • Enjoyment of complex tasks, puzzles, mazes and games

  • Pondering abstract ideas

  • Mature sense of humor

  • Enjoyment of independent play, exploration and experiments

  • Preference for friends who are older

  • Emotional intensity and strong reactions to frustration

  • High levels of sensitivity, compassion and a concern for justice

Unique Needs of Young Gifted Children

You may find that your highly capable preschooler acts: 

four years old when playing catch, seven years old when reading,

ten when putting a puzzle together, fifteen when thinking about what is fair,

and two when it’s time to put away toys

Very few gifted children are gifted in every cognitive area, let alone every cognitive, physical, social, and emotional area.  These children are advanced in some areas, wonderfully average in others, and maybe even delayed in some ways.  In gifted education, we use the word asynchronous to describe this uneven development.

Intellectual Needs

Highly capable preschoolers need to be supported in their unique interests, abilities and potential, which differ from other children their age. Children with high cognitive abilities are able to move beyond traditional preschool programs because they can:

  • Make leaps in reasoning, taking them far beyond the step-by-step approach to learning needed by most three and four year olds

  • Delve more deeply into subjects

  • Work on projects for longer periods of time

  • Learn with less repetition

  • Enjoy more complex problems and activities

  • Quickly master the content of traditional preschool

  • Create work that is meaningful to them when pursuing their own interests

  • Enjoy games, books and activities designed for older children


Physical Needs

Highly capable children are often highly sensory-driven and quite energetic. Although they might be cognitively ready for academics designed for older children their bodies aren’t ready for a sit-still program. Their ideas often outstrip their fine motor skills, and they need help writing down their amazing stories and project ideas. Occasionally gifted children become so immersed in activities such as reading or building with Legos that they need adult guidance to get the exercise (or bathroom break) their bodies need.

Social Needs

Bright preschoolers need the companionship and acceptance of peers who share their advanced vocabulary, reasoning skills and unique interests. They need a place to “fit in” and relate to intellectual peers, in addition to enjoying out-of-school playtimes and activities with friends of all ages and abilities.  They need teachers who provide gentle, immediate social coaching to help them grow in friendship skills.

Emotional Needs

High ability preschoolers need to be allowed to “be children.” They also need to move at their own pace and not be held back by traditional ideas of what preschoolers are able to think and do. Without that freedom these children can feel frustrated and might either act out or conform to lower-ability expectations.

Highly capable children are often emotionally intense and refreshingly nonconformist, challenging the status quo. They need teachers who enjoy their original views and imaginative activities (which often involve making messes), teachers who encourage them to “march to a different drummer.”

Why is Gifted Education Needed?

“Children show the signs of giftedness or advanced development early in life,

but whether those gifts flower into high achievements in adult life

is dependent upon the nurturance they receive from their environment.” 

Karen Rogers, Ph.D., Professor Emerita in Gifted Studies

and Linda Silverman, Ph.D., Founder of the Gifted Development Center


According to gifted educator Louise Porter, the benefits of special preschool programs for young gifted learners include:

  • Having experienced teachers who can identify and support the individual education needs of gifted preschoolers and document their abilities

  • Providing opportunities for parents to share the experience of raising intellectually advanced preschoolers

  • Allowing highly capable children time to work and play together with shared abilities and interests


Preschool programs with a focus on young gifted children allow them to develop joy in learning and going to school because their first classroom experience nurtures their unique abilities. Read about Bellevue Discovery’s preschool here.


As children continue with their schooling, they enter a system in the U.S. (and many other countries) that uses a child’s age to determine the kind of challenge they will need.  Regular classrooms are designed to challenge the majority of children in an age group.  For some children that level of challenge is too high, and they will receive special education services.

For other children those age-based expectations are too low – they walk through the schoolhouse door already knowing 50% to 90% of that year’s curriculum.  Gifted programs are designed (ideally) to provide the acceleration, depth and complexity these children need.

There are several known benefits of gifted programs – public or independent:

  • Having true peers:  intellectual and age peers who have similar interests, intensities, vocabularies, and abilities

  • Having the chance to feel normal in a group of one’s peers

  • Having teachers who are exposed to lots of gifted children, and often trained in the latest gifted education research

  • Having the chance to not always be the best – it’s so important that highly capable children learn to work hard to meet challenges

  • For parents, meeting other families who share similar joys and challenges, and who don’t have to hide from each other what their children are doing


“The creation of an environment that is rich in opportunities 

and responsive to the abilities and interests of the child

 is the best way to nurture giftedness.”  

Barbara Clark, author of Growing Up Gifted

IQ Testing

“Testing is never warranted unless it will make a difference in a student’s life.”  

Dr. Nancy Robinson


Bellevue Discovery Preschool does not require IQ testing.  According to the National Association for Gifted Children, testing is not reliable or advisable for preschoolers.

Bellevue Discovery alumni families have worked with many local IQ Testers. If IQ testing is required by an independent school you think would be a good fit for your child, we have some recommendations based on our families’ experiences:

  • Choose a tester recommended by the school to which you might apply. If you are interested in more than one school that requires IQ testing try to find a tester recommended by all of the schools. Look at the admissions section at each school’s website to see if they have a testing referrals list.

  • Interview the tester by phone. What will the testing be like? How much will it cost? Describe your child and ask how the tester would work with a child who is introverted, active, slow-to-warm-up, or however you would describe your child.

  • Schedule your child’s testing for November or December. A late fall appointment gives your child time to mature, and gives you time to reschedule in early January if needed due to those pesky winter colds. Most independent school applications are due in January or February.


About IQ Testing

Intelligence testing was first developed around the turn of the last century. It was misused in earlier years to place culturally diverse kids in special education programs. In the past quarter century there has been considerable effort to make the tests less culture-bound. IQ testing is still the most common method used to determine which children are most likely to need more advanced curriculum than that of a regular classroom.

Often bright young children love being tested:  it is challenging, and they love challenges. They also enjoy one-on-one attention from an adult who is fascinated with them.

IQ testing misses some children who should qualify for gifted programs – if the child can’t sit still, relate to a strange adult, respond quickly, stay focused for more than an hour, etc. Sometimes a young child can’t quite make it through testing. Most schools want you to wait a year before retesting.

IQ testing is conducted one-on-one with a trained psychologist. Children are tested in several ability areas, such as verbal, visual spatial, symbols and general knowledge, with credit sometimes given for divergent thinking and unique problem solving. Testers can ask a follow-up question when a child gives an unexpected answer to determine if the answer is brilliant or misguided. IQ testing takes from one to two hours. Children are compared with a national sample of children who are their age, down to the month – so the record keeping will list “5 years, 1 month” and the score results would be different if the child were 5 years, 11 months.

After a week or so to analyze test results, the tester will meet with the child’s parents to review the results and make recommendations based on the child’s strengths and challenges. IQ testing will not merely provide parents with a number. If done well it will help parents know more about their child’s learning style and which kind of school programs will best be able to support their child’s learning. IQ testing costs between $300 and $600 dollars and is required by most independent schools which specialize in teaching gifted children.

There is no way to “prep” a child for IQ testing, other than by doing the things that make you a good parent (read with your child, play with your child, talk with your child). Testers keep an eye out for kids who seem to be prepped. You can find products for sale alleging they will “Prep Your Child for an IQ Test,” but they are not likely to enrich your child’s learning and could disqualify your child from testing if the tester thinks your child is cheating.

Public School Testing for Gifted Programs

Public schools need a formal way to assess children’s differences from the norm: which children truly need an accelerated curriculum? Public gifted programs ask for parent input along with input from the regular classroom teacher. But since that data is subjective – how does one determine if a child is intensely curious? – schools use testing. Independent schools use IQ testing; public schools primarily use achievement testing, although they may call it IQ testing. Achievement testing looks at what a child knows: basic academic skills and facts. IQ testing looks at how a child learns: problem solving, creative thinking, language use and perception.

Public schools provided IQ testing in the past but IQ testing is expensive and labor intense since it must be conducted one-on-one by psychologists or other highly qualified professionals. Most public schools now use the COGAT (Cognitive Achievement Test). Unlike an IQ test the COGAT focuses on convergent thinking and giving correct answers to multiple-choice questions.

The COGAT was designed to be a screening test given to all of the children in a school, with individual IQ tests given to the top 15 percent of the children who took the COGAT. Today most public schools can’t afford to do individual testing and are limited to group testing. The COGAT is normed against grade levels, not ages. A child who is 5 years, 6 months, is given the same test as a child who is 6 years, 5 months, if they are both in kindergarten.

The COGAT can be administered by school employees in a group setting, such as a school cafeteria. Typically children are seated with their grade level, handed booklets and pencils, and given directions. Teachers may read the test questions out loud for the lowest grades and call out other group instructions. Children cannot be given individual assistance, such as a rereading of the question if they couldn’t hear it the first time. Children who do well on the COGAT are able to sit still for a long period of time and tune out other distractions. They are able to give standard answers to questions, not creative or divergent answers. The COGAT is good at predicting which children will succeed in public school gifted programs.

School districts vary on whether they will allow outside testing (achievement or IQ) in lieu of the standard COGAT testing. Contact your public school district for more information about its gifted program (which may be called an accelerated, advanced, talented or enrichment program on the school’s website).

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