Uncharted Territory: Early Milestones and Educational Planning
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
When parents watch developmental milestones, they usually think about delays. If a baby seems to be on track, or even hits milestones early, parents breathe a sigh of relief. One less thing to worry about… right?
Imagine, for a moment, that parenting books carried the following warning:
If your child reaches milestones significantly ahead of schedule, contact your pediatrician for a referral. Some early milestones may be normal, but they may also be signs of a condition known as “giftedness,” which can cause educational and emotional challenges if not addressed. If identified early, accommodations may increase chances of optimal development, and may decrease risks of negative outcomes.
How might our views of education change?
Not all experts agree on how to define or measure giftedness, but a number of psychologists have studied early signs of advanced development. In Deborah Ruf’s book, 5 Levels of Gifted, characteristics are provided for each level, including some signs thought to be present shortly after birth. For example, before school entry, children in levels two and three were found to demonstrate strong memories, advanced vocabulary, and comprehension significantly ahead of typically developing children (Ruf, D. L., 2009). There is disagreement on the reliability of IQ testing in preschoolers and in diverse populations, but in general, most experts in the field seem to agree that children later identified as gifted demonstrate early signs of advanced, rapid development. Unfortunately, according to child development theories still taught when many classroom teachers received their degrees, toddlers and preschoolers were said to be incapable of grasping some of the advanced concepts now known to be demonstrated by gifted children — and few if any exceptions were noted (example: Berk, L. E., 1989).
Today, for those parents who notice early differences and know what to research, no shortage of material exists. Risks from the fictional warning above are cited in numerous sources. Still, this information does not always reach mainstream books or training for the people on the front lines, often unaware of what they are missing: the majority of parents and teachers.
What happens when young children with unusually advanced cognitive development enter school? Teachers without support and training can have a difficult time keeping these students busy and learning. Some gifted education experts, in fact, consider young gifted children to be a special population needing identification and assistance (Karnes, F. A. & Stephens, K. R., 2008). Meanwhile, parents coping with unusual development and intensity (another characteristic of giftedness) may have already searched frantically through child developmental books, such as this resource (otherwise excellent!), without answers:
one of the author’s oft-used reference books
To further complicate matters, gifted-identified children often exhibit asynchronous development: the same 6-year-old who likes division and reads 4th grade chapter books may struggle with writing. She may also wear out her parents with typical 6-year-old behavior. In school, many gifted children do not thrive when faced with lessons a year or more below their level. At best, they may fail to develop skills needed for future challenges – at worst, they can disengage and develop negative coping strategies, confusing parents and teachers.
Awareness of potential ability/curriculum mismatch can better prepare parents and teachers to find solutions. In states where gifted services can vary significantly between districts or schools, early awareness can help parents make better informed school choices. Since advanced development exists in all populations, and since care must be taken to avoid missed identification in diverse populations, all teachers of young children need awareness to identify needs.
In states with large classes and inadequate school funding, educators must triage. Federal requirements help protect students with identified disabilities, but students with advanced, asynchronous development receive few to no accommodations in some states. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that contrary to popular myth, these students will not “be fine” on their own, and without intervention, face increased risks during their teen years.
The needs of children with all learning differences must be taken seriously. Just as we must provide an environment in which children with disabilities can learn, we need better access to information about preventing typical problems faced by young children with advanced development. Twice-exceptional children have both advanced development and an area of disability, and they suffer when either area is overlooked.
From a parenting perspective, whether a child is exhibiting advanced development or developmental delays, identifying and supporting a child’s unique strengths is critical for self-esteem and motivation.
Looking beyond IQ: how might early identification of additional abilities benefit parents and teachers of all children? Psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences includes strengths in a wide range of areas: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential (Karnes & Stephens, 2008). Parents may discover and develop some talents without having heard of Gardner – and most experts agree that preschool children need play more than anything else – but when children do enter school, better awareness of strengths can help educators keep students engaged.
Children with advanced development are found in all populations, and public school is the only option for many families. For all children to receive a free, appropriate public education, we must embrace differences which can be identified before school entry. To avoid gaps in meeting needs, parents and teachers must know what to watch for, which strategies should be used, what might go wrong, and where to get help. Information about both strengths and needs can be used in supporting and developing the individual abilities of all students, regardless of academic aptitude.
If we can better equip parents and teachers, we can better identify learning differences in all students. When we see the world through the eyes of students — including students with differences — we can better reach and inspire all children.
We are proud this post is part of the Ages and Stages Blog Hop on Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page!
Blog Hop graphic by Pamela S Ryan – click above for more Blog Hop posts!
Author note: This discussion is not in any way intended to make light of struggles faced by parents of children with special needs, the experiences of parents investigating milestone delays, or the continuing need for improvement in services for children with disabilities. My hope is that increasing numbers of advocates for gifted education will include Special Education and learning disabilities in their efforts. Working together, I believe we can improve the education of all children with differences.
Sources and Further Reading
The nonprofit SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) offers publications and brochures designed to raise awareness about advanced development needs. Several are free for download or order, and can be provided to pediatricians or schools: http://sengifted.org/resources/seng-publications
Farmer, D. (1996). Parenting Gifted Preschoolers. Agustega Information Services: Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Retrieved from http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10106.aspx
Francis A. Karnes Center for Gifted Studies (2015). Gifted Preschooler. Retrieved from https://www.usm.edu/karnes-gifted/gifted-preschooler
Gardner, H. (2011). Multiple Intelligences (web). Retrieved from http://howardgardner.com/multiple-intelligences/
Karnes, F. A. and Stephens, K. R. (2008). Achieving Excellence: Educating the Gifted and Talented. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.
Neville, C. S., Piechowsky, M. and Tolan, S. (2013). Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child. Unionville: New York.
Renzulli, J. S. (2002). Giftedness and High School Dropouts: Personal, Family, and School-related Factors. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented: University of Connecticut. Retrieved from http://www.gifted.uconn.edu/nrcgt/reports/rm02168/rm02168.pdf
Ruf, D. L. (2009). 5 Levels of Gifted. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Ruf, D. L. (2009). Preschool Behaviors in Gifted Children. Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented. Retrieved from http://mcgt.net/preschool-behaviors-in-gifted-children
Shelov, S. P. and Altmann, T. R. (2009). Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Fifth Edition. American Academy of Pediatrics: Bantam Books.
Berk, L. E. (1989). Child Development, Fourth Edition. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.