Category Archives: gifted children

Why Gifted Preschoolers Should Be Taught Handwriting Early (And With The Best Strategies!)

 

 

guillaume-de-germain-329206Gifted children are identified by their asynchronous development.   The three year-old that can read, the two year-old that can play a song on the piano after hearing it once at music class, the four year-old that can complete his sister’s math homework…from second grade! These children have one or more advanced areas of skill that classify them as gifted.  One of the skills that rarely emerges early and advanced in the gifted population is handwriting.  More often, gifted children have problems with handwriting. Some are just sloppy, some produce illegible products even after trying their best.

A few theories exist to explain this phenomenon:  gifted children are more concerned with expression and ignore handwriting lessons, their typical motor development doesn’t keep up with their advanced cognitive skill progression and they give up, or perhaps a gifted student with poor handwriting has an undiagnosed motor and learning disabilities.

I am going to suggest an additional explanation:  gifted children are not given effective early pre-writing instruction and are often taught to write using strategies that create confusion, boredom or frustration, turning a fast learner into an underachiever.  Gifted kids like novelty, complexity and intensity.  Tracing a dotted-line “A” over and over isn’t any of those things.  Gifted children often remain so focused on their passions that it is easier to let them go and shine in their chosen areas than to make handwriting fun and appealing.

Yes, it is true that children with advanced cognitive skills could have average or below-average motor skills that don’t allow them to independently write a complex original story.  Writing details down may take too long for their quick minds, or they need to use letters they don’t yet have the skills to execute.  A child with an amazing imagination and vocabulary may find standard writing drills dull in comparison to the creative process.  Gifted children may even be averse to the unavoidable failure inherent in practice that leads to mastery.

What can be done?

  • Good pre-writing instruction is essential to build the foundational motor control and spatial skills.  This includes teaching grasp rather than waiting for it to develop, purposely building two-handed coordination and drawing into play,  and using other pre-writing tasks such as mazes, puzzles and tracing/dot-to-dot (not for letters, for drawing).  See Why Dot-To-Dot Letter Practice Slows Down Writing Speed and Legibility to understand why dots aren’t a great strategy for any child.  Learning to draw balloons, birthday cakes and Christmas trees is fun.  It is also a great way to practice writing the curves and intersecting angles that letters require.
  • Use multi-sensory, multi-media methods to develop pre-writing and handwriting skills.  Many gifted children love sensory-based experiences.  Their natural drive for intensity and complexity can be satisfied when letters are made from pretzel sticks or Play-Dough.
  • Create a fun, open environment for learning, in which challenge is expected and success is both celebrated and beside the point.  If children are taught that they are expected to know all the answers since they are gifted, exploration can be suppressed.  If they learn that failure is anticipated and shame-free, it allows them to try again and invent solutions to the problems they face.
  • Harness the skills a gifted child possesses to advance their handwriting development.  Children that have great spatial awareness notice letter formation similarities and proportion rules.  They transform an “F” into an “E” and chop two vertical lines in half to make an “H”.  Children in love with language can use fun mnemonic devices or little “stories” that help them form letters correctly.  When the letter “S” starts as a mini “C” and then “turns around and goes back home” they remember the formation of this tricky letter more easily than copying or tracing alone.

As an occupational therapist, I use the Learning Without Tears program (formerly Handwriting Without Tears).  The materials are high-quality, the learning progression is developmental and builds one skill on top of the previous skill, and the early levels are more sensory-based than most writing programs.  See Can HWT’s Flip Crayons Transform Pencil Grasp in Preschoolers? and Why Do You Start (Uppercase) Letters at the Top? Speed and Accuracy for some HWT strategies that really work.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, or if you teach gifted preschoolers, please share your best strategies to support handwriting here.!!!

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Holidays Hints For Sensitive Kids

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The stores are full, your inbox is too, and you are wondering how to handle your sensitive child’s reactions to family and school events.  You are not alone.

Everyone knows about the “holiday blues”, where our dreams and expectations come up against real life:  awkward family relationships, conflicting demands on our time and finances, etc.  But for kids with sensory and emotional sensitivity (I don’t see these as always separate issues, by the way), surviving the holiday season can be very difficult indeed.  The excitement and the novelty of the holidays affect them more intensely and are not always welcome additions to their days.   Here are some suggestions to make things better:

  • Think about an event before you commit to it.  The hour of the day, the size and the activity, the duration of the event are all considerations.  You know your child, so you can identify what factors will be the most challenging and what will be easier to handle.  In general, sensitive kids do best with smaller, shorter, quieter and earlier events.
  • Create your own event around your child, and invite others to join in.  When you get to design it, you have more control over how things play out.  Some suggestions would be cookie decorating, visiting a nursery or outdoor holiday display, making wrapping paper with crayons and stickers, and watching a holiday video party.
  • Get your sensory diet activities all set up for an event that you can’t or won’t cancel. Your OT should be able to help you craft a plan to reduce your child’s overall sensitivity with input such as deep pressure, breath control, tactile input, etc.  Just ask.  Most of us would be happy to help you.
  • Do not forget the basics of keeping any child calm at an event:  enough sleep, enough to eat and drink, and being healthy enough to participate.  If your child is ill, tired, or hungry, you need to think carefully about how well he will manage, and make the decision to cancel or alter your plans.   Sometimes the situation isn’t going to be fixed with a few bounces on a therapy ball and some joint compression.  In these situations, your child isn’t any different from any other child.

 

If you are looking for ideas about how to decrease sensitivity, take a look at How to Help Sensitive Kids Handle Greeting People (Including Their Own Parents!) and Sensory Sensitivity In Toddlers: Why Responding Differently to “Yucky!” Will Help Your Child

Holidays can be fun for everyone, including sensitive children.  Plan well, be flexible, and make thoughtful choices that work for your family!

OT and Non-Disabled Gifted Children

I was asked to write another guest post for Therapro, the fantastic OT equipment and materials company that I have been using for clinic and home items for years.  This time the subject is gifted children:  Do Gifted But Non-Disabled Children Need Occupational Therapy?.

The first time you encounter a young gifted child, you may not know that their advanced skills could be contributing to their behavior.  Giftedness is more than advanced intellectual ability, it is a whole-brain difference.  The fMRI studies done in the last decades have proved that to be true.  Gifted kids can have sensory and behavioral responses that suggest they have ADHD, oppositional disorder, or sensory processing disorder.  Some are conclusively “twice-exceptional” , but many are just responding to a brain that is wired for intense and complex interactions.  Schools are geared to routines and benchmarks.  Let the problems commence!

Occupational therapy has always been focused on helping people achieve their best lives.  Having abilities that are on the far sides of any bell curve can make life harder, so my take is that occupational therapists can be helpful to kids that are struggling because of their talents and gifts, not just due to delays and deficits.

Read my post, then tell me about your gifted child, or the gifted children that you have seen as a therapist or teacher.  They really are interesting kids in so many ways!

Gifted Or Disordered? The Unrecognized Behavioral Traits of Young Gifted Children

 

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Here is a short list of many common behavioral characteristics of gifted children:

  1. Spontaneous. 
  2. Boundless enthusiasm.
  3. Intense focus on passions.  
  4. Highly energetic.  This is the child who doesn’t seem to need as much sleep or downtime as peers.
  5. Constantly asking questions.  Constantly.
  6. Insatiably curious.  Everything is interesting, all the time.
  7. Impulsive, eager and spirited.  Novelty is a total turn-on, not to be feared.
  8. Persistent and goal-directed in areas that are important to them.
  9. Very easily frustrated, especially when they are unable to meet their own standards.
  10. Volatile temper when perceiving that they have failed.
  11. Chatty; absolutely a non-stop talker.

So…now are you excited to parent a gifted child, or to have one in your class or in your therapy clinic?  Or are you thinking “This sounds more like a child with learning problems, not gifts, and it sounds even be more like a child with autism”.    Or even “Children like these could be really annoying”.  Well, you aren’t alone.  Many of these characteristics exhaust adults, and create difficulties when gifted children try to navigate the world of typical kids and adults.  They may be 5-10% of the population, but they can be the source of 80% of the excitement in your home, class or clinic.  And they are often misdiagnosed as troubled rather than talented, just based on their behavior.

Welcome to the world of the gifted and those who interact with them.  It isn’t all sparkling conversation and shining rows of chess/debate medals.  Gifted children that have many or most of these characteristics may also be amazingly sensitive to others, the world around them, and to their own inner experiences.  That combination of behavior and sensitivity makes for some intense and often exhausting interactions that others find irritating or worse.   It really is the gift that keeps on giving.  And we aren’t even talking about the twice exceptional children. These children have diagnosable difficulties with learning, behavior, movement and sensory processing in addition to their gifted qualities.  They often wait years before clinicians parse out which is which.

So how could you know if the child in front of you is actually gifted, other than a psychologist’s tests?  And even if you know you have a certified smartypants, how can you determine whether their behavior is typical for gifted people or a sign of a disorder?  The answer could be to assess the quality of their behavior while looking at the level of cognition, the complexity of the conversation and the emotional depth and intensity of the interaction when compared to their age.

A three-year old that can eagerly exchange ideas regarding how tornados differ from hurricanes in their potential for damage and their source of power for 10 minutes is exhibiting a level of comprehension, intensity, curiosity, persistence and enthusiasm that you don’t typically see in this age group.   His ability to string together concepts, retain and analyze information,  respond to your own perspective and tune into your emotional tone during the discussion gives you clues that this is a gifted child, not a child with attention issues or autism.

A five year-old that paints and re-paints a picture until the colors and shapes express exactly how happy she was at the zoo may also be showing you some of these characteristics.   Her frustrated insistence on a complete representation of form and emotion, as well as her unique use of media are telling you a lot about her talents.  If you are amazed that all this focus doesn’t tire her out but energizes her more; there’s another clue.  The depth of her joy she has while creating or when opening a box of new pastels, like Christmas has come again, is another hint that she may be gifted.

When a child’s asynchronous development gets in the way, a gifted child can struggle.  Most gifted children aren’t gifted in every area of development, so a gifted artist may not be able to physically draw what she sees in her mind, a gifted writer may not be able to write his book legibly at 6, and a gifted athlete may not be able to handle her team losing.  That is where wise adults can provide strong support and education in managing their talents and explaining their struggles to gifted children.

I am frequently asked as an OT for ideas on how to manage gifted toddlers in class and at home, and I wrote a short post earlier this year in response Gifted at Preschool: How to Support The Young Gifted Child In Class.  For suggestions on how to make life easier at home, my suggestions focus more on building sensory and emotional tolerance for kids, and teaching self-awareness and self-calming skills.

If your child receives OT for any reason, this may be a place to start.  Check out this post for more information:  How Occupational Therapy Can Help Gifted Children (And Their Exhausted Parents!)  Occupational therapists that can see the difference between gifted traits and symptoms of an attentional or learning disorder can help parents on this amazing journey of discovery with their gifted child.

Is Your Gifted Child Is A Perfectionist?

 

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Do you know a child who is always trying to get to “perfect”?  Being called a perfectionist is almost universally a criticism in our society.  It doesn’t have to be.  Some kids that are reaching for the ultimate aren’t unnecessarily stressing them selves out.  They may gifted.

The gifted child is capable of seeing what others do not.  They envision a wider and deeper experience, a more complete artistic expression, a better-turned phrase.  And they demand a chance to achieve it.  In this way, perfecting their performance or product isn’t psychological struggle, it is accomplishing what they can imagine.

A gifted child may not beat himself up for not immediately achieving his vision, but he may not leave well enough alone.  He may not have to.  Given the chance, he may work happily on his project for hours or days or even months, not really minding the process that requires failures and one-offs.  This should give you a clue to the source of your child’s persistence;  the gifted enjoy the process as much as the product.  This is very different from the child who tears up a picture in frustration.  There are no tears from a gifted child, but there may not be any negotiation.  They cannot leave their work in it’s current state, knowing that a better outcome is right around the corner.

What if the picture or term paper is due on Tuesday?

Give your gifted child the gift of understanding and teach them that deadlines also have value.  Living in our society requires the gifted child to bend to fit, but not break.  They can continue to work on their project when it is returned to them, or they can accept that reaching the perfect state the they see is something that doesn’t happen with every endeavor.

Let them enjoy the creative process, as this is the true joy for them.  Gifted children need your help to learn how to navigate the wider world, where often their modest efforts are celebrated.  They know that they can do more, but if they can shift off of a demand for perfection in some things, they can reach the heights of their abilities in other experiences.

Gifted at Preschool: How to Support The Young Gifted Child In Class

 

leo-rivas-micoud-30808Gifted children often cannot wait to go to preschool.  They may follow an older sibling into their classroom and cry when they have to leave.  After all, look at all those books, art supplies, and science stations to explore!   Things can go right off the rails, however, if the teacher and the classroom aren’t prepared for everything a gifted child brings with them.  And I don’t mean the lunchbox or the fidget spinner!

Gifted children are more intense, use more complex thinking, and more driven than other children.  Even at the preschool level.  This is a child who may teach himself to read, tells wonderful stories, creates wonderful multi-media art, and practices kicking a soccer ball into a goal until it is too dark to see the ball.  At 3.  It can also make a child argue about school routines,  insist on changing the rules of every game, and constantly discuss and examine every item in the room.  Imagine the average teacher’s reaction when a gifted toddler wants to grab the story book from the teacher at circle time to determine exactly which type of dinosaur is displayed.  Is that a T-Rex, a brontosaurus, or a brachiosaurus?  She can pronounce their names and knows the difference at 2, and she wants to figure this out, while her classmates are making growling sounds or picking their noses!

Here are some suggestions for teachers to understand and manage the behavior of their gifted students without crushing their spirits or allowing them to run the classroom:

  • Learn about the child’s gifts.  Knowing who you have, who you really have in your classroom: it will help you make a plan.  What they like, what they love, and what frustrates them.  This doesn’t mean that you focus the class on them, but you know that a module on space will elicit a lot of interest, and a module on the color red will not.  Unless you talk about the red planet, Jupiter.
  • Learn about the multiple sensitivities of gifted individuals.  They are not limited to intellectual gifts.  They can include physical sensitivity, emotional sensitivity, and even spiritual sensitivity.  Some will be easier to deal with than others.  But you want to teach the whole child, right?  That way, you see a three year-old’s intense need for movement throughout the day or wanting to have a formal ceremony for the recently deceased goldfish as normal, not perverse.
  • Explain the rules, negotiate the deal when possible, and acknowledge the frustration of things that seem unfair or arbitrary.  Helping gifted individuals fit into a society that says it loves giftedness but really supports conformity, without crushing their spirit, is tricky.  You can help.  Bring their awareness to the fact that controlling the game and telling people what to do and how to do it makes other children less likely to want to play.  This is real teaching.  Even if their new rules for Candyland are truly innovative.  Take a look at Gifted Or Disordered? The Unrecognized Behavioral Traits of Young Gifted Children for more on the real behavior differences in gifted children.
  • Don’t forget handwriting!  Many gifted children want or need more opportunities to learn to write.  But they need you to understand what makes handwriting interesting and rewarding to gifted children.  For more on this subject, check out Why Gifted Preschoolers Should Be Taught Handwriting Early (And With The Best Strategies!).
  • Offer real enrichment, not busywork or babysitting.  I have heard stories from parents of teachers who tell gifted children to read to their classmates, or tell them to “teach” their friends about shapes.  This alters the relationships between classmates and is not a good idea.  These kids are going to be singled out soon enough as different.  Build friendships, not mentorships.  More worksheets that they can race through isn’t better.  Find worksheets that challenge them, even if you have to look at kindergarten or first grade materials.  Better yet, make your own, following their interests.  You will be rewarded by a child that loves school and knows they are truly seen as an individual!

 

Sensitivity and Gifted Children: The Mind That Floods With Feeling

 

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Gifted children are often the most emotional and empathic toddlers in the room.  They are the kids who cry when the ASPCA runs those tearjerker commercials.   They are the teens who want to develop an NGO to provide clean water in developing countries.  Gifted children don’t do this to get a boost on a college application, but because it physically hurts them to think of another’s suffering.  Your gifted child’s mind cannot help but to feel strongly and care deeply.

How can you help your child navigate these feelings without crushing their altruism and energy? The first step in helping these children to handle their sensitive social and emotional nature starts with adults understanding that this isn’t a personality quirk; it’s a neurological bias that accompanies an impressively active and intense brain that doesn’t “turn off”.

Sensory Sensitivity, Autism, and Gifted Sensitivity
When OTs usually refer to sensitivity, we usually speak about the physical sensitivity that our clients may experience.  We know that sensory sensitivity can lead to avoidance of sensory input and poor modulation of arousal.  The poor modulator is the child who has a hard time staying in an optimal state of calm, struggling to focus attention on accomplishing their daily activities.  This can be true with gifted children, but is not always a feature of giftedness.

We also know that children with ASD find it difficult to connect with another’s emotional experience due to their neurological wiring.  It is not that they choose to misinterpret other’s emotions.  They may long to know what others are thinking and what to do and say in interpersonal relationships.  Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison have written about their difficulties and discomfort in understanding how friends and family feel.

The gifted client is swimming at the other end of this pool:  they have profound emotional connections to people (and sometimes feelings for objects as well!),  even strong connections with the imagined emotional experiences of strangers!  Again, this is not just their temperament or their personality; the emotional flood is coming from their brain wiring that generates deep connections between profound concepts and expansive comprehension of situations. Gifted kids see very clearly how the human race is all one, how affecting a part results in affecting the whole, etc. It can be overwhelming for them to know this at 4. Or 14. Gifted children are not little adults, even when testing indicates amazingly advanced mental abilities. Their asynchronous development means that they may understand concepts but still cry when they lose a game. They are still children.

There is some science behind the idea that gifted children are emotionally advanced as well as academically advanced.  Researchers on giftedness are eager to display their fMRI views of the gifted brain as it thinks, showing it humming along at warp speed, lighting up like a Christmas tree in areas that are mostly quiet for other people.  I would guess that those mirror neurons (proposed to support empathy and interpersonal skills) that seem inactive in ASD are probably switched on 24/7 in gifted individuals.

Parents get their first taste of this quality when they see how attuned their baby is to their speech and their movements.  “She would just watch our faces all day long!” is a familiar report when asked about early development.  Toddlers begin to be aware of their own emotions and the emotions of others, and the gifted toddler can be quite a handful as she sorts this out. The gifted child may want to volunteer, may become upset when reading news stories, and may insist that the family participate in activities for social causes. On the other hand, a gifted child may become sad and overwhelmed by situations that other children are unable to comprehend. It can lead to feelings of powerlessness and anger when the adults in their world don’t respond in kind or disregard their concerns.

My message to parents and teachers of gifted children, and those who work with children showing strong emotions and advanced skills without a gifted label is to consider that the strong reactions that you see may be a brain effect, not a personality defect. Your next step: supporting a child to handle the flood of emotion, and help them channel their feelings into productive actions and interactions that build social skills, not isolation and a negative self-image.
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