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Acting Up and the Gifted Pre-schooler

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: Is my 3.5 year old daughter average, bright or gifted and could her acting up be due to not being challenged enough?

Several family members, teachers, and friends have commented on how bright our daughter is. She has an advanced vocabulary, was quite physically agile and active at an early age, learned the entire alphabet by age 2 and their sounds by age 3, can count to at least 30 or more (counts to 20 in Spanish), reads three and four letter words and short sentences without us reading any words to her but seems to get bored easily reading her BOBS BOOKS FIRST series that we bought for her four days ago, is bilingual, knew all of her colors shortly after turning 2, knows the concept of death and time (does not know how to tell it yet but understands that the long hand/short hand basics and when "quiet time" is over by watching the hands move around one hour), initiates socializes with adults, children old and young-goes up to anyone, introduces herself, asks their name and begins a conversation, then leads the person(s) in activities and play. She is showing a sense of humor and giggles at comments she makes or laughs at something funny I do or say. She observes something being taught and learns it virtually instantly (e.g. watched the Leap Frog letter Factory once and missed two letter sounds when tested randomly on all letters-got every one the second time around and hasn't missed any since).

Her father has never been tested but read the newspaper at age 4, created and lock code pad during his pre-teen years, for the door to his room, and was awarded an honorable science prize from an engineering firm at age 15 for inventing a robot that danced to Mozart. He also worked for British Aerospace while earning a dual Masters in Physics and Electronic Engineering of which he got perfect scores. I, on the other hand, have been tested and was labeled learning disabled in the mid 80's but specifically remember the psychiatrist's astonishment when I repeated a series of numbers during a certain part of the test-he said that in the 20 years testing hundreds of individuals he had never had anyone come close to what I had achieved. I scored high and average in some areas and below average in other such as reading comprehension and short term memory, go figure.

Our daughter used to be a very cheerful, animated-more than one teacher described her as "highly spirited", and self-motivated child and when an infant began to initiate potty training at 18 months. I have had 2 children since then and she & I clashed at times so we placed her in preschool two half days a week at 2.5 years. Since then, she has become rebellious (deliberately does something immediately when asked not to) and a bit aggressive in facial expression and growls in frustration. Her potty training regresses more some days than others (she goes to the same spot to urinate or makes it a point to tell us that she has relieved herself-she holds her stool in). I know the teachers were patient with her and she only had a few accidents at school (for holding in her stool-I used to do this when in school too. She was little miss popularity in class according to the teachers.

I read two to three books to her each day at bedtime and we play educational games online daily together (, Sesame Street, Scholastic, etc.) but I am so worn and sometimes grumpy each day from taking care of my 14 month old, 2.5,3.5 yr. old, and husband that I'm afraid my daughter is acting up.

I also want to know if she may be gifted to be able to find the appropriate school to nurture her abilities and skills - I'm leery about sending her to public school here in Florida and I'm not thrilled to dish out a few hundred dollars for testing yet. I called the local public school for the gifted in Sarasota, Florida but you have to live in Sarasota County to be able to attend(4 miles from our county line). I called the School Board for information but they said that they only test for disabilities. I asked a counselor about my daughter's behavior and she gave me general info on toddler behavior. Can you give me some insight PLEASE? Thank you.

A: A gifted child who is acting up may be unchallenged, among many other factors. From what you had described, your daughter has certainly shown early signs of giftedness. It is also true that genes play a part in the level of intelligence of a child; hence with what you have mentioned about yourself and your husband, it is not surprising that your daughter is highly able.

A change in behavior is very common for young children, gifted or not, so there is no reason to be alarmed. If this change in her behavior is gradual, it can well be due to her growing years and would wear off gradually as well. If the change is sudden, then you may want to look back and see what may have caused the change. Perhaps, reduced attention may be the root of the problem.

Being the first child, she must have had a lot of attention for a whole year until the second one came along, and especially when the third sibling arrived, obviously you had to divide the attention among the three. Gifted children are usually more sensitive to such changes and this may be the case with your girl. She may not be able to understand why the attention on her has reduced and this is quite normal among gifted children with younger siblings. 

The fact that you have to care for them all including your husband may have taken a toll on your health, making you tired and not surprisingly grumpy and frustrated when one child acts up. You may not realize it but you may have been so frustrated with your girl that it shows by the manner you speak with her, the tone of your voice and your facial expressions. We may not realize it but a gifted child is very quick to pick on our moods. I would not rule this out in your case. You have a lot on your plate and it is certainly not easy to cope. However, losing patience on a gifted child will not help either. Perhaps, you may want to extend her days at school or plan other activities such as frequent outings or activities that can involve the other kids as well.

So far, you have been doing a great job in terms of educating her. However, a gifted child will only demand more and more due to the intensity of their curious minds and need to know more. I suggest your husband takes part in her activities (if he has not already done so) to get some load off you. You may also want to get other family members involved (relatives or friends who are good with kids). Children sometimes get bored with the same person and need changes, more so the gifted child. Parenting a highly able child is a very demanding job and takes a lot of effort and patience – but will certainly pay off!

If you can spare some time, you may want to read Dr Christopher Green's book "Toddler Taming" (check it up on the internet or your local bookstore) which explains that demanding behavior is perfectly normal of many toddlers, regardless of whether the toddler is gifted and can be very frustrating for parents. Sometimes, it helps (even maybe just a little) knowing that you are not alone, and that this behavior is not even necessarily due to giftedness – although, unfortunately giftedness can make it more formidable.

You may want to talk to other parents with gifted children to see how and what you can do to plan for her educational program. I have indicated in the previous newsletter the following resources in Florida that may be of help: Florida Association for the Gifted and Florida Gifted Network. Alternatively, you can try American Association for Gifted Children.


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