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Dealing with High Levels of Energy of Gifted Children

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: My wife and I have a son who turned 2 in May and I have a couple of questions regarding his development.

My wife and I were both pretty gifted academically - I have two degrees in theoretical physics from Cambridge and she topped her university in Medicine and is a clinical researcher at Imperial. Partly due to the fact that my son attends a nursery whilst we are at work, I am a little concerned about his development. His social skills are advanced and, similar to my wife, he seems to have a phenomenal memory - he seems to remember things the first time he encounters them. His reasoning skills seem pretty good as well.

However, he is physically and mentally hyperactive, as indeed I was, and he seems unable to focus on anything other than his Thomas the Tank Engine toys/programs for long periods, and I seem unable to sit him down long enough to teach him numbers, the alphabet etc. I do try in an unstructured way (e.g. counting the stairs whilst walking etc.), but again his focus is pretty short-lived.

He also does not sleep until very late, and often not at all during the day, meaning that often he sleeps 9 hours a day in total - something I think may be insufficient and could impair his development. Often he is tired, but forces himself to stay awake using various cunning tactics, often circumventing our own!

Could you advise as to the best way to address the concerns regards limited attention span and lack of sleep?

A: Your boy obviously has his parents' genes, as studies revealed that over 60% of IQ is said to be contributed by genetic factors. So, yes, he is above average and what you are experiencing is quite common amongst parents of gifted children.

Their attention span is usually limited to areas of interests, and once they indulge in activities that they find meaningful to them, they tend to be so engrossed in the activity and sometimes forget everything around them. You are doing the right thing by introducing learning in creative ways. It may not work immediately but slowly, it would. What is important here is to create learning that is meaningful to him – the only way you will be able to get his attention and even interest. If he is so engrossed with Thomas programs, use them to teach him other things such as Maths or even alphabets. You would need to be creative here to get his attention. At the same time, do not despair if you find that it may not work. This whole process of dealing with gifted children requires “trial and error”. That is hard work but the results are often fruitful.

On sleep, this is in fact a rather commonly noted characteristic of gifted children compared to their non gifted counterparts. The main cause is due to their high levels of energy that causes them to require less sleep. It's like their minds take time to shut down due to active cognition. Don't force them to sleep as it would only frustrate parents, and kids get agitated and irritable as well. One way may be to tire him out; use that extra burst of energy he has (don't prior to bed time, though!). When he is mentally and physically tired, he may sleep easily. Allow him some quiet time before falling asleep. You can be with him to ensure that he does not jump out of bed and do other things. Create a rule and a time to sleep and abide by it to make it a habit. If he keeps saying that he can't sleep, suggest that he shuts his eyes and rests. Slowly, this may just work.

Do not worry too much if he is not getting the recommended hours of sleep. For his age, usually between 10-12 hours is required. Having said that, being gifted (not true for all gifted children though – some gifted children sleep a lot) perhaps nine hours is sufficient. One way to tell is whether he is getting enough sleep is by observing if he is showing signs of tiredness and fatigue, crankiness, etc. If he is functioning well, the amount of sleep he is getting is probably sufficient. Good luck and have a great parenting journey!

Below are sleeping tips for children (not only gifted children, but you may find them quite useful. This is taken from ClubMom Sleep Issues Expert Elizabeth Pantley (View this article online at

Eight Sleep Tips for Every Child: Stepping stones to a good nights sleep

Up to 70 percent of children under age five have sleep problems. Sleep issues are complicated and have many causes. They're hard to deal with because when children aren't sleeping, parents aren't sleeping, and that lack of sleep affects every minute of every day for every person in the family because lack of sleep isn't just about being tired. Sleep has a role in everything - Dawdling, temper tantrums, hyperactivity, growth, health, and even learning to tie his shoes and recite the ABCs. Sleep affects everything.

1. Maintain a consistent bedtime and awaking time. Your child's biological clock has a strong influence on her wakefulness and sleepiness. When you establish a set time for bedtime and wake up time you "set" your child's clock so that it functions smoothly.
Aim for an early bedtime. Young children respond best with a bedtime between 6:30 and 7:30 P.M. Most children will sleep better and longer when they go to bed early.

2. Encourage regular daily naps. Daily naps are important. An energetic child can find it difficult to go through the day without a rest break. A nap-less child will often wake up cheerful and become progressively fussier or hyper-alert as the day goes on. Also, the length and quality of naps affects night sleep - good naps equal better nights sleep.

3. Set your child's biological clock. Take advantage of your child's biology so that he's actually tired when bedtime arrives. Darkness causes an increase in the release of the body's sleep hormone - the biological "stop" button. You can align your child's sleepiness with bedtime by dimming the lights during the hour before bedtime.
Exposing your child to morning light is pushing the "go" button in her brain - one that says, "Time to wake up and be active." So keep your mornings bright!

4. Develop a consistent bedtime routine. Routines create security. A consistent, peaceful bedtime routine allows your child to transition from the motion of the day to the tranquil state of sleep.
An organized routine helps you coordinate the specifics: bath, pajamas, tooth-brushing. It helps you to function on auto-pilot at the time when you are most tired and least creative.

5. Create a cozy sleep environment. Where your child sleeps can be a key to quality sleep. Make certain the mattress is comfortable, the blankets are warm, the room temperature is right, pajamas are comfy, and the bedroom is welcoming.

6. Provide the right nutrition. Foods can affect energy level and sleepiness. Carbohydrates can have a calming effect on the body, while foods high in protein or sugar generate alertness, particularly when eaten alone. A few ideas for pre-bed snacks are: whole-wheat toast and cheese, bagel and peanut butter, oatmeal with bananas, or yogurt and low-sugar granola. Vitamin deficiencies due to unhealthy food choices can affect a child's sleep. Provide your child with a daily assortment of healthy foods.

7. Help your child to be healthy and fit. Many children don't get enough daily physical activity. Too much TV watching and a lack of activity prevents good sleep. Children who get ample daily exercise fall asleep more quickly, sleep better, stay asleep longer, and wake up feeling refreshed. Avoid activity in the hour before bedtime though, since exercise is stimulating - They'll be jumping on the bed instead of sleeping in it!

8. Teach your child how to relax. Many children get in bed but aren't sure what to do when they get there! It can help to follow a soothing pre-bed routine that creates sleepiness. A good pre-bed ritual is story time. A child who is listening to a parent read a book or tell a tale will tend to lie still and listen. This quiet stillness allows him to become sleepy.

Work with these eight ideas and you'll see improvements in your child's sleep, and yours too.


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