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Advanced Abilities in a Toddler

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: I have been told by an ex teacher that my 33 month toddler may be gifted, but I am not sure. My toddler spent a couple of hrs playing with her. I have only one child and haven't had much experience with kids. So your opinion would be much appreciated.

My toddler knew the alphabet upper and lower case by 16 months, and count count to 100 in three languages. I did not push her but she was always curious and interested, plus she would get bored.

She always loved books since a baby. I noticed last couple of months that she is reading words she has not seen before, or able to follow the phonetics. She can read about 80% of her books.

I didn't want to focus on whether she may be gifted or not. But the ex-teacher said that she had other qualities besides reading. E.g. her vocabulary is extensive and speaks in full sentences most of the time. She also has a good sense of humour E.g. she put a finger puppet on her foot and called it 'foot puppet'. When her tights rolled up to her knees she said "tights are pretending to be shorts". Or "the mummy kangaroo has a baby in her pouch, she has a back pack in her tummy".

I recently potty trained her and said: "You will get 1 biscuit for wee, 2 biscuits for poos". To which she replied "What about 3 biscuits?". I wasn't expecting this question so had to quickly say "3 biscuits for wee and poo together". Later on when I gave her only 2 biscuits, she asked "Can you give me the number 3 please".

She could read fifty names of the Thomas the tank engine friends after a couple of goes. This didn't surprised me so much, but what surprised me more was that she could identify the different engine characters correctly. I certainly cant do that so I have to verify whenever she identifies them. She seems to have excellent memory! She knows all the children's songs and nursery rhymes.

Do you think my toddler may be gifted. I ask because I am looking into changing her current daycare to a more reputable place with a better structured program.

A: Based on your description, there is no doubt that your little girl has a number of distinct characteristics of an above average child. The teacher may have seen certain traits that stood out in her short observation to be able to make such a comment on her gifts.

If she is gifted, which is possible based on your description (we try not to label them at such a tender age), you would have a very interesting journey with quite a lot of effort that needs to be put in initially to be able to help her meet her mental needs. Gifted children belong to a special group. Given proper care in terms of their educational and emotional needs, they will have the ability to achieve a lot more than their average counterpart.

You appear to be on the right track as she is progressing well, keep up the good work and just go according to her needs. Remember that she would need varied and stimulating activities that are meaningful. Try out new things. At her age, you should just keep exposing her to many new things and she will show interest in a few, little interest in others and perhaps no interest in some. Allow her a lot of free play under guidance but try not to interfere too much. Cognitively advanced children learn best when they self explore and discover.

As I have advised previously, a good start in nurturing an advanced child's potential would be to encourage her to follow her interests at this point. In case you find that she is fascinated with something, do more of it and gradually increase its complexity. She appears to enjoy books, so perhaps you may start with activities that include reading, story telling, looking at pictures, etc. Have different types of reading materials in terms of texture - magazines, newspapers, books with hard/soft covers, fabric types and so on. Gifted children are sensitive to texture and this would enhance their sense of touch. Having said that, more work of the same kind may sometimes bore above average children, so it is always important to try to have variations of the same activity. This involves creativity on your side. You must also know when to stop - a good cue is to observe when she starts to lose interest (irritable, distracted). If this happens, drop the activity and allow her some free play time. Pretend play is crucial and this is when they develop their brain and unleash their creativity.

Ensure that she remains challenged all the time so as not to have any time to be idle which may cause such children to throw tantrums or be disruptive especially at her age and given that she has always been busy and enjoyed it. The following are a few tips that you can use at this stage and later to encourage her learning:

  • Help her determine differences; compare and contrast things/people.

  • Use measurement words often: little, more, many, half, quarter, etc. as an introduction to early math.

  • Instead of reading stories from books all the time, create your own and try to get her to contribute. Or play a game of stories - each comes up with one.

  • You can also watch educational programmes with her and ask her the “whys” and “whats” - and then explain. YouTube can be a good source for educational clips - perhaps make some time where you can pick some educational clip for her.

  • Look for similarities and differences and have her group things that belong. It helps in critical thinking.

  • Create a scenario and ask her about what could happen in certain situations.

At the same time, make sure that her enrichment is not limited to verbal and literary - physical development is very important. Ensure that she has toys that will improve her eye-hand coordination and problem solving skills (blocks, beads, puzzles, etc.). Remember a balance of sufficient enrichment and guidance is important, not to the extent of pushing her. At this stage, the most important tool is plenty of love and security - this helps development of a sound and happy mind.

As for schools, it is important to find a good one, which may be a great environment for her to also develop her initial social skills. Speak to the school about her abilities and have them assess her to determine what may be best for her. However, a very structured programme may not work best for her - she would need flexibility to enable her to explore and discover so do keep that in mind.

Hope the tips are helpful and have a great learning journey with your little one. Keep monitoring her progress and encourage her to learn positively. All the best!


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