How can you tell if a preschooler is gifted? In the late 1990s, researchers at the Center for Gifted Development in Colorado approached the question by asking parents of older children who were deemed intellectually advanced what sort of characteristics manifested themselves early on.
A vast majority of those surveyed noted that their children were highly observant and spoke with sophistication, one parent reporting that at 2½, his child described Rudolph as “ostracized” by the other reindeer, and another quoting a 3-year-old who prefaced sentences with the words, “Well, apparently….” These children tended to be perfectionists, funny, puzzle-adept and prone to posing detailed questions about politics or nuclear war. Researchers concluded that some of these advantages stemmed from natural ability and the rest from nurturing, writing, “You just can’t create a gifted child from scratch like Yuppie pasta.”
For years now, education scholars have been riled by the persistent belief that the exceptional child is the one who most resembles an engaging and bookish 38-year-old, a view that has enormous consequences for the policies formulated around access to accelerated learning. “I think that the debate would be elevated if people understood that they are operating on archaic models of what giftedness is,” Jonathan Plucker, a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University, told me recently. A huge body of research tells us that children develop along a varied pace, that intelligence has many complex aspects, that deficits in one area can coexist with dazzling ability in another.
“Most people in the field don’t use the word ‘gifted’ anymore,” he said.
Although New York City’s school system still clings to the phrase, Mayor Eric Adams announced last month that he was getting rid of the standardized test that had been the sole criterion for admission into gifted and talented programs for elementary schools since the Bloomberg years. Under the old model, a 4-year-old who could not master an exam in which she might be shown five pictures each with a different number of apples and asked how many apples grandma needs to make sauce, would in all likelihood get shut out of the track leading to elite high school admission and all the privileges that follow.