Updated 31 August 2016

Is your child gifted?

Extraordinary children need extraordinary up-bringings. We look at what makes a gifted child and find out the best options to nurture an exceptional child.


Is your child extraordinary in any way? Is he emotionally intelligent beyond his years? Does she solve complex maths problems in her sleep? Your child could very well be gifted.

But what does this mean? Where do you go to from here, and how do you deal with this information?

According to Dr Shirley Kokot, former Associate Professor at Unisa and president of the National Association for Gifted and Talented Children in South Africa and herself the mother of three gifted children, there are many different definitions for describing a child who is gifted.

“I like to use the following definition: A child who has the potential or ability to perform at an extraordinary level in one or several fields as compared to same-aged peers with a similar cultural and educational background,” she says.

However, she adds that there was a clear distinction between a clever child and a gifted one.

“A 'clever' child is not necessarily a gifted child, nor is an 'above average' child necessarily gifted. Clever and above-average children succeed academically in schools designed for the average. Gifted children don't fit well into 'average' schools.

“It’s also important to remember that some children have the potential for giftedness but due to cultural or educational disadvantages, might not show the potential in various settings.”

Gifted or prodigy?
There are many terms used to explain an extraordinary child, although many of them are not entirely correct. However, Kokot points out that there is a very clear distinction between a child who is gifted, and one who can be described as a prodigy.

“A child prodigy is one who shows a particular talent in a performance area that is highly unusual for his/her age. It is also an extremely rare phenomenon and is a label given to a child who is performing at this particularly advanced level. No-one has the potential to be a prodigy; you either are or you aren't,” she says.

Kokot claims that there is no such thing as a child genius and that 'genius' is “a label given to an adult who has proven over the years that s/he has made a remarkable contribution to some aspect of human activity - and so very few exist in the world.”

“These are those who can be equated with Einstein and his ilk but no child has yet done that. A very bright person can understand Einstein’s theories: it takes Einstein’s genius to produce them.These are terms used very incorrectly in our society.”

What makes a child ‘gifted’?
According to Kokot, a child can be gifted in various ways - generally intellectually gifted, gifted in a specific area (eg: language/ maths), creative in the artistic sense (either in the performing or fine arts), creative in terms of innovative thinking ability, a gifted leader or a gifted sportsman.

“Generally, we refer to intellectually gifted children as 'gifted'. All the others are usually referred to in terms of talent in a specific area. Hence the term 'gifted and talented children' which is used internationally,” she says.

The following are indicators often present in a gifted child:

  • Unusual alertness during infancy;
  • Long attention span;
  • High activity level;
  • Less need for sleep;
  • Advanced development through milestones;
  • Keenly observant;
  • Extreme curiosity;
  • Excellent memory;
  • Early and excellent vocabulary development;
  • Rapid learning ability;
  • Abstract reasoning;
  • Sensitivity;
  • Perfectionism;
  • Advanced ability to play with puzzles, mazes or numbers.

Importance of spotting giftedness early
It is very important to spot the gifted potential in a child as early as possible, Kokot says, so that the child can be given the educational environment needed to nurture their gift and prevent negative signs from appearing. It also helps parents and others to understand the needs of the child, because gifted children tend to have unique emotional and social needs. For this reason, they fall under the umbrella term of ‘special needs’ children.

Signs teachers should look out for
There are two types of behaviour a teacher should look out for in learners to determine if they are gifted or not, says Kokot.

She said that the obvious sign is of a child who finds learning easy - but stressed that teachers should also look for the 'opposite side of the coin' as frequently the “bored, cheeky, unmotivated, sarcastic, pain-in-the-neck child may be acting out because of those same characteristics that can, if correctly managed, result in positive behaviours.”

She states that there are many unmotivated gifted children in the schools who hide their gifts and are massive underachievers.

Do gifted children have a higher IQ?
One would assume that a child who displays a tendency towards being gifted would have a far higher IQ than their peers. Yet Kokot, who carries out such tests, asserts that having a high IQ is not actually such a reliable indicator of giftedness.

“It’s important to consider developmental and emotional aspects as well; creative children often do not score so well on an IQ test. This is because the IQ test, like other standardised tests, score only an expected, correct response from a child. Creative children, by their very nature, tend to be nonconformists, and will come up with a different answer, often correct if you take the trouble to ask, but not accepted by the test-designers.  Secondly, because gifted children may also have learning problems or neurodevelopmental concerns, they do not always do so well on an IQ test.

“Having said all that, it is true that IQ remains one of the media used to identify giftedness and most psychologists can conduct an IQ test. Few may have the knowledge to recognise potential that is there without it showing necessarily on an IQ result,” she said.

Being the parent of a gifted child
As the mother of three gifted children, as well as the founder of Radford House, the specialised school for gifted children in Johannesburg that has been running successfully since 1996 (, Kokot knows what she’s talking about when it comes to parenting gifted children, although she noted that it was not that much more difficult than being the parent of an average child.

“We only realised they were gifted once they started school but we had no problems. Of course at times, we had to intervene with schools when issues arose that impacted negatively on the children and had to be available to support the children when they went through bad patches - like identity crises, unhappiness with the peer group, unhappiness in unstimulating classrooms, etc.”

One of her daughters is now a clinical psychologist, the other is a film-maker specialising in animation and her son, Philip, has taken over the running of Radford House.

The ‘problem’ with being gifted
Kokot says there are often problems with children who are gifted as they feel the difference between themselves and the other children.

“They are different, they need to be understood and helped to cope with living in a 'normal' world. Their sensitivity makes their emotional lives sometimes difficult and schools are notoriously boring for them.”

There are also very few opportunities for gifted children to hone their skills and be taught at a level they can appreciate. This is one of the reasons Kokot founded Radford House.

Teaching the gifted child
Radford House caters for children from Grade 000 (four years old) and upwards. All children are assessed by an educational psychologist for entry; although Kokot pointed out that there are no specific criteria.

“One looks for signs of high potential, including an interest in learning, curiosity, good memory and simply that 'spark' that we recognise easily. We do not have any IQ cut-off points,” she said.

As there are no teacher training courses available at the moment with regard to this type of education, teacher training is on-going at the school, although Kokot does offer a correspondence course in Gifted Child Education.

The syllabus at Radford follows the general outlines laid down by the GDE, but the approach is very different and broad with younger grades choosing their themes on a term-to-term basis and the teacher incorporating all the subject skills into the theme chosen for that term.

Skills are emphasised above simple rote learning, and critical and creative thinking methods are used widely. Also, multiple intelligences are considered. Classes are small (max. 18) so that children can be encouraged to discuss, debate and take a more active role in the learning experience. Teacher talk is also discouraged.

Most gifted children dislike rote and repetition; they grasp concepts quickly and prefer moving on once something has been mastered.  A great danger is to think that a gifted child with learning problems is best suited to a remedial school.  Such schools, out of necessity, try to reinforce concepts and skills and so drill and repetition are important methods that are used.  This does nothing to encourage the ability of an extraordinarily bright child.

ADHD/ADD or not?

During 2011 there was quite a lot of publicity about the concerns of parents and some teachers regarding the increase in diagnoses of ADHD or ADD amongst gifted children.  Many of the characteristics of giftedness are also seen in ADHD children, including restlessness, inattention, daydreaming, impulsivity and high levels of energy.  Although a child may be gifted and suffer from ADHD, it is not possible to tell without very careful evaluation, says Kokot. 

One useful way is to determine when and where the ‘symptoms’ occur.  Gifted children will probably not show difficult behaviour in all situations, whereas ADHD/ADD children cannot control their behaviour from one situation to another.  For example, one teacher may consider a child to be ‘impossible’ and in need of medication to control behaviour, whereas another may report no problems at all.  The school may report continual bad behaviour while there are no problems at scouts, at music, at home and so on.  In contrast to this, ADHD/ADD children cannot control their behaviours in any setting (although the intensity may fluctuate from one context to another).   Don’t accept a diagnosis until you have consulted with someone knowledgeable about giftedness and ADHD, Kokot advises.

What happens to the gifted child?
As one might expect, gifted children grow up into gifted adults. Although Kokot pointed out that while many are very well-adjusted people, sometimes they are considered 'oddballs' and suffer from loneliness because they don't fit with or relate easily to others.

Will gifted adults have gifted children?
“The chances are very good - provided that both parents are bright. Obviously if one partner is intellectually challenged, the chances are good that the child may not inherit the 'brains' of the gifted parent!” says Kokot

She added that most gifted children have highly intelligent parents, yet it is also true that some parents of gifted children are much less intelligent than the child.

“Genes can skip one or two generations, and this can be a source of problems to the child - having one or even both parents who are simply not as 'sharp'.”

Useful contact details
Dr Kokot can be contacted through the Centre for Integrated Learning Therapy at 021-873 4951 or visit or e-mail her at

Readers can also contact The Questioners' Club in Cape Town (a support group for parents and children) on A second school, Verity School, following in Radford House’s footsteps, has been founded in Natal. More about this school at

Sources: Professor Shirley Kokot, (BA Hons, BEd (SG) MEd (Counselling), DEd, STD);SAC Dipl (Nutrition));  Educational Psychologist, and Founder of Radford House School, president of the National Association for Gifted and Talented Children of South Africa and prior member of the Executive Committee of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children for 9 years.

She is also the author of the newly revised and expanded book: Help - Our child is gifted! which is available from Dr

Kokot at

(Amy Henderson,, updated January 2012)

Read more:
High IQ helps kids cope
Learning disabilities


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