During a child's early years, parents often look for signs that demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in an activity, field or topic.
Maybe their kid runs faster than others, or solves advanced math problems with ease, or has a keen sense of music and can sing on key.
High grades or testing scores aren't necessarily indicators that a child is gifted — and while there is no single formula for identifying a gifted child, researchers and educational psychologists say there are some characteristics that may point to high potential in kids, such as:
- Early ability to read, learn and understand things quickly.
- Can become intensely engrossed in topics of interest while being oblivious to surrounding events.
- Keen observation, curiosity and tendency to ask questions.
- Ability to think abstractly, while showing signs of creativity and inventiveness.
- Early development of motor skills (e.g., balance, coordination and movement).
- Finds joy in discovering new interests or grasping new concepts.
- Early use of advanced vocabulary.
- Retention of a variety of information.
- Shows independence, self-reliance and responsibility in completing tasks.
- Ability to view situations from varying perspectives and explore alternative approaches.
So what should you do when you notice early potential in your kid? How can you help nurture their talents without creating unhealthy pressure?
Having spent years studying people who are in the top 1% of performers in their fields, I've found that the most important step parents can take is to create an environment where their kids can develop a positive relationship with their interests.
1. Find creative ways to expose them to the activity
Exposing your kid to their interests is vital for talent development. If they enjoy science, for example, visiting children's science museums can offer hands-on educational experience. You can also provide materials for creative play, e.g., give them egg cartons, cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls.
When the father of multiple Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran realized that music was the single most important thing in his son's life, he took initiative and drove him to concerts every week, hoping his son would find his calling.
And professional golfer Tony Finau's family could not afford to go to a driving range for practice, so his dad paid $2 for one golf club and a bag of golf balls from the Salvation Army, which Finau used to practice swinging balls into a mattress.
2. Surround them with talented, like-minded people
Studies show that children's skill development grows at a faster rate when they're interacting with, learning from or feeling inspired by others with similar talents.
Iten, a small town on the edge of a plateau on Kenya's Rift Valley, is home to many of the best runners in the world. "You see your neighbor run and win, and it motivates you to run and win," coach Bernard Ouma, who trains elite Kenyan runners, said in a CNN interview.
When kids see people around them shine in an activity, they are motivated to raise the bar and be even better.
3. Find the right influencers
No one achieves greatness alone. Sometimes, parents must look beyond themselves to meet the needs of their child — by finding an outside mentor. It's important to talk with your kid, though, and make sure that everyone is on the same page and committed to a mentoring relationship.
It doesn't have to be someone who is much more experienced. Surprisingly, research finds that your kid's most significant influencers are very likely their friends.
The relationship between Beatles band members John Lennon and Paul McCartney, for example, demonstrates the brilliance of creative pairs. Each provided mentoring, coaching, support and encouragement to the other.
They wrote songs together, and each helped fill the musical voids that the other left open. While both were immensely gifted individually, neither probably would have been as successful alone as they were together.
4. Build encouraging family values
Family values provide a foundation of guidance and acceptance, and research shows that when kids have a strong sense of support and belonging, they are more able to reach their full potential.
A few types of values that will help create an environment for your kid to thrive:
- Respectful values: Show that you respect their uniqueness, opinions, ideas and dreams. Spend time together as a family, provide unstructured play time and allow each family member to pursue their interests.
- Work values: For kids, this includes how they approach school and their education. Modeling positive behaviors yourself — e.g., persistence, always doing your best work, not giving up when things don't go as planned — is one of the most effective ways to teach children these values.
- Social values: This is key to raising kind and caring kids who look out for others and want to better the community. Encourage and praise them when they are respectful and courteous in their interactions, participate in teamwork and volunteer their skills.
Keep in mind, however, that placing too much pressure on children can be harmful. When kids feel like each homework assignment is going to make or break their future or that each soccer game could determine if they get a college scholarship, that pressure can have negative consequences.
Kumar Mehta, Ph.D., is the author of "The Exceptionals" and "The Innovation Biome," and founder of Bridges Insight, a think tank focused on researching sustained excellence and innovation. Mehta is also a senior research fellow at the Center for the Digital Future and a board member for the Committee for Children, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the well-being of children through social-emotional learning and development. Follow him on Twitter @mehtakumar.
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