Characteristics of Young Gifted Children

Young mother reading to her infant.
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How old does a child have to be before he or she exhibits characteristics and traits of giftedness? Many parents and teachers believe that a child is gifted when school tests say they are, and these tests aren't given until third or fourth grade, if at all. The truth is that gifted traits show up in toddlers. In fact, some of them can be seen even in infants!

Browse through the following list and see how many characteristics apply to your young child. Keep in mind that to be gifted a child need not have every one of these characteristics.

Gifted Traits in Young Children

  1. As infants, they may get fussy if facing one direction for too long
  2. As infants, appear alert
  3. Need less sleep, even as infants
  4. Frequently reach 'milestones' such as walking and first speech earlier than average
  5. May speak late, but then speak in complete sentences
  6. Strong desire to explore, investigate, and master the environment (opens up cabinets, takes things apart)
  7. Toys and games mastered early, then discarded
  8. Very active (but activity with a purpose, not to be confused with ADHD)
  9. Can distinguish between reality and fantasy (questions about Santa or the tooth fairy come very early!)

Highly gifted toddlers may also show an intense interest in numbers or letters. These are often the children who start doing simple math or teach themselves to read by the time they are three. However, a child who does not read or do math early may still be gifted. Children who read or do math early may certainly be gifted, but not all gifted children do those things early.

What Should You Do If You Think Your Toddler Might Be Gifted?

The short answer to that question is "nothing" — at least nothing more than you are already most likely doing. If you see that your toddler appears to be interested in letters and books, buy him toys consisting of letters, such as magnetic letters or foam letters for the bathtub. And of course, buy books. If your child likes numbers, buy toys with numbers.​

Keep your child challenged. You most likely do that anyway because a gifted toddler can get a little cranky when she's bored. Just follow your child's lead. When you see she's no longer interested in an activity, put it away. For example, gifted kids often love flashcards. To an outsider, it may look like you are pushing your child to learn, but in reality, it's likely an activity that your child thoroughly enjoys. However, if your child tires of the flash cards, don't insist she keep up the activity just because you think she's smart and needs to learn. That would be pushing.

Many parents who believe their toddler may be gifted want to know about testing. Where can they get their toddler tested? I answer that with the question "Why do you want to have your toddler tested?" In most cases, parents answer by saying that they want to know so that they'll have a better idea of what to do for their child. But there really isn't a lot you can or should do for your toddler that you aren't already doing. You won't love your child any more or less, and you really shouldn't treat your child any differently. Parents sometimes feel that if their toddler is gifted, they have an obligation to teach them. But unless the desire to learn comes from your child, it will be pushing. And if it is coming from your child, you are most likely already helping your child learn.

There will come a time when you might need to have your child tested, but that is not during the toddler years.

2 Sources
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  1. Vaivre-Douret L. Developmental and Cognitive Characteristics of “High-Level Potentialities” (Highly Gifted) Children. Int J Pediatr. 2011;2011:420297. doi:10.1155/2011/420297

  2. Intagliata VJ, Scharf RJ. The Gifted ChildPediatr Rev. 2017;38(12):575-577. doi:10.1542/pir.2017-0088

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.