In my work with hundreds of families, I have observed one common truth: Parents are the experts on their own children, especially when it comes to giftedness. Parents often observe certain characteristics in their children and view them as positive traits—until those same characteristics are regarded negatively in school. Though there may be outside pressure not to accept a “gifted” or “highly creative” label, sometimes that designation is the one thing that can save a child from being misinterpreted and misidentified.
Recognizing the highly creative child
Sometimes it’s not easy for highly creative children to “comply” with a regular curriculum, even at the preschool age. They are wired to explore, experiment, build, imagine, and create. If forced at a young age into a diet heavy on rote learning and directed work, they may struggle. It’s not that these children can’t do the work. It’s that the work does not engage their depth of thinking, their ability to make connections, or their desire to contribute original ideas. Their needs are so much more complex than what a traditional classroom can meet, especially if they want to voraciously pursue knowledge on their own.
Creative traits in action
So that you may see the traits of a highly creative preschooler in action, take a look at Talia’s story. Talia was a sweet, helpful, and independent (yet generally obedient) 3.5-year-old child. She had a beautiful personality, loved to share her insightful thoughts with adults, had a rich imagination that usually involved her stuffed animals, and was quite helpful around the house. She loved to explore and learned effectively when she pursued her interests. For example, she taught herself to read at age two.
Talia had strong ideas about what she wanted to explore. She resisted being confined to small spaces, and sometimes only the vast variety and peace of the outdoors seemed to calm her. She didn’t want to do things other kids were doing, and her mother sometimes despaired when Talia would leave group activities to do her own thing. She created new uses for toys, or even skipped over the toys to make use of their shipping boxes instead.
With careful observation, however, it was clear that every activity that Talia pursued was embedded with a discovery process—an opportunity for deep exploration. She vehemently resisted prescriptive—or pre-scripted—activities. For example, if the art project in preschool was to glue eyes, nose, and mouth onto a page in a certain way to create a monster, she wouldn’t do it. But if the teacher provided red, yellow, and blue paints with brushes and paper, she would eagerly experiment with abstract markings, watching how the colors mixed and the lines formed on the canvas. Every move she made demonstrated a hunger not only for knowledge, but to integrate that knowledge through her own imagination and power to originate.
Talia had one year of preschool under her belt, in a nurturing classroom with a veteran teacher who gave the children plenty of freedom to explore, create, and direct their own learning. The following year, she matriculated to the next class, where teachers began to say that she had serious behavioral problems. She was not following directions, would run out of the classroom and ask to go home, and wasn’t participating in the lessons on colors, numbers, and letters.
Her teachers knew that Talia had taught herself to read a year earlier, was already reading Magic Tree House chapter books independently, could write, and had an extensive knowledge of geography, including all of the U.S. states and capitals. However, they would approach her parents at drop-off and say, “Talia did not participate in the letter lesson today.” Or, with “good” news: “Talia learned something today along with all of the other children. She didn’t know the word ‘dog’ and learned to read it.” (To please the teachers, Talia had pretended not to know the word “dog”; it was one of her favorite words to write at home.)
The school suggested bringing in a behavioral specialist to evaluate Talia because she was running out of the classroom and didn’t follow directions. The parents met with the teachers and shared their experiences: Talia was a highly creative, rapid, self-taught learner who didn’t exhibit behavioral problems at home.
It was then that her parents realized that, based on her learning style, a traditional kindergarten might not be the right fit for Talia. They felt that it would be cruel to both teacher and student for her to sit through hours of learning to read, write, and do basic math when she had already learned these skills on her own at an early age. They had Talia take an IQ test with a psychologist who had extensive experience with gifted children, and she fell within the profoundly gifted range.
For a profoundly creative thinker such as Talia, rote academic work often does not engage learning. It can sometimes do more harm than good, forcing a child to numb his mind in order to comply with repetitive tasks. A creative learning setting with ample freedom for exploration may be a better environment—one that won’t choke creative pursuits or the love of learning.
In analyzing Talia’s case, one of the most important factors was that her parents understood her creative attributes—originality, imagination, curiosity, and energy—and viewed them as strengths. They actively looked for ways to support these characteristics as part of Talia’s identity rather than to making her shed them in order to follow a more typical path.
For parents, this is not always an easy road to take, but it’s one that supports the child in the long term. Sometimes it requires great sacrifice, whether socially, financially, or professionally. But it gives children a firm foundation on which to build and a healthy self-confidence that allows them to feel comfortable in their own skin.
In hindsight, Talia’s four-year-old classroom could have become a place where she thrived, even at a different rate of development from her peers. The first necessary factor would have been a willingness on the part of teachers to acknowledge the needs of the individual child. The second factor would have been the flexibility to meet Talia where she was, even if her learning styles and abilities seemed out of sync with the standardized program. This might have included structuring the classroom differently (with more independent centers and theme-based explorations, perhaps), exempting Talia from lessons in content areas where she demonstrated mastery, and acknowledging her creative strengths as positive traits to be nurtured rather than negative ones to be controlled.
Fortitude and openness
Open, flowing communication between home and school is absolutely essential to meet the unique needs of creative learners. Therefore, each member of the child’s learning team must be an active, open-minded, and willing collaborator.
Teachers should try to avoid making generalized assumptions. They are in a strong position to unlock the potential of their gifted and creative students, but must be open and willing to evaluate the suitability of their classroom practices for students.
Parents need to know their children, be clear on their strengths, and have the fortitude to stand by these strengths even when they are mislabeled as deficits.
There is tremendous pressure today for kids to conform, both academically and socially. For gifted, creative kids, this is often not prudent or even possible. Highly creative children are unique, and the only way for them to thrive in the long run is for those around them to accept their uniqueness. They will still need to do what is required to be successful, but they may follow different routes to get there.
This blog post, an excerpt from Parenting for High Potential (Spring 2016), is by Kathryn P. Haydon, the author of Creativity for Everybody and a former teacher who supports an educational paradigm based on student strengths and creative thinking.
Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on Flypaper and on the NAGC Blog.