Understanding the Cognitively Gifted Child via www.RaisingLifelongLearners.com

Understanding the Cognitively Gifted Child

Cognitive ability is less about specific knowledge bases, and more about the neurological skills needed to do anything — from the simplest to the most difficult task. It is how we learn, problem-solve, and pay attention. Each of the mental functions {cognitive abilities} we need to function relies on specific brain structures.

So, if we’re not neurologists or psychotherapists, and have no idea which parts of the brain control perception, attention, memory, motor functions, language, visual/spatial processing, and executive functions, how can we understand and nurture our cognitively gifted child?


Understanding the Cognitively Gifted Child via www.RaisingLifelongLearners.com


Superior cognitive ability — or cognitively gifted — refers to what we think of as intellectually gifted. It’s not reflective of specific academic areas, arts, athletics, or anything else that is easily quantifiable. It’s an overall exceptional intelligence.

Knowing your gifted child, even being able to explain what a gifted child looks like, isn’t always enough to determine superior cognitive ability at a glance. It’s not like a creatively gifted child who may be decorating your house with fine art or coming up with, and solving, complex problems. And cognitively gifted children are nothing like the academically gifted ones that excel in certain areas.

They are all over the place…and sometimes nowhere at all.

Can you relate?


Characteristics of the Cognitively Gifted Child via www.RaisingLifelongLearners.com


Characteristics of the Cognitively Gifted Child

A cognitively gifted child may exhibit some or all of these characteristics. He or she may:

  • have an advanced vocabulary for her age.
  • develop an early interest in books and reading.
  • show a preference for independent reading and want to read adult-level books early on.
  • display rapid learning and easy recall of factual information.
  • demonstrate quick perception of cause-effect relationships.
  • have a high level of curiosity evidenced by many “how” and “why” questions.
  • have a long attention span with high retention of information.
  • use analogies in speech and writing.
  • possess a mature sense of humor.
  • seek complex and challenging activities.
  • be good at problem solving and display abstract thinking skills.
  • have an ability to reason and use logic.
  • Possess an ability to detect errors and understand consequences.
  • generalize quickly.
  • be in possession of large storehouses of information about various topics.
  • a tendency to become bored with routine tasks.
  • show concern for ethical issues, and have a strong sense of fairness.
  • demonstrate an unusual capacity for processing information.
  • display accelerated pace of thought.
  • have persistent, goal-directed behavior.
  • be a self-starter, show initiative, follow through with tasks, and hold herself to self-imposed high standards.

Might your child be cognitively gifted? Great… right?

Maybe, maybe not. Raising, parenting, and teaching a cognitively gifted child can be very challenging. And difficult. And frustrating. And tiring. And… Well, you get the picture. But how can we tell for sure that our child is cognitively gifted?


Identifying the Cognitively Gifted Child via www.RaisingLifleongLearners.com


Identifying the Cognitively Gifted Child

Regardless of whether you choose to test or not, identifying a cognitively gifted child can be quite challenging. A child with superior cognitive ability just doesn’t think like anyone else. Consider for example, this simple question — what does a scientist do? An average child may tell you that a scientist discovers things or works in a lab. A moderately gifted child may tell you that a scientist may study insects, or examine the mating habits of the garter snake, or find new ways to safely dispose of nuclear waste.

The exceptionally, and cognitively gifted child may be completely unable to answer the question. It’s too simple. He needs to ask you questions instead: What type of scientist? At what stage of his career is he? He may be completely bogged down by the fact that there are just so many different types of scientists who do so many different types of things.

He knows the material backward and forward…but cannot be tested on it.

So, what do you do? Test…or not?

It goes back to what I mentioned before about knowing your child and your motivations for testing. Overall, it’s better to know your child well, and know what motivates him and how he learns best — especially if you homeschool your gifted child like I do. Testing doesn’t necessarily help with that.

Unless there are other issues like learning disabilities, ADHD, sensory processing struggles, etc. In those cases, and for those children that are going to a school, testing is important. Your children need services and you need all the tools possible in order to advocate for them correctly.

If you know, whether through testing or mother’s intuition, that your child is cognitively gifted, it’s important that you support him.


Supporting the Cognitively Gifted Child via www.RaisingLifelongLearners.com


Supporting the Cognitively Gifted Child

So how do you do that? How do you meet the needs of a child that can’t answer a simple question like, what does a scientist do, but can tell you — in great detail — what a hydrogeoloist does, how his job impacts our society, and what one must study in school to follow that career path?

I try to keep a stock of coffee and chocolate on hand at all times.

Seriously, though, meeting the needs of cognitively gifted children is hard. The simplest of questions become debates. Here’s a recent example from my house:

Me: “Trevor, did you have a good time at co-op?”

Him: “What do you mean by ‘good time?'”

Me: “Well…I mean did you enjoy yourself?”

Him: “During which part?”

Me: “Overall. Did you enjoy yourself overall?”

Him: “Overall? Like as in the whole time I was there? No. Not the whole time. Some parts were really bad. I wanted to poke my eyes out during a few of the classes. One was great though. I really like that. So I had a good time for like 30 minutes.”

Me: {Getting ready to ask about the poking the eyes out thing… or which class he liked… or something else destined to become another circular conversation.} “I’m glad some of it was good. Do you want a snack?”

See what I mean? So what do you do?

Cognitively gifted children do really well with interest-led and project-based educations. They need to have a buy-in and a say in their education. When I taught gifted kids, I usually worked on year-long projects with my superior cognitive groups. One year we studied the Iditarod. We researched Alaska, starting and ending points, the check points along the way, and all of the mushers that were set to participate that year. In studying the history of the race, we came across a program that used volunteers to sew and send dog booties to rookie mushers to help them off-set the costs of their first Iditarod.

We sewed 500 booties, signed them with sharpie markers, and sent them to “our” musher. Throughout the race, we followed his progress, and received updates from him, along with a thank you package at the end of the race with photos from the trail and some of our booties — with Iditarod trail mud and dog hair on them. It was great.

Cognitively gifted children need to be immersed in their learning, steeped in their interests, and challenged to think.

It makes for a uniquely fun adventure for us parents.

And difficult.


Understanding Your Cognitively Gifted Child via www.RaisingLifelongLearners.com


These are the kids that others don’t understand. The ones that are thinking about something fifteen steps ahead of where they are so they knock down the toddler {that they never saw} in front of them, coming across as a behavior problem. They are the ones correcting the teacher’s grammar in the classroom. In front of all the other students. And alienating adults who don’t get it. They are the ones that struggle to make friends. They just don’t think like other kids their age.

They just don’t quite fit in.

These precious children need support from us, their parents, that goes beyond their academic needs. They need to feel loved and accepted for who they are. Even when you are tired, and exasperated, and frustrated, and just wish your kid was average…because average is what the world expects.

Gifted children are important. They are unexpected and special — no matter where on the continuum they fall. But they have special needs and must have adults that are willing and able to advocate for them in order for them to reach their potential.

In the coming weeks we’ll explore twice-exceptionalities, and then dive into some of the social and emotional issues facing our gifted kids.

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