Joan is a British psychologist and consultant and has conducted substantial research, notably her nationwide study of gifted and non-gifted people since 1974.
There's no agreed cut-off point on any scale to define a gifted child. It's confusing because gifts are supported by other personal factors, like the capacity for hard work, courage and an open mind. Gifts which show early come in rule-based fields like music, chess or mathematics – writing novels takes some life experience.
Then again, it depends on what is being looked for, whether IQ scores, school marks, solving paper-and-pencil puzzles, or creative work. I find it strange that gifts which are vital to the health of a society such as entrepreneurship, economics or people-management, are rarely encountered in a school classroom. I'm sure that in every country, there are children packed with potential who are never recognised in an educational setting, but who, given the opportunity, would grasp it and rise to great heights.
Terminology: 'gifted' and 'talented'
I use the word 'gifted' to mean exceptional mental ability, and 'talented' to mean exceptional ability that is more physical, though you can't quite separate them. The little violinist, bowing to acknowledge applause, had to learn her notes and skills, as well as possess musical talent.
Knowing what a child is capable of is vital in finding the right education. Good education offers a challenge which is set at the right level for the child – not too hard to be off-putting and not too easy to produce yawns. But labelling children (in any respect) needs careful handling because it can make a difference to their growing sense of who they are.
An intelligence test measures a child's school-type mental abilities. It's a personal performance, compared with all children of that age. I find in my practice that I'm testing many more children under five. They can be amazingly advanced. Even before they reach the age of three they may be reading or doing simple sums. Maybe this surge in measured intelligence and memory is to do with our age of electronic interconnections because it shows up most in countries with easy access to computers.
The level that each child reaches on the test is called their mental age. This is multiplied by 100 to round it off and divided by their actual age to produce an Intelligence Quotient. The average IQ score is 100 and 60% of all children score between 85 and 115. Top scoring children can reach IQ 170.
The tests check how children can make abstractions and form concepts. They look at judgement, memory, comprehension, number-work and reasoning. But scores vary between different tests, so it is important to know which one is used. Some tests have too low a 'ceiling', so that a gifted child is not fully able to show the level they are capable of reaching.
Intelligence tests are specific in what they measure. For example, they do not measure a child's emotional maturity, artistic talent, creative enterprise or personality. There are other tests for those, as well as the judgment of the psychologist. They are really reliable in finding out what a child is good at in school or where they are having difficulty, and help to choose a best-fit education.
A score varies somewhat with the age it is taken, and it can change a little with circumstances. But overall, it is much the same for life.
Challenges for the gifted
The gifted and talented can face challenges that other children don't, such as acceleration in school. Being smaller and less mature than your classmates is no fun. Too much pressure can also be a burden, and some children decide that it's better for their popularity to keep those brains to themselves.
Unfortunately, the gifted can get exploited for adult glory, while others find their feelings of self-worth squashed for being 'too clever by half.' Too many receive teacher put-downs. To a sensitive child, it can take just a single sarcastic remark to dampen their enthusiasm.
The gifted can't fulfil their potential alone. They need learning opportunities with generous material, good teaching with consistent challenge, examples to follow, motivation for the long hours of practice, and courage to take a chance. There's no magic formula for producing a gifted child or a gifted adult.
From my long experience of hundreds of the gifted and talented, from toddlers to grandparents, I cannot believe that gifts are due to the environment. Not every child has the potential to compose like Mozart, even if they had his upbringing. In all recorded human life, noone has ever taken a child at random and purposely brought them to gifted level.
Virtually all parents love their children passionately and want to do everything they can to help them achieve their potential. They have as much right to know what their children are capable of intellectually, such as their IQs, as their general health. And a right to do battle for them too.
There is still a need to know more about how gifted children can have their educational needs met in the regular state classroom – which is where about 90% of them are. Sometimes, unfortunately, the only route for the promotion of gifts and talents in children is what the parents themselves can provide.
Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up. Recorded over the last 35 years, this book reveals the dramatic stories of twenty outstandingly gifted people as they grew from early promise to maturity in Britain.
Professor Joan Freeman's website.
Joan has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Psychological Society for her work with the gifted and talented.