Is your child gifted? These are the signs to look out for

Gifted children


Image Credit: Supplied / Gulf News


  • Identifying exceptional talent has acquired a major importance in developed countries.
  • Experts say it is crucial to pay attention to these children and match them up with special programmes to tap their full potential. 
  • Failure to do so is a waste of resources and time.
  • High achievers are the ones who develop solutions to the most pressing human problems, help push civilisation forward, and deepen the human experience.
  • How UAE school offer “pathways” for gifted students.

DUBAI: As a young boy, Michael never sat still. He never closed his mouth. He was always jumping around. “He’s a boy,” his mum Debbie Phelps said.

Fast forward to 2016. At the Rio Olympic Games, Michael Phelps, now age 31, won his 23rd Olympic gold. His astounding swimming record made him the most decorated Olympian of all time. It did not come easy. At preschool, teachers complained: Michael couldn’t stay quiet, wouldn’t sit at circle time, didn’t keep his hands to himself, was giggling and laughing and nudging kids for attention.

At age 9, in fifth grade, given his lack of focus and fidgety behaviour, Michael was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). To many parents of children with ADHD, Michael Phelps’s story is great news.

There’s no easy formula for identifying a gifted child. Eman Al Hasheimi, the UAE’s first female composer, was given special one-on-one training sessions as part of “Elite Pathways Program” at Repton School Abu Dhabi. Yet there was common thread between Michael and Eman: devoted parenting, great coaching.

TAB 200807 Michael Phelps1-1596864147094
Michael Phelps swims to a gold medal. Phelps, diagnosed with ADHD as a child, won the highest number of medals in the entire Olympics — 28 medals across five Summer Games.
Image Credit: AP


Certain traits appear to differentiate the gifted child from his/her peers. Restlessness could be a sign, say experts. It may include an early ability to read, for example. Another indicator: the ability to understand nuances in the language.

A child who may be seen as gifted often reads two or more grade levels above current grade placement — and reads widely in many areas or intensely in one subject area. There’s yet another sign of giftedness — the early use of advanced vocabulary, or the ability to express thoughts readily and clearly.

What is gifted education?

The need for gifted and talented education was first recognised in the late nineteenth century shortly after the development of intelligence testing. The first gifted school was opened in Worcester, Massachusetts in the early 1900s and today gifted classes, programs and schools exist across the US.

While most schools require students to be in the top 97% percentile of their same age peers to be considered for gifted and talented services, the definition of gifted varies by state and district.

Students are typically nominated for screening, tested to determine the extent and areas of their giftedness and then placed in an appropriate program. It’s crucial to note that not all children’s ‘giftedness’ will show up on an IQ test and the National Association of Gifted Children reports that EAL/ESL kids who are studying in their second language may be an underrepresented group among gifted children programs, along with minorities and kids from low-income families.

Identifying “most able” students

Schools in the UAE are on the prowl for such gifted youngsters. GEMS World Academy-Dubai uses both internal and external data to identify “most able” students, explained Rania Hussein, IB Diploma Programme coordinator at GEMS World Academy, Dubai. This includes CAT 4 testing, MAP scores and internal outcomes achieved in previous years or quarters. This information is “triangulated” alongside teacher recommendations and PASS (Pupil Attitudes to Self and School) data.

Gifted children
Rania Hussein, IB Diploma Programme coordinator at GEMS World Academy, Dubai, said they use both internal and external data to identify “most able” students. These include CAT 4 testing, MAP scores and internal outcomes achieved in previous years or quarters.

PASS data

For GEMS, the school finds the PASS data “very powerful”. The reason is that it provides insight into a student’s perception of their own academic ability and their capacity for growth in various subject, said Hussain.

“In regards to high achievement in the arts or languages, we look at current ability as well as the previous achievement levels of students, and we recommend personalised pathways based on their track record of excellence in that discipline,” she added.

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What is CAT4?

The Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) is a diagnostic assessment that is designed to help students and their teachers understand how they learn and what their academic potential might be. It assesses how students think in areas that are known to make a difference to learning.

Extra keen observation, curiosity

A gift child would have extra keen observation and curiosity. One would have acute awareness of self and the environment. The child may persistently pursue a line of questioning to learn more about topics of interest.
At the Global Indian International School (GIIS-Dubai), the gift kids identification process takes into account a number of components, explained Anupama Monga, Head of Primary & Secondary Section.

These include attainment in verbal, quantitative and non-verbal CAT scores, responding successfully to higher-level tasks within the learning environment, opinion nomination by teachers, parents, self or peers.

There is also diagnostic assessment based on work and performance within the learning environment based on published and subject-specific checklists of characteristics, said Monga.

What happens when a child is found “gifted”?

After the teachers’ referral and assessment from Department of Inclusion, those who show attributes and scores for gifted students are recommended for standardised tests in order to gain more awareness, explore more opportunities and connect them with peers of same intellectual capacity. The IQ tests recommended might be Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale or Binet Kamat Test of intelligence or any other test depending on the child.

What is MAP testing?

MAP — the Measure of Academic Progress — MAP is a universal screening assessment for students. It is a computerised “adaptive test” which helps teachers, parents, and administrators improve learning for all students and make informed decisions to promote a child’s academic growth.

During the first weeks of school, students participate in two MAP testing sessions to assess Reading and Mathematics. MAP is algorithmic-driven: When taking the MAP test, the difficulty of each question is based on how well a student answers all the previous questions. As the student answers correctly, questions become more difficult.

If the student answers incorrectly, the questions become easier. Such tests are not timed; but it usually takes students about one hour to complete each test. Students will repeat the tests, two more times during the year to continually assess student progress and adapt learning as needed, with a shortened version administered during the mid-year.

How to spot gifted children
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal / Gulf News

Abstract thinking

Another sign of giftedness is the ability to think abstractly, say experts. The child can often move from concrete to symbolic representation very comfortably — and at an earlier age than most children.

Anu Thomas, Counsellor and Special Educational Needs Coordinator at Credence High School -Dubai, said: “We have an in-school assessment policy and observation form, which is reviewed by the teacher and the inclusion team in depth. We also take into consideration the performance of the students in the standardised and aptitude tests, observation and anecdotal evidence, behaviour checklist, parent, peer and teacher recommendations to see their true abilities and skills.”

Gifted children
Image Credit: Supplied / Gulf News

Should parents be involve in this process? Thomas said absolutely yes. She added that the school encourages parents to take a formal IQ assessment “so that they can understand their child better and also help them identify and build the areas of strength”.

What support do gifted students get?

It comes in the form of “enhanced support”, said Thomas. Such students get “enrichment and innovative classes” — this helps them focus on building and equipping themselves in their interest and skills. At Credence, said Thomas, over 3% of their students are either formally or informally “diagnosed as gifted and talented”.

Another sign of giftedness: critical thinking skills. If the child is able to perform evaluations based on established criteria and often notices minute nuances, or discrepancies between what people say and what they do, it’s a sign of giftedness. This can be more apparent through personalised coaching. Like most schools, Repton Dubai runs aptitude tests, but goes beyond that.

Gifted children
Image Credit: Supplied / Gulf News

“We conduct regular standardised tests as well as educational and diagnostic assessments to evaluate the students’ IQ and skills, which the school can then further enhance through personalised teaching method and extension programmes for able and gifted pupils,” said David Cook, headmaster of Repton Dubai and Chief Education Officer of the Repton Family of Schools, UAE.

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Support for gifted pupils

Repton Barsha (Dubai) has identified six key qualities pupils must develop to become successful lifelong learners. The school offers a “Curriculum Plus Programme”, a free-of-charge extension to its “bespoke curriculum”, said Giash Miah, head of mathematics.

Under the direction of the school’s “More Able, Gifted and Talented” (MAG&T) Coordinator, the teachers are trained to be specialists, in order to support the enhancement of gifted pupils.

“Our MAG&T pupils study a bespoke curriculum and learn through an accelerated pathway. At the core of our curriculum is our learner profile of six key qualities we believe all pupils need to develop to become successful lifelong learners,” Miah added.

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Resilience
  • Independence/self-regulation
  • Principled Learner
  • Risk-taking

“Our learner profile is also linked to our school merit system, to actively promote metacognition and learning ‘how to learn’. On a half–termly basis we select champions for each learner strand based on the merits for that half term, and this is celebrated through year group assemblies. MAG&T pupils also have their own prominent cross-curricular display in the school, showcasing their high-quality work from across the curriculum.”

Emirati composer Eman Al Hashemi performs for patients at Shaikh Khalifa Medical City Hospital. She played her own composition in the hour-long performance held as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

One-on-one coaching — music, athletics

Expert coaching is also a must. At Repton School Abu Dhabi, peripatetic instrumentalists are trained on site for one-on-one music tuition. Vice-principal Steven Lupton said: “We are fortunate to have outstanding able to provide the necessary challenge for our gifted students. For example, we have trained peripatetic instrumentalists on-site for one-on-one music tuition and international level athletes within our PE department to provide expert coaching.”

“We offer elite training sessions for swimmers and Higher Order Thinking (HOT) sessions during our ECAs (education credential assessment) program.”

As part of its developing ‘Elite Pathways Program’, Repton School Abu Dhabi has extensive networks both nationally and internationally that afford its students additional opportunities. “One example of this is our recent work with the UAE’s first female composer, Eman Al Hashemi.”

Gifted children
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Pathways of study

Peter Bonner, Assistant Principal Primary – Curriculum, Progress and Assessment, said there are pathways of study available to students across all three sections of the school. “For our most able students, ‘Extended Learners’ are identified and follow a modified curriculum that allows them to achieve their academic potential and extend them to ensure the work is challenging and engaging.”

In primary school, students exceeding grade-level expectations in different subjects are supported through targeted interventions and differentiation in class, he said. In the Senior School, more capable students follow the Diploma Programme, considered the most rigorous and challenging post-16 curriculum in the world.”

Gifted children
Image Credit: Supplied / Gulf News

Students’ profile

Lara and Bella, Year 8 MAG&T pupils, Repton Al Barsha

Lara: “I really enjoy demonstrating and modelling work from the front of the classroom. This has improved my own knowledge and my confidence.”

Bella: “I really enjoy working on problem solving tasks where I can collaborate with my peers to share ideas on how to solve the problem. This has help improve my confidence in learning and I feel equipped with the skills to also independently work on high order tasks.

Gifted children
Image Credit: Supplied / Gulf News

Alice Raggi, Year 8, Repton Abu Dhabi: “My results in both school swim galas and regional swimming competitions are what indicate to me that I am gifted in swimming. I train eight times per week. Each session is around 2.5hrs. Additionally, we have swimming built into our school timetable as well as swim squads and swimming galas.”

Gifted children
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Chrisbec Collins and Omar Malas, grade 11, GEMS World Academy-Dubai

Chrisbec: “It [my talent] is evident in my subject choices; Higher Level Mathematics, Physics and Design. These are inherently difficult subjects and require not just an immense intellectual capacity, but hard work as well. I hone that skill by looking at ways to apply the theoretical matter studied in a real-life situation. For example, if I learn about forces in physics, I am looking for real-life situations in my car or as I walk in the hall, to see it happening in real life.”

Chrisbec and Omar Malas
Chrisbec (left) and Omar Malas

Omar: “I am personally a perfectionist. I look at everything from every possible angle to ensure my work is excellent and to the highest standard. This requires a level of creativity as well, looking at solutions from various perspectives to find the best one. I sharpen my skills by keeping my brain active with small and large tasks. Not taking things at face value and exploring different perspectives of scholars and authors. Constantly questioning the world around us and seeking more knowledge. So, it goes beyond what you learn in the classroom and it is an approach to life that constantly seeks both questions and answers.”

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Advanced-learning programme

At the Global Indian International School -Dubai (GIIS), students who are identified as gifted and/or talented are taken under the advanced-learning programme in order to give them challenging tasks and high-order problems.

“They are given learning goals as per their identified exceptional ability,” Anupama Monga, Head of Primary and Secondary Section. “We encourage them to take part in national and international competitions to bring out their best potential.”

They are given learning goals as per their identified exceptional ability. We encourage them to take part in national and international competitions to bring out their best potential.”

– Anupama Monga, Head of Primary and Secondary Section, GIIS-Dubai

To identify gifted students, GIIS runs them through several screens — such as verbal abilities, quantitative and non-verbal CAT scores, high-level tasks response within the learning environment, opinion nomination by teachers, parents, self or peers, diagnostic assessment based on work and/or performance within the learning environment based on published and subject specific checklists of characteristics.

After the teachers’ referral and assessment from Department of Inclusion, only those students who show attributes and scores for “gifted” are recommended for Standardized tests in order to gain more awareness, explore more opportunities and connect them with peers of same intellectual capacity. IQ tests recommended include the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale or Binet Kamat Test of intelligence, among others.

A parent’s perspective

Aruna Gandasarakula, mother of Shreenika Gandasarakula, who is talented in dance, art and writing poems. She is a student of grade 8 at Global Indian International School, Dubai.

“2020 was tough on us, and even more so for the students. But all this didn’t change the opportunities given to the students to grow and explore further. The online education did not disturb the way studies continued. There were many events and competitions throughout the year, and opportunities given to Shreenika have helped her gain more experience in various fields. The opportunities presented were inter-house, interschool, national and some even international.

Shreenika gifted
Multi-talented Shreenika Gandasarakula, a Grade 8 student at the GIIS-Dubai, won the Math Debate by UnMath School, and is also involved in performing and visual arts. She is passionate about her poem writing, too.

“Shreenika participated in the Qutuhal Challenges, which helped her discover new approaches and increased curiosity in new subjects she hadn’t touched before. This curiosity also led her to research, enhance skills and take part in debates. One of them being the Math Debate by UnMath School and School times, and an inter school competition, the Global Student Summit. Winning those helped boost up her confidence levels in achieving higher and recently she also found a passion in writing poetry, thanks to the opportunities given by the school and was also selected for the Poetic Heart this year.”

So what motivates students to learn and excel? How can we encourage them?

The power of motivation is a well-studied field in pedagogy. Good motivation enhances learning outcomes and helps students achieve their best in every situation. A motivated student might do his or her homework without being asked to, go above and beyond the requirements of assignments and participate in classroom discussions without being prompted.

More importantly, he or she may be more able to view a poor exam result as a learning opportunity instead of as an academic failure.

Students may be motivated by their interest in a topic, their prior success in a specific subject, a desire to please parents or teachers or simply by their own drive to succeed. However, motivation works best when children also have a healthy self-image, are confident in their abilities and know how to take a step-by-step approach to problem solving.

Encouragement is key

Giftedness is often first noticed when children enter school. A child may easily progress a grade or two beyond their level, particularly in a specific subject area, but still remain at the same social and emotional developmental level as their peers. What if you don’t send your child to a school for gifted children?

With a generous amount of encouragement, it is still possible to find online support groups, including forums that allow both children and parents to develop friendships and exchange ideas. While a child may be confident and independently motivated, he or she still requires plenty of encouragement and understanding from parents, teachers and peers who “get them.” While “getting them” seems to the hardest part, one shouldn’t grow weary in trying. It seems to be the only formula that works.


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