WHILE there are many preconceptions and misconceptions about gifted children and their behaviour, they are, in Professor Joan Freeman's opinion, " normal children, apart from what they're good at".
Having started studying gifted children in 1969 and having since written 17 books on the subject, Freeman knows more than most people about this area. She's quick to dismiss the negative stereotypes around gifted children, particularly the idea that they are more likely to be badly behaved.
" Parent organisations give out lists of what parents should look out for in gifted children. And they're almost all negative.
" I think if a child has a tantrum, they have a tantrum. There are reasons for those things and they're not about being highly intelligent."
In Freeman's view, a gifted child is one who " has potential and maybe shows achievement at being exceptionally good at something or a number of things". They are, she says, " head and shoulders" above the rest.
Pointing out that there's no absolute and agreed defi nition of what a gifted child is, Colm O'Reilly, director of DCU's Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland ( CTYI), says such children essentially have the ability or potential ability to do well in a certain area. "And that area could be academic, it might be creativity or it might be in sports," he says.
Where parents know or suspect their child is gifted, both Freeman and O'Reilly say the best thing they can do to help and encourage them is to provide stimulation and to try to be involved in nurturing their interest.
" The more stimulation they get from a very young age, the better they'll be," says O'Reilly. "As the child is getting older, it's about giving them the opportunity to get access to the stuff they're interested in."
" You've got to investigate and use the facilities around you and really become involved with the child's learning. That helps the children a lot," adds Freeman.
O'Reilly says parents should be driven by what their child wants to do rather than what society dictates. " If you think the child is ready to read, for example, you should encourage them. Gifted children are able to do stuff at an earlier age than other kids so they should be encouraged to do so without being pushed into it."
For older children, he stresses the social and academic benefi ts of programmes like those provided by the CTYI. " There are loads of opportunities for children who are good at sports. If you're good at maths you don't have as many outlets. There's not as much social support for academic pursuits.
" This kind of thing gives you the opportunity to meet other kids who are interested in the same thing as yourself. And that's a boost to your self-confi dence.
" That's very important. But equally importantly, it's an academic stimulation in an area you're good at. If you're very good at football, you're not just going to play it in your back garden for the rest of your life. It's the same with engineering, for example – you need outlets to build on that knowledge and you need other people who are experts in it to tell you more about it.
Freeman has been following the progress of a sample group of 210 gifted and non-gifted children for the last 37 years and stories of 20 of the former group have formed the basis of her most recent book, Gifted Lives. The ongoing study has given her a deep insight into various factors affecting the development and progress of gifted children.
" Some have done very much better than I would have thought," she says of the group. "And some didn't bother to use it. It's like being born with a fantastic body and being slumped in front of the TV all day with a can of lager. You can do that kind of thing with your mind as well as your body.
" The one thing all the successful ones do is they work very, very hard. That's one thing there's no way around."
While she believes that giftedness is primarily positive, Freeman agrees there can be challenges. " Things like being accelerated in school – that's a challenge. It can work well and it can work badly too. The children are smaller, more immature – they tend to be the weed of the class. And they're not always good at everything."
And she says that being labelled ' gifted' does put expectations on children. " In a way, you've got to label if you're going to make provision. You've got to recognise the potential, but at the same time you've got to be very careful the label doesn't bring with it all the negatives."
And do gifted children end up doing better than other children? " Yes, because they're more intelligent," she says. "And nature is very unfair. Generally speaking if you've got one gift, you get others as well."