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What methods of provision for young gifted and talented children can be implemented in Early Years settings, and how beneficial are these methods to the children's development?
The term ‘gifted and talented' (GAT) is rarely used in relation to Early Years (EY) settings. This is principally because provision for GAT children has, historically speaking, focused predominantly on higher levels of education (Gross, 1999). However, the necessity of catering for the social, emotional and cognitive needs of GAT children in EY settings is also highly important, for two main reasons. Firstly, on a professional level, all EY practitioners must comply with government legislation regarding the provision for GAT children. Secondly, and equally importantly, on a personal level, it is at this early stage of a child's life that their development progresses the most rapidly (George, 2003). Therefore, if the child's ability can be first identified, and then nurtured through appropriate provision, then, because the child's mind is more impressionable at this time, the likelihood of successfully developing their precocious gift or talent will increase as a consequence.
This raises a key issue: the question of what constitutes being ‘gifted and talented'. According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), children classified as being gifted and talented ‘have one or more abilities developed to a level significantly ahead of their year group' (DCSF, 2009). This concept is extended by Renzulli (1998), who formulated a ‘three ring conception of giftedness' based on his research into the observable characteristics of children who displayed examples of ‘gifted behaviour'. He surmised that, in addition to the above aspect of above average ability, there must also be elements of creativity and task commitment displayed by the child in order for their behaviour to be described as ‘gifted'.
The above brief definitions of what it means for a child to be regarded as ‘gifted and talented', while valid in broad educational terms, do nevertheless present fundamental problems when used to address this issue in relation to early years settings. With regard to Renzulli's definition involving creativity and task commitment, these elements may not be instantly apparent in the child's actions due to the social and emotional immaturity of the child at such a young age. According to Fowler (1999), this is because the child's intellectual ability has progressed at a much faster rate than other key developmental factors. Consequently, this could lead to behavioural, emotional and social difficulties until this imbalance has been corrected. Moreover, with regard to the DCSF definition concerning above average ability, because the child has had little or no experience of formal education at this stage, it is difficult, on an official level, to establish how far ahead of the ‘developmental curve' (Räty et al, 2002) the child is. When a child first enters an EY setting, their ability will not have been formally assessed prior to entry, so an EY practitioner would initially be unaware of the child's gift or talent. This leads to an underpinning issue regarding the successful holistic development of young GAT children: the identification of their particular strength (or combination of strengths) at this early stage.
Some of the indicators that could signify that a child is gifted and talented include being able to read books meant for much older children, having a considerably wider vocabulary than might be expected at this early stage, or creating exceptional artwork for their age, amongst many others. Many of these indicators are relatively simple to identify, even at this early stage of the child's development. However, difficulties could arise for practitioners in the early identification of these abilities. It can be argued that some abilities are harder to identify than others. For example, a child with highly advanced verbal skills has an ability that would be more instantly apparent to a practitioner than one with an exceptional memory for their age. However, to take this idea a stage further, if a child has, for instance, poor motor skills or a limited vocabulary, the possibility, nevertheless, still exists that their gift or talent lies in another developmental area. Sutherland (2006) argues that ‘it is this diversity that makes identification so difficult'. In these cases, it is imperative to look beyond the obvious, as these hitherto latent abilities may simply need the right situation or task to trigger their emergence and subsequent identification.
On the other hand, these abilities can often manifest themselves long before a child even enters early years education (Sankar-DeLeeuw, 2002). During this very early stage of infancy, the child may already exhibit signs of advanced reading and speaking skills. These can be ‘a powerful predictor of unusually high intellectual ability' (Gross, 1999). The important point to bear in mind is that these abilities will already have been observed by the child's parents before the child enters any EY setting. Parents can take an active role in nurturing their child's development, by, for example, playing simple word or number games with them. Furthermore, according to research by Koshy and Robinson (2006), young GAT children often have sufficient motivation levels to pursue their interests with a degree of independence, after the initial parental involvement. These observations and subsequent involvements can become a focal point of discussion between parents and EY practitioners concerning the continuation of the child's development in the setting. This also marks the start of the key relationship between the parents and the practitioner, who can collaborate to try to ensure that the child's needs are met as fully as possible.
These parental and professional perspectives, with the possibility of combining the two in partnership, are crucial in the early identification of young children's precocious abilities. Although the importance of this process with regard to the child is undeniable, the issue remains that this is only the first step towards the child fulfilling their potential in their area or areas of strength. George (2003) argues that only the ‘potential for giftedness' exists in young children. In order for this aptitude to be developed as fully as possible, an ‘optimal environment' must be provided by any early years setting. This directly illustrates the next step: the necessity to cater for such children with child-centred, age-appropriate and individualised provision.
Generally speaking, EY settings do not specifically refer to gifted and talented provision in their official policy documentation. This can be attributed to the fact that, according to the DCSF (2009): ‘there is no specific guidance (regarding the gifted and talented) for the Early Years'. However, all settings are legally obliged to comply with the principles contained within the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Framework. Some of these principles are intrinsically relevant to catering for young GAT children: in particular, ‘Observation, Assessment and Planning', ‘Supporting Every Child' and ‘The Learning Environment'. These all fall under the theme of ‘Enabling Environments'. (DCSF, 2009) These specific standards entitle all children, regardless of ability, to have their individual educational needs met by EY practitioners through a process of careful planning and personalised provision in an inclusive setting. In the case of young GAT children, this system promotes ‘developmentally appropriate' and child-centred practice (Harrison, 2000). This underpins all methods of GAT provision: by catering for the children's identified areas of advanced ability, EY practitioners can provide learning experiences where young children can enhance their existing skills, pursue their individual interests, and also, to a certain extent, start to take responsibility for their own learning, even at this early stage of their education.
There are several different methods of provision for GAT children across all educational stages. However, some of these are inappropriate for much younger children to be put through, and impractical for EY practitioners to implement. A notable example of this is ability grouping, the usage of which is predominantly restricted to secondary school education and the latter stages of primary education. This method is clearly unfeasible as a provisional strategy for younger children, for a variety of reasons. Learning is less curriculum-based and more play-based; the children will not have been formally assessed; and it is unfair on ethical grounds.
Conversely, some methods of provision are more appropriate for the educational needs of young GAT children. Three in particular stand out: acceleration (cited in Cuikerhorn et al, 2007), extension (cited in Meador, 1996; Sankar-DeLeeuw, 2002; Distin, 2006), and enrichment (cited in Gross, 1999; George, 2003; Koshy and Robinson, 2006). In overall terms, acceleration increases the pace of the children's learning; extension increases the depth of learning in a specific area or topic; and enrichment increases the breadth of learning across a range of areas or topics. Moltzen (2006) states that these methods of provision have differentiation at their core: acceleration and extension are types of quantitative differentiation, while enrichment is a type of qualitative differentiation. Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages not only for the cognitive development of young GAT children, but also, equally importantly, for their social and emotional development. It is vital for EY practitioners to create a socially and emotionally supportive environment within the setting if any of these methods are to have any measure of success in catering for the children's educational needs.
Acceleration, in broad terms, involves moving through the curriculum at a faster pace than would normally be expected for a child of that age. It typically involves participating in activities and tasks relevant to a higher year group, accompanied by moving to higher year groups to work with older children. These procedures are relatively common in the United States of America, but are seldom used in the United Kingdom at this early stage (Koshy and Casey, 1997). These processes of ‘fast-tracking' and ‘accelerated learning' are advocated in the 1997 ‘Excellence in Schools' White Paper* (cited in DCSF, 2009) as a way to ‘stretch the most able'. However, from an early years perspective, this strategy would only be used in cases where the child's ability in a particular area is so far ahead of their age group that this becomes the only practical solution, although this measure would only be necessary for a very small percentage of young GAT children.
For these select few, the prime benefit of this method of provision is that they can work at a level that is tailored to their individual needs, which, in turn, will increase their motivation and overall educational satisfaction levels. According to research by Gross (1999), they consequently tend to ‘perform as well as or better than their older classmates'. Another educational benefit is that many young GAT children find it easier to relate to older children because they are more closely matched, both intellectually and in terms of their range of interests (Distin, 2006). However, a contrasting view is held by Cuikerhorn et al (2007), who emphasises that working with a higher age group can lead to social isolation from children of their own age. As mentioned before, young GAT children, though generally better developed cognitively and academically than other children of the same age, are still at the same social and emotional developmental stage as their peers. Therefore, it is crucial that they share experiences, particularly play-related ones, with them too: this is an important aspect of childhood. Furthermore, acceleration can increase the pressure on children to act more maturely faster than they are able to cope with, both socially and emotionally. It could be argued that it is unfair to impose such an expectation on very young children.
Extension is the second method of provision to consider. Broadly speaking, this involves young GAT children participating in activities and tasks suitable for most children of that age, but with some distinct adaptations to cater for their more advanced academic needs. One notable type of adaptation is children's participation in open-ended activities, devised by the EY practitioner, that stem from an initial stimulus. A good example of such a task was observed by Meador (1996) in an EY setting. The original activity for all children was to create their own ‘ant hill snack' by spreading peanut butter over a vanilla wafer with a plastic knife, then placing three raisin ants on it, and finally eating it. The extended activity for the GAT children was to plan to make ant hills for five children, then to work out how many vanilla wafers and raisins they would need to do this, and finally to explain their answer to the practitioner. In this instance, the extended task is open-ended because there are multiple means of finding the answers (Meador, 1996); children could, for example, draw pictures of the wafers and the ‘ants' and count them on the piece of paper, or by using tokens or their fingers. This highlights a key aspect of extension: the way in which tasks can be designed to develop and challenge the children's intellect. This issue of challenge is important for two main reasons. Firstly, when they are working at a level that better suits their needs, this can have a positive effect on their motivation and task commitment. Secondly, if they are able to complete a more challenging activity, they can gain a sense of achievement from it, which will in turn help to boost their confidence and self-belief.
Extension tasks also have the capacity to allow GAT children, even at an early age, to use more advanced levels of thinking skills (Bloom, 1985, cited in George, 2003). Taking the activity above as an example, they progress from the comparatively simple cognitive process of following instructions in the first part, to the more complex cognitive processes of problem solving and explaining a choice of approach in the second part. If these more advanced learning skills can be developed through extension at this early stage, the child will be far better prepared for later levels of schooling where these skills become a necessity in more formal classroom situations (Goodhew, 2009).
Nevertheless, the method of extension as a method of provision has some potential drawbacks. If the young GAT children are being constantly extended, then the danger exists that this focus on more challenging activities may lead to the neglect of fundamental skills and rights. In the early years, every child, regardless of ability, ‘deserves a happy childhood, full of vigour, joy, optimism and growth' (Koshy and Robinson, 2006). Like all other children, they must be given opportunities to, for example, draw pictures, play and communicate with their peers, explore the world around them, and so on. Consequently, if these extension strategies are not regulated and moderated correctly, it can cause the child to become socially isolated and emotionally detached from their peers.
The third method of provision to consider is enrichment. In general terms, it is similar to the extension method as it also involves young GAT children participating in activities and tasks suitable for most children of that age. However, it differs in one main respect. Instead of adapting activities and tasks and promoting the use of a variety of more advanced cognitive processes and skills, enrichment focuses more on the development of a particular child's individual areas of strength or special interest.
An example of such an interest at an early age is described by Cuikerhorn et al (2007), where one particular GAT child was able to recite dinosaur names from memory and discuss intricate data, such as their dimensions and their nutrition, with the EY practitioners. They did this simply ‘because the topic excited them' (Cuikerhorn et al, 2007). In this instance, suitable enrichment activities could include drawing pictures of their favourite dinosaurs using felt-tip pens or small pieces of sugar paper, imagining what a typical day in the life of a dinosaur would be like, or doing role-plays with dinosaur figures. Such tasks could be devised by the practitioner or the child. Other children can be involved in these tasks, the third one in particular, and by working together they can share experiences with each other. The key element here is that these tasks are matched to the individual child's needs. This has two main benefits to the child's development. Firstly, because they are already profoundly interested in the topic, they will be motivated to continue their assimilation of knowledge, and depth of understanding of it. Young GAT children, in particular, have a ‘strong appetite for information' (Sankar-DeLeeuw, 2002); the enrichment approach can channel this ‘appetite' into activities with meaningful outcomes. Secondly, the three possible activities mentioned above (by no means an exhaustive list) offer creative possibilities for the young GAT child in different early developmental areas such as drawing, imagination and collaboration, the third of which in particular will benefit the child's interpersonal skills and help to foster positive peer relationships.
This is a form of personalised learning, where an individual child's skills and abilities in all areas of development are enhanced by their own strengths and interests. This technique is promoted by the 2005 ‘Higher Standards for All' White Paper* (cited in DCSF, 2009); it can help all children, regardless of ability, to ‘reach the limits of their capacity'. However, in order for this principle to be more fully met in an EY setting, it is important that enrichment is only one integral part of the whole learning process for the young GAT child. They must also work and play outside their particular area of strength or interest to develop other key skills that will be required in the future. This will help to ensure that their education is well balanced during the early years. In short, the provision of enrichment for young GAT children should be implemented alongside, not instead of, the regular early years curriculum.
In summary, it can be argued that all of these methods of provision can foster the cognitive development of young GAT children in EY settings in different ways. However, the success of each method principally depends on each individual child's needs. Some may develop academically through one method; others may do so through a combination of methods: according to the 1999 ‘Excellence in Cities' White Paper* (cited in DCSF, 2009), there is often no single ‘best way' to meet all of a child's needs. EY practitioners should choose the method or methods of provision based on an identification of the individual child's gifts or talents, although this is often a difficult part of the process if the ability is not instantly apparent. They should then implement it with a sound awareness of the child's social and emotional development in mind. This is particularly important in the early years, as these characteristics are, in most cases, only just starting to develop at this stage. It is the well-planned, thoughtful and supportive implementation of these methods that significantly lessens the chance of young GAT children experiencing social and emotional problems, while at the same time helping them to learn, achieve, and most importantly enjoy themselves in an inclusive setting at this crucial early stage of their childhood.
Although these education-related legislative documents are recommendations made for the provision of gifted and talented pupils in primary and secondary schools, I felt that the same principles, albeit in different contexts, are also relevant to early years settings. Therefore, they are included in the text.
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