How to Identify Talent in a Child: Three Markers

Do you know how to identify talent in a child? One free method for finding strengths is to observe your child’s behavior. In other words, pay attention to what she does better than most kids her age.

Ellen Winner, PhD, a psychology professor and researcher at Boston College, has developed three markers you can use to identify talent via observation. No testing required. Dr. Winner’s research has been based on gifted children, but I believe her markers can also detect the noticeable-if-you-look-for-it kind of ability that places a child or student in the high range. And high ability is plenty ‘good enough’ for learning quickly, getting a job, and advancing in a career.

To identify talent in a child, look for these three behaviors:

1) Precocity (meaning advanced )

identify talent in gauss

Carl Gauss, the eminent German mathematician, was a child prodigy. At age 3, he corrected a mistake his father made in business calculations. In grade school, he added the all numbers from 1 to 100 in mere seconds! At only 21, he wrote his magnum opus on number theory. Two centuries later, his brilliance continues to light the mathematical heavens.

In other words, the talented person learns his special subject at a younger age and performs better than typical peers. As a result, his skills in his talent area are advanced. For example, the one-year-old who speaks in full sentences (indicating talent in the area of language). Or the child who successfully competes on sports teams with children a year or two older (indicating talent in athletics).

2) Rage to Master

identify talent in michelangelo

Michelangelo, the great Italian artist, possessed an astounding visual-spatial talent that contributed to his success. But on top of that he focused intensely and labored mightily with his visual gift, so dedicated to mastering his craft that he was willing to spend four years in awkward positions, as paint from the Sistine Chapel dripped onto his face.

A rage to master refers to strong intrinsic motivation. The talented individual is eager to learn about how to win a chess game or play the harmonica. Without prodding, without an adult having to coax him with a carrot or strike him with a stick, the child strives to master the skills of his chosen domain. When adults spot such stellar achievement, they may assume there’s a pushy parent behind the scenes. But the child with a rage to master actually pushes himself.

3) March to their own Drummer

identify talent in Bronte sisters

Living in a world without MFA writing programs, the young Bronte sisters taught themselves to write fiction. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte created and acted out dramas as children, inventing and sharing personal worlds of fantasy. Later in their lives, when women were actively discouraged from writing books, each of the Bronte sisters wrote one or more novels of unusual passion and lasting artistic merit (including the classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

The talented person does not sit idly by, waiting for an assignment. Nor does she rush with the masses like a lemming into the sea. Instead, she takes initiative on her own pet projects, maybe building a Lego construction from her imagination or studying all the different kinds of spider webs she can find. She pursues her own goals in her own idiosyncratic ways.

Now that you know how to identify talent, ask others to help.

You might ask other adults what they notice in your child. For example, at parent-teacher conferences, ask her teacher:

  • “What is my daughter good at?”
  • “Have you noticed any areas where she is ahead of other kids her age?”
  • “Do you see any unusual motivation?
  • “Does she ever march to her own drummer? Doing what?”

Once you identify some of their talents, tell your children where they excel. Remind them from time to time. Students who know their strengths possess a form of inner security that’s both portable and permanent.

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