In the past, researchers and educators have relied on parent and teacher recommendations to determine which children are gifted, considering factors such as an early interest in reading, consistent academic success and first-rate concentration skills. But what if there were a better way to predict giftedness--prior to school--or to build a clearer definition of giftedness altogether?
That's the question on the mind of University of Florida psychology professor W. Keith Berg, PhD, who is using a $75,000 three-year Esther Katz Rosen grant from the American Psychological Foundation to seek the answer. Berg, whose previous research has involved using psychophysiological measures to assess attentional and anticipatory processes in infants, will use the Rosen funding to examine whether a child's ability to plan and strategize--executive brain functions that appear at around age 3 or 4--are early indicators of giftedness.
For his study, Berg is testing 100 5-year-old children on the Tower of London spatial-mapping task, developed by British psychologist Timothy Shallis, PhD, to study frontal lobe damage in adults. It turns out Berg and other researchers have found the task is also a useful measure of children's and adults' executive functions--which include planning, task switching, inhibition of automatic responses and strategy development, says Berg.
The task logistics are fairly simple, he says. He presents children with two sets of colored balls on pegs of varying heights that hold one, two or three balls each. He then asks children to configure one set of colored balls on pegs exactly as they are arranged on the "goal" set by moving only one ball at a time. Berg's theory is that gifted children can complete the task significantly faster and in fewer steps than nongifted children. In fact, based on previous research findings that approximately 10 to 15 percent of children are gifted, he predicts that a similar percentage of the preschoolers he tests will excel at the task.
He'll later retest the children--recruited from numerous Gainesville, Fla.-area preschools--at ages 6 and 7 to see if their strategies change, to look at how they are achieving in school and to compare them with a control group of children identified by teachers as gifted from their reading ability and academic performance. The comparison is meant to ensure that multiple testing on the Tower of London task isn't boosting the children's performance, says Berg.
In addition, with the help of his graduate student researcher, Joseph McNamara, Berg will use a portable device to measure changes in children's heart rate as they perform the task to examine possible physiological differences between gifted and nongifted children.
"We'll also ask parents and teachers about signs of giftedness, to see if our measure is better than simply asking the parents," he adds.
The study is part of a larger research program led by Berg on executive functioning in children and adults. One of the team's most recent studies on the topic appeared in the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Neuropsychology (Vol. 25, No. 5), and Berg has won a McKnight Brain Research Foundation grant to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare older and younger adults as they work on executive functioning tasks. He intends to pursue additional research dollars that would allow him to use fMRI to study the children who emerge as gifted in his current Rosen-funded study.
Gaining a better understanding of early giftedness may help guide the establishment of education programs that will keep gifted children interested in school, adds Berg. Gifted children have an unusually high school-dropout rate and are often labeled school troublemakers because they aren't challenged enough, he explains.
"The notion is, if you can identify those children earlier, and have challenging tasks for them to do, then you could encourage them from early on to enjoy their education," Berg says.