Students working with robot

All young children possess gifts and talents, Nancy Hertzog says, and a new book by the University of Washington College of Education professor offers insights into how parents, teachers and administrators can help early learners develop their talents.

Hertzog, a professor of educational psychology and director of the UW Robinson Center for Young Scholars, is co-author with Ann Gadzikowski of “Early childhood gifted education – Fostering talent development,” published by the National Association for Gifted Children.

Hertzog said the new book offers guidance on how to identify and meet the needs of young children with academic gifts and talents at home and at school.

"Best practice in early childhood gifted education not only includes high quality teaching, but it also must be culturally responsive, involve families and include support structures so that the needs of the whole child are addressed," Hertzog said.

Hertzog’s research explores how teachers can challenge their students, including the use of instructional practices that have typically been designed for students identified as gifted in general education classrooms. Much of her work, which has received several curriculum awards from the National Association for Gifted Children, has focused on models of inquiry-based instruction and specific strategies implemented to address the diverse needs of learners.

Hertzog recently answered questions about how to overcome barriers to identifying the strengths of early learners, how educators can better meet the needs of children with gifts and talents, and how parents can foster their children’s talent development.

What does giftedness mean in young children?

We do not want to label young children gifted. Instead, we want to see all young children as having potential to develop gifts and talents. Therefore, the learning environments, along with parents and teachers, play a significant role in providing the contexts for talent development.  Parents and teachers should encourage young children to pursue answers to their own questions and allow plenty of time for exploration and discovery. Giving children many ways to express themselves (e.g., use of art, media, materials) is important to nurturing and seeing their emerging strengths and talents. 

Teachers need to focus on learning needs, and not giftedness, in early childhood education. Young children have asynchronous development. Therefore, they may be advanced in reading, but not in social and emotional development. In the early years, teachers need to focus on the whole child and address learning needs—as uneven as they may be.

What are the one or two biggest barriers to identifying young children’s strengths?

Barrier No. 1: Classroom or home environments where answers to questions are right or wrong—too much emphasis on getting correct responses. Young children come to the learning environment with many competencies, and the role of the teacher is to build upon the strengths that the children bring to the learning environment. If teachers are only assessing what students do not know, and only focusing learning on what students do not know (e.g., letters of the alphabet, computational facts, etc.), then teachers would only teach from a deficit approach. Instead, teaching should "uncover" what each child brings uniquely to the learning environment, and students' ideas should be valued. Therefore, a barrier to recognizing students' strengths is not having opportunities to share them in the learning environment.

Barrier No. 2: Diversity should be celebrated in the learning environment. Teachers' preconceived notions and expectations for students greatly impact young children's attitude toward school and achievement.

How can teachers and administrators better identify and meet the needs of young learners with academic gifts and talents?

Ongoing documentation and assessment of children's skills within authentic contexts is the best way to keep track of young children's growth in all domains. In classrooms, teachers may want to systematically keep work samples to document growth, or use ongoing curriculum-based assessment to make sure students are learning with optimal levels of challenge presented to them. Giving students' choices and allowing them to work in their interest areas enables teachers to see better students' strengths and talents.

What are a couple things all parents can do to nurture the development of their children’s talents?

Parents can create a nurturing home environment that values children’s creativity and their autonomy to pursue their own interests. Parents need to be careful not to only focus on achievement, but to focus on processes of thinking and scaffolding ideas as opposed to asking for the "right answer." 

Why is it so important to foster the talents of young learners?

All young children are curious and eager to learn. If young children come to a learning environment that is not welcoming of their uniqueness, or where they do not feel competent to learn, they will lose motivation and interest in learning and will not achieve to their fullest capabilities.

The take away messages should be clear: early childhood is a special period in a child’s life. All young children have potential that is not yet realized. Adults in the young children’s spheres of influence should be loving and nurturing, and at the same time, continually exposing them to new learning opportunities.


Nancy Hertzog, Professor of Education

Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications