All the parents in your neighborhood are talking about how kindergarten isn’t what it used to be. You’ve read the kindergarten readiness checklist, and while others may find it challenging, your child has been writing his name and counting to 20 for over a year now. He can do everything else on the list, too.

Many parents think that their child is brilliant, but how can you tell if you’re raising future-Einstein material? According to Deborah Ruf PhD, National Gifted Children Program Coordinator for American MENSA, “There are five levels of gifted, that range from bright to astonishing.”

Isn’t it enough just to know your kid is smart? Do you really need to know exactly how smart? The experts say yes! It’s important to recognize if your child is gifted in order to best meet his intellectual and social-emotional needs. Moreover, gifted students who are not identified often run the risk of being misdiagnosed, with ADHD or learning disabilities.

This brings us to the sticky part: most experts believe that kindergarteners are too young to be tested, and that testing for giftedness is most appropriate between the ages of seven and ten years old. Early testing, Ruf warns, can give inaccurate results because young children don’t perform as consistently as older children do. They might be tired, or scared, or they might not understand the directions, or dislike the person conducting the test.  When kindergarteners don’t score well, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not gifted, it just means that they didn’t perform well on certain tasks on a certain day—it could be the child or it could be the conditions. For that reason, many schools refuse to test children until they’re older.

Before you get too worked up about it, it’s important to recognize that “Kindergarten usually works well and is enjoyable for even the most gifted children, unless the program is too academic,” Ruf says. What you want most for a gifted kid is a flexible environment. Your child’s classroom should offer open-ended activities and opportunities for him to interact with his peers. “There honestly is no rush to get them into an academic setting,” Ruff says. It’s actually peer relationships that are crucial at this developmental stage.

Dr. James Webb, clinical psychologist and author of the book, A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children, says that while an official evaluation may need to wait, there are signs to tell you whether your kindergarten kid is being intellectually engaged. Pay attention to your child’s attitude about kindergarten. “Is your child eager to go to school and excited to share what he did during the day? If not, it could be that they are not being challenged,” Webb says.

Compare the tasks that your child does in school with what you, as a parent, know he can already do at home. “A good teacher, like a good coach, always expects of a child just slightly more than the child knows he is capable of, and then provides a lot of support and encouragement,” Webb says.

Not all kindergartens are alike, and both Webb and Ruf agree that there are some key indicators of a good environment, not only for gifted children, but all children. In the best kindergarten classrooms, children are allowed and encouraged to learn at their own pace. Teachers often refer to this as "differentiated learning", or "differentiated instruction". What it means is that teachers respond to each individual student’s needs and strengths, whether they’re gifted, dyslexic, or have other special requirements. Instruction is tailored so that students are never expected to fit like square pegs into a round-hole curriculum. Instead, if a teacher has a bunch of square pegs and a bunch of round pegs, she teaches to each type’s needs.

Ruf and Webb also point to flexible staff, multi-age classrooms, and schools that foster the building of social and emotional relationships (in addition to intellectual growth), as being particularly good for gifted children. As you evaluate your child’s kindergarten, be sure to pay attention to your gut, too. If you see kids eager to be in school, excited about learning, and happy with their peers, it’s an indication of a rich learning environment. 

Still anxious to test despite the caveats? You can always foot the bill yourself. It can be quite expensive, but Dr. Webb ask his clients to, “Consider how much it costs to have a child's teeth straightened by an orthodontist, and then to consider which is more important - straight teeth or good educational opportunities.”

Whether you’re bent on knowing just where your child sits on the gifted scale, or willing to wait until first grade assessments kick in, don’t forget to celebrate the sweet joys of kindergarten. It goes by fast, so there’s no need to rush into any thing too ‘academic’. At least not this year.

For more information about gifted children, see our Gifted Information Portal.