The Difference Between Gifted and ADHD Plus Helpful Tips on What to Do Next
Do any of these traits sound familiar?
- Always on the go
- Acts as if driven by a motor
- Squirms in seat
- Blurts out an answer
How many times have you felt like that?
Guess, what? You are not alone.
1 in 10 children feels the same way. For some children, it is just how their brain works – “CDC Data and Statistics About ADHD”
A Deeper Look at Brain Function
There’s a part of your brain called the motor cortex. In some children, it wants to keep moving all the time. Think of a fast race car. That’s what this part of the brain is doing when it wants to keep going.
Touch your forehead. The section of the brain behind there is called the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is called the decision-making center. Remember that race car. This part of the brain is like the brakes for the car. For some children, this brake system isn’t working as quickly.
Here is what happens.
You are sitting in the classroom. Your feet feel “itchy” like they have to move. Your teacher is talking. You are supposed to be taking notes. But you can’t stop thinking about how your feet are feeling. So you wiggle them a little. But that feeling isn’t going away. It is almost as if someone pushes you out of your chair. You get up and start moving around. Ah much better. Except now the teacher is yelling your name. You aren’t supposed to be moving around.
Your prefrontal cortex should have kept you in your chair. But it didn’t. Your motor cortex won.
Misinterpreting Gifted Behaviors
Here’s an example of a child with Gifted behaviors:
“Amy” cooking in the kitchen. Photo Source.
“My name is Amy. Sometimes my teacher tells me that I probably have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) because I am always moving around. But mom says I am good at home. I love helping her in the kitchen. Especially when we bake something. Chocolate cake is my favorite thing to bake. Especially because I get to lick the spoon afterward. Mom says that she doesn’t understand how I can read recipe books for hours. But I love them. I always want to make everything I read!”
Amy is like many children who are gifted. The gifted child often spends up to half of their classroom time waiting for the class to catch up. While waiting, it is not uncommon for the gifted student to show signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity that are very similar to a student with ADHD.
But can teachers tell the difference between a gifted child and one with ADHD?
I asked teachers to compare the classroom behavior of gifted children, like Amy, with those with ADHD. I was surprised to discover that the teachers rated both groups as showing hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.
The gifted child is also curious and inquisitive. In the classroom, this can look like oppositional behavior, like questioning rules, wanting to know “why”, even challenging authority figures. The same teachers also rated the gifted students as showing oppositional behaviors just like those with ADHD.
Despite these perceived behavioral similarities, the gifted students still outperformed the students with ADHD when it came to cognitive tests.
Gifted vs ADHD
There are three ways that a gifted child is very different from someone with ADHD.
A gifted child can focus their attention on many different activities, while a child with ADHD usually can focus their attention on one activity, usually TV or game-related. This means that a child-like Amy will have many interests, aside from screen-time activities, and can stay engaged for long periods of time.
- Location, location, location
While teachers report behavioral problems in gifted children, it is often the case that their parents don’t report similar problems. Why?
Behavioral problems in the gifted child are usually symptomatic of boredom and lack of challenging activities in the classroom to engage them.
In contrast, at home, their parents typically create an environment for them that is stimulating and challenging.
However, a child with ADHD displays behavioral problems, like inattention and hyperactivity, across different settings.
- Consistent performance
The gifted child is often laser-focused towards achieving a goal. As a result, they produce consistently good grades in the classroom. In contrast, a child with ADHD tends to “bounce” from one activity to another in a seemingly random way. The consequence of this is variability in their classroom performance.
Gifted + ADHD
There are a group of children who are classified as gifted, yet also diagnosed with ADHD. These children may do well in school until the curriculum becomes so challenging that it overloads their attentional resources.
Here is what researchers found can happen.
- Classroom: They perform poorly on standardized tests of ability because they lack focus during testing.
- School: They are more likely to repeat grades.
- Self: Gifted boys with ADHD show more emotional intensity and distress compared to boys with just ADHD.
- Friends: Gifted boys with ADHD have trouble in social groups and maintaining friendships.
- Brainpower: Gifted boys with ADHD love learning about science and space, and will read more about these topics that gifted boys without ADHD.
One way to identify whether a child is gifted or is struggling with ADHD is through psychological testing. If you live in Florida, we offer gifted testing via telehealth. Visit us at www.elephantclinic.com to find out more.
Three Tips to Motivate Your Child
So you have a child who is gifted and also has ADHD. Here are 3 tips to motivate them to persevere when they are losing focus and finding it too challenging.
Tip #1 – The 2:1 Criticism vs. Praise ratio is important.
As a parent, it can be tricky to know how to motivate a child, whether it’s on a football field or for homework.
You have two camps – the “tough-talking” parenting style and the “booster” parenting style.
The tough-talking parent wants to motivate by comparing their child to others; while the booster parent feel a need to constantly praise their child.
But it’s a question of balance – is there more criticism than praise in your household?
A new study that looked at over 400 families found that children didn’t mind criticism from their parents, as long as there was praise as well. In fact, the scientists identified a ratio of 2:1 of praise : criticism being most favored.
Tip #2 – Praise matters.
However, not all praise is equally beneficial and there are some tricks to make your praise most effective.
Praise efforts, not personal qualities. Here are a few examples:
Praise Efforts: “You worked so hard on that.”
Praise Person: “You are so smart.”
Praise Efforts: “You did a great job.”
Praise Person: “You are great!”
This may seem like a subtle difference – but it can have a big impact on their self-esteem. When we praise a child for their personal qualities, they connect it with their self-worth and view failure as a personal flaw and may think they are unworthy. But if we praise children for their efforts, they tend to view failure as a temporary setback or a lack of effort and not a character flaw.
Person praise can lead a child to think that they don’t need to continue trying since they are already doing a great job. Praising effort encourages them to keep achieving.
Researchers from the University of Chicago and Stanford University found that this difference can have long-term effects on a child. They looked at toddlers and then followed them up when they were 8 years old.
The toddlers who received process praise were not only better at solving difficult tasks, but they also believed they could change their outcome through hard work.
Tip# 3 – Being called “incredibly good” can be bad!
Inflated praise (using words like “incredibly” or “perfect”) is often given to children with low self-esteem. We try to bolster their confidence. However, this can backfire!
Children with low self-esteem feel that they constantly have to live up to such high praise and will choose easy activities to avoid failure. So in a way, we are doing a disservice to children with low self because inflated praise can actually cripple them for trying new things.
Researchers looked at over 200 children who while doing some artwork either received “normal” praise (Good job!) or “inflated praise” (Perfect!) from a painter.
When the children could pick their next art project, those with low self-esteem gravitated towards the easy ones because they were worried that they would not meet the high standards.
Learn More and Connect
Check out Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway’s book series “SEN Superpowers”, a collection of books to highlight, celebrate and build confidence in children diagnosed with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, or experiencing Anxiety. You can learn more about this series and order a copy for your child, classroom, or someone you love by visiting tracyalloway.com/parents or Amazon.com