"Did you hear what he just said?" Many parents see every word their child utters or every squiggle he draws as evidence of his being gifted. Though most children aren't identified as gifted until they begin formal school, some show signs of being gifted at a very early age.

Gifted child Ben Hellerstein of Larchmont, N.Y., for instance, was actually reading nonfiction books and memorizing facts by the age of 4. His mother wishes she had realized that he was academically advanced at that time. "If I had," she says wistfully, "he could have gotten the help he needed in school earlier than he did, and his first year of school wouldn't have been so unhappy."

Signs of giftedness in a preschooler

Your 2- to 4-year-old may be gifted if he:

  • Has a specific talent, such as artistic ability or an unusual facility for numbers. For example, children who draw unusually realistic pictures or who can manipulate numbers in their head may be gifted.
  • Reaches developmental milestones well ahead of peers.
  • Has advanced language development, such as an extensive vocabulary or the ability to speak in sentences much earlier than other children his age.
  • Is relentlessly curious and never seems to stop asking questions.
  • Is unusually active, though not hyperactive. While hyperactive children often have a short attention span, gifted children can concentrate on one task for long periods of time and are passionate about their interests.
  • Has a vivid imagination. Gifted children often create a vast and intricate network of imaginary friends with whom they become very involved.
  • Is able to memorize facts easily and can recall arcane information that he learns from television shows, movies, or books.

Other signs of giftedness may be a little harder to discern. By age 3 or 4, for example, some gifted children begin to realize that they are "different" from their peers. This can make them feel isolated and withdrawn; it may also make them likely targets for bullying.

They may begin to experience intense frustration because they can think more rapidly than they can express themselves, verbally or physically. If your child appears unusually angry or frustrated, you may want to consult a mental health professional.

Testing your preschooler for giftedness

Though you may want to know if your preschooler is gifted, most children don't need to be tested for giftedness before entering elementary school. However, consultations with a mental health professional may be appropriate if your preschooler appears to be unusually bored in school or shows any signs of emotional or social problems.

If your child is enrolled in preschool, speak to the teacher or school director to find out if the school is affiliated with any mental health professionals who specialize in working with gifted children. If your child is not in school or the school isn't being receptive to your concerns, ask your pediatrician to refer you to a child psychologist who conducts tests for giftedness. Keep in mind that that although private testing is often expensive (testing and follow-up consultation can run as high as $1,000), your insurance plan may cover the cost.

Children as young as 3 can be given IQ and ability tests, but experts believe that IQ test results obtained before the age of 5 are unstable — that is, if a child is retested, his scores can fluctuate significantly until this age. Years ago, children whose IQ scores were over 130 were considered gifted (the range for average intelligence is 85 to 115); today, however, IQ is one factor among many that need to be evaluated before a child is identified as gifted. Often parents and teachers will be asked to write their impressions of a child, and these subjective measures are considered along with test data