How Smart Will My Child Be?

We have yet to meet a parent who believes their son or daughter is just … well … average. One of the pleasures of knowing our kids inside and out is the conviction that they have special gifts and talents beyond those of any ordinary kid. We hope beyond hope, but how do we really know? Are there signs we can count on?

Lots of research has been applied to this question. One of the foremost experts, Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University, believes that children have different ways of being smart. He calls these different capacities “multiple intelligences”, including verbal, logical, and musical, to name a few.

Deborah L. Ruf, PhD specializes in the assessment of gifted and talented children and has come up with the following scale that may be eye-opening:


These children show interest in many things before they are even 2, like colors, saying numbers in order and playing simple puzzles. They are often good talkers by age 3, and by 4 many print letters and numbers and know most of alphabet.
These children are nearly always a few steps ahead of what the teacher is teaching the class.


These children love looking at books and being read to, even turning pages by 15 months. Some shout out the name of familiar stores as you drive past. Many of these children know lots of letters by 18 months and colors by 20 months, and between ages 3 and 4, they count small groups of objects, print some letters and numbers, and they drive their parents crazy with all their questions.

Many of them read for pleasure and information on their own by age 6. Level two children may find only one or two others in their classroom who are as advanced as they are, which starts to make it hard to find good friends.


They’re often born wide-eyed and alert, looking around the room, reacting to noises, voices and faces. They know what adults are telling or asking them by 6 months. You say a toy, pet, or another person, and they will look for it. Everything level 2 children do by 15 months, these kids do by 10 to 12 months, and they can get family members to do what they want before they are actually talking. 

By 2 years, many like 35-plus piece puzzles, memorize favorite books, and know the entire alphabet. By 3 years they may talk constantly and skip count, count backwards and do simple adding and subtracting because they like to. They ask you to start easy readers before 5 years, and many figure out how to multiply, divide, and do some fractions by 6 years. Most of these children find school too slow and have few peers in the same elementary class, which can make them lonely. 


Level 4 babies love books and someone to read them. They pay attention within a few months of their birth. Level 4s are ahead of level 3s by 2 to 5 months before they turn 2. They have extensive, complex speaking and huge vocabularies by 2 and most can read easy readers by 3 1/2 to 4 1/2. They read independently for pleasure by 5, with comprehension for youth and adult level books by about 6. Without special arrangements they can feel very different from their typical classmates.


Level 5s have talents in every possible area. Everything comes sooner and more intense than other levels. They  pick out letters and numbers by 10 – 14 months and enjoy shape sorters before 11 months. They print letters, numbers, words, and their names between 16 – 24 months, and often use anything that is available to form shapes and figures. Musical, dramatic and artistic aptitudes usually present by 18 months. At 2 and 3 they ask about how things work.

They understand math concepts and basic math functions before age 4. Most read any level of book by 4 1/2 to 5 years. They read 6 or more years above grade level and usually hit grade 12 level by age 7 or 8. They occur more often than once in a million and regular grade school does not work for them. Levels 3 through 5 score similarly high on ability tests.

“Once you have a sense of your children’s abilities, you can provide them with more activities and experiences that build on these strengths and take advantage of their talents,” says Dr. Ruf.

Wow. After learning more about this kind of gifted and talented I’m kind of glad mine wouldn’t be considered more than Level 1! Take home message: embrace and enjoy the special talents of your lovable little guys and leave the overachieving dreams to those born to them!


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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