What Is Gifted and Why Does It Matter?

By Sharon Duncan

March, 2017

Giftedness is greatly misunderstood in American society. Surrounded by myths and often burdened by deeply emotional responses, even to the word itself, the needs of gifted and twice-exceptional children often go unrecognized or, worse, are dismissed. Because of this, and counter to conventional belief, gifted and 2e children are one of the most at-risk, special needs populations in the education system today. This article will look at what giftedness is, how it’s identified, why it’s important to know if a child is gifted, and what we can do to better understand and meet the needs of gifted children.

Giftedness Defined and Redefined

Gifted has historically been defined as someone who has an IQ of 130 or greater. However, there are many reasons why a gifted individual, especially one who is twice exceptional, might not score well on an IQ test. Prime among these reasons is that learning challenges can mask giftedness — just as giftedness can mask learning difficulties or disabilities. This can leave 2e children with neither set of needs being identified or met. Accordingly, while IQ is not an inaccurate measure of intelligence, it most certainly is not a comprehensive one.

Other Definitions of "Gifted"

Many researchers and educators prefer a quantifiable, research-based definition of giftedness, for example, standardized tests that validly measure intelligence. The gifted are those scoring above a certain cutoff on such a test — say, more than two standard deviations above normal. On a standard IQ test, this would be a score above 130, as mentioned in this article.

However, it’s also possible to define “gifted” through policy. The U.S. government uses legislation to define gifted and talented students, according to Wrightslaw, as those “who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”

The National Association for Gifted Children defines giftedness this way: “Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in [the] top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).”

This last definition acknowledges giftedness expressed in performance and giftedness expressed in different domains.

Editor

Unfortunately, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of giftedness. In the U.S., for example, nearly every state’s education department has its own definition. However, within the community of those who work with the gifted population, many favor a definition that goes beyond IQ score, written by the Columbus Group in 1991:

“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”

A core component of this definition is the term asynchronous development. The term means that, when compared to average childhood development rates, gifted children tend to develop unevenly intellectually, physically, and emotionally. What this might look like in practical terms is a child who appears to be many ages at once. For example, consider the nine-year-old who possesses the knowledge of a college professor in an area of interest; is able to argue with the logic of a top attorney; shows mastery of math at the 7th-grade level; reads at a 5th-grade level; and has the handwriting of a 6-year-old, the empathy of Mother Teresa, and temper tantrums like a 3-year-old.

When viewed in this manner, we can see the turmoil facing children whose internal experience of such uneven development may not match their ability to deal with it emotionally. The consequence of this discrepancy can be behaviors that run contrary to what many people believe giftedness should look like. For example, imagine a 7-year-old with a tremendous gift for writing, whose hand has not yet physically developed enough to keep up with recording the flood of her thoughts. This child may express the frustration of this internal experience by either refusing to participate in the simplest writing assignments or by acting out in anger. Both reactions may appear to show a lack of writing capability and/or behavioral issues when, in fact, the root cause is that the child is displaying gifted asynchrony and needs accommodations in order to be able to express herself to her full potential.

Another important component of the Columbus Group definition is the recognition that there are different levels of giftedness. While the IQ numbers associated with these levels vary depending on which assessment instruments are used, it is generally agreed upon that there are four levels of giftedness: moderately gifted, highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, and profoundly gifted. Just as awareness of different levels of intellectual disabilities are important to understand when working with a child so, too, are different levels of giftedness. 

School Identification

Schools use a wide variety of instruments to assess for giftedness. (See the sidebar on page 8 to find a source for information on the different types of assessments used.) While ability is usually a factor in identification, most schools rely heavily on a student’s demonstrated achievement as part of the identification process. Unfortunately, this identification criterion is both based on, and further fuels, the prevailing myth that giftedness is the same as achievement in school. While it is true that many gifted students do well in school, some, especially 2e children, may not. Gifted is not always synonymous with high achieving. The following chart highlights some major differences.

A Common Profile of
a High Achiever

A Common Profile of
a Gifted Learner

Motivated by good grades

Motivated by an innate rage to learn

Memorizes the answers

Asks probing questions

Answers with detail

Answers from multiple perspectives

Works hard to learn

Already knows

Needs 6 to 8 repetitions for mastery

Needs 0-2 repetitions for mastery

Grasps meaning

Draws inferences

Completes assignments

Initiates projects

Is receptive

Is intense

Listens with interest

Shows strong feelings, opinions; argues

Prefers sequential presentation of information

Thrives on abstraction

Is pleased with his or her own learning

Is highly self-critical

Adapted from Szabos, J. (1989). Bright child, gifted learner. Challenge, 34. Good Apple.

Making access to gifted services in schools dependent on achievement excludes many of the gifted students who need these services most, including both underachieving gifted students and 2e students. Other gifted students who may have difficulty demonstrating the academic achievement necessary for inclusion in programs are English-language learners and students from minority or low-income backgrounds. 

In an attempt to mitigate the tendency of traditional assessments and policies to miss some gifted students, schools frequently combine measures of ability and achievement test results with subjective assessments by teachers and others. However, because most educators receive little to no training about giftedness, their expectations of what giftedness looks like are sometimes inaccurate. They are often unaware of the significant impact educational fit has on a gifted student’s ability to perform.

In my role as a gifted advocate, one of the most common accommodations I negotiate is to allow gifted students who are performing poorly in a subject access to more challenging work. While this seems counterintuitive to traditional educational wisdom, it makes sense when one understands giftedness. Gifted students are usually greatly motivated by challenge, so much so that it is not unusual for them to perform much better on harder work than on easy work.

How Giftedness May Appear

Among those experienced in working with this population, many will tell you that, “you know giftedness when you see it.” Gifted individuals are simply different from the norm in the way they process, reason, react, and understand. It’s not what they have learned; it’s how they learn. It’s not the amount of knowledge they have accumulated; it’s how they connect and use that knowledge. It’s how they take in, respond to and experience the world, through an innately different lens.

A theory that can help us understand this better is provided by Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980). Dabrowski, who had an interest in the intellectual and emotional development of intellectually advanced individuals, developed the complex Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD). TPD is not a theory about giftedness and should never be confused with a definition of giftedness. However, a portion of the theory has been adopted by the gifted community because it provides a vocabulary to describe what many feel is the gifted experience. What Dabrowski observed is that individuals of higher intellect appear to respond more intensely to both internal and external stimuli. He noted that these reactions tend to be stronger than normal, for a longer time than normal, to stimuli that may be small or even unperceivable by others. He noticed five different areas of what he called superstimulatabilities and are now commonly referred to as overexcitabilities (OEs). The five OEs are shown in the following table.

Overexcitability

Individuals with this OE...

How it Looks in Gifted Children

Psychomotor

Have a surplus of energy (which can mimic and be confused with hyperactivity)

They may appear to be perpetual motion machines, unable to sit still. They twist, wiggle, and fidget. Even if their body happens to be still they may bombard you with rapid speech and talk or act compulsively. They can show intense drive and competitiveness; and while their enthusiasm can be infectious, they are often exhausting to be around. Having these wonderfully enthusiastic individuals on your team is likely to mean you get a lot done.

Intellectual

Are often described as having an insatiable drive to learn

They ask a million questions and cannot turn their mind off at night. They are independent thinkers and keen observers, driven to learn and attracted to both logic and abstract theory. Tending to be highly focused on moral concerns and issues of fairness, they often find the playground to be a challenge when they are young. Their strong need for everyone to play fairly by the rules is usually in sharp contrast to agemates who just want to have a good time.

Sensual

Experience powerful reactions to sensory input and have strong aesthetic awareness (which may be viewed as being overly sensitive or reactionary)

They may have heightened senses with regard to taste, texture, food, light, noise, odors, etc. They may need the tags cut from their clothing, may have an epic meltdown over a wrinkle in their sock, or possess picky eating habits. Intensely aware of and in awe of beautiful things, this may be the kindergartner who cries upon hearing Mozart, the student deeply drawn to poetry, the budding fashion designer, or the highly nuanced food critic.

Imaginational

Are often seen as highly creative, divergent thinkers

They are inventive, creative, and have strong visual thinking skills. So richly imaginative is their world that they may confuse reality with fantasy and become lost in magical thinking. For some, their mind’s internal world of richness and beauty can be so enticing that they zone out when they should be paying attention elsewhere. They can change boring things into fascinating, wonderful things. 

Emotional

Have extremely complex and intense emotions that can span the full range of human expression

They are deeply sensitive and often filter their entire existence in the world through their emotions. These individuals are loyal and keenly aware of the feelings of others. While a contributor to compassion and empathy, the emotional OE can also evoke feelings of inadequacy, self-criticism, and guilt. Both Dabrowski and many who work with the gifted population see this OE as the one most commonly displayed.

If you have a gifted child, it’s likely that these descriptions of the OEs resonate with you. Framing the behaviors and reactions of gifted individuals with the language of the OEs increases our understanding of their world and, therefore, our effectiveness in parenting and educating them. Experiencing the world in this unique and intense way carries with it great joys as well as challenges. A quote by Michael M. Piechowski Ph.D., sums up the intensity of the gifted experience well: “Intensity is not a matter of degree but of a different way of experiencing: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding, a way of being quiveringly alive.”

Some things to keep in mind about overexcitabilities are:

  • Not all gifted children display OEs.
  • While non-gifted individuals may also display them, OEs seem to be more common and more intense in gifted individuals.
  • OEs are not a problem to be “fixed” unless they are interfering with an individual’s life.
  • Though OEs may help explain reactions, they are not an excuse for bad behavior.

Why It Matters

Children are gifted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, not just the hours of the day they spend in school. Accordingly, the consequences of not understanding and meeting their needs involve their social and emotional well-being as well as their educational success. The price paid when we fail to identify and meet the needs of the gifted population can include:

  • Anxiety/depression
  • Underachievement
  • Social isolation
  • Poor/unhealthy identity formation
  • Unhealthy habits
  • Unwanted behaviors.

What can We Do about It?

Useful Resources on Giftedness and
Twice-exceptionality

SD

As an advocate for gifted children, I find it heartbreaking to hear the daily accounts of challenges that gifted and twice-exceptional children face. Most of these challenges could be addressed if people better understood the impact that being gifted has on an individual. Here are some ways in which we can work together to help remedy this situation for this population of children: 

  • Lobby for professional training. Gifted children will remain misunderstood, and even pathologized, until mandatory training about giftedness is part of the professional licensure for educators, mental health professionals, occupational therapists, and others who work with this population. It is important that the whole person and not just the academic needs of the gifted child be understood by all.
  • Actively promote social change. As parents and professionals, we are in the best position to help society understand that the designation gifted is not elitist. We know that gifted individuals are neither “better than” nor “worse than.” Gifted simply describes a facet of an individual. Though many parents have faced a backlash in attempting to get their children’s needs met, we need to be brave about speaking the truth about the joys and the challenges of raising these children and help people become aware of the negative impact that not meeting their needs can have.
  • Provide true academic challenge. In a society that believes we overcome obstacles by learning to work hard, we too often unintentionally deny this lesson to our gifted children. Gifted students sometimes don’t encounter academic challenge until college. Then, away from home and unsupported, they may find themselves in crisis because they were never given the same opportunity as their classmates to learn resiliency. Gifted children have the same right as other children, to learn new things every day. Educators should assess where gifted children are academically and provide appropriate learning material no matter what the grade level of that material might be.
  • Focus on strengths. Well-meaning professionals often spend their time helping 2e children work through their challenges, at the expense of providing services for their giftedness. As a result, 2e children sometimes begin to define themselves by their weaknesses instead of their amazing strengths. It is important that 2e children be provided services that address their gifts in addition to their challenges.

Support and acceptance of giftedness affect the entire family. Gifted children sometimes use the word “alien” to describe how they feel amongst their classmates. The parents of gifted children often feel the same way amongst other parents.

Some people recognize gifted children for who they are and are adept at helping them grow and mature; not so with others. It pains parents to see their children being misunderstood, and it devastates them to witness their children’s grief as they recognize this lack of understanding from others. In reaction, some gifted children begin to distort their own image in order to better fit in. Sometimes they adopt this façade so well that, over time, they lose track of their own true identity and never fully realize how extraordinary they are.

After all, if the traits and behaviors of giftedness are not recognized and embraced by the people around them, gifted children can hardly be expected to recognize and embrace them within themselves. Parents’ ability to understand and delight in their children’s giftedness not only helps these children to form a healthy self-identity, it is a reminder of how fortunate those parents are to have a front-row seat to such an amazing show.

Myths about Giftedness

There is no mandatory training on giftedness for educators or mental health professionals. Therefore, it is imperative for parents of gifted and 2e children to understand the prevailing myths surrounding giftedness in order to be able to address them when they inevitably arise. Here is a list of some of the most common myths about giftedness.

  • Gifted students don’t need help; they’ll do fine on their own.
  • Teachers challenge all students, so gifted kids will be fine in the regular classroom.
  • Acceleration is harmful.
  • All children are gifted.
  • Gifted students always get good grades and do well in school.
  • AP courses are an acceptable substitute for gifted programming.
  • A child with a learning disability cannot be gifted.
  • Gifted education requires an abundance of resources.
  • It is important for gifted students to learn to get along with others their own age.
  • There is no need to identify gifted students in the early grades.
  • Gifted children are easy to raise and a welcome addition to any classroom.

Find out how to rebut these myths when advocating for your child here: www.gro-gifted.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Myths-about-gifted-children-debunked-for-GRO.pdf.
SD

Sharon Duncan is a co-founder of Gifted Identity (www.giftedidentity.com) and Gifted Research and Outreach Inc. (www.gro-gifted.org), and is a regular presenter at state and national conferences on various topics about gifted children. As an independent consultant, she works with parents, educators, schools, and districts to help them understand and meet the social, emotional, and educational needs of gifted children. She consults with parents on educational decisions and options, provides training to educators on the innate characteristics and behaviors of giftedness, and teams with parents and educators to find solutions to a wide variety of classroom challenges. In addition, she is a SENG Model Parent Group facilitator, is a member of the advisory board of a private school for highly gifted children, and has served on the Mensa Youth Programming Committee.    

Working to Affect Change

Sharon Duncan believes that to bring about wide-sweeping, permanent changes for gifted and 2e children we must ensure that “the professionals who are in positions of impact are equipped with the information they need to effectively assist this population.” To that end she, along with several others, founded GRO, which stands for Gifted Research and Outreach Inc. The mission of this non-profit organization, according to Duncan, is “to promote a comprehensive and accurate understanding of giftedness through research and outreach.” She explained that “throughout history many changes in the areas of mental health and education came about because of advances in the medical field.” With that in mind, GRO was formed with a commitment to the following:

  • Researching the physiology of giftedness, including brain anatomy, neurotransmitters, gastrointestinal sensitivities, genes, allergies, metabolism, microbiota, hormones, and the nervous system
  • Educating medical, psychological, and teaching professionals about the physical and psychological impacts of giftedness
  • Cultivating a national outreach campaign to correct myths and inspire social change so that the needs of gifted individuals may be openly discussed.

For information on GRO research and outreach campaigns, visit the website: www.gro-gifted.org.
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