Just what is a gifted child

Labels are unimportant until you realize that people still use them and sometimes not in the same way

ASKING "WHAT IS a gifted child?" is a good question to start with.

The label "gifted" is considered by many to be unfortunate, with its connotations of good fortune and superiority, and more significantly its implied labelling of others as "ungifted". But it has nonetheless been commonly used in academic literature and in general conversation - in the latter field it has of course been abused as well.

A definition constructed by the NSW Parents and Citizens Association and accepted by their 2000 Annual Conference expresses it this way:

"Gifted/talented children are those children who possess an untrained and spontaneously expressed natural ability in at least one ability domain significantly beyond that typically seen in children of the same age. Giftedness comes in many forms and levels. It is found in students of all socio-economic groups, and of diverse personalities and backgrounds. It can be combined with other exceptionalities/special needs such as learning disabilities, socio-economic disadvantage, geographic isolation, Aboriginality and having English as a second language."

Note the emphasis on potential rather than achievement as the defining characteristic. There may be many constraints that prevent the potential from being realized, such as those mentioned in the last sentence above. Of course, the emphasis on potential or natural ability, raises the question of how this can be detected or measured.

The United States Office of Education definition (Marland 1982) suggests gifted and talented students are those "who have outstanding abilities, are capable of high performance and who require differentiated educational programs (beyond those normally provided by regular school programs) in order to realise their contribution to self and society".

The last element, that of the need of this group of children for differentiated educational response, is of course the prime reason why gifted children need the label - it is not a label to be worn proudly as if earnt, but rather an indication of special need, even if this special need is different from those who are more often associated with the "special needs" label.

The same source suggests demonstrated achievement or potential ability can be in:

  • general intellectual ability
  • specific academic aptitude
  • creative or productive thinking
  • leadership ability
  • visual and performing arts
  • psychomotor abilities

This idea of different types of gifts has been developed by Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences. The key point is to realise that gifts and gifted children don't all come in the same box, their gifts and talents may be across many fields or particular to one. And gifted children can have learning difficulties or disabilities too. A child may have an extraordinary talent in reading and comprehension but need remediation in mathematics. Indeed some of the more difficult (perhaps tragic) cases of a child unable to find an educational fit occur when he or she is gifted and suffers specific learning difficulties at the same time. These Gifted Learning Disabled (GLD) children often have neither of their needs met - their erratic performance is neither superior enough or depressed enough to gain them access to special provisions that might alleviate their frustrations and often low self-esteem.

Gifted and talented students can show the same diversity of personalities and learning styles as other groups of students. They too, for example, can be inhibited and slow to respond. Some may be exceptionally or profoundly gifted in one or more areas. Consequently the "gifted" label covers a wide range of student abilities and needs and any one standard "gifted program" may well not meet a particular gifted child's needs - ideally an appropriately tailored program should start with an appraisal of the needs of that child.

A range of 2-5% is often used to demarcate the gifted within a particular domain, but whatever cut-off is used is artificial. Even if measurement were perfect (which it is not) there is far more difference between a child at the top 0.1% and top 1% levels than between those that are just included or just excluded.

Whereever possible sharp demarcation lines should be avoided. Instead the use of clearly described programs (including what is expected and the work standards involved) and self-nomination should be preferred. This allows for the huge range of aspects (many poorly measurable) that can make up giftedness in a particular area, and also avoids many of the conflicts that surround gifted programs.

Taking the many areas in which gifts and talents might lie into account, possibly some 15-20% of the overall population are "gifted" in one or more areas. Gifted children are not rare. This group still includes a wide range of abilities. Highly gifted children are rarer, and exceptionally and profoundly gifted children much more so. Moreover their needs can be sharply different, and only poorly met by programs aimed at the general "gifted" child.

Gifted children are not always easy to identify. Potential does not always show in achievements. There can be many impediments that block or misdirect the development of the ability. Gagne (1995) has developed this understanding of the role of the child's motivation and of factors in the child's environment (family, school, peers, etc) that may hinder the child's ability being realized into achievements. Not all gifted children are achievers. Many hide their potential in order to try to fit in with their class. No wonder then, that even teachers are not typically good at identifying gifted children, although research suggests that, with training in gifted and talented education, teachers can significantly improve their record at identification (Gear 1978, Pegnato & Birch 1959).

It is not simply a matter of IQ testing though this can identify unidentifed giftedness of certain types. Rather use of multiple identification criteria from a variety of sources is generally most effective, with inclusion of a child in the event of doubt. A school, looking particularly for academic giftedness, might use all of the following:

  • teacher nominations (these are far more accurate with pre- and inservice training in gifted education),
  • behavioural checklists (there are many lists of characteristics that students gifted in one or more areas may exhibit),
  • parent nominations (via parent questionnaire as to the child's characteristics, interests and home achievements at time of enrolment, and an openness throughout the student's time at the school for the parent to raise concerns and highlight any discrepancies between home and school performance),
  • peer nominations (with questions such as "who would you turn to with such and such a problem?"),
  • self nominations (made easier when specific programs are advertised and open to the whole school - well-hidden talents can be discovered this way),
  • standardised tests, and
  • IQ tests (including tests which are designed to minimise culture or language bias, eg Ravens).

Identification by parents is often accurate, despite the myth that parents always think their children are bright. Parents are in the best position to know the child and its inner strivings, and their major difficulties are often not having a ready comparison (particularly in the case of only or eldest children), and of overcoming, when appropriate, the desire not to appear to be "pushy". Behavioural checklists often assist with the first difficulty, and a consideration of the alternatives, particularly with problems at school, generally encourages some sort of advocacy role.

© David Farmer 19 February 1997 - This piece has been adapted from text I wrote for an educational video/booklet package Meeting the Needs of Gifted Students in the Regular Classroom