Gifted Children

What are gifted children? Are not all children special and given talents and gifts we have to help develop and cherish? Yes, this is true! Gifted children are special as all children are, but they have special skills and needs!

Certainly all children are special, but some have been born with special talents or special cognitive skills and intellectual abilities which often do not really help them flourish, but hinder them during their development. This simply because their special talents, skills and cognitive abilities are not acknowledged by the community, thus making the gifted kids stand out from their age group because they are obviously different and act different than their peers. Did you know that more than 5% of all people are highly gifted or talented?

True giftedness is still an under-researched and under-published sensitive topic in society and even in the educational environment, and as thus not openly acknowledged and discussed. The special needs of this specific group in the population are rarely addressed and unfortunately most of the currently very popular integration and inclusion programmes are underdeveloped in this regards.

How to deal with gifted children? image:

Results of standardised intelligence assessment tests which are often applied when children who 'struggle' at school are referred to an educational psychologist are often frowned upon. Instead of creating opportunities for the positively tested gifted child to thrive and in a wider context inspire, motivate and uplift not only themselves, but the whole community around them, are neglected. 

When parents receive the news that their child has been diagnosed as 'gifted' there hardly is further support available. Often society including the educational sector, and sometimes even family and close friends, have difficulties to understand this diagnosis.

We also should remember that giftedness does not diminish with age and 'does not go away', it is part of the individual and will manifest throughout all ages. Therefore, we all have to learn to deal with the challenges of giftedness when dealing with 'different' people as part of our diverse society. 

What means 'gifted'?

There is no standard definition of giftedness. High performance or achievement capabilities in the various areas such as intellectual, artistic, creative or leadership capabilities are recognised manifestations of such giftedness. Several standardised tests of intelligence and cognitive abilities are available to professionals which rank the individual abilities, among them the renowned Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, the Wechsler Intelligence Scales or the Woodcock-Johnson III assessment, but although there a many other screening tests available, several are providing less accurate measurements than these full assessments. These tests all measure individual abilities and provide information of 'gifted' persons as being among the top achievers in the relation with average achievers.The majority of professional assessments rank giftedness in scores of 130 or more, (score of 100 indicates average ability) but usually it means that a gifted person belongs to the top 2%-3% achievers in the population.

Giftedness has no age limit and does not increase or diminish with age. Giftedness is an inherent trait regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic background or culture. Gifted children often display already early on certain characteristics which makes them stand out as 'different' and occasionally leads to psychological or educational assessments where then giftedness might be confirmed. Schools usually will only recognise giftedness and provide support if children are academically extremely strong and are two or more classes ahead of their peers. Unfortunately, however, many gifted children are underachievers in school due to their different learning style which usually is not supported, disinterest in rote learning, demotivation resulting from traditional teaching methods and repetition as well as a perceived 'negative' attitude.

Kinds of giftedness

There are various kinds of giftedness, which are usually manifestations of being gifted and talented: 

  • high performance in academic disciplines
  • high performance in artistic, creative or intellectual field
  • high capacity for leadership

Is your child gifted?

As mentioned above, giftedness manifests in many different ways. So how do we recognise if your or another child, a pupil, a friend is being gifted?

Children who are gifted often display different likes and dislikes than their peers such playing strategy games and reading non-fiction books or watching history movies. Reading early on instead of playing with their peers or reasoning and discussing topics with adults instead of conversing within their age group as well as strong concern for fairness or showing compassion are common signs with gifted kids.

Parents and teachers might realise early that the child is different in attitude and behaviour and need to intervene when a child is displaying advanced maturity either in academics, emotional or physical conditions. Undiagnosed gifted children who might be able to speed read at a very young age but still have learning disabilities such as dyslexia and thus are 'twice exceptional' (2e) are almost unsupported. It is a common occurrence, that these children might have difficulties in producing written content, but can mask this disability successfully and might manage to gain average marks instead of excelling in the subject. Look out for these common manifestations in the child's behaviour.

10 common signs and characteristics of gifted children

Children who are gifted often:

  1. are extremely curious and inquisitive. Beware that often this curiosity and inattention to explanations is misunderstood as disinterest or attention deficit.
  2. are keen observers and visual learners. They are often good at mental games and brain teasers, such as remembering number chains and mental arithmetic where they automatically use visualisation techniques which helps them to provide quick answers and solutions.
  3. are creative and often display talents in the arts. Often they learn to play musical instruments easily and show an interest in music at an early age or they display more creativity when drawing. Many gifted children love to act or impersonate others, many excel in the performing arts.
  4. have a vivid imagination and love reading and story telling. Already at a young age, many display likes for documentary films and quiz shows while they show dislike for typical children's shows or fairy tale movies.
  5. quickly adapt to new situations and tend to be more flexible with changes in their environment. Giften children thus often struggle with regular school work and tend to get bored easily with rote exercises.
  6. usually are quick thinkers, reason well, learn more rapidly and demonstrate the need for intellectual stimulation as they tend to get bored easily if they are not interested in a topic or when others take longer to grasp or apply more complex concepts
  7. interact less with their peers than with adults or older students and seek out challenges and information which is not deemed age-appropriate or age-relevant
  8. like to dismantle and/or fix household objects and like designing, drawing plans and constructing. They might build elaborate objects with lego bricks or fishertechnik construction systems at an early age and rearrange objects quickly to suit a certain order. 
  9. are very good in playing memory games and arranging jigsaw puzzles. Young kids might be able to do a puzzle with 500 or even 1000 pieces or more within in a short period of time.
  10. are more 'intense', more sensitive and have a strong feeling for fairness. Gifted children often question authority. Teachers often feel 'stretched' and exhausted as some gifted kids can be very demanding due to their curiosity and abundant energy.

This checklist by Linda Kreger Silverman is very useful for a quick initial evaluation.

How to deal with gifted children?

Gifted children tend to be more vulnerable and often children not fitting in are not accepted and sadly they are subsequently are often bullied by their peers. Giftedness is often only acknowledged when gifted children display unhappiness to attending pre-school, school, after-school activities and educational support is asked for. Often when these children are bullied (by coaches and teachers as much as by their peers or even well-meaning family and friends) due to displaying different behaviour than their peers, educational psychologists are called who then ideally assesses the child also for giftedness.

There are certain steps which help to overcome the challenges when dealing with a gifted child:

  • Communicate with your school openly and find out if they can provide a 'gifted programme' or support and whether they offer accelerated learning options. Emotional support is usually needed as well and options therein have to be discussed as well with the school counsellor, if available.
  • Organise group activities for children which span over various ages. Wider age brackets are much more suitable when supporting the different interests of children. A gifted child might fit in better with older children than their peer group.
  • Stimulate the intellectual abilities of the child and discuss topics that still suit sensitive children. Beware when visiting the movies that gifted children often prefer factual stories to fiction and fairy tale adaptations as their imagination runs wilder than is usually anticipated and they are much more easily scared and often start displaying anxiety when they are overstimulated in this regard.
  • Talk to your child's teachers and ask them for extension material to keep your child busy when he/she finishes more quickly with class work. Note that children should not only be the teacher's support partner in team work, but be continuously challenged to learn and experience new things. 
  • Ask your child to support their peers (and teacher) and share their knowledge when others need help, but encourage him/her also to voice his interest in learning more to his teachers.
  • Provide motivation in areas your child is interested in and research extra-curricular activities in your area. Learn with your child or arrange tuition with private tutors in extension subjects such as additional foreign languages, dance, drama and arts classes. 
  • Attend a variety of events or 'Kinder-Uni' or young student sessions which might be available at your local university. This will help to spike the interest of budding students and stimulate interest in self-studying challenging topics further.

Inclusion or separation?

Not all gifted children thrive in a standard school environment. Many gifted kids display, as described above, high intensity and sensitivity in addition to the advanced intellectual abilities. Children with high cognitive abilities usually do not conform well with rote learning and get frustrated easily within tradition learning environments. Most school teachers are not trained in working with highly gifted children and see these pupils as trouble makers due to the fact that these children often act as 'class-clowns' because they are bored or 'weirdos' and 'nerds' who are bullied and lack confidence and thus are seen as negatively impacting the class atmosphere and teaching time.

Inclusion trends in mainstream schooling often do not support special needs teaching for high-ability children, but generally focus on the deficiencies more than on the strengths of the children's age-specific groups. Although inclusion is advancing in regards to including pupils with a range of physical and psychical disabilities, acknowledgement of giftedness and thus inclusion of specific gifted programmes is rarely attained. Special schools for children with a high IQ are a rare occurrence  all over the world, although in Canada and the USA the awareness is certainly greater and more support is provided than anywhere else.

In most countries, there are hardly any initiatives and educational projects supported by the governments and education departments to increase awareness of giftedness in education. Additional training in gifted education and assistance for teachers to understand the implication of giftedness in the school environment is of high importantance. Insufficiently trained teachers and staff will only further the asynchron development in gifted children and lead to more frustration.

Therefore, homeschooling is seen by many parents as the best way to individualise the learning experience and accelerate learning. Then it is also possible to promote or intensify learning experiences in subjects which are often under-represented in mainstream schooling. Individual tutor lessons often help identify specific problem areas and provide support where additional input is needed. Also the emotional and social needs of gifted children are often better catered for in small learning groups and homeschooling environments as well where meetings with like-minded children can be sought and encouraged.

Read more about the advantages and disadvantages of homeschooling here.

Research and Further Reading

Great resources to read about this topic, get insights and find help:

For parents/teachers:

For pupils/students:


Regina Gräff is the founder and editor of the free info sites and and co-author of the 'Living in South Africa' handbook. Born and raised in Germany, she has a MA phil degree in languages and intercultural communication. Regina is a serial expat and has worked as a teacher and educational consultant in various countries including the USA, Australia, Singapore and the UK. Since 2005, she lives with her family in Cape Town/South Africa. 

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