Giftedness in a child is an ability significantly higher than other children of the same age. The focus was initially on intellectual giftedness, but has broadened to include a multitude of abilities.
Gifted children often develop asynchronously—their minds are often ahead of their physical growth, and specific cognitive and emotional functions are often at different stages of development. Also, giftedness is often distributed unevenly across the various intellectual spheres. Thus an individual may qualify as gifted through exceptional mathematical ability, yet be below average in spelling or verbal abilities. Mainstream education places more emphasis on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence when speaking of the gifted child; however individuals may excel in a variety of additional abilities, such as musical, spatial, or kinesthetic. The identification and support for those gifted in such areas cannot be done through standard IQ tests and accelerated education.
The recognition of gifted children and their needs raises questions regarding educational philosophy, techniques, and assessment. Some gifted children easily reach high levels of functioning in their particular area of strength, but may lag woefully behind in other areas, whether intellectual, emotional, or social. Successful gifted education of such individuals requires greater attention to the balance of different areas of development in order to allow them to reach maturity as a whole person.
The formal identification of giftedness is an important issue for schools, as the instruction of gifted students often presents special challenges. However, the definition of giftedness may vary dependent on what is valued in a particular culture or society. Also, the definition and identification of giftedness has expanded and changed as new theories of intelligence have been developed.
In the 1950s, researchers and psychologists mainly identified giftedness in terms of a high score on an IQ test. IQ testers have used the following classifications to describe differing levels of giftedness. Each band of 15 points represents a difference of one standard deviation from the mean.
In earlier times, the term genius was widely used to describe gifted children, but it is now limited to the exceptionally gifted, with an IQ (Intelligence Quotient) that tests higher than 160. Only a small fraction of the numbers of gifted are classified as geniuses.
Prodigy is a term commonly used to describe young children who display a high level of skill in a particular endeavor at a very early age.
Savants are people that perform exceptionally in one field of learning. Such an individual may be well-versed in literature or science, with an exceptional skill in a specialized field of learning, alongside other ordinary abilities or marked deficits. "Autistic savantism" formerly called "idiot savant" refers to the exceptional abilities exhibited by autistics or people with developmental disorders. They may have severe impairments in communication, language, and sensitivity to others, yet are outstanding in one area, such as numerical calculation, musical performance, or drawing.
Still today, gifted children are often classified by the use of IQ tests, but developments in theories of intelligence have raised serious questions about the appropriate uses and limits of such testing.
David A. Sousa proposed a definition of giftedness in 1978 in his book How the Gifted Brain Learns. He theorized that it resulted from the interaction of three traits: general or specific abilities that are above average, commitment to task, and creativity. His work was a catalyst for school districts to include more opportunities for creative expression in their programs for gifted children.
While many people believe giftedness is a strictly quantitative difference, measurable by IQ tests, a number of people have described giftedness as a fundamentally different way of perceiving the world, which in turn affects every experience had by the gifted individual. These differences do not disappear when gifted children become adults or leave school. Gifted adults are seldom recognized as a special population, but they still have unique psychological, social, and emotional needs related to their high intelligence.
In her Identifying Gifted Children: A Practical Guide, Susan K. Johnsen explained that gifted children all exhibit the potential for high performance in the areas included in the United States federal definition of gifted and talented students:
The term "gifted and talented" when used in respect to students, children, or youth means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such capabilities." (P.L. 103–382, Title XIV, 388)
This definition has been adopted in part or completely by the majority of the states in the United States. Most have some definition similar to that used in Texas, whose definition states
"gifted and talented student" means a child or youth who performs at or shows the potential for performing at a remarkably high level of accomplishment when compared to others of the same age, experience, or environment, and who
- exhibits high performance capability in an intellectual, creative, or artistic area;
- possesses an unusual capacity for leadership; or
- excels in a specific academic field." (74th legislature of the State of Texas, Chapter 29, Subchapter D, Section 29.121)
The major characteristics of these definitions are (a) the diversity of areas in which performance may be exhibited (such as intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership, and academic), (b) the comparison with other groups (those in general education classrooms or of the same age, experience, or environment), and (c) the use of terms that imply a need for development of the gift (capability and potential).
Most researchers have come to refrain from defining giftedness solely in terms of IQ tests and have broadened its usage to include other characteristics of giftedness, such as creativity and motivation, or a person’s contributions to culture and society.
The multiple intelligences hypothesis put forth by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book Frames of Mind states there are several types of intelligences, each with its own type of genius. In his book The Disciplined Mind he writes of the necessity to reinstall three very important qualities into the educational system—truth, beauty, and morality. Based on his work, giftedness can be defined as a child being exceptionally competent in one or more of the following areas:
It has become increasingly accepted that giftedness in other domains does not require a high score on an IQ test. Schools are increasingly using the concept of multiple intelligences as an alternative tool to identify gifted students. In addition, emphasis on intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences may reduce some of the social and emotional challenges that gifted children often experience.
Several years after Howard Gardner’s work was published, Robert Sternberg proposed another view of intelligence. He described three types of intelligence—analytical, creative, and practical—and suggested that giftedness results from an ability to perform the skills in one or more of these areas with exceptional accuracy and efficiency. Various combinations of these three areas produce different patterns of giftedness. His work was useful in matching teaching methods with student strengths to produce higher achievement patterns. In 1995, Sternberg introduced another theory that describes giftedness as meeting the following five criteria:
He does caution that this theory, while useful, should be used in conjunction with other accepted assessment measures.
The IQ test is one of the measures still used to identify giftedness. The general cutoff for many programs is that children test two standard deviations above the mean.
Unfortunately, most IQ tests do not have the capacity to discriminate accurately at higher IQ levels, and are perhaps only effective at determining whether a student is gifted rather than distinguishing among levels of giftedness. Although the Wechsler tests have a ceiling of about 160, their creator has admitted that they are intended to be used within the average range (between 70 and 130), and are not intended for use at the extreme ends of the population. The Stanford-Binet form L-M, currently outdated, was the only test that had a sufficient ceiling to identify the exceptionally and profoundly gifted. However, because the instrument is outdated, results derived from the instrument generate inflated and inaccurate scores.
The Stanford-Binet form V and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children—Fourth Revision, both recently released, are currently being evaluated for this population. Mensa offers IQ testing but these are only suitable for persons over the age of ten and a half years. Younger children need to be assessed by an educational psychologist to find out their IQ score. Also, those who are more gifted in areas such as the arts and literature tend to do poorly on IQ tests, which are generally verbal- and mathematical-skills related.
It is generally agreed that giftedness may have a genetic component; research has shown that first-degree relatives of the intellectually gifted will often have IQs measuring within 10–15 points of each other.
Many schools use a variety of measures of students' capability and potential when identifying gifted children. These may include portfolios of student work, classroom observations, achievement measures, and intelligence scores. Most educational professionals accept that no single measure can be used in isolation to accurately identify a gifted child. Equally, no single gifted education program is appropriate for all gifted children.
Generally, gifted individuals learn more quickly, deeply, and broadly than their peers. Gifted children may learn to read early and operate at the same level as normal children who are significantly older. The gifted tend to demonstrate high reasoning ability, creativity, curiosity, a large vocabulary, and an excellent memory. They often can master concepts with few repetitions. They may also be physically and emotionally sensitive, perfectionistic, and may frequently question authority. Typically the rebellion, whether active or passive, reflects underlying feelings of alienation. Some have trouble relating to or communicating with their peers because of disparities in vocabulary size (especially in the early years), personality, and interests. As children, they are out of step with their peers and their social concept improves when placed with children of similar ability.
Gifted children often develop asynchronously—their minds are often ahead of their physical growth, and specific cognitive and emotional functions are often at different stages of development. One frequently cited example of asynchronicity in early cognitive development is Albert Einstein, who did not speak until the age of three, but whose later fluency and accomplishments belied this initial delay. Regarding this example, neuroscientist Steven Pinker theorized that, rather than viewing Einstein's (and other famously gifted late-talking individuals) adult accomplishments as existing distinct from, or in spite of, his early language deficits, and rather than viewing Einstein's language delay itself as a "disorder," it may be that Einstein's genius and his delay in speaking were developmentally intrinsic to one another.
Giftedness is frequently not evenly distributed throughout all intellectual spheres: an individual may excel in solving logic problems and yet be a poor speller; another gifted individual may be able to read and write at a far above average level and yet have trouble with mathematics. There appear to be different types of giftedness with their own unique features, just as there are different types of developmental delay.
Some gifted individuals experience heightened sensory awareness and may seem overly sensitive to sight, sound, smell, and touch. For example, they may be extremely uncomfortable when they have a wrinkle in their sock, or unable to concentrate because of the sound of a clock ticking on the other side of the room. Hypersensitivity to external stimuli can be said to resemble a proneness to "sensory overload," which can cause persons to avoid chaotic and crowded environments. Others, however, are able to tune out any unwanted distractions as they focus on a task or on their own thoughts, and seem to seek and thrive on being in the midst of activity and stimulation. In many cases, awareness may fluctuate between conditions of hyper stimulation and of withdrawal. These conditions may appear to be similar to symptoms of hyperactivity, bipolar disorder, autism-spectrum conditions, and other psychological disorders. They may also be explained by reference to Kazimierz Dabrowski's theory of Positive Disintegration.
Daniel Goleman’s work brought attention to the powerful influence of emotions in a child’s growth and learning. Goleman believed that emotions interact with reason to determine how we view the world and to support or inhibit learning. An individual who can use emotions effectively is likely to become a more successful and productive citizen. The Unification Theory of Education  presents a similar viewpoint that in order to develop genius and nurture the child's gift, there must be balance including education of character and heart as well as the more specific mastery of knowledge and skills.
Gifted individuals experience the world differently, resulting in unique social and emotional issues. The work of Kazimierz Dabrowski suggests that gifted children have greater psychomotor, sensual, imaginative, intellectual, and emotional "overexcitabilities" (OE). While every gifted child may not exhibit each OE, gifted children almost always exhibit higher than average intellectual and emotional intensities. Dabrowski called having high levels of intensities the “Tragic Gift.” To the layperson, these intensities might be perceived as psychopathological rather than indicators of a strong potential for advanced personality development. The following sections describe some of the challenges gifted children face.
Isolation is one of the main challenges faced by gifted individuals, especially those with no social network of gifted peers. In order to gain popularity, gifted children will often try to hide their abilities to win social approval. Strategies include underachievement and the use of less-sophisticated vocabulary when among same-age peers than when among family members or other trusted individuals. This is more common in gifted girls, who may be socialized to hide their abilities.
The isolation experienced by gifted individuals may not be caused by giftedness itself, but by society's response to giftedness. "In this culture, there appears to be a great pressure for people to be 'normal' with a considerable stigma associated with giftedness or talent." To counteract this problem, gifted education professionals recommend creating a peer group based on common interests and abilities. The earlier this occurs, the more effective it is likely to be in preventing isolation.
Perfectionism is a common emotional issue for gifted individuals.
When perfectionism refers to having high standards, a desire to achieve, conscientiousness, or high levels of responsibility, it is likely to be a virtue rather than a problem. Perfectionism becomes a problem as it frustrates and inhibits achievements. Perfectionism becomes desirable when it stimulates the healthy pursuit of excellence.
Hamachek identified six specific, overlapping behaviors associated with perfectionism. They include (1) depression, (2) a nagging "I should" feeling, (3) shame and guilt feelings, (4) face-saving behavior, (5) shyness and procrastination, and (6) self-deprecation.
There are many reasons that may explain the correlation between perfectionism and giftedness. Gifted children may have difficulty with perfectionism because they set standards that would be appropriate to their mental age (the level at which they think), but then are unable to meet them because they are trapped in a younger body. Perfectionism is also encouraged by the fact that gifted individuals tend to be successful in much or all of what they do because their abilities have not been challenged, and consequently try to avoid failure.
Another problem often associated with giftedness is underachievement. Many gifted students will continually do well on reasoning tests, but will fail to turn in assignments or attend or participate in class. Overall, they will be disengaged from the educational process. This can result from under-challenging schools, peer pressure for conformity, social isolation, or family dysfunction. In other cases it can result from factors within the individual, including depression, anxiety, failure-avoidance, rebellion, irritability, nonconformity, or anger. In addition, such failures may also result from learning disabilities which have gone undiagnosed due to the myth that one cannot be gifted and learning disabled. One apparently effective way to reverse underachievement in gifted children includes enrichment projects based on students’ strengths and interests.
It was thought that there was a correlation between giftedness and depression or suicide. However, this has not been proven:
With the exception of creatively gifted adolescents who are talented in writing or the visual arts, studies do not confirm that gifted individuals manifest significantly higher or lower rates or severity of depression than those for the general population… Gifted children's advanced cognitive abilities, social isolation, sensitivity, and uneven development may cause them to face some challenging social and emotional issues, but their problem-solving abilities, advanced social skills, moral reasoning, out-of-school interests, and satisfaction in achievement may help them to be more resilient.
No research points to suicide rates being higher in gifted adolescents than other adolescents. However, a number of people have noted a higher incidence of existential depression, which is depression due to highly abstract concerns such as the finality of death, the ultimate unimportance of individual people, and the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. Gifted individuals are also more likely to feel anxiety.
Some theorists in child development have estimated that between 20 to 40 percent of gifted individuals have a learning disability, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or some other neurological disorder. Others have postulated that the attribution of controversial disorders such as "ADHD" to gifted individuals arises from a misguided tendency to pathologize that which we do not understand. The work of Dabrowski suggests a different approach to educating gifted children. According to Dabrowski, human beings transform themselves from self-serving, conforming individuals to self-aware, self-directed persons who transcend their primitive natures and strive to "walk the moral talk." In this view, the education of gifted children would not focus on academic acceleration but rather on the enrichment of their lives and support for authenticity, morality, becoming and being a good person; becoming truly human. Success in his definition is not material, nor is it related to academic achievement. Success rests in a life of service to others for the betterment of humankind.
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