What Are Gifted Students Really Like?
By Yvonne Golczewski
Before I became interested in learning about gifted education issues, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what a “gifted” student is like. I thought I would easily know one when I saw one.
They were the serious, nerdy, sometimes socially awkward, honor roll student who preferred doing physics and calculus problems to playing sports. They were the goody-two-shoes, the know-it-alls, and the geniuses that could play Mozart pieces at age six. They were the ones that would out-achieve everyone without any help or even trying very hard. They always had the answers and thought they were better than everyone else, or at least smarter. At least that’s how they were portrayed in the media.
Well, maybe there are some who could fit that stereotype. But once I started reading the research and meeting more of them, I realized that there was a lot about them I did not know. Some things I learned really surprised me. Many gifted students go unrecognized because they do not fit the stereotype. And, being gifted is not always everything it is cracked up to be, either. Who knew? There are some real challenges that come with being different.
I use the term gifted here as a technical term to denote those who learn easier/faster than about 98% of the population, or two deviations from the norm. Just like we have some students that struggle more than most when trying to learn new concepts, there are some that struggle a lot less. I know that almost every child has strengths, talents, and ways of being smart that are special. All children are uniquely precious. Many are really bright. But I am referring to those whose cognitive abilities are way outside of the norm.
When discussing traits that are common among gifted students, it is easy to think “I know lots of children that have this trait or that. So, the gifted are not really that different from anyone else.” But it is not an either/or situation, meaning that it is not either they have the trait or they don’t. The difference is that the intensity of the trait is clearly unusual. It is at a level not typically seen in the general population. These characteristics are often displayed in a way that may surprise, confuse, or frustrate others because it is beyond what is normally expected. This heightened intensity can involve more that just their intellectual ability and will frequently show up in their level of energy, emotion, imagination, focus, and sensitivity as well. Another difference is the clustering or the quantity of the characteristics found in one person.
Available literature suggests that the following traits are common ones, but not every gifted student necessarily has every one of them. Each child has a wonderfully unique personality. They also come from every imaginable demographic and cultural background.
• Reach developmental milestones at earlier ages
• Have asynchronous (uneven) development, meaning that:
o Their cognitive abilities have developed beyond what you would normally expect given their physical, emotional, and/or social maturity, frequently leading to unrealistic expectations in behavior
o May have uneven strengths or abilities (the kindergarten student who reads at a fourth grade level but cannot tie her shoes!)
• Learn at a much faster pace, to much greater depth, and with less practice
• Are better able to construct and handle abstractions, appreciate nuances
• Are willing to entertain complexity and thrive on problem solving
• Readily see:
o Underlying principles, similarities, differences, anomalies, and inconsistencies
o Cause-effect relationships and relationships among seemingly unrelated ideas
• Are highly inquisitive, may drive you crazy with persistent questions that you may or may not be able to answer
• Seek information for its own sake as much as for its usefulness
• Have amazing memories
In the classroom
• Have preferred ways of learning, particularly in reading and mathematics
• Learn from exploration, resist rote memorization (may understand advanced math concepts but may make careless errors or resist showing all of the steps)
• Do not always do the work the teacher’s way
• May not make good grades; may not be motivated by grades
• May learn to dislike school if the curriculum is consistently below their ability and can learn lifelong underachievement
• Bore easily and may appear to have a short attention span
• May not seem willing to focus on a task that is not intellectually challenging, including repetitious ideas or material presented in small pieces
• May get themselves into trouble as a result of an overactive mind combined with under-stimulation and restlessness
• Can also have a learning disability that:
o is hidden by their giftedness
o makes it difficult for schools to identify the child as gifted
o negatively impacts their academic achievement and self-esteem
• Often pick up and interpret nonverbal cues and draw inferences that are not as obvious to age-peers
• Notice that they are somehow “different” from their same age peers and may interpret it as something “wrong” with them
• May underachieve to “fit in” with their classmates
• Have an expansive vocabulary and converse with adults more readily and easily than same age peers
• Because of their quick wit, may be the class clown
• May have over-excitabilities, such as excessive amounts of energy, which can lead to an ADHD misdiagnosis
• Can be intensely focused for prolonged periods of time when pursuing their interests
• May become easily frustrated with a lack of resources or people to assist them in their ideas
• Are much more likely to be an introvert because of their attention to the inner world of ideas, imagination, and contemplation
• May resist authority; have a strong sense of justice
• Often prefer to work alone rather than in groups, especially if it is mixed in ability
• May be highly perfectionistic, idealistic, and self-critical, sometimes hindering their accomplishments or resulting in feelings of inadequacy
• Exhibit high levels of emotional sensitivity and empathy, with unusual depth and complexity
• Are very compassionate, tend to have advanced moral development from a younger age and may worry about existential ideas, death
Some traits are easier to discern than others. Understanding these common characteristics can help us to identify these unique students so we can provide the help and support they need to reach their potential and become healthy, self-actualized adults. Gifted students are wonderfully interesting, thoughtful, creative, funny, amazing people with so much to give to society and to those lucky enough to know them!
For more information, check out these websites:
Characteristics of Intellectually Advanced Young People, Davidson Institute
Giftedness And The Gifted: What’s It All About?, ERIC Digests, NAGC
Understanding The Emotional, Intellectual, and Social Uniqueness of Growing Up Gifted, by Lesley Sword, psychologist
Characteristics of the Gifted Child, Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page
Characteristics of Giftedness, by Nancy Bosch, A Different Place, text and charts taken from “Effective Practices for Gifted Education in Kansas” manual, Kansas State Department of Education
Identification & Testing: Characteristics and Traits of a Gifted Preschooler, The American Association For Gifted Children at Duke University (AAGC)
What We Have Learned About Gifted Children, by Linda Silverman, Ph.D., Director of Gifted Development Center, Denver, CO