The Gifted Child

Even before a child enters the first grade, some parents may already notice that their child is functioning higher than his/her peers and exhibit certain characteristics that might indicate that their child is gifted. Others have young children who are unable to read or write and are displaying behavioral patterns that are problematic. Often, they cannot tell if their child is gifted until they analyze the results of their child's IQ tests or nationwide standardized achievement tests given in their schools.

Susan K. Johnsen, author of Identifying Gifted Students: A Practical Guide describes several vignettes based on true stories explaining how giftedness can be manifested differently in every child. Additionally, Johnsen provides several lists of gifted characteristics formulated by well-known researchers in the field of gifted education.

"The first vignette is about a kindergarten child, full of energy and excitement like most kids her age, except that she is already reading at a fourth grade level and understands mathematical concepts at a fifth grade level. She likes to play games with the other children but is interested in unusually sophisticated topics and eventually starts a learning center to teach her classmates about her unique fascination with these topics.

The second vignette is about a 13 year old boy, who, after failing two grades in his elementary school, has finally made it to the sixth grade. Though he doesn't turn in much work, his sixth-grade teacher has noticed that he seems to have a mathematical mind and catches on to new concepts easily. He aced a nationally-normed analogies test and built a working roller coaster in his back yard out of scrap lumber and electronic equipment. However, because of his lack of interest in grades and schoolwork, the teacher did not refer Burton to the gifted and talented program.

The last vignette is about a high school student who is quite unique… he has been known to wear Christmas lights to school, to dye his hair several colors, and to wear red gloves to a band concert. Although he scores well on national tests, he performs at a minimal level in his classes. He loves music and he plays three different instruments proficiently. Outside of school, he has organized and lead two jazz bands, recently cutting his first CD. The summer following his senior year, he was accepted to the Drum Corps International before beginning college."

In the United States federal definition of gifted and talented students, it states that 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, p. 388). Researchers in the field of gifted and talented education have identified specific characteristics in the areas listed below. (Clark, 1997; Colangelo & Davis, 1991; Coleman & Cross, 2001; Davis & Rimm, 1994; Gilliam, Carpenter, & Christensen, 1996; Khatena, 1992; Piirto, 1999; Renzulli et al., 2002; Rogers, 2001; Sternberg & Davidson, 1986; Swassing, 1985; Tannenbaum, 1983):

General Intellectual Ability

Has an extensive and detailed memory, particularly in an area of interest.

Has vocabulary advanced for age—precocious language.

Has communication skills advanced for age and is able to express ideas and feelings.

Asks intelligent questions.

Is able to identify the important characteristics of new concepts, problems.

Learns information quickly.

Uses logic in arriving at common sense answers.

Has a broad base of knowledge—a large quantity of information.

Understands abstract ideas and complex concepts.

Uses analogical thinking, problem solving, or reasoning.

Observes relationships and sees connections.

Finds and solves difficult and unusual problems.

Understands principles, forms generalizations, and uses them in new situations.

Wants to learn and is curious.

Works conscientiously and has a high degree of concentration in areas of interest.

Understands and uses various symbol systems.

Is reflective about learning.

Academic Fields

In this area, gifted and talented students exhibit potential or demonstrated accomplishment in one specific field of study, such as language arts, mathematics, social studies, or science. Researchers have identified general and specific characteristics for these academic fields (Feldhusen, Hoover, & Sayler, 1990; Gilliam et al., 1996; Piirto, 1999; Rogers, 2001; Tannenbaum, 1983):
General (demonstrated within field of interest)

Has an intense, sustained interest.

Has hobbies/collections related to field.

Attracted toward cognitive complexity, enjoys solving complex problems.

Prefers classes/careers in the academic field.

Is highly self-motivated, persistent.

Has a broad base of knowledge.

Reads widely in an academic field.

Learns information quickly.

Has an inquisitive nature, asks good questions.

Examines and recalls details.

Recognizes critical elements and details in learning concepts.

Analyzes problems and considers alternatives.

Understands abstract ideas and concepts.

Uses vocabulary beyond grade level.

Verbalizes complex concepts and processes.

Visualizes images and translates into other forms—written, spoken, symbolic—music notation, numbers, letters.

Sees connections and relationships in a field and generalizes to other situations, applications.


Is interested in numerical analysis.

Has a good memory for storing main features of problem and solutions.

Appreciates parsimony, simplicity, or economy in solutions.

Reasons effectively and efficiently.

Solves problems intuitively using insight.

Can reverse steps in the mental process.

Organizes data and experiments to discover patterns or relationships.

Improvises with science equipment and math methods.

Is flexible in solving problems.

Social Studies/Language Arts

Enjoys language/verbal communication, communication skills.

Engages in intellectual play, enjoys puns, good sense of humor.

Organizes ideas and sequences in preparation for speaking and writing.

Suspends judgment, entertains alternative points of view.

Is original and creative—has unique ideas in writing or speaking.

Is sensitive to social, ethical, and moral issues.

Is interested in theories of causation.

Likes independent study and research in areas of interest.

Uses these qualities in writing: paradox, parallel structure, rhythm, visual imagery, melodic combinations, reverse structure, unusual adjectives/adverbs, sense of humor, philosophical bent (Piirto, 1999, p. 241).


Discriminates fine differences in tone, relative, or absolute pitch.

Identifies a variety of sounds (background noise, singers, orchestral instruments).

Varies loudness and softness.

Remembers melodies and can produce them accurately.

Plays an instrument or indicates a strong desire.

Is sensitive to rhythm, changes body movements to tempo.

Dances to tunes with different rhythms.

Can complete a melody.

Creates own melodies.

Likes listening to music.

Likes producing music with others


Knowing that the situation will influence leadership, researchers have identified these general personal characteristics (Davis & Rimm, 1994; Karnes, 1991; Khatena, 1992; Renzulli et al., 1976)

Is well-organized.

Can do backward planning.

Is visionary, has a holistic view.

Is a problem finder.

Is able to see problems from multiple perspectives.

Is adaptable to new situations.

Can manipulate systems.

Is highly responsible; can be counted on.

Maintains on-task focus.

Is self-confident.

Is a persuasive communicator.

Has a cooperative attitude; works well in groups.

Participates in most social activities, enjoys being around other people.

Influences the behavior of others; recognized as a leader by peers.

Is respected, liked, or both by others.

Is aware of verbal and nonverbal cues; sophisticated interpersonal skills.

Is emotionally stable.

Is willing to take risks.


Along with cognitive characteristics, gifted students frequently exhibit particular affective characteristics (Clark, 1997; Colangelo & Davis, 1991; Coleman & Cross, 2001; Khatena, 1992; Piirto, 1999; Rogers, 2001; Sternberg & Davidson, 1986; Swassing, 1985; Tannenbaum, 1983). Some researchers suggest that these emotional aspects of a gifted and talented individual may be traits or temperaments (i.e., genetic), while others may be developed (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Piirto, 1999; Winner, 1996):

Is motivated in work that excites.

Persists in completing tasks in areas of interest.

Is self-directed, independent.

Evaluates and judges critically.

Has high degree of concentration.

Becomes bored with routine tasks.

Is interested in "adult" problems.

Is concerned about right and wrong, ethics.

Has higher self-concept, particularly in academics.

Has high expectations of self and others.

Has a sense of humor.

Is highly sensitive.

Takes other perspectives; is empathic.

Is a perfectionist.

Culturally Different

Culturally different refers frequently to gifted students from specific ethnic groups: Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. If the particular gifted student's "abilities and interests are not synchronous with subgroup values, then the child must face the problems of gaining acceptance of his or her giftedness by both society and by members of the subgroup" (Torrance (1969) suggested 18 "creative positives" that may be helpful in identifying culturally different youth (pp. 71–81):

ability to express feelings and emotions

ability to improvise with commonplace materials and objects

articulateness in role-playing, sociodrama, and storytelling

enjoyment of, and ability in, visual arts, such as drawing, painting, and sculpture

enjoyment of, and ability in, creative movement, dance, dramatics, and so forth

enjoyment of, and ability in, music, rhythm, and so forth

use of expressive speech

fluency and flexibility in figural media

enjoyment of, and skills in, small-group activities, problem solving, and so forth

responsiveness to the concrete

responsiveness to the kinesthetic

expressiveness of gestures, body language, and so forth, and ability to interpret body language


richness of imagery in informal language

originality of ideas in problem solving

problem-centeredness or persistence in problem solving

emotional responsiveness and quickness of warm-up

On the other hand, Frasier and Passow (1994) suggested that all gifted students, regardless of their cultural background, express their abilities by demonstrating: a strong desire to learn;

an intense, sometimes unusual interest

an unusual ability to communicate with words, numbers, or symbols

effective, often inventive strategies for recognizing and solving problems

a large storehouse of information

a quick grasp of new concepts

logical approaches to solutions

many highly original ideas and an unusual sense of humor

Creative Area

Researchers have identified some of these common characteristics (Clark, 1997; Coleman & Cross, 2001; Gardner, 1993; Gilliam et al., 1996; Goertzel & Goertzel, 1962; Gruber, 1982; Guilford, 1950; Khatena, 1992; Perkins, 1981; Piirto, 1999; Renzulli et al., 2002; Sternberg, 1988; Tannenbaum, 1983; Torrance, 1974):

Has in-depth foundational knowledge.

Prefers complexity and open-endedness.

Contributes new concepts, methods, products, or performances.

Has extreme fluency of thoughts and a large number of ideas.

Is observant and pays attention to detail.

Uses unique solutions to problems, improvises.

Challenges existing ideas and products.

Connects disparate ideas.

Is constantly asking questions.

Criticizes constructively.

Is a risk taker, confident.

Is attracted to the novel, complex, and mysterious.

Is a nonconformist, uninhibited in expression, adventurous, able to resist group pressure.

Accepts disorder.

Tolerates ambiguity; delays closure.

Is persistent and task committed in area of interest.

Has a sense of humor.

Is intellectually playful.

Is aware of own creativity.

Is emotionally sensitive; sensitive to beauty.

Is intuitive.

Enjoys alone time.

Is reflective about personal creative process.

Artistic Area

Researchers have identified general and specific characteristics for these artistic fields (Clark & Zimmerman, 1984; Gilliam et al., 1996; Piirto, 1999; Renzulli, Smith, White, Callahan, & Hartman, 1976; Khatena, 1988; 1992; Seashore, Leavis, & Saetveit, 1960): General (demonstrated within artistic area):

Chooses artistic activity for projects or during free time.

Studies or practices artistic talent without being told.

Strives to improve artistic skills.

Demonstrates talent for an extended period of time.

Concentrates for long periods of time on artistic projects.

Seems to pick up skills in the arts with little or no instruction.

Possesses high sensory sensitivity.

Observes and shows interest in others who are proficient in the artistic skill.

Uses the artistic area to communicate.

Experiments in the artistic medium.

Sets high standards in the artistic area.

Demonstrates confidence in the artistic area.


Scribbles earlier than most.

Initiates drawing.

Incorporates large number of elements into artwork.

Provides balance and order in artwork.

Elaborates on ideas from other people as a starting point.

Observes details in environment, artistic area.

Has unique, unusual solutions to artistic problems.

Uses unusual and interesting visual imagery.

Is innovative in selecting and using art materials.

Has a highly developed sense of movement and rhythm in drawings.

Has a great feel for color.

Varies organization of elements to suit different situations.

Uses content that is interesting, tells a story, or expresses feelings.

Produces many drawings.


Is innovative and creative in performing.

Easily tells a story or gives an account of some experience.

Uses gestures or facial expressions to communicate feelings.

Is adept at role-playing, improvising, acting out situations.

Identifies with moods and motivations of characters.

Handles body with ease and poise.

Creates original plays or makes up plays from stories.

Commands and holds the attention of a group when speaking.

Evokes emotional responses from listeners.

Communicates feelings through nonverbal means.

Imitates others, uses voice to reflect changes of idea and mood.

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