Characteristics of giftedness are defined differently by leading organizations and professional experts. School districts have their own specific idea about what it is because their goal is to provide special educational services.
A widely accepted definition by the Columbus Group (1991) states:
“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”
“Gifted children take in information from the world around them; they react and respond more quickly and intensely than other children. They are stimulated both by what’s going on around them and by what moves them from within. Because they can be so greatly stimulated, and because they perceive and process things differently, gifted children are often misunderstood. Their excitement is viewed as excessive, their high energy as hyperactivity, their persistence as nagging, their questioning as undermining authority, their imagination as not paying attention, their passion as being disruptive, their strong emotions and sensitivity as immaturity, their creativity and self-directness as oppositional.” (from Daniels & Piechowski, Living With Intensity, 2009)
There is plenty of agreement among experts about what gifted is, and is not. It is not a value judgement that means “better/faster/smarter/more deserving/more successful”. It is not a reward you can earn, or something you can work hard to become, no matter how much grit or growth mindset is applied.
It means being born with a brain that is “differently wired” -- one that causes a person to take in, process, and experience sensory information (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, or sensing the position of the body in space) in ways that are different from about 90% of other people.
The neuroanatomy of gifted individuals differs from that of the general population in six ways that play a critical role in their heightened experiences. Specifically, existing research indicates that gifted individuals have:
Also read this article by Tetreault & Zakreski which concludes that: "The gifted brain is significantly different in terms of morphology, functionality, structure, internal networks, and processing rate."
A lot of ink has been spilled arguing about whether identifying children as "gifted" is beneficial or not. One practical reason for doing it is to gain access to specially tailored educational services provided to gifted students through their school district Gifted & Talented Education (GATE or GTE) program (if they offer one). Highly gifted students who disengage from school because they are not sufficiently challenged or they are under-achieving academically or they suffer socially/emotionally because of their differences can benefit greatly from quality GATE programs that address their special needs and group them with other gifted children. In some places, GATE is administered under special education, even though there are no federal laws that govern GATE in the way that SpEd is mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Another reason has to do with the healthy development of self-identity. It is important, if not imperative, to have conversations about giftedness with gifted children. The more highly gifted a child is, the more likely it is that they already know that they are different. Ignoring or hiding that difference sends a terrible message that “I am not okay”. This puts these sensitive children at risk for negative self-concept as well as social exclusion. A healthy self-concept is essential for positive emotional, cognitive and social development. It depends upon healthy identity formation, which arises from understanding and accepting oneself. All parts of the child need to be incorporated to assist in complete identity formation. We shouldn’t omit informing the child about their giftedness any more than we should hide their ethnicity, culture, or other inherent parts of their being. If we treat giftedness as part of who the child is as a whole, and discuss it as exploring a pattern of their abilities, strengths and weaknesses, then it can actually help them form a positive and healthy self-identity. Source: an article "All of Me" by San Diego-based psychologist Dr. Carolyn Light published in the Summer 2009 issue of Gifted Education Communicator 40(2):19-22 (Article posted here)
Gifted students often exhibit an unevenness in their strengths and weaknesses due to a mismatch between their cognitive, emotional, and physical development. This is known as asynchrony. Students may show an aptitude in one area and not in another or they may be intellectually advanced but emotionally challenged, so giftedness isn’t even across all domains. The NAGC says: “It is important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to realize that "one size does not fit all" for gifted children--and even those with similar IQ scores may not have similar skills, personalities, rates of development, abilities, or interests. The individual traits of one gifted child may be extremely different from another. Also, the more highly gifted the gifted child, the more asynchronous they may be.”
The Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (2007) explains that: Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist, developed a theory that has enormously affected our understanding of gifted children and adults. He describes the concept of “overexcitabilities” which refers to a person’s heightened response to stimuli. This concept has shed light on the intensity and sensitivity so often displayed by persons with unusually high mental abilities. This ingrained over-reactivity can create issues for them and for their teachers in a general education classroom (and even at home with their parents) and can impact their learning, as well as their self-esteem.
Overexcitability (OE) seemed to occur in five different areas (intellectual, imaginational, emotional, sensual, and psychomotor). Some individuals show their excitable passion and intensity in all areas; others in fewer areas, perhaps only one or two. The idea is that gifted children’s passion and intensity lead them to be so reactive that their feelings and experiences far exceed what one would typically expect. These OEs are both a major source of strength to gifted children and also often a cause of substantial stress, a source of personal frustration, or a basis for criticism.
A graphic illustrates the five OEs and explains how they might appear to parents or educators (see the printable "Rainbow of Traits" handout posted here). Using color-coding to represent the different OEs, you can see how they cover a spectrum of behaviors, and you can begin to think of them as a “rainbow” of traits. Understanding the colors of a child’s unique rainbow can help both parents and educators make sense of their often perplexing, or even exasperating behavior.
According to the NAGC: What’s not often understood is that students who are gifted may also have a special need or disability— just as students with disabilities may also be gifted. The term “twice-exceptional" or “2e" is used to describe gifted children who have the characteristics of gifted students and the potential for high achievement but also exhibit one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria. These disabilities may include specific learning disabilities (SpLD), speech and language disorders, emotional/behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, autism spectrum, or other impairments such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Their giftedness is often overshadowed by their disabilities, and/or these students may be able to mask or hide their learning deficits by using their other talents to compensate.
Behaviors directly associated with giftedness may also mimic medical or mental health disorders. Intellectually gifted people, whose needs are neglected or misunderstood, may exhibit traits and behaviors that resemble conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for example. Misdiagnosis is a widespread issue for the Gifted/2e community and can result in unnecessary medication and unintended harm. Proper assessment is essential for applying the right social and emotional support in home, work and school settings. Since 2012, SENG has made a commitment to raise awareness of possible misdiagnosis with physicians and mental health providers and they provide a free printable brochure (in multiple languages). For more information, read the book by James T. Webb et al. “Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children & Adults”. Another resource is the book "Child Decoded" by Robin E. McEvoy et al.
If you believe your child may be 2e and are looking for advice about getting your child privately assessed, one well-respected resource is the Summit Center. They have offices in the Bay area and in Southern California. Their website is here.
You may wonder how to distinguish between being “gifted” and being “smart” or even question why it matters. Society often equates giftedness with intellectual ability (IQ) or academic success. Indeed, some “gifted” programs focus on GPA, or increasing the amount (and/or pace) of classroom work; however, outside of the classroom, giftedness is actually defined in much broader terms. As someone once aptly described it, giftedness is like a big dog pulling us by the leash, who won't obey any command to heel!
According to James T. Webb et al. in A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children (pg 27-29) the primary difference between a smart child vs. a gifted child is in the depth and intensity of certain key traits including the following:
Simply put, gifted children display noticeably "more" of almost everything; more ability, more drive, more focus, more curiosity, more sensitivity, more passion, more exuberance, more intensity. As author and blogger Paula Prober puts it, gifted children are: "Naturally curious, hungry for new ideas and intellectual exchanges, emotionally intense, and highly sensitive and empathetic."
"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." (quote attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer).