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All children are unique and special. But are they gifted?

Updated on August 2, 2016
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Melis is a leadership coach and is fascinated by human potential. She writes about what it takes to unlock true greatness in children.

Copyright: Yuganov Konstantin Standard License
Copyright: Yuganov Konstantin Standard License | Source

When I was a little girl, I was crazy about reading comic books. I remember spending all my weekly allowance buying them and then rushing back home. There were always piles of my favorite comics, Superman, Spiderman, and Phantom, on the bench by our kitchen table. My brother and I fought over who would read the newest book during lunch.

It was so cool to have superpowers! Superheroes had these unique powers possessed either by birth or acquired later on via an unfortunate accident. Although they made using their powers seem so easy, they were not born as superheroes but just as beings with higher potential. What unlocked their potential was the situations they got themselves in, the challenges they faced, and the choices they made. Once they transformed their potential, they then became superheroes and served for greater good. How rewarding!

I no longer read comic books; however, two questions have remained with me since my childhood:

  • Does every child have a superior potential they may or may not be aware of?
  • Is there a way to identify that superior potential?

While I was trying to come up with answers to my questions, I had a chance to review many theories, different studies, and various approaches. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many researchers, academics, authors, and educators have been trying to understand human potential and its development. Today, it still remains as an emerging field and this is where we are:

Is every child gifted or talented?

All children are special. There is no doubt about that. They have unique strengths, gifts, and talents to be discovered and nourished so they will do well in school and in their lives later on. However, being identified as gifted seems to be on another level.

In our daily life, we use the terms ability, intelligence, talent, or gift interchangeably and we mean different things depending on the context and the environment. While there is still need for universal definitions, today the children have to be in the top percentile of what they have or what they do to be identified as gifted.

National Association for Gifted Children offers the following framework based on exceptional ability and high performance:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports)

Creativity researcher Scott Barry Kaufman argues:

Every parent of course wants to think his or her child is special. And rest assured, parents, your child is special. At least, there is no other child on earth with the same precise mix of genes, experience, and pattern of strengths and weaknesses. So parents–take a deep breath–your child is indeed very special. That is not at issue.

The critical question is, “Is your child gifted?” To answer this question, two additional questions have to be considered. Firstly, does the child exhibit an extraordinary ability relative to peers of the same age? Secondly, is that ability something that the school system values? If the child ticks both boxes, then they just might qualify for gifted education.

Copyright: Yuganov Konstantin Standard License
Copyright: Yuganov Konstantin Standard License | Source

How do I know whether my child is gifted or talented?

Current research shows that there is no one criteria to identify giftedness and talents. Being “labeled as gifted” depends on the criteria one selects.

“There is no such thing as a perfect identification system!” claims Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut.

There is no perfect way to identify who is or is not gifted, just as there is no single best way to develop giftedness and/or talent potentials. Every identification system is a “trade off” between the instruments and criteria selected, the ways we make decisions about any and all types of information we collect, and how much weight we give each type of information in the decision making process.

In schools, IQ and standard achievement tests are still widely used to identify giftedness, followed by nominations, creativity tests, teacher rating scales, and in-class performance.

Here is a great video from the renowned gift researcher on what is giftedness and how it relates to IQ:

What does it take to be gifted?

However, it is possible that high achievement can easily be misinterpreted as giftedness. In 1989, Janice Szabos published a comparison of the bright child and the gifted learner to depict that giftedness is beyond high achievement.

How to differentiate the bright and the gifted?

Bright child
Gifted Child
Knows the answers
Asks the questions
Is interested
Is extremely curious
Pays attention
Gets involved physically mentally
Has good ideas
Has unusual “silly” ideas
Works hard
Plays around, yet tests well
Answers the question
Questions the answers
In the "top" group
Beyond any group
Listens with interest
Shows strong feelings and opinions
Learns with ease
Already knows
Enjoys peer group
Prefers the company of adults or older children
Completes assignments
Initiates projects
Is receptive
Is intense
Copies accurately
Creates a new design
Enjoys school
Enjoys learning
Good at memorizing
Good at guessing
Enjoys straight forward sequential presentation
Thrives on complexity

Which is more important? Having gifts? Or being gifted?

At the end of the day, giftedness is about potential that needs to be nurtured. It is mostly just a label to point out that different children have different needs and parents, schools, coaches, and mentors must be aware of that.

As I was reading on the subject, I came across a wonderful post at old.post-gazette.com by Mackenzie Carpenter. He wrote about a story Renzulli told at the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education, and I repeat here:

In his speech before a packed audience at the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education, Renzulli told the story of a Maryland girl who had begun a project researching how to build a playground for disabled children, which eventually became a reality after she persuaded the local government to construct it.

It was a remarkable example of one of Renzulli’s favorite concepts, the ‘enrichment cluster,’ in which highly motivated children are pulled out of the regular class so they can produce something of concrete benefit to the community.

Her IQ was beside the point.

“Was she ‘gifted?’ Who gives a damn?” he said.”


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