Identifying the Gifted Child

What Parents Need to Know

By Jan Pierce

At one time or another you’ve probably wondered if your child is gifted. Maybe he can identify all the birds in your neighborhood. Or maybe your daughter is only four years old and already reading. How can you know for sure if your child is an exceptional learner?
The truth is that in any classroom setting there are probably one or two children who are gifted, at least in one subject area. Additionally, there’s another handful of children who are eager, bright learners, but not gifted by academic definitions.
Just what is a gifted child? Educators have wrestled with the definition for decades, but there is agreement on general traits that help us recognize talented learners. The National Association of Gifted Children says: “Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of competence in one or more domains.”1 Gifted children have high intelligence as measured by standardized testing. They learn information easily and remember it well. They have large vocabularies and are able to grasp abstract ideas. They are often creative and may be seen as leaders. They may excel in the visual or performing arts. They’re often ahead of others in hands-on physical skills.
If you’ve noticed advanced learning patterns in your child’s early years, you may want to do a little systematic information-gathering to identify aptitudes.  Here are some ways to begin putting the pieces of the identification puzzle together. You may find out that your son or daughter is a high-performing, engaged learner, but not gifted. Or you may find that he or she truly is gifted and would benefit from an enhanced learning environment.

Behavior at home
Children are usually most comfortable in their home environment. Here they will “be themselves.” Does your child have endless questions? Does he actually search out answers through books or hands-on experiments? Is he learning to read easily and quickly? Does she use words above and beyond her peers? Is she very aware of information presented by adults and can she engage in a conversation at their level? Does he have a vivid imagination and a keen sense of humor? Does he make an effort to record information, chart or graph it? Map it? Does she create new worlds filled with characters? Can she lose herself in books?
Many children do some of these things. The gifted child will actually live in a world of heightened awareness and consider questions the average learner does not. Advanced learners enjoy working independently and can often sustain their work for a long time. They enjoy freedom to explore, make new connections and add to their knowledge base. They’re excited by intellectual challenges.

Successes at school
Many gifted children excel in their school setting. They get the highest grades, do the best work and “stand out” in the crowd. Sadly, some gifted students don’t function well at all in the rigid structure of a classroom schedule. They may seem disinterested or uncooperative because they need freedom to learn in their own unique ways and on their own timeline. Teachers will quickly pick up on advanced reading and writing ability and on logic and reasoning above the norm.

It’s important to distinguish between the bright learner and the truly gifted learner. This chart, created by Diane Heacox, an educator and author of several books on classroom instruction, including Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics. The chart, widely used in literature about gifted learners, compares the learning styles and abilities of these two distinct groups.

Knows the answers
Has good ideas
Learns with ease
Copies accurately
Absorbs information
Pleased with perfection
Enjoys sequential learning
Enjoys peers
Answers accurately

Asks the questions
May have wild, silly ideas
Already knows
Creates new designs
Manipulates information
Can be self-critical
Thrives on complexity
Prefers adult company
Discusses in detail, elaborates

From the classroom teacher’s perspective the gifted child can present quite a challenge. Even extending lessons may not be enough to meet needs. The gifted learner is beyond the group, probably isn’t motivated by grades and learns information in one or two hearings. He will be frustrated by moving one step at a time with slower learners.

If you find your child on the gifted child side of the chart, you may want to pursue testing and other means of evaluating potential. Schools generally have set schedules for administering standardized tests to identify their gifted population. Their screening may begin with an intelligence test, but will often include surveys completed by teachers and parents, anecdotal information and portfolios of completed work. In some cases the surveys used will include items from a broader understanding of learning which gives a child gifted in specific areas such as music and art the chance to shine.

Placement in Gifted Programs
Don’t be disappointed if your child goes through a testing process and is determined not to need a gifted learning environment. In truth, bright children experience the most success in their traditional classroom setting. They enjoy learning and don’t deal with the challenges of the gifted population. Your goal is to know your child and to support his or her learning journey. You can find more helpful information on identifying the gifted child from the following resources.

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