How do you spot a gifted child?

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Education is rightly seen as a catalyst for progress, not only for individuals but also for whole countries. The research confirms what we intuitively know - when you improve education, economic and societal benefits follow. It’s why national governments are heavily invested in schooling their citizens and why a growing portion of household incomes are spent on private or supplemental education. In an ever-competitive job market where the constraints of national borders are increasingly imperceptible, education is the leveller, and the edge-maker.

In this 21st century landscape, how a country educates its most gifted and talented children takes on a new sense of potential; not just the prospect of young lives fulfilled, but the promise of a new economic powerbase. Consequently, in many countries the responsibility for identifying and educating gifted students has spread beyond national or local government. Institutions like Brazil’s Center for Potential and Talent Development, and South Africa’s Radford House are having just as much of a say in who the next generation of bright young talent will be... and more of a say in how to nurture them.

But who are these gifted and talented kids, and what makes them unique from typical students?

If you study most of the thinking on this, there’s a broad consensus that gifted children have four characteristics: intellect, motivation, creativity, and affect (i.e., positive beliefs about themselves).

But studies are designed to be neat. In truth, no two children are ever the same, and gifted children are no different in this respect. Each will have their specific talents, learning needs, behaviours, likes, dislikes, hopes and fears. Each will need to be challenged and managed according to his or her abilities. They will usually need to learn faster and deeper; need to pursue independent study; need to make a meaningful impact; need to feel challenged by big problems; need to have opportunities to interact with like-minded peers - and knowing all this will help them flourish. But applying all this uniformly, without regard for the individual child and their specific gifts, is naive.

And it’s equally naive to not consider the impact of where a child is studying. How, for example, does local context and cultural values affect these interpretations? In August I attended the World Conference for Gifted and Talented Children where I heard a Lebanese researcher, Dr. Anies Al-Hroub, report about teachers' concepts of what makes a child gifted. It would seem in Lebanon, the ability to bargain for low prices and cutting in line to get faster service are seen as key traits of leadership and social intelligence. Elsewhere, this is the height of rudeness! Likewise, most conceptions of giftedness describe characteristics of an individual student, but the Mäori people of New Zealand recognize a collective giftedness - giftedness ascribed to a group of people whose talents become apparent when working together. So how do we reconcile these different views of giftedness?

Perhaps the question should be - do we need to? If education is ultimately about preparing children for a world beyond school, then we should champion the cultural idiosyncrasies that make societies what they are, not ignore them.

Just as important as understanding the individual child and local distinctions in our definitions of giftedness is our appreciation that the world is changing at breakneck speed. What was once considered valuable for children to know and learn and excel in is perhaps not as valued now. For example, rote learning was the dominant pedagogy for centuries worldwide. It was once that the child who could memorize and recite was most celebrated. Although spelling and geography competitions may still be popular, emphasis has shifted to skills such as empathy, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, determination, calmness, and respect. These are the skills that employers are increasingly requesting. And these skills are also making their way into new assessments such as PISA’s creative problem solving, collaborative problem solving, and global competency measures.

Some of these new '21st century skills' are already provided for in our traditional consensus of what gifted means and what skills we should help our gifted students develop. But others are not. So perhaps the question shouldn’t be “Is that child gifted?”, but rather “What does gifted mean, today, where you are?”


Is your child ‘gifted’? The four ‘traditional’ clues that could tell you.


Gifted children tend to have advanced language and thought patterns. This reflects not only rapid vocabulary and knowledge development but also abstract thinking such as the ability to solve problems, think about their own thinking (metacognition), and make relationships between seemingly unrelated ideas. These students may also have developed early abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, music, or art. They tend to be eager to learn, able to work independently, be curious, with a good memory, long attention span, and good judgment. Gifted children tend to be quick and logical thinkers. Combined with their desire for learning, this can lead them to frequently ask “Why” questions or seek to understand cause-and-effect relationships at an early age.


Another important characteristic of most gifted students is their motivation and persistence, or task commitment. A natural intellect, it would seem, is not enough. In fact, for students with high intelligence one of the primary factors that separated the successful from the less successful is motivation. Gifted students tend to have an intrinsic motivation—that is, they engage in tasks for the sake of learning rather than external rewards. Over time, this motivation orientation tends to lead to higher achievement and performance.


Gifted students also tend to be creative. General intellectual ability and creativity tend to be related, but are distinct. Creativity in gifted students often manifests as the ability to generate novel ideas and analytically evaluate them, tolerate complexity, think divergently, and be mentally flexible. Creative students are also risk takers, adventurous, curious, playful, and reflective.


In general, gifted students are well-adjusted and have good self-concepts, particularly academic self-concepts. They also tend to have an internal locus of control—that is, they feel responsible for their successes and future plans. They often attribute failure to a lack of effort, rather than a lack of ability, which is associated with having a growth mindset.