Little Known Truths About Gifted Children

We've got some little known truths about gifted children for youHearing your child may be ‘gifted’ sometimes feels like a validation that you’ve done something right as a parent, but the reality is, there is a big difference between bright children and truly gifted children. It doesn’t mean you’ve done everything ‘right,’ any less, but it does mean that you need to know the difference so you can best meet your child’s needs, whatever they are.

Today, there is such a push for our children to exceed expectations, and many of these expectations are not necessarily developmentally appropriate for their age and stage in life. Parents are homeschooling or unschooling their children in record numbers, and many attribute this change in education to the ridiculously tense and unrealistic expectations we are putting on our children, particularly our ‘gifted’ children. A lot of this is based on the fact that there are some little known truths about gifted children, and you might be surprised at what they are.

The U.S. Department of Education defines ‘giftedness in children’ as:

“Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment.”

The most important thing to note about this definition is the word ‘potential.’ Many times, the potential a child has to show his or her giftedness in real ways is hindered by many different things–inappropriate curriculum, lack of basic needs being met, or even sheer boredom.

And, in a day and age where such high expectations are being placed on our kids, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that if our child is not ‘gifted and talented,’ they are below average. On the other hand, it’s easy to believe the lie that gifted children fit a certain mold– straight A’s, driven, everything comes easy and always successful in just about whatever they put their minds to.

So, what are some real truths about gifted children, and what should you know to help best meet their very different needs?

Truths About Gifted Children: They’re Not Always #1

Often the biggest misconception about truly gifted children is that they are your overachieving, driven to perform, straight-A perfectionist students. While some children who are gifted do have those traits, remarkably, believe it or not, the majority do not.

The potential is there, but compared to bright children, who are performance driven and often work far harder than their gifted counterparts to be successful, many gifted students are simply just average. In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for some of the consistent below-average performers in the classroom to have some of the highest intelligent quotients. That whole thing about little Johnny being a cut-up in school because he’s ‘bored?’ For many gifted children, that really is a truth.

In 1989, educator and researcher Janice Zasbo shared characteristics of a bright child compared to those of a gifted child, and those still stand to this day.

Related: Parenting The Gifted Child Forum Guidelines

An important thing to know about gifted children, especially when it comes to the classroom, is that many gifted students are just not the top of the class. While gifted students are very bright, they are often turned off from learning what’s happening in the classroom curriculum because they prefer self-motivated learning and exploration of personal topic interests. And, yes…they get bored very easily, especially when the curriculum doesn’t hold any context for them. They tend to either act out or tune out, and this can lead to poorer grades and relationships with their teachers.

They also tend to be the ‘work smarter, not harder,’ children, and so, where they excel in something that truly inspires their innate curiosity, they often couldn’t care less about how they do on a spelling test or math assignment. This can be frustrating for parents and teachers alike, but even more so for your child who constantly feels they are disappointing.

Remember their brain is unique; not lazy as it may seem or some teachers might suggest. In an era of overstuffed classrooms, overworked teachers and overzealous testing standards, they can easily be lumped as behavior issue children who don’t want to do well. That couldn’t be less true–they just want what they are learning about to be relevant, and if it is, that’s where you’ll see them excel.

Truths About Gifted Children: They Feel What They Feel Big Time

Gifted children often are highly sensitive and have intense emotions. They are often passionate and determined about things they want to know or do because their brains are craving specific neural input. They can be very sensitive to smells and touches, and even constructive criticism can make them feel inadequate and prone to lashing out.

They are sometimes seen as strong-willed and stubborn, and while they may be, it’s most likely not to intentionally make you angry or because they are purposing to be disobedient. Unfortunately for many gifted children, their abilities often seem to be far above what would be expected of age-equivalent peers and this can make them come across as precocious, arrogant and disrespectful. It’s because of this parents need to be true advocates for their children, and help those around them understand none of that is true; it’s that their brain is different.

As well, their brains process information differently, and require different stimulation.

Research shows that gifted children have a primal need to process their thinking in a way that allows them to understand the quality of the information their brains acquire, and decide how to best use that information–and that often doesn’t match the standard classroom curriculum.

Because they often have more advanced vocabularies, they are capable of conversations and logic that doesn’t always match their age. Unfortunately for the gifted child, the adult figures in her life will inappropriately expect that as a gifted child, she should be more in control of her feelings, emotions and behaviors. This can lead to some serious frustration on the part of a gifted child (and her parent, as it can be difficult when people wonder why you ‘let your child get away’ with things). You’re not…you just know they need different input.

Related: Why Free Time for Play is So Important for Every Child

Truths About Gifted Children: Many Are Twice Exceptional

Gifted children can also have learning disabilities. In fact, research finds that about 14% of gifted children also have an additional learning disability, and this is concerning when research also suggests that children with learning disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school as their non-learning disabled peers.

In educational terms, a gifted child who also has a learning disability is known as ‘twice-exceptional,’ or ‘Double E,’ and parents of gifted children often struggle with ensuring their child has an appropriate educational experience because their superior intellect compensates for their learning disabilities. Because gifted children’s abilities often mask their struggles with their learning, that they even have a learning disability is often disputed by the education system and even diagnosing clinicians. This poses a problem because they, in turn, are then penalized for being gifted, and often not helped with their learning disability.

And, while most parents are thrilled that their child’s intelligence allows her to mostly perform adequately in school, gifted children with learning disabilities can show a dislike of school because it is simply fatiguing for them to not only conform to a common curriculum, but to compensate for their learning disability as well. The goal of a parent for their gifted child’s education should never be that they perform adequately, though. When a gifted child’s ‘norm’ is above average, but still not to his or her potential because of learning disabilities, schools may not be willing to accommodate gifted children because they don’t see an ‘educational impact.’ Too often, they’re okay with an above average performance, even if it is not the performance your child may have if given accommodations for their learning disability, so don’t ever be afraid to advocate for your child’s educational rights.

Truths About Gifted Children: They Need Different Work, Not More Work

Another important thing today’s parents need to know is that while gifted children do learn more and at a typically faster rate than their peers, an appropriate curriculum for a gifted student is not one that simply gives more work at an accelerated rate. In fact, most times, truly gifted children will balk at what they find excessive workloads compared to their peers, and will possibly even feel penalized for being gifted.

Research shows gifted children need differentiated and appropriate work, and most classrooms adjust for gifted students simply by giving them more of the same, and expecting it to be done faster than their peers, if they adjust at all. This is another reason that even children who are recognized as gifted in school programs just tolerate school.

Gifted students are not simply ‘smarter’ children who should blow through school with ease, and as the parent of a gifted student with a learning disability (dysgraphia),  I’ve found that to be much the opposite. They need opportunities to find their learning styles and interests, room to explore in their learning, and purpose for learning — not just ‘because that’s what you do in school.’

And the research is out there. Unfortunately, gifted students are all too often put in the wrong programs.  Even if they are considered to be ‘for gifted children,’ too often your gifted child ends up hating school, and many times, norms out on standardized tests when compared to peers by the end of their formal education.

It’s just not okay, and we need to do better for our children. For all children.

It’s challenging, but when you understand that a child who is truly gifted has a brain that thinks out of the box, you won’t take them not fitting nicely in the box so personally, and can help them reach their fullest potential.

Most important–remember you’re their advocate, and when people offer misconceptions about what a ‘gifted child’ is, be sure to set them straight!

I say this as an educator for most of my adult life. I am still learning about my gifted, twice-exceptional child, and will continue for as long as I’m his educational advocate. Teachers need to as well, for their students. We don’t always know everything, and sometimes, when we’re confronted with new practices and research, we can get steadfast in our “But it’s always been done this way,” mentality.

Don’t be afraid to challenge norms and preconceived notions about what a ‘gifted’ child is or isn’t. Let’s make these little known truths about gifted children the new norms that everyone knows about and addresses appropriately.


Photo Credit: Sofi photo/Shutterstock

6 thoughts on “Little Known Truths About Gifted Children”

  1. Your article is more en point from my experience than any other I have read. As a gifted child, and then parent of exceptional children, I found myself relating in different ways, but agreeing with you throughout.

    I was gifted as a child. My creativity was considered off the charts, I excelled in the written word, instrumental and vocal music, and artistic endeavors. I was also mathematically inclined and enjoyed earth science more than most. It started young. My father taught me to read, write and add/subtract before I began school at 4. I wanted to learn, and he felt that if I wanted to, it was a good time to start. I ended up placed in pre-first after kindergarten, and while it was supposed to help me grow socially, it sank me. My peers and all the friends I had made in kindergarten moved on, and I learned things (for a second year) that I had known previous to kindergarten. Beginning in first grade, I was placed with students who already had their groupings picked out. I had not been a follower in my original placement. I was now a leader with no following. And that is how I remained. I would write extensive and elaborate stories on topics unrelated to the assignments, and was reading at a 9th grade level as I headed into 3rd. I became OCD about my handwriting (as a left hander, this was actually a struggle), and socially never did find myself with more than one friend at any given point.

    At this point I was placed (and remember that this was the tail end of the 70s and early 80s) into computer programming, Great Books reading program, Mathletes, and began learning the Flute as well as participating in Chorus. I was unmotivated to complete regular classroom work… I was being challenged through the extra programs. By then my parents had split up, and I found myself with a step-parent or two. I had a very complicated home life, and it was abusive. It wasn’t until 5th grade when my parents offered a camera as a reward for getting straight As that I made any effort to complete homework.

    Heading into middle and high school, I drifted along. Not really motivated, but acing all tests that came my way. Yes, there were programs that I was placed in, but even these… beyond the mental exercises given during the lessons, were unchallenging and my home life became my focus.

    Doing well enough in school to attend college and get away was my goal, but still I drifted, uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life. Not entirely certain I would survive to even graduate high school. There were too many options, and I was realistic enough to understand even at a young age that talent in a field did not always equal success.

    I never made it very far, professionally. I ended up with children and with illnesses that preclude me working. My children each have their own gifts, and I encourage them to develop them. All three are on the Autism Spectrum, and I suspect that I am myself. I do not have huge expectations for my children. Their happiness is all I expect them to strive for.

    Myself, I found my goal in life is much more simple than I ever thought it could be. As talented as I am, I want to give back to the world what I needed most when I was younger. Unconditional love. I want to be the change I want to see… and that’s where, it seems to me, every change that is needed in our modern world needs to start.

    1. Could not agree more. No matter what kind of education a child recieves, the one thing that makes all the difference is unconditional love.

  2. Oh, what an article. I thing this is the way to get extra care of your child. Gift is the easy way to develop your child and also this procedure is applicable for all children.

  3. As a parent struggling with these same difficult challenges that my gifted little one faces, this article was so very timely and validating. Thank you.

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