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What Does It Mean to Be Gifted or Talented?

Defining GT, "high achieving," and exploring whether you should tell your child they're gifted

What Does It Mean to Be Gifted or Talented?

See if this sounds familiar. You’re sitting in the counselor’s or diagnostician’s office receiving your child’s test results, and they have told you your child is “gifted” or “talented,” based on the scores on these tests. Suddenly, they are talking about changing your child’s educational plan. And all you can think is, “I don’t even know what gifted or talented is or what it means for my child’s life.”

This happens to many parents, some of whom I hear from looking for guidance. Let’s explore what it means to be gifted and or talented, what the difference is from being a high achiever, and whether you should tell your child they are gifted.

The gifted and talented world can be difficult to understand, in part, because there are no set definitions of the terms. When looking up gifted in a dictionary, you might find it to mean “having exceptional talent or natural ability.” Sounds great. But what does that mean?

As you’ll come to discover, “gifted” can have several meanings. Traditionally in this context, it means being academically gifted: A person has strong cognitive or thinking skills, or that person can learn, access, or comprehend information well in a timed test. After years of hearing different definitions, here is the easy-to-understand meaning I came up with.

A gifted child’s brain is a bucket, and knowledge is a water faucet. A gifted child can turn that faucet on full flow and never miss a drop. They take in information quickly and are able to understand it, assign meaning to it, and do something with that information.

Your child has a brain that is wired differently than other kids who are the same age. Their brain understands information at a faster rate. They can identify, assess, and decide what to do with information rapidly — more so than their same-aged peers.

Consider this analogy: A gifted child’s brain is a bucket, and knowledge is a water faucet. A gifted child can turn that faucet on full flow and never miss a drop. They take in information quickly and are able to understand it, assign meaning to it, and do something with that information.

Whereas a neurotypical child’s brain is the same bucket, but that bucket gets full and overflows sometimes. This is why we have to repeat things and why it takes time for them to understand concepts while the gifted/talented child speeds right through them.

To be talented, according to the dictionary, means having a natural aptitude or skill for something. This allows us to expand the concept of giftedness to other areas that are not judged by tests, such as sports, art, leadership, social interaction, and more. These areas are not identified in a timed test with a score that shows exceptionalness. Often, these kids are seen to have a great natural ability for a task or activity.

It is possible to be one or the other or both. For our purposes, we will use the terms gifted and talented, or GT, to be inclusive of both or either option.

Having a GT diagnosis does not alone make a child gifted or talented. They must have the diagnosis and achieve at levels above their grade-level peers.

It’s important to note that just because a person is GT in one area, that does not necessarily mean they are GT in all areas. It’s perfectly normal for a person to have exceptional skills in one area and still struggle in others.

Currently there are no nationwide or state standards for identifying students as gifted or talented. It’s up to individual school districts as to how — and even if — they will serve gifted and or talented students.

According to the National Association for Gifted Children’s 2014-15 State of the States in Gifted Education survey, only 37 states define giftedness, and even fewer states (32) currently mandate identifying and/or providing services for gifted learners.

GT or High Achieving

Another type of child is one who is “high achieving.” The list of characteristics for both GT and high-achieving students are similar. They both tend to do well educationally, work hard, and both receive attention from adults in the school; however, that is usually where the similarities end.

One way to identify which type of child you might be dealing with is to find the source of their motivation. Both are differently motivated. Intrinsically motivated people get their reward from within themselves. For example, a GT person will feel rewarded completing an assignment by understanding a topic more deeply and satisfying their curiosity — a good grade is not the reward. An extrinsically motivated person feels rewarded from something outside of themselves, for example getting an A or earning a teacher’s praise. They feel rewarded by things that happen externally as a direct result of their efforts. The GT person feels rewarded internally, and that is what motivates them to make the effort. If they are not motivated by it, they won’t do it, which helps to explain why some children complete work but don’t turn it in — they were not motivated by the grade.

Characteristics of High Achievers Characteristics of Gifted/Talented Students
Organized Above-average intellect
Compliant Understands abstract and complex concepts
Motivated by grades, praise, rewards Corrects adults
Needs repetition six to eight times to grasp material Excited by ideas
Enjoys age group peers Prefers conversations with adults
Completes assignments on time Strong sense of justice and fairness
Needs to know how to get an A Large vocabulary
Wants to please teacher/parents Intensities and extremes
High grades Needs little sleep
  Bored easily

I could add 30 more lines to this list, and you would still have contrasts left to discover. No two children are alike in every way, and there is not one list that will ever match a child perfectly. If you find your child to fit more in one of these than the other, I would suggest you start with a google search, using the titles I provided, to learn more.

To Tell or Not to Tell

Parents often ask me if they should tell their child that they are gifted. There are multiple schools of thought on the subject, and you can find all sorts of answers on the internet and in books. The reality is that your child already knows they are different.

They realize incredibly early that they are different from their peers. What they don’t know is why they are different, why they have different interests than other kids and can make connections the other kids don’t make, or why they aren’t motivated by the same interests or current cultural trends. This can be isolating and cause loneliness. Telling them a diagnosis won’t change that, but it can help them start to realize that they are “normal” (for them) and that there are other kids in the world just like them. This is so powerful for them to know.

I encourage you to read the Purple Goldfish Theory as one of your readings to help you decide if telling your child is the right answer for them or not.

Jamie Uphold headshot
Jamie Uphold

Jamie, American Mensa’s Gifted Youth Programs Manager, has been a state-licensed teacher for more than 15 years. She received her Gifted Education certification in 2016. She was recognized as the 2008 Teacher of the Year at Bowie Middle School in Amarillo, Texas, and was a finalist for the 2011 Texas Speech Communication Association’s Teacher of the Year.