Gifted vs Gifted

What do we mean when we say gifted? It seems a simple question.

It’s not.

See, the first thing anyone notices about giftedness is the wildly different definitions. Is it medical? Psychological? Educational? Gifted changes from country to country, district to district and even school to school. It’s head-scratchingly confusing. It doesn’t make sense…and it’s easy to ask, “Is gifted even real? Is it all made up?”

Text"Gifted vs Gifted,", Image: 3 photos, a child writing at a table, a group of boys talking around a table, a girl staring out a window in a classroom"

Why is it so difficult to define?

A few weeks back, I had a conversation with a highly qualified educational expert that really clarified the issue. We disagreed. She showed me her journal references. I showed her mine. And I discovered something. Something that should have been blindingly obvious. Something that had nagged me for a really long time. Particularly when I read a journal paper that felt “fuzzy” on definitions. Some articles even seemed to lack basic reproducibility (such as having enough information for another group to run the same experiment / study again).

Eventually, she said, “Well, these things (I was talking about) might apply to a small subgroup of children…” (Or words to that effect).

That’s when the lightening-bolt hit.

Her definition of gifted was not just different from mine, we weren’t talking about the same group of kids .

When we talk gifted, what do we mean? High IQ? High-achieving? Behavioural differences? Neurological wiring?

We have to start here. WHAT DO WE MEAN?

Because otherwise – we aren’t just talking cross-purposes. We aren’t even really talking.

Two circles overlapping in Venn diagram, one red with words"E-gifted", one blue with words "P-gifted", overlapping region in purple with words "both
A Venn diagram of gifted definitions

What do we mean by Gifted?

I am going to start with the above Venn diagram.  Bear with me – it’s not really that complicated.

The Red Group

When educators are talking gifted – particularly in journals, they generally define gifted as children who achieve in the top 10% of school or school assessments. This is important.

There is no IQ test. No behavioural characteristics. There is only one criteria – high achievement. If a study has a group of high-achieving kids, that’s all that is needed.

This group of kids are generally well-behaved. They like learning at school, are socially well-adjusted, and usually reasonably well-liked. They have fewer mental health problems. Dedicated and hard-working, they go on to have high-achieving careers and have higher-than average amounts of degrees, journal articles, and are more likely to end up in the top rungs of whatever profession they enter. They are relatively easy for teachers to spot in a class.

I will call this group E-gifted. (Short for Educationally gifted).

The Blue Group

This group is primarily defined by IQ tests. They will have an IQ score in the top 2.1% of the population (2 standard deviation from the norm or average score. For the WISC, this would be a score of 130+). For children with a diagnosed disability affecting their communication or motor skills,  they will instead have some sub-scores in the top ~2% and an average score (if it can be calculated) at least 1 standard deviation above average (for the WISC, this would be 115+)(1).

These children have a higher likelihood of problems in school due to a poor educational fit. They are more likely to be referred to testing for disabilities (even if none are present). Most will have behavioural characteristics that are often described as OEs (Over-excitabilities), but can also be described using the Five Factor Model of Personality as an over-abundance of Openness. There is also a much higher chance that they will have sensory processing issues significant enough for them to be classified as having a sensory processing disorder (2).

They are not all high-achieving. They are present in all populations and at all socio-economic levels. If they are from a minority group or a poor background, they are unlikely to be identified at all.

This group is the group that are more likely to show up at testing centres (like the Belin-Blank Center), or to psychologists and counselors. From the small amount of data we have, they are much more likely to be homeschooled.

I am going to call this group P-gifted (Short for Psychologically gifted).

The Purple Group

The purple group is both – E-gifted and P-gifted. They have the high-IQ score; they are also high-achieving. This is the group every single longitudinal study of giftedness has focused on. (With no exceptions – I have read through five of the biggest). This is also the group that neurologists like to study when they do brain scans of how gifted brains work, or genetic studies on inheritance. It fits nicely into all definitions of giftedness, it’s easy to find AND it has a repeatable, reproducible study group.

You could say the purple group are the medical model of giftedness.

And then there’s a the 4th group – 2e.

Two circles overlapping in Venn diagram, one red with words"E-gifted", one blue with words "P-gifted", overlapping region in purple with words "both, extra oval over blue and purple c=section with label "2e"
Venn Diagram of gifted types with 2e

The 2e group

Twice-exceptional (or 2e) children are a sub-set of the P-gifted group. (NB. If they are high-achieving but not P-gifted, then they are high-achieving special-needs / disabled children, but NOT 2e). A small amount of these children may end up in the purple group – but most of them will be missed and not even identified as P-gifted. They will almost certainly NOT get the accommodations  needed in school and are drastically more likely to drop out of school or be homeschooled. (According to the small amount of data we have, in my state of Victoria, while only 1 in 200 children are homeschooled, 1 in 7 twice-exceptional children are homeschooled (3) ).

Why Does This Matter?

But, why does this matter? Why is it important to know what group we are talking about?

It’s important, because the educational, social, emotional and medical needs of these groups are very, very different.

E-gifted Children

E-gifted children (excepting the purple) thrive on the challenges they get in classrooms. Teachers are usually able to successfully differentiate for their needs if they need extension. They very rarely need acceleration, and almost never need radical acceleration – indeed, it can occasionally be harmful as it increases their stress levels as they try to keep up. Radical acceleration can also cause behavioural problems as they may not be emotionally or socially able to blend in with the older children.

E-gifted in the purple group

For E-gifted in the purple group, they will do OK in regular classroom with differentiation, but if not accelerated, will be less well-adapted over their lifetime. If they are accelerated, they will have an even higher-achieving profile and will gain more degrees on average, publish more papers and climb higher within their chosen profession. There may be some mental-health issues if they are not accelerated to a level equal to their ability. This is particularly true for highly to profoundly gifted children within the high-achieving group (Highly to profoundly gifted starts at 3 standard deviations from average on an IQ test).

P-gifted children

For P-gifted children we have very little, if any large-scale longitudinal data. We have no idea how they turn out. We have no idea about their mental health or achievement profiles on a large scale. But there are an awful lot of case-studies and individual profiles.

These indicate:

  • a higher-than-average risk of dropping out of school,
  • a higher than average risk of mental health problems,
  • a risk of both misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis with possible co-occurring disabilities,
  • and potentially a higher than average chance of going to prison.

These children need acceleration. The highly to profoundly gifted children need radical acceleration. Not because they could achieve at a higher rate if accelerated, but because without it, they are more likely to develop mental health problems, particularly unhealthy, clinically significant levels of crippling perfectionism. Differentiation within a classroom seldom works,  as it is rarely done the way they need to learn. This is because it’s designed for E-gifted children.

If they don’t end up in an educational environment that meets their needs there are documented life-long problems. If they also feel unsafe and unwelcome, it’s even worse.  Most P-gifted kids don’t understand how differently they think from average – which causes social problems. They have an intense focus on justice and fair-play and a desire for exactness and accuracy that can be mistaken for Autism (Though there is a growing body of scientific data to say that there is some link – possibly genetic – between some P-gifted children and Autism).

Twice-exceptional (2e) Children

For Twice-exceptional children, the above is made worse by the way special-needs children are treated within the education system. It’s an unhealthy clash between ableism and tall-poppy syndrome. That is, if they are even identified (which they probably won’t be). Schools invariably favour working only on deficits, even if acceleration removes most of the problems seen in the classroom. They can also have accommodations for disabilities removed if they jump from the blue to the purple group (i.e. start becoming high-achieving) (3).

A blue pen on a cream background


I think it is vitally important to understand exactly what we are talking about when we talk about gifted kids.

Before we can make decisions on what to do about helping gifted kids, we need to understand exactly which group of kids we are talking about. We’ll have the same circular arguments again, and again, if we don’t. We’ll fling facts, not listen and get nowhere.

I know what that is like. I have done it, a lot.

Almost two decades ago, my hubbie and I had one of those intense you-are-so-wrong-my-face-is-going-red arguments. We kept that argument going for a really long time. In public. With a large audience.

As we descended into I-might-never-talk-to-you-again territory,  one of our friends started laughing out loud and had trouble standing up. So, we paused to ask him what was so funny.

And he said, “You are both arguing that the pen is blue…”

No one is arguing some children must suffer and be squashed. Or that failing and traumatizing children is the price we must pay for other children to do well.

But that, too often, is where the conversation ends up – no matter which side you sit on the definition of giftedness.

Instead, I think we should pause. Re-look at all the assumptions. Reassess whether we are even talking about the same thing.  Realise that we are actually looking for the same outcome – but for very different groups of children.

If we don’t, we are more than likely to end up vehemently arguing with each other that the pen, is in fact, blue.



  1. According to Dr Karen Rodgers at her keynote speech, “Worth the Effort: Finding and supporting twice-exceptional learners in school” at WCGTC, 2017.
  2. According to Yee Han Chu and Bradley Meyers  from the University of North Dakota at their presentation, “When the World is too rough: Twice-exceptional gifted children with sensory processing disorder” at WCGTC, 2017
  3. My presentation, “Alternative education options for gifted and twice exceptional children” at WCGTC, 2017

33 Replies to “Gifted vs Gifted”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head! Point by point, it all makes sense. I’ve always known there was a distinct difference between the high-achieving e-gifted and the p-gifted, but you clarified these differences along with 2E’s so very well. Thank you for this! Excellent!

    1. This is great thank you. What kind of exercises/activities can I give my son (3 years 9 months) to address both his development areas (which is more speech and language related) as well as accelerate his strong abilities? We often only focus on the negative but it’s true what you mentioned – we should not neglect what they excel in. We found out in Feb this year that he is 2E. When should we test him again?
      Thank you.

  2. Hi there – thanks for this great article! I’ve got one child in a school for “gifted” kids (I’d say of the p-gifted variety) and two others who are in more traditional schools but whose teachers have said “you know they’re gifted” over the years. More of the e- or purple variety. It sort of comes back to needing different words for each group of people because “gifted” gets so inflamed. I’m in a high achieving community that refuses to ID or fund gifted education in the public school. I hear arguments from highly educated educators that we need to get rid of gifted altogether because research has shown that IQ scores are so highly correlated with socio-economic status and can also change with grit, growth mindset. How have you approached that counter-argument re: gifted, in particular of the p-variety? Thanks so much!

    1. It’s a tricky problem, Callie. What is worth noting is that E-gifted kids are identified by their high-achievement, as are the “Purple” group. High-achievement is strongly correlated with socio-economic status, so those educators have a point. The problem, is that those same educators (and the researchers who use similar high-achievement criteria) also miss 50% of all the P-gifted children. The missed group will have a greater amount of the 2e kids, the kids from minorities, the kids with behavioural problems and the poor kids. These kids are P-gifted but not high-achieving, and they are missing from almost all of the research that shows a correlation between IQ and high-achievement. This is because all those studies used teacher recommendations to pick kids to be IQ tested before they started the studies. There was a paper last year that showed that if teachers pick out ‘giftted’ kids, 60% of the kids they pick will be E-gifted only, 40% will be in the 2% high IQ group (and will be probably also high-achieving), and they will miss 50% of all the P-gifted children. This means *ALL* studies done to date on large groups of gifted kids is missing half the data – and the half that is missing is the low-achieving group.

      1. So the P gifted kids from minority’s and low socioeconomic communities are not identified because the schools in those communities do not have the resources to even teach regular children up to standards? This may cause them to be constantly labeled as thugs with behavioral problems? I think this article is true. Looking back, I realized that I went to a terrible highschool. At times I felt as is I was teaching myself by just reading and studying. I don’t believe I was gifted so I can imagine what Pgifted kids are going through. As per this article I have an E gifted child. He has always gone to a charter school in a urban area and has always been top of his class. I chose this option because I tried to get him skipped to first grade straight from preschool because he was already doing second grade work at home. The principal would not do it. So I applied for charter.

        1. <3 yes, it is possible that poor kids will be labelled trouble makers rather than having their needs met (and it's particularly acute for 2e kids). Sadly, this can set them up for life-long problems if the school uses punitive ways to handle behaviour. And yay for alternative school options! We don't have charter options here, but I homeschool my kids for very similar reasons.

      2. That is actually really helpful because it can change the conversation, particularly among the more academically-minded people who push back on “gifted” based on currently available academic research. Do you have any particular studies you like to point to in this conversation?

        1. I hope it does. There are a number of good references (check some of the links on the page). I think one of the most useful is this one which highlights some of equity problems in the most common approach used for gifted ed. selection.

  3. This is an exceptional read!! Thank you so much! Often, when I describe my 6 year old as gifted, I know people hear “I’m bragging on myself because I spend so much of my time pushing my child to learn”. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Aside from birthing him and encouraging/ supporting his love of knowledge, I had little to do with it. I wish our school district understood this and would focus on developing a better gifted program to help him and others like him. Sadly, their main focus is their athletic program. So, I’m left to figure out how to appropriately support his educational needs.

    Again, thank you so much for this article. I am going to share the neck out of it.

    1. <3 April. It's so hard when people see what our kids can do and think it's due to something we did. I had a similar experience with my son (even though most of the advanced stuff took us completely by surprise). I was often asked if I used flash cards to help his early reading. I would tell them we had one gift of flash cards (beautiful zoo animal pictures) which my son ate so I took it away as cardboard wasn't really nutritious. People didn't really know what to say after that. It usually got a laugh, which helped. Also, the desperate and bewildered look in my eyes probably helped too.
      <3 to you and your journey to support your son. It's not easy, but it will be worth it.

  4. You’re a good thinker, KATHLEEN HUMBLE. I experienced very little tension reading your essay, eager to trust your findings, and to read more of what I believe you know.

    1. Thank you! And <3. I actually think this is not unknown, but I don't think a lot of people have thought through how the definition differences can impact on the services offered to help gifted children in the classroom.

  5. Excellent article! I work as a Counsellor with all ages but specialized in children and youth. I have seen a variety of adults who I suspect are gifted and when discussed, will confirm to be red group or purple group (saying, “yes, I was in the accelerated program in school but we never discussed it my parents and I” and have no prior understanding of how this was meaningful to their identity development or perhaps current challenges in relationship.
    With children, on occassion I’ve made the suggestion for parents to seek testing for their child who has behavioral issues presenting in school ex: school labelled ADHD but minimal issues at home (with discussion parent discloses herself identified as gifted as a child) and giftedness was then identified through child’s formal testing. Parents who don’t understand their own development don’t recognize the relevance of giftedness in their child.
    I very much appreciate the value of your article to classify these various gifted presentations. My interest also lies in adult presentations of 2e’s. With the populations I have worked with, this seems on occassion to surface in emotional regulation issues illustrated within biopsychosocial histories related to achievement in school/work (not often congruent performance ie: under achievement in school but later high achievement in work performance…not without a history of challenges though), intimate relationships and addiction issues. For some, difficulties with the law, self harm and suicide attempts have also been in their histories.
    My point in mentioning this is to further thank you for opening the discussion to encourage more studies of less recognized profiles of giftedness. The painful and sometimes tragic outcomes that I see in adults may be in the future avoided as more is done for early identification and education for parents and educators. I am very much looking forward to more information to better inform my practice and educate my clients.

  6. Thanks for another informative blog. The place else may I get that type of information written in such an ideal approach? I’ve a project that I’m simply now running on, and I’ve been on the look out for such info.

  7. Oh my God this article is everything. My daughter is almost 23 months and this article’s words “crippling perfectionism” so accurately describes our days since – I kid you not – since birth. This combined with her intense drive makes life .. interesting as she is driven to do things way way beyond what she should be attempting and achieving. I have no idea how she will turn out iq-wise since she’s so young but this helps me understand and articulate what I suspect and can monitor for.

    I’ve learned I have to try to keep a step ahead of her to continually offer her the next level of challenge because without that next challenge, she tries forcing her existing tools beyond their ability and gets frustrated that they can’t do more as she wants to do more. People tell me to not stress in trying to stay one step ahead, but that simply doesn’t work for her personality. It’s so hard because it’s so scattered at this young age what their brains can do that it’s hard to know what to challenge her in that isn’t limited by undeveloped parts of her brain. I keep reaching out for help in how to parent her, how to even keep up with even just understanding what she’s trying to do because it’s so far off the mark sometimes that it wasn’t even in my radar that that could be what she’s struggling to attempt, and how to help her crippling perfectionism. I haven’t found resources for this age. Please help.

  8. This is the best article I’ve seen in a long time about the variations of gifted. We knew my son was gifted early on, however time and lots of testing revealed ADHD, and mild dyslexia/dysgraphia. His abstract, creative thinking and thirst for knowledge is miles ahead, but his school achievements barely keep up. Twice exceptional for sure. The more knowledge that is out there about the variations of the gifted brains, the better we can serve the next generation. Thank you!

  9. Thank you for providing much needed clarity around this issue. I have worked in gifted education in New Zealand for many years and am constantly challenged to justify my broad definition of giftedness, which includes, and focuses on, twice-exceptional learners. What you call e-gifted (great term), I think of as having the disposition to thrive in a regular school environment. The p-gifted 2e learners I work with do not thrive at school without appropriate conditions, strategies and emotional support. I have seen 2e kids succeed as e-gifted when teachers change the way they teach and, especially, the way they assess learning. Unfortunately, it’s a rare teacher who is able to do this within a regular classroom. For this reason, a small group of us in Auckland, NZ, are starting a Centre for exceptional learners to provide an environment where these kids can shine all the way through school (and beyond). I would love to hear from others working in similar schools. Please visit our FB page if interested – it’s all very new – we open in February, 2018:

  10. Thankyou for this article. This discussion needs to be had … and loud.
    Our 16yr old son only recently recognised as 2e. His journey has come at a price to his physical and mental health and a cost to the family overall.
    The current education system and environment is a huge stressor that has chewed away his soul, making him unable to attend.
    With the support of medical and psychiatric professionals and the school’s support, we hope this clever, sensible and sensitive kid can re-engage in life…soon… to make a positive mark on the world.

  11. I am often to blogging we truly appreciate your posts. Your content has really peaks my interest. I am about to bookmark your web site and maintain checking achievable details.

  12. Thank you for the arrivals so detailed and perfect explanation. My 8 year old is Purple 2e. I look forward to reading more in how I can help him.

  13. I’m sad I am three years behind in reading this, but happy to have found it now! I will also make a mention of this post (and your book!) in my own blog. Thank you for writing and sharing.

  14. Oh wow. No wonder I dropped out of high-school (all i heard for my emotional and adhd issues was “youre gifted youll be fine”.
    But did manage to graduate in the top 10% of my university class. Despite having an elementary education and very little improvement upon it throughout my issues kn middle and high-school.
    Thank you for this article.

  15. This is very informational! I am more P-Gifted on the spectrum and when in gifted classrooms, I would always compare myself to the high achievers wondering how I was gifted because I thought gifted just meant high achieving. Now I know how!

  16. I know I am late to seeing and responding to this, but I have to say as a visual learner your Venn diagrams are amazingly helpful. My child was recently found to be 2E and I’ve been fighting with the school to address both the psychological giftedness and the ADHD (as well as anxiety and emotional dysregulation) so that she has supports in place and can be adequately challenged to stay a purple 2E kid. Being a bored kid with ADHD is a recipe for disaster. I was always in the red group, but unfortunately I have seen what happens to kids in that blue group who the system fails.

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