What do we mean when we say gifted? It seems a simple question.
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?”
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.
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.
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 (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).
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.
- 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).
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.
- According to Dr Karen Rodgers at her keynote speech, “Worth the Effort: Finding and supporting twice-exceptional learners in school” at WCGTC, 2017.
- 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
- My presentation, “Alternative education options for gifted and twice exceptional children” at WCGTC, 2017