The Truth About ‘Gifted’ Versus High-Achieving Students

By Chris Croll

While some parents go to great lengths to try to have their children identified as “gifted,” I would like to shed some light on the reality of what raising a gifted child really means.

First, a quiz. Which of the following do you believe to be true?

  1. a) Gifted children usually get straight A’s in school
  2. b) Gifted children are often teacher’s pets in the classroom
  3. c) Gifted children have exceptional executive function (organization, time management, etc.) skills
  4. d) Gifted children tend to be natural leaders
  5. e) None of the above

The answer is, of course, e. The statements above describe high-achieving students, not gifted ones. This is a distinction parents of gifted children would like others to understand.

High achievers are students who perform at peak academic levels. They take the hardest classes and ace them all. They are tenacious. They have grit. Teachers love them because they eagerly engage with whatever material is presented in class. Peers admire their academic success and look up to them. High achievers often take on leadership roles in extracurricular activities. They play sports and an instrument and they are leaders in clubs. High achievers have excellent study skills and social skills and they go on to excel at elite colleges.

[See related article, “Going for Gifted,” here.]

Gifted students, on the other hand, may or may not earn high marks in school depending on a host of factors including their interest in the subject being taught, their respect for the depth of knowledge the teacher possesses and even their level of physical comfort in the classroom. Gifted students often frustrate teachers because they don’t quite live up to their potential, especially in classes that are too easy for them. Gifted children often have poor executive function skills so they lose homework and don’t know how to study for exams. Many gifted children have few friends because of their esoteric interests. Sometimes these students feel so isolated that they become depressed … even suicidal. A surprisingly large number of gifted students drop out of high school and never make it to college, despite their high innate intelligence.

While all children have gifts, not all children are “gifted” as defined by researchers and educators around the globe. The most commonly used definition is as follows: “Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.  This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” (The Columbus Group, 1991)

What this means is that gifted children have ‘special needs’ that the typical classroom teacher does not have the bandwidth or training to address. This is why school districts go to great lengths to identify gifted students—these kids require special support in order for them to stay engaged in the learning process.

Some gifted students are also high achievers but many are not. What other parents and teachers often don’t see are the hidden components of being gifted, including emotional overexcitability, crippling anxiety, existential angst and other social and emotional issues resulting from asynchronous brain development.

Having your child identified as “gifted” at school is no better or worse than having them qualify for any other academic support service. Parents who pay for tutoring services to teach their child how to “act more gifted” so they “get into” gifted programs at school would be wise to spend those dollars instead on enrichment classes to help their children become high achievers – or to save that money for college.

[Chris Croll serves as executive director of Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students. Contact her at chris@locopogs.org.]

9 thoughts on “The Truth About ‘Gifted’ Versus High-Achieving Students

  • 2017-03-24 at 2:08 pm
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    The author exaggerates the extent to which gifted children are somehow paralyzed by anxiety and lack of executive function. While it is true that some gifted kids become disinterested or are not natural leaders, this is not common. Such individuals (high cognitive ability) have been shown to have greater “common sense” and higher achievement than those with more average intellectual aptitude.

    It appears the author writes from the perspective of having a kid with other needs (special education diagnosis) and is trying equate all gifted students with her own. This is not normal. Most gifted kids benefit not only from deeper learning but from a faster pace. The heart of intelligence is the ability to synthesize information more quickly. Most gifted kids understand material with only 2 presentations whereas most students need at least 5-7 to internalize the concepts. This fact conflicts with the author’s notion of gifted kids needing “support”.

    Gifted kids benefit from more challenging academic environments. Period. Gifted kids who have special education needs may need other support but that should be provided on an as-needed basis.

    • 2017-03-24 at 9:31 pm
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      You really missed the point of the article entirely. The support that gifted kids need has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with coping. MANY gifted students lack organizational skills, suffer from anxiety and emotional and social immaturity (relative to their age) and other issues that hinder their ability to succeed.

      • 2017-04-17 at 3:15 pm
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        I have to agree here with buggymuffin and completely disagree with virginia_sgp. We have a gifted son and this article is pretty much a written image of him. And he has been tested and has been cleared of ANY other learning and development issues. But he can be working on something and if you say one word of negativity to him he will shut down. He has friends but not a lot of friends. And he has issues dealing with anxiety and such. It can become paralyzing to him and it takes a lot of work and coaxing to get him to relax and do what he needs to do. This article is so accurate when I read it and take it into consideration when looking at my son. And his younger brother is showing the same traits. He is in Kindergarten and is reading on high 1st grade level and self-taught. His teacher is struggling to keep him learning. But he has the issues of not paying attention, being bored and tuning his teacher out as they are talked about here.

  • 2017-03-25 at 8:57 am
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    I found the authors article spot on. I’ve had to deal with administrators who refuse to acknowledge the difference between gifted and high achieving. They degrade the students for struggling almost to the point of bullying. As a parent who has seen both sides of the coin I can tell you that yes there is a range of cognitive abilities of gifted students. But I believe the fundamental point of the article is to create awareness that a good portion of gifted students really struggle. I find your calloused review of the arthors article unhelpful and missing the point.

  • 2017-03-25 at 9:19 am
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    Thank you. This is a great article that really gets at the heart of things from the perspective of parents of gifted children. I am sorry to have to write such a lengthy comment, but I must disagree with the comment left by virginia_sgp. Ms. Croll does not exaggerate the extent of problems suffered by gifted children. While not all gifted children suffer from the downside problems of giftedness, many, many do. More to the point, parents and educators cannot predict which gifted child needs services to prevent serious problems down the road. Once those problems arrive, it is too late to go back and provide services. Often, by the time that a problem occurs, damage has been done. That’s why apparently happy, healthy, and successful gifted children need services from day one–because that bouncy, smiling third grader may well become the depressed high school drop out, and no one can predict who needs services and who does not. Giftedness involves far more than pure intelligence, but the evidence shows that gifted children learn differently and may at times require different modes of instruction. Virginia_spg notes that gifted kids understand material with only 2 presentations… but the research also shows that their learning actually deteriorates with the additional presentations that the regular classroom teacher must provide for the other students! In other words, regular classrooms may harm the learning process of a gifted child. The idea that gifted students merely require more challenging academic environments (or else they have a disability that should be served as-needed in a special education program) does not comport with my experiences as a gifted mother of two gifted children. I am finding more and more that school board members and administrators who do not want to spend money on their gifted programs are advocating for “more challenging academic environments. Period.” I find that so very demoralizing and simply tone-deaf to the repeated requests of parents for gifted education services. And, truthfully, this academics-only ‘theory’ of giftedness is dictated by budget constraints. This kind of thinking leads to the idea that if a gifted child isn’t performing in the classroom, then he isn’t really gifted! How many highly intelligent children are ignored until they disengage from the education process? The insult to injury is that when a gifted child disengages, the school is most likely to blame the child and his parents. Show some curiosity. Ask yourself, why would a gifted child become disinterested in school? It is true that gifted children are just as likely to be happy, healthy, and successful as any other children when they are placed in an appropriate educational environment. Unfortunately, except for the few schools devoted to gifted education, appropriate educational environments are generally unavailable. Gifted services are a small attempt to provide support for these children and the very least that our schools should be doing for our gifted children. We need our public schools to support their gifted education programs.

  • 2017-03-26 at 12:08 am
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    The comments below refer to issues other than “gifted”. The common use of the term refers to individuals with high intelligence (g). Now we realize every parent likes to think each of their children is gifted. When you ask parents how many have “gifted” children (defined as top 3% of students), something like 50% believe their children are gifted. This simply demonstrates the patents cannot objectively evaluate any more than the teachers.

    Truly gifted children are bored because they understand the concepts (and often explain them to) better than their teachers. They disengage because they only need 2 presentations, the concepts are not dealt with at sufficient depth, and the class moves way too slow.

    It sounds like your kids have issues with executive function and emotional intelligence. Maybe you can demonstrate they need lots more taxpayer $$$$ spent on them for your liking, but that is not what the majority of intelligent kids of LCPS need.

    It seems everybody wants LCPS to spend more $$ on and have more teachers engage with their child. I just want more challenging material at a faster pace and using a higher student:teacher ratio albeit one that places a relatively gifted teacher (a real one who understands them). That would actually cost less per kid.

  • 2017-03-26 at 11:00 pm
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    Give gifted children their chance.

    Parents of a gifted student may have unique hurdles to overcome when supporting their gifted child in school.

    The school clown or star athlete enjoys a better reception in the classroom than does the designated “brain” or “egghead.” It is true that the best atmosphere for gifted students is in programs where they can be with children of similar capabilities.

    Gifted students often have advanced abilities in the areas of in-depth and logical thinking skills, written and oral communications skills and/or visual or performing arts.

    Students attending these programs benefit from specifically planned educational instruction that challenges them to attain substantive academic goals. Well-established, state-of-the-art programs for gifted students provide the appropriate resources and instruction to prepare students for success in new technology environments.

    Parents need to closely monitor their child and contact teachers of the gifted who can evaluate a frustrated and confused student. The child may have exceptional ability, but may not have been able, for various reasons, to tap into that ability. Gifted teachers can act as guardian angels, assessing young students to determine if they are eligible for admission into the gifted programs.

    Children of advanced intellect may need as much special attention from their parents as children with learning disabilities. We should not assume a gifted child will automatically become an outstanding student.

  • 2017-04-14 at 1:31 pm
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    This helped distinguish my two kids. My son was identified gifted in preschool and I think my daughter was still counting on her fingers in 5th grade. Both were straight A students in middle school…my son because it all was so easy for him, my daughter because she worked her butt off.

    In high school my high-achieving daughter remains the hard working, self-motivated, self-directed, super organized, resourceful straight A student that will not settle for an “A-“. She does school work for hours most days with only one AP class, the rest general. She says she will probably only do general from here on, working at 110%, she can’t handle any more.

    Once my gifted son got to high school, he didn’t know how to study and floundered a bit. Having everything come so easy, he lacked the motivation, direction, organization and study skills that my daughter excelled with. Taking many AP and honors courses but in my mind I felt he was a lazy gifted student, but I would never label him that way. Ace some tests but skimped on homework and quizs, this left his first two years with grades all over the place. Finally learned how to do well with the least amount of effort his junior year to make his GPA a 4.2 but it didn’t bring his cumulative up enough to be over a 3.6.

    It is a very high achieving school, but I feel like there were others like him and I feel like someone needs to write a book called “The Reluctant Gifted Child”. You could call it underachieving and in many ways that fits who he is but it is such a negative label. He is also not an anxious or bored because he knows more than the teachers…he is bored because he feels a lot of what they are teaching in school is pointless, he knows it’s hard, he just doesn’t want to bother. He does not have social or emotion issues but quite the opposite, he is a popular three sport athlete that is often peer elected into leadership roles.

    I think what happened in high school was the how quickly the institution takes it’s gifted children and feels that putting them in a faster paced environment gives them the challenge they need. I think what some really need to do is more of what IB does, goes into a lot of topics more deeply and interactively, engaging their mind more than just throwing more homework and packets at these kids.

    I could see this early on with my son, that once I learned how gifted he was I joined up in some of the gifted and talented programs where teachers gave kids around 5 or 6 years old a bucket of hardware pieces and they were building and putting together all kinds of things by themselves. That was not my son, he wanted to be engaged and interactive with people, not objects. When he was, I consistently had them telling me how smart he was. What I am saying is that not all gifted kids are the same, we shouldn’t treat them and build programs around them like they are.

    I have always said in general that your gift is not always your passion. Academics are not an exception. When I sighed in frustration with my son’s AP Stats teacher about his lack of motivation with schoolwork she replied “THAT kid gets an “A” in LIFE!”. I have to keep reminding myself that:). And I always joke that if I could combine my two kids’ academic strengths I’d have Harvard class president.

  • 2017-04-19 at 1:02 pm
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    The article, and the comments are all great (with some minor disagreements). The important part is knowing what to expect from the school system, and where to get help to fill in the gaps.

    The school system rewards high achievers. That is their definition of “Gifted and Talented.” The sanctioned gifted programs – SEARCH, Futura, Honors, Jefferson, and the Academy of Sciences are all based on high achievement on tests (for SEARCH) and grades. So, in the introductory quiz, while we all might agree on “e – none of the above,” if you want your child in the Academy of Sciences they’d better focus on “a – straight A’s” with a couple of “b – suck up to a teacher” thrown in for recommendations.

    But that’s ok. One of my children did SEARCH, Futura, and Honors classes and I don’t think that did them any good – they are the opposite of a high achiever. So begging and pleading for your under-achieving-but-very-clever child to be in Futura is a mistake, just as if you had a gifted speller and put them in a multi-year chess program. Having great teachers goes so much further.

    So what do you do? There are lots of extra-curricular activities that are for every type of giftedness. Some worth looking into:
    Odyssey of the Mind (OotM). The best part of this program is that it is a place for Every Single Kid and will help and challenge them whether they’re an artist or an electrician or an actor or shy. It’s built for kids with no attention span as well as those who can focus on intricate details for months. An alternative is Destination Imagination (DI). Please please please, if you’re reading this, get your kid into OotM.
    Center for Talented Youth. An expensive program from Johns Hopkins (though they do offer scholarships). They offer online teacher-led courses from writing poetry and Chinese to programming and physics. But, the best part of CTY is the summer programs. The kids stay three weeks at one of several real colleges around the country – even Hawaii. You can choose between Intensive Studies (think High Achiever or someone very interested in a specific subject) and Academic Explorations (the rest of us). CTY also has family programs – spend a week on a boat sailing the Chesapeake doing science stuff.
    Scouts. Scouts will have the kids doing things they haven’t done before. One of the best part of scouts is that you can see how ‘smart’ and ‘gifted’ and ‘leaderlike’ and ‘annoying’ your kid can be in a group of their peers. Maybe they’re not really so gifted as you thought, because just maybe, you haven’t seen what the other kids can do. But, they really will learn real life working-with-others and leadership and problem solving skills.
    Your own outings. Either by yourselves or with one of the many clubs/rec centers.

    Look, decades ago maybe one or two kids in any class were identified as gifted and diverted some way from the class. In Loudoun, at least a couple years ago, more than a third of a class might be told they’re gifted and bussed over to another school for SEARCH. You can help your kid so much more with specific challenges meant for them.

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