Home > Advocacy and policy > Gifted kids: Different brains, different needs

Gifted kids: Different brains, different needs

I maintain this blog and web site to help make gifted children’s lives better. I can only guess you’re here because you care about that, too.

But who are these “gifted” kids? What does that label mean?

Some think a gifted child is one who has met the official requirements to enroll in special classes at school. Nothing more.

But being gifted means a lot more. It means a child’s brain works differently – it’s wired to absorb, master, and synthesize information more efficiently and effectively than an average person’s.

In an article worth reading (see link below), gifted advocate Suki Wessling says gifted children could more accurately be called “non-neurotypical.” In fact, Wessling argues we might be more successful winning support for our kids if we stopped calling them “gifted” – a word that implies advantage and elitism – and chose another term that would emphasize these children’s neurological differences.

By accentuating the neurological variation, perhaps we could convince educators and policy makers that gifted kids need a different educational approach. They learn differently, and must be taught differently. Gifted programs aren’t just a nice extra, but a necessity. More important, a suitable gifted education can’t consist solely of a couple of hours of enrichment each week. Gifted education has to extend to every classroom.

Whether they’re learning the alphabet or astrophysics, gifted children pick up new ideas with considerably less repetition than average kids. They not only take in new information quickly, but also are adept at integrating new knowledge with what they already know. They ask more questions, and yearn to explore with more depth, unsatisfied by the limited information in the textbook. No wonder they get bored and frustrated when they’re subjected to the slow pace of the general classroom, with constant review both during the school day and in the homework they are assigned.

Some schools try to address the needs of the gifted by grouping them in classes with high achievers. That provides a marginal improvement. But high-achieving students and gifted children are not the same, and their educational needs are not the same.

Put simply, a high achiever is a student who performs well in school, gets good grades, and scores well on standardized tests. Smart kids who work hard are your typical high achievers. Some high achievers are gifted, but not all. Likewise, not all gifted kids are high achievers. Some of them don’t adapt well to the structure of school, and therefore don’t attain academic success. Thomas Edison wouldn’t have been considered a high achiever in school, but I dare you to deny his giftedness.

The National Association for Gifted Children muddied these waters when it changed its definition of gifted individuals to “those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude or competence” [emphasis added]. That’s a disappointing move from our leading advocacy organization. To say that competence is the same as aptitude – that high achievement is the same as giftedness – is to measure the end point without looking at the path taken to get there. And it’s in the path that we see the distinction.

Imagine two middle-school boys, Henry and Gabe, who both play the piano. Henry, who dreams of attending Julliard, practices two hours a day with intense focus. Gabe is a prodigy who sight reads new pieces and practices just one hour a week, his practice sessions a mix of playing the assigned music and venturing off into his own spontaneous compositions. Both play beautifully. Go to their recital, and you might not be able to distinguish one from the other, but there’s no denying they learn differently.

This is not to say Gabe is a better musician, just that he learns and experiences music differently, in an atypical way. High achievers deserve great respect for their work habits, passion, and dedication, and certainly hard work can surpass raw talent. But the gifted child and the non-gifted high achiever do not have the same educational needs. Would you put Gabe and Henry in a piano class together? Of course not. Gabe would be stifled, or Henry would be overwhelmed, or both. Both these young pianists may be high achievers, but we can’t educate both with the same approach.

Likewise, we can’t adequately serve gifted children by lumping them in with high-achieving students. Advanced classes may teach material that’s ahead of the standard curriculum, but the demographics being what they are, the high achievers will tend to outnumber the gifted kids, even in an advanced class. So, these classes are often taught with the pacing, limited scope, and higher level of repetition meant for a non-gifted student. A high achiever class – or even a high achiever magnet program – does not necessarily meet a gifted learner’s needs.

In an ideal world, a gifted child would be afforded the same level of attention given to other “special needs” kids, with an individualized education program (IEP) and supplementary classroom resources. After all, some of our brightest learners are as far off the IQ bell curve as kids diagnosed as developmentally disabled – just in the opposite direction. Furthermore, giftedness doesn’t affect just intellect. It includes a whole slate of social and emotional characteristics that can affect the child’s overall well-being.

But ours is not an ideal world. It’s a world where plenty of people still think the whole concept of giftedness is a ploy by privileged snobs to get special benefits for their coddled kids. (See the comments written in response to a column I wrote in 2013 for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

This bias against giftedness makes it harder for all of us to get our kids’ needs met, but those who are hurt the most by these accusations of privilege, ironically, are the gifted kids who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. They are every bit as different from the norm as gifted kids from wealthier families, yet they have little or no access to the kind of enrichment opportunities listed on this website. They have only their local schools to meet their educational needs. That’s why it’s essential that we offer specialized gifted education in school.

The more we advocate for the gifted, the more we get others to understand that these children have legitimate neurological differences that create special learning needs, the more we stand up and insist that those needs be met, the greater our hope that all gifted kids – not just our own – will flourish.

They are our best chance for a better future. These kids, these different thinkers with their atypical brains, are the ones who will solve the world’s big problems.

We need them. And they need us.


For further reading:

“Divorcing the G-Word: A Parent’s Suggestion for Defining Giftedness,” by Suki Wessling, published in the summer 2013 issue of Gifted Education Press Quarterly (Wessling’s article is on page four)

“The bright child vs. the gifted learner: What’s the difference?” from the Gifted-Ed Guru blog of Psychology Today magazine

“High Achievers and Gifted Learners: Can They Mix?” (PDF), by Rosemary Cathcart, published by the George Parkyn National Centre for Gifted Education

Categories: Advocacy and policy
  1. Bridget
    January 18, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Excellent post! I absolutely agree that IEP’s should be allowed for gifted children because they certainly have special needs.

  2. Truly Concerned
    October 19, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    I totally agree with this article. Currently in our school district people are obsessing over the “gifted program” My daughter’s best friend is trying to test into the program and told my daughter that over 100 kids tested yesterday in their grade alone. Statistically speaking, that is truly impossible and not representative of the amount of gifted kids in a population of this small town. Some of the kids were even cheating on the puzzle portion of the test in an attempt to pass the test. It seems around here the “gifted program” is looked at as ” prestigious” by overachieving parents. Some parents have had their kids test over 3 times even though their test results were not even close to being near the desired 97th percentile.. My fear is that if these “over achieving” kids and parents test into the program by utilizing resources to help increase their odds of testing in, the safe haven for gifted kids will be lost. There needs to be a screen that differentiates kids who studied to get in and kids who just have an atypical brain. Every parent who has a truly gifted child can eventually see the difference between the truly gifted child and the over achievers of the world. I definitely believe there should be challenging classes for over achieving students. However, the gifted child has many social, physiological, and psychological needs that the over achieving child doesn’t. Their brains are wired different. Until we have a more definitive description of the gifted learner, we will continue to hinder not help the truly gifted. I absolutely agree with changing the name! Maybe then this OBSESSION with the program will end and actually benefit the children who need it most. I also agree that gifted learner should be in gifted schools. Pullout programs are not enough and don’t have the time or resources to address the holistic needs of the atypical brain. However, that is all we have around here for the time being. I do my best to offer enrichment wherever I can. I also need further education in order to advocate and help my child the best way I can with all her needs. After all, a gifted brain is a gifted brain before, during, and after schooling. It is a lifetime.

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