What Makes a Child “Gifted”?


In addition to writing for Brain World, I work part-time at a private elementary school geared towards gifted learners. Very early on, it became apparent that this was going to be a very unique educational experience — as much for myself as for the students, who relished the individualized instruction and excelled with a curriculum that relied heavily on hands-on activities.

I wanted to learn more about what sets a “gifted” child apart from his or her peers, and how these distinctions translate when it comes to brain structure and functioning. One 6-year-old at the school had figured out how to hack into the school computer twice in a matter of months. A 5-year-old voraciously consumed middle-school level chapter books. On the other hand, a student burst into hysterical tears at a minor provocation; while another child relentlessly fixated on perceived injustices.

According to experts, these characteristics are all common among gifted children: not only are they typically academically advanced and highly creative, they also tend to experience hypersensitivities and often find ethical issues particularly salient. Carol Bainbridge, an expert on the subject, enumerates a long list of traits and abilities frequently observed among gifted children:

  • “Well-developed powers of abstraction, conceptualization, and synthesis
  • quickly and easily sees relationships in ideas, objects, or facts
  • unusual and/or vivid imagination
  • interested in philosophical and emotional issues
  • well-developed sense of humor
  • displays intellectual playfulness”

… to name just a few. Many people conflate the terms “bright” and “gifted,” and while there may be some overlap, there are key differences.

Christopher Taibbi describes these distinctions:

  • “A bright child knows the answer; the gifted learner asks the questions.
  • A bright child works hard to achieve; the gifted learner knows without working hard.
  • A bright child enjoys school; the gifted learner enjoys self-directed learning.
  • A bright child has a fine imagination; the gifted learner uses that imagination to experiment with ideas and hunches.”

However, with these accelerated cognitive abilities comes the possibility of asynchronous development, or “uneven intellectual, physical, and emotional development.” While a 4-year-old might read at a sixth grade level, his emotional skills could resemble that of a 2- or 3-year-old. Furthermore, “The higher a child’s IQ is, the more out of sync his or her development is likely to be.” Also of note: it is generally accepted that “intensity, sensitivity and, overexcitability are primary characteristics of the highly gifted.”

The Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski distinguished between five areas in which an individual might be more sensitive to sensory stimuli. These areas are “psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional. A person may possess one or more of these .”A gifted child will not automatically experience one of these sensitivities, but there is a greater likelihood than in their average peers.

So how much bigger is the brain of a gifted child, compared to a child with a lower IQ? Actually, not bigger at all. The key neurological differences lie in functioning and development far more than size and structure. One study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that, “Youth with superior IQ are distinguished by how fast the thinking part of their brains thickens and thins as they grow up … Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed that their brain’s outer mantle, or cortex, thickens more rapidly during childhood, reaching its peak later than in their peers — perhaps reflecting a longer developmental window for high-level thinking circuitry. It also thins faster during the late teens, likely due to the withering of unused neural connections as the brain streamlines its operations.” One of the study’s authors explains, “Brainy children are not cleverer solely by virtue of having more or less gray matter at any one age … Rather, IQ is related to the dynamics of cortex maturation.”

Gifted brains also appear to be both more active and more efficient on a neuronal level. To begin with, “The gifted child seems to have an increased cell production that also increases synaptic activity. This all adds up to an increased thought process. The neurons in the brain of the gifted child seem to be biochemically more abundant and, as a result, the brain patterns that develop are able to process more complex thought.”

Moreover, fMRI’s demonstrate that, “Gifted brains are remarkably intense and diffuse metabolizers,” capable of synchronizing the efforts of “diverse visual, spatial, verbal, and sensory areas of brain. Gifted thinkers are rarely one-mode thinkers. Rather, they are great organizers of diverse and multimodal information.”

All of these factors mean that gifted students learn differently from other kids; thus, teachers must be trained to instruct them differently, using methods that allow for the advancement — and not the crippling — of a gifted child’s tremendous potential. To echo Margaret Mead, instead of being taught what to think, it is imperative that gifted kids (and perhaps all children) be taught how to think. Physicians Brock and Fernette Eide champion the idea that gifted children have a critical need to:

  • “understand the nature of their thinking
  • understand the quality of their information, and
  • understand the uses of information.”

Society as a whole will benefit from fostering a greater understanding of giftedness — from its biological foundations to its pedagogic implications.

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