printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 6: Who Are "Gifted" or "Highly Capable Students"?


This section on highly capable children was prepared by Nancy Robinson, Ph.D., our colleague on the Steering Committee for this project. We are indebted to her for her contribution.

There exists no generally accepted and broadly agreed upon definition of giftedness, as there are for disabilities of many kinds. This is perhaps just as well, because gifted children are as varied a group of human beings as exists on the face of the earth. They differ among themselves in the domains and levels of their abilities, in their learning approaches and temperaments, in their motivations and efficiency of organization - in every aspect/facet of human behavior. They also differ markedly within themselves - the asynchrony of their development being a hallmark of giftedness. Some are more gifted in math/science, some in more verbal areas; some are more creative and fluid in their thinking, while others are more analytic and "linear," and they may differ in these characteristics from domain to domain. Most are more advanced intellectually than they are physically, with social-emotional development somewhere in between, but there is a great deal of variation in maturity levels from one gifted student to another, even of the same age. In international schools, mastery of English and of writing may also vary not because of "native ability" but because of previous experience.

One definition used by many professionals today is based on the formulation used in the U.S. Federal Javits Gifted and Talented Education Act. It states, in part:

Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment.

These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993, p.26).

Traditionally, schools have sought to identify and nurture giftedness in those core areas for which they assume responsibility, namely, in intellectual or academic areas of accomplishment, since it is for students gifted in those areas that the school provides a poor fit (as opposed to irrelevant fit, as would be the case for a musically gifted student in a school that offered little music instruction). Note that a key aspect of the definition has to do with such goodness-of-fit comparing the student's accomplishment with others "of their age, experience, or environment . . . They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools."

This definition is relativistic, not absolute. It becomes, then, as essential to assess the environment as it is the student's advanced abilities. A child who might legitimately be labeled academically gifted in a school in which the mean ability level is average or below average for the U.S. population might not exhibit special needs in a school in which most students are more advanced.

Characteristics of Gifted Students
As stated above, gifted students differ markedly from one another. If all is going well - if they are appropriately challenged, well adjusted, and supported at home and school - one is likely to see tell-tale signs of advancement such as the following, though not all of them, in every child:

  • Rapid mastering of the typical curriculum, at an earlier age than classmates
  • Exceptional reasoning ability and memory, often advanced over skill levels such as calculation or punctuation that require more direct instruction
  • Ability to hold problems in mind that aren't yet figured out, to ponder them from time to time until a solution emerges or an answer is found
  • Frequent step-skipping in problem-solving and unexpected ways of solving problems or inventing strategies
  • Advanced vocabulary and a love of words
  • Interest in looking for patterns and relationships and explaining them
  • Willingness and capacity for reasoning on a more abstract level than age-mates do, sometimes rejecting more hands-on approaches
  • Or, pleasure in working things out in visual-spatial media
  • Fluency in representing ideas in different media
  • Long periods of absorption with topics when they are truly engaged; reluctance to give up on incomplete work or unsolved problems
  • Treating road-blocks as challenges; "courageousness" in trying new pathways of thinking, new skills
  • Pleasure in posing original, difficult questions
  • Capacity for independent, self-directed activities; the ability to push beyond under-challenging assignments to find something of interest and worth
  • Enjoyment of mind puzzles and mathematical games
  • Sometimes taking intellectual risks that don't actually work
  • Coming up with an idea that sounds "off the wall" but is actually the product of non-obvious, divergent thinking
  • An advanced sense of humor; catching on to teachers' jokes and making puns that other children don't "get"
  • Reaching for excellence; perfectionism that can be an asset or a liability
  • Greater personal maturity than is exhibited by their classmates (though this is quite variable)
  • Relatively positive social adjustment. The "nerd" exists but is not typical.

When things are not going well for a student though, either because of inadequate challenge in the classroom, social difficulties, or for whatever reason, gifted children may, contrarily, be more morose or more of a handful in the classroom than other students. Boredom and unhappiness may lead to misbehavior of many kinds, including distractibility, clowning, and general irritability. As one gifted student expressed it, "My school is like being in a slow motion movie six hours a day." When things are not going well, the student may reject the very challenges offered by the teacher that might be a way out of unhappiness. This may be particularly true for gifted children who are highly motivated to fit in and be "just like everyone else," bowing to social pressures that are at their peak between 5th and 10th grade but may be difficult at any age, and even more so for girls than boys.

Furthermore, being gifted does not provide immunity from other problems of adjustment or from disabilities. Some will have trouble with reading or math; writing disabilities are not uncommon; attention deficit disorder is also no less common with these children than others although some gifted children who are underchallenged may appear distractible (ADD) when they daydream, or hyperactive (ADHD) when their high-energy, high curiosity plays out in the classroom.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.