Extra talented children have always attracted attention, but teachers felt somehow uneasy to recognize that publicly – fearing that devoting them too much attention could be qualified by other children and parents, as well as the broader society, as socially unfair. As a consequence, generally, children with special needs are receiving their enhanced share of teachers’ attention, while the extra-talented usually do not.

From the perspective of optimizing the available teachers’ time, this is certainly not ideal. Of course, we are not advocating that this imbalance should be overturned in favour of extra talented children, but that some balance should still be targeted. The rationale behind this claim is not based purely on the expected impact and future benefit the society can expect from the extra talented members of society, but also that these children could perceive even more than they are being neglected, particularly in comparison with the children with special needs. To be fair to the teachers, it has to be emphasised that during their studies they were generally also not properly briefed on the specific issues to be addressed with talented and gifted children.

In pedagogical science, we find abundant arguments in support of our claim, but in reality, the pressure of socio-political correctness seems to be too strong to accept the need for properly balanced attention between the two groups of children. Can we distinguish any noticeable difference in the doctrine and practice in various parts of the world, and is there some progress in this direction in our era of knowledge society?

IQ tests and extra talented children

The Intelligence Quotient (IQ) is a total score derived from a set of standardized tests or subtests, designed to assess human intelligence. The abbreviation "IQ" was coined by the psychologist William Stern from the German expression Intelligenzquotient, used for a scoring method for intelligence tests at University of Breslau. Historically, IQ was a score obtained by dividing a person's mental age score, obtained by administering an intelligence test, by the person's chronological age, both expressed in terms of years and months. The resulting fraction (quotient) was multiplied by 100 to obtain the IQ score. For modern IQ tests, the raw score is transformed to a normal distribution with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. This results in approximately two-thirds of the population scoring between IQ 85 and IQ 115, and about 2.5 percent each above 130 and below 70.

Today, IQ scores are used for educational placement, assessment of intellectual disability, and evaluating job applicants. In research contexts, they have been studied as predictors of job performance and income.

The first IQ tests were designed to identify schoolchildren in need of extra academic help. Over time, that intention was flipped, and the tests quickly transformed into a tool to identify individuals who had higher intelligence than the average. With the advent of IQ testing, researchers began to examine whether higher tests influenced anything more than a person's academic success.

In the early 1920s, psychologist Lewis Terman began to investigate the emotional and social development skills of children with a genius-level IQ. When looking at the group as a whole, Terman reported:

  • the average income of Terman's subjects in 1955 was an impressive $33,000 compared to a national average of $5,000;
  • two-thirds had earned college degrees, while a large number had gone on to attain post-graduate and professional degrees. Many of these had become doctors, lawyers, business executives, and scientists.

One thing that IQ scores can reliably predict is a person's academic success in school. Research also suggests that people with high intelligence tend to be more successful at work as well. However, in some cases, it may just be the opposite. In fact, some studies have suggested that children with exceptional academic skills may be more prone to depression and social isolation than their less-gifted peers. Another study found out that people with higher IQs were more likely to smoke marijuana and use illegal drugs. One explanation for this, according to the researchers, was a personality trait, known as openness to experience. This trait is one of the key personality dimensions described in the “Big 5 Theory” of personality. Openness is a trait that essentially removes unconscious barriers that would otherwise prevent a person from experiences considered socially unacceptable. Moreover, it is moderately associated with creativity, intelligence, and knowledge. By contrast, being closed to experience is more associated with routine, traditional behaviour, and a narrower set of interests.

Educating gifted children

Gifted children develop cognitively at a much faster rate than they develop physically, emotionally and socially. Their high-level capabilities may be broadly intellectual or in specific academic fields. Moreover, in England, the Department for Education (DfE) distinguishes between gifted learners and talented children:

  • gifted learners are those who have particular academic abilities;
  • talented learners are those who have particular abilities in the creative arts (such as music, art and design, drama, dance).

These are the main characteristics of gifted children:

  • a wide vocabulary, talked early;
  • ask lots of perceptive, insightful questions and learn more quickly than others;
  • have a very retentive memory - some may have a photographic memory; though it is the ability to use and apply what they learn, that marks out the gifted child;
  • extremely curious and can concentrate for long periods on subjects of interest; may get bored and fidgety when not intellectually challenged;
  • have a wide general knowledge and are curious about, and interested in, the world;
  • enjoy problem-solving, often missing out on the intermediate stages in an argument and making original connections;
  • have an unusual and vivid imagination;
  • learned to read at an early age;
  • show strong feelings and opinions; may have an odd sense of humour;
  • set high standards and are perfectionists but lose interest when asked to do more of the same.

All schools should have a written policy on how their most able are managed. The policy should be openly available on request; school inspectors expect to see evidence showing that the policy is being implemented and is working. The policy should include how children are identified and what measures are put in place to stretch and challenge them at every stage of their school career. It should have the full support of the staff, the governors and parents, and be widely available to all. In fact, each of these groups should ideally have been involved in the policy-making.

Every school should also have a dedicated teacher, often known as “the gifted and talented co-ordinator” or “the leading teacher”, to oversee how this policy is implemented. This person should also drive the gifted agenda, encourage best practices among all teachers, and ensure the children are stimulated and stretched, perhaps via a special enrichment programme. Some schools have an ‘individual needs’ department responsible for both the ablest and those who are struggling.

It is very easy to destroy the self-confidence of any child, particularly when they are talented, gifted and able. Their experiences with their teachers, their peers and their parents are crucial, and it is always important to look for the indicators which suggest that a difficult, unhappy or bored child has hidden talents.

These are the problems facing a gifted child:

  • success does not equal popularity; gifted children often get a poor deal because we live in a culture that finds celebrating success very difficult;
  • gifted children are often misdiagnosed, bullied or disaffected;
  • it's possible to be gifted and have special needs; many have a learning difficulty (dyslexia, dysgraphia, auditory retention problems, etc or a disorder such as Asperger’s) which compounds their problems;
  • their intellect is more advanced than their social and emotional development;
  • because their thought processes are different from their peers, they find it hard to mix and make friends;
  • they may find work in the classroom painstakingly slow but must keep their head down as they don't want to seem arrogant and precocious;
  • fast workers are often told to ‘do more of the same', but repetition is anathema to a brain that picks up ideas quickly;
  • boredom may set in if teachers do not understand how a gifted child thinks and works. This may lead to the child resorting to switching off (daydreaming), avoiding school (by, among other things, imaginary ailments), or disruptiveness (which may take the form of clowning or truculence).

Highly able children need challenging learning experiences at school and home. Evening, weekend and holiday time activities which include children of a wide age range can help to ground the child’s emotional and social development.

Teachers in primary schools are used to managing groups of children of widely different abilities and to planning individual extension or enrichment activities. Where the curriculum allows it, the child can work with other staff or older classes on agreed activities, always remembering that what can happen easily one year may be difficult the next.

There is more scope for differentiation and ability setting in secondary schools, but highly able children still need to have extension activities built into each lesson, depending on the individual school’s resources.

For some parents, the easy solution would appear to be to accelerate the child one or two years. This strategy works well for some children but is not a panacea: older children can be hostile to a younger child joining their peer group; the child may have the academic, but not the social skills to copy, and many secondary schools are unwilling to admit children out of their proper year group.

Education for the gifted and talented

Often also known as gifted and talented education (GATE), talented and gifted programs (TAG), or G/T education) is a broad group of special practices, procedures, and theories used in the education of children who have been identified as gifted or talented.

The main approaches to gifted education are enrichment and acceleration. An enrichment program teaches additional, related material, but keeps the student progressing through the curriculum at the same rate as other students. For example, after the gifted students have completed the normal work in the curriculum, an enrichment program might provide them with additional information about a subject. An acceleration program advances the student through the standard curriculum faster than normal. This is done through many different approaches.

There is no standard global definition of what a gifted student is; multiple definitions exist. Most definitions select the students who are the most skilled or talented in a given area, e.g., the students with the most skill or talent in music, language, logical reasoning, or mathematics. The percentage of students selected varies, generally with 10% or fewer being selected for gifted education programs. However, since students vary in their aptitudes and achievements, a student who is not gifted in one area, such as music, may be considered gifted in another, such as language. Consequently, even if all programs agreed to include only the top 5% of students in their area, more than just 5% of students would be identified as gifted.

Controversies concerning gifted education are varied and often highly politicized. They are as basic as agreeing upon the appropriateness of the term 'gifted' or the definition of 'giftedness'. For example, does 'giftedness' refer to performance or potential (such as inherent intelligence)? Many students do not exhibit both at the same time. Measures of general intelligence also remain controversial. Early IQ tests were notorious for producing higher IQ scores for privileged races and classes, and lower scores for disadvantaged subgroups. Although IQ tests have changed substantially over the past half-century, and many objections to the early tests have been addressed by 'culture neutral' tests (such as the Raven test), IQ testing remains controversial. Regardless of the tests used to identify children for gifted programs, many school districts in the United States still have disproportionately more White and Asian American students enrolled in their gifted programs, while Hispanic and African American students are usually underrepresented.

Some people believe that gifted education resources lack availability and flexibility. They feel that in the alternative methods of gifted education, the gifted students "miss out" on having a "normal" childhood, at least insofar as "normal childhood" is defined as attending school in a mixed-ability classroom. Others believe that gifted education allows gifted students to interact with peers that are on their level, be adequately challenged, and leaves them better equipped to take on the challenges of life.

Gifted programs are often seen as being elitist in places where the majority of students receiving gifted services are from a privileged background. Identifying and serving gifted children from poverty presents unique challenges, ranging from emotional issues arising from a family's economic insecurity to gaps in pre-school cognitive development due to the family's lack of education and time.

Another area of controversy has been the marginalization of gifted females with studies attributing it to self-efficacy, acculturation and biological differences in aptitude between boys and girls for advanced maths.

While giftedness is seen as an academic advantage, psychologically it can pose other challenges for the gifted individual. A person who is intellectually advanced may or may not be advanced in other areas. Each individual student needs to be evaluated for physical, social, and emotional skills without the traditional prejudices which prescribe either "compensatory" weaknesses or "matching" advancement in these areas.

It is a common misconception that gifted students are universally gifted in all areas of academics, and these misconceptions can have a variety of negative emotional effects on a gifted child. Unrealistically high expectations of academic success are often placed on gifted students by both parents and teachers. This pressure can cause gifted students to experience high levels of anxiety, become perfectionists, and develop a fear of failure.

A person with significant academic talents often finds it difficult to fit in with schoolmates. These pressures often wane during adulthood, but they can leave a significant negative impact on the person's emotional development.

Social pressures can cause children to "play down" their intelligence in an effort to blend in with other students. "Playing down" is a strategy often used by students with clinical depression and is seen somewhat more frequently in socially acute adolescents. This behavior is usually discouraged by educators when they recognize it. Unfortunately, the very educators who want these children to challenge themselves and to embrace their gifts and talents are often the same people who are forced to discourage them in a mixed-ability classroom, through mechanisms like refusing to call on the talented student in the class so that typical students have an opportunity to participate.

Many parents of gifted children find that it is the social-emotional aspect of their children's lives that needs support. Schools and talent development programs often focus on academic enrichment rather than providing time for gifted children to have the social interaction with true peers that is required for healthy development. National organizations such as Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) as well as local organizations, have emerged in an effort to meet these needs.

In the United States, particularly in New York City where qualifying children as young as four are enrolled in enriched kindergarten classes offered by the public schools, a test preparation industry has grown up which closely monitors the nature of tests given to prospective students of gifted and talented programs. This can result in the admission of significant numbers of students into programs who lack superior natural intellectual talent and exclusion of naturally talented students who did not participate in test preparation or lacked the resources to do so.

Closing thoughts

An increasingly competitive global environment is putting human capital as the main factor determining the international position of each individual country and economy. And here again, the extra-talented people (those with IQ above 200 only represent less than 0.01% of the population) play a very important role. Their actual performance depends largely on their experience through education and upbringing. The more balanced it was, the more capable they will be in using their inherited intelligence in solving challenges in their professional and personal lives. And here we come again to what was happening during the childhood of these people. Very often they are a bit egocentric, and if their environment demonstrates a lack of flexibility in reacting to their behavior, it may develop into traumas that burden these people from early childhood and make them later somewhat “antisocial”.

If democratic societies have developed a level of tolerance for people who continue to need special care and understanding, there is no reason for not understanding that some of the extra-talented people also need an additional level of understanding by other members of society. While in the first case, this is our social duty, in the second case it is a combined duty – serving the interests of talented individuals and creating the conditions allowing these people to activate all of their potential in their professional life. In both cases, we are making the people concerned happy members of the society, but in the second case also their contribution to the society will be higher.

For these reasons, it is important that teachers and professors are properly prepared during their own studies, because so much depends on their treatment of gifted and talented students, and on their ability and motivation to supporting their academic, as well as social and emotional development.

(Article prepared by prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).

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Neisser, Ulrich (1997). Rising Scores on Intelligence Tests. American Scientist. 85 (5): 440–447.
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Educating the gifted child. The Good Schools Guide.