Who are gifted students? From Signs to Strategies in Fostering Their Growth

Who are gifted students? From Signs to Strategies in Fostering Their Growth

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From the moment the test result indicates ‘positive’, most parents-to-be begin wondering about their child. Is it a boy or a girl? Will they be healthy? are common questions. As the baby grows, those questions may give way to deeper musings. What will my child become? Could they be an Olympic gold medallist? The Prime Minister? A Nobel Prize winner?

Most Christian parents know that their children are a gift from God. That’s a no-brainer. But what if God gives you a child genius? And exactly what is a gifted kid anyway? Let’s start by exploring what it means for a child to be deemed as a gifted child or talented student.

What is a gifted student?

While every student has a unique set of God-given abilities, some students have the capacity to excel in one or more areas of mental or physical endeavour. Mozart, for example, was a musical child prodigy.

Some students are clearly ahead of others in their acquisition of gross motor skills, such as walking, or fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil. Others are more advanced with cognitive skills, such as reading and language development.

While there is yet no universally accepted definition of what makes a gifted or talented student, in Australia, the most widely used model is that of Dr Françoys Gagné, a now-retired Canadian Professor of Psychology who devoted much of his career to studying giftedness.

The key differences between gifted and talented students

Gagné’s 2008 ‘Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent’ provides definitions that are based on research and directly connected to teaching and learning. He distinguishes between gifts – which are natural abilities – and talents, which can be developed systematically from gifts.

Identifying and understanding gifted students

Gagné's model provides a robust framework for understanding the nuances of giftedness. Gifted students, as defined by this model, are those individuals who showcase an innate potential that significantly surpasses the average in one or more of the four primary domains: intellectual, creative, social, and physical. Each domain provides a unique perspective on how giftedness can manifest in a student.

Intellectual Domain

This pertains to students who possess a heightened cognitive ability. Such students often display exceptional analytical skills, advanced comprehension levels, and an innate curiosity about the world. Their cognitive prowess can lead them to grasp complex concepts effortlessly, ask intricate questions, and engage in deep reflections from a very young age. Additionally, their ability to connect disparate pieces of information can sometimes leave adults astonished.

Creative Domain

Students excelling in this domain display originality and innovation. Their minds are often filled with vivid imaginations and unique perspectives. Whether it's through art, music, writing, or any other medium, their creative expressions tend to be rich and multifaceted. They may come up with novel solutions to problems or see the world in a way that is distinct from their peers.

Social Domain

Giftedness in the social realm refers to students who demonstrate advanced interpersonal skills and heightened emotional intelligence. They can navigate social situations with ease, show empathy beyond their years, and often possess leadership qualities. Such children might act as peacekeepers in conflicts or be the ones others turn to for advice and support, regardless of age differences.

Physical Domain: This involves students who display extraordinary physical skills, coordination, or agility. Whether it's in athletics, dance, or other physical pursuits, they demonstrate a natural talent that sets them apart. Their physical capabilities are often accompanied by a strong dedication and discipline, driving them to hone their craft diligently.

Recognizing these domains in students is the first step in cultivating their potential. By understanding where their strengths lie, educators, parents, and mentors can provide targeted support and opportunities for them to thrive. However, it's essential to remember that every gifted student is an individual, and while frameworks like Gagné's model offer valuable insights, a holistic and personalized approach is crucial for their development. After all, giftedness is not just about raw potential but nurturing that potential in a supportive and understanding environment.

Identifying and understanding talented students

Talent, by definition, signifies a pronounced skill set or prowess in one or more areas of performance. It is crucial to distinguish between talent, which is the manifestation of an ability, and giftedness, which represents innate potential. Talents evolve from giftedness but are further refined through a combination of individual traits and environmental influences. Such influences comprise:

Inherent traits

These are the student's inherent characteristics, including their temperament, self-awareness, and overall emotional and psychological well-being. These traits influence how a student perceives and interacts with the world around them.

Accessible resources

The tools and opportunities available to the student, such as specialized learning programs, extracurricular activities, or specific training modules, play a pivotal role in molding a talent.

Influential figures

People who actively participate in the student's life, including parents, educators, and mentors, have a profound effect on the trajectory of their growth. Their guidance, feedback, and support can often be the difference between latent potential and realized talent.

Educational exposure

The quality and diversity of learning experiences offered to the child—be it through formal education, workshops, or experiential learning—contribute significantly to honing their skills.

Inner drive

Lastly, the individual’s motivation, determination, and sheer willpower act as the internal engine that drives the transformation from being gifted to truly talented.

To illustrate the nuanced difference between giftedness and talent, consider this: a child gifted in mathematics might possess an innate capability to solve complex problems with little instruction. However, they transition into a talented math prodigy when they receive structured training, are exposed to advanced mathematical challenges, and maintain a relentless passion for the subject.

Similarly, while a talented individual might showcase exemplary skills in areas like sports or performing arts, it's crucial to recognize the journey behind that talent. It's the culmination of inherent abilities, countless hours of practice, access to resources, mentoring, and an unyielding spirit of perseverance that gives rise to such excellence.

Common personality traits of gifted and talented children

According to Gagné’s model, giftedness encompasses a wide range of abilities. Furthermore, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) emphasise that gifted kids can’t be lumped into one category. They note that:

  • gifted and talented students come from diverse cultural backgrounds, socio-economic groups and locations
  • they have an almost unlimited range of interests and personal characteristics such as temperament, motivation and behaviour
  • gifted and talented students may also have a disability, learning difficulty and/or English as an additional language
  • they vary in abilities and aptitudes, with gifts and talents in a single area or several
  • gifted and talented kids vary in their level of giftedness and achievement – two students with gifts in the same field may have different levels of ability and perform at different levels (to each other and over time)
  • gifted and talented students may be hard to identify. Their visibility can be impacted by factors such as their cultural and linguistic background, gender, language and learning difficulties, socio-economic circumstances, or performance that doesn’t match their potential.

How to tell if your child is gifted or talented

Despite this, there are tell-tale signs that your child may be gifted or talented. The Australian Capital Territory Government’s Department of Education and Training note that consistent indicators of giftedness include:

  • “good” thinking – such as reasoning, abstract thinking, problem solving and generalising
  • ease or speed of learning – a ‘child prodigy’ may learn from being told/shown something just once or they may quickly see errors as learning opportunities
  • advanced verbal abilities – such as early or sophisticated expressive language development (speech), sophisticated vocabulary and/or complex sentences; or advanced receptive language, such as the ability to understand concepts and directions
  • exceptional memory – such as the ability to retain information and recall early life events in detail, or an exceptional concentration or attention span
  • perseverance or motivation – including strong goal-directedness, persistence to complete tasks and an appetite for learning
  • wide-ranging interests and knowledge – including interests that are intense and outside what is usually expected for children of their age
  • a preference for older companions
  • quantitative ability and interests – that is, number-based interests such as money, calculators and time
  • exceptional spatial ability – such as interest and skill in puzzles, maps and diagrams, or an advanced sense of place and direction
  • early use of symbolic representation – such as sophisticated drawing or writing (although this may be impacted by fine motor development).

Other possible indicators of giftedness include early achievement of developmental milestones (such as walking, speaking and reading), an intense curiosity, high levels of imagination and creativity, and an advanced sense of humour.

It’s important to remember that identifying your student as being gifted or talented has a purpose – such as channeling them into a gifted and talented program, for example. It is best done as a collaboration between parents, teachers, school psychologists and other professionals as needed.

If your student has been identified as gifted, then the school can cater for them with appropriate educational strategies.

How to keep gifted students actively engaged while they learn

For a gifted student to reach their potential, the right educational strategies are essential. As Geraldine Nichols, President of the Victorian Association for Gifted and Talented Children warns, “Problems arise when the curriculum being delivered stops being appropriately challenging or appropriately meaningful.

“Underachievement is a huge issue for gifted students who have ‘switched off’ and have stagnated in their ‘yearn to learn’. They also risk suffering from poor mental health and/or dropping out of school.”

Another educational expert warns that the gift can become a curse if the child isn’t adequately challenged. “Some children will demonstrate obvious behaviours like acting out, misbehaving, refusing to do their work, and generally find other ways to keep themselves occupied, such as taking things apart,” Dr Kate Burton from Edith Cowan University told the ABC.

“Others take their frustrations out on themselves which teachers may not see, but this is apparent in the child’s behaviour at home.”

She explains that unsupported students frequently become disengaged, underachieve and exhibit perfectionism. They may be “incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD, autism or even bipolar disorder if they are assessed by someone who is not familiar with the presentation of a chronically underchallenged gifted student,” she said.

Other potential consequences include:

  • selective mutism
  • mental health difficulties
  • self-harm
  • drug and alcohol use.

“Several studies have found that gifted individuals often score highly on the trait of ‘openness to experience’, and if we’re not providing students with adequate stimulation in the classroom, they may find other less healthy ways to explore the world,” Dr Burton explained.

A study of almost 7,000 people published in 2012, for example, found high childhood IQ was related to illegal drug use in adulthood.

To avoid problems like this, choosing enriching and challenging educational programs for gifted students is a must. This will not only help to keep them engaged, but also allow them to realise their God-given potential.

Ways to challenge your gifted child

At school, teachers use a variety of teaching styles to effectively engage students of all abilities. Here’s some ways you can challenge your gifted student at home:

  1. Provide tools that will help them succeed

    All children need certain tools to succeed with their studies, but you may need to think a bit more about the right ones for your gifted child. Examples include:

  • access to a wide range of books and resources (through library memberships or apps like Audible, for example)
  • passes to places of interest, such as museums, galleries and zoos
  • access to groups or technology that supports engagement with other gifted students.
  1. Encourage their creativity and problem solving

    Look for age-appropriate activities that foster imagination, creativity and critical thinking skills. For example:

  • puzzles, games and a variety of craft items for younger children
  • groups such as chess clubs and debating teams
  • online games that engage problem-solving skills.
  1. Allow your student to struggle

    Higher-than-average achievement often comes easily to gifted students. However, they will eventually come across something that is difficult for them, whether that be mastering a physical skill or feeling comfortable meeting new people.

    Encouraging your gifted student to do things they find difficult will help to develop resilience. It will also help them to overcome fear of failure and ensure they don’t simply give up when they encounter hard things.

GATE Program: Extending Students in Schools

The Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program is a renowned initiative embraced by many countries, including Australia. Its primary purpose is to cater to the distinct needs of students identified as gifted or talented. Throughout Australia, a myriad of schools offer a specialised GATE program, offering an extensive curriculum that emphasises advanced problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, the program also nurtures exceptional communication and collaboration skills. From in-depth academic subjects to expressive arts and languages, students are equipped with digital literacy and encouraged towards independent learning. This approach not only extends their content knowledge but also hones their skills in a dynamic and engaging learning atmosphere.

However, a central debate in the domain of gifted education is the "Homogenisation vs. Integration" argument. While homogenisation sees the merit in clustering gifted students together, offering them tailored challenges, integration leans towards integrating them into standard classrooms, highlighting the diverse social experiences they can acquire.

The GATE program symbolises a commitment to nurturing exceptional talents, ensuring that every student's unique abilities are recognised and fostered. As education continues to evolve, it remains crucial to balance specialised instruction with holistic development, ensuring our gifted students not only excel academically but also thrive socially and emotionally.

Are you placing too much merit on academic performance?

However, parents need to be careful not to place too much emphasis on academic achievement. Your child’s gifts may lie in other areas, or they may need support to achieve their potential. Their sense of self, purpose and worth can’t be measured in test scores. Rather, it is found in fulfilling their God-given purpose and becoming the person He has designed them to be – spiritually, intellectually, socially and physically.

Problems can arise when a parent’s focus shifts to the world’s expectations about their child’s accomplishments. The worldly measure of success demands increasingly more from children at younger and younger ages. For example, pre-schoolers might be judged on whether they can read before starting school rather than whether they can exercise some self-control or share with others.

Other problems can occur when parents excessively compare their children to others, rather than valuing their uniqueness.

There is nothing wrong with valuing intelligence or encouraging gifted children to strive for excellence. Securing the best educational opportunities for your children so that they can fulfil their potential should be a primary focus for parents.

However, for a child to be truly successful, they must understand that their worth is not defined by the world’s definition of giftedness. It is found in Christ, who enables them to receive spiritual gifts that will empower them to love others, develop a godly character and fulfil the most significant purpose God has for them – “gifted” or not.

The Imperative of Catering to Every Student's Unique Potential

Irrespective of whether a child is formally identified as gifted, it remains paramount that their educational experience remains engaging, stimulating, and suitably challenging. As highlighted by ACARA, every student is deserving of an educational journey that is not just rigorous but is also deeply relevant and engaging. The core philosophy here is that a well-tailored curriculum should cater to each student's individual learning trajectory.

The Australian Curriculum, in its essence, serves as a foundational blueprint for educators. Its design facilitates the creation of teaching and learning programs that are not just academically inclined but also resonate with a student's interests, strengths, aspirations, and specific learning needs. Furthermore, it encompasses a holistic approach, ensuring the cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and aesthetic dimensions of a student's development are all given due attention.

Teachers of distinction understand the diverse spectrum of learning levels, unique strengths, and varied interests that exist within their classrooms. With this insight, they adeptly tailor their pedagogical approaches to resonate with each student's distinctive needs.

Moreover, a quality education brings an additional layer of dedication to their vocation. They perceive every child as a unique individual bestowed with a divine purpose. These educators, rooted in their faith, are unwaveringly committed to nurturing and guiding each child to realise their full potential and align with the divine vision God has set for them.

Sophia Auld

Sophia Auld

Sophia Auld is the Editor of ACC’s blog. Sophia has a Bachelor of Applied Science from the University of Sydney, a Graduate Diploma of Divinity from Malyon Theological College and is currently completing an MA in Writing and Literature through Deakin University. Sophia has been writing since 2015 across a range of industries. Two of her children completed distance education through Australian Christian College. Sophia is known for her depth of research and accurate, evidence-based approach to writing. On the weekends you might find her scuba diving with sharks, bushwalking or hanging out with family. Sophia can be reached at [email protected].