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?

The key differences between gifted and talented children

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

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.

His 2008 ‘Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent’ provides definitions that are based on research and directly connected to teaching and learning. His model defines gifted students as those whose potential is distinctly above average in one or more of four domains: intellectual, creative, social, and physical.

Talent, on the other hand, describes students whose skills are distinctly above average in one or more fields of performance. Talent comes out of giftedness and is developed through the interplay of factors including the teaching and learning opportunities provided to the gifted child.

As an example, a gifted child might have unusually high potential to excel academically. They become talented when that gift is nurtured and enabled to flourish through the right learning environment.

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.

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 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 channelling 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 kids 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, and even 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.

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 and fulfil the most significant purpose God has for them – “gifted” or not.

Why challenging students of all abilities and aptitudes is crucial

Regardless of whether your child has been assessed as gifted, all children need an education that is suitably challenging. As ACARA notes, “All students are entitled to rigorous, relevant and engaging learning programs drawn from a challenging curriculum that addresses their individual learning needs.”

They explain that the Australian Curriculum is used to “develop teaching and learning programs that build on students’ interests, strengths, goals and learning needs, and address the cognitive, affective, physical, social and aesthetic needs of all students.”

Good teachers will consider the range of their students’ levels of learning, strengths, and interests, and personalise their teaching and learning program according to students’ needs.

Great Christian teachers recognise that every child in their care has a God-given purpose and are committed to seeing each one become all God wants them to be.