For several years, I taught at a school that served a majority of academically motivated students and created a climate where it was “cool” to be smart and successful. While there, I learned of several instances where parents rigorously advocated for their children’s acceptance into the gifted program based on their exemplary grades. A fellow teacher explained to me, “All parents think their children are gifted here.” And while those students were, in fact, very bright, I noticed that the idea of being gifted erroneously equated to making good grades and having persistent parents. Although gifted children certainly may have both an admirable report card and determined parents, giftedness involves a different way of thinking, learning, and looking at the world, and it does not necessarily show itself through good grades.
What is the difference between gifted children and high-achievers?
Typically, many high achievers inevitably find their way into gifted programs because they are so easy to find‒they make excellent grades, their work outshines that of their peers, they seem skilled in several or all areas, and their teachers and classmates generally like them. But there are clear differences between children who are high-achieving and those who are gifted.
They develop differently.
High-achieving children’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional domains develop in-sync, moving together at a predicted rate. At times, high achievers develop at a faster rate in all four domains than the average child their age. Still, though, the domains move in sync with one another. At school, high achievers may seem slightly ahead of average students in all areas, appearing more coordinated, working faster, making better grades, exhibiting greater emotional understanding, and serving as a leader among their peers. They may seem like the typical end-of-the-year student when the school year has just begun (Davis Rimm, 2004; Juntune, 2013).
Gifted children, however, exhibit asynchronous development. Their physical and social domains develop at a predicted rate like their same-age peers. However, their cognitive and emotional domains develop much faster, out of sync with the others (Davis Rimm, 2004; Juntune, 2013). For example, a five-year-old, gifted child enrolled in kindergarten may experience difficulty using his fine motor skills to neatly write his name, as his physical development is similar to that of his peers. However, he may be independently reading at a second-grade level and may have mastered math concepts through the third grade. His cognitive domain has advanced much faster. Another example might involve a gifted seven-year-old student accelerated into a fourth-grade classroom. She may appear physically like a second grader, socially like a third grader, and cognitively like a fifth grader. Subsequently, she may experience difficulty connecting with anyone in her class, which can present some unique problems.
These developmental differences affect the ways high-achieving and gifted students respond to educational experiences. They think, learn, and perceive the world differently from each other. And these unique differences form the basis of why gifted children are classified as a special population. Sadly, though, it is not uncommon for gifted children to be overlooked during identification processes, while high achievers are commonly recommended (Juntune, 2013).
They are motivated differently.
At school, high-achievers are motivated extrinsically by making good grades and pleasing their teachers. They typically succeed, for they show interest in assignments, learn and understand easily, are talented memorizers, and thrive on knowing the answers. Because of their desire to please and stand out, high achievers prefer detailed and concrete instructions to follow for assignments, sometimes including the font type and size and if they should put a cover on their project. They want to know exactly what to do to turn in an exemplary product, and they work hard to produce one.
Although gifted students also may produce commendable report cards and care about their grades, their motivation does not stem from pleasing others or performing well. Instead, they are motivated intrinsically, showing interest and performing well if the activity is meaningful and worth their energy. They value real, individualized learning, particularly when the content relates to their passions. Although gifted children, too, learn easily, they understand more deeply. They dislike memorizing and spending time on content already mastered. Correct answers are not so important. They prefer to ponder, to look at multiple perspectives, to delve into the abstract, and to ask the questions‒sometimes questions to which no one has the answer. They prefer general guidelines for projects, if any at all, and understanding how projects relate to them or to the world is essential. They are not primarily concerned about producing an exemplary product and, at times, may not even turn one in. Sometimes gifted children underachieve, even fail, when their needs for mental stimulation and purpose are not supported in the classroom. Alternatively, when their cognitive needs and passions are supported, gifted children may become completely consumed in a topic or project (Davis Rimm, 2004; Juntune, 2013).
They perceive and react to the world differently.
Because their emotional domain develops more rapidly, children who are gifted tend to exhibit even more awareness, sensitivity, and emotional intensity than their non-gifted peers, including high achievers. Generally, gifted students seem to intuitively understand situations, people, and their behaviors more completely than their peers, perhaps due to their ability to see situations from multiple perspectives. They understand why certain actions are good or bad without needing explanation. They know when adults or peers like and dislike them.
Children who are gifted feel on a different level than others as well. Certainly high achievers experience a wide range of emotions, including sympathy and empathy. The difference, however, lies in the degree. Gifted children tend to react with significantly more intensity to both joyful and saddening events, whether within their own circles of friends and family or within the larger community. As a result, they are much more concerned with right versus wrong and develop steadfast values and a keen sense of justice. These values may drive children who are gifted to focus on activities that make positive differences in the world, a focus than may reach into adulthood. For instance, they may come home to live with their parents after college so they can volunteer their services to those in need. Certainly adults who are not gifted may want to positively impact the world as well. However, it is more common to see high-achieving adults prioritize prestige and financial compensation (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Juntune, 2013).
They replenish their energy differently.
They way these two groups of children replenish their energy tends to differ as well. Both average and high-achieving youth typically are energized through spending time with others. They study with their peers and frequently call their friends. They thrive in groups.
Children who are gifted, on the other hand, may find groups distracting, particularly when groups are based on age. Consequently, they may exhibit more introverted behaviors. In the classroom, when a teacher assigns a group activity, it is not uncommon for a gifted child to ask, “Is it okay if I am in a group of one?” They replenish their energy while being alone, and they may at times need to sit by themselves or take a walk in nature (Juntune, 2013).
High achievers and their families have a lot to be proud of. High achievers are ambitious, self-disciplined individuals driven by strong desires to accomplish important goals. But high achievement in itself is an end point. To classify children as gifted‒or not gifted‒based solely on that end point ignores the path they have taken to get there. It’s that path that marks the difference.
Davis, G. A., & Rimm, S. B. (2004). Education of the gifted and talented (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Juntune, J. (2013). Differentiation of curriculum and instruction for the gifted and talented. TAGT on Demand. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from txgiftedcourses.responsivelearning.com
*Reprinted with permission from: McWilliams, C. (2015). Gifted children and high achievers: Different ways of thinking, different needs. Images: Michigan Association for Gifted Children Newsletter, 29(1), 7, 12.