The G-word (Or, What is Giftedness Anyhow?)

Feb. 6, 2016–The G-word (Or, What is Giftedness Anyhow?)
by Marcia J. McKinley, JD, PhD, LCPC

There are probably hundreds of definitions of the word “gifted,” many of which emphasize different characteristics of a “gifted person.”  Some terms are so different from others that it is difficult to imagine a person being consider “gifted” by people holding each definition.

For example, in its 2010 position paper, the National Association for Gifted Children defines giftedness individuals as “….those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).”

Further, the position paper asserts that not all gifted individuals will be high-achieving, describes the difficulties that may impede achievement for gifted individuals, and provides suggests for educators and policymakers about how to avoid barriers to achievement.  Thus, the NAGC definition of giftedness includes individuals’ capability (aptitude) as well as their actual, current functioning.

In contrast, the Federal government’s definition of giftedness under the No Child Left Behind Act (2004) emphasized aptitude (or high achievement capability):  “The term ‘gifted and talented,” when used with respect to students, children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”

In contrast, State definitions vary widely.  Some of them (e.g., Alabama) require a child to have already identified his/her precocious development; others specify that the demonstration of potential is adequate.  Some States don’t even have definitions of giftedness; others are very specific about who can determine a child’s eligibility and what domains the giftedness can be manifested in.

In my work, I tend to use the definition of the “Columbus Group,” a small group of educators and gifted experts who met in 1991 in Columbus, Ohio to discuss the experiences that they were seeing amongst the most highly gifted children in their classrooms and practices.  After one and a half days of deliberating, they agreed on the following definition:

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.  This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity.  The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally (Tolan, 2013).

This definition was released to the public in early 1992.  This definition touches on each of the ways in which I—and others—find gifted individuals to differ from others:

  • They experience higher intellectual functioning than most others.
  • They experience asynchronous development (e.g., different aspects of themselves, such as their cognitive and emotional functioning, develop at different times and rates).
  • They experience heightened intensities of nearly every aspect of themselves.

Given clinical and anecdotal evidence, as well as some empirical evidence, it is no wonder that this definition has taken off among giftedness experts.  Unfortunately, school officials often do not share this same understanding.  As a result, too often gifted children will not receive the modifications necessary and not develop optimally.

I hope that continued research into giftedness and increasing connections among giftedness experts, such as that provided at the SENG conference (SENG = Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) will help to clarify the definitions professionals are using in defining giftedness so that we may better serve the special needs of this population.

Copyright©2016. Marcia J. McKinley.