Gifted Learners

Tukuna kia rere

Characteristics of the gifted - Ngā pūmanawa kia manawa tītī

In the process of developing a kura/school/ECE setting-wide approach to supporting gifted learners, developing a set of characteristics sits between issues of definition and approaches to identification. The relevant set of characteristics that a kura/school/ECE setting decides upon will be informed by how the kura/school or setting defines giftedness. These characteristics will, in turn, inform the approaches used to identify the associated behaviours.

It is important to recognise that the evidencing of giftedness is part of a developmental process and different characteristics will be exhibited at different times and in different contexts.

“The view of giftedness as developing potential, rather than fixed ability, has significant implications for parents and educators. From this position, who is and who is not gifted is not of major consequence and ascribing the label “gifted” to a dedicated group (and non-gifted to the others) becomes less of an issue. The focus is more of providing maximum opportunities for gifted behaviours to emerge, as well as an appropriate environment for expertise to develop” (Moltzen, 2011, pp. 69–70).

The following sections provide a starting point to support educators in developing a set of characteristics to guide identification and subsequent provision. These should not be viewed as definitive lists and educators are advised to take a flexible approach in using these to guide identification. No one learner will evidence all the behaviours or dispositions tabled below. Nor do gifted learners comprise a homogenous group and even within domains of exceptional ability, such as creativity, academic ability and culturally specific talent, quite different profiles of characteristics may be evident. This is even more noticeable across categories of ability.

Some overarching characteristics

There is support for the existence of some distinguishing characteristics that transcend domains of giftedness. For example, Renzulli (1986) considers that above-average ability, task commitment and creativity are the salient characteristics of giftedness, independent of a specific area of talent. In a similar vein, Winner (1996) proposes that the following three characteristics are typical of gifted children, whether their ability is in intellectual, academic, artistic, musical, physical, interpersonal or other domains.

  1. Precocity. Gifted children demonstrate advanced ability in a specific domain. They make more rapid progress in the acquisition of knowledge and skills than do other children. Learning appears to come easily to them.
  2. An insistence on marching to their own drummer. Gifted children not only learn at a faster rate but they learn in a qualitatively different way. They need little adult input or scaffolding and they have the ability to teach themselves. It is not uncommon for gifted children to approach tasks and solve problems in unique and novel ways.
  3. A rage to master. Gifted children have high levels of intrinsic motivation in their area/s of interest and ability. This interest can be intense and can even appear to be obsessive.

To Winner, these factors represent a qualitative difference between gifted children and other children, including those who are bright, curious and work hard.

Moltzen, R. (2011). Characteristics of gifted children. In R. Moltzen (Ed.). Gifted and talented: New Zealand perspectives (pp. 54–81). Auckland, New Zealand: Pearson.

Renzulli, J.(1986). The three-ring conception of giftedness: A developmental model for creative productivity. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds) Conceptions of Giftedness (pp. 51–92). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Winner, E. (1996). Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cultural characteristics

Cultures can vary in the way they define giftedness. This affects the characteristics that each culture sees as signs of exceptional ability. As Bevan-Brown (2009) notes, the essential difference may be in how a special ability is interpreted and manifested in different cultures.


Why identify gifted Māori?

"‘...I feel it is important to identify gifted Māori and develop them holistically for two main reasons:

1. Māoridom is an ever changing world that calls for leaders to guide our people into and beyond the 21st century. Identifying and moulding these leaders early empowers our people as a whole. These gifted Māori are investments for the future and thus providing individualised opportunity is important to ensure they grow and develop as they should.

2. Our gifted Māori are not only agents of change in our world, but they possess a sense of identity and mana that contribute to all societies; indigenous or otherwise. Therefore it is our duty to give them the tools to manifest positive change within both worlds.’ "

(Whānau interview). Russell (2013, p.44.)

Melinda Webber - aspirations and vision for Māori learners

Melinda speaks of her aspirations and vision for Māori learners. She provides Iwi perspectives of excellence in a thought provoking way supported by her research.

Giftedness is about leadership and the kinds of leadership that we show in our communities. It's about a generosity of spirit and our service to others, in terms of what skills and knowledge we bring to our community. And when your package those things together it's about wisdom. When I first got my PHD and went home to Rotorua one of the kaumatua down there congratulated me on getting my PHD and then, asked me about the way that I was going to use that knowledge in those new skills to benefit others in our community, so it was really about how I would work with others to share my gifts and that was what was important not so much it's not about individual gain it's about the collective benefits that comes from somebody having knowledge about how to succeed in a particular educational pathway. I'd really like to see the deliberate teaching of whakapapa in our schools a lot more. We need more resources that kind of counter that standard story that our kids hear in the media about their potential and about how much they can achieve because our narratives, Māori narratives tell a very different story about our ornate gifts and talents. It's really important to reach into schools and not wait to schools to reach out to you for information about your tamariki make sure that your schools are creating the right kinds of conditions for your kids to present their giftedness. Ensure that schools are not only catering to the child's academic needs but also their cultural needs, our kids need to walk and multiple worlds with their heads held high. So they need cultural efficacy for that, you know. The confidence and knowledge that they can participate in multiple worlds. I think it an English medium context what I would really hope that teachers start to do with every child in their classroom but particularly Māori kids is to look for the mana in every child. To know that every child comes into a classroom with mana already and then if we can acknowledge it and affirm it and grow it we will see the gifts and talents of Māori children emerge. Teachers need resources, teachers need PLD that enable them to shift their world view. They simply don't have it at present. So that would be one thing I’d want. I’d want multiple perspectives of Māori giftedness are really important. There is no pan Māori understanding of giftedness. If you went home to my mothers people in the north Ngāpuhi have a very distinctive idea about what giftedness is. I mean we have a long history of being ferocious, stoic, entrepreneurial. I mean that whakatauki around our maunga don't move in the North is representative of our enduring identity traits as Ngāpuhi that we remain determined and resilient and stoic on issues. And if you went home to my whānau in Rotorua and looked at a Te Arawa worldview of giftedness it's about oratory, it’s about tikanga, it’s about the maintenance of reo. Te Arawa māngai nui, it’s what we value down there. We need to retain and promote those differences and celebrate our various enactments of giftedness.

Mahaki and Mahaki (2007) believe that it is essential to take a kaupapa Māori approach to identifying and fostering the potential of gifted Māori learners. They have developed a list of some of the cultural qualities that are valued by Māori and some of the attributes that are associated with these qualities. The following qualities and attributes from their list may serve as indicators of giftedness and talent:

  • manaakitanga: generosity – honouring, caring and giving mana to people, thus maintaining your own mana
  • whanaungatanga: family values, relationships
  • wairuatanga: balance – harmony, spirituality, being grounded, calm
  • kaitiakitanga: caretaker/guardianship of knowledge, environment and resources
  • rangatiratanga: ranga – to weave, tira – a company; leadership that inspires unity
  • mātauranga: knowledge – intellect, thinking skills, wisdom, education, learned, studious
  • te mahi rēhia: recreational pursuits – physical and artistic performance
  • tikanga: approved etiquette – correct behaviour, truthful, proper, respectful

Through consultation with many kaumātua, parents, whānau and teachers of gifted Māori learners in mainstream, bilingual and total immersion settings, Bevan-Brown (2009) has compiled the following indicators of giftedness in Māori cultural abilities and qualities:

  • communicates in te reo Māori clearly, fluently, and flexibly using a variety of advanced language structures and figures of speech

  • can compose, deliver, and respond to a karanga, karakia, mihimihi, or whaikōrero appropriate to the occasion and audience

  • has a broad knowledge of Māori, iwi, and hapū history and tikanga

  • has in depth knowledge of a particular iwi or hapū including their history, tikanga, dialect, and whakatauākī

  • has a broad knowledge of Māori mythology and can interpret myth messages in a contemporary context

  • demonstrates advanced practical and creative ability in some form of Māori art or craft; eg, carving, weaving

  • demonstrates advanced performing and creative ability in some form of Māori music; eg, composes contemporary waiata and haka, has an extensive repertoire of traditional waiata

  • displays advanced ability in Māori games, pastimes and practices; eg, taiaha expertise

  • has a keen interest in and wide knowledge of whānau, hapū, and iwi whakapapa

  • has a deep appreciation of traditional Māori values such as manaakitanga and whanaungatanga and embodies these in word and action

  • has advanced spiritual understanding, perception, appreciation, and ability (wairuatanga) and knowledge of traditional and contemporary karakia

  • has in depth knowledge of traditional healing principles and practices

  • possesses a strong sense of Māori identity and incorporates cultural content and allusion in many fields of endeavour

  • has a high level of respect for and affinity with kaumātua

  • possesses and is accorded a high degree of mana from peers

  • has a well-developed sense of altruism and is selfless in service to others.

(Bevan-Brown, 2009, p. 10.)

three children. <br />

Mana tu, Mana ora: Identifying characteristics of Māori giftedness. Mahaki, P. & Mahaki, C. (2007).

PDF, 1.00 MB

Bevan-Brown, J. (2009). Identifying and providing for gifted and talented Māori learners. (1), 6–20. Previously available at


Through consultation with learners, parents and local church networks within her school’s Pasifika community, Faaea-Semeatu (2011) was able to propose ten “cultural identifiers” that could be used in identifying gifted Pasifika learners. These are:

  • adaptability (e.g., strategically adapts to New Zealand or Pasifika thinking)
  • memory (e.g., cites formal Pasifika customs and familial and village links)
  • church affiliation (e.g., uses knowledge and experience to benefit others)
  • commitment to excellence (e.g., seeks self-improvement)
  • relationships (e.g., uses talents to promote positive relationships)
  • resilience (e.g., reacts to situations with purpose and dialogue)
  • lineage/birthright (e.g., family traditions shape experiences)
  • language fluency (e.g., communicates in oral/written forms of their mother language)
  • leadership (e.g., faithful service progresses to leadership)
  • representation (e.g.e, successful career pathways reflect on parents).

Aiono Manu Faaea-Semeatu – Pasifika Characteristics of Giftedness

Aiono Manu Faaea-Semeatu presents her researched Pasifika characteristics of giftedness and explains that the overarching trait is cultural excellence. She is an advocate of multi-categorical approaches and views of culturally responsive gifted education.

From a Pacific lens I think about cultural excellence. You know when I think about the Pasifika education plan it talks a lot about, you know, participating, engagement and achievement. But for me it’s excellence and I think it's that type of language that's missing from a lot of government policies around Pacific education, but specifically about gifted Pasifika. There is cultural excellence within our peoples that is not really brought to the forefront. So I think for when I’ve researched with the communities to create those cultural identifiers, it's definitely around the notions of excellence.

When we first developed the process to create the identifiers it was really good for parents to have the opportunity to talk about, to them, what is the epitome of a gifted Tongan, gifted Samoan, gifted Niuean and a gifted Cook Islander because it really gave them a chance to talk about their ‘known’. And that's, that's another thing that's missing from schools, is, in order to develop those home-school partnerships, it's really getting a sense of what our Pacific communities value, in terms of cultural excellence, so providing a platform for parents to then talk about ‘in our culture’ this is what we value. And I think, when I think about the parallels with Māori, it's definitely around language fluency, and the value of reo. Thats really come across quite strongly. And even within each of these different Pacific groups, they know that language is really critical for the survival of their culture. So I think when you are asking about a favourable experience, definitely from the communities, it was giving them the chance to be able to respond. Because it's asking questions, you know, asking for responses from a position of strength, as opposed to most of the time, asking parents for answers they can't provide. Because they might have had negative schooling experiences and so on. So, it's been really cool to able to work with parent communities and ask them about things that they are the experts of. And I think for me when we were developing these gifted Pasifika communities, that’s been really the most favourable, rewarding experiences definitely.

So before I did my Masters we had the Talent Development Initiative. When I worked at Rutherford College alongside Vivienne Russell and it was a very successful programme (mainstream programme). They sought to include Māori identifiers and Pasifika identifiers. So the process that we undertook to create those identifiers was bringing in all of the parent communities, you know, the ethnic specific Pasifika communities into the school and ask them a series of questions about cultural excellence in terms of what they valued. And from that we were able to canvass all of the different ethnic groups and then come up with a, kind of a common universal set of, I just chose ten identifiers to make it manageable in terms of representation as well, across the board. Once we developed those and then tested it and brought it back to the parents, so we brought them in periodically to test to make sure that would be created was actually accurate and represented all of the different ethnic groups really well. They really enjoyed the fact that not only having consulted them, but having their voices heard and then implementing as part of a learning programme across the school structure was really cool.

I definitely think that it needs to be demystified. I mean there is the traditional view or the mainstream view that giftedness is purely identified through academic excellence. And I think that's what the point of difference of the research that I’ve carried out is centred on culture. Because Gagne looks at culture as something that comes through as one of the other catalysts in terms of an environmental factor. But I actually see it as, culture is a gift. So culture for me in my opinion is a carrier of success not a barrier to success. So I always like to use those phrases when I talk with educators. That even if they lack the understanding of what it means to be culturally excellent, and culturally gifted, and culturally talented they need to upskill in their cultural intelligence to understand that.

There is always the tendency to use the word ‘normalising’. And I’ve heard that talked about a lot in terms of Te Reo Māori. That they want it to be ‘normal’ and I really don’t like that word. I’d like the word to be used ‘natural’. That it’s very ‘natural’ to speak Te Reo. So, in terms of my visioning for Pacific peoples and gifted education, it should be seen as a natural way of being. And it's a natural way of participating in the world, engaging in the world, achieving in the world. But mostly excelling in the world. My vision for our peoples is that we can inform and engage our Pakeha, Palagi/Palangi, papa’ā counterparts to really understand what it means to be gifted from our side of the fence. ‘Cause I think if they understood that, that would raise their bar of cultural intelligence. See us the way we see us. So it's definitely a matter of perception.

It’s definitely the view of the media to portray Pacific peoples as dumb and brown. But that's not the case. You know when I look at the news it's always, the formula is the same it's always presented with the negative pictures or the big disaster stories of the day. And that to me is how Pacific peoples are represented. Always in those negative terms, and they might put us as the nice feel-good human interest story at the end. But there’s actually more substance to that, so I think the way in which Pacific people are represented by the media, you know there’s lots of pockets of really good students. There are gifted Pacific students around but their stories aren’t being heard which is why I am interested in developing research, further research in this area. So I think I’ve kind of evolved from the giftedness too, into more the notions of success. Because even that is missing too.

“Celebrating Gifted Roots: Gifted and Talented Pacific Island (Pasifika) Students”. Faaea-Semeatu, T. (2011). In Giftedness from an Indigenous Perspective (Ed. W. Vialle). Papers from the 11th Asia Pacific Conference on Giftedness, Sydney, 29 July–1 August 2010. Australian Association for the Education of the Gifted and Talented/Australian Government, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

The early years

Louise Porter (2011) offers one of the most extensive checklists of behaviours that are salient to the identification of giftedness in the early years. She notes two major limitations of this approach. First, it is difficult to know how much of a characteristic a child has to display in order to be considered gifted and second, checklists generally do not indicate how many characteristics and in which combination have to be demonstrated for a child to be deemed gifted. However, she also points out that teachers and parents are much more accurate in recognising giftedness and talent when they can refer to a checklist of characteristics.

Intellectual skills

Children who are intellectually gifted display many of the following features, which often emerge in infancy:

  • early achievement of developmental milestones (at least one-third sooner)
  • keen observation of their environment
  • quick and accurate recall
  • memory for skills and information introduced some time ago
  • active in eliciting developmentally enhancing experiences (“input”) from adults
  • deeper and more extensive knowledge than age mates
  • early understanding of abstract concepts (such as death or time).

Academic domain

Children who are intellectually and academically gifted commonly:

  • read, write or use numbers in advanced ways
  • write words (other than their own name) before school entry, without formal training
  • show advanced preference for books and movies (unless their themes are emotive)
  • display advanced skills in one or more school subjects.

Verbal domain

The majority (perhaps as many as two-thirds) of intellectually gifted children are strong in the verbal domain and show:

  • early verbal comprehension
  • advanced speech in terms of vocabulary, grammar and clear articulation
  • use of metaphors and analogies
  • ability to invent stories and songs spontaneously
  • ability to modify language for less mature companions
  • use of language for a real exchange of ideas and information from an early age
  • a sophisticated sense of humour.

Spatial domain

A minority (perhaps one-third or possibly fewer) of intellectually gifted children have spatial (rather than verbal) strengths. They may:

  • perceive the visual world accurately
  • manipulate complex visual material and visual images
  • engage with puzzles, mazes, map reading, model building
  • dismantle mechanical devices
  • discover new ways to reassemble construction toys
  • have facility at putting together new or difficult puzzles
  • make interesting shapes or patterns with objects
  • be aware of visual properties and patterns
  • process verbal communication slowly
  • struggle with rote (verbal) memorisation
  • rarely use concise language.

Learning styles

Many gifted children not only achieve more than average, they also approach tasks with a sophisticated style, although their application to tasks is responsive to fatigue, discouragement (immediate or long term) and the degree of challenge. Typically, they:

  • are alert, motivated, curious
  • are responsive to novel stimuli
  • readily tire of (habituate to) repetitive stimuli
  • process information quickly and efficiently
  • use metacognitive skills early
  • prefer challenge and complexity
  • crave new ideas, challenges and experiences
  • show high intrinsic motivation and curiosity in a search for understandings
  • have wide-ranging interests
  • have a longer than usual concentration span on challenging topics of interest; conversely, are inattentive with regard to activities that are not of interest or that they have already mastered
  • display an intense focus on, and ability to immerse themselves in, an area of interest in order to achieve deep understanding
  • are independent at challenging, non-routine tasks
  • have high self-efficacy
  • are willing to take intellectual risks
  • tolerate ambiguity.

Sequential learning style

Children who learn by ordering ideas:

  • learn sequentially, one idea at a time
  • are analytical, able to break down problems into their parts
  • attend well to details
  • usually learn well from verbal instructions (by listening)
  • can carry out instructions to perform several tasks in succession
  • are logical, planful, organised
  • are less impulsive than their age mates
  • have a clear understanding of cause and effect
  • use rehearsal to remember
  • commonly show verbal strengths
  • in school, achieve reasonably consistent grades across all subject areas

Holistic learning style

Children with a holistic learning style may be later than others to excel, but nevertheless:

  • learn concepts all at once (as a whole); therefore, once they grasp a concept, they retain it
  • synthesise (put together) ideas or concepts
  • see the big picture; may miss details
  • excel at complex, high-level content (because it can be learned as a whole) but can struggle with content that seems more basic but contains a series of steps
  • learn intuitively
  • have ‘quirky’ organisational systems
  • learn instantly and do not benefit from (and detest) rehearsal and repetition
  • have difficulty telling or writing stories in a clear sequence
  • may be poor spellers and have difficulty learning to read phonetically
  • in school, achieve uneven grades across subject areas.

Creative learning style

Children who are intellectually and creatively gifted might display the following learning skills across domains, or in a single domain in which they excel:

  • imagination
  • creative problem solving
  • application of intuition
  • fluency, which reflects an ability to draw on a range or quantity of ideas
  • flexibility, which refers both to the quality of ideas applied to a task and to skill at adapting their learning style to the task demands and goals
  • non-conformist thinking, rejecting limits.

Emotional giftedness

Some intellectually gifted children are emotionally gifted as well. These children might:

  • display emotional sensitivity, intensity and responsiveness
  • have early fears
  • develop their self-concept and self-esteem early
  • be self-confident in their strong skill domains
  • be perfectionist, in the sense of striving for excellence
  • be oversensitive to criticism
  • become easily frustrated (particularly when their skill levels are uneven), leading to emotional outbursts
  • accept responsibilities usually given to older children
  • be non-conformist
  • conceal their abilities from peers and teachers
  • be aware early of spiritual or philosophical issues.

Social giftedness

Intellectually and verbally advanced young children typically are also advanced in their social skills, showing some of the following characteristics:

  • highly developed empathy for others
  • early development of moral reasoning and judgement
  • intense interest in social justice
  • advanced play interests and abilities
  • early development of reciprocal friendships
  • select older playmates or adults, or withdraw to solitary play, if no intellectual peers are available
  • are sought out by peers for their ideas and sense of fairness
  • leadership skills.

Artistic giftedness

Although most young children have not been exposed to the arts in any formal way and so may not show artistic talent, some display early signs of instinctive art skill, such as:

  • assigning elaborate characters to dolls, teddies or imaginary playmates
  • generating elaborate sociodramatic play
  • creating and performing in plays
  • enjoyment of drama, role playing
  • superior visual memory
  • advanced skill at drawing, painting or other artistic modalities
  • adept, controlled and purposeful drawing from an early age
  • early acquisition of an extensive repertoire of shapes and lines that quickly become incorporated into recognisable forms
  • complex, detailed and realistic representations in art work
  • early awareness of perspective and depth in drawings.

Musical giftedness

Musical giftedness may be among the earliest to emerge – by the age of one year – although very young children’s motor ability can block their musical performance. Musically gifted children typically:

  • are enthralled by musical sounds
  • have a deep appreciation and understanding of music (with or without musical performance)
  • are sensitive to musical structure – tonality, key, harmony and rhythm
  • appreciate the expressive properties of music – timbre, loudness, articulation and phrasing
  • have a strong musical memory that permits them to recall music and play it back later either by singing or through an instrument.

Gross and fine motor giftedness

Many intellectually gifted children have fine motor skills that lag behind their intellectual level. On the other hand, those who are gifted in the motor domain can show a range of the following characteristics:

  • early motor development, particularly in skills that are under cognitive control, such as balance
  • ability to locate themselves within the environment
  • early awareness of left and right
  • advanced drawing or handwriting
  • high levels of physical energy.

Primary and secondary kura/school

New Zealand-based characteristics This work of Don McAlpine and Neil Reid, although developed more than 20 years ago, remains the only scale that is based on extensive research involving New Zealand teachers. The traits were “assessed for the degree of consensus among New Zealand authorities on the education of CWSA (Children with Special Abilities), and also whether they could be observed in the typical classroom and school by practising New Zealand teachers” (McAlpine & Reid, 1996, p. 1).

It is important to bear in mind that it is highly unlikely that any one learner will exhibit all of these traits and the lists should not be viewed as definitive of gifted characteristics. Rather, these are best used as a guide to observation and as a checklist of behaviours that could contribute to a gifted profile.

Learning Characteristics

  • displays logical and analytical thinking
  • is quick to see patterns and relationships
  • masters information quickly
  • strives for accurate and valid solutions to problems
  • easily grasps underlying principles
  • likes intellectual challenge
  • jumps stages in learning
  • seeks to redefine problems, pose ideas and formulate hypotheses
  • finds as well as solves problems
  • reasons things out for her/himself
  • formulates and supports ideas with evidence
  • can recall a wide range of knowledge
  • independently seeks to discover the why and how of things

Self-determination characteristics

  • is sceptical of authoritarian pronouncements
  • questions arbitrary decisions
  • pushes teachers and adults for explanations
  • displays a precocious interest in “adult” problems
  • is reluctant to practise skills already mastered
  • is easily bored with routine tasks
  • expresses ideas, preferences and opinions forthrightly
  • relates well to older children and adults, and often prefers their company
  • asks searching questions

Creative thinking characteristics

  • produces original ideas
  • displays intellectual playfulness, imagination and fantasy
  • creates original texts or invents things
  • has a keen sense of humour and sees humour in the unusual
  • generates unusual insights
  • enjoys speculation and thinking about the future
  • demonstrates awareness of aesthetic qualities
  • is not afraid to be different
  • generates a large number of ideas
  • is prepared to experiment with novel ideas and risk being wrong
  • seeks unusual rather than conventional relationships

Social leadership characteristics

  • takes the initiative in social situations
  • is popular with peers
  • communicates well with others
  • actively seeks leadership in social situations
  • shows ability to inspire a group to meet goals
  • persuades a group to adopt ideas or methods
  • is self-confident
  • is adaptable and flexible in new situations
  • actively seeks leadership in sporting activities
  • is socially mature
  • is willing to take responsibility
  • synthesises ideas from group members to formulate a plan of action

Motivational characteristics

  • strives for high standards of personal achievement
  • is self-directed
  • is highly self-motivated and sets personal goals
  • is persistent in seeing tasks to completion
  • becomes committed to and absorbed in tasks
  • tends to be self-critical and evaluative
  • is reliable
  • prefers to work independently

Profiles of Giftedness

Profiles of giftedness (Betts & Neihart, 1988, 2010) propose six profiles of gifted and talented learners. These profiles can be used to raise awareness of the differences among gifted learners. The profiles describe sets of behaviours that can provide a starting point for discussion. However, Betts and Neihart note the importance of remembering that “this is a theoretical concept that can provide insights for facilitating the growth of the gifted and talented, not a diagnostic classification model” (1998, p. 248).

  1. The successful gifted: These learners achieve highly at school and are the group most likely to be identified as gifted and talented. They are conforming, eager for the approval of others and perfectionistic. They lack autonomy and assertiveness and avoid taking risks.
  2. The creative gifted: These learners are highly creative but frustrated, bored, questioning and sometimes rebellious. They do not conform to the school system and often challenge school rules and conventions.
  3. The underground gifted: These learners deny their abilities in order to fit in. They may be insecure, shy and quiet, avoid taking risks and resist challenges. Many are never identified as gifted.
  4. The at-risk gifted: These learners are resentful and angry because they feel that the system has failed to meet their needs. They are often perceived as “rebellious loners” and can be disruptive or withdrawn. Their schoolwork is inconsistent and their levels of achievement fall well below their abilities.
  5. The twice/multi-exceptional gifted: These learners are gifted but also have a physical or sensory disability or a learning difficulty. Often their giftedness goes unrecognised because people fail to see past their disability. They can become angry and frustrated and may feel powerless.
  6. The autonomous learner: These learners are confident, independent and self-directed. They are intrinsically motivated and willing to take risks. They set goals for themselves and take responsibility for their own learning.

Emotional and social development

Many gifted learners, probably the majority, give little indication that their emotional and social development is different from that of their peers. Some may experience considerable difficulties in these areas, but they use their exceptional ability to disguise their struggles. For other gifted learners, these issues are far more obvious.

While researchers and educators have sometimes focused more on the learning of gifted learners, there has been a growing realisation that aspects of their emotional and social development also require attention. It is generally accepted that as a learner’s level of giftedness increases, so does the need for support in the emotional and social areas. It is important to recognise that the emotional and social development of these learners is not necessarily problematic, but it can become so if they find themselves out of step with their peers.

Observing the behaviours of gifted learners and identifying what these behaviours mean enables whānau and educators to provide the support the learners need. Betts and Neihart’s (1988, 2010) profiles of the gifted and talented provide a useful tool for identifying both the positive and the less acceptable behaviours that can be associated with giftedness and for developing strategies that homes and schools can use to support these learners. For example, the creative gifted learner who questions rules and policies can be encouraged to think in new ways while also being taught the interpersonal skills necessary to communicate their thoughts respectfully.

What gifted learners say about themselves is essential for identifying the issues that confront them. The value of listening to learners is powerfully illustrated by the Te Kotahitanga project, which used the technique of “collaborative storying” to elicit the experiences, concerns and questions of Māori learners in mainstream New Zealand secondary schools. The differences between the learners’ perceptions of their educational experiences and the perceptions of their teachers became the foundation for what is now renowned as a highly successful research and development project (Bishop, Berryman, Tiakiwai & Richardson, 2003).

The following “eight great gripes of gifted kids”, noted by Delisle and Galbraith (2002), align closely with the areas of vulnerability most frequently described in research:

  1. No one explains what being gifted is all about – it’s kept a big secret.
  2. School is too easy and too boring.
  3. Parents, teachers and friends expect us to be perfect all the time.
  4. Friends who really understand us are few and far between.
  5. Kids often tease us about being smart.
  6. We feel overwhelmed by the number of things we can do in life.
  7. We feel different and alienated.
  8. We worry about world problems and feel helpless to do anything about them.
Child at the beach. .

Asynchronous development

The intellectual, emotional and physical development of gifted learners is often uneven. This asynchronous development means that their experiences are different from those of their peers, which may lead to feelings of not fitting in. These feelings can become particularly acute in early adolescence and gifted learners at this stage may mask their abilities in order to gain acceptance. Frequently, advanced intellectual development results in gifted learners having a much greater awareness about global issues than do their peers. This may cause them to develop an intense, serious or cynical outlook on life. However, it can also enrich learner’s lives and motivate them to become leaders of social change


Perfectionism can be described as a compulsive need to achieve and be the very best. Gifted learners who achieve highly will naturally attract positive feedback from parents, whānau and teachers. Some learners become dependent on this affirmation for their self-definition.

It is not uncommon for parents, teachers and peers to unwittingly create an environment in which the gifted learner is expected to be perfect. Perfectionists often avoid experiences that pose a risk of failure. Perfectionism may be accompanied by intense reactions to criticism, consistent failure to complete tasks, extreme anxiety in test situations, low risk taking, nervous disorders, ulcers and eating difficulties. This is called “disabling perfectionism”. However, perfectionism can be a positive quality that provides the impetus for achieving excellence. This is termed “enabling perfectionism”.