Gifted Learners

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Identification issues

Understand identification issues – misdiagnosis, intensity or overexcitability, and asynchronous development.


Not crazy!

"I am not crazy, my mother had me tested."

Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory)

Some gifted characteristics, particularly those found in highly gifted learners, may be confused with other conditions or syndromes. The specific social and emotional characteristics (personality factors) of gifted learners are often misunderstood by educators. These factors can include the intensities and extreme sensitivities often found within gifted individuals, or their undermining of authority (e.g., questioning of teachers and principals) can be misunderstood and labelled as ‘challenging’ or ‘oppositional’ behaviour. Some educators mistakenly assume that these characteristics are signs of pathology, as they lack training, knowledge and skills in working with gifted individuals.


A key characteristic of giftedness is the exceptional intensity with which gifted individuals both experience and respond to what they encounter. (The intensity associated with giftedness has often been referred to as the ‘overexcitabilities’ – the ‘OEs’ – but increasingly, the less emotive term ‘intensities’ is preferred.) This is, in fact, the major difference between the response of the gifted learner and the response of the non-gifted learner. Every type of experience – emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor – is likely to be felt at this very much more intense pitch.

Technically, we might describe this as an inborn, greatly heightened response to internal and environmental stimuli. It is not a matter of choice and it cannot be learned. It is an inherent component of the make-up of these individuals.

In adulthood, the capacity for such acute intensity of perception and response is part of what makes it possible for some gifted individuals to produce great art or literature, to make scientific breakthroughs, to lead crusades for social change, to see beyond what others see. It is also part of what often makes life very difficult, isolating and lonely for the gifted child or adolescent, especially since emotional sensitivity seems to be among the strongest of the different intensities.

Such exceptional intensity provides us with a unique lens through which to see and recognise giftedness: a qualitative approach now backed by studies by many authors, often helping us to notice gifted learners who are not identified through quantitative measures and always expanding our understanding of the needs of those for whom quantitative measures do work. For example, we see positive effects in the avid reader; the learner capable of extraordinarily sustained concentration; the learner with an outstanding facility for invention and fantasy, or for detailed visual recall; the learner who thrives almost greedily on theory and analysis; the learner who is deeply moved by music – all of these are learners are manifesting intensities. But so, too, is the workaholic, the compulsive chatterer and the learner with a desperate need to be constantly in the limelight! Once we grasp the inherent nature of these responses, we are so much better placed to be the teachers who can make school meaningful for the gifted child and adolescent.

You can see more material on this topic by material on this topic by Linda Silverman, Stephanie Tolan, Sharon lind, Lesley Kay Sword and others.


For the individual, intensity feels like a different quality of experiencing: "vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding—a way of being quiveringly alive".

Michael Piechowski (1992)

Asynchronous development

Uniqueness of asynchronous development

"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."

The Columbus Group, 1991

The intellectual, emotional and physical development of gifted and talented learners is often uneven. Identification of intellectual giftedness may be masked by immature emotional and physical development. Acceleration to meet intellectual needs is sometimes denied because of this but it is essential for gifted and talented learners to be with ‘like minds’ for healthy social and emotional development. If acceleration is inappropriate, how can this need to be with like minds be achieved?

Asynchronous development means that the experiences of learners are measurably different from those of their peers, which may lead to feelings of not fitting in. They may be desperately unhappy at their kura/school/ECE setting, mask their abilities in order to gain acceptance, develop very low self-esteem and possibly experience thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Frequently, advanced intellectual development results in gifted and talented 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. Challenges may include:

  • emotional and social development
  • perfectionism
  • adult expectations and role conflicts
  • sensitivity
  • giftedness and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • underachievement.