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What is a Gifted Student?

Gifted Resources

Definition & Characteristics of Gifted Students

The “gifted students” definition can at times be difficult to clarify. The National Association for Gifted Children defines gifted students as those with gifts and talents who perform – or have the capability to perform – at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains. 

When determining if your child is gifted, it’s important to know what kind of learning environments will help them excel. To learn more about gifted schooling and how to choose a gifted school, read “Choosing the Right School for Your Gifted Child.”

Common Characteristics of Gifted Students

  • Strong curiosity amongst various topics and subjects
  • High standards and expectations for self and others around them
  • Heightened ability to comprehend information rapidly
  • Advanced vocabulary
  • High levels of frustration when not meeting expectations
  • Higher need for emotional support
  • Constantly searching for ways to stimulate the mind
  • Exceptional memory

Gifted vs Profoundly Gifted Students

Among gifted students, there is also the subcategory of profoundly gifted. What is a profoundly gifted student? These are students who score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ tests and have an exceptionally high level of intellectual prowess. These students score at least three standard deviations above the norm on the bell curve, so they are at the extreme end of the intelligence, or IQ, continuum.

While academic prowess is used to identify profoundly gifted youth, there are many qualities gifted students possess that are not directly associated with exceptional grades or high IQ scores.

The characteristics of gifted students are unique and demonstrate different behaviors. Some gifted students might be identified by all characteristics listed, while others may possess one or none. NAGC’s Traits of Giftedness will serve as helpful in identifying many other traits in gifted youth.

Challenges of Gifted Students

Gifted students often are met with challenges outside of what regular students will have to deal with in a classroom setting. Here are three broad categories of challenges we see most often in our students.

The 3 Primary Challenges of Gifted Students

  • Perfectionism
  • Social Skills
  • Sensitivities and Overexcitabilities

1. Perfectionism

Because gifted students place such high expectations on themselves, gifted students can often expect themselves to be perfect with everything they do. This puts immense pressure on students to perform exceptionally well on assignments, tests, or competitions, causing stress and anxiety. Even an exceptional grade or high competition finish may elicit an emotional response because their grade was not perfect or the student finished in third place instead of first in their competition.

Learn more about perfectionism in gifted students.

2. Social Skills

Some believe that gifted students are awkward and lack the desire to be social with their peers. This is simply untrue. Gifted students have the ability and desire to be social much like their same-aged peers. Due to asynchronous development, gifted students are many years advanced intellectually, but still their true age socially. Asynchrony makes it difficult for gifted students to express themselves at an appropriate level with kids their age. Gifted students can sometimes come off as snobbish, but this is likely due to the fact that they are often surrounded by youth who do not have the same intellectual capabilities.

3. Sensitivities and Overexcitabilities

Research shows that gifted students’ brains are uniquely functioning and processing at an incredible rate. As a result, gifted students tend to have heightened sensitivities and advanced emotional responses. These sensitivities and responses go along with Debrowski’s five overexcitabilities.

  • Intellectual- strong curiosity resulting in lots of questions and making connections with different topics
  • Imaginational- love of fictional and non fictional storytelling; often observed drawing or daydreaming to occupy their mind
  • Sensual- strong reactions to taste, smell, light, textures
  • Psychomotor- lots of energy often resulting in fidgeting and an inability to say still; rapid talking
  • Emotional- heightened emotional responses, world events or tragedies may elicit strong emotional responses

These overexcitabilities often make it difficult for gifted students to succeed in many classroom settings as teachers often are not properly trained to handle such behaviors. It is imperative to find a learning environment properly equipped to handle overexcitabilities in gifted students.

Unique Behaviors of Gifted Students in the Non-Gifted Classroom

Gifted students are generally identified through their excellent grades and high test scores. While test scores and grades are used to identify gifted students, there are classroom behaviors often particular to gifted students. These behaviors may come off as rude in a normal classroom setting, but often represent gifted students trying to feed their curiosity and keep themselves stimulated.

Unique Behaviors in Gifted Students:

  • Own Approach to Assignments
  • Asks Many Questions

1. Own Approach to Assignments

Gifted students are often identified in a normal school setting by how they approach assignments. Gifted students have a highly creative mind and gifted students apply their creativity by how they approach problems on assignments. In normal school settings, students are taught to approach problems the way their teacher instructs them. However, gifted students often find more efficient or creative ways to work on assignments than what they are instructed to do. This is often misperceived as not following directions, when in reality, gifted students are demonstrating their prowess.

2. Asks Many Questions

It is known gifted students can be identified by their strong curiosity in various topics. In the classroom, they express their curiosity by asking many questions. Gifted students are not satisfied with learning basic lessons on topics to do well on assignments and tests. Gifted students must see how different topics are related and how they are different. They want to know more about the world around them and will ask questions until their curiosity is fulfilled.


It is generally expected gifted students exceed in the classroom and pass all their classes while displaying little effort in their work. However, some gifted students underachieve in schools. Gifted students are often placed in classes where they relearn information resulting in boredom, failure and sometimes depression due to a lack of fulfillment.

Underachievement in gifted students can be broken down into 2 main categories:

  • Non-Purposeful
  • Purposeful

Non-Purposeful Underachievement: Wrong learning environment

Gifted youth need to be stimulated to feed their curiosity and desire to learn. In a normal learning environment, this stimulation is not often met and students become bored or detached in class lectures and discussions. While challenging for their same-aged peers, class assignments can become moot for gifted students when they only require surface level thinking. As a result, gifted students often choose not to complete assignments or participate in class discussions resulting in poor grades. Often, school programs are inflexible and don’t allow gifted students to be placed in more rigorous courses with similar-minded peers, severely restricting gifted youth achievement.

Purposeful Underachievement: Fitting In

Gifted students will often purposely underachieve in their classes in an attempt to fit in with their peers. Trying not to stand out to improve their self-esteem, gifted students will downplay their abilities so they seem “normal” to everyone else. Not having gifted peers makes students feel isolated and struggle to form a self-concept. Placing gifted students in the correct environment with like-minded peers and a challenging curriculum will allow gifted students to fulfill their potential.

Additional Resources

Identifying giftedness in students can be extremely difficult. Please visit Guides to Gifted Identification, Testing, and Therapists for more information on identifying gifted youth.

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