Gifted or ADHD?

Why so many gifted students get mislabeled with attention issues.

Posted Mar 22, 2020

1. What is giftedness?

Some say giftedness is someone who is educationally advanced. Others look at creativity in arts or music, or even talent in sports. I will talk about research on the different perspectives of gifted, from a more traditional academic perspective to a more comprehensive “rainbow intelligence” (i.e., intelligence in different areas, such as sports, art, music, etc.).

2. What do IQ and working memory look like in someone who is gifted?

While gifted students by definition have above-average intelligence scores, their working memory can vary. Working memory is the ability to remember and process information. I call working memory our “active memory” because we use it at the moment to work with important information.

In my research with the National Association of Gifted Children, I found that some gifted children can have quite poor working memory. What does this mean? It can affect their classroom performance, because while they may have the knowledge to succeed, their working memory may not be able to synthesize the information quickly.

3. Twice exceptionality: Gifted or ADHD?

Some children, though gifted, are also diagnosed with a learning difficulty. We call these children “twice-exceptional,” meaning they are intellectually gifted but have also been formally diagnosed with a learning difficulty like ADHD or dyslexia. As a result, they may feel apathetic and negative about school.

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Gifted students have abilities that exceed those of their typical peers. They learn faster, are inquisitive, curious, and are able to quickly understand complex concepts. However, some gifted students have behavioral problems that correspond with ADHD, so much so that they are diagnosed with the disorder. I wondered how this was possible. I worked together with the National Association of Gifted Children to compare the behavior patterns of those with ADHD and gifted children. The gifted children displayed behavior problems consistent with ADHD, such as being highly distractible, problems with authority, and lacking motivation.

In my research, I found that gifted students displayed similar oppositional and hyperactive behaviors compared to students with ADHD. Interestingly, both groups also had very similar IQ scores. Yet they had very different learning outcomes. Why? When I looked more closely at their working memory scores, I found their working memory profiles were very different. As you would expect, the gifted students had excellent working memory, which was linked to their above-average academic outcomes. In contrast, the ADHD students’ poor working memory was linked to low achievement.

It was interesting to see that the negative behavior patterns in gifted students did not negatively impact their working memory performance or their academic outcomes. In contrast to students with ADHD, the oppositional and hyperactive behavior patterns in gifted children may instead stem from frustrations in the classroom: when environmental stimuli decrease, hyperactivity increases as a means of self-stimulation to compensate for the lack of cognitive stimulation. In other words, their abilities exceed the demands placed on them, and they misbehave because they are bored.

One way to identify whether a child is gifted or is struggling with ADHD is through psychological testing. As a licensed psychologist, I conduct these evaluations.

One key frustration for the gifted student is that the curriculum is not tailored to their needs and many bright students are not being taught at their instructional level. Early testing can help them get the resources they need to succeed in the classroom.