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Is Every Child Gifted? Probably not

Definitions of giftedness

"I hate it when people talk about kids on talk shows. I hate it, because every person who talks about their kids, their kids are obviously the most intelligent and the cutest. They're all very, very gifted children. Ask me about my kids. They're alright. Are they the cutest? Meh...They'll get by. I mean, they're not going to freak anyone out. In terms of intellect-it's like, Ehhh, you know. They're not going to be at the back of the class, not going to be at the front of the class-they'll be in the middle kind of looking out the window. They'll get by."

Have I mentioned how big a fan I am of Steve Carell?

Every parent of course wants to think his or her child is special. And rest assured parents-your child is special. At least, there is no other child on earth with the same precise mix of genes, experience, and pattern of strengths and weaknesses. So parents--take a deep breath--your child is indeed very special.

That is not at issue. The critical question is, "is your child gifted?". To answer this question, two additional questions have to be considered. Firstly, does the child exhibit an extraordinary ability relative to peers of the same age? Secondly, is that ability something that the school system values? If the child ticks both boxes, then they just might qualify for gifted education.

An ability that is particularly valued in schools in the United States is intellectual ability-or abstract reasoning ability. It is often referred to as "abstract" because the tests used to measure this skill set are presumed to be independent of background experience (although research shows this may be an unwarranted presumption) so as to tap into individual differences in basic cognitive processes such as memory, pattern recognition, visualization, etc.

IQ tests actually do a pretty good job of measuring this type of reasoning, and also do a decent job predicting total grade point average (as well as lots of other real world outcomes, but more on that later). This should come as no surprise-one of the first ever IQ tests designed by Alfred Binet [1] in the early 20th century was constructed with the sole intention of predicting those who would do fine in school versus those who were in serious need of remediation.

Interestingly, Binet had no intention to use the tests to select the cream of the crop and give those individuals special attention. The individual who made the idea of the "intelligence quotient (IQ)" explicit and equated IQ with giftedness was Lewis Terman [2]. He believed that from high-IQ children "and nowhere else, our geniuses in every line are recruited" [3]. He even created a classification scheme (which is still widely used today in many schools) in which a student with an IQ score above 135 is described as "moderately gifted", above 150 as "exceptionally gifted," and above 180 as "severely and/or profoundly gifted".

While many schools still do equate IQ score with giftedness, and use that as their sole criterion for entrance into gifted education programs (usually the cut-off is around 130), schools do vary in the model of giftedness they adopt and whom they choose to allocate special resources to, sometimes in the form of acceleration (e.g., skipping a grade or subject level) or a special classroom where students can go (that's what they had in my school system) where nerds from all over the school can spend a full hour a day discussing Plato, Shakespeare, and coming up with a better theory of relativity (or, more likely, get a chance to take a nap one hour every day).

Let's take a quick look at some of the alternative models of giftedness. Critiques of these models will be taken up in later posts; for now just note the different conceptions of giftedness that exist:

Marland Definition

In 1972, U.S. Commissioner of Education Sidney P. Marland Jr. wrote a report on the deteriorated state of gifted education [4]. He estimated that only a small percentage of the 1.5 to 2.5 million gifted school children were benefitting from special education services. His report supplied a broadened definition of giftedness, the first federal statement of giftedness to go beyond an IQ-based definition. According to the definition, gifted and talented children are those who demonstrate achievement and/or potential ability in any of the following areas:

1. General intellectual ability
2. Specific academic aptitude
3. Creative or productive thinking
4. Leadership ability
5. Visual and performing arts
6. Psychomotor ability

Psychomotor ability was eventually dropped (sorry breakdancers of the world, you are no longer gifted!). Also, general intellectual ability is often conceptualized as the top 3-5% of students as measured by IQ tests.

A more recent report released by the National Department of Education in 1993 entitled "National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent" also includes a multidimensional conception of giftedness and reiterates the shortcomings of gifted education in the United States. In fact, Secretary of Education Richard Riley went so far as to describe the state of gifted education as the "quiet crisis" and remarked, "youngsters with gifts and talents that range from mathematics to musical are not challenged to work to their full potential. Our neglect of these students makes it impossible for American to compete in a global economy demanding their skills."

Three-Ring Definition

Joseph Renzulli views giftedness as the interaction of three characteristics: well-above-average ability, creativity, and task commitment. Renzulli defines well-above-average ability as either general ability that can be applied across all domains and/or the ability to perform at a high level within a specific domain. Additionally, Renzulli defines well-above-average ability as that possessed by those individuals performing in the top 15-20% of any domain. This view differs from the traditional view of giftedness as comprising those scoring in the top 3-5% on a standardized measure of intelligence. Renzulli also distinguishes between "schoolhouse giftedness" and "creative-productive giftedness", arguing that schoolhouse giftedness is test-taking or lesson-learning giftedness, whereas those who display creative-productive giftedness are excellent producers of knowledge as opposed to being superior consumers of knowledge. Especially in relation to some comments on my earlier posts, Renzulli reserves calling a child gifted until the child actually displays superior performance. Just the potential is not enough to warrant the label. Also, he sees traditional achievement as a necessary but not sufficient condition for creative production. At the end of the day, Renzulli aims to increase the chances that more students will become creative in a way that will have an impact on others and cause a change in the real world.

Multiple Intelligences Theory

WICS Model

Robert J. Sternberg views giftedness as the synthesis of wisdom, intelligence (based on his theory of successful intelligence), and creativity [7, 8]. Sternberg argues that in life, people need creative skills and attitudes to produce new and original ideas; analytical skills and attitudes to evaluate the quality of these ideas; practical skills and attitudes to execute ideas and to persuade others of their value, and wisdom-related skills and attitudes in order to ensure that one's ideas help to foster a common good, rather than only the good of oneself and those closely associated with oneself. According to Dr. Sternberg, the child without the synthesis of these abilities does not deserve the label gifted.

So, is every child gifted?

As you can see, whether a child is considered by a particular school as gifted depends on which model of giftedness that that school adopts. Of course, there will be some "special" (I already admitted it, your child is special!) children who just don't possess at the moment any abilities that are at least in the top 20% relative to other children their age, and are simultaneously valued by the school system (forget about society- some abilities are valued by society, but schools just don't have the funding to pay much attention to them). So not every student at any given point in time will be eligible to receive the label "gifted". It stinks (I know!), but that's life for you.

This certainly doesn't mean though that as a parent you shouldn't keep exposing your child to varied experiences, make note of his or her particular interests, and encourage him or her to pursue them. That child just may develop a talent. This is why it's important that schools screen for gifted students repeatedly over the course of the education cycle.

It also certainly doesn't mean that you, as a parent, can't provide additional resources to the child if you can afford it (which, unfortunately, many parents can't). Just don't count on your school system to help out much.

At the end of the day, my suggestion for parents is this: if your child seems to have a particular gift that you think is valued in society, and you want your school to nurture it above and beyond the normal track at school, then research your schools very carefully and find one that values your child's gift and adopts the model of giftedness that best fits your child's ability. For some, just the IQ based model might work. For others, your child may be bursting with a slightly above average IQ, but a high level of creativity and task commitment. So find a school that likes Renzulli's model. Or better yet, go to your school administration and petition to change the system. Some schools, and even school psychologists who are indoctrinated in the IQ model of giftedness, might simply not be familiar with alternative methods of identifying children with extraordinary talent. You are now better informed that there is more than one conceptualization of giftedness.


1. Binet, A., & Simon, T. (1916). The development of intelligence in children (E. S. Kite, Trans.). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

2. Terman, L.M. (1924). The physical and mental traits of gifted children. In G.M. Whipple (Ed.), Report of the society's committee on the education of gifted children (pp. 157-167). Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing.

3. Terman, L.M. (1916). The measurement of intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

4. Marland, S. P. (1972). Education of the gifted and talented: Report to the Congress of the United States by the U.S.Commissioner of Education. Washington, DC: Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

5. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

6. Gardner, H. (2000). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

7. Sternberg, R.J. (1997). Successful intelligence. New York: Plume.

8. Sternberg, R.J. (2003). Wisdom, intelligence, and creativity, synthesized. New York: Cambridge University Press.

© 2008 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved