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"Highly gifted children come from many different backgrounds and life circumstances. Extraordinary intellectual giftedness cannot be nurtured if it is not recognized. It is imperative, therefore, that we find these children, wherever they may be”  Kathi Kearney  Finding Highly Gifted Children (part III) July - August 1990  


On this page:




Informal identification


Why they might be missed


Formal identification


“teacher nomination forms and trait lists can be of some assistance in helping the teacher to structure her observation of the children in her class, and alerting her to some of the behavioral characteristics of the gifted. However, many of the trait lists published both in gifted education texts and as commercial materials focus on the positive characteristics of the motivated achiever and ignore the negative behaviors often displayed by gifted children who are demotivated and underachieving.” from Gross “Small poppies: Highly gifted children in the early years



Consider the plight of Nicole, a six year old girl with an IQ score over 150, who reads and comprehends at the eighth grade level but is put into the first grade with her age mates. In her school the recent emphasis on "inclusion" has dictated that all first graders use the same reading text. It is impossible for Nicole to exhibit an eighth grade reading level on the primer she is given (she can't read the words "I see the dog" eight levels better than any of the others). Further, she is likely to find the tasks in the accompanying workbook to be boring at best (how can she help but compare "I see the dog" to the rich language and complex stories of Wind in the Willows that she is reading at home), incomprehensible at worst. She may either refuse to do them at all, or do them so carelessly that her performance is actually poorer than that of children far less able. Her handwriting, far too slow to keep up with her agile mind, is ponderous and messy; for this reason she often writes short, simple sentences rather than the complex ones she is thinking. Even in open ended writing assignments she is unable to show her level of verbal reasoning.

Matt, a first grader with an IQ over 170, is not a math prodigy, but does have an intuitive grasp of the conceptual connections between adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing. He understands simple fractions and is able to do complex mental arithmetic problems, using his fingers to keep track of the process. Week after week he is given timed tests on "addition facts under ten" with the rest of his class. Occasionally his score is a perfect 100 (which never earns him a reprieve from the inevitable Friday tests), but far more often it is 60 or 40 or even 10. His mother asks him for an explanation of the erratic scores which have occasioned a note from the teacher. "I get to playing in my mind," he says, "and all of a sudden, the time's up." Knowing that there is nothing to be gained by doing perfectly on any given test, Matt cannot keep his mind focused enough to complete them. There are too many more interesting things to think about.

Teachers who equate good classroom performance with intelligence may evaluate children who get top scores on normal first grade tasks (children who may have only slightly above normal cognitive capacities) as far more gifted than Matt or Nicole.” from Beginning Brilliance

Deirdre Lovecky addresses the subject of highly gifted learners not performing well in traditional school  environments. She describes how exceptionally gifted learners are different from  gifted learners: their "extreme need for constant mental stimulation;" their more complex mental processing; their "exploration of topics in depth and for prolonged periods , sometimes without a defined goal in mind." In “Hidden gifted learner











































Stephanie Tolan writes of exceptionally and profoundly gifted children

“People tend to see our children as strange and don't understand that the very characteristics that make them seem strange in general company would show them to be quite normal in the company of other exceptionally gifted people.

Among the largest obstacles we have to overcome is that these characteristics are not those usually associated with high levels of intelligence. Seldom are our children straight-A or obviously academically talented students who stand out in school. Studies (Terman & Oden, 1947) have shown that children in the highest ranges are less likely to be identified in the classroom than other gifted children.” from “Stuck in Another Dimension:

The Exceptionally Gifted Child in School


“Since my own school days, I have known children who possess extremely high intellectual ability, and often a wealth of self-taught knowledge and skills, who do not fit well into the educational system as it expresses itself in the typical heterogeneous classroom. These children -- call them underachievers, nonconformists, or whatever -- are the ones who in my opinion most critically need special classes for the gifted. However, more often than not, they lack the high grade point averages, the favorable teacher recommendations, and the stereotypical list of traits that most school personnel would like to see in children whom they deign to label "gifted." Sometimes; the only indication that the sullen, disaffected child in the back row is gifted is a score on an IQ test.


Many recent conceptions of giftedness seem to be predicated on the meek assumption that we are better off identifying as gifted only those well motivated children who are already primed for success and who appear to be well on the road to probable adult eminence. I am concerned that by eliminating the IQ tests from our tool box we will end up only with these polite, "task-committed" strivers in programs for the gifted. Children of this type may well require special education. But I, for one, would like to see some innovative thinkers and intellectuals in these programs along with the future yuppies. I fear, however, that without the benefit of the IQ tests, we run the risk of missing these children altogether. “ (PEGY’s emphasis) from IQ tests: Throwing out the bathwater, saving the baby by James Borland



Group ability tests such as the CAT have low ceilings (often roughly equivalent to IQ 130 or 135). This means that they cannot measure any higher than the ceiling score, whatever the child’s true ability may be. Exceptionally gifted children may not even score at the ceiling, since they may read too much into the questions and so fail to give the expected answer.



Those parents whose child is endlessly curious and an early developer probably suspect their child is bright, but many won’t even think about giftedness, and few have even heard the terms ‘exceptionally’ or ‘profoundly’ gifted. The child’s development is often ‘normal for the family’, or ascribed to an unusually enriched environment. Parents may be told by professionals that all children develop at different rates, but that all (except some of the developmentally delayed) ‘will get there in the end’, and that early development is not significant – and indeed it may not be.



Informal identification


However, research studies show that giftedness is often indicated by:


-  reaching developmental milestones unusually early - such as sitting, walking

and talking significantly before the norm. Research has established that this is usually true even of babies at the very earliest stages of life before anyone has identified them as gifted (see, for instance, Gottfried, A. W., Gottfried, A. E., Bathurst, K., & Guerin, D. W. (1994). Gifted IQ: Early developmental aspects. The Fullerton longitudinal study).


 “The precocious development of speech, movement and reading are powerful indicators of possible giftedness. Of course, not every child who speaks, walks or reads early is even moderately gifted (Jackson, 1992), but when these skills appear at extremely early ages, and particularly when they appear in tandem, they are generally linked to unusually advanced intellectual development.”  from Gross “Small poppies: Highly gifted children in the early years


-  “Characteristics of giftedness” by the Gifted Development Centre


-   “Some Behaviors of Young Gifted Children" from Gifted Canada





Exceptional giftedness could be indicated by:


-  reaching developmental milestones extremely early, particularly those associated with communication.  


-  having similar characteristics to the children described in “Exceptionally Gifted

Children" by Miraca Gross. This book describes a modern longitudinal study of 60 exceptionally and profoundly gifted children, and provides enormous detail about 15 of them. It can be a revelation to read about these children and find them identical in most respects to your own.


-  The characteristics here “Exceptionally and profoundly gifted children” have more validity than most as they are gathered from a sample of 241 exceptionally and profoundly gifted children, although like almost all lists of gifted characteristics there is no published comparison study with average and delayed children.


-  Common characteristics” in “Beginning Brilliance” by Stephanie Tolan. These ring true to many parents of highly gifted children.


-  Deborah Ruf’s  “Levels of Giftedness” at “How smart is my child?” and at “Ruf Estimates of Levels of Giftedness”  may be useful indicators for some parents, but others have found them misleading. They are drawn from a total sample of fewer than 100 children across all the ‘levels’ - only seven for the highest level - and it is not clear from where the frequency of each ‘level’ is derived. Very academically driven indicators have been selected.


” However, it is very important to note that it is also possible for a child to be extremely gifted, and not necessarily demonstrate these characteristics. For example, Albert Einstein did not talk until he was four. Although early reading is common among profoundly gifted children, some children with extraordinary intellectual gifts nevertheless do not read until they begin school. Profoundly gifted children sometimes also have a disability that prevents them from demonstrating some of these characteristics; the existence of both disabilities and giftedness in the same person are not mutually exclusive.” Kearney “Frequently Asked Questions About Extreme Intelligence in Very Young Children


A high degree of caution is essential in evaluating these sources and comparing them with real-life children. It can be just as harmful to the child to have his abilities over estimated as under estimated.


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Why they might be missed


So there are no foolproof checklists for establishing giftedness, let alone exceptional giftedness. But many people think that a child developing and reasoning at the 1 in 10,000 level or higher must be obvious, and an individual so different from the norm would surely stand out and be recognised immediately on entering formal education. Unfortunately this is not always the case.


There are many reasons why a child’s abilities may be substantially underestimated by teachers and parents alike:


-  Speed of learning


A child with profound gifts is likely to be invisible to teachers if they are never given material from the curriculum with which to demonstrate their speed of learning. Parents who attempt to inform the teacher of their child’s advancement may be told that the child demonstrates none of it at school, and be disbelieved - particularly if the child is twice exceptional - even though research has found that parents are the best identifiers of giftedness in young children (see for example “What we have learned”). However, even parents may underestimate extraordinary intellectual abilities.


A very few such children will seek out opportunities on their own, but many more will not, and will not have the facilities to do so (though many will pursue their interests outside the age-appropriate curriculum as far as the resources they have available will permit).  

Such a child may rip through material at a high speed if permitted and motivated to do so, but if kept to the pace of a typical class is very likely to become alienated and disengaged. Stephanie Tolan has written eloquently on this in “Is it a cheetah?


When the child learns extremely quickly, she may find it hard to pay attention when the teacher goes over and over the same concept and may miss instructions on a set task, leading to mistakes. These mistakes may make the teacher think that the child does not know how to do the task.


-  Intellectual opportunity


Some exceptionally gifted children should be easy to spot. For example, how could you miss the 7 year old who, at home, enjoys Stephen Hawking's "Brief History of Time" and analyses the evolution of the steam engine and its impact on industrial development? He or she should be very obvious - or so you might think.

But schools do not present this level of intellectual activity to a 7 year old, nor do teachers have the time to develop a relationship with each pupil that would enable them to discover each child’s true potential, and a child who is unhappy at school may not feel able to share these things with a teacher in any case.


Independent projects may give an older child scope to show the depth of their knowledge and ability, but only:

if they are truly interested in the topic,  and

if they are not disengaged from school, and

if they have maintained their interest despite a lack of intellectual nurturing, and

if they are not working on blending in with the rest of the class, and

if the receiving adult has sufficient expertise in the topic to correctly judge the level of work...

(It would be a remarkable primary school teacher, for instance, who could differentiate between profound insights and ill-informed speculation in an obscure branch of science, maths, literature or linguistics and correctly gauge the level of understanding they demonstrated.)


-  Culture and socio-economic group


A child not given access to books and resources, or whose culture values different

kinds of knowledge, is likely to be even less visible to teachers than the example

above. If such a child comes from a lower socio-economic group or a minority culture

they may also be adversely affected by preconceived ideas of their ability level.


-  Disability / Special Needs / Specific Learning Difficulties


A "twice exceptional" or 2E child is one who is intellectually gifted, but also has

difficulties such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, dyspraxia, hearing (especially auditory processing disorder) or vision problems or other difficulties which prevent them from demonstrating what they know. For further information on this go to Twice Exceptional.


-  Blending in


On beginning preschool or Reception the profoundly gifted child will notice the behaviour of the other children and may very quickly start to act and perform as they do so as to fit in. An exceptionally socially aware child will even alter their language to speak like the other children in preschool. This extreme ‘blending in’ is more common in girls, but can affect boys too, and the urge to blend in (so as not to appear a ‘know-it-all’, for social acceptance and in an attempt to make friends, or to manage the expectations of teachers and parents, or to avoid bullies) can strike at any age. A child who is proficient at blending in is unlikely to be recognised as gifted by his teachers.


-  Full marks


Identification is made more contentious because adults often believe the exceptionally or profoundly gifted child should be able to ‘prove’ how able they are by always getting 100% on school tasks which are well within their capabilities. However, they may not achieve to this standard. This may be explained by one or more of the following factors:


- inability to comply correctly with instructions

The child’s idea is too big for the task.

For example, an eight year old who reads complex fiction at home is asked to write a story about “Going to the moon”, but simply cannot condense the novel he can imagine into the page of writing the teacher requires. He may end up refusing to write anything, or turning out a meagre paragraph.


- creativity with non-challenging tasks.                                                                   

      For example, doodling on a reception class worksheet which requires the drawing of two objects. The worksheet ends up with two objects, and then many more! The teacher believes that the child doodled because she didn’t understand the task and so was unable to comply, not that the task was so well within her capabilities and completed so quickly that she sought to entertain herself with extra activity.


- lack of co-operation

            Unwillingness to complete tasks which were well within his capability several years              ago and which teach him nothing day after day after month after year.


- “I don’t know”

     An inability to answer the question with the correct amount of detail because the child has already gone beyond the level currently being taught and sees connections, relationships and depths which make it very difficult to give the answer the teacher is expecting.  

For instance, the teacher asks what makes leaves green  expecting the answer ‘chlorophyll’, but the child has known for years that it’s chlorophyll. She assumes everyone else in the class also knows, and that the teacher is asking ‘how does a leaf absorb a full spectrum of sunlight and reflect only green, and why?’ She knows that this is something to do with how the chlorophyll molecule within a plant cell absorbs light but doesn’t know the details of exactly how this happens – which chemical bond or combination of atoms is responsible – so when called on by the teacher answers “I don’t know”. The same child, if asked why Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 may answer “I don’t know”. She knows the trigger was the invasion of Poland, that the roots of that action lay, to some extent, in Germany’s treatment after the First World War, but may not be familiar with the history behind the pattern of alliances which meant that the First World War was inevitable after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Even when other children give the answer the teacher expects, such a child may not just revise her view of the teacher’s expectations, but may assume that the other children know and fully understand all the detailed information she is unsure of. Consequently she may always answer “I don’t know” when called on in class.


- inability to control his attention sufficiently to complete tasks he finds simple and repetitive.

This phenomenon has been studied in adults where it also occurs, and the Yerkes-Dodson model explains that errors and omissions are made when the task is too simple and the mind is insufficiently stimulated to perform well. Thus it may be impossible for an exceptionally gifted child to achieve full marks on tests of material which is too simple for them. This can affect intelligence test scores as well as school work. For an accurate assessment of the child’s level of knowledge and ability more advanced material must be presented, and knowledge of simple concepts either incorporated within it, or tested in a complex way.   


-  Denial


Professor Miraca Gross writes: “I do believe that some teachers who have had no previous experience with extremely gifted students put up a subconscious denial of what they are seeing because it is so far outside their experience that they subconsciously feel that it can’t really be happening. Even when they do eventually recognise what’s happening they explain it to themselves by telling themselves that the child has been “trained” or that it’s an occasional “fluke” or that because it is so far from what they should “rightfully” expect from a child of that age, it is okay to ignore it.” from What we Know from Longitudinal Studies of E/PG Children (2006)



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Formal identification


"If something exists, it exists in some amount. If it exists in some amount, then it is capable of being measured." Rene Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, 1644


Parents and teachers often start thinking about assessment of children when problems arise at school. If the child is happy at school and maintaining their enthusiasm for learning there is usually no reason to test.


It is important at this point to define carefully what is meant by ability and achievement.

We use ability as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, as meaning “power or capacity (to do); cleverness, talent.” and achievement to mean “completion, accomplishment; thing accomplished.” Achievement is what can be accomplished by using ability.


An individual assessment of a child's development, academic achievement and ability (IQ) by an educational psychologist experienced with exceptionally and profoundly gifted children remains the most reliable, thoroughly researched and proven method of detecting and measuring ability levels. A good tester will not rely on IQ score alone when assessing a child’s ability, and will be able to interpret the implications of aspects of the child’s performance on different tests to give a helpful profile of relative strengths and weaknesses.

Identifying the exceptionally and profoundly gifted is not a straightforward task, but the introduction of extended scoring methods for the Stanford Binet 5 (SB V) and the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children version 4 (WISC IV) IQ tests have recently improved the situation.


Assessment by academic achievement alone is not sufficient to identify gifted children since achievement depends too heavily on educational opportunities and can also be adversely affected by learning difficulties (see Twice Exceptional) or disengagement from school (which can start within the first few days of preschool or Reception).


IQ tests have gathered a bad press in recent years, despite the widespread use of group ability/achievement tests (pencil and paper tests, not taken one-on-one with an educational psychologist) like the CAT in secondary schools, but there is simply no other way of taking a measurement of academic ability which is so thoroughly researched and highly respected.


Many parents report that having their child assessed by an experienced educational psychologist was the single most important thing they have done to help their child. However, it is important for parents to be informed about the tests which are available and the meaning of the results, and to select a tester with care. Scores can be significantly lowered if the tester does not have a good rapport with the child, and if he or she is not familiar with gifted children and their thinking styles.


The revision of major tests (modern versions are now the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children IV, or WISC IV, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence Three, or WPPSI III, and the Stanford Binet Five, or SB5) in the last few years has made the assessment process more complicated. Most modern IQ tests have limitations in their ability to distinguish between children at higher levels. The publishers of the popular WISC IV and SB5 have both published modified scoring methods which can help, although research continues into their use. (Experienced testers believe the SB5 Rasch ratio extended scoring can deliver scores which are too high.) Educational psychologists need to keep themselves up to date with new extended scoring procedures released by the test writers from time to time and published on their websites, as well as methods of computing gifted indices. (See for example WISC–IV Extended Norms Technical report 7 and Special Composite Scores for the SB5)


Some testers believe it is enough to know that a child is highly gifted and is therefore likely to need a modified education, but most of those experienced with this population believe it is important to know whether the child has an IQ of, say, 155 or of 175 or more. These differences have significant implications for the degree of adjustment likely to be needed to achieve an appropriate education.

The IQ numbers quoted in most of the research on exceptionally and profoundly gifted children (that is, exceptionally gifted IQ 160+, profoundly gifted IQ 180+) are derived from the Stanford Binet Form LM test (the SB-LM), which was superseded by the Stanford Binet version 4 more than twenty years ago. It is important to note that the SB-LM has not been authorised by the publisher for use as a primary IQ test for many years. However, it is approved by the publisher for use by experienced testers solely as a supplementary test after two or more subtest ceilings have been reached on a modern IQ test, and in such experienced hands can be a valuable diagnostic tool to help parents in the search for additional information about their child’s abilities. Unfortunately, its use has been compromised by serious breaches of test security and results gained from it are not generally recognised as sole proof of exceptional giftedness.

For a comparison between SB-LM scores and scores on modern tests, see the table in What is Highly Gifted?  Exceptionally Gifted?  Profoundly Gifted?  And What Does It Mean? This table is based on experience with the most recent tests, but it is not universally agreed upon, and is subject to change as more information is gathered.



Gaining an accurate picture of relative strengths and weaknesses of a profoundly or exceptionally gifted child is not a simple and straightforward matter. The more teachers and parents know about the various tests and scoring options, the more likely it is that they will be able to choose options which will give meaningful and useful information. If you are considering having a child assessed you may find the following articles informative:


Why test?”  “There are two types of testing recommended in the assessment of gifted children: IQ or ability testing, and achievement testing.  Before you can consider this question for your child, you should be familiar what these tests are, and are not....” and

Testing the gifted child, like any other psycho-educational decision, is a complex decision.  Consider why you are testing, what tests will be given, and what answers you are looking for from the testing.  Know what you want to learn from the testing.  And make an informed decision.”. Sections of particular interest to UK parents are: Intelligence Testing, Test Scoring Terms, Achievement Testing, Curriculum Based Assessment (CBA), Ceilings, Supplemental Intelligence Testing, When to Test?, Which Tests? And Can you test too much?


Then read “A Place to Start: Is My Child Gifted?” and


Assessment, educational issues, advocacy: The process of parenting a profoundly gifted child” which include a range of questions to consider when selecting an educational psychologist.

“Assessing gifted children is similar to and different from assessing other types of children. Though areas to be assessed are similar for all, for gifted children, the assessment techniques and tests require special characteristics. While most professionals are trained to assess many kinds of children, few are specifically trained to assess in this particular area.”

From “Assessing Gifted Children”, which refers to older tests, but is still a useful article.


What about the SB5, WISC-IV, and Other Tests?” reviews different tests and talks briefly about the importance of an experienced tester.


Tips for Parents: Intellectual Assessment of Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Children

“I am presenting recommendations for consumers of intelligence testing, particularly parents of children who are thought to be highly gifted. It is my objective to provide parents with information so that they may be well-informed consumers of these tests.”


Testing and Assessment: What Do the Tests Tell Us?” Be sure to read right down to “What IQ tests DON'T tell us...”, although sections specific to named US achievement tests can safely be skipped.


How to Use the New IQ Tests in Selecting Gifted Students” contains 20 research based recommendations.


For more detailed information on using tests with the exceptionally gifted population, see

A Comparison of Assessment Techniques In the Identification of Gifted Learners “...the World Council for Gifted Children hosted a symposium on assessment of the gifted from in New Orleans. The symposium evaluated the latest assessment techniques in the identification of gifted learners... Beginning with an overview of the complexity of assessing gifted children with the new instruments, presenters then discussed the use of the fourth edition of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV), the new General Ability Index, research with gifted children on different versions of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and the WISC-IV, the utility of nonverbal measures and the effectiveness of qualitative assessment.”


It is possible that a gifted child may not do well on a test for a number of reasons, see “Why do my child's test scores vary from test to test?” which contains useful information about the nature of different tests.  It is important that an IQ score is not used in isolation as sole identifier. A high score cannot be a fluke, accident or artefact of a new IQ test, but a low score may be.


Once the assessment has been completed, parents will debate what the child should be told. Most believe that giving the child a numerical score is unhealthy, since they can then compare themselves to siblings (potential dynamite!) and others. Most parents work very hard to make sure their children have a realistic view of themselves, and are not tempted to engage in one-upmanship on the basis of supposed intelligence, or to build an identity around being ‘the most intelligent child’. However, it does seem to be essential that the child be given some idea of where they fall in the ability spectrum. Many parents tell their children that they’re lucky enough to be pretty smart while emphasizing that the important thing is not intelligence, but what you do with it, see “Should we tell them they're gifted? Should we tell them how gifted?”  and The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.


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