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Is Your Child Ungifted?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When Jay Leno asked Steve Carell how his kids were doing, he didn’t seem too concerned:

“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.”

Worried that your own child is ungifted? Take a cue from Carell and relax. Thankfully for you and your child, there are many conceptualizations of giftedness– and therefore many ways to not be ungifted.

Where should we start? How about with the most traditional conceptualization of them all: high IQ. Does your child score above 130 on an IQ test? If so, congratulations! We can probably stop right here. Historically, giftedness has been defined as top 2-3% on an IQ test. While most gifted and talented programs these days no longer rely solely on this criteria, most programs in the United States do privilege the child’s IQ score above all other potential indicators of giftedness.** So if your child scores above the arbitrary IQ threshold set by the school district, you should have no trouble convincing your school that your child isn’t ungifted.

What’s that, your child obtained an IQ score of 129 and missed the cut-off by a single point? Ouch! Well, I admit that’s unfortunate, but we’re still far from eliminating the possibility that your child is ungifted. It’s quite possible that you child’s true IQ score is really above the arbitrary IQ threshold set by your school district. There are many reasons why your child may not have reached 130 on the day he or she was tested. One possible cause is measurement error. Perhaps your child temporarily zoned out or became distracted on a few test items. It’s also entirely possible that the school psychologist forgot to count one of the answers as correct. Administration errors are far more common than people realize. As educational psychologist Kevin McGrew notes, “This level of examiner error is alarming, particularly in the context of important decision-making.”

But the culprit may not have been measurement error. Genuine intellectual brain maturation and growth is possible. Neural connectivity associated with intellectual functioning is particularly receptive to enriching intellectual experiences in childhood and early adolescence, but neural wiring is still receptive to training and experience throughout the lifespan. With greater intellectual enrichment and motivation, it’s quite possible that your child’s IQ score will reach that arbitrary gifted cut-off if tested again in the future.

Huh? You had your child’s IQ tested every single day for 10 years in a row, and it hasn’t budged an iota? Gulp. Okay, well, your child’s IQ score isn’t all that informative anyway when it comes to targeted, specific interventions. What’s far more helpful in terms of addressing the actual need of your individual child– especially if he or she has a learning disability– is to look at your child’s pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Tell your school psychologist the following:

“Please give my child a comprehensive battery of IQ and achievement tests adopting the cross-battery approach to assess the various specific cognitive abilities that are part of the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) Theory of Cognitive Abilities”.

Trust me, if your school psychologist is competent in the least, he or she will know what all that means. This will allow you to determine if your child is gifted in one of the following 9 broad domains of human intellectual functioning:

As long as the school psychologist assesses these abilities by adopting the intelligent testing approach– elevating your child above the numbers and seeing his or her test results in context– then the psychologist can use that information to design a specific acceleration program that will address your child’s unique needs.

Still ungifted? OK, time to roll up our sleeves and really broaden our focus. According to the federal definition, gifted and talented children are those who display high achievement and/or potential ability in general intellectual ability, specific academic aptitude, creative or productive thinking, leadership ability, or visual and performing arts, and who require services or activities that are not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those abilities.

This leaves a lot of latitude. Maybe your child struggles in the mainstream classroom, but writes wildly imaginative fiction novels in his or her spare time. Or maybe your child aces his or her algebra equations, but has difficulty memorizing vocabulary words. Perhaps your child prefers performing, whether it be acting, singing, or playing a musical instrument, but zones out when put in a passive classroom situation. Or your child is president of the student body and has instigated a massive revolt among the students. While unappreciated by the administration, your child’s actions reveal extraordinary leadership skills. According to the federal definition, any of those behaviors demonstrate giftedness.

Still no good? OK, don’t panic yet. Theorists Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg further expanded our concept of giftedness. Sure, Gardner proposes academic (verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial) and musical abilities, which are already part of the Federal definition. But he also offers you some extra gifted goodies such as social intelligence (ability interacting with others and/or knowing yourself), bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (facility with bodily movement), and naturalistic intelligence (facility relating to nature). Or take Sternberg’s theory, in which your child can not only be analytically, creatively, or practically gifted (i.e., exhibiting good common sense), but can also be gifted at wisdom if he or she does a good job balancing personal needs with the interest of others, all the while taking the broader societal context into consideration.

What about all that— is your child finally gifted yet? No? Don’t despair! Maybe your child doesn’t display high ability in any of the areas I just mentioned yet, but exhibits extreme passion and dedication. After researching eminent creators across a variety of fields, Joseph Renzulli concluded that those who achieve greatness in any field tend to not only display high ability in a particular domain and high levels of creative-productive giftedness (as opposed to “schoolhouse giftedness”), but they also tend to have extremely high task commitment. According to Renzulli’s model of giftedness, a gifted child can compensate for lower levels of ability with higher levels of creative-productive giftedness and task commitment. In other words, passion and task commitment are gifts just as much as cognitive ability and creativity.

Are we there yet? Have I finally assuaged your fears that that your child is totally and utterly ungifted? No? Really? <wipes sweat from my brow> Well then, let’s take a look at The Columbus Group definition of giftedness, in which the central characteristic of giftedness is asynchrony. According to their definition, giftedness occurs when “advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.”

What’s that— how do you know if your child has heightened intensity and inner experiences that are qualitatively different from the rest of the children who live on your street? Great question! I’m afraid I don’t have an easy answer to that one. But this much I can say: a large portion of the gifted community equate intensity with “overexcitability,” a term the Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski used to describe an overly sensitive nervous system. In particular, Dabrowski proposed five domains in which a person can display these overexcitabilities: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional. To many in the gifted community, these overexcitabilities are the defining characteristics of giftedness.

So go check right now: Is your teenager really sensitive and intense? No? He’s really chill and boring? Oh, alright. I didn’t want to go there, but you’ve forced me. It’s time to pull out the Characteristics of Giftedness Checklist, developed by Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Development Center. We’ve already covered some of the characteristics on her checklist, such as “reasons well,” “learns rapidly,” “sensitive (feelings hurt easily),” “intense,” and “highly creative.” But there’s more! Perhaps your child demonstrates some of these additional characteristics Silverman associates with giftedness:

  • Shows compassion
  • Perfectionistic
  • Morally sensitive
  • Has strong curiosity
  • Perseverant in their interests
  • Has high degree of energy
  • Has a great sense of humor
  • Concerned with justice, fairness
  • Tends to question authority
  • Has facility with numbers
  • Good at jigsaw puzzles

No? None? At this point, I’ve got to ask: Are you sure your child is actually human? Perhaps you accidently picked him up from the zoo instead of the nursery? I won’t judge, it happens.

Look, if it’s really true that your child is perfectly average in every single human characteristic represented in all of the definitions of giftedness I presented to you, then I’m afraid there’s only one diagnosis left: your child is truly extraordinary! Just ungifted.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

For a more in depth discussion of different conceptualizations of giftedness, and the development of a wide variety of personal characteristics, see my new book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

Illustrations by George Doutsioulos.

** While standardized tests of achievement are also privileged measures of giftedness, they are for the most part IQ tests in disguise.

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the measurement and development of imagination. His latest book is Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. rshoff 1:54 pm 06/20/2013

    Yea! I fail at being gifted 100% ! Therefore, I’m extraordinary. Thank you for the validation. It’s good to be special. It’s hard to beat a perfect record of failing at everything. Now, the problem, how do you fail at failing without ruining that record. Hmmm.

    I have a friend who often talks her kid down. That is, she explains how average and ‘ungifted’ he is. But when you look at his accomplishments, you can easily see, there’s something more going on.

    It’s good to teach your kids they are not extraordinary. It’s harmful to make them think they are special in any way other than very special to you, the parent. And eventually, their spouse.

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  2. 2. OgreMk5 9:39 am 06/21/2013

    The only reason I want my child to be labeled as gifted is because of the emphasis schools place on gifted students. Students in GT (gifted and talented) courses (at least in Texas).

    At the school I taught at, the GT class was doing DNA labs, going to Houston Science Museum, etc. The regular classes were in a portable building with no lab equipment and not even enough textbooks for each student to have one.

    GT Teachers are generally better trained (i.e. the school pays for summer courses in GT education) and paid (my school gave a small stipend to GT teachers).

    A lot of parents who are familiar with public education really push for their kid to be GT solely to get a decent education.

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  3. 3. rshoff 6:29 pm 06/21/2013

    OgreMk – I didn’t realize that’s how it worked at public schools. That’s a shame to hear. All kids should get the benefit of a good education. Those gifted programs sound discriminatory against normal kids that, with the right building blocks, would have a lot to contribute. After all, most kids are normal. And most kids will be entering most jobs in our workforce.

    Just to clarify, my friend didn’t belittle her kid! He was put through private school and good colleges. But she never bragged, didn’t sing his praises, and never let him think he was better than anyone else. He turned out to be a really nice adult with a good future (and he’ll make a good taxpayer!).

    It’s a shame that public schools can’t seem to muster up even basic education for the ‘un-gifted’ these days. Perhaps the kids that do not want to learn or are disruptive should be left behind so that the others can at least make it through adulthood. Otherwise, you’re looking at privatizing schools. And perhaps employers should stop trying to hire based on “college degree” for unskilled jobs or jobs that can be learned by good ‘ole OJT.

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  4. 4. Douglas Eby 8:01 pm 06/21/2013

    Thanks for another fascinating article. You note references by Dabrowski and others to an “overly sensitive nervous system” – an aspect of being exceptional and creative, whether intellectually “gifted” or not. In her article Growing Up Gifted Is Not Easy (on my High Ability site), psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD writes, “The parents of gifted children are often raising those kids well, but I have had too many sensitive patients who were gifted but too distressed to ever show their talents because their parents and teachers had no idea about how to meet the special needs of an HSC [highly sensitive child].” http://highability.org/growing-up-gifted-is-not-easy/

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  5. 5. Geniusexperiment 4:58 pm 06/22/2013

    this article is fun but you are mixing some more accepted psychological theories with totally unproven concepts and ideas. There is no scientific evidence for Dabrowski’s heightened sensitivities and, though a nice story, it is not a reliable indicator of giftedness. Nor is Howard Gardner’s model of multiple intelligence accepted in the community of differential psychologists.

    I am very sceptical of the concept of giftedness myself, but we’re still at a stage in psychological research where you can claim there is a trait such as general intelligence and it can be tested and used as a predictor.

    Link to this
  6. 6. robertstracy01 7:41 am 07/9/2013

    Well this sounds real great way to know and learn about a child’s mind and psychology. New York City Psychiatrists

    Link to this

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