Gifted Children and Hurricanes: Why Category Matters

May 21, 2018

By: Dr. Christie McWilliams
Gifted Education Consultant

Before moving to Michigan, I lived in Houston, Texas, where hurricane season is serious business. Should you ever find yourself living near a coastal area between June and November with a storm brewing in the Gulf or Atlantic, you might read up on how to prepare well in advance.

You may now be wondering, what do hurricanes have to do with gifted children? Certainly any child, not just a gifted one, can cause destruction and induce anxiety and the occasional desire to flee, but there is an important parallel between hurricanes and gifted children.

A bit about hurricanes first. To be “officially” classified as a hurricane, maximum sustained winds must reach 74 mph. When within a few hundred miles of a hurricane’s projected path, residents typically start making preparations in advance. When I lived in Houston, I observed that the hurricane’s strength determined how we prepared for its expected arrival—with the understanding that winds would significantly slow down as the hurricane moved inland toward Houston. For instance, when a Category 1 (74-95 mph winds) was headed our way, we typically ensured our garden flags and other yard art were removed. When a Category 2 (96-110 mph winds) was expected, we stowed our lawn furniture and trash cans inside the garage. A Category 3 (111-129 mph winds) called for trimming weak or dead tree limbs and sticking masking tape on the windows to avoid shattered glass should something strike it—like a fence post. We also stocked up on bottled water and non-perishable food in case of flooding and a power outage. A Category 4 (130-156 mph winds) called for all of this plus plywood nailed to our windows. Finally, a Category 5 (157 mph winds or higher) likely resulted in our packing up and heading north as soon as we could to avoid the freeway standstill. 

Gifted students are a lot like hurricanes. They, too, are labeled based on their strength. A profoundly gifted child is very different from a moderately gifted child, just as a Category 4 hurricane differs significantly from a Category 1.

What are the levels of giftedness?

Levels of intelligence range from cognitively impaired on one end of the spectrum to profoundly gifted on the other. The “average” IQ is 100, give or take one standard deviation above or below (90-110). Individuals with IQs between 70 and 90 are classified as slow learners, and those with IQs under 70 are classified as having an intellectual disability. High achievers, bright children who make high grades but who are not necessarily gifted, typically have an IQ between 110 and 130. The magic number traditionally used to draw the boundary between the gifted and the non-gifted is 130, but this score may vary depending on the state, school district, and/or the test administered. From this point, one can be classified as moderately gifted, highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, or profoundly gifted.

Carolyn Kottmeyer (2018), the founder and director of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page, gives a helpful overview of these four levels of giftedness and discusses why they are important. She notes that these levels are not standardized, and the numbers will vary based on the test taken and the test ceiling. Generally speaking, though, the levels include:

Level of Giftedness   Score
Gifted/Moderately Gifted = 130-145
Highly Gifted = 145-160
Exceptionally Gifted = 160-180
Profoundly Gifted = 180+

The differences among these labels are significant, and this data can help guide both educators and parents in creating the most appropriate and nurturing environment for gifted children as possible.

Why does the level of giftedness matter?

We know that as the level of giftedness increases, so does the individual’s need for depth and complexity. As the level increases, so do other intensities, including emotional, psychomotor, imaginational, and sensual. Also, we know that as the level increases, so does the chance of unintended negative consequences if the learning environment is inappropriate—consequences such as boredom, frustration, underachievement, and/or learning difficulties when facing a real challenge. This is why it matters.

We categorize intelligence for the same reason we categorize hurricanes. When we better understand our students and children, we can prepare and respond appropriately—and better meet their cognitive and emotional needs. The type of gifted label should not become their identity—they get to determine that. The label should be used as a helpful data point, a guide.

In the classroom, for instance, a child classified as a high achiever or moderately gifted generally may be well-served in a regular classroom with a teacher trained in gifted education who provides appropriate differentiation, enrichment, and mild acceleration. A child who is highly gifted likely is better served in a homogenous gifted classroom with an accelerated curriculum that also allows for more in-depth study of topics. If a full class of gifted learners is not possible, cluster grouping can be a suitable option. Cluster grouping involves placing a small group of gifted learners together in a mixed-ability classroom with a teacher trained in gifted education. Ideally the cluster group should include 4-6 gifted students so they have ample opportunities to interact with their like-minded peers. Because there are so few exceptionally and profoundly gifted children, these learners are likely are best served through grade- and/or subject-skipping as well as through independent study projects. Generally speaking, as the level of giftedness increases, so does the need for faster acceleration, deeper and more complex curriculum, and more independent study opportunities.

How do we identify giftedness?

Only 32 states mandate that their gifted students are identified and/or served Michigan has no mandate pertaining to gifted students at all. In states or districts where giftedness is recognized, how it is identified is usually determined at the school district level and varies widely. (National Association of Gifted Children, n.d.-a).

Identification procedures typically involve a combination of both quantitative and qualitative measures. These may include individual intelligence or achievement tests; nominations from teachers, parents, administrators, peers, or self; teacher and parent rating scales; portfolios; performances; case studies; and /or interviews. Although identification should not be limited to just one measure, such as a test score, sometimes districts begin the identification process by universally screening all students with an achievement or ability test.

Achievement tests may be subject specific and cover just mathematics or language arts, for instance. There are several standardized achievement tests as well that are commonly used to identify giftedness, including but not limited to the SAT, ACT, and Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) (National Association of Gifted Children, n.d.-b). Schools also may participate in Northwestern University’s Midwest Academic Talent Search (NUMATS), a program that identifies advanced academic ability by allowing eligible students to take the PSAT while in elementary school, instead of in middle school, and the SAT or ACT while in middle school, instead of in high school. Additionally, there are achievement tests specifically designed for gifted students available, including the Test of Mathematical Abilities for Gifted Students (TOMAGS) and the Screening Assessment for Gifted Elementary and Middle School Students (SAGES). (National Association of Gifted Children, n.d.-b).

At times, schools may administer an intelligence (IQ) or cognitive ability test, rather than an achievement test, as a universal screening instrument or specifically to identify suspected gifted children. Some of these test options include (National Association of Gifted Children, n.d.-b):

For more information and a more comprehensive list of assessments, visit the website.

Remember, though, gifted individuals are complex and differ tremendously from one another. The unique characteristics associated with giftedness stem beyond solely cognitive ability and potential. Webb, Gore, Amend, & DeVries (2007) explain:

"Gifted children view the world in different ways than other children, and their thoughts, actions, and feelings are more intense. It has been said that an exceptionally gifted child seems to see the world not only as an adult might, but also as if he is looking “through an electron microscope, as compared with normal vision. This child sees what others do not see, and what others cannot even imagine.” (p. 25)

Since ability and achievement tests focus on the intellectual domain, they should be used in conjunction with other measures, both objective and subjective, to assess giftedness. Although they provide an important piece of data, by themselves, they are not helpful in identifying the other traits associated with giftedness: creativity, wisdom, passion, determination, moral and ethical code, leadership qualities, and a more intense response to the world.

Coming Soon

In the next blog, we will discuss several overexcitabilities associated with giftedness such as emotional intensity.

Recommended Readings

Helpful Links

Author Bio

Dr. Christie McWilliams has over a decade of experience teaching gifted and advanced learners in secondary English/language arts classrooms. Additionally, she has served as a college and university English instructor and Director of Programs and Student Admissions at the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts.

Christie holds an Ed.D. from the University of Houston in Curriculum and Instruction with a gifted education focus, and her ongoing, quantitative research focuses on teachers' differentiated practices with gifted students in mixed-ability classrooms. She also holds an M.Ed. in English Education, a BA in English, a Gifted and Talented Texas State Supplemental Certificate, and School Administrator Certificates in both Michigan and Texas. Christie has also received several honors including but not limited to being named an ASCD Emerging Leader, Phi Delta Kappa International Emerging Leader, Sam Houston State University Distinguished Educator, H-E-B Excellence in Education (Leadership) State Finalist, and Crystal Teaching Award recipient.

Christie currently serves as a board member for the Michigan Association for Gifted Children, provides professional development for educators serving gifted and high-achieving youth, and works in the test development field as a national, independent consultant for Data Recognition Corporation. She lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with her husband, five-year-old daughter, and one-year-old son.