What Does Being Gifted Really Mean?

Jan 26, 2018

By: Dr. Christie McWilliams
Gifted Education Consultant

The views expressed in this post are that of the author and their resources and do not necessarily reflect the views of Michigan State University and the Gifted and Talented Education Office.

Welcome to the Michigan State University GATE program’s blog! Offering insight into the nature of giftedness and suggestions for parenting gifted youth, this blog complements GATE’s mission: to support gifted students as they develop intellectually, cultivate social relationships, and expand their understanding of the world.

As a former teacher of gifted students and a current Michigan Association of Gifted Children board member, gifted education consultant/speaker, and parent of two young children, I am excited to serve as your regular blogger and share what I have learned over the last 20 years of working with gifted youth, their teachers, and their parents.

It seems logical that our first blog post should unravel what giftedness really means, as a deep understanding of giftedness is necessary to best relate to our children as well as advocate for them throughout their educational career. So let’s dig in and discover something new about giftedness!

How is giftedness defined?

Most people understand that giftedness entails being bright and having high potential, and existing definitions of giftedness typically focus on capability and achievement as identifiers of giftedness. The federal definition of giftedness, originally developed in 1971 and called the Marland report, revolves around “high achievement capability”:

"The term 'gifted and talented,' when used with respect to students, children or youth, means students, children or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities." (Marland, 1971)

States and local districts are not required to use the federal definition of giftedness. In fact, they are not required to define giftedness—as well as identify and/or serve gifted students—at all. According to NAGC’s 2014-2015 State of the States in Gifted Education survey, only 37 states define giftedness, and even fewer states (32) currently mandate identifying and/or providing services for gifted learners (National Association of Gifted Children, n.d.-a). Michigan is not among them.

Generally, though, existing definitions typically are based on the federal definition. For instance, the National Association for Gifted Children’s (NAGC, n.d.-b) definition also revolves around high capability:

"Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports)." (para. 1)

Other conceptions of giftedness do exist, however, including but not limited to Joseph Renzulli’s (1986) Three Ring Conception of Giftedness https://gifted.uconn.edu/schoolwide-enrichment-model/identifygt/, Francoys Gagné’s (2003) Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent, and Robert Sternberg’s (2003) Triarchic Theory of Intelligence.

What are the unique characteristics of gifted individuals?

Aside from showing increased potential or demonstrating advanced accomplishment in one or more specific content areas as many definitions of giftedness suggest, other more specific characteristics tend to appear regularly in the literature surrounding gifted individuals. When discussing characteristics of gifted children, we must understand that any one of these characteristics may be present or not present—there are so many variables at work. Furthermore, these common cognitive and affective characteristics do not comprise a comprehensive list. Cognitive attributes that appear often among gifted individuals include:

  • Above-average general intellectual ability
  • Ability to find and solve difficult and unusual problems
  • Ability to process and learn information quickly
  • Ability to see connections, relationships, and multiple perspectives
  • Ability to understand abstract and complex concepts
  • Extensive and detailed memory
  • Intense love of reading
  • Advanced vocabulary and communication skills
  • Curiosity in many areas
  • Desire to ask a lot of questions
  • Intense, sustained passion in one area, which may change over time
  • Ability to concentrate for long periods of time on projects of interest

From an affective perspective, research has yielded consistent conclusions that gifted individuals are as well-adjusted as any other student group and are not any more vulnerable or flawed than their peers. However, Robinson et al.’s (2002) landmark compilation of research examining the social and emotional lives of gifted students uncovered common affective characteristics. Gifted individuals may exhibit:

  • Perceptiveness and awareness of being different
  • Nonconformist behaviors
  • Desire to become all they are capable of becoming
  • Need for mental stimulation and preoccupation with understanding
  • Perfectionism
  • Introversion
  • Anxiety
  • Heightened sensitivities, particularly emotional intensity

In a future blog, we’ll discuss some of these affective characteristics more in depth, including why it is so important to offer support for gifted learners who exhibit them.

Are high achievers and gifted learners the same?


There are clear differences between high achievers and gifted learners (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Juntune, 2013):

  • They develop differently. Although a high achiever’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional domains may seem to develop more quickly than an average student, those domains still move in sync with one another. Gifted learners, however, show asynchronous development, as both the cognitive and emotional domains develop faster.
  • They are motivated differently. High achievers are motivated extrinsically. They make good grades, please their teachers, show interest in assignments, understand and memorize easily, and thrive on knowing the answer. Gifted learners are motivated intrinsically. They typically show interest and perform well if the activity is meaningful, individualized, and related to their passions. Instead of memorizing and practicing already-mastered skills, gifted learners prefer to pondering ideas, looking at multiple perspectives, and asking—rather than answering—the questions.
  • They perceive and react to the world differently. While both high achievers and gifted learners may be intuitive and sensitive individuals, children who are gifted tend to exhibit even more awareness, sensitivity, and emotional intensity than their non-gifted peers. The difference lies in the degree. Generally, gifted students seem to intuitively understand situations, people, and behaviors more completely than their peers and react to situations more intensely.
  • They replenish their energy differently. Both average and high-achieving youth typically recharge and thrive when spending time with others: studying in groups, calling friends, and “hanging out.” Children who are gifted tend to exhibit more introverted behaviors and find groups—especially of the same age—distracting.

Coming Soon

In the next blog, we will examine how gifted students are typically identified and why the gifted “spectrum” is important!

Recommended Readings

Helpful Links



View a list of sources cited in this blog post.


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.