How to Identify a Gifted Student in Your Classroom


Identifying gifted students in our classrooms can be challenging. As teachers, we have to break beyond the the stereotypes and look at all the characteristics gifted children can express.

Are There Gifted Students in Your Class?

In your classroom, you probably think of the gifted students as those making As. And often, you may be right. The University of Connecticut lists academic abilities as a factor in identifying gifted children. Gifted children do often get good grades in their classes. However, there are many types of gifted students in our classrooms. Let's cover six common personalities that we, as teachers, will definitely encounter.

The Challenging Artist

Logically, it would be easy to assume that if you have high academic abilities, you would also be happy in life. It is a common misconception teachers have about gifted children, but in fact the opposite can be true. The child sitting, sulking, and glaring in the back of your classroom may be gifted as well.

However, these same types of gifted students who may be moody or challenging in the classroom are often very creative and even artistic. According to the Kennedy Center, artistically gifted children tend to be an underserved population in classrooms. While gifted in one or more arts, they do, however, share characteristics with other gifted children. For example, they are committed to doing their best on a task. It just happens that the task is artistic in nature.

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The At-Risk

Unfortunately, there is an entire group of gifted students who are often labeled at risk. For these students, they feel school is just not for them because their interests and passions lie in topics we don't teach in our classrooms. Within school, they perceive that their talents have no value, so they may even perceive school as a hostile environment.

For the most part, these gifted students have attended school sporadically or even transferred often between schools. As a result, they are often not identified as gifted until high school. At that point it can be problematic because while they may not have physically abandoned school, they may have dropped out emotionally and do not feel invested in their classes.

The Underground Gifted

In your classroom, you will have gifted students who actively deny their abilities. Often this is driven by their need for social acceptance from peers. From your point of view, they may be the bright star in a dim day, but they won't see it that way. For them, the pressure to be like everyone else is overwhelming. Demographically, they may fall in at-risk populations within your school. So in their classes, they may be surrounded by a sea of peers who struggle academically. As a result, this type of gifted student often struggles with insecurity and even lets their grades slide.

If you teach in a school of underserved populations, odds are you have this type of student in your classroom. They try to hide themselves by deliberately not excelling. They have not yet developed the skills to confront challenges in the classroom and find strategies to persevere. As a result, teachers may need to find ways to challenge them, including pushing them into more advanced coursework.

The Multi-Exceptional Gifted Student

Consider for a moment this scenario. You are giving a lecture, or holding a class discussion on a particular topic. There is one student whose hand shoots up over, and over, and over again. There is, however, another detail worth noting: while they are posing a million and one deeply inquisitive questions in class, they are doing so directly to the teacher. With their peers, this type of gifted child may feel uncomfortable or out of place.

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These types of students may be twice exceptional. For example, while being gifted academically, they may suffer from Autism or Asperger's which can make peer interactions challenging. In other instances, they may suffer from learning disabilities which cause them to struggle academically. Gifted students who are 'twice exceptional' may even suffer from self-esteem issues because they feel judged for their diagnosis, rather than their talents.

The Successful

The typical gifted child a teacher would identify is what is commonly referred to as the successful student, which simply means they earn top grades. However, while some gifted students are self-motivated to make an assignment their own (autonomous learners), the majority of students identified as gifted are not. These successful students can easily excel on tests and complete assignments by just going through the motions. However, unlike their autonomous counterparts, they rely heavily on the teacher to guide them through the process. As a result, they don't develop the skills to be self-directed learners.

These gifted students often find the classroom a boring place. However, they want to please their parents and teachers, so they go through the motions and minimize effort. Rather than defining their own interests within school, they follow the crowd, whether it be their teachers, parents, or peers. Students like this are driven by extrinsic motivation, which is usually to earn the A.

The Autonomous Learner

Autonomous learners are intrinsically motivated, which means they enjoy the actual process of learning for the challenge rather than the outcome (a grade). They are self-directed learners who possess the confidence to use what they learn to make the system work for them. If they have a paper due in class, whether it is required or not, they will seek feedback well in advance of the deadline because they are driven to improve and tackle obstacles. These students have a positive self-image and a stable sense of self-acceptance. High-achieving students in leadership roles may be autonomous learners.

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Appreciating Diversity Among Gifted Children

In our schools, we traditionally identify gifted students as those who excel academically. If that is the only criteria we use, then we are doing a terrible disservice to our students. Gifted students come in all sorts of packages. Some may have emotional challenges stemming from the disproportionate development in their brains. Others may struggle to fit in with their peers. Finally, there are probably students in your class that are gifted in the arts but struggle academically. There is no 'one size fits all' for any student in our classrooms, but especially not for gifted students.

By Rachel Tustin
December 2017
teachers engaging students

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