There is no single agreed-upon definition of giftedness, but all seem to refer to superior intellect or creativity. "Superior" means being in the top 5 percent (or others say 1 percent) of a population.
A 4-year-old child clinging to her mother, hanging back from playing with her peers while engaging with adults, may seem to the average person to be developmentally delayed. Perhaps she dressed herself at age 2 but is slow to get moving in the mornings. This child may have developmental delays, but she may also be gifted.
Even as babies, gifted children tend actively to elicit stimulation from their environments and are keen observers. Some may reach developmental milestones earlier than their average peers, then progress more quickly than usual. Other children's minds and bodies may develop at different rates, so that they start speaking later than average, belying their later advancement.
Gifted children have excellent memories, are able to organize and retrieve information more efficiently and consider solutions rapidly. However, memory is not enough to determine giftedness. Giftedness requires superior cognitive skills such as quick learning, deeper knowledge, understanding abstract concepts (like time) and strong observation skills. Gifted children may have general giftedness or may have a specific talent, like a flair for languages but not mathematics.
Many of these children have diverse interests, are motivated to learn, curious, alert and prefer complexity and challenge. They tend to read and write early, use numbers in sophisticated ways and enjoy advanced books and films. Giftedness also refers to exceptional creative or artistic talent, which is not necessarily associated with intellectual intelligence.
A central feature of giftedness is a seeming inner drive of the child to absorb and express his or her interests, maybe in a perfect chess move or beautiful flower arranging -- with no need for any other reward than the fulfillment of that drive.
Gifted children are often perfectionistic; they question authority and are very emotionally sensitive. They may also be unusually physically sensitive, overly discomfited by the ticking of a clock or fabric on their skin. Emotional hypersensitivity may cause them to be too tuned in to the feelings of others or too easily upset. These hypersensitivities may cause sensory overload and overwhelm them.
The study of giftedness is related to ways of educating and raising such children. In the 20th century, giftedness was typically identified through IQ tests. More recently, researchers have understood the limitations of using such tests, particularly with children of non-Western cultures. A variety of other methods is now used, including classroom observation and achievement tests.
It is generally agreed that giftedness has a high genetic correlation, with interplay of a supportive social and educational environment that nurtures giftedness.
Early identification is essential to prevent problems and to nurture gifted children. Gifted children may or may not actualize their potential because of a complex mix of psychological and environmental factors. These children may not fit in with their peers because of their superior vocabulary and interests, preferring older children and adult company. Underachievement is common -- with children being regarded as average or even problem children. They may also have low motivation and behavioral problems.
Psychological and social issues may hamper gifted children. If they have no gifted peers, they may be isolated; if they are unhealthily perfectionistic, they may suffer criticism and poor self-esteem, and they may be mocked or envied by others. These factors can lead to underachievement, depression, self-deprecation, shyness and feelings of shame and guilt.
Gifted children may only be supported when their specific talents are valued by their environment; for example, a chess prodigy will flourish in a society that values chess but not in a society that values sport.
Students in minority and low-income groups are often not identified early or may be regarded as "problem children" when they do not fit in at school. Fewer gifted children in minority groups are enrolled in special programs. Studies attribute this to cultural, social and educational factors. In minority groups, gifted children do better when the curriculum content is compatible culturally and linguistically.
The challenge for gifted children lies in finding their own identity -- being at ease with their individual talents while fitting in with their social group. Educators and parents play a vital role in this.