Early Childhood Education

Gifted and Talented Children


Recognizing the gifted and talented children in the United States has long been an ill-defined process. Lewis Terman (1916) was one of the first researchers to identify children of superior intellectual ability. According to Terman’s study, students were recognized as gifted if they exhibited functioning at or above an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of 140 and they were superior to others in physique, health, science, morality, and adjustment factors (Reid and McGuire, 1995). Whereas Terman’s definition is extremely focused, others interpret giftedness more broadly as a “general ability ... a multidimensional construct that includes both potential and performance” (Harrison, 2004, p. 78). Nonetheless, Terman’s definition of a gifted and talented student has remained the widely accepted picture of a superior child. Because of the definition’s emphasis on the physical characteristics of a person, individuals with disabilities, including emotional and behavioral, have often been overlooked for possessing gifted traits (Reid and McGuire, 1995).

In the United States, twenty-five states have legislation that defines who is gifted and talented, twenty-one states have mandated that the state board of education define the gifted and talented education, and in four states, no legislative body has defined the population. The lack of clarity surrounding the definition of giftedness, combined with a nonuniversal view of this subject, has resulted in the lack of comprehensive data pertaining to this group of students. Educational responses to the complex social, emotional, and academic needs of gifted children are as uncertain and controversial as the definition. Many parents and teachers complain that basic prescribed curriculum and instruction is not challenging for gifted learners.

Programs for children who are identified as gifted range from achievement classes, enrichment and acceleration programs, grade skipping, or “services beyond the basic programs provided by schools” (Bathon, 2004). Acceleration refers to “raising the level and/or pace of instruction to be commensurate with students’ achievement levels and capacity or rate of learning” and “[e]nrichment... refers to qualitatively different sorts of programs and effects on achievement” (Feldhusen, 1991, p. 133). Acceleration programs can be traced to the early twentieth-century American system of the tracking hierarchy, which separated children who exhibited a much greater capacity for learning and creative expression from others in a typical classroom. This practice often involved removing gifted and talented children from the classroom at a prescribed time during the week and allowing them to use different resources from the rest of their typical classroom peers (Oakes and Lipton, 1994). Starting in the 1990s, this tracking practice came under scrutiny, particularly in public schools, due to the uneven distribution of resources and opportunities. School choice and private schools were seen as viable options for children who fell into the state’s definition of gifted and talented (Oakes and Lipton, 1994). Enrichment programs also redirect potentially limited resources to only a small population of children.

There is little long-term research on the benefits of acceleration versus enrichment programs, primarily due to a lack of federal, state, or foundation funding. The little data available suggested that acceleration programs offered more in terms of skills for independent study, research, and creative thinking (Feldhusen, 1991). Tracking this data and making academic recommendations for the gifted and talented remains a challenge and source of debate in the educational system.

Among the concerns about the effects of gifted programs is the generally narrow focus on intellectual growth at the expense of the social, emotional, and behavioral elements of development. Some scholars (Feldman, 1986) suggest that such a singular focus can contribute to anxiety and social isolation due to lack of adequate personal and social coping skills. Others (Lubinskiet al., 2001) suggest that these emotional, behavioral, and in some instances, social difficulties, interfere with the gifted children’s capacity to use the full potential of their skills, particularly when they are put into accelerated courses or opt to skip a grade level. Some suggest that the indifference to the emotional/behavioral disability that some children identified as gifted and talented experience is related to the mindset that the gifted and talented “appear to be doing fine” (Plucker and Levy, 2001, p. 75). Research suggests the contrary, however; with gifted children approximately twice as likely as nongifted students to exhibit social and emotional difficulties (Winner, 2000). The gifted child’s level of socioeconomic status and ethnicity also play a role; the social pressures on many gifted African American students, including economic pressures, may lead to the adoption of negative behaviors that camouflage their giftedness (Dillard and Brazil, 2002). This research indicates a strong need for programs designed for the gifted and talented that support the emotional and social needs of the children as well as maximize their academic potential.

Mara Sapon-Shevin (2003) offers another critical appraisal of gifted education programs in the United States, arguing that, by focusing on this elite population, schools and communities are less inclined to work to improve the overall general education programs. Sapon-Shevin suggests, as an alternative, that the educational system work to improve classroom settings, teaching, and curriculum for all children, not just a select few. She argues, further, against the idea that the gifted population is homogenous; and that educating this population should focus on promoting challenges for each student, as it should be with all academic talents. Sapon-Shevin couches her critic of gifted education within a larger context of advocacy for political and economic justice such that improved educational opportunities are created for the full range of students, from the poor to the gifted.

Critics of Sapon-Shevin challenge the political and socioeconomic arguments against gifted education, and emphasize the need to focus on the educational aspect of the gifted and talented programs and services (Gallagher, 1996). Such advocates of gifted education are especially resistant to the idea that “[e]xcellence can only be considered once equity is reached (for all children)” (p. 245), both because this premise is highly unrealistic and unfair, given the implication that the gifted population would be excluded from quality programs because the rest of the educational system does not offer superior programs for all children (1996). As an alternative, Gallagher challenges the gifted education field to engage in a self-critical reflection that does not offer excuses for wanting to extend the boundaries for knowledge for superior, intellectual children (1996).

These differences in perspectives converge around the need for a rich debate over gifted education, bringing this population to the forefront of the education discussion in the United States. Few deny that the gifted and talented are an important population because of their potential contributions to society, and thus, need to be supported as such in their learning and development.

Further Readings: Bathon, J. (2004). ECS state notes gifted and talented: State gifted and talented definitions. Education Commission of the States; Dillard, J., and N. Brazil (Winter 2002). Improving the selection process for identifying gifted ethnic minority children: Race, ethnicity and public education. Trotter Review 14(1). Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston. William Monroe Trotter Institute. (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No. ED465838); Feldhusen, J. (1991). Effects of programs for the gifted: A search for evidence. In W. Thomas Southern, and Eric D. Jones, eds., The academic acceleration of gifted children. New York: Teachers College Press; Feldman, D. H. (1986). Nature’s gambit: Child prodigies and the development of human potential. New York: Basic Books, Inc.; Gallagher, J. J. (1996). A critique of critiques of gifted education. Journal for the Education of the Gifted 19(2), 234-249; Harrison, C. (Winter 2004). Giftedness in early childhood: The search for complexity and connection. Roeper Review 26(2), 7884; Lubinski, D., R. M. Webb, M. Morelock, and C. Benbow (2001). Top 1 in 10,000: A 10-year follow-up of the profoundly gifted. Journal of Applied Psychology 86(4), 718729; Oakes, J., and M. Lipton (1994). Foreword. In Mara Sapon-Shevin, Playing favorites: Gifted education and the disruption of the community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. ix-xvi; Reid, B., and M. McGuire (1995). Square pegs in round holes—these kids don’t fit: Bright students with behavior problems (Report No. RBDM-9512). Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No. ED402701); Sapon-Shevin, M. (2003). Equity, excellence and school reform: Why is finding common ground so hard? In James Borland, ed., Rethinking gifted education. Education and psychology of the gifted series. New York: Teachers College Press; Terman, L. (1916). The measurement of intelligence: An explanation of and a complete Guide for the use of the Stanford revision and extension of the Binet-Simon intelligence scale. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company; Winner, E. (2000). The origins and ends of giftedness. American Psychologist 55(1), 159-169.

Sarah A. Leveque