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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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A Different Take on "Gifted"

“Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences”

                                                             Annemarie Roeper, 1982.


The above quote is perhaps my favorite definition of what it means to be “gifted.”  There are countless definitions out there. The U.S. Department of Education has attempted to define “giftedness” as has the National Association for Gifted Children. Individual states have their own definitions.  Gifted education researchers have proposed their versions. For example, Dr. Joseph Renzulli broke from the traditional approach of defining gifted merely based on high intelligence scores and defined it as the intersection of task commitment, creativity, and above-average ability.

Yet, I never felt satisfied with the majority of these definitions. Most define giftedness based on outstanding ability and/or performance, excellence in particular subjects or areas, or high intellect.  They never get to the heart of the matter. Then, I read gifted education pioneer Annemarie Roeper’s definition and it stuck. She described giftedness in a manner that aligned with my experiences with these children (side note: since the quote was published in 1982, I’m very aware my topic is not cutting-edge or breaking news, but I think it’s worth resurfacing since some educators may not be aware of it).  They are more aware, more sensitive, and have a greater ability to understand. They are not necessarily math experts or scholars, in fact, many underachieve in school. Rather, I believe gifted individuals are “wired” differently. They think differently; they process the world differently; they experience differently—therefore, they have different needs both inside and outside the classroom.

I considered giftedness something you did rather than something you are, until I met Dr. Jim Delisle, gifted education expert, speaker, and co-author of When Gifted Don’t Have All the Answers. I questioned whether you remained “gifted” if you did not use your abilities and demonstrate some level of expertise or success. He countered by using the analogy of an athletic person. Someone could be born a gifted athlete, and although they may never work out or play sports anymore, they are still inherently athletic; it is their nature. This is why I gravitate toward Roeper’s definition; it suggests that giftedness is your nature, something you are born with. It is who you are. Of course, it can be enhanced by what you do. It can be wasted---but it is your essential nature.

Using Roeper’s definition, those who work with the gifted can begin to consider curriculum, models, instructional strategies and counseling approaches that meet the needs of the students. It’s important to note if you subscribe to Roeper’s definition (and I’m aware some educators may not) then you must go beyond providing the right academic conditions and consider how to meet the social-emotional needs of this population as well.  

Using some broad brush strokes, here’s some points to consider when designing programs and instruction for the gifted:


  1. Assuming the child is more aware and more sensitivity (which means they will be different from most of the population since the number of gifted kids ranges about 6 percent of school-aged children) then it is paramount that we educate these students about themselves and the differences. We must spend time teaching them about their characteristics, their unique perspectives, and how they may experience the world differently. Otherwise, we could be setting them up for a lifetime of confusion, frustration, and disappointment.


  2. Curriculum and classroom instruction must be differentiated to allow gifted students to probe deeper, to research, to investigate, to tackle more complex and challenging topics. Otherwise, you’re setting these children up for a lifetime of academic boredom, not to mention wasting their intellectual capacities (Yet research shows that gifted students spend as much of half the school day waiting for classmates to catch up).


  3. Finally, educators must realize that while gifted students are wired to think deeper or possess greater understanding, it does not guarantee academic success or that these children will always use—or ever fully use their potential. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that researchers estimate as many 50 percent of all gifted students will underachieve/underperform at some point in their academic career. We, as teachers, must keep this in mind as we work to find ways to get them to realize and utilize their gifts.


I’d like you to try a little experiment. Spend some time just sitting and talking with a child who has been identified as gifted or someone who you think is potentially gifted. Listen to how they talk, how they view the world, and the kinds of things they talk about. As you listen, consider whether they exhibit greater awareness, greater sensitivity, and greater understanding. You will begin to find clues, evidence that matches up with Roeper’s definition. It will begin to make sense. I am always surprised about how observant these children can be and how they see things in a different manner than other children.  Recently, while screening a potentially gifted child with the school district-mandated intelligence quotient test, the student not only answered questions but noticed whenever the objects on the test changed color or something on the page or within the question was slightly different (this was not a required part of the testing). I’ve had young children ask why I teach a topic a certain way or notice how other children on the playground are interacting, while most kids that age are simply running around screaming, having fun.  Give the “Roeper Definition” test a try. You might be surprised.