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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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Identifying Gifted Students in Your Classroom

Frankly, the notion that a teacher can complete a master's degree in education, or even go through their entire career, and never complete training in gifted education concerns me. Chances are you will have a gifted child in your class at some point in your career. You will also likely have students, who have yet to be identified as "gifted," but require special services. That means it falls on you (as well as other adults involved in the child's life) to "spot" this student's potential and recommend them for gifted services. In order to do that, you must have knowledge of criteria, a framework of sorts, to evaluate whether a student demonstrates "giftedness."

Part of the problem is that there exists no universal definition for the concept of "gifted." We could fill a book discussing this controversial topic. The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC, 2010) defines giftedness as follows:

"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 sensory motor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports)."

Renzulli (2012) argued that giftedness is a set of developmental behaviors, which can be demonstrated by particular individuals under certain times and under certain circumstances.

While definitions can be helpful in identifying potentially gifted students, I found that understanding their unique characteristics can also improve your ability to find them in your classroom and school. Qualitative research has found that gifted students, due to their advanced cognitive abilities and development, possess unique characteristics, which can be used as a "mental checklist." In my work, I synthesized a number of these unique characteristics. Below is a list adapted from an article I published in 2016.


Described as a major characteristic of gifted individuals, perfectionism involves pursuing excellence and high goals—often unrealistic ones. These high expectations may be self-imposed by the child or come from the influence of parents and other adults. Some children with perfectionist tendencies may live in a constant state of frustration due to the ever-present gap between how they believe they are performing and their self-imposed, ambitious goals. For example, I once taught a student, who upon getting anything less than an "A" on a test, would crawl under his desk and cry for an hour.

Heightened Sensitivity

Some gifted children may experience heightened sensitivity to their surroundings. Gifted children, even from a very young age, can be extremely sensitive to the concerns and problems of the world, much the same that a developed adult ponders them. For instance, a gifted child may intellectually understand concepts such as death but not be emotionally prepared for such a topic. In one instance, I taught a fifth-grade student, who would begin to have anxiety attacks whenever we watched videos involving traumatic historical events.

Social Isolation/Difficulties

Gifted children may feel they are different. With their high intellect, gifted youngsters may demonstrate more social competence than same-age peers, causing them to hide their talents and gifts. Extremely gifted children may feel more awkward, resulting in less social adeptness, loneliness, and more introversion. Special populations of gifted children, such as minorities or females, may also experience more social problems than peers.

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and I strongly encourage teachers to read gifted education literature as well as attend courses and conferences in the area. As you become more knowledgeable regarding the characteristics of gifted students, your ability to recognize them will subsequently increase. I suppose the analogy I would offer would be that of a talent scout in baseball. Talent scouts are typically former baseball players—or at least someone who is extremely familiar with the sport. From this knowledge base, they are able to easily recognize talent. It's very similar with gifted individuals; the more you know, the easier it is to "spot" them in your classroom. Nevertheless, identifying gifted students remains more of an art than a science—after years working with this population, I still occasionally get it wrong. But, as I advise new teachers, I would rather error on the side of optimism than caution. I figure if I recommend a student to be screened for gifted services, and they do not qualify, at least I have tried to give them that opportunity. I would hate to be "the gatekeeper," who prevented a child from perhaps years of service, specialized instruction, and enriched experiences, because I wasn't willing to take a risk of them.


Haberlin, S. (2016). Don't stress: What do we really know about teaching gifted children to cope with stress and anxiety? Gifted & Talented International, (30), 1-2, 146-151.

National Association for Gifted Children (2010). Retrieved from