Different Uses of the Term "Gifted"

Two young kids looking at science project poster board

Tooga / Getty Images

Defining the term gifted is no easy task. Numerous definitions have been suggested and vary from state to state—but there is no universally accepted definition of giftedness. Because so many definitions and interpretations exist, people are often confused about what it really means to be gifted. Not only that, parents and teachers may find it difficult to communicate with one another because what they say is often based on different definitions.

To help mitigate some of the confusion, it's helpful to understand where the term "gifted" first originated and the different perspectives that led to the myriad definitions we have today.

Origin of the Term "Gifted"

The phrase "gifted" was first used in 1869 by Francis Galton, who determined that giftedness was an inherited trait exhibited by adult achievement.

Frederick Galton is known as a proponent of eugenics and ideas that are now understood as being racist.

Children could therefore inherit the potential to become a gifted adult, and Galton referred to these children as "gifted children." Psychologist Lewis Terman, renowned for his studies on gifted education, expanded Galton's view of gifted children to include high IQ.

In the early 1900s, Terman and educator Lulu Stedman determined that gifted children were defined as children with IQs of 140 or more. By the 1920s, however, the psychologist Leta Hollingworth suggested there were limitations to using IQ as a sole predictor for giftedness. Hollingworth observed that gifted children may exhibit signs of giftedness in some areas, but not in others.

Hollingworth proposed that a nurturing home and school environment was an important factor for developing a gifted child's potential. In 1926, Hollingworth's Gifted Children, Their Nature and Nurture gave rise to the term "gifted" in reference to children of high potential.

Different Definitions of the Term "Gifted"

Early adopters of the term "gifted" have led to different uses of the word and different ways of defining "giftedness." Galton’s interpretation left us with the idea that giftedness was simply hereditary and only visible in adult achievement, which had its limitations.

Today, it's more common to use "gifted child" to describe a child who demonstrates exceptional talent in one or more particular areas.

For decades, Terman’s studies on gifted children were regarded as some of the most comprehensive of their time. Terman's intelligence tests measured high IQ scores as a predictor for adult achievement. Hollingworth’s view, however, led to broader definitions of "gifted," including the childhood potential that must be nurtured in order for it to be developed in adulthood.

Giftedness as Predictor of Adult Achievement

Definitions of gifted that consider adult achievement add factors such as task commitment or motivation. Those who define gifted this way begin by looking at adults who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in their chosen field, like Albert Einstein, and work backward to see what traits other than high IQ the adult had in their childhood. A child without that trait, regardless of IQ, is not gifted according to these definitions. Joseph Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness is an example.

Giftedness as Potential That Must Be Nurtured

Definitions that consider giftedness as the potential to be developed make a distinction between what a child is capable of achieving and what the child will achieve. The fact that a child has exceptional potential is part of what makes them gifted.

The child’s environment determines whether potential leads to achievement, so people who define "gifted" this way stress the importance of providing an appropriate environment.

Francoys Gagne’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent is an example.

Giftedness as Asynchronous Development

Psychologist Linda Silverman added a new dimension to definitions of gifted when she included the uneven development of gifted children, which she called asynchronous development.

Definitions of gifted that include asynchronous development consider not only IQ and talent, but also emotional traits of gifted children, such as heightened sensitivity. The definition developed by the Columbus Group in 1991 is an example of this type of interpretation.

Columbus Group Definition

According to the Columbus Group, "Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity.

The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally."

School-Based Definitions

Schools may use a definition of gifted based on relative ability. Students are identified by how well they perform compared to other students in the school.

Students in the top 5 or 10% (or some other number) are those singled out as needing a curriculum more challenging than the regular curriculum. Gifted in this definition is relative because a student who is identified as gifted in one school may not be identified as gifted in another school, leaving parents confused.

Knowing which definition of "gifted" a teacher, principal, or school is using can help make communication less frustrating and more productive.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Association for Gifted Children. State Definitions of Giftedness.

  2. Lo CO, Porath M. Paradigm Shifts in Gifted Education: An Examination Vis-à-Vis Its Historical Situatedness and Pedagogical SensibilitiesGift Child Q. 2017;61(4):343-360. doi:10.1177/0016986217722840

  3. Hollingworth LS. Gifted children: Their nature and nurture. Oxford, England: Macmillan; 1926.

  4. Renzulli JS. American Psychological Association. The three-ring conception of giftedness: A developmental model for promoting creative productivity.

  5. National Association for Gifted Children. Theoretical Frameworks for Giftedness.

  6. Silverman LK. The construct of asynchronous developmentPJE. 2011:36-58. doi:10.1080/0161956X.1997.9681865

  7. National Association for Gifted Children. Asynchronous Development.

  8. National Association for Gifted Children. Pre-K to Grade 12 Gifted Programming Standards.

  9. National Association for Gifted Children. Frequently Asked Questions about Gifted Education.

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.