Differences Between Academic High Achievers and Gifted Students

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A common question asked by parents of high-performing children is whether their child is gifted or "just" bright. They recognize that their child seems to be more advanced than other kids the same age. They may have first noticed that their child reached many developmental milestones early. Or they see that their child has taught themself to read at age three or is able to multiply double-digit numbers at age five.

What Is a High Achiever? 

In school, a high achiever would be a student who gets high marks and good grades. They do the work that is required and do it well. They tend to be well-organized, with good time-management skills, which is why they turn in neat and tidy work on time. They also tend to be well-behaved, adjusting well to the classroom environment and participating in classroom discussions.

On the other hand, being gifted denotes intellectual ability, a trait that may or may not translate into high academic performance. Giftedness (also called talented and gifted or TAG) is primarily determined through testing, which is often conducted by school districts. There are a variety of ability areas that may be assessed, including general intellect, creativity, leadership abilities, and specific subjects, such as math.

Testing for giftedness may also be done privately, using a variety of methods or tests. Standards of what constitutes giftedness are defined on a state and local level using a variety of tests to measure ability. Nationally, approximately 6% of students in public schools are classified as gifted and participate in talented and gifted school programs.

While high achievers may also be gifted, some high achieving students may not technically be considered gifted. Additionally, some gifted students may not do well in school for a variety of reasons.

Why High Achievers Aren't Always 'Gifted'

High achievers are not necessarily gifted, although some high achievers are also gifted. High achievers are often externally motivated by the desire to get good grades or even high praise. They also can often be motivated by stickers with smiley faces.

However, high achievement is not a sign of giftedness. In fact, some gifted children are underachievers. Beyond simply being smart, studies show that many traits, such as conscientiousness and openness, affect how well kids perform at school.

Some gifted children may be bored at school and/or internally motivated, so unless they are interested in the task or the material to be learned, they may not do well on assignments and may not even complete them. High achievers may need an educational environment beyond what is offered in the average classroom, but that is not necessarily the same environment required by gifted kids to be successful.

Your child's school will be able to help you assess whether your child needs more motivation in class or whether they are performing at their potential. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and have patience. It may take time to figure out the best place for your advanced learner.

Try not to bring too many of these terms into the conversation with your child, because you don't want to create unnecessary stress for them by applying labels they may not fully understand. Remember, this is about the child and their needs. 

Differences Between Learners

Here's a chart that helps explain the differences between high achievers, gifted learners, and creative thinkers (another type of student that may stand out).

A High Achiever... A Gifted Learner... A Creative Thinker...
Remembers the answers Poses unforeseen questions Sees exceptions
Is interested Is curious Wonders
Is attentive Is selectively mentally engaged Daydreams; may seem off task
Generates advanced ideas Generates complex, abstract ideas Overflows with ideas, many of which will never be developed
Performs at the top of the group Is beyond the group Is in own group
Learns with ease Already knows Questions: What if...
Needs 6 to 8 repetitions to master Needs 1 to 3 repetitions to master Questions the need for mastery
Enjoys the company of age peers Prefers the company of intellectual peers Prefers the company of creative peers but often works alone
Completes assignments on time Initiates projects and extensions of assignments Initiates more projects than will ever be completed
Enjoys school often Enjoys self-directed learning Enjoys creating
Is highly alert and observant Anticipates and relates observations Is intuitive
Is pleased with own learning Is self-critical Is never finished with possibilities
Gets As May not be motivated by grades May not be motivated by grades

A Word From Verywell

One key thing to understand is that a child can belong to more than one group. That is, it is possible for a high achiever to also be a gifted child. It's just that not every high achiever is gifted. In the same way, not every gifted learner is also a creative thinker, but it is unlikely that a creative thinker would not also be a gifted learner.

Regardless of where your child falls as a learner, the best thing you can do is to be their advocate at school and at home, offering support, understanding, and new challenges as needed. Equally important is to make clear to your child that while it's wonderful to be a high-achieving and/or gifted student, what you are most proud of is their effort and simply the person they are.

6 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.
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  3. National Center for Education Statistics. Percentage of public school students enrolled in gifted and talented programs, by sex, race/ethnicity, and state: Selected years, 2004 through 2013-14.

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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.