The Truth About ‘Gifted’ Versus High-Achieving Students


By Chris Croll

While some parents go to great lengths to try to have their children identified as “gifted,” I would like to shed some light on the reality of what raising a gifted child really means.

First, a quiz. Which of the following do you believe to be true?

a) Gifted children usually get straight A’s in school

b) Gifted children are often teacher’s pets in the classroom

c) Gifted children have exceptional executive function (organization, time management, etc.) skills

d) Gifted children tend to be natural leaders

e) None of the above

The answer is, of course, e. The statements above describe high-achieving students, not gifted ones. This is a distinction parents of gifted children would like others to understand.

High achievers are students who perform at peak academic levels. They take the hardest classes and ace them all. They are tenacious. They have grit. Teachers love them because they eagerly engage with whatever material is presented in class. Peers admire their academic success and look up to them. High achievers often take on leadership roles in extracurricular activities. They play sports and an instrument and they are leaders in clubs. High achievers have excellent study skills and social skills and they go on to excel at elite colleges.

[See related article, “Going for Gifted,” here.]

Gifted students, on the other hand, may or may not earn high marks in school depending on a host of factors including their interest in the subject being taught, their respect for the depth of knowledge the teacher possesses and even their level of physical comfort in the classroom. Gifted students often frustrate teachers because they don’t quite live up to their potential, especially in classes that are too easy for them. Gifted children often have poor executive function skills so they lose homework and don’t know how to study for exams. Many gifted children have few friends because of their esoteric interests. Sometimes these students feel so isolated that they become depressed … even suicidal. A surprisingly large number of gifted students drop out of high school and never make it to college, despite their high innate intelligence.

While all children have gifts, not all children are “gifted” as defined by researchers and educators around the globe. The most commonly used definition is as follows: “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.” (The Columbus Group, 1991)

What this means is that gifted children have ‘special needs’ that the typical classroom teacher does not have the bandwidth or training to address. This is why school districts go to great lengths to identify gifted students—these kids require special support in order for them to stay engaged in the learning process.

Some gifted students are also high achievers but many are not. What other parents and teachers often don’t see are the hidden components of being gifted, including emotional overexcitability, crippling anxiety, existential angst and other social and emotional issues resulting from asynchronous brain development.

Having your child identified as “gifted” at school is no better or worse than having them qualify for any other academic support service. Parents who pay for tutoring services to teach their child how to “act more gifted” so they “get into” gifted programs at school would be wise to spend those dollars instead on enrichment classes to help their children become high achievers – or to save that money for college.

[Chris Croll serves as executive director of Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students. Contact her at]