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Recognising Potential

Spotting Possible Signs

Many parents or teachers may see signs in a child that make them think he or she is gifted. These signs, such as the ability to learn things very quickly, an unusually large vocabulary, or an uncommon ability to solve problems could mean that the child is gifted. However, there are also several less obvious characteristics, some of which may surprise you: idealism and a strong sense of justice, for example, or the child being preoccupied with their own thoughts (daydreaming). Intense curiosity in how things work is a common trait, as is a tendency to experiment with doing things differently, or linking ideas or thoughts together that are not usually linked.

Each child is different and it is difficult to generalize, but most bright children have some of the characteristics listed below:

  • perceptive, inquiring minds
  • unusual insight and intellectual curiosity
  • superior judgment and reasoning ability
  • abstract and critical thinking
  • originality
  • ability to see connections between ideas
  • long concentration spans in areas of interest
  • advanced reading ability
  • extensive vocabulary
  • keen powers of observation
  • strong sense of ethics and values
  • a sense of humour
  • a rapid mastery of basic skills
  • special ability in one or more areas, such as music, art, science, language, computers, or mathematics

This is far from being an all-inclusive list, and not every bright child has all of these characteristics. However, in general, compared to children of the same age, gender, temperament and cultural background, the gifted, school-age child will exhibit some of the following behaviours more frequently, more intensely, and for a longer period of time:

  • Humour: Exceptionally keen sense of the comical, the bizarre, or the absurd
  • Imagination & Creativity: Extraordinary capacity for ingenious, flexible use of ideas, processes, materials or anything else
  • Inquiry: Probing exploration, deep questions; experiments with events, ideas, feeling, sounds, symbols, movements, etc
  • Memory & Processing: Tremendous "brain power" for dealing with large amounts of information and skills.
  • Sensitivity: Unusually aware of or responsive to experiences and feelings, both their own and/or those of other people
  • Expressiveness: Extraordinary ability to communicate meaning or emotion through words, actions, symbols, or media
  • Reasoning: Outstanding ability to think things through and consider implications or alternatives; rich, flexible, highly conscious, logical thought
  • Problem Solving: Outstanding ability to find systematic solutions to problems; is able to invent and monitor many paths to a goal; seeks challenges
  • Intuition: Suddenly discovers connections or deeper meaning without conscious awareness of reasoning or thought
  • Learning: Able to grasp and use sophisticated new understandings quickly and easily
  • Interests: Advanced, ardent; perhaps for unusual topics; passionate, sometimes fleeting
  • Moral & Ethical Concerns: Intense need for fairness and justice; deep desire to take action to resolve injustices; concern for consequences of their actions
  • Motivation: Persistent, intense need to know, do, feel, create, or understand

(Source of list: "Brilliant Behaviors" by L. Kanevsky, in The Tool Kit for Curriculum Differentiation, 1999.)

Jumping to Conclusions: the Need for Caution

Of course, it might be the case that only one aspect of a child's development could be interpreted as being more advanced than that being exhibited by his or her classmates. Also, children rarely develop according to a strict timetable: some children learn to walk or talk earlier than the norm. Therefore, one should be cautious about assuming that a child is gifted unless a certain trait is particularly obvious, or unless a combination of several unusual characteristics is evident.

Defining Giftedness 

One useful definition has been provided by the US government:

"Students, children or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not normally provided by the school in order to develop those capabilities."

Developing Giftedness Capabilities

There are many forms of giftedness. Of course, Mensa is primarily concerned with intellectual ability, but the second part of the definition above is highly relevant: "... and who need services and activities not normally provided by the school in order to develop those capabilities". Some may argue that it is elitist to identify intellectually gifted children, but it is not elitism to recognize that gifted children need special attention in order to bring them to their full potential, just as much as other, less able children may need help, advice or support to reach theirs. It is also important to understand that there is no single "one size fits all" solution, and that each individual gifted child is unique. Each needs to be adequately stimulated and their talents channeled, and that is a challenging task for parents, teachers and schools.

Different Approaches to Giftedness

Many countries have programmes for gifted children; some have yet to implement them. Also, different countries and cultures may have different approaches to recognizing potential. If you would like to know more about some of the different approaches, here is a paper written especially for Mensa International by the eminent British psychologist, Professor Joan Freeman, who specialises in giftedness.

We would like to express our gratitude to Professor Freeman.