Identify gifted children

How to tell if a child in your care is showing signs of gift or talent and how to use formal and informal assessments and observations to help identify them appropriately.

Indicators of gift or talent in young children

There are a number of ways to tell if a child is gifted or talented. These include:

  • early development of language
  • abstract thinking
  • strong memory
  • a capacity to focus and concentrate on tasks of interest
  • intellectual curiosity
  • behaving in a more sophisticated way than their peers ( this may result in behaviour such as taking on the role of the leader in play or finding social interaction difficult)
  • a strong motivation to learn.

Although development may be rapid in some areas, gifted children have the same things to learn as all other children.

For example, gifted children may start talking at the same age as other children but their language development happens at a quicker pace, meaning they quickly become very articulate.

Things to consider

In identifying if a child may be gifted and/or talented in young children, you should consider a number of factors that can affect the process:

A collection of evidence over time is needed

Individual assessments and observations are 'snapshots' only and provide information about what the child can do at this time. To really identify a young gifted and/or talented child requires a collection of evidence over time.

Children may not perform on demand

For various reasons, young children may not perform ‘on demand’, and therfore not demonstrate their full potential.

The child's development can be uneven and varied

The development of young gifted and talented children can be very uneven, with peaks and troughs, stops and starts. Multiple assessments and observations over time are necessary to identify advanced development or learning.

A disability can hide or mask the gift or talent

Where gifted and talented children also have disabilities this is know as  dual exceptionality.

The disability can hide or mask the giftedness or talent. Educators should be aware that gifted and talented children can show learning that may not fit within conventional ideas about achievement.

Cultural, other biases and stereotypes can interfere with your ability to identify

Particularly where the signs of giftedness are subtle. Young gifted children are not ‘geniuses’. Not all gifted children are early readers or good at maths.

Families’ different cultural backgrounds can lead to a diversity of expressions of giftedness and talent, and may not fit narrow or pre-determined ideas. In some cultures, children may be discouraged from displaying their abilities.

Children may lack opportunity or support

Young gifted children may lack opportunity or support to demonstrate their gifted potential, or develop this potential into talent, and therefore not be identified.

If you recognise that a child in your care may be showing signs of advanced development or learning you will need to decide if formal testing is appropriate.

Where educators are appropriately planning for the child’s advanced potential, the child is progressing well and their family is satisfied with their child’s learning and development, a formal assessment such as an IQ test may not provide any additional benefit.

Formal identification through IQ tests might be more appropriate when the child is:

  • older
  • moving to primary school
  • at primary school

Informal identification

You should use your usual forms of assessment, observation and documentation to identify gift or talent in children.These informal approaches can be used:

  • across a whole group of children as a basic screening tool, or
  • with individual children were gift or talent is suspected.

Informal assessments may include:

  • anecdotes and narratives
  • learning stories
  • portfolios
  • information from children and their families
  • information from other professionals

Using this approach you can build a profile of the child to support identification by recording and documenting children's development over time. This inforamtion can also be used by other professionals involved in the care of the child.

Formal identification

Formal approaches to identify giftedness in young children include:

IQ tests

IQ tests measure thinking processes such as:

  • logical reasoning
  • language comprehension and expression
  • understanding of concepts
  • levels of general knowledge.

IQ tests are standardised, which means that a child’s performance on these measures can be assessed against the expected performance of children of the same age.

An IQ assessment should be seen as just one of a range of multiple forms of observation and assessment that can be used to inform professional planning for a child’s learning and development.

Advantages of IQ tests
  • the child’s advanced development and learning have not been identified or supported
  • the child is facing challenges or difficulties, or is not progressing as would be expected
  • families are dissatisfied about their child’s learning and development, or finding it challenging to involve the professional concerned in a more informed understanding of the child
  • it is suspected that the child might be highly gifted or have dual exceptionality
  • a formal confirmation of giftedness is required (for example if required for early school entry or entry to specialist programs).
Disadvantages of IQ tests
  • the tests provide a ‘snapshot’ of a child’s responses at the time of taking the test
  • children may not demonstrate their full potential on the test
  • very young children, who are shy, or those from disadvantaged or diverse cultural or non-English speaking backgrounds, may be disadvantaged by the test
  • children may be tired, unwell, anxious or uncooperative on the day they take the test
  • the tests focus on measuring a particular range of intellectual abilities and do not assess a child’s creative or artistic abilities, or social competence.

Care always needs to be taken in interpreting the results of an IQ assessment of young children. A child who scores highly on an IQ test can be regarded as gifted, but a child who does not score in the gifted range may still be gifted.

Understanding an IQ assessment

When psychologists conduct a formal assessment such as an IQ test, they will usually provide an accompanying report interpreting the findings.

Professionals should seek permission from the family to access the report, but with permission the report can provide valuable information.

Sometimes, meetings can be arranged between the family, the assessing psychologist or therapist and educators to discuss the results of the assessment and appropriate follow-up in response to the assessment outcomes.

Early developmental assessments

The assessment tools used by Maternal and Child Health (MCH) nurses may also identify signs of advanced development or learning in very young children:

  • Parent Evaluation Developmental Status (PEDS)
  • Brigance Screens

Achievement tests

In the early years of school, achievement tests assess children’s learning in areas such as reading and mathematics. These assessments may be done alongside IQ tests but serve a different purpose. 

As they are standardised, they compare children’s performance on the test to what could be expected as ‘typical’. They are closer to an assessment of academic or ‘school learning’ than IQ tests, and can be used to understand the child’s learning and assist in planning for their learning.

Dual exceptionality identification

Dual exceptionality refers to when both giftedness and some form of disability or learning difficulty are present.

This is not an uncommon situation, and it has been estimated that up to one in 10 gifted children may have some form of disability or learning difficulty. For example, some children with dyslexia can often be of above average intellectual ability.

Dual exceptionality can make the identification of giftedness and talent in young children more difficult. A child’s giftedness can compensate for their disability or learning difficulty and therefore mask the disability.

Accurate identification is essential if the child is to receive the support they require to fulfil their potential.

While physical or sensory disabilities such as cerebral palsy or blindness will be apparent, others – such as subtle impairments of hearing or vision, or specific learning or processing difficulties – are more difficult to detect, and particularly so in a gifted child.

Possible indicators

Possible indicators of dual exceptionality include:

  • discrepancies in abilities, such as a child who exhibits advanced levels of reasoning but who struggles to read or write
  • a child who appears frustrated with their own performance on academic tasks
  • lack of confidence and avoidance of certain tasks coupled with signs ​of advanced ability in other areas
  • significant discrepancies in sub-test scores on IQ tests.

Identify early

Dual exceptionality often does not become an issue for children and families until a child starts school. However, there are often signs in the preschool years.

It is important to try to identify dual exceptionality as early as possible, preferably before the period of transition to school. This helps to prevent the child experiencing frustration and a sense of failure in their first experiences of formal schooling, and helps to support their positive concept of themselves as a learner. It also accords with the basic principle of early intervention: earlier diagnosis that addresses and supports both the giftedness and the disability will lead to better outcomes.

Case studies

Further reading

  • Signs of Giftedness in Young Children - Dr Louise Porter explores learning styles or approaches.
  • Visual Spatial Learners - Linda Silverman provides information about what she terms ‘visual-spatial learners’, including a checklist of characteristics to help identify different learning approaches and strategies for responding to these.​