Mind Matters Chapter 4: Gifted Intelligence

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This series of articles has been adapted from [Mind Matters in Children] by Dr Kenneth Lyen. It delves into both the normal as well as the abnormal functioning of a child’s mind, and gives practical advice on how to manage children’s mental health and problems like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and depression.


“I brought my 6-year-old son to see you because his teacher says he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)”, an anxious mother told me. “He cannot sit still, keeps on interrupting the teacher by asking endless questions, and does not pay attention, reading books all the time.” I asked the mother what her son was particularly interested in, and the boy immediately barged in, saying he was interest in the ice tundra, astronomy, dinosaurs, and Harry Potter books. All the while, he was fidgeting in his chair, twirling round and round. His mother told him that despite getting bad reports from the teachers, he always did well in mathematics and other tests.

I referred him for formal psychological testing and the report said that this boy did not have ADHD, but rather he had gifted intelligence. His behaviour was overactive, not hyperactive, probably because he was able to learn things very quickly and got bored in class when lessons dragged on at a snail’s pace.


There are many adjectives we use to describe intelligent people, such as “clever”, “smart”, “bright”, “brainy”, scholarly. Some intelligent people are especially talented in certain areas, like mathematics, language, music, art, and sports. Does that mean there are many types of intelligences? What is the relationship between giftedness and intelligence? And how does giftedness differ from talent? First, let us try to define these concepts.

Intelligence can be defined as a general mental aptitude that involves several capabilities, including the abilities to reason, to solve problems, to think abstractly, plan ahead, learn from experience, and understand and memorize complex ideas.

In the previous chapter, we have covered how intelligence can be measured by an IQ test. However, this is limited to mathematics, and visuospatial and language measurements. There appears to be a general factor (g factor) which crosses into other assessments of intelligence (see below for IQ tests).


Giftedness is a quality or attribute where a person displays exceptionally high achievement capabilities in areas of intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields. 

Children may be born with the potential of developing giftedness. In other words, there is a gifted genetic seed which can grow and flourish best when given the right nourishing environment.

Giftedness is usually linked to a high intelligence, with an IQ of 130 or higher. It is found in the top 2% of the general population.

Gifted vs Talented

There is an overlap in the words gifted and talented, both describing a person’s great natural abilities. The difference is the word gifted leans more towards shining in academic subjects like maths, science and language, and is often related to a high IQ. In contrast, talented refers more to achieving outside traditional school subjects; talented individuals excel in the arts, music, dance, design, sports and other activities. Further differences between gifted and talented are listed in the table below:

IQ between 115 – 130IQ >130
10% – 15% of the population2% of the population
Knows the answersAsks deep questions
Is interestedIs highly curious
Pays attentionGets involved mentally & physically
Has good ideasHas wild, silly ideas
Works hardPlays round, yet tests well
Answers the questionsQuestions the answers
Listens with interestShow strong feeling, opinions
6 – 8 repetitions for mastery1 – 2 repetitions for mastery
Understands ideasConstructs abstractions
Enjoys peersPrefers adults
Grasps the meaningDraws inferences
Copies accuratelyCreates new designs
Absorbs informationManipulates information
Pleased with own learningHighly self-critical

Gifted Education
It has long been recognised that some gifted children have difficulties negotiating the conventional educational system. Their minds are racing ahead, but they are dragged back by their classmates who may not have the same exceptional ability. Therefore, many countries offer education for gifted children on a voluntary basis.

To be admitted into such a program, children have to take a special exam, which includes an IQ test.  

In Singapore, the top 1% of that year’s cohort are admitted to the gifted program. IQ forms the major component of the selection criteria. Although the actual IQ might fluctuate from year to year, the gifted program generally selects children whose IQ are greater than around 140. The test is taken when the child is 9-10 years old. 

There has been a lot of debate concerning gifted education. The table below lists the pros and cons of using IQ tests to select students:

Reveals hidden talentsSelf-fulfilling prophecy
Standardized method of comparing childrenMeasures only processes needed for successful test performance
Excellent predictors of academic performanceBiased against some ethnic minorities
Valuable for children with disabilitiesPoor predictors of real – life situations
Predicts success in a wide variety of endeavoursUnconventional responses are penalised
More thought is given to teaching gifted childrenMeasures achievement, not ability
Pros and Cons of IQ Test Score

Interviewing children and parents who have been through gifted educational programs, the general consensus is that the benefits of the gifted education system outweigh the risks of remaining in a regular mixed ability class. Most children enjoy the program; they like to mix with children of similar intellect, love being taught by better teachers, are stretched academically, and cover the curriculum at a greater depth. The majority of these gifted children continue to do well right through university and their chosen future professions. 

One of the recurring objections to the gifted education program is that it creates a class of elites. One teenager in the gifted education program was asked if she knew a child attending a normal class in her school, and she answered: “I do not mix with normal students”! To minimise this concern of superiority and elitism, many gifted education programs try their best to integrate the children of all abilities to participate together in non-academic areas including art, music, drama, sports, and community service. 

Some critics say that not all gifted children remain gifted throughout their lives. This criticism has been tackled by allowing free flow of gifted children in and out of the program. Currently, Singapore only accepts children in the top 1% of the population into the gifted program, and both the child and the parents must accept the opportunity being offered. This reduces the possibility of making wrong admission choices.

If a child is gifted in a narrow area, such as language, mathematics or science, there may be some pressure by the parents who try to accelerate learning in these areas. Promoting the child to an older class can potentially create some problems. Children develop different skills at different rates, and this is referred to as asynchronous development. For example, an 8-year-old child may have the language ability of a 14-year-old, but if they join a class of older children, their social and emotional development may be out of synchrony with the older children. One solution of this dilemma is to have special individual tuition devoted to the academic areas appropriate for that child. 

A flexible individualised educational system is recommended. With technological advances in education, perhaps this pipe dream may be realised in the near future.

Multiple Intelligences
Another criticism of using conventional IQ tests for selecting students for the gifted education program is that they assesses a relatively narrow range of abilities, namely mathematics, language, and visuospatial. Howard Gardner originally suggested 7 intelligences in 1983, but he has increased this number to 9. They include:

  1. Visual-spatial
  2. Linguistic-verbal
  3. Logical-mathematical
  4. Bodily-kinesthetic
  5. Musical
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Naturalistic
  9. Existential

If we look at education more holistically, then gifted children who excel in only a few areas should nevertheless be given the opportunity to explore other areas. 

Problems That Gifted Children Face

Parents seek medical or psychological consultation for their gifted child because they might develop some challenges related or arising from their giftedness. These problems can arise not only in gifted students attending non-gifted classes, but also in those going to gifted classes. The problems include:

a) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

The 6-year-old boy described in the opening paragraph is one such example. The psychologist did a formal assessment, and found that he did not have ADHD, but instead was gifted. The explanation of the restless behaviour, failure to pay attention, and his constant interruption of his teacher, is attributed to his amazingly fast ability to learn. The teacher caters to the average student and spends longer repeating the lesson, which bores the gifted student.

b) Disruptive Behaviour and Poor Social Skills

Some gifted children get so fed up with the slow pace of the teaching that they engage in other activities, like chatting with their neighbours. Others are perfectionists and keep on correcting their teachers or classmates when they say something deemed incorrect. Some gifted children have poor social skills and do not know how to interact with their peers.  They may be perceived by their peers to be egoistical or arrogant, and this can lead to arguments, fights, and ostracization. 

c) Depression

Depression and suicides are found in gifted children, but it is controversial whether or not it is more frequent in gifted children compared to their age-matched non-gifted peers. It has been suggested that gifted children are more prone to depression and suicide because they have heightened sensitivities, they tend to be introverted, overachieving perfectionists. They may also become extremely worried if they do not fulfil their self-imposed high standards, and may be prone to bullying by their non-gifted peers.

d) Twice-Exceptional

The term twice-exceptional refers to a person who is both gifted as well as being disabled. For example, it may be a person who has a very high IQ and is also autistic. The special needs may be a learning disability: dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, visual or hearing impairment, or motor deficit. If their accompanying disability is missed or ignored, these talented children may be under a lot of pressure, may lose motivation and therefore under-achieve.

Do Gifted Children Grow Into Gifted Adults?

Lewis Terman (1877-1956) was the founder of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, which was introduced in 1916. In 1921, he began a longitudinal genetic study of highly gifted children, which were later dubbed as “Terman’s Termites”. They were followed up until they reached 70 to 80 years of age. Altogether he recruited 1,528 participants between the ages of 3 to 28, who had an IQ of >135, comprising 1% of the general population, which he defined as “genius”. There were 856 boys and 672 girls, mostly from California, and they were predominantly white and middle class. The finding was summarised as: “the gifted child becomes the gifted adult”. His Termites had ten times the national rate of earning a university bachelor’s degree of that era. A significant number of graduates went on to earn postgraduate degrees: 57 doctors, 92 lawyers, and 97 PhD’s which was a high percentage of that time. The salaries of his Termites were also significantly higher than the matched median per capita income. 

It is of interest to note that two subjects, rejected by Terman because their IQ fell below 135, went on to win a Nobel Prize each. Hence the joke suggesting that if you want to win a Nobel Prize, you should not have too high an IQ!

Lewis Terman recommended helping highly gifted children with special gifted education by  having trained teachers and employing enriched and accelerated curriculum. The benefits of this approach have been vindicated by more recent studies in several other countries.


Gifted children are valuable human resources for any country. If nurtured appropriately and allowed to reach their maximum potential, they can contribute to the future of their country and the world. 

Wikipedia. Intellectual giftedness.
National Association for Gifted Children (USA). What is giftedness?
Davidson Institute. What is giftedness?
Wai J. What a century of research reveals about gifted kids.
Ministry of Education Singapore. Gifted education programme.
Wikipedia. Gifted education programme (Singapore).
Neihart M, Teo CT. Addressing the needs of the gifted in Singapore.
Neihart M, Tan LS. Gifted education in Singapore.
Eren F et al. Emotional and behavioral characteristics of gifted children and their families.
Page JS. Challenges faced by “gifted learners” in school and beyond.
Gaille B. 15 Intelligence testing pros and cons
Loveless B. Pros and cons of gifted learning programs in schools.
Davidson Institute. Vulnerabilities of highly gifted children.
Gross MUM. Exceptionally gifted children: long-term outcomes.
Wikipedia. Theory of multiple intelligences.
Warne RT. An evaluation (and vindication?) of Lewis Terman.
Freeman J. Giftedness in the long term.
Transformations. Unexpected consequences of growing up gifted.

Written by Kenneth Lyen
Illustrations by Lim Daphne


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