A while ago I tested a young teen who was not able to go to school. It was too overwhelming, too overstimulating, and his reactions were too over-the-top for the school to manage.
Our testing revealed that he is clearly gifted, processes information very slowly, and is highly anxious.
This exceptional child was very invested in testing and eager to know what was going on. When I sat down with him to explain the testing results I figured I would start with the “gifted” piece.
I imagined he would be delighted to hear the good news!
‘Gifted’ sounds so elitist! How does that help me?!
Why was he so averse to hearing he’s smart? What was I missing?
What does it mean to be gifted?
It turns out, nobody knows.
Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell (2011)* explain that scholars have been seeking to understand, explain, and measure giftedness for over a century. Multiple models have emerged, at times building on each other and often clashing.
In fact, there seem to be more questions than answers:
- Does IQ determine giftedness? If so, what is the cutoff?
- Can giftedness be applied to exceptional talents outside of academics?
- Is giftedness measured by a child’s potential or what they produce?
- Is a child “gifted” if they are exceptional in one area but not others?
- Are emotional and sensory sensitivities part of the gifted profile, or separate conditions?
Meanwhile, within mainstream culture, many people tend to think of giftedness as a set of qualities that make things come easily:
- Learning easily
- Creating easily
- Understanding easily
To better capture gifted kid's lived experience, it has been more helpful in my experience to think about giftedness in terms of intensity:
- Learning with intensity
- Creating with intensity
- Feeling with intensity
This intensity brings many strengths in learning, problem-solving, understanding others, and creative thinking.
At the same time, it may feel overwhelming and isolating when others are not experiencing the world in the same way, or when gifted kids feel pressure to produce something amazing because they seem to have so much potential.
In other words, it’s likely my young client rejected the term “gifted” because it seemed to imply he should somehow be “better” at things than others, or that life should be easy for him – but this was not his experience in the least.
5 Steps to Explaining Giftedness
With all this in mind, it makes sense why it may not feel like such a ‘gift’ to hear you’re gifted.
Still, if we don’t give kids a reason for why they feel different, they tend to make up their own:
“I had no idea my brain did things differently than everyone else. I just thought, it seems so easy for everyone else to make friends – there must be something wrong with me.”
– Sawyer, gifted adult, age 22
Using the Construction Metaphor
You may already be familiar with the construction metaphor I use for helping kids understand their unique brains.
Briefly, all our brains are under construction. We can think of the things we do well as our highways, and the things that are challenging as our construction projects.
While scholars may be debating the general definition for giftedness, I’ll argue that for individual children, “giftedness” is simply a shortcut for explaining how these highways and construction projects come together to make their brain unique!
Using this metaphor, here are the 5 steps I use to help a child understand their brain:
- Construction Projects
- What Giftedness Means for You
- You’re not alone!
- Tools and Construction Crew
Here’s what it might look like for giftedness.
For this reason…
We need to start with their words.
To help, I tend to stick to what they've reported as their strengths. For example, I might say:
"In our work together, we learned that your brain is built in a way that makes a lot of things come easily.
I remember you said you really love puzzles and learning about animals. It turns out the testing showed the same thing – you have really strong puzzling skills and learn facts easily.
You can think of these as the highways in your brain. In fact, for you these are super-highways, which help you learn some things much more quickly than others."
Here are some of the ways gifted kids I’ve worked with have described their highways:
- Big vocabulary
- Lots of ideas
- Very curious
- Love to learn and do new things
- Passionate about what I love
- Love to create imaginary stories in my mind
- I like to do things my way or on my own
- My friends are very important to me
- Helping my friends solve problems
- Sometimes I get really excited about stuff!
2. Construction Projects
While we often think of giftedness in terms of what comes easily, gifted kids also tend to have predictable construction projects.
This is what makes being gifted challenging – and it’s often the part we don’t talk about, leaving gifted kids wondering,
“If I’m so smart, why do things feel so hard?”
- Emotional regulation
- Fine motor skills
- Processing speed
Similarly, when they are capable of learning quickly, we expect them to process all information quickly.
This is simply not the case.
“In our work together, we also talked about some things that were tricky. These are your construction projects, or what your brain is building.”
- Paying attention in class
- Being ok with mistakes
- Writing down my big ideas
- Finding kids who like what I like
- Understanding how the rules work
- Knowing what to do when I have big feelings
- Getting angry when things change or aren’t what I thought
- Remembering to raise my hand
3. Defining Giftedness
To do this, we can simply bring the highways and construction projects together. For me, this sounds like:
It turns out, many people have highways and construction projects just like yours. You're not alone! These highways and construction projects are all part of being gifted.
You may have heard of giftedness as being "super smart," but it turns out being gifted is much more complex. Let's look at what it means for you.
- For me, being gifted means I love learning on my own but get bored when learning in class.
- For me, being gifted means I love what I love, but it can be hard to find others who love the same things.
- For me, being gifted means I'm good at logic puzzles but struggle with social puzzles.
- For me, being gifted means I learn with intensity and feel with intensity!
- For me, being gifted means I have big complex ideas, but it can be hard to get those ideas down on paper.
4. You’re Not Alone!
It’s critical that kids know they aren’t alone.
To help, here are a few books, videos, and websites where kids can find others who share their experience and can normalize some of the harder parts of being a unique brain.
5. Tools & Construction Crew
Now that the child knows what giftedness means, it’s time to talk about what we’re going to do about it. This may include:
- Tools: Skills and strategies to help them with what’s hard
- Construction Crew: People who will help them build their brain
This is our chance to connect the dots between what we’ve learned about their brain, and what kinds of support they will receive:
When kids know why they are receiving support, the intervention is far more effective.
- We found a robotics class for after school so you can learn programming skills and meet other kids who are as excited about tech as you are.
- The school counselor will meet with you weekly to go over assignments so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming.
- The therapist will help you understand those big feelings and what to do when they come up.
- You’ll be working with a special tutor who can help you with reading in a way that works for your brain.
- We’ll share what we learned with your teachers so they can understand why you feel so frustrated at times.
Many kids will also have input into what is helpful, and what’s not. Their insights can help hone the toolbox along the way.
*Subotnik, R. F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. C. (2011). Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(1), 3–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/
Special thanks to Dr. Megan Helmen for her feedback on this article. You can learn more about her at Developmental Discoveries.
Bringing It All Together
Helping kids understand their brains is challenging. For gifted kids especially, I’ve found these conversation are most successful when the child is an active participant in co-creating this understanding.
If you are looking for support guiding this collaborative conversation with the kids you work with, The Brain Building Books were built to help!
Using these workbooks, you can start your sessions off with psychoeducation about the brain and its functioning. This can be extremely helpful in lowering kids' anxiety and increasing their curiosity about the discovery process.
Together, you can personalize the pages in the book to document your conversation. Later, the child brings the book home to share with family and teachers, so everyone can understand their experience in the world.
If the Brain Building Books might be a good fit for your practice, you can learn more by clicking the link below.
Feel free to reach out with any questions using the link below.