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Helping Parents Understand their Profoundly Gifted Children

Gifted Parenting and Strategies

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Barbara Clark, who briefly touches on the basic structure and function of the brain and then goes on to describe three levels of giftedness: moderate, high, and profound. Characteristics of the profoundly gifted are offered as well as a summary of clues from brain research for parents and educators.

Author: Clark, B.
Organization: Davidson Institute for Talent Development
Year: 2004

The very definition of profound giftedness includes the extremely individual nature of the development of these children. We can discuss this development in general terms, however, much of what we discuss will apply differently to each profoundly gifted child. Being familiar with the basic structure and function of the human brain will prove invaluable as we seek to understand how we might nurture profound giftedness.

Nature and Nurture

It has been established that at birth nearly all human infants come equipped with a marvelous, complex heritage that contains some 100 to 200 billion brain cells. Each neural cell is in place, ready to be developed and used for actualizing the highest levels of human potential. Such a structure will allow us to connect cells to process trillions of bits of information in our lifetime. However, it is estimated that we actually use less than 5% of this capability. How we use this complex system is guided by the patterns provided by our genes, the element within the cell nucleus that transmits a hereditary character and forms essential parts of our DNA that become critical to our development of intelligence, personality, and the very quality of life we experience as we grow. However, genes do not make specific bits and pieces of a body; they code for a range of forms under an array of environmental conditions. Moreover, even when a trait has been built and set, environmental intervention may still modify inherited effects. Enriched education can increase intelligence. Genes provide us with a structure or pattern but are dependent upon the environment for the particular characteristic that they will express. Whereas genes provide us with our own unique menu, the environment makes the actual selection within that range of choice. It is misleading to think of either genes or the environment as being more important: Genes can only express themselves in an environment, and an environment has no effect except by evoking genotypes already present. Siegel (1999), medical director of the Infant and Preschool Service and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles concludes, “Genes contain the information for the general organization of the brain’s structure, but experience determines which genes become expressed, how, and when” (p. 14).

Levels of Giftedness

The area of gifted education recognizes three levels of giftedness, the moderately gifted students that comprise the major group of gifted learners, the highly gifted persons who are as different from this major group as the moderately gifted are from average learners and the profoundly gifted learners. The highly and the profoundly gifted learners tend to evidence more energy than gifted individuals; they think faster and are more intent and focused on their interests. They exhibit a higher degree of ability in most of the traits we have identified with giftedness. Such children are less able to benefit from regular classroom experiences, and modifications to their educational programs need to be more comprehensive and developed to a much higher degree to meet their needs than is necessary for less gifted learners.

Studies of the profoundly gifted learners suggest that they differ significantly from highly gifted students as a result of differently wired neurons that allow more complex and efficient neural highways for transmitting information. They seem to have different value structures, which usually allow them to cope with the dissonance they find between their perception of life and that of the average person. They tend to be more isolated by choice and more invested in concerns of a meta-nature (e. g., universal problems). They seldom seek popularity or social acclaim.

A pressing issue is the provision of an appropriate education for profoundly gifted students. Typically, schools offer these students little; some educators suggest that tutoring with eminent authorities or homeschooling would be a far more productive educational plan. The higher the expressed intellectual ability, the more difficult will be the problem of finding a match between the school programs and the child. Although many school settings give limited priority to differentiating learning experiences for gifted students in general, even less concern is given to the highly and profoundly gifted student.

Exceptionally Gifted Characteristics

Profoundly gifted individuals seem to be characterized by their uniqueness; each is different from others their age and from others who are highly and profoundly gifted. There are, however, some characteristics that seem to be common among such children. These include both marvelous traits that provide joy and fulfillment to the individuals and those that result in deep frustration and despair as they confront structures that have no space for them and attitudes that have no understanding. Some of the most often found characteristics are:

  • Extraordinary speed in processing information.
  • Rapid and thorough comprehension of ideas and concepts.
  • Unusual ability to perceive essential elements and underlying structures and patterns in relationships and ideas.
  • The desire for precision in thinking and expression resulting in the need to correct errors and argue extensively.
  • Ability to relate a broad range of ideas and synthesize commonalities among them.
  • Early development of a high degree of ability to think abstractly.
  • Appreciation of complexity; ability to find myriad alternative meanings in even the most simple issues or problems.
  • Ability to learn in an integrative, intuitively nonlinear manner.
  • An extraordinary degree of intellectual curiosity.
  • Unusual capacity for memory.
  • A long concentration span.
  • A fascination with ideas and words.
  • An extensive vocabulary.
  • Ability to perceive many sides of an issue.
  • Argumentativeness.
  • Advanced visual and motor skills.
  • Ability from an early age to think in metaphors and symbols; a preference for doing so.
  • Ability to visualize models and systems.
  • Ability to learn in great intuitive leaps.
  • Highly idiosyncratic interpretations of events.
  • Awareness of detail.
  • Unusual intensity and depth of feeling.
  • A high degree of emotional sensitivity.
  • Highly developed morals and ethics and early concern for moral and existential issues.
  • Unusual and early insight into social and moral issues.
  • Ability to empathetically understand and relate to ideas and other people.
  • An extraordinarily high energy level.
  • A need for the world to be logical and fair.
  • Conviction of correctness of personal ideas and beliefs.

A Summary of Clues from Brain Research for Educators

There are exciting clues in brain research that can help parents optimize learning experiences for their youngsters. The following summary of ideas will help parents get a better idea of how to use the information:

An Enriched Environment

  • includes a steady source of positive emotional support.
  • provides a nutritious diet with adequate amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, and calories
  • stimulates all senses, but not necessarily at once.
  • is stimulating and includes appropriate challenges that encourage curiosity, exploration, and the fun and excitement of learning.
  • gives a child an opportunity to choose many of his or her own activities.
  • provides an atmosphere with a degree of pleasurable intensity, but free of undue pressure and stress. (Note: Stress produces biochemistry for the adrenal cortex that dampens cerebral cortical function. Fear, threat, anxiety, and tension make it very difficult to learn.)
  • presents a series of novel challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult for the child at his or her level of development. (Note: The brain responds to novelty, to the unexpected, and to discrepant information. Novelty registers information independent of rewards or punishment, and such processing is more effective for learning. When asked to repeat, drill, or do reinforced repetitive activities, the brain habituates, that is, responds automatically without thought, and such practices may be counterproductive to learning concepts; doing something new and different is the way to gain information most effectively.)
  • includes activities that are physical, cognitive, affective, and intuitive to ensure balanced and integrated brain growth.
  • allows the child to be an active participant, rather than a passive observer.

At School:

  • Individualized instructional planning is strongly indicated as each person responds uniquely to the environment.
  • The use of single goals or objectives does not allow for developing patterns and relationships; bright minds require complexity.
  • The brain does not just process information or amplify thought, it constructs meaning. Didactic teaching is no longer justifiable; instead, teachers must create problems to solve.
  • The brain attaches emotional significance to information; good learning derives from exciting teaching. Emotional responses are often more important in making cognitive decisions than are our rational processes.
  • Optimal development requires the active involvement of the learner.
  • Concrete experiences and active sensory stimulation are needed at both elementary and secondary levels. Written material (e.g., texts and workbooks) alone is not appropriate to teach abstract concepts.
  • The processes and content of both specializations of the right and left hemispheres of the cortex need to be included in curriculum planning to take advantage of their complementary nature.
  • Opportunities must be given for alternative modes of learning and expression so that the whole cortex is used for support and integration, preventing the limits to knowledge and understanding brought about by teaching each discipline as a separate specialization.
  • The brain is a model builder generating models of reality. Students’ minds do not just record what is taught; the brain makes inferences.


  1. The potential of brain development is essentially unlimited for most individuals.
  2. The dynamic nature of the brain allows intellectual growth to progress or regress, but not to maintain or remain static.
  3. How intelligence is expressed will depend on the individual genetic pattern and anatomical structure in interaction with the support and opportunities provided by the environment.

As we have seen, intelligence is dynamic. As relevant as the axiom “Use it or lose it” is when applied to abilities and talents, when it focuses on the profoundly gifted learner it is critical. They and we have so much to lose.

For Further Reading
For further insight into profoundly gifted learners, the reader may wish to consult the work of M. Diamond, D. H. Feldman, L. T. Goldsmith and M. U. M. Gross.p>


Judy S. Dendy

I loved this article. I'm homeschooling a grandson who I know is pg, as I taught school and never had a student like him. At six he learned how to figure sq roots and how to sq something in the backseat of the car on the way to Sonic. After we got there I got it on video me saying, whats the sq rt of 64 and hed look in air like not listening and then say 8. what is 7 squared, hed stare into space and then say 36, no 49. I started him on multiplication almost immediately after this. He finished 3rd grade math and 4th grade his 2nd grade year, but would chime in on his brother's algebra if brother had a problem he couldn't do. He's amazing. Hes 8 and now learning Greek and teaching himself to play the piano. This article explained so much to me. All my other grands are in gt programs at school too. But I homeschool this one because of health issues. Thanks again for the incites.

Ferdi Vol

I had the exact same thing happen to me as a PG with the square root story on a bus. What a coincidence, apparently, PG kids in a tour are getting squared.

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