Definitions, Prevalence, and Characteristics of Gifted, Creative, and Talented

Individuals with special gifts and talents may be extraordinary in intellectual ability, specialized academic areas, music, or the arts (Clark, 2002). Although gifted, creative, and talented individuals are not included in IDEA, these students have unique needs that require special attention and accommodations for them to succeed in school. Various definitions of gifted, creative, and talented exist in the literature, and there is little agreement on the best definition. Earlier definitions relied heavily on the use of IQ scores for identifying gifted individuals. The Gifted and Talented Act, passed in 1978 (PL 95-561, Title IX, sec. 902), included creative capabilities or high performance in the performing arts. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education proposed a new definition:

Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others their age, experience, or environment. These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided in the schools. Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor. (U.S. Department of Education, 1993, p. 3)

These federal definitions highlight the areas of giftedness, talent, and creativity, and are more representative of recent trends in gifted education. Other conceptualizations of giftedness continue to broaden the single intelligence notion (Maker, 1993). The following are examples of broadened definitions for gifted, creative, and talented youth: (1) three-trait definition, including above-average ability, task commitment, and creativity (Renzulli, 1978); (2) especially high aptitude, potential, or ability (Feldhusen & Moon, 1995); (3) synthetic, analytic, and practical intelligence (Sternberg, 1991); and (4) multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1999). All proposed models include more than a single intelligence quotient as criteria, most include talents as critical components, and many recommend advice on counseling gifted and talented youth.

While general intelligence is the most widely accepted consideration by state department definitions of giftedness and talent, specific academic ability, creative thinking, talent in the visual or performing arts, and leadership are also considered by many states (Stephens & Karnes, 2000).

Given the variety of definitions, it is not surprising that little consensus exists on the actual number of gifted and talented youth. Many reports indicate that 3% to 5% of the population is gifted and talented (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2003); others believe the figures are much higher. Great variability also exists in how individual states identify students with gifts and talents, with some states identifying fewer than 3%, while other states identify more than 10% (Heward, 2006).

Intellectually Gifted

Intellectually gifted students are those who have scored very high on standardized tests and usually excel in school. They are frequently very highly skilled verbally and have outstanding memories and literacy abilities—especially in reading and writing—compared with their typical age peers. They also tend to have outstanding critical thinking and problem-solving abilities and insatiable curiosities (Bireley, 1995). Intellectually gifted youth acquire, retain, and manipulate large amounts of information and appear to learn in intuitive leaps (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Silverman, 1995).

Creative and Talented

The definitions of creative and talented are widely varied, but consensus usually converges on the identification of individuals with exceptional talents in particular areas (Clark, 2002). Creatively gifted and talented youth often excel in the visual or performing arts. These students typically show outstanding abilities at young ages in particular areas. Davis (1995) listed the following 12 categories as representative of creative individuals: original, independent, risk taking, aware of creativeness, energetic, curious, has a sense of humor, attracted to complexity, artistic, open-minded, needs time alone, and intuitive.

Hidden Gifted, Creative, and Talented

Many students who are gifted and talented remain unidentified or hidden. This may be due to a number of factors. First, they might be underachievers and consequently their scores fall below the cutoff scores for classifying gifted students. Second, intelligence tests and standardized tests may be biased against some students due to cultural or linguistic diversity (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Patton, 1997). Third, girls who may be gifted and talented are often underidentified (Hollinger, 1995). It is speculated this may be because of underachievement in science and math, as well as declining achievement in adolescent years, although precise reasons are unknown. Finally, some students may not be identified due to existing disabilities in other areas (learning or physical disabilities). Special attention during classification and screening efforts at identifying gifted and talented youth can help eliminate underidentification of these individuals. Gregory, Starnes, and Blaylock (1988), and Patton (1997) provide some specific suggestions for finding and nurturing potential giftedness among Hispanic and African American students (see also Castellano, 2003). Their suggestions include the following:

  • Develop a “belief system” in school that culturally and linguistically diverse students can be and are gifted and talented.
  • Develop an identification process that reflects appreciation of the culture, language, values, and world views of culturally and linguistically diverse students and their families.
  • Employ a multidimensional assessment process that includes qualitative as well as quantitative measures.
  • Develop programs to educate the public in ways giftedness may be manifested (and sometimes concealed) in different cultures. Collaborate with people knowledgeable in the particular culture for assistance and support.
  • Ensure that insights gained in the identification and assessment process are incorporated into the instructional program.

Issues in Identification and Assessment of Gifted, Creative, and Talented

Several approaches exist for identifying gifted and talented children and youth. Common approaches include nomination methods, standardized test scores, talent pool searches, and a multiple measures–multiple criteria approach. Nomination approaches consist of distributing nomination forms to teachers and parents. Schools often implement an approach by which parents, teachers, peers, and students are provided nomination forms in which they detail reasons for nominating a student (or self) for the gifted and talented program.

Standardized test score approaches include the use of intelligence and achievement test scores. These tests may be individually or group-administered. Cutoff scores to qualify students as gifted and talented are often designated to identify which students score in the top 8% (Renzulli & Reiss, 1991). This approach is usually combined with some other approach, in that standardized test scores are seldom the only criteria considered.

A multiple measures–multiple criteria approach is implemented in many schools (Davis & Rimm, 2004). This approach combines many of the pieces of evidence collected in the approaches discussed previously, but may also include detailed family histories, student work samples and inventories of interests, and discussion of all evidence by a gifted-and-talented screening committee.

General Classroom Accommodations for Students Who Are Gifted, Creative, and Talented

Several educational approaches exist for programming curriculum and classes for gifted and talented youth. These include acceleration and enrichment, and are provided in regular classes, resource classes, self-contained classes, university classes, and through mentoring programs (Davis & Rimm, 2004). Careful pretesting identifies skills and information that gifted students have and can be used to place them in more appropriate curriculum.


Acceleration refers to moving students through the curriculum at a faster pace than general education students (Davis & Rimm, 2004). Acceleration can mean admitting a child to school early, skipping grades, providing level-appropriate curriculum, or testing out of classes. Advancing students places them in grades that match their achievement levels. For example, a fourth-grader who is working at a sixth-grade level academically might be advanced to the sixth-grade class. Another example is maintaining students in the age-appropriate class, but providing them with the appropriate-level curriculum (sixth-grade level, in this example). It might also mean advancing students several grade levels only in specific academic classes. For example, if seventh-grade students were gifted mathematically, they might be placed with juniors in the Algebra II class, but remain with their age peers for other subjects. Universities also may allow students who are gifted or talented to enroll in college-level courses when prerequisite criteria are met. Students who are gifted or talented frequently take advanced placement tests for college, which enables them to skip college-level courses. Finally, many students are admitted early to colleges and universities.

Acceleration is controversial, with proponents arguing strenuously for and opponents arguing strenuously against acceleration programs. Proponents claim students need acceleration to maintain interest in school and to be challenged adequately. Opponents claim that acceleration harms the social-emotional development of gifted students. Unfortunately, research results are ambiguous and yield no clear definitive answers (Davis & Rimm, 2004).


Numerous models of enrichment exist (Clark, 2002). The common element across enrichment programs is expansion upon the existing curriculum. Students are allowed and encouraged to study topics in depth that extend beyond the scope of the general education curriculum. The goals behind enrichment activities are to allow opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving through in-depth analyses of specific content areas. This is often accomplished by having students work independently on projects within general education classes. However, enrichment may also take place in off-campus settings. For example, students may be assigned to work with mentors in business and industry, or in university settings. In either case, general education teachers can facilitate coordination of programming for students who are gifted or talented.

Adapt Instructional Materials

In the case of either acceleration or enrichment, it may be necessary for general educators to adapt curriculum materials to better meet the needs of students who are gifted or talented. When students have demonstrated mastery of content, be prepared to move them ahead in the curriculum or design suitable enrichment activities that enable them to study more in depth in that area. Seek assistance from teachers who work with students who are gifted or talented and from guidance counselors, as well as from the families of the students.

Adapt Instructional and Evaluation Procedures

Be prepared to adapt your instructional procedures for students who are gifted or talented. They may not require intensive or explicit instruction on new content. You may be able to meet with them independently and briefly explain new concepts and content, thus allowing more time for either acceleration or enrichment activities. Students who are gifted or talented may also be able to provide tutorial assistance to age peers. Be aware that some gifted and talented youth may also require explicit instruction in study and organizational skills when work demands increase for them. Finally, evaluation methods can be modified to allow for assessment of enrichment and acceleration activities. More performance-based measures may need to be devised to obtain true indicators of students’ abilities on such tasks.