What We Know and Still Don’t Know about Gifted Kids

What We Know and Still Don’t Know about Gifted Kids

What We Know and Still Don’t Know about Gifted Kids

Evolution of gifted education and talent development.

Over my 40-plus year career as an academic clinician working with highly able (i.e., gifted and talented; high ability) children and youth, I have observed with keen interest and even fascination the maturing development of the related fields of gifted education, expertise, and talent development. In my opinion, there now are a few critically important, irrefutable facts that those who work with high ability children can agree upon. This is good news for the gifted field!

First, authorities in gifted education, experts in the science of expertise, and leaders in the talent development field concur that highly able children – however they might be defined and whichever model one might be most comfortable applying to this special group of children – Robert Sternberg’s triarchic model, Joseph Renzulli’s three ring model, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, my own tripartite model – learn at a faster pace and with greater depth and complexity than their neurotypical classmates.

The second indisputable fact is that a youngster’s gift can present in one specific domain, such as in academics, or music, dance, theater, or athletics, or in multiple domains. Some highly able kids are precocious in one domain, whereas others have any number of talents that can amaze their peers, teachers and family.

A third unassailable fact is that no matter how precocious a young child’s gift might appear, the nurturing of the gift is required for the highly able child to maximize her or his full potential. The maxim, “there is no free lunch” fits in with this third irrefutable fact – even highly capable, young kids will need to work hard to reach the highest levels of their God-given gifts. Think of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in the world of athletics, arguably among the top basketball players. Jordan and Bryant reportedly worked harder in practice than almost any other competitor in their chosen field to refine and hone their extraordinary skill set.

The fourth undeniable fact in the fields of gifted education, expertise, and talent development is this: not only do we humans present with a wide diversity of gifts and talents, the number limited, only by what society deems relevant and noteworthy. But also, the levels or degrees of giftedness vary tremendously across domains. This makes perfectly good sense, of course, when we think of a young child who might excel in a given domain, for example tested intelligence, creative writing, spatial ability, mathematics, dance or violin. Or basketball. Some kids are quite precocious and advanced compared to their agemates. Many in the high ability field like to consider the minimal threshold of two standard deviations above the mean – or the top 2-to-5% of kids, as gifted. There really is no exact science that can help us set the minimal threshold demarcating gifted vs. not gifted. That said, among the top 2-to-5% of gifted kids in a given school, or school district, or even within an entire state, or a country, there is tremendous variance or range of abilities among this select, elite group! I again borrow from the sports world to make this fourth fact clearer. I was considered a gifted pole vaulter back in my high school. I was clearing heights that were competitive among the better pole vaulters in our school district. However, there were a few notable pole vaulters in my state who were far superior. They were jumping more than a foot higher than I was! And beyond my home state of New Jersey, there were quite a few H.S. pole vaulters in other states who were vaulting almost two feet above my best height! You get my point. We were all considered “gifted” in our athletic field. But among us gifted H.S. pole vaulters, there was a huge range of talent. Only a very few went on to distinguish themselves at the collegiate and international levels of competition. This is an undeniable fact in all fields. Only a very few reach the highest levels of excellence or eminence in any field.

The fifth irrefutable fact is that highly able kids often find themselves bored in classrooms ill-equipped to meet their intellectual and academic needs. For a great many highly able students, this is a chronic problem. This fifth unassailable fact is that highly able kids – whichever field or fields they might distinguish themselves in, sense their differences from same-age peers, often at an early age, and often struggle to ‘fit in’ to normative social, recreational, and cultural activities.

Finally, the sixth indisputable fact is that many highly able kids – we simply do not have the hard data to know exact numbers or percentages – experience heightened feelings of sensitivity and emotional reactivity, along with asynchronous development, peer relation problems, and an inner turmoil due to a sense of being different and having different interests than their peers– creating an outlier status.

As a clinical psychologist, I have not primarily focused on the educational, curricular or instructional classroom needs of highly able, gifted and creative kids. A great many professors and practitioners in the gifted field have masterfully elucidated the unique academic and learning needs of the highly able student. And how classrooms can be creatively modified to meet the unique learning needs of this special needs group of students. My own professional interests have focused, rather, primarily on the unique social and emotional needs and challenges of this group. It is in this area where there remain a great many unanswered questions!

From my early days working in the gifted field, I was concerned that there was too much focus on the unique intellectual and academic needs of the highly able student, to the relative neglect of social, emotional, motivational, personal and interpersonal, and familial considerations – areas that I felt more comfortable, proficient, and competent investigating as a clinical psychologist. This led me, back in 1998 when I assumed the position of Executive Director of Duke University’s precollegiate gifted program, Duke TIP, to focus my energies on what I then called the “heart and soul” of the gifted child. I wanted to better understand the ‘whole’ gifted child, not just their uniquely amazing head strengths. What about their heart strengths, I began to ask. At the time, and even today, we know considerably less about the heart and soul of the gifted student!

My early thinking and research on strengths of the heart originated from work at Duke University. My early ideas on strengths of the heart were also formulated from observations of the clients that I worked with in my clinical practice, and in conversations with a great many parents at Duke TIP workshops that I led. I was determined to better understand the social and emotional lives of gifted kids and young adults. And I was resolute in understanding why many bright kids don’t grow up to be resilient, successful, well-adjusted, and happy adults. This remains a critically important, still unanswered question for the gifted field.

My early work focused on what parents might be able to do to nudge, encourage, and guide their highly able child or adolescent onto a success trajectory. I actually just finished writing a book for parents on this very topic (Parenting from the Heart, NY: Routledge, 2023). This interest steered my research lab to examine the emerging literature on strength-based interventions and explore the exciting work in positive psychology. My students at I were determined, first at Duke University and subsequently at Florida State University, to understand how one could support gifted and creative kids and their parents who might be at risk for social-emotional, behavioral, or psychological problems. And as Executive Director of a large, summer residential gifted program on the campus of Duke University, I was committed to encouraging the well-being and health promotion of the more than one thousand gifted kids under my watch each summer!

Based as much on my clinical experience and conversations with a great many parents and teachers of highly able kids, as on our own research and the published research by many others, we came to understand that most gifted kids who are successful in life possess three important “super traits.” Back in 1998, I originally named these three super traits, “strengths of the heart and soul.” I later nicknamed them “soft heart skills” at Duke TIP parent talks and workshops. The nickname morphed over time to the more popular term that I now use, “strengths of the heart.” The three super traits that make up “heart strengths”—called by other researchers as “soft skills” or “SEL skills”—represent important social- emotional skills. We believe that these soft skills make a real difference in the lives of all kids, not only gifted kids.

The three traits that, together, make up strengths of the heart are Emotional Intelligence, character strengths, and social skills. Collectively, when these three super traits are fully operative, our research and an abundance of anecdotal evidence suggests that they make a huge difference in successful life outcomes. Life outcomes for gifted kids such as resilience, robust mental health, happiness, job success, and subjective well-being (see my new book for more details).

The complex task we face as educators, parents, mental health providers, and a society – educating and successfully raising neuroatypical children, can be vexing and even exasperating at times. When successful, it also can be hugely gratifying and enjoyable. There is a growing body of research supporting parenting programs that offer psychoeducation, peer support, skills-building, mentoring, and counseling. Research focusing on programs for parents of typically developing or disabled children can serve as models for gifted parenting interventions that meet the heart and soul of the highly able learner. We now know, based on a growing body of research, that it is possible to encourage and teach – in the classroom and in the home, resilience, passion for learning, persistence, empathy, compassion, gratitude, concern for others, grit, an open mindset, social skills, and Emotional Intelligence. In other words, we now have evidence-based and reliable techniques and interventions to help highly able students reach their full potential. This is certainly an exciting time to be working in the gifted field!


Pfeiffer, S. I. (2023). Parenting from the Heart: Raising resilient and successful smart kids. NY: Routledge.

About the Author

Steven Pfeiffer, PhD, ABPP is a popular speaker, scholar, consultant, and parent coach. He is a licensed and nationally board-certified clinical psychologist whose writing, research, and clinical work focuses on the unique social-emotional needs of children and youth. Dr. Pfeiffer received his doctoral training at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Following his internship in clinical psychology, he completed post-doctoral training in family therapy at the Philadelphia Child and Family Therapy Training Center, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Dr. Pfeiffer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University. Prior to his tenure at FSU, he was a Professor at Duke University, where he served as Executive Director of Duke’s gifted program. Dr. Pfeiffer also served as a clinical psychologist in the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps, and as a pediatric psychologist at the Ochsner Clinic and Medical Center. He also served as Executive Director of Devereux’s Institute of Clinical Training & Research.

Dr. Pfeiffer was invited to testify at the White House and before the Italian Parliament. He has authored more than 200 articles, book chapters, and books. He is lead author of the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS™2). His most recent book is titled Parenting from the Heart: Raising Resilient and Successful Smart Kids. The popular book is published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis and available from Routledge and at Amazon.

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