Exceptionally Gifted Children: Different Minds

By Deirdre V. Lovecky.


While there have been many studies that explore adult giftedness, few have examined the thinking processes of gifted children. Most theories of giftedness assume that adult measures of cognition are directly applicable to children. Sternberg and Davidson (1985) concluded that information processing of gifted children is similar to that of adults in capitalizing on patterns of information using environmental shaping techniques, having, exceptional problem-finding ability, and exceptional ability to conceive higher order relations.


Dark and Benbow (cited in Benbow, 1991) found that gifted adolescents in the SMPY program process information in a quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, different manner from older individuals. These students were described as precocious in their abilities.


Other authors stressed giftedness as developmental potential and focused on problems that arise for gifted children when cognitive development outstrips other aspects of development such as chronological, social, moral and emotional. The higher the intellectual capacity, the greater is the degree of asynchrony requiring special consideration of exceptional needs in parenting, schooling and counseling (Columbus Group, 1991). These authors make the case that gifted children’s precocity is different from adult achievement due to developmental considerations absent for adults For example, young exceptionally gifted children may have developed exceptional ability to think abstractly and to formulate hypotheses, but might still lack ability to organize material, present an argument and coordinate a written thesis. Morelock (1993) suggested that giftedness in children implies advanced ability to construct meaning, to think abstractly, and to respond emotionally to abstract concepts used to interpret experiential phenomena.


Most discussions of cognitive characteristics focus on the differences between gifted and average children. Metacognitive characteristics involve thinking about one’s own ways of knowing remembering and understanding. They include metacognitive knowledge and awareness, metamemory, insight and regulation of cognition. Rogers (1986) and Cheng (1993) reviewed the literature and found gifted children to exhibit significantly more of these characteristics than nongifted children. Cheng (1993) stated that there is both theoretical and empirical evidence for superior metacognitive ability being an essential component of giftedness.


Hollingworth’s (1942) work with children above 180 IQ reported that the children develop exceptionally earlier than average in talking, reading, and imagination. Gross’s (1993) investigation of exceptionally gifted children in Australia reported differences from average children similar to those found by Hollingworth more than 50 years ago.


There is not much differentiation in the literature among the different levels of giftedness. Yet, the child with an IQ of 200 is as discrepant from the child of IQ 150 (3 SD) as the child of IQ 150 is from an average child. Because all gifted children are grouped together in studies of how gifted children differ from average, it is difficult to determine how level of giftedness influences cognitive development. Feldman (cited in Morelock & Feldman, 1991) using Terman’s original data compared moderately and exceptionally gifted adults in degree of eminence attained. The only cognitive characteristic mentioned, however, is high abstract reasoning ability, the characteristic that has been associated with intellectual giftedness since Terman’s day.


Silverman (in press) described a number of intellectual and personality characteristics in gifted children at least three standard deviations above the mean, that is, both the moderately and exceptionally gifted. These traits include intellectual curiosity, fascination with ideas and words, need for precision ability to perceive many sides of a question metaphorical thinking, ability to visualize models and systems, and early moral concern, among others.


That there is differentiation among levels of giftedness is suggested by anecdotal information. Gross (personal communication July 10, 1993) stated that the thinking processes of the exceptionally gifted are as different from those of even more moderately gifted children as “chalk and cheese.” She mentioned differences in abstract reasoning ability at an early age and complexity of thinking. Silverman (1993a) suggested that intellectual characteristics in intellectually gifted children tend to increase in strength in accordance with IQ.


In my own observations during the process of assessment and family and group psychotherapy with moderately and exceptionally gifted children differences in the cognition of gifted children become more discernable as intellectual capacity increases (Lovecky, 1992a, b). This article is an attempt to delineate some of the ways in which children above 170 IQ process information.


This study is based on observations, anecdotes from parents, therapy notes and testing profiles of 32 children ages 4 to 12 with IQ scores over 170 (22 boys, 10 girls). Of these, 18 were over IQ 180 with 6 over IQ 200. A comparison group of 39 moderately gifted children, ages 4 to 16, (28 boys, 11 girls) with IQ scores from 140 to 159 was used. All IQ scores were obtained on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale Form LM.


Cognitive Differences Both quantitative and qualitative differences in processing information were observed between the children who scored above IQ 170 and moderately gifted peers. These differences are examined in the following categorical descriptions.


The Simple is Complex Exceptionally gifted children often have difficulty dealing with material other gifted children find easy. The exceptionally gifted see so many possible answers that they are not sure how to respond because no one answer seems to be better than another. For example, Zachery, age 7, with an IQ over 200, was unable to answer the question. “What does a doctor do?” The moderately gifted children answered with any of several acceptable responses and did not find this a difficult question. Zachery, however, answered that there were so many different kinds of doctors, and they all did different things. Even when encouraged, he was unable to pick one kind of doctor and name something that doctor did. Zachery obviously knew the material but was unable to focus on a simple level. His response suggests a higher level of analysis and integration than the question required.


Hollingworth (1942) presented another aspect of the problem. Child D, by age 8, named an amazing 300 shades of color with precise names and assigned them numerical values. He also created words and concepts to describe emotional states such as parts of the body where “queer feelings” originated. Finally, he originated more accurate scientific names for the entire array of bird species. For this boy the concepts of color and birds obviously were much more complex than for the ordinary 8-year-old. Asking D to get a red pencil or to draw a picture of a bird would probably bring a puzzled response where other children simply would carry out the task. Unless one knew D’s complex response to colors and birds, one would wonder why he was not complying.


A Need for Precision Often coupled with the idea of the simple being complex is the need for extreme precision. Kline and Meckstroth (1985) suggested that a need for precision characterizes the thinking, of exceptionally gifted children. Silverman (in press) noted that-these children appear to have logical imperatives related to their complex thought patterns so they expect the world to make sense. The necessity for the world to be logical results in a need to argue extensively, correct errors, and strive for precision of thought. Eric, age 9, strove for such perfection. With an IQ in the 190’s, he derived an original mathematical formula. When his math teacher told him that this was a theorem about how numbers worked, Eric corrected him saying that it was only a hypothesis, as they hadn’t yet tested it with all possible combinations of numbers. To Eric, only when he coul