Giftedness : chance or risk ?

This article focuses on the links between giftedness and possible drop-out of school. Although being gifted sounds like a present of life at first, the learning environments e.g. home, school, community impact the child’s behaviour and motivation: they interact as catalysts offering the opportunity to turn gift into talent, or may block the innate giftedness and learning curiousness.  This approach is based on the doctoral dissertation (2005) of Inkeri Ruokonen (University of Helsinki, Finland) who performed a co-operative research project of gifted (IQ 120-144) 6-8-year-old children in Estonia and Finland. Together with Maie Vikat (Tallinn Pedagogical University, Estonia) they compared the creativity, musical ability and environmental aspects of 64 gifted children. Ruokonen’s dissertation shows the intricate web of homes, teachers and stimulating school environments. On the other hand, my personal experience in the field of school drop-out (Nice area, France) and later as a head master in lower secondary schools shows that gifted children may lose self-confidence and face school failure, having lacked significant multidimensional catalysts. To that extent giftedness may be considered as a learning trouble requiring the right diagnosis and a specific help: early assessing and identifying the reasons of a different learning process experienced by a child are thus of utmost importance for his/her future.

Author: Marie Berthier (contact details at the end of the text)

Giftedness:  chance or risk?  a real challenge in special pedagogy

Being gifted sounds like a present of life at first. Take the example of a child with a musical talent: the parents will expect everything to be easily reachable and successful for her/him through varieties of choices. The teachers will assume that the child’s learning capacities will largely spread over the classroom and play a positive role among the peer group.

What about the child? He quickly understands he’s somehow different and his behaviour reflects the interaction of the environments (e.g. home, school, community…). Will their impact enable or block the innate giftedness? In other words, what does giftedness imply and demand? What may happen whenever the child’s motivation crumbles? May an unsatisfied hunger for learning lead to a disturbing anger, or introversion, or drop out, even disruption…?

In 2005 a study project of gifted children was performed by a doctoral student between the Tallinn Pedagogical University of Estonia and the Research Centre for Education Cultures and Arts in the Department of Applied Sciences of Education at the University of Helsinki. Inkeri Ruokonen’s doctoral dissertation (2005) concerns 6-8-year-old gifted children (IQ 120–144) and their learning environments in Estonia and Finland.

In their work, Inkeri Ruokonen (University of Helsinki) and Maie Vikat (Tallinn Pedagogical University) report and compare the creativity, musical ability and environmental aspects of these gifted children. The creative thinking and the musical ability of these Estonian and Finnish gifted children is explored from a learning environmental perspective.

The aim is to describe which catalysts (positive and/or negative impacts) associated with the development of gifted children are found in the learning environments of Estonian and Finnish children: the sample group consisted of 64 gifted children from Estonia (32) and Finland (32) selected using Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrice (CPM) test (IQ of 120 or higher).

Inkeri Ruokonen’s dissertation is divided into four different sections:  firstly the topic is discussed through the home environment, secondly through the school environment and teachers descriptions and evaluations, thirdly through the thoughts of effective learning of gifted children (interviews) and fourthly through the special interest focused to the creative and musical environments. All these gifted Estonian and Finnish children were educated in inclusive classrooms, i.e. in classrooms that included children of all abilities.

In 2010 as a coordinator in the field of inclusion and prevention of drop out in the Nice area, specifically in lower secondary schools (11-15-year-old) and vocational schools (>15-year-old students), I worked on a team focusing on Language and Learning Troubles linked to school failure and drop out. Thanks to a Comenius funding we shared ideas, concepts, tools and methods with our peers (headmasters, guidance counsellors) from Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, Poland and Spain. Besides I participated to a course “Basics of Vocational Special Needs Education” at JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Jyväskylä, and I chose the gifted children as my topic for a final report in this course. I found an   interesting dissertation of the topic and reviewed the combined factors and conditions fostering the development of a gifted child.

I was in fact interested in finding out if there were any links between Language and Learning Troubles and giftedness, and how: my own experience with pupils and students showed that the origin of drop out may not be a dysfunction in their learning process (which is the most common reason of drop out and/or school failure, at least in France), but could be found in the interaction between school (normative, formal) and peculiar learners (excellent at first but losing motivation, sometimes abilities, year after year).

Gifted potentials towards talented performances: learning environments as catalysts

The concept of environmental catalysts as motivational aspects in talent development stems from Gagné’s theory of giftedness: Gagné sees ‘giftedness’ as an innate ability and acknowledges the role of the environment in shaping and developing gifts towards special talents. Gagné (1997, 77) notes the role of genetics in giftedness but emphasises the role of the learning environment as a motivational resource in developing talent. Gagné’s theory suggests the need to reflect on the motivational aspects of environmental catalysts as developing giftedness of children in practice.

Gagné (1990, 66) conceptualised giftedness as follows: “Giftedness corresponds to competence that is distinctly above average in one or more domains of human aptitude. Talent corresponds to performance that is distinctly above average in one or more fields of human activity”. Various personal and environmental forces affect the translation of gifted potential to talented performances, or not.

Ruokonen follows Gagné’s (1993, 73–74) model which separates the two concepts:  giftedness, meaning innate capacities, and talent, meaning developed abilities or aperformances.

  •  aptitudes are genetic structures of the human organism ; they appear and develop spontaneously   in every human being. They can be observed in very young children; their growth is by no means controlled solely by maturational processes; environmental stimulation plays an equally important role.
  • learning and practising are important in talent development. Gagné (2003, 63–64) says that talent is to gifted education what competence is to general education; he stresses that maturation is the major developmental agent for gifts closely followed by informal learning and, in the case of talents, formal institutional learning has the most effective impact in the longitudinal development of talents.

He defines four different developmental processes: maturation, daily problem-solving (which contribute directly to the development of aptitudes), informal training and practice, and finally formal training in a particular field of activity.

In his model Gagné (2003) describes the factors that contribute to the translation of gifted potential into talented performances: systematic and formal training is the usual and effective way of developing talents in any field and the higher the talent is, the greater is the investment of necessary time and effort. Each component of Gagné’s model can have an impact on any of the others: these relationships are bidirectional. A talented person is also always gifted, but a gifted person might not be talented. Underachievement as a problem of gifted children shows the negative motivational catalysts in the development of talents.

According to Gagné’s (1985/1991/2003) model, there are three kinds of catalysts: environmental, intrapersonal and chances. Intrapersonal catalysts include human characteristics which are outside the domain abilities. The most visible of these is motivation. Motives can initiate or activate behaviour; they direct and guide it and they can guide it or maintain it in the presence of obstacles until needs are satisfied. Directional energy is as important as task commitment to the development of talent, often called curiousness, inquisitiveness, specific interests or intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan 1985).

In the gifted children learning environment, Gagné’s (1993/2003) model divides environmental catalysts into five categories of significance: persons (parents, siblings, extended family, friends, educators, mentors or idols), environments, interventions, events, and chance.

Chance influences all the environmental catalysts (for example Estonia’s attainment of independence can be seen as an example of chance that influenced all Estonian children as an environmental catalyst). On the other hand, we may say that bad luck can play a role as a negative motivational catalyst…

Multidimensional learning environment for multiple intelligences  

During the last few decades a great change has taken place in the concepts of giftedness and talent as they are featured in research literature. One of the greatest changes in research has been Gardner’s (1983,1997) theory of multiple intelligence which examines specialised talents and demonstrates the extraordinary rates of mastery and creativity: Gardner’s list of special aptitudes includes linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, kinaesthetic, musical, naturalist, interpersonal (family, school community), and intrapersonal (e.g., motivation, self-confidence) intelligences.

A large majority of more recent models of intelligence are based on the multidimensional or multifactorial psychometric concepts of intelligence. The meanings and definitions of giftedness thus reflect diversity: we reach here the cross-disciplinary side of the science of pedagogy.

Ruokonen’s study revealed that parents were interested in their children and gave them the opportunities and support needed for early learning, despite the economic differences between the two considered countries. However, according to their interviews, these gifted children still wished for more time especially from their parents; they also expressed need for a special enrichment and acceleration at school. The author also notices that early intervention to develop the conditions fosters a young gifted child to reach his/her optimal development.

Teachers in both countries reported a need for classroom assistants and space for creating a more multidimensional learning environment suited to the individual needs.That’s why we can say that giftedness belongs to special pedagogy.

Home and school:  close catalysts for gifted children

The main finding of Ruokonen’s research is that intelligence cannot be understood independently; it may be understood in terms of how children interact with their immediate environment. This holistic approach shows the importance of multiple, multidimensional and emotional intelligences (Gardner’s (1983) multiple intelligence theory)

Prosocial skills seemed to be important for good learning: the role of significant people for gifted children seemed to be an important motivational environmental factor; environmental aspects have strong effects on the activation of genes, so the relationship between biological and environmental factors is many-faceted (Haila 2000, Hirsto 2001).  According to von Wright (2000) genotype and personal history together with social and physical reality and environment is connected with the person’s world view, cognitive-emotional competence, skills and action strategies.

That’s why Porter’s (1999) model requires collaboration between parents, caregivers, and teachers in order to identify which children need special provision or deeper assessment.  She focused on environmental assessment, not only on formal testing of giftedness: developing procedures for identifying artistic talent provides a valuable opportunity for specialists in the arts to begin a dialogue that examines the underpinnings of artistic talent.  The identification or assessment of children belonging to a minority cultural group, rural children, children with disabilities or children who live in poverty or suffer family problems is challenging for teachers.

Besides, when gifted children are more focused on preserving their identity as gifted than on increasing their competence they may limit their potential by avoiding challenge. That’s why pedagogically well-developed, evaluated and focused activity can contribute significantly to the revelation of high levels of ability and development.

“We are social beings, born with the need to represent and communicate our experiences. Through our interactions with others we grow and develop and our role as adults is to ensure that children for whom we are responsible have this opportunity. Interventions should support and extend children’s learning and development by adding the information or skill they need at the point they need it.”(Duffy 1998, 94–95.)

 With love and encouragement

The contribution of art in assessing giftedness is important: according to Freeman (2000) the conditions for artistic creativity are found in an intricate web of personality, social background and the living and working environment. High intelligence, optimistic personality, good social skills and supportive adults contribute to positive developmental outcomes for creativity. And this whatever the family income: some children share certain characteristics that foster resilience in the face of disadvantage. A case study run in 1999 showed that the influence of the mother, the organisational structure within the home, and mentors are important positive factors that encouraged success. Although facing economic problems and stress, the mothers promoted emotional stability and identity through love, encouragement and expressiveness.

Tailored methods in the classroom

According to Porter (1999) talented children may experience a mismatch between their needs to learn and the curriculum. Because the individual learning processes of the students vary remarkably, evaluation of the individual development of the children is important.  In theory teachers should tailor lessons to each child’s needs, but in practice they often forget the special educational needs of the gifted; teachers naturally concentrate more on children with other special needs (social or learning problems). Ruokonen noticed that in the regular classroom the gifted children tended to be bored, more disruptive and less respectful towards others. The needs of these gifted children for a more stimulating environment where they could work creatively and solve problems was obvious. They absolutely needed encouraging and supportive learning situations. In contrast the learning-disabled gifted children usually demonstrated more passive behaviours.

Including beauty and sense of humour!

Ruokonen wonders how teachers can better adapt the classroom environment to meet every learner’s needs:  the teachers of her study group were sent an inquiry for assessment of the gifted children: creativity was the criteria most often named. Creativity requires a continuity of concern, and intense awareness of inner life combined with sensitivity to the external world. They secondly mentioned excellence, speed in learning new things, brilliant memory, competency and skilfulness. The third criteria mentioned was motivation to learn new tasks, eagerness to learn, to do extra work individually, willingness to explore and a commitment to tasks. Fourthly, the teachers mentioned ‘noticeable behaviour’.  Fifthly, they mentioned that gifted children demonstrate special skills in some area (mathematics, reading and writing, sports or even research). The teachers recognised that talented children need a learning environment in which they could be involved in the planning of their individual learning process (more space, classroom assistants). This focuses again on the importance of the learning environmental catalysts which motivate gifted children towards special talents; when interviewed by Ruokonen, the children expressed their opinions about the traits of a good teacher: understanding, beauty and handsomeness (did they mean a smiling-open minded-reassuring person?), competence and a person with a sense of humour.

Self-esteem: learning by doing, challenges and happy mood

According to Porter (1999, 121) the self-esteem of a gifted child is multi-dimensional. It is a comparison of her or his performance with certain ideals and has both an intellectual and an emotional component; self-esteem is a measure of the extent to which person’s self-concept (or self-perception) and ideal self overlap.

Gifted children in Estonia and Finland positively evaluated their own efforts and achievements. According to Roberts (2002, 105) “High self-esteem is promoted by positive self-experiences … and provides confidence, energy and optimism”, a secure sense of identity.

According to the children’s interview performed by Ruokonen, material effective learning (learning by doing) seems to be connected to the state of mind and to good self-esteem. Their motivation to learn is connected to a positive and happy mood.   They also brought up the question of different kinds of teaching practices and learning styles. These interviews showed that gifted learners need and receive special support and a variety of challenges, and that optimal environmental conditions are very important during childhood.

Fostering creativity, cornerstone of cognitive skills and emotional growth

Ruokonen stresses upon creativity playing a major role in helping gifted children’s development at school: she says that according to Julian Sefton-Green (2000, 3) creative work is an integral part of children’s personal development and it facilitates both cognitive skills and emotional growth. She fully explains the Piirto Pyramid of Talent Development (Piirto 2002, 22) (annex below) and concludes that children can use their creative thinking and their imaginative potential when practising or interpreting arts, thanks to the connection between their learning environment  and  their musical (in this case) environment and creativity.

Giftedness: a Learning trouble? A personal path to success

Gagné (2003) shows that even though all causal components are active each talented person follows a unique path toward excellence. No recipe, no one way street…I personally worked twenty years in the field of school drop-out: self-esteem restoration and resilience were my daily motto. In my practice I often noticed that “genetic gifted” children had not translated their potential into actual talents, thus losing self-confidence and facing school failure, sometimes feeling a deep inside anger: they didn’t have the chance to live in positive catalysts (at school or/and at home) during their schooling. They had lacked exactly what the interviewed teachers mentioned: the need for classroom assistants and better suited multidimensional learning environments. Although potentially performant, some left school without any solution, or dropped out and divorced from learning during their compulsory education: my main goal was to restore their self-esteem thanks to step by step successes on their personal path.

A right diagnosis

Ruokonen’s work lightens the necessity of assessing and identifying the reasons of a different learning process experienced by a child.

This reinforces the necessity and validity of centres such as the ‘Centre de Référence du Langage” located at the University Hospital Archet of Nice, France: the pediatric neurologists Dr Ch. Richelme and Dr C.Fossoud closely collaborate with families, teachers, doctors, logopaedists-orthophonists, orthoptists for the eyes, physiologists, neuropsychologists …in order to diagnose and treat the learning troubles on a cross-disciplinary level. They sort specific troubles of language and learning as follows:

  • DYS series / Dys-orthography, -graphy, -lexia, -phasia, -calculia
  • Hyperkynetic syndrom (= hyperactivity)
  • Right hemispheric syndrom of the development (visual-spatial sphere)
  • Peculiar talents (gifted children – intellectual precocity)

For the record, “dys” means “it’s difficult” in Greek (thus not implying “impossible”!)

To every trouble corresponds a peculiar helping ; if the origin is not clearly identified, the action taken may be useless… that’s the reason why one (teachers, parents, medical helpers) should be in a position to take the necessary steps to try to solve the problem. Teamwork and partnership are thus fundamental. As a teacher and coordinator in the prevention of drop-out, and later as the headmaster of secondary schools, I had the opportunity to strengthen my team-oriented practice in helping young gifted “outdroppers” to overcome their difficulties. I achieved it thanks to long life learning tools, Dr Eila Burns’course, Inkeri Ruokonen’s work, as well as Dr Richelme and Fossoud’s conferences.

Whether the gifted child is performing in a suited environment (special pedagogy) or not (negative motivational factors) for developing his talents, all his environments are shaping his/her future.

“Creativity is in the personality, the process, and the product within a domain in interaction with genetic influences and with optimal environmental influences of home, school, community and culture, gender and chance. Creativity is a basic human instinct to make that which is new.” (Piirto 1998, 41)


Ruokonen, Inkeri (2005). Estonian and Finnish gifted children in their learning environments. University of Helsinki, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, Department of Applied Sciences of Education. Doctoral dissertation. Permalink :


Author: Marie Berthier

Independent Consultant in Long Life Learning, evaluator of Erasmus + projects (vocational field) for the French Agency, proof reader for the Federation of European Schools. Former Inclusion/Drop-out Coordinator in initial and vocational training, Head Master in French lower secondary schools until 2014. (French Ministry of Education)



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