If you’ve ever suspected your child is gifted, you might also be wondering how that term is defined. Technically, the primary definition of a gifted child is one whose intelligence puts them in the top 2% of the population, says Kahina Louis, a licensed psychologist and CEO of Strengths and Solutions, an organization that conducts gifted testing in Miramar, Florida. But a high IQ score isn’t the only way to tell a child is gifted. The term can also be applied to kids who have high performance in the areas of learning, motivation, leadership, creativity or adaptability.
“To be gifted, a child does not need to absolutely excel in each of these areas,” Louis says. “But there should be marked differences in at least some of these qualities in comparison to others their age.”
Those differences can show up in a variety of ways — gifted kids are still just kids, after all, with unique personalities and interests — but there are a few traits and characteristics they tend to have in common.
1. Quick learning
According to Louis, a telltale sign that a child is exceptionally bright for their age is how quickly they learn. She says gifted children tend to pick up new things sooner than their peers.
Take, for example, Susan Stitt’s three gifted daughters. Stitt — the marketing director for Front Edge Publishing and owner of Morgan Street Media Services in Senoia, Georgia — says her girls learned words faster than any of their friends. “I used to keep a list on the fridge of their words,” Stitt says. “Eventually, I could not keep up.”
2. Big vocabulary
Stitts’ daughters’ rapidly growing vocabulary is fairly characteristic for gifted children, Louis says. Becky Beach, a parenting blogger in Arlington, Texas, says she knew her son, Bryan, was unusually bright when he started talking in full sentences before his 1st birthday.
Beach remembers a moment when he was 11 months old and he asked her — using a complete sentence — why his name was Bryan. When she responded that she had simply liked the name, he then asked if he could change it. “I was taken aback,” Beach says. “I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with my 11-month-old child.”
3. Lots of curiosity
Beach’s son’s desire to ask a lot of questions is pretty commonplace among gifted children, Louis says. As the wheels turn in their brains, remarkably smart kids tend to wonder a lot about why things are the way that they are.
4. Eagerness to learn
That abundance of curiosity is perhaps why particularly bright kids also tend to be highly motivated to understand more about the world around them, Louis says.
Just ask Stitt, who says her now-grown daughters showed a strong interest in school — one completed her undergraduate degree in just three years while the other two went on to complete graduate-level degrees — and she thinks it’s because they’re gifted. “They love to learn,” she says. “They absorb everything.”
5. Early reading
Many children learn to read in early elementary school, building up their pre-literacy skills (like letter recognition and recognizing sound patterns) during their early childhood years. But because gifted children tend to learn quickly, they are also typically able to pick up those building blocks and launch into reading much faster than their peers, Louis says.
Beach’s son, for example, was reading full chapter books like “Harry Potter” at just 3 years old, and Stitts’ daughters were all reading before kindergarten.
6. Talent for puzzles or patterns
Some exceptionally bright children are also able to work through puzzles or recognize patterns more quickly than their peers.
Alexandra Fung, CEO of Upparent and a Chicago mom of three gifted children, says she was struck by her second child’s aptitude for numbers. “By the time he was 3 or 4, he could read the time on analog clocks, do arithmetic, recite multiples,” Fung says.
He’d even created his own numerical sign language.
7. Exceptional creativity
Louis says another trait common in gifted children is creative skills you wouldn’t expect for a child that age. Tobi Kosanke, a mom in Hempstead, Texas, says she remembers one day when her then-3-year-old daughter was using sidewalk chalk outside with her nanny. Kosanke was working when the nanny rushed in and urged her to go see a drawing.
“I went out, and there was a beautiful drawing of a girl’s face,” Kosanke says.
The features were perfectly placed, and everything was symmetrical. Kosanke says she complimented the nanny on the picture, thinking she’d drawn it herself. “The nanny said, ‘No! Jemma drew that!’,” Kosanke says.
Neither knew a child so young could create such a thing.
Unusually high creativity doesn’t just apply to art. Many gifted children also tend to have vivid imaginations creating their own stories or identifying strongly with characters in books or movies, Louis says.
8. Advanced reasoning skills
Huff says her daughter’s remarkable ability to rationalize and argue, even at a very young age, set her apart from her peers.
“It’s never whiny-arguing,” Huff says. “She fully explains her position, citing all of the reasons for it and counters any counter-arguments you offer while explaining the logistics behind her reasoning.”
Even now that her daughter is in ninth grade, Huff says her ability to think things through is stunning. “She’ll view everything from every possible angle and consider it all,” she says.
Because advanced reasoning skills are a sign of high intelligence, Louis says they can also be signs a child is gifted.
9. High energy
With so much going on in their brains, gifted kids can sometimes be described as “intense,” Louis says. Their energy levels tend to be high, and they might get more excited than their peers about new or favorite topics or activities — and that can give the impression that they’re dialed up to 11. Their brains love to be engaged. As a result, if gifted children are bored or don’t have a productive way to channel all that energy, they may act out.
10. Ability to focus for very long periods
When gifted kids are able to channel their energy, they can focus for very long periods of time, even at a young age, Louis says. A normally wiggly toddler, for example, could spend more than 30 minutes building an elaborate tower while their peers might only spend a few minutes before moving onto a different activity.
11. Unusually high sensitivity or empathy
The same intensity and focus that many gifted kids have for math or reading can also be found in their emotions. Exceptionally bright children also tend to be unusually sensitive and empathetic, Louis says. And that sensitivity can be compounded by high standards they often set for themselves. According to Louis, many gifted children are perfectionists. When they get something wrong, it might be a bigger blow to them than it would be to other kids.
When Stitt’s daughter Emma was 6 years old, Stitt bought her Boggle Jr., a board game in which you have a limited amount of time to spell words with little blocks. The game came with a loud timer, and when it sounded, Emma cried and begged her parents to turn it off.
“She was afraid she wouldn’t spell enough words correctly,” Stitt says.
They switched to practicing words on a whiteboard so that mistakes could be made without a lot of tears.
12. Recognition by others
Parents are rarely the only ones who notice their children might be gifted.
“When a child is gifted, there tend to be multiple people in their lives — such as family members, doctors and teachers — who pick up on these traits,” Louis says.
This is especially true for traits that don’t show up on an IQ test, like exceptional leadership skills or adaptability. When Stitt’s oldest daughter was in kindergarten, the teacher pulled Stitt aside and whispered in her ear that her daughter belonged in a gifted program. Huff’s daughter was in second grade when the teacher recommended “gifted testing.”
If you want to know if your child is gifted, have them tested, Louis says. The most official way to do that is through formal IQ testing once a child is in school, though some educational institutions might have their own policies for what specific assessments should be used in order to enroll in gifted classes. Parents who have questions about what tests are needed to qualify for a particular program should talk to the school’s administrators.
For very young children (under 6 years old), IQ tests aren’t quite as accurate as they are in school-aged kids. So even though kids can be tested as young as 2, they aren’t typically recommended to do so until ages 6 to 10 years, Louis says. However, there are other tools parents can use to gauge whether a young child is gifted, such as teacher assessments at their preschool or child care center or free apps like GiantLeap, which uses a combination of parent/teacher surveys and a game-like app to assess children as young as 4 years old in areas like math, spatial reasoning, motor skills, language or memory.
The GiantLeap app was tested at the Texas Medical Center, and founder and CEO, Ori Hofnung, says results closely matched those from formal IQ testing but can be done in the child’s natural environment at times that are convenient for the family. As of now, the app shouldn’t be considered a replacement for formal IQ testing, but Hofnung says the results (along with personalized activities in the app) can help parents better understand what they can do to foster their kids’ strengths, as well as better support them in areas where they might need extra help.
Read more: How my son’s gifted and talented test helped me face and heal an old shame
What parents should ultimately know about gifted traits
While the above traits tend to be common in gifted children, it’s not necessary for a child to check all these boxes to be truly exceptional. For example, not all gifted kids are early readers, and some might be better described as “quiet” than “intense.” And all kids — “gifted” or not — have their own special skills and struggles.
As Louis points out, “With the right reinforcement and support, your child can still reach high heights, with or without a formal classification.”