Life-span Giftedness

Penny Van Deur
Flinders University of South Australia


This paper discusses a life-span perspective for developing giftedness into outstanding talent and achievement. In the search for a greater understanding of giftedness, an understanding of how creative adults actually do their work and lead their lives can lead to a different way of looking at gifted children and young people (Horowitz and O'Brien, 1985). The influences described by talented adults can be useful in considering the provisions to develop giftedness, which are made by schools.

A life-span perspective of development as outlined by Rutter (1992) considers the possible effects of childhood circumstances as well as factors operating in adult life. Such a perspective considers how an experience alters a person's reaction to some later experience. What a person does, how s/he relates with other people all serve to select and shape the environments that are experienced. This perspective sees the individual as affecting and being affected by the environment. This may be described as a systems approach to understanding development. The school is part of the system which influences the child.

When discussing talented adults who have been recognised as achieving a high level of performance in a domain, it useful to look at profiles of such people.

Bloom (Gailagher and Gailagher, 1994) studied 120 world class performers in areas such as tennis, sculpture, piano, mathematics and science. The following patterns were found in the childhoods of the subjects:

1. Early identification and encouragement of the talents of the children by parents and other members of the family.

2. Parents often went to great lengths to obtain competent instruction in the child’s special area of study.

3. Parents modelled a strong commitment to particular interests in their own fives.

4. The parents’ enthusiasm for the child's talent provided a strong reinforcement for the child.

In the cases studied by Bloom the home environment supported the gifted child to develop their area of talent. This finding could lead us to ask if it is necessary to develop gifted programmes in school settings. We could ask if the school has a responsibility to potentially gifted students who do not have a supportive home environment.

Braggett (Ashman and Eikins, 1998) cautions educators that students who show outstanding qualities at school should only be considered potentially gifted as true talents are found only in adults. This could be interpreted as giftedness developing throughout the life span. Braggett goes on to discuss a study carried out in 1990 by Yewchuk and Chatterton. Women who were in Who's Who of Canadian Women were asked which factors facilitated their distinguished career development. The results showed that 94% of all respondents indicated that their own convictions constituted the most important factor. When asked about the three most encouraging people in their career development the results showed that 43% mentioned their spouse. 16.9 % mentioned a category including a teacher. Thus, these high achieving women did not rank the importance of school or their schoolteachers as significant influences in their achievement.

Can a consideration of the development of giftedness ignore the child's time at school? Is the development of special talent something, which happens outside school?

As an educator I am interested to know more about giftedness in children and about ways schools can help to develop this giftedness so that it can become talent in adult life.

I have carried out a small preliminary investigation which attempts to clarify some of the issues involved in life-span giftedness. This project involved watching documentary television programmes and reading newspaper articles, which profiled the fives and achievements of twenty-seven high achieving adults. The profiles included interviews as well as the texts of journals and diaries. The products of the individual’s work are shown in most of the television documentaries. One of the high achieving adults interviewed was violinist Joshua Bell. During the documentary, filmed performances from various stages of his long career (he was only 26 at the time the programme was made) were shown and he commented on his performance and his life circumstances at that time. This enables the viewer to have an intimate glimpse into the life and motivation of this performer.

Joshua Bell obviously has been greatly influenced by his violin teacher.

Gagne's Model of Giftedness and Talent.

Gagne (1997) has proposed A Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent in which environmental catalysts exert a significant effect on the development of a child's giftedness into talent. The environment includes such factors as geographic location and family and other persons as having positive or negative effects on the process of talent development. Education programmes within and outside the school are in the category of undertakings. The learning, training and practising which occurs in school settings, as well as outside school, influences the process of talent development throughout the life-span. Gagne's model includes chance and significant events such as the death of a parent or winning a prize as elements which 2 can influence greatly the course of talent development. The person can be lead to question the purpose of their life when such events occur.

Gagne's model describes giftedness as spontaneously expressed natural abilities which can be systematically developed into talent through intensive learning, training and practising in the talent area. lntrapersonal catalysts such as motivation play a crucial role in initiating, guiding and sustaining the process of talent development.

The school environment can play an essential part in recognising and developing giftedness. The teacher is part of the school system.

Gagne's model is shown below.

The evolving systems approach (Wallace in Horowitz and O'Brien, 1985) can be utilised to discuss questions related to the internal life of the talented person and the environment and time in which the person lives or lived. I am not discussing the aspect of the time in which the person lived in this paper. The evolving systems approach sees the creative person as a system in the process of continual change. The approach aims to study how someone does something that s/he is extraordinary good at. A researcher aims to try, to understand what the person is doing from that person’s point of view. Products, notebooks, diaries and journals may be examined. Interviews may be conducted where this is possible. The profiles in this preliminary work included spoken interviews.

In the evolving systems approach the following influences are considered:

1. the historical and material context in which creative work evolves

2. the phenomenological reconstruction of the creative person's own experience

3. the evolving organisation of purpose displayed by the creative person.

The evolving systems approach assumes that creative work proceeds over time and thus the context (or the environment) of the individual's life and time must be considered. In this work I am concentrating on the internal characteristics of the person, in particular, looking at sensitivity and intensity.

An investigation of the development of life-span giftedness would encompass the following:

Childhood: in which the child's gift is still to be developed and its formal structures mastered. Piirto (1994) emphasises the importance of the home environment in developing the child's giftedness. Personality factors such as persistence, intellectual energy, originality and ambition are also important. Adolescence: as a time when the gifted child may move away from family and parental control. Previously, the gift may have organised the adolescent’s life, but the adolescent may face the task of beginning to shape the life to organise the gift and develop it as much as possible. Adult who may have an intense need for challenge, social acceptance and emotional stability. Parallelling these needs may be the development of broader avenues for expressing compassion, commitment to becoming a better person, the development of empathy and the desire to make this a better world. The gift may become a means or an integrated instrument for organising and living a purposeful and creative life.

Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration

Sensitivity and intensity are often cited as distinguishing characteristics of gifted children. These attributes can be developed in such a way that they develop childhood giftedness into adult talent. Dabrowski (Silverman, 1993) studied the biographies of eminent individuals and found that they searched for a reality of a higher level. Dabrowski's study of the mental health of intellectually and- creatively gifted children has contributed to the present understanding of the complex inner life of the gifted throughout the life-span. Dabrowski noted that the gifted experienced intense inner conflict, self-criticism, anxiety and feelings of inferiority toward their own ideals. However, Dabrowski believed that this inner conflict generates the tension that impels the individual toward high levels of functioning. In this sense it is a positive force.


In children, Dabrowski's overexcitabilities are thought to lead to an expanded awareness and heightened capacity to respond to stimuli of various types. The overexcitabilities involve an unusual capacity to care, and insatiable love of learning, vivid imagination and endless energy.

Aimless activity may occur if the child is not mentally stimulated. When the child is interested they can be intensely focussed and concentrated. Dabrowski's over-excitabilities may be described as: Psycho-motor: characterised by surplus energy, marked enthusiasm, the capacity to work very hard. Sensual: characterised by overeating, buying sprees. Imaginational: characterised by visualisation, dreams, illusions, fantasy, fear of unknown. Intellectual characterised by problem solving, learning, theoretical thinking, probing questions, extensive reading, moral thinking, introspection. Emotional. characterised by somatic problems, intensity, inhibition, fear, guilt, depressive or suicidal moods, relationship feelings such as needing protection, concern or conflict, self-evaluation, self- judgement.

Theory of Positive Disintegration

The second part of Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration relates to adult development. The developmental levels are self-interest, group values, transformative growth, self-actualisation, and attainment of personality ideals. Adults may be searching for self-perfection and may feel great dissatisfaction with themselves.

In the final stage of the theory an individual displays a sense of responsibility to others. In this stage the person has attained the personality ideal and inner conflict is resolved. An example of this would be the late Mother Teresa who lived her life to improve humanity.

In adult life the person may attain universal values, feel authenticity, harmony, altruism and empathy for all living creatures. The advanced development in adult life results from the interaction in childhood between the intense inner world of the child and the external events in the environment. These events may include trauma.

Profiling High Achieving adults.

The project carried out involved watching documentary programmes and the collection of newspaper articles over an eight month period. The aim was to seek the perspective of the talented adult being profiled. Initially the work was begun to seek the voice of talented adults rather than to survey their achievements in biographies. The profiles listed were those that were reported during this period. Mathematicians and scientists were not excluded, they were not reported during this time.

The Profiles of the High Achieving Adults are shown below.

  • Nagisma Oshima
  • James Dean
  • Montgomery Clift
  • John Borman
  • John Gielgud
  • Ruth Cracknell
  • Aldous Huxley
  • Catherine Helen Spence
  • AK Fisher
  • William Blake
  • Virginia Wolfe
  • Charlotte Bronte
  • Doris Lessing
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Morris West
  • Joy Hester
  • JM Whistler
  • Caspar David Friedrich
  • Joshua Bell
  • WA Mozart
  • David Helfgott
  • Yehudi Menuhin
  • Joan Sutherland
  • John Betjeman
  • Mikhail Baryshnikov
  • Helen Caldicott
  • Roma Mitchell

This approach is limited as the programmes or articles have been edited and it is not possible to ask the person questions or seek clarification. The evolving systems approach can be applied to a small extent, as interviews are used in many of the profiles as well as the text of journals and diaries. The evolving systems approach could be applied powerfully to first hand interviews, especially if collections of work were available to be commented on by the adult.

An example of the application of the evolving systems approach. can be seen in the profile of Joshua Bell. He has grown up in a city which had a large and very good music school. His parents supported his desire to learn to play the violin. He was fortunate to have very good Music teachers who inspired him to push -himself to become the best musician he could be. He describes himself as being very competitive with himself. He would be happy if he could be described as a musician's musician though he does not believe he has yet reached that point. He observes that he feels most alive when he is performing and involved in music. Clearly music is the driving force in his life. At 26 it is unlikely that he would have reached Dabrowski's second stage of the Theory of Positive disintegration.

In order to test Dabrowski's theory of the presence of over-excitabilities in gifted children the profiles were examined for examples of each over-excitability. The following examples of each excitability have been taken from the profiles:

Psychomotor overexcitability.

Joshua Bell described throwing boomerangs, motor bike riding, playing basketball, tennis and golf. In these activities he competes against himself and is totally absorbed in the activity.

Sensual overexcitability

Dr. Helen Caldicott described music as the food of her soul; she must have it.

Yehudi Menuhin described music as tactile in that the ear feels the sound.

lmaginational overexcitability.

John Gielgud described himself as a clumsy child who hated sport but in the theatre he seemed to acquire authority as he pretended to be someone-else. Aldous Huxley was blind for a time as a child and had a new way of viewing things which he believed was a breakthrough to ultimate reality. Joshua Bell imagines the violin as having a personality of its own. He loves the beauty of the sound of the violin.

Emotional overexcitability.

Yehudi Menuhin stated that he may have been unbalanced if he could not develop his talent. He believes that music can heal suffering.

Intellectual excitability.

Doris Lessing was poor as a child but said that she was advantaged in having books which she read voraciously. Aldous Huxley had a passion for learning and knowing as a child. It was stated that there was an otherness about him.

Some of the individuals profiled were described in terms aligned with the second stage of Dabrowski's theory. Dr Helen Caldicott is an example of this as she describes her passion for life, her need to help people to save the planet. Many of the individuals profiled described their giftedness in terms of being a search for the truth.

Piechowski (Piirto,1994) outlines the highest degree of actualisation in highly sensitive adults as spiritual growth. Many of the profiles showed this. Spiritual growth is exemplified by Yehudi Menuhin who commented that he wants to heal suffering and that the beauty of great music could make vileness and ignobility disappear from the world.

Two other issues were mentioned frequently. They were the death of a parent in the individual's childhood, and the gift as an entity in itself. The death of the parent in the case of Dame Roma Mitchell meant that she felt responsible for the rest of her family. In such a situation a child may realise that they are alone in the world and feel compelled to develop their abilities to the greatest extent possible.

The gift was described as: An instrument which is separate from the person (Joan Sutherland) A burden which you have a responsibility to develop and understand (Yehudi Menuhin).

Csitszentmihalyi (1990) has described flow as an optimal experience or form of energy. Flow is also seen as a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter except the experience itself. The gift could be characterised as an all consuming passion which the person tries to shape and develop. An interesting point in some of the profiles was that the individuals saw themselves as connected to the past and the future in their efforts to develop the gift.

By looking at the fives of talented adults, can educators learn more about catering for gifted students in educational settings? Feldhusen (1996:68-69) outlines six strategies teachers can adopt to develop talent in gifted children. These strategies are relevant to the themes emerging from this work:

  1. Structure some learning activities to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their talent potential.
  2. Recognise and reinforce signs of talent through praise.
  3. Help students who have shown signs of talent in a particular area to reach learning goals in that area.
  4. Locate resources to help foster students' talent.
  5. Share your observations of budding talents with students' parents, and enlist the parents in the effort to identify and nurture their children's talents.

To this list for the teacher I would add such suggestions as:


In conclusion, it can be seen that a lifespan perspective of the development of giftedness into talent places special emphasis on the environment. Giftedness can begin to be developed into talent in a school environment which enables a child to encounter, learn, train and practise an aptitude to a high level of skill. The teacher, peer-group, family, and curriculum of a school are part of the system within which the child develops this ability. If the training is being done outside the school the school can take measures to accommodate this in a way that will benefit the child. The sensitivity referred to as overexcitabilities can be understood and channelled in a positive way for the child. The child can be encouraged to view sensitivity as a part of giftedness. Training and developing this sensitivity can lead to talent in adult life.

The school and teachers are a significant aspect of a child's environment and can help to shape the gifted child's development and affect their adult choices. All teachers would hope that in years to come a talented adult interviewed for a television documentary could say: My parents, teachers and the schools I attended helped me to become the talented person I am today.


Ashman,A; Eikins,J (1998) Educating Children with Special Needs Australia: Prentice Hall.

Csikszentmihaiy, M (1990) Flow U.S.A: Harper Perennial.

Feldhusen, J (1996) How to Identify and Develop Special Talents Educational Leadership Vol.53, No.5

Gagne, F(1997) A Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent Gifted July

Gailagher, J;Gailagher, S(1994) Teaching the Gifted Child (4th Ed.) U.S.A: Allyn and Bacon

Horowitz, F: O'Brien, M (Ed) (1985) The Gifted and Talented-development Perspectives U.S.A: American Psychological Association

Piirto, J (1994) Talented Children and Adults U.S.A: Merrill

Rutter, M; Rutter, M (1992) Developing Minds G.B: Penguin

Silverman, L (1993) Counselling the Gifted and Talented U.S.A.. Love Pub. Co.