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Where Are India's Gifted Children?



Sejal is in 7th grade now, attending school in New Delhi. Disinterested in her course syllabus at times, guiding class discussions at others, she’s navigating the hardships of being a shy adolescent. She’s not entirely sure about what she wants to do in college, because she can’t seem to make a choice between biology, history, theatre, and literature – all of which she is passionate about. She loves reading fiction and gets into heated arguments with her dad about which interpretation of the final scene of Inception will really stand the test of time. She can be snappy and often gets upset when things don’t go her way, but she means well.

Rohan, on the other hand, has been topping math for three consecutive years. He’s in the running for class president and is described by teachers as intelligent – when he’s not bunking classes to tend to his coveted position on the football team, that is. The Ivy League is not a faraway dream for Rohan and he seems destined to achieve success wherever he goes. A well-behaved boy and model student, his impeccable grades are only the beginning of a bright future.

What the average Indian does not know is that Sejal might be the ‘gifted’ student in this case, whereas Rohan might simply be an intelligent, hardworking one. Or, perhaps, both of them may be gifted. And it is just as likely that neither of them are.

So then, what is this elusive giftedness?

It’s not good grades or a lengthy CV. It might not be the Head Girl or the class topper. Giftedness is not, in matters of ethical consideration, a superiority – it is simply a misrepresented state of being, characterized by certain exceptionalities and misunderstood emotional and personality traits.

Giftedness can manifest in so many ways that it is impossible to define it unilaterally. It can entail advanced cognitive ability, heightened sensitivity, precocity, self-motivation, high intellectual capacity and/or an outstanding aptitude in domains such as academics, creativity, and leadership. What binds all gifted children together is the intensity with which they experience life. Everything is ‘more’ – more awareness of the world and themselves, advanced intellect, more efficient information processing and application, greater sensitivity and emotion, and a deep inner richness that compels the child to seek domain mastery and intellectual stimulation.

None of these traits or attributes are necessarily precursors to success, however – specially not when they bring with them a host of emotional, personality, behavioral, cognitive, and social difficulties. Gifted students may be extraordinarily sensitive to a fault, predisposed to developing substance abuse disorders, possess overexcitabilities, be prone to depression (particularly the existential kind), and so on. They may be blessed with multipotentiality – passion and potential in various fields, areas, and aspects of life, and cursed with not being able to choose. They may even be twice exceptional, with heightened cognitive ability in some domains coexisting with a deficit in learning or attention in others – for example, it is not uncommon for an intellectually gifted child to be on the autism spectrum, in which case they will be considered 2e.

There exists compelling neuroscientific evidence of giftedness. Gifted children have a greater volume of grey matter in functionally different brain areas. For example, if the functioning of the parietal lobe – a part of the brain that controls sensory processes – is higher, so is the child’s sensitivity to touch, smell, sound, sight, and taste, and he/she is said to have sensory overexcitability. Similarly, more efficient connectivity of white matter leads to better processing and mental navigation of information. It also noted that math-gifted brains ‘light up’, or become more activated as seen on fMRI scans, than the average students’, when provided with a mathematical challenge. Neural pathways and synaptic plasticity in gifted brains are an exciting domain for research, and new neuroscientific discoveries in giftedness are made regularly.

As it has been made amply clear, giftedness, and particularly giftedness in India, is a big package waiting to be unwrapped. There is a multitude of questions that need to be dwelled on – in what other ways are gifted brains different? What pedagogical approaches do we need to ensure holistic development of gifted children? What are the implications of socio-economic status on giftedness and life trajectory? How do we navigate twice exceptionality, and what makes it happen? What exactly is an overexcitability? What does multipotentiality in a time of capitalism entail, and what would Marx have to say about it? What are the ways in which you can identify giftedness in your child (or even perhaps the hidden talent in yourself)? Is measurement of intelligence just an IQ test away? How do we note giftedness in infants and toddlers? Should we home-school, special school, or public school? Are India’s historically ‘god-gifted’ children really misunderstood, gifted children?

The ever curious, ever sensitive, ever bright children of India are invisibilized, lacking in resources, and ignored – and the most effective way we can help them is by understanding the whys, hows, and endless excitements of their intense, exceptional lives.

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