Credits: Adobe Stock
Media, books, and more recently TV shows have helped popularize the notion of “high intellectual potential”—or HPI—to the general public. This phenomenon has been associated with a certain number of accepted ideas, especially that children with HPI mostly drop out of school or suffer psychologically, or even that they often have a typical intellectual profile to the detriment of an unqualified body. would explain their clumsiness. In this context, the number of online offers that promise sometimes poor parents to diagnose their children by making them take an IQ test has exploded.
But what are the scientific bases of this practice? How do we concretely define the concept of “high potential”? And what are the priorities for researchers working in this field?
The concept of high intellectual potential has evolved over the past 20 years and is the subject of debate among specialists. However, the WHO definition, generally accepted in the scientific literature, specifies that HPI corresponds to an intelligence quotient (IQ) of at least 130. This would represent just over 2% of the population, i.e. more than 200,000 children in France.
If we rely on the WHO definition, it would be enough to get a score of 130 or more on this test to be assigned HPI. However, some questions arise, especially regarding the cost of the IQ test and the quality of additional assessments offered to families: in the absence of a rigorous analysis by a clinical psychologist or neuropsychologist specializing in this topic, a point made by a test taken online or by an unscrupulous expert is of little value.
Indeed, studies now prove the importance of assessing children as a whole, not only with IQ tests, but also with standardized multidimensional assessments (taking into account aspects of neuropsychomotor development, and in particular attention, language, psychoaffective development, etc.) .
Finally, if all these assessments are valid tools, the results must always be placed and analyzed in the environmental context in which a child evolves (family, socio-cultural and school environment), as well as according to his unique history. Thus, it is when a child who presents with mature verbal development begins to cause behavioral problems at home or at school (and from kindergarten), with or without consequences for school grades, that it may be worthwhile to begin evaluating him or her to understand if there is a reason for his behavior. Very often, the child is evaluated late at the faculty level, because at that time everything becomes more complicated every day, in this case at the level of academic requirements. In contrast, not all disruptive behavior should be consistently associated with an HPI profile and may result from other causes.
What does an IQ test look like?
For children between 6 and 17 years of age, the most appropriate test to use is the WISC-V. It provides the complete cognitive profile as well as a score for the five main components of cognitive intelligence: verbal comprehension index, visuospatial index, fluid reasoning index (logical reasoning), working memory index (short-term memory) and of processing speed. (speed of thinking and execution). Each of these indices is constructed by having children pass different tests (“subtests”).
A good practice could be to present the test results in the form of confidence intervals, avoiding as much as possible, both with families and teams, respecting the scores and trying to open a discussion about the profile cognitive including other types of assessment.
Read our text: IQ, a reliable measure of intelligence… really ?
Focus on children’s motor skills
For the proposed assessments to be relevant and thereby improve the identification of children, scientists believe that it is necessary to conduct rigorous research to better document the characteristics of HPI, and this from the earliest stages of development (and not only when the children are of school age).
Data have for example made it possible to confirm that beyond having an IQ greater than 130, these children are characterized by a early motor and language development compared to “neurotypical” children. The ability to sit, the acquisition of walking or even access to language (with the appearance of the first sentences) would happen, for example, earlier than for other children.
Other studies, however, indicate that some children may present with HPI what is called a “heterogeneous IQ profile”, it means that the scores obtained for the different indices of the test are marked with large differences. Thus, lower scores would reveal difficulties in some aspects, for example at the level of fine motor skills (difficulty writing legibly, coordination or visuospatial problems, etc.), even when other indices are especially high (for example, verbal comprehension index).
Some of these children would even meet the diagnostic criteria a developmental coordination disorder (CDD or dyspraxia), which translates into great difficulty in various activities of daily life (using cutlery, dressing, tying shoelaces, etc.) or in recreational activities (building games, puzzles, etc.).
Furthermore, the data suggest that HPI children with a heterogeneous IQ profile may exhibit a greater tendency toward isolation, introversion, and anxiety. Moreover, some of them can show strong reactions to disappointment and even some features of depression. However, this often goes unnoticed because they generally manage to hide their difficulties through compensation strategies.
Therefore, these research results again underscore the need to provide children with more comprehensive assessments that focus on the IQ profile and any disparities between test scores. In addition, it is important that these additional investigations used are standardized and standardized, especially in the neuropsychomotor, neuropsychological and psychoaffective domains. This last area should not be neglected, as testing can reveal difficulties with social recognition (empathy difficulties, emotional hypersensitivity…).
Education and care
While this is often the most emphasized aspect, especially in the media, it is also important to note that HPI is not necessarily synonymous with academic difficulties. Since the most popular HPIs are the ones consulted, it is not surprising to find in this group the problems that have made their reputation. If it turns out that the children in high the potential may have a learning disability, it is also important to underline that not everyone is therefore systematically in a situation of academic failure. In contrast, not all children with learning difficulties have HPI.
Faced with the risk of dropping out, it is essential during the evaluations of the child to analyze if there are problems that could explain dropping out of school: for example, if the child shows anxiety. Indeed, anxiety disorders are present in 40.5% of HPI children and are heterogeneously associated with a high verbal potential with motor disorders affecting their writing, for example.
For scientists, the priority is to continue research to better identify the functioning and properly describe the special characteristics, cognitive abilities and possible difficulties of HPI children in all their diversity, relying on the coordination between professionals in education , health and national research.
Text written with the support of Laurence Vaivre-Douret
Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health (UMR 1018-Inserm/UVSQ/Paris Cité University), Psy-Dev Team “Neurodevelopment and learning disabilities”, Necker’s website.
University Professor in Developmental Neuropsychology, Faculty of Health, Paris Descartes UFR of Medicine, Paris Cité University, and Chair of Clinical Neurodevelopmental Phenotyping at the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF).
Clinical psychologist-neuropsychologist, psychotherapist, attached to the Necker-Enfants Malades University Hospital, AP-HP.Centre, Paris Cité University.