Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

The Double-Edged Sword of Giftedness, Part 2: Affective Traits

Some adults might tell John just to "toughen" or "lighten" up.

A man behind me, four rows back or so, is wrapping up his point and I couldn't agree with him more. I find myself nodding my head repeatedly.

"In elementary school, at least I think this is true, most of the kids are more willing to tolerate a kid like my son. I guess I worry about what will happen to him when he gets to middle school though and his peers there are, well, less than kind. Middle school is notoriously rough on everyone, right? And I have a sensitive kid-a boy no less. We're doomed, aren't we? Maybe you could speak to that."

I look back with him to the stage where three guidance counselors are seated. Behind them is a slide from a PowerPoint presentation; its title explains why we are all here: "Gifted Advisory Council--Meeting the Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Students." This is the agenda of the meeting tonight where approximately seventy-five of us-some teachers, some administrators, but mostly parents-gather once a month to discuss issues pertinent to this particular subset of students.

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The guidance counselors look at one another as if to ask who is willing to field an answer to this gentleman's question. Any of them could easily speak to the social rigors of middle school but to do so after hearing this man's brief story is a challenge. It requires the ability to carefully straddle the intersecting lines of being realistic, genuinely responsive to his concerns-all while being at the same time, well,... diplomatic.

Inwardly I sigh because this is a tough one to field in front of other parents in such a large group fashion-especially when, like myself, others were nodding their heads just seconds ago in a silent amen as the father explained just how "almost overly touchy" his son was when for example, he saw another child being admonished "unfairly" or bullied "meanly." On such occasions, the boy was "outraged." He questioned, at times, even the reason for school rules and why they were so seemingly "arbitrary." The whole dynamics of "right and wrong", in fact became an obstacle to his son's school experiences at times.

The truth is that what the father was offering as a unique perspective of his own son is not all that unusual for gifted students. In fact, if this whole meeting were able to flow in a more organic fashion, most of the parents here would quickly realize that there are many such behavioral traits that unite their gifted students. And, if say given another hour or so, that conversation ranged even just a bit further, they'd discover something else they have in common.

Those very distinctive and identifiable affective qualities of their gifted children can quite easily be a double-edged sword. Taking the good with the bad, what follows are just a few of these commonalities.
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Affective Trait #1: Gifted students are likely to have a highly developed sense of humor. Of course this is a wonderful quality, right?! To make someone else chuckle or smile is one of the most selfless gifts we can offer another human being. Gifted students often excel at seeing the humorous side of a situation-even where others may not. ("Mom, the bad news: I broke the vase. The good news: we don't have to worry about dusting it any more!") Similarly, they are equally adept on picking up the humor in conversation that ranges above their chronological age (so, parents, be careful at the upcoming holiday parties!).

But imagine too the power that humor has in a classroom situation, where perhaps the child is bored by the curriculum and sees opportunities abounding for a humorous commentary. Quickly and easily this child can become the class clown. Imagine further that this newfound role offers the child a chance for some positive feedback from his peers-perhaps for the first time, since he may not have received it previously for his intellectual gifts.... Well, then, let the feedback (and vicious) cycle begin! It's not long before the teacher is frustrated, the child gets his first classroom warning, and the parents get a phone call.

Affective Trait #2: It is not uncommon for gifted students to be perfectionists. Think about this quality for even half a moment and it is easy to see that this is one trait that is highly praised in our society and rewarded by our society. Many of the highest paying jobs-traffic controllers, CFOs, surgeons, etc.-require utter perfection. And while not every gifted individual is by any means a perfectionist, many are. They thrive on the nuances of projects, enjoy manipulating and working the details, composing, revising, and double (even triple!) checking the results against the expectations. For many teachers, they are the dream student. They don't leave out required elements of an assignment, they are inventive in their approach. Frankly, their work is easy to grade because it is always so consistently of a high caliber.

But for some, both parents and teachers, this trait can be a distinct source of stress as the child sweats the details again... and again... and again. Checking over their work one more time becomes a more an exercise in second-guessing themselves. They worry if their effort is fine-tuned enough, or whether their finished project could have been better conceived from the start. On the night before a project is due, this is the child who dissolves in tears while the dismayed parent tries to both comfort and coax the kid to just "Get the darn thing done!" Worse yet, if the perfectionist trait is strong enough, the child may never even really get started on the project because he fears his own expectations of the finished project could never be fully realized anyhow.

Affective Trait #3: Gifted students evaluate and critically judge others. In some ways, this trait is a correlate of the above. Where they may hold themselves to high personal standards, they also typically do so of others. Again, this can be a wonderful quality. When we hold others to a high standard, they tend to rise to that level. Classroom teachers know this, as do bosses and nearly anyone involved in human resources in private industry.

And then, for the gifted student, there's the dreaded group project. Let the grumbling begin. Should anyone in that group be a bit of a slacker (and there will most certainly be at least one) or should anyone in that group be less than perfectionistic about their own efforts (yes, there will be a few) then the gifted child either rebels against the group and demands to be allowed to do the project alone, or she quietly takes the final group's efforts home and revises the entire thing to meet her own expectations. Sometimes the group members love this ("Yes, Alexanda is in my group!") and sometimes they detest it ("Really? I've got to work with Alexandra?!").

Affective Trait #4: Gifted students tend to be concerned about ethics-the "rights and wrongs" of the world around them. As a parent, it's not hard to see realize this trait early on. A simple and routine drive to school with a gifted child can easily turn into a discussion of the moral issues surrounding the events the child overheard on the evening news broadcast last night. ("Mom, what is censorhip? Is it legal? Why is that country's leader not letting the people use Facebook? What's so bad about Facebook?") Being able to see the nuances of morality, to take on others' perspectives, is a wonderful characteristic that makes most of us empathetic and responsive citizens in our society.

But of course there is the flip side. Others may not even consider the situations that gifted students see to be "real problems" that need an "immediate solution"-they just see, well, a situation; it's neither good nor bad, it's just the way the world is. Where the gifted child wants to form a committee to support the rights of child workers in India, or embark on a fund-raising scheme to save the African elephants from poachers, others go on about their business. To the one who cares so deeply about these freedoms and careless actions, another's lack of action or passion can be misinterpreted as complete apathy, and in this way the gifted child can feel emotionally isolated from his peers. In the classroom, the gifted child may be easily frustrated when classroom rules are not explained thoroughly-or if the rationale for those rules is a tad flimsy. "We do it this way because it is the way it should be done." The gifted child will see through this circular logic and often call others on it.

Affective Trait #5: Gifted individuals tend to be highly emotionally sensitive. This is, again, often a correlate to the trait discussed above. Gifted people, particularly school age kids, might become especially empathetic to situations where there is injustice. They may have a harder time holding back these emotions and, because they are often highly verbal, they are adept at expressing their emotions to others.

If it is an equally sensitive adult who is on the listening end, that individual may be helpful in talking the child through his emotions. If, on the other hand, it is another child listening, he/she may be less than kind; sometimes even another adult may coach the child to "toughen up" or "develop a thicker skin." This is often of little help to the child who truly-really and sincerely-is upset at the way another child has been treated. Bullying, for example, a situation wherein one holds power over another through intimidation, is harder to deal with as the gifted child attempts (unsuccessfully) to square the injustice of the situation with her own emotions that this behavior churns up.

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I glance at my watch and notice that the meeting which was supposed to end at 7:30pm has run long. The topic of the evening has definitely struck a chord with those here. What's interesting is that, although much has been said, there is still so much more that could be discussed at length. Indeed the unique cognitive and affective traits of gifted learners is a topic that has filled many a book and been studied repeatedly.

Sadly, for both parents and teachers the negative aspects of these behavioral/affective traits can make these gifted kids hard to hard to identify as such to begin with--and so they spend years waiting to be recognized as the very different kind of person they really are.

I make a note to suggest this as a topic for another meeting.

NEXT BLOG: Identifying the Gifted: Troublespots

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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