Psychologists who study gifted children are familiar with the following scenario: A child is referred to their school psychologist because of "behavioral problems in the classroom," problems that often include descriptions such as "inattentiveness," "sass," and "outbursts." Following a battery of tests, the school psychologist reports the surprising results. No, the child does not suffer from attention deficit disorder or oppositional defiant disorder. The child "suffers" from…giftedness.
Giftedness can be as much a curse as a blessing. It depends a good deal on the environment within which that giftedness finds itself. To a harried teacher with lesson plans to cover before the bell rings, the seemingly incessant questions of gifted children can seem like a special kind of hell. Gifted children often find age-appropriate lesson plans boring because their cognitive skills may extend well beyond the schoolwork and lessons contained in those plans. On the playground, they can exhibit a trait termed an "unstoppable urge to create" by Dr. Joan Freeman, a specialist in the needs of gifted children. This "urge to create" makes it difficult for gifted children to simply "play by the rules." Although they quickly learn the rules of a game, they just as quickly become bored with them and want to change them — frequently leading to consternation on the part of other children who often find solace and comfort in routine. As adults, the gifted can find the workplace, with its many rules and often rigid power hierarchy, a particularly stressful work environment.
Research indicates that giftedness also is associated with intellectual, emotional, imaginational, sensual, and psychomotor "over-excitabilities". Gifted individuals tend to be emotionally sensitive and empathic, making the normal rough and tumble of the playground stressful for them. Because they often feel they are held to higher standards than their peers, they can find it difficult to accept criticism (anything short of perfection is felt as failure). Their over-excitability can make them stand out from peers (and not in a good way), leading them to feel isolated and misunderstood as children and as adults.
Given these problems, one might wonder whether giftedness is more curse than blessing. But giftedness also carries potential for greatness — not just for the gifted individual, but for those who stand to benefit from their accomplishments. We tune in to sporting events to watch gifted athletes perform amazing feats for our teams. We buy the new inventions created by the gifted that make our lives easier and richer. We read the books and watch the movies that emerged from the minds of those who have a natural talent for story-telling.
So what do the gifted need to reach their full potential? Research shows that these are perhaps the three most important factors:
1. Being with others who are like them. If you've ever watched the TV show "The Big Bang Theory," you know the importance of this factor. The show's main characters are brilliant male and female "nerds" who fit in just fine with each other and stand out like tarantulas on white bread everywhere else. No matter who you are, you need to feel there is a place you belong. A good deal of research indicates that gifted adults who are in frequent contact with other gifted individuals are more likely to feel belongingness and satisfaction, whereas those whose social environments do not include other gifted adults feel isolated and dissatisfied.
2. Education settings that challenge them intellectually. In one study, gifted adults who had participated in advanced placement courses in high school were surveyed 15 years after graduation. Eighty-five percent of participants described their academic experiences in advanced classes as positive, and 88 percent of participants indicated that they would support advanced placement for their children if it were recommended by the school. Another study compared successful and unsuccessful men who were identified as "geniuses" during childhood. Their results showed that, even among geniuses, educational achievement was the major determiner of success in adulthood.
3. Not being treated differently. In her book Gifted Lives, Dr. Joan Freemen points out that once parents, teachers, and peers see that gifted children are advanced, then they start treating them differently. But, as she emphatically points out, they are advanced only in certain areas and are normal children in every other way. Just being labeled "gifted" can create emotional and social havoc. In one longitudinal study, over 100 children labeled "gifted" child were matched for age, sex, and socioeconomic status (SES) with two others in the same school class. The first matched child had an identical IQ score, and the second was chosen at random. The results showed quite startlingly that the group labeled "gifted" had significantly more emotional problems than the unlabeled gifted group during childhood. By 2005, the labeled and unabeled gifted groups (now in their 40's) were not very different in life outcomes, but both groups were much more successful than the randomly selected group. The factors that predicted life outcome for the labeled and unlabeled gifted groups were hard work, emotional support, and a positive, open personal outlook.
You can find more information about giftedness, including how to determine whether you or your child is gifted, in my previous article on gifted testing.
Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins July 15, 2014
Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.
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