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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Social Development of Gifted Children

by Benjamin Hebebrand, Head of School, Quest Academy

It is mostly due to common stereotypes that gifted children are occasionally (and I would add unfortunately) portrayed as “geeky,” “quirky,” or somehow inept at forging and maintaining meaningful friendships or other types of relationships. The research actually tells a different story. According to Nancy M. Robinson, professor emerita at the University of Washington and author of Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children “gifted youngsters, as a group, are probably more robust than an unselected group of their agemates” when investigating social vulnerabilities. “But neither are they (gifted youngsters) immune to the social-emotional issues and disorders that other people endure.”

Because gifted students possess unique intellectual characteristics, it is rather likely that these characteristics have a direct impact on personality traits that gifted students develop. In essence, one’s thinking influences one’s way of presenting oneself or being perceived in social situations. Linda K. Silverman, director of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, as well as the Gifted Development Center in Denver, Colorado, presents how some gifted intellectual traits may translate into personality traits. These traits, in my opinion, can lead to both positive and negative consequences in social contexts:

1)     Exceptional reasoning ability may lead to insightfulness: this may indicate that gifted youngsters develop a grasp on social dynamics.

2)     Intellectual curiosity may lead to gifted child’s need to understand: this may indicate that a gifted child asks many questions about social contexts.

3)     Rapid learning rate may lead to a gifted child’s need for mental stimulation: this may lead to behaviors in social contexts where a child is perceived to be tuning out or to advance a social interaction with meaningful comments or observations.

4)     A vivid imagination may result in an excellent sense of humor: this may lead to a gifted child’s tendency to find and bring about humorous associations in social contexts. Sometimes, the humor is too imagination-rich for others to follow.

5)     A passion for learning may lead to intensity: this may cause a gifted child to dwell on certain moments or statements occurring in social situations.

A 2002 task force commissioned by the National Association for Gifted Children confirmed Robinson’s findings by concluding that “high ability students are typically at least as well adjusted as any other group of youngsters.” Interestingly enough, the task force also determined that gifted children face situations that may present challenges and risks to their social-emotional development. The following were identified:

1)     Gifted students’ intellectual and social advancement as compared to age peers may result in “social environments poorly calibrated to their interests, language, and personal maturity.

2)     School settings that do not match “the level and pace of their learning and understanding.”

3)     Gifted students may be prone to asynchronies or uneven internal developments (i.e in a rather general sense a child’s cognitive development may be far more advanced than one’s social-emotional development).

4)     Gifted students may experience higher “tensions” due to their “creativity, energy, intensity, and high aspirations, often far greater than those expected at their age.”

5)     Gifted children may also wish to be “like everyone else” and thus are tempted to “deny their abilities in the service of finding friends.”

6)     Sadly, gifted students may encounter milieus that do not value intellectual traits (anti-intellectual). Such environments may be unfriendly and negative toward the gifted child.

Research has uncovered various coping skills that gifted pre-adolescents and early teenagers (ages 11-15) report in terms of dealing with challenges and risks posed by their intellectual giftedness and associated personality traits. Thom Buescher, who works with gifted adolescents, has recorded several behaviors and mindsets that gifted adolescents have reported to him – these coping skills are listed in order of preferred choices. This implies that some coping skills are better than others – the ones listed toward the bottom of this list are not recommended, while the ones on top are indeed good choices:

1)      “Become comfortable with your abilities and use them to help peers.”

2)      “Seek friends among other students who have exceptional abilities.”

3)      “Select programs and classes that are designed for gifted students.”

4)      “Seek adults to relate to.”

5)      “Focus on achieving at school in nonacademic ways.”

6)      “Develop talents outside of school.”

7)      “Engage in community activities where age is unimportant.”

8)      “Avoid programs designed for gifted students.”

9)      “Change language and behavior to mask your true abilities.”

10)   “Acting like a ‘brain’ so friends leave you alone.”

11)   “Pretending to know less than you do.”

At a gifted education school such as Quest Academy, where I serve as Head of School, we have chosen to meet the academic needs of children in a nurturing environment. As a result, we have adopted a school-wide character education system that not only facilitates appropriate behaviors in social contexts, but also performance character, whereby gifted students can properly reflect on their intellectual gifts in developing a sense of modesty, industry, patience, and self-discipline.