Teaching Social Skills to Young Gifted Children: Why & How

By Deborah L. Ruf, PhD

Children, even very bright children, don’t automatically know what socially acceptable behavior is. We need to teach them. How do we do this without crushing their spirits or forcing them to conform to a system that doesn’t seem to fit them? These are questions I hope to answer in this article.
As an educational consultant, I work with many families who have young gifted children. Beyond needing “proof” that their child is gifted, many parents often simply want to know: “Is my child unusual?” “Is my child okay?” “Is my child odd or weird?”
Because the vast majority of the children with whom I work are in the moderately to profoundly gifted range intellectually, my experience and exposure to a large number of such children makes it easier for me to tell whether or not a child really does need some help in becoming more socialized and more able to interact effectively with others. It is important to prepare our children for navigating social waters before they start preschool or kindergarten. If your child is to have a good experience in group settings, social behaviors are best learned first at home. Such experience and instruction should not be left to groups of children and teachers in the school setting. And, no, having a lot of curiosity or a very active brain is still no excuse for bad behavior. But, what’s bad or worrisome behavior and what’s normal, developmental and okay?

What Are Social Skills?
Whether gifted or not, a well-behaved child is nice to be around.
According to Pearson Education, Inc. in a description of its Social Skills Improvement System (Elliott, 2007), examples of social skills are included within the broad categories of communication and engagement, cooperation, self-control, responsibility and empathy.
Generally speaking, when we talk about social skills, we usually mean skills that enable children to get along with others, especially children in their own age group. But, in reality, a five-year-old child doesn’t learn good social skills from other five-year-olds. Children learn social skills from people who already have social skills: adults. Social skills include things like saying please and thank you, taking turns, being quiet when someone else is speaking, not making odd or distracting noises, and showing respect by paying attention when someone is talking to the group or to us.

How It All Starts – the Early Years
When it’s our own child, sometimes we aren’t sure that the expectations of others are “right” for our child. After all, our child talks a lot, interrupts adults, and is bubbling over with curiosity and enthusiasm because he (or she) is gifted! Maybe no one has actually said yet that our child is gifted, but parents usually know if their child is advanced of others the same age. And many people have complimented us, and expressed amazement, for these very qualities in our child. But as our child has gotten older, many of us have also noticed that some people seem annoyed or competitive with our child.
What’s going on here? How do we know what’s normal for most children their age and what’s more normal – and perhaps a little different – for gifted children? Where do some of these normal things—behaviors and traits—overlap? Does the child’s behavior fall within a socially acceptable range despite his or her advanced cognitive and verbal skills? The truth is that, at the very least, a gifted child needs to be taught how to share, take turns, and not touch things that don’t belong to him or her without asking first, no matter how curious the child. Others aren’t likely to give a child a “pass” just because he or she is gifted and this is normal behavior for gifted children.

How does it happen that some parents get lulled into believing their child is okay while others see their child as “full of himself” or “a show-off” or “spoiled”? Early, adult-like speaking abilities, curiosity and memory – sponge-like learning, many parents say – are common among young gifted children. Quite naturally and understandably, this precocity is often a source of great pride, interest, and delight for the parents. The children become very accustomed to our attention and delight, and in many cases, gifted children pick up on just what it is we like about their behaviors. We like how quickly they learn. We like when they use big words, start to recognize words in books and on store fronts, are good with puzzles or music or numbers. We like when they show us their excellent memories for details and events. Many of us can’t help but exclaim enthusiastically, “Good job!” whenever they do something well or pleasantly unexpected. Children repeat what works well for them.

But other people have children, too. They are also delighted with their own children. Few of them wish to hear endlessly from you or your child about what he can do or what she knows. Many a bright child starts to “show off” by repeating behaviors that have consistently brought praise in the past. Even grandparents can begin to show disdain for what they perceive as “spoiling” behaviors on the parents’ part. Can it be that all of these people just don’t understand?
Social Skills Can Make a Big Difference from the Very Beginning
As with all children, when gifted toddlers grow into gifted preschoolers, their behavior more and more affects how others react to them. And sometimes we don’t know what to do to help them navigate these tricky social waters. We don’t want to discourage their curiosity or their delight in sharing their abilities, but we need to teach them how to take turns, get along with others, follow the group rules, and gain an awareness of the needs and expectations of others.
What happens if we don’t teach these skills to young gifted children before they even start school? Preschool and primary grade teachers work with many children at once. They haven’t the time in these group settings to direct individual children in general group cooperation and behaviors; indeed, they hope that parents have already done the primary job of socializing their children prior to school entrance.
How can we help these children maintain their growing confidence and skills while at the same time discourage any sense on their part that they will and must be the center of attention?

Early speech – especially verbally precocious speech – can quickly become problematic for others. When a young child is so curious that he or she prefers to wander around a new space touching and picking things up rather than sitting quietly in a circle for group story time, that, too, can become an issue for others.
Talking Too Much, Interrupting, Needing to be the Center of Attention
When our babies are born, they are strangers to us at first. But not for long! We talk to them, focus on them, imitate their sounds, and stare at them—right into their beautiful eyes. We delight in their first words. It’s a rare parent who is too busy to pay attention to their toddler at this stage of development. But somewhere along the line we get busy and expect them to entertain themselves and learn independence. How parents handle that “busy” part can have a great influence on whether or not children can take their turn in a conversation, not interrupt, and get better and better at summarizing what they have to say. They can even learn—without having their self-esteem wounded—how to save what they have to say or ask until a better time. They can learn, too, that not every thought requires a vocalization. The following stories show a number of ways that children’s precocious speech can go from charming to annoying.

What Does It Look Like?
A former gifted child, Mary Ellen, now watching her own grandchildren grow and develop, remembered this story from childhood:
“On a car ride home from Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I regaled my parents with a re-telling of the movie we had seen while there, “The Shaggy Dog.” The trip from Sandusky to Warrensville Heights was about 80 miles and we still didn’t have freeways. I finished my ‘retelling’ by the time we got home. My being gifted with an amazing memory shouldn’t have led to my being allowed to monopolize the car trip for the whole family that way, but I think my parents weren’t sure what to do! Should they stop me and possibly hurt my feelings? Were they so amazed and proud of their bright daughter that it didn’t occur to them to stop me? How must my two younger brothers have felt as they got no chance at all to speak on the whole trip?”

It wasn’t much better at the dinner table each night. Dad apparently thought I was adorable, which is good in some ways, but Mom knew my brothers needed a chance to hold Center Stage from time to time, as well. She didn’t prevail very often. This didn’t serve me—or my brothers—well at all going forward. I didn’t always talk too much, but often enough throughout my life that it took quite a bit of work on my part to learn differently.”
Another family had a middle child, Stephen, who—from a very early age—not quite three—loved to keep score at different sporting events like basketball or bowling. His father became so enthralled with this son’s ability that he loved nothing better than to take him to games and let others hear his brilliant son add up the scores, know what each move meant, and generally learn to “perform” for others as a way of getting positive attention for himself and his father. Before too long, his brothers refused to go along for any of these outings because they felt—and were—over-shadowed by their brother. Eventually, the brothers opted not to play most family games, either, because their efforts were seldom noticed as all-that-great.

A third family has only one child so far, Stephanie, who is not quite four years old. Several of their friends are also parents now and the couples wish to get together to see each other and to give their children time to get to know each other and play together. Stephanie doesn’t want to be with the other children for long because she finds the adult conversation more interesting. She actually is a very good talker and her parents notice right away that their child is advanced in this regard from their friends’ children. They’re torn between forcing their daughter to go back to the other children and letting her show off her skills to the adult friends.
Another familiar scenario is that of a parent trying to talk undisturbed on the phone. Elizabeth, like most children, often jumps up from whatever she is doing in order to ask her mother for attention. The adult conversation becomes impossible to conduct. The person on the other end of the phone has to wait while mother corrects or distracts or bribes Elizabeth to let her finish her conversation. Or, even worse, mother often allows Elizabeth to talk on the phone, too, and expects the adult friend to play along.

There are many more examples, of course, of how verbally precocious young children apparently see nothing wrong with talking too much or at the wrong times.
Gifted children usually like to talk a lot once they know how. Admiring, excited (proud) parents are often unwilling to thwart their precocious, adorable youngsters. Many have told me that their friends just don’t understand that their child is advanced and curious and actually needs to be with older children or adults to have a good time. They’re bored with children their own age. Parents tell me that some of their friends seem to be jealous and competitive and their relatives think their child is spoiled. In other words, these other adults just don’t seem to understand and say—or imply—their child needs to learn to get along with others his or her own age.
Is the behavior in these stories normal? Yes. Is it okay? No, but it won’t disappear or get better on its own. You need to teach and demonstrate appropriate social skills. You also need to monitor when your child simply is not ready for some social situations yet.

What Can Parents and Care-takers Do?
Parents must diligently and consistently work on explaining how to take turns, how to wait until another has finished talking, how to find something else to do so as not to intrude on adult conversation, and demonstrate a willingness on their own part to do the same. Good parenting requires attention to the child.
This comes down to how to teach children about “delay of gratification.” Watch this more recent video of what I mean: The Marshmallow Experiment. Although the original study from 1960 concluded that children who can delay gratification and wait patiently for a promised reward, is related to later performance on SATs, I believe it has as much to do with how parents “prime” the child as it does about the child’s intellectual abilities. When a parent tells the child, “I will have time to listen to you in 15 minutes,” the child will learn to wait until the timing is better. The key is to be consistent and truthful. This is a contract with the child and how the adult performs makes a huge difference. This is not distraction. You cannot distract a gifted child from going after what he or she wants!

My favorite recommendation for my clients is the 1964 parenting book by Rudolf Dreikurs, Children the Challenge. In it he gives many examples of how to establish expectations and behaviors with children that are consistent and non-punitive. The primary difference between parenting gifted children compared to more typical children is one of degree. For gifted children, they are ready for explanations and discussions about things sooner than most age peers. Their self-esteem benefits, too, when their parents and other adults treat them as though they are deserving and worthy of some reasons behind any rules or expectations. I don’t mean they can question everything every time but that they’ll more easily become part of any solutions when they understand why it’s a good idea for one and all.
Gifted children absolutely need their parents to be authority figures, the ones in charge. This makes children feel safe and secure. It is very normal, however, for children to test their limits and try many ways to gain control themselves. The truth, though, is that no matter how smart a child, he or she is still a child. Gifted children don’t have wisdom or perspective. Parents should never assume that if the child is so smart, he or she should be able to figure things out on his or her own. It simply doesn’t happen! For more information on this topic, I recommend A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (2007). In it, the authors describe parenting types and why an authoritative approach to parenting is the best approach.

What about teaching your very young child how to get along with others his or her own age? Before age five, hardly any child is developmentally ready to peacefully and cooperatively play with others who are the same age. Adult supervision and guidance are needed. Sometimes the other children don’t share overlapping skills or interests and your child isn’t mature enough yet to work it out. Parallel playing is typical for most children before age three. This means that they may occupy the same space but aren’t really playing with each other. A gifted child is likely to have ideas about how the playing should go and when another child won’t listen, show interest, or cooperate with your child’s plan, pre-planning by parents is helpful. It may be a better solution to make sure there are enough interesting toys or play-things available, things that will draw the attention of your child and seem special to him or her. Such a strategy enables him or her how to spend time alone in the group while the other children play at something else.

Prepare your child for mixed-age groups ahead of time. “We’re going to visit Mommy and Daddy’s friends, Martha and Paul, and little Naomi. Remember her? While the grown-ups talk to each other and visit, you kids can either play something together or you can each play something alone that you like, but this will be a time that children and parents won’t talk together until it’s dinnertime.” Then make sure you’ve planned ahead with the other parents about what the children might like to do that will keep them busy, happy, and not leave them feeling they aren’t welcome or important to this social event.

Furthermore, until you’ve seen that your child is comfortable and enjoys the company of your friends’ children, don’t leave them to their own devices to figure out what to do, how to share, and how to keep themselves busy without bothering the adults. After age two, it’s a wonderful plan to select something – a children’s movie or television show—the children will enjoy watching for 30 minutes or so as part of the special thing that is just for them on this occasion.
If there is a beach or sandbox or playground, keep in mind that you will need to be more interactive and attentive with the children than if you are all inside. It’s not fair or appropriate to expect your young child not to interrupt you or ask for help or attention at the playground while you talk to the other adults. As your child matures and is able to be safely more independent—over five years old might be a reasonable starting point for that—then you can discuss ahead of time whether or not you’re going so the two or three of you can spend time together or you’re going so you can talk to other adults while your child plays.

You cannot teach your child how to delay gratification—wait for a better moment to talk to you and expect a positive response—if you’re inconsistent. Don’t have the first time he hears, “Can’t you see I’m talking to Margaret? Don’t interrupt!” as the first step in your instruction. From a very early age you should set up opportunities to practice what you want your child to know about social situations and when it’s okay to talk.

Many people have seen the scenario where the child has been told to say, “Excuse me,” and then barges ahead into the conversation as though the “excuse me” were enough. If you tell your child to say “Excuse me,” when he interrupts, you’ve basically told him it’s still okay to interrupt. It generally isn’t! It’s annoying at the very least, and ends up being confusing to the child when the adult reaction ultimately becomes one of irritation. You have to tell the child how to navigate these tricky waters. Then you have to do your part.

Demonstrate what you mean. Here’s an example of what a father might say to his daughter.
“Mandy, you know how when Momma talks on the phone to Grandma it can take a long, long time? Sometimes I need to ask her something or tell her something but I don’t want to interrupt her. Maybe I need to go outside to turn off the water in the garden but I want her to know that she needs to watch you and your brother while I’m gone. That’s a good reason to interrupt. I’ll say, “Excuse me. May I tell you something quickly?” And then I’ll wait for her to tell Grandma to wait a moment, and I’ll tell Momma what I need to tell her.”

Okay, so far so good. Sometimes, what we or our children want to say isn’t really important; we just want someone to listen to us, or we want to share a thought. You can actually work with a gifted child as young as three years old by using reasoning and examples in a natural way over many months. Here’s another time Dad is talking to Mandy:
“Mandy, when is it okay to interrupt someone?”
“When you want to tell them something and you say excuse me.”
“Well, sometimes you might want to tell them something but you could wait and tell them later. Let’s play a game about when it’s okay to interrupt and when it’s better to wait.” Then give your child familiar examples and show pleasure and approval as she learns which things warrant an interruption. One example of ‘not okay to interrupt’ is, “I finished two puzzles.” An example of ‘okay to interrupt’ is, “I can’t turn the water off and it’s coming over the sides of the sink!”
Be sure you give your children enough attention and feedback that they know you’ll eventually pay direct attention to them. If you’re in the middle of a phone conversation, or you have three children with you at the dinner table, or you’re trying to talk to the clerk in the grocery store, tell your child, “Not right this minute, Sammy, but when I’m through paying for the groceries I’ll be ready to listen to you.” Then, just in case the interruption had something to do with what’s going on in the store, try to address Sammy’s verbal – and perhaps emotional – needs before you leave the building!

If there are several children vying for your attention at the same time, carefully observe giving turns and attention. I often recommend to parents that they split up their children for errands so each one gets more opportunities for adult attention without sibling interruption. Parents often worry if their children don’t seem to all get along well together that something is wrong. If that truly is the case—and it’s certainly not unusual or anyone’s fault—don’t force them into situations that clearly bring out the worst in their interactions. Eating dinner together is the best approach for setting ground-rules on talking and listening, table manners, and patience while another has his or her turn talking because both parents are there supervising and making sure things go as they should. In most families, that may indeed be enough. As the children mature (and this may not occur until they’re practically grown up!) they will at least know how to be civil to one another if you’ve set these behaviors into practice from a very early age.

Another issue is sensitivities. Some children are very sensitive to what may sound to them like criticism. This won’t be a problem, though, once you have consistently taken the time to teach your children that there are times when we need to wait to talk, but we will all get our turn at attention.
Keep in mind that how you talk to your gifted young child can greatly affect their self-concept, confidence and trust. Some statements are shaming; they make the child feel guilty and wrong and blamed. For example, “You know better than that!” is not the same as saying, “Now, Jamie. You know that when I am speaking with another adult, you need to use what we talked about to decide if you should wait or politely interrupt by saying excuse me.” Or, “Jamie, you’ll get your turn to tell your story about what you did today after your sister has finished her turn.” These are gentle reminders rather than criticisms or rebukes. Then, if your child persists or whines or starts to throw a fit, excuse yourself from the conversation you were in, remove your child to another room or area, have the conversation about waiting, do not listen to their own story at this time, give the child a hug and kiss, and go back to your own conversation. Keep in mind that this will rarely happen if you’ve been setting up the expectations consistently along the way.

In the case of rapid or advanced learners, however, their parents are often unaware of what their children will encounter once they begin school, so they might not realize what skills their children will need once they start their official schooling. It is important to be liked by others and welcomed into their groups. It’s obvious that it is important to the child’s self-concept and self-esteem, but recent research underscores additional value of popularity for a person’s lifetime, not just the present.
If they haven’t been prepared ahead of time, and the parents haven’t found a school setting where the child is fairly typical rather than one of the most advanced learners in the classroom, the gifted child will take a social “hit” very quickly. Why is this so?

The School Setting
School is somewhat of an artificial setting in that it is the only period in our lives where we are expected to spend most of our time with people in our precise age range. Prior to the 20th century, education wasn’t set up that way. Most children were either in a one-room schoolhouse type of setting or were tutored at home or by itinerant teachers. For gifted children, being grouped with others of the same age who are mostly of widely differing academic skills and abilities, it is extra challenging to figure out how to “get along” with the other children and “go along” with instruction and pacing that is quite often well below what they are ready to do.
David Lohman, author of the Cognitive Abilities Test, tells us that in the typical American mixed-ability 1st grade classroom, there are already 12 grade equivalencies of achievement within the group of children in the class. This is before official academic instruction has begun. As amazing is the research and compilation of research done by Francois Gagne stating unequivocally that there is an achievement gap related to ability that actually “fans” out – gets larger – over the time students are in school.

Although many people assume it is primarily the quality of the home environment or excellence of some preschool programs, there is more to this range of achievements than differing early childhood exposure. As work with my Developmental Milestones and eventual correlation with actual tested IQ results have shown, gifted learning capacity and behavior simply begin earlier in the brains of gifted children. They start absorbing from their environment, and continue to build upon their early learning, sooner than children whose brains develop later. [For more on this, see chapter 3 of my book, 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options (2005) (formerly titled Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind) and be sure to read the Endnote #5 from Chapter 4 about the effects of Sesame Street, as an example].

Children’s brains absorb from their surroundings as their brains are ready to absorb; you can’t make it happen significantly sooner through pushing experiences upon children before they are ready. As I tell my clients, premature introduction of information is like so much “white noise” to a young child whose brain is simply not ready to hear it and understand it. If all the children in the typical first grade classroom began school together as two or three-year-olds, this would not meaningfully change the ultimate range of learning abilities within the group.

All of these thinking and learning differences have significant social implications, as well. People who are in the same intellectual range as we are tend to share more interests with us and also tend to get our jokes. When children are too intellectually different from their classmates, they can find it difficult to find good friends or social acceptance. This is one of the reasons so many gifted children gravitate more toward their teachers than to classmates. The teacher’s maturity level makes it more likely he or she will “get” the child’s humor and understand the child’s observations and advanced speech.

Advanced sense of humor is a common descriptor of gifted learners. Classmates simply may not be there yet, not intellectually mature enough yet, to understand the gifted child’s humor. The gifted child will say something in class that she thinks is funny, and it will fall flat. As I gave this example to a couple during a follow-up consultation, the mother said, “Oh, my! I remember a time when I was in 6th grade and a classmate took me aside and told me, ‘Alice, I know you think you’re funny, but you’re not.’ I was alarmed, shamed. Here I thought I was funny and she was telling me no one else thought so. How embarrassing. Now it makes some sense.”

Other classroom adjustment issues crop up, including the gifted child bragging or showing off, being dismissive of classmates who are slow to catch on, knowing when and where competition is appropriate, gaining awareness of other people’s needs and viewpoints, and developing methods for meeting one’s own needs based on circumstances.

Again, the most valuable book I have found that gives specifics on many of these issues is the very old Children the Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs. Although there are many other books and articles that tell you what gifted children are like, I haven’t discovered any that get this specific about scenarios and how to react and act that are this helpful.

If your child is fortunate enough to fit the social group in his or her classroom, as in a gifted magnet school or any school where families have a great deal in common, then little advocacy for “more” or “different” will be necessary. But if the child is so intellectually different and advanced that neither the school work nor classmates can meet the academic, intellectual and social-emotional needs of your child, you’ll need to advocate for different opportunities for your child.
Remember what I said at the beginning?

“Whether gifted or not, a well-behaved child is nice to be around.” People won’t generally give annoying or poor behavior “a pass” just because the child is so special, so gifted.

If parents haven’t effectively taught their children social skills like the ones discussed in this article, teachers have a hard time discerning whether or not the child is simply spoiled, pampered, and self-centered or truly needs changes to be made on his or her behalf. Primary grade teachers focus on social skills and social adjustment. If the gifted child hasn’t learned ahead of time to wait turns, share, find something to do alone, be kind to those who take more time to catch on, and so on, the teacher is unlikely to see this bad behavior as being caused by boredom or lack of interesting learning.

A gifted child who already has fairly good social skills upon arriving in the early grade classroom will engender far more positive interest and cooperation from school personnel when parents go in for that first conference on what the child needs in order to thrive. And, as it turns out, your child will already know how to be patient and work with you on any solutions.

Dreikurs, R. (1964). Children the challenge: the classic work on improving parent-child relations—intelligent, humane, and eminently practical. Hawthorne Books. Now Plume. Check how to do this.
Elliott, S. N. (2007). Social Skills Improvement System. Pearson Education, Inc.
Galeotti, A., Mueller, G., & Stephen Pudney. (2012). Popularity, working paper 18475 at http://papers.nber.org/papers/w18475
Lohman, D. F. (1999). Minding our p’s and q’s: On finding relationships between learning and intelligence. In Ackerman, P. L., Kyllonen, P. C., & Roberts, R. D. (Eds.), Learning and individual differences: Process, trait, and content determinants (pp. 55–76). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Ruf, D. L. (2005, 2009). 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Ruf, D. L. (2001, 2009) Developmental Milestones. Intake form for clients of Educational Options.
Ruf, D. L., & Kuusisto, L. A. (2010). Keys to successfully parenting the gifted child ebook. Minneapolis: Talentigniter.com.
Webb, J. T., Gore, J. L., Amend, E. R., & DeVries, A. R. (2007). A parent’s guide to gifted children. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Founder and Director of Educational Options in Minneapolis, MN, and President of the online gifted entity TalentIgniter.com, Deborah Ruf holds a PhD in Educational Psychology. She authored the book 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options (2009) (formerly titled Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind, 2010), and created the online Ruf Estimates of Levels of Gifted Online Assessment©, a tool that gives parents a head start on what their children will need in school. Winner of Mensa Research Foundation’s Intellectual Benefits Award, Dr. Ruf works professionally as a specialist in gifted assessment and individualized interpretations and guidance for gifted children and adults.