Social & Emotional Needs of the Gifted, Adults and Children
by Deborah L. Ruf , written as a speech hand-out, 1994
Basic needs do not vary from one individual to another; the ways to meet those needs, however, varies from one person to another. All of us need love and acceptance, and a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It is my goal to help people understand how high intellectual functioning affects children and their development. I believe that once parents, teachers, and others who have influences over children’s lives know what these bright children need in order to flourish and become emotionally healthy, fulfilled, productive adults, they will gladly give it.
Any differences we have from those around us affect their perception of us. In our times of political-correctness we are loath to imply that intellectual giftedness is the same as intellectually superiority. We use terms including “able learners,” “academically advanced,” “bright,” and so on. The term “gifted” implies that the person thus “blessed” was given special intellectual tools. One must earn the gift through hard work, accomplishment, and good attitude. Many people view high intelligence with a mixture of fear, interest, admiration, resentment, contempt, suspicion, and appreciation. Most of us are familiar with the sometimes rather delighted observation, “Even though he was really smart as a kid, he hasn’t amounted to anything.”
An intellectually gifted child begins life receiving feedback that she is a surprising delight to her family. She receives positive feedback for her speech and vocabulary and for how quickly she figures things out and learns to do things. I believe many gifted people spend much of their remaining life trying to recreate this positive feedback and wondering what they are doing wrong.
This is one of the reasons I believe people should be given clear feedback on their giftedness. In most any other aspect of life we are willing to discuss openly with people their assorted handicaps and strengths. It is unhealthy to pretend there is nothing wrong or different, that we don’t notice these differences. It is certainly preferable to try to address and talk about the impact it can and does have on the individual’s life. Then, the adult can guide the child to problem-solve ways to cope and adjust, work on how to play up strengths and positives, and move on from there.
Sylvia Rimm (1986) and Susan Winebrenner (1994) make the connection between good self-esteem and the opportunity to engage in challenging learning. “The surest path to high self-esteem is to be successful at something the learner has perceived to be difficult. Each time we steal a student’s struggle, we steal the opportunity for him or her to feel capable by stretching to reach worthwhile goals.” Ms. Winebrenner specializes in meeting the needs of gifted learners in the inclusion classroom through a combination of curriculum compacting,, differentiating, pre-testing and individual lessons and projects. She gives many examples and samples and tries to make it sound like do-able fun. I used to teach this way, and it was challenging, fun, and rewarding. It takes lots of organization, follow-through, time, and effort. We must convince teachers that some children really do need special attention before they will go to that much effort.
I favor ability grouping and clustering for the average gifted child, not a universally popular notion, but one supported by the research literature. Kulik and Kulik (1984, 1990) and Rogers (1991) have conducted meta-analyses on grouping research results. The bottom line statistic when all the research is pooled indicates that there is no harm to anyone in either self-esteem or achievement. When schools go from heterogeneous to ability-grouped instruction, the kids in the slower two-thirds show slight achievement gains, and they show slight to no increase in academic attitude and self-esteem. How the grouped highest third reacts depends on what they receive by way of instruction. If the curriculum content and delivery are not modified to meet the ability levels of the students, the achievement gain is slight. When appropriately paced and challenging material is presented, high ability grouped students make significant gains over their comparably gifted, non-grouped peers. Their self-esteem scores take a slight initial dip, but recover as the students adjust to the challenge.
Grouping and clustering can be done informally or formally. The principal can assign children to classrooms based on demonstrated academic ability and performance. Teachers can cluster or group among themselves at grade level. Kids can be sent to higher or lower grades for instruction with other children who are working at a similar instructional level. The primary advantage of grouping over compacting and differentiating is that it is less work for the teacher. It takes less time and preparation. When a grade level team divides the children into ability groups for a particular subject, each teacher plans for just one level. Differentiation and individualizing can still take place within that group if the teacher feels the need and chooses to do so.
There are obvious advantages to an ability-grouped approach. The teacher can assign more complex material, work at a faster pace, and work on such skills as time-management and organizational skills for the rapid learners. The children have less reason to exhibit their impatience and lack of tact with the poor readers and slower learners. A big problem with non-ability grouped classes is the lack of tolerance the brightest kids seem to show for the least able learners. In young gifted children who have not had the time to learn about and understand these differences, it is natural that their responses and observations would appear insensitive and rude. “Why,” they wonder, “am I not supposed to notice when so-and-so reads worse than I did when I was in preschool, and the teacher tells him, ‘very, good, Johnny,’ and tells me to be quiet?” Young gifted children do not yet see the big picture, and sometimes we make it very hard for them indeed. In an ability grouped classroom we can more easily give the gifted child that positive feedback all human beings crave, without worrying about hurting someone else’s feelings or treating the gifted child as a pet student.
Clusters are small groups within a classroom. Clusters are intended to be for the two or three children who have demonstrated such superior learning abilities that it is clear most of the regular classroom material and pace is inappropriate. Typically, these two or three children are spread out across the grade level and need to be either assigned to the same teacher or brought together periodically during the day for instruction together. These are the children who are more than moderately gifted. I must add here that there really are some rare individuals who won’t even fit in a grade level cluster, especially in elementary school. Their reading and comprehension skills, and sometimes mathematics reasoning abilities, so far outpace other children that the early school years can be quite painful for the child, the parents, and the teachers.
Home is an important place for all of us. Gifted children need the same basic parenting as any other child. Because it is harder to find age-mates who can be soul-mates, gifted kids often prefer the company of their parents to that of other children. Many parents, themselves survivors of a difficult gifted childhood, are thrilled to be developing such a close, wonderful relationship with their child. Danger. Enmeshment is more damaging for the child than the adult. When you talk to your child the way you would a friend, you violate adult-child boundaries. The child can take on a peer or even spousal position. This robs the child of his childhood. Gifted children are often so eager to please and to accept responsibility that it is difficult for the parent to see this problem coming. The long-range damage includes eventual adult relationship problems for the grown child as well as an inability to separate from parents in a healthy emotional sense. What do you do instead?
Maintain your own healthy adult relationships. Don’t become over-invested in your child. Parents should be raising their children together, not taking sides with the child against each other. (That’s whether you’re together or not.) Have an outside social life. Family activities are good, activities with just the parent and the child are good, but encourage and facilitate friendships and activities for your children. Guide your children toward involvement in sports, lessons, music, classes at the zoo or museum, scouts, church or synagogue activities. Make it clear to your children that although they are an important part of your life, you have important parts of your life that do not include them. Encourage them to do the same. Then, most important, believe it yourself and act on it.
Gifted children, like all children, need responsibilities. Give your bright child household chores and expectations. Increase your expectations as the child matures. It is important for the child to see himself as a whole, competent, independent person. Let him budget his time for activities, chores, homework, play. When he budgets that time poorly, follow up as quickly as possible. “You didn’t leave time before school to make your bed. You’ll have to come straight home from school to do it before you go out to play” (...or have your snack, or play computer, etc.). Even the most brilliant person needs love, companionship, and relationships. Be sure to teach your child how to function accordingly. Paying other people to do things for us is not fulfilling and does not create intimacy. No matter how successful your child may eventually be, he will be well-prepared if he knows how to get down to basics and take care of himself and others personally.
Prepare your child to find happiness in the real world. Being polite, sensitive and patient are all valuable character traits, even for doctors, business executives, movie moguls, scientists, neighbors, parents, and spouses.
Help your child find balance. It is a mistake to think a gifted child should be good at everything. Just like anyone else, it is pleasurable and gratifying to develop our best areas. It is not necessary or advisable to make the gifted child bring deficient areas up to her best talent areas, unless the deficient area is below an age-appropriate level. Legible handwriting is important. Following directions is necessary in life. If your child resists certain activities, ask yourself why you care. Is the activity something your child really needs, or simply something you want for some reason? I believe it’s reasonable to tell a non-athletic child that physical fitness is important. You may reasonably insist that your child brainstorm physical activities with you and select from the list. Brainstorm a frequency schedule and have the child help decide her schedule. Gifted children respond well to research results, facts, and statistics. Use them to guide the child into activities you know are important, i.e., fresh air, sunshine, exercise, or challenging reading to develop denser dendritic connections.
Finally, give your child space. Over-scheduled children do not have time to process what they are seeing, reading, feeling, thinking, and learning. Sometimes educators suggest getting your child in challenging activities outside of school time. Be careful not to overdo it or let your child overdo it. We grow and gain maturity during our alone time, our down times. It is when we get to know ourselves. Model that behavior yourself. If you are over-busy, you are sacrificing your own growth. Psychologists say that chronically tired, over-busy people are running away from self-examination. Take the time to integrate all that you are learning into the person you are constantly becoming. That may be the greatest gift you can give your gifted child. Have a good time.
Kulik, C-L. C., & Kulik, J. (1984). Effects of ability grouping on elementary school pupils: A meta-analysis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Ontario, Canada.
Kulik, J.A., & Kulik, C-L. C. (1990). Ability grouping and gifted students. In N. Colangelo & G. A. Davis (Eds.) Handbook of gifted education (pp. 178-196). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Rimm, S. (1986). Underachievement syndrome: Causes and cures. Watertown, WI: Apple Publishing.
Rogers, K. B. (1991). The relationship of grouping practices to the education of the gifted and talented learner. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, 9101, 11-18.
Winebrenner, S. (1994). How gifted kids can survive in “inclusion” classrooms. Understanding Our Gifted 6(6),1, 8-11.