Friday, November 29, 2013

Gifted children need a place to belong

A recent article about education highlighted the difference between creating an environment where students belong rather than one where they just fit in. The author, Kimberlee Kiehl, noted problems in a system where "most teacher education programs, not to mention the entire education culture in this country, push us toward making children fit in."

What is the difference between belonging and fitting in?

At first glance, they sound the same. A sense of belonging comes from feeling welcome, comfortable, appreciated, understood, and yes, fitting in. We are nourished and enriched by these relationships. But fitting in without truly belonging is different. When we force ourselves to fit in, we conform, restrain, mold, channel and direct energies to meet a standard. Sometimes it comes easily. Other times, it’s the old square peg in a round hole dilemma.

Gifted children learn about fitting in from an early age. This starts in preschool, when their interests and energy level may differ from that of their peers. They may be encouraged to sit in circle time and work on group projects when they would rather build castles or paint. Preschool teachers may be alternately delighted and stymied by a gifted child's precocious and unpredictable behavior. Some gifted children exhibit early signs of overexcitabilities and heightened sensitivity, with intense reactions to situations that other children might take in stride. They may start to feel somewhat different from the other children, but lack the developmental maturity to understand why they don’t quite fit in.

In elementary school, gifted children often experience frustration with rigid classroom routines. Typically expected to adapt to the curriculum, they are frequently offered supplementary “busy work” to keep them occupied. Many teachers, overwhelmed with the demands of differentiated instruction and a range of learning needs, have little opportunity to challenge their gifted students, and are sometimes relieved when these children remain quiet, passing time with a novel in their laps. When gifted children are less patient, parents may receive complaints about their disruptive or distracting behaviors. IQ testing may be arbitrarily delayed, and options for acceleration are frequently discouraged. Gifted pull-out programs are often highly structured, with an expectation that all gifted students have similar needs.

Even more troubling is the discomfort and sense of alienation many gifted children experience with peers. They may not appreciate how their differences set them apart, and may be puzzled when their heightened sensitivity or enthusiasm for offbeat interests is met with disdain. At worst, they may become a target for bullying. Gifted adolescents are acutely aware of their differences, and struggle with decisions related to conformity and social acceptance. Attempts at disguising their abilities are common, particularly among girls. Others refuse to compromise their values, even if it results in increased isolation. A variety of factors contribute to feeling different, including: intellectual interests beyond their years, impatience with peers who grasp learning at a slower pace or lack an affinity for social justice issues, asynchronous development manifest in less mature social skills, or intense feelings and oversensitivity.

Gifted children and adolescents often wish for a place where they can belong. Many are accustomed to seeing themselves as outliers, different from the norm, and out of sync with children their age. Yet, they hunger for both intellectual and social connection with peers who understand their view of the world, who appreciate their perspective, and who just “get it” the same way they do. Some gifted children are fortunate enough to discover a group of like-minded peers in school, particularly in schools where ability grouping is offered. More often, they must turn to extra-curricular interests or activities to feel a sense of belonging.

Parents of gifted children may need to advocate in schools for more opportunities where their children can feel a sense of belonging. This may involve subject or grade acceleration, compacting (where groups of gifted children work together in classrooms), or advocating for ability grouped classes. Extra-curricular interests that stimulate their creativity, curiosity, sense of discovery, strategic planning abilities, or sense of purpose (which may occur on or off the school grounds) are particularly appealing. Some examples include: art classes, chess, theatre, robotics, music groups, science classes, social justice initiatives, or volunteer activities. Summer camps focusing on academic or creative interests can provide a safe harbor where they can openly express who they are while exploring their abilities. Many extra-curricular activities, particularly camps, are expensive, although financial assistance is sometimes available. Families who cannot afford these options for their children, or who live in communities with limited resources may need to be particularly vocal advocates in the schools, since “finding a place to belong” is so critical to each child’s well-being.

What has helped your gifted child find a place to belong? Please let us know your ideas!


  1. Great post! We found that chess club worked out as a fun place where both of our kids felt accepted, and differences were the norm.

  2. Thanks, anonymous. Good luck with the chess club.

  3. FIRST Lego League has been a great place for our daughter to explore her abilities with like minded peers :)

  4. Wow! Anything with legos sounds great! Hope it works out for her.

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  6. Hi, my gifted 7 year-old has many opportunities at our private Catholic school for enrichment after school, but says she is not interested in "putting in any more effort than she has to to be social." Any advice? She is our only child. Thank you!

  7. Annette,
    I can't really give advice for this, since there could be a lot of reasons. You might want to ask her to explain as much as she possibly can, find out from teachers how she is relating to her peers, and then see what the barriers are that are standing in her way. Is it shyness? Discomfort with the other kids? Boredom? Or does she just want to relax and play after school? Ideally, enrichment should be occurring IN school as well, not just after school. Hopefully you can do more investigative work to see what is going on. Good luck.


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