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!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

When does therapy benefit gifted adolescents?

Gifted adolescents are no more prone to social or emotional difficulties than other teens.1  Yet, the burden of feeling different from peers, and attempts to offset stigma and rejection, create a unique set of conflicts. At a point in their development when social acceptance seems essential, many gifted teens go to great lengths to hide their abilities from others. Some try to “dumb themselves down,” avoiding classes that might brand them as “nerds.” Others struggle with how to remain true to themselves, while still adapting to the social norms around them. Social challenges are particularly difficult for adolescents who show signs of asynchronous development, and whose social skills lag behind their intellectual abilities. Even those gifted teens who achieve popularity still may be acutely aware of their differences and attempt to conform, sometimes immersing themselves in social and extra-curricular activities at the expense of academic pursuits. They sometimes later regret that they “sacrificed” their interests or ambitions to gain approval.

Gifted adolescents often struggle with being gifted

Regardless of their level of social comfort, gifted adolescents often struggle with traits frequently associated with giftedness. These may include perfectionism, harsh self-criticism, oversensitivity, fear of failure, anxiety about performance, and even despair over injustices affecting others. Some develop cynicism about an education system that has failed to challenge them, and become underachievers. Others may feel ashamed of their so-called “gifts,” claiming they are undeserving of accomplishments earned so easily. They may be conflicted about career goals, torn between their desires and what family and society expect, and worry that they will not live up to their potential.

Therapy can offer both support and challenges

Therapy can create a safe haven where gifted adolescents can receive the support, understanding and the appropriate challenges they need to surmount difficulties associated with giftedness. Trying to fit in, juggling others’ expectations, and sorting out an array of conflicting messages are commonplace for gifted teens. Participation in therapy does not mean that something is seriously wrong; therapy is a resource for achieving greater self-awareness and overcoming obstacles to personal growth. (See APA for more information about psychotherapy).

Adolescents’ cognitive abilities, attitudes about being gifted, and the family’s and school community’s impressions about their giftedness influence feelings about themselves. Therapists need to consider the interplay between the child's giftedness and specific emotional, social, family or academic problems. Webb2  and others in the literature 3,4,5,6 have also emphasized how an individual’s giftedness needs to inform treatment planning. 

Therapists can help teens manage the social and emotional "baggage" often associated with giftedness. Common characteristics such as introversion, oversensitivity, asynchronous development, and attunement to moral injustice can make adolescence even more trying. Other examples include social anxiety, perfectionism, harsh expectations of self and others, underachievement, family demands, sibling conflicts, unresolved distress related to bullying or peer rejection, shame associated with failed accomplishments, and ambivalence about career goals. Counseling can offer support and a clear perspective when these burdens seem overwhelming. 

Giftedness must be considered in diagnosis and treatment

Sometimes gifted adolescents suffer from emotional problems that any teen might face, such as depression, anxiety, or an addiction. Therapy is even more essential under these conditions. Nevertheless, a child’s giftedness needs to be considered in any diagnostic evaluation and throughout treatment. Webb2  has highlighted how gifted individuals can be misdiagnosed by practitioners who fail to appreciate the effect giftedness has on an individual’s social, emotional and cognitive functioning. (Recently, SENG has launched the SENG Misdiagnosis Initiative to educate pediatricians and other health care professionals about the risks of misdiagnosis.)

If giftedness is secondary to more pressing psychological, interpersonal or family problems, a therapist can still remain cognizant of how the teen's intellectual strengths, and traits associated with giftedness may influence their behaviors and emotions. While identifying psychological symptoms of distress is beyond the scope of this article, some general warning signs can include: withdrawal from family and friends, sadness and tearfulness, comments related to hopelessness, increased anxiety, angry outbursts, threats to harm self or others, difficulty concentrating, insomnia or sleeping a lot more than usual, unexplained physical symptoms, significant weight loss or gain in a short period of time, change in friendships, problems at school or with the law, intoxication or signs of drug use. (For further information about symptoms, you can visit If you need to find a therapist, often the best resource is to check with your child’s pediatrician for a referral.) 

Gifted adolescents often enter therapy with hesitation, but soon welcome feeling understood. Their acute self-awareness, tendency to scrutinize themselves and others, and willingness to engage in complex debate create both opportunities and challenges during therapy. Therapy can help them navigate this difficult passage through adolescence, and provide further tools for growth and development.

This paper was adapted from the following article: Post, G. (2013). Counseling gifted adolescents: Integrating social and emotional aspects of giftedness into treatment. National Association of Gifted Children Counseling and Guidance Newsletter, 9, 13-14


Neihart , M. (1999). The impact of giftedness on psychological well-being: What does the empirical literature say? Roeper Review, 22, 10-17.
2 Webb. J., Amend, E., Webb.,N., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, R. (2005). Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Aspberger's, Depression, and Other Disorders. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.
3  Grobman, J. (2009). A psychodynamic psychotherapy approach to the emotional problems of exceptionally and profoundly gifted adolescents and adults: A psychiatrist’s experience. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 33, 106-125.
4 Jacobsen, M. (1999). Arousing the sleeping giant: Giftedness in adult psychotherapy. Roeper Review, 22, 36-42.
Moon, S. & Thomas, V. (2002). Family therapy with gifted and talented adolescents. Journal of Advanced Academics, 14, 107-113.
Silverman, L. (Ed.) (2000). Counseling the Gifted and Talented. Denver, CO: Love. 


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Don't wait to get your gifted child tested!

Accurate identification of giftedness is necessary to determine what specific academic services your child needs. It also provides documentation when advocacy is warranted. While states and districts have varying requirements for gifted identification (see NAGC for more), many districts circumvent these requirements by creating roadblocks and delays. Yet, rather than request testing when they suspect their child is gifted, some parents just wait for the school to decide if testing is indicated. And some refuse to grant approval for any testing at all. 

Why do some parents refuse testing for their child?

Insufficient information. Most parents know their own child, but don’t have a classroom full of children against which they can compare abilities. While they may suspect that their child is gifted, they may not feel justified advocating for testing. “Who are we to think our child is so smart?”

Parents may trust the school’s judgment when determining whether their child should be tested. Yet, in many schools, gifted children may be overlooked, and teachers and administration often convince parents that their child is already receiving appropriate services. There is also a common misconception that bright children have been prepped before they start school, and their strengths will dissipate over time. As a result, many schools arbitrarily delay gifted evaluations until students are well beyond third or fourth grade, even though testing children between the ages of five and eight is considered ideal. 

Apathy. Some parents believe that the “gifted program” in their district is a waste of time. Maybe it just involves extra homework. Perhaps it is only an hour pull-out a week. Some may have tried to advocate in the past and met with such resistance that they gave up. Others may feel it is not worth the time and effort, and make the decision to enrich their child’s education on their own. In these situations, parents have been led to believe they have little recourse to change the system, and cannot request additional services for their child. 

Concerns about consequences.  Parents worry about what they might find out from the evaluation. “Could our child also have a learning disability? What if he or she is not as bright as we thought? How will we explain to our child that he or she is gifted?” These concerns sometimes deter parents from requesting an evaluation, since they have little guidance about how they will cope with these possible outcomes. 

Most schools fail to help parents understand the benefits of testing, how it can aid them with developing a plan geared toward appropriate academic instruction, and how they can assist the parent and child with their reactions to the test results. And when school staff are either misinformed or philosophically opposed to gifted identification, they may persuade parents to refuse an evaluation. It may be suggested, for example, that their child could be traumatized if he or she “fails” the testing, or might be ostracized by peers for being different if identified as gifted.

Should parents decline testing because of these concerns?

While these concerns may be reasonable to consider at first, the benefits of testing usually outweigh any initial doubts. Here are some reasons for moving ahead with testing:

1.  An evaluation will provide you and the school with a wealth of information about your child’s strengths, weaknesses and academic needs. An IQ test offers more than just a number; your child’s abilities are assessed in a range of areas that will help you and your school with academic planning. (For a helpful description of IQ testing, see the NAGC overview on testing.) The pattern of your child’s performance also provides important information about how he or she approaches new and challenging situations. Does he plan carefully and take his time? Does she rush or become frustrated if challenged? The pattern of responses is particularly important when evaluating gifted children, because many demonstrate large differences in scores between subtests. (For a great discussion of this, see Linda Silverman’s article.) A skilled psychologist can help you understand the reasons for any discrepancies and how to integrate this information into a meaningful academic plan.

 2.  Your child cannot “fail” the test. It is a measure of relative strengths and weaknesses based on age-based norms. Despite common misconceptions, you cannot “hothouse” your child to do well on these tests; studying and preparation are not required. IQ testing occurs in a one-to-one situation that asks a child to try out new skills, and stops each section of the test before it becomes too stressful. The psychologist typically tries to put the child at ease, and many children enjoy the individual attention they receive.

If your child’s overall IQ score does not meet criteria for gifted services, you can still request enrichment for your child in those areas of strength identified by the evaluation. If the score was close to the cut-off, typically an IQ score of 130, you may want to see if your child could be reevaluated the following year, especially if the psychologist noted any circumstances that might have contributed to an artificially lower score. For example, some gifted children are not identified because of fine motor skill weaknesses, or a tendency to ponder over the correct response (decreasing their score during timed tests), which can deflate their overall score. Common situations such as insufficient sleep the night before, hunger, or frustration over missing recess can influence test performance. Underidentification also occurs when children come from underprivileged or culturally different backgrounds, or where English is spoken as a second language. 

3.  It is worth getting an evaluation, even if the “gifted program” in your school district is less than adequate. Some parents doubt the benefits of the “gifted program” in the school and think it is not worth the effort. Even if the “program” lacks credibility, gifted identification still may offer your child options that might not be available without the label. The information the evaluation provides is still valuable in terms of understanding your child’s abilities, and can aid with advocating for improved individualized services. It is also useful should you move, transfer your child to another school, or decide to homeschool your child.

4. Fears about what a gifted evaluation will uncover are common. Most parents eventually learn to face these fears and find that the test results are a meaningful overview of their child's strengths and weaknesses. The evaluation may validate what the parents already suspect, but also may provide some surprises in terms of exceptional abilities, untapped strengths, or learning problems. Many learning disabilities remain undetected among bright and gifted children because their intellectual strengths allow them to compensate for their difficulties. By evaluating your child at a relatively young age, any suspected learning differences can be identified and hopefully addressed through appropriate instruction.

Concerns about explaining test results to a child strikes fear in many parents. While it is best to avoid sharing an actual IQ score with a young child, it is certainly helpful to explain findings in terms of strengths and weaknesses, especially since this most likely confirms what your child already suspects. You can explain what it means to be gifted, and place it in a context your child can understand. If you are concerned about isolation from peers, gifted identification will do little more than confirm what your child and his or her peers already know.

Don’t wait until the school recommends that your child get an evaluation. 

If you suspect your child might be gifted, find out the procedures for requesting an evaluation. These guidelines should be available through your school district. Keep in mind that some children are less likely to be “noticed” by teachers and referred for evaluation. Children who are frequently overlooked for testing can be children of color; children from underprivileged, lower socio-economic backgrounds; less verbal, visual-spatial learners; non-English speaking children; gifted children with other disabilities (twice exceptional gifted learners); and less cooperative students. Do not assume that teachers or administrators will automatically recognize your child's abilities or refer your child for testing.

Some teachers and schools are proactive about prescreening students for giftedness and others are not. Even group ability tests used to prescreen for gifted evaluations can miss students who are easily distracted, become anxious during testing, or who are already bored with school. As a parent, you will need to keep this on your radar, and advocate for individualized testing when needed. Gifted identification is an important first step toward ensuring that your child receives an appropriate and meaningful education. It may be up to you to set the wheels in motion!