Friday, August 1, 2014

How school policy affects gifted children's friendships (and what you can do about it)

When my children were in middle school, almost all classes based on ability grouping were eliminated. Besides the educational rationale for this policy, it was designed, in part, to encourage children of all abilities to interact, "learn from each other" and develop friendships.

Of course, this experiment in match-making failed miserably. 

Most kids gravitated toward those who were like-minded, the ones who got their jokes, the ones who saw life the same way. Social groups formed based on interests and middle school hierarchies. But, most of all, it demonstrated that true friendships cannot be engineered.

We make friends with people who get us, those who listen, empathize, share our pain, laugh along with us. We befriend those who view the world as we do, not just politically and philosophically (which can be overlooked - sometimes), but who think with the same cognitive complexity. These are fundamental and necessary components of friendship. As Deborah Ruf noted in a recent article, research has shown that the average IQ difference between marital partners or "soul mates" spans a mere 12 points. And if adults gravitate toward those with such similar cognitive functioning, why would we assume anything would be different among children?

In a pivotal study, Miraca Gross found that gifted young children not only seek friends who are intellectually compatible (whether the same age or older), but also are more advanced than their average ability peers along a continuum of "stages of friendship." For example, rather than just seeking a play partner, highly gifted 6-7 year-olds look for friends they can trust and truly rely upon, an expectation not typically seen until the ages of 11 or 12. Gross also noted that the gap between what gifted children are seeking and what is typically available from their same-age peers is more noteworthy among elementary school-aged children than those who are older. In other words, gifted elementary-aged children may be lonelier and have a more difficult time finding friends.

Forming friendships can be particularly daunting for gifted children because of limited opportunities in most schools. The situation is made worse when they are purposely excluded from socializing with like-minded peers. Many middle schools have eliminated ability grouped classes due to concerns that "tracking" could unfairly restrict other students from moving ahead. And ability grouping is virtually non-existent at the elementary school level. Many elementary schools have some "pull-out" programs for gifted children, but these may occur a few hours a week at best. The options for compacting, clustering, or even grouping an entire class with high ability students are rarely considered.

School policies that prohibit acceleration, or group children of diverse abilities into one-size-fits-all classes, rarely bridge any friendship divide. Typically, the most socially skilled children rise to the top of the social ladder, and those less socially accomplished remain on the sidelines. Since gifted children are often outliers, with unusual interests, an intense focus, and asynchronous development, they may feel out of place. At worst, extreme isolation or bullying can result.

How do gifted children react when they cannot easily find friends? Those with good self-esteem and a thick skin may be able to accept the situation without a blow to their self-image. Many, though, will suffer. Some blame themselves, and assume they are flawed, deficient, inadequate. They retreat and avoid activities and events where they might develop friendships, creating even further isolation. Others try to adapt by hiding their abilities, "dumbing themselves down" to fit in, or purposely avoiding interests that might label them as nerds or geeks. Some may become depressed, anxious, and lose interest in school completely.

Schools can help gifted students find kindred spirits by encouraging acceleration, clustering, compacting, or ability grouping. If schools fail to provide opportunities where gifted children can find peers who think like they do, parents have several options:
1. Continue to advocate for your child. Insist that your child receive educational services provided along with other high ability students. Develop strategies for approaching the teacher, and consider forming a parents advocacy group to create some leverage and strength in numbers. Approach the principal, curriculum director, school board or superintendent. Develop ideas that are cost-effective and easy to implement. No, it's not your job, but the more you can suggest that aligns with the district's budget, the more your ideas may be considered.
2. Find activities outside of school where your child can interact with like-minded peers of all ages. Workshops, clubs, hobbies, or others activities where your child can find peers with shared interests are great options. Many of these do not have to be expensive. A Lego-building group, chess club, nature exploration class, or volunteer activities are examples that are cost-effective. You can also ask the school to offer after-school activities that extend the curriculum.
3. If financially possible, workshops, classes or camps for gifted children are a good option. Those sponsored by organizations such as Center for Talented YouthSummer Institute for the Gifted, or Davidson Institute, for example, can be a safe haven where these children can feel understood. A comprehensive list of enrichment and summer programs can be found on the HoagiesGifted site.
Ideally, parents and schools can work together to ensure greater opportunities for gifted children, both academically and socially. If they feel comfortable expressing who they are, supported both by teachers and peers, and can shed their fear of exclusion or bullying, gifted children and teens are more likely to flourish academically. And they may feel less alone in the world, having experienced the joys of true friendship.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Friendships.  To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at


  1. As as adult, I would never consider basing a friendship on age. Why would we expect gifted children to to this? Great post, Gail! I always find myself learning something new when I come to this blog.

    1. Thank you, LIsa. Great point about adults and how we don't choose friendships based on age.

    2. Actually, we do. We base our friendships not on precise age but on developmental stage; that's why all your friends seem to get married at the same time and have babies at the same time. You don't actually have true friendships with both 20 year olds and 80 year olds; you make friends with peers. Children are going through much more rapid developmental stages so their peer groups are compressed and begin to look like age groups.

  2. Brilliant article. I grew up in the Soviet Union where I attended a school for gifted for my entire school career. I am very sad with the way US treats gifted students and high achievers - as something to be "equalized" instead of cherished and supported.

    1. Thank you, Natalie. How wonderful that you got to attend such a specialized school. You put it so well about how gifted students are often treated in U.S. schools. Gail

  3. In rural areas where there are fewer opportunities outside of school, it becomes even more important that gifted ed options are available.

    1. Really important point - without help from the schools, these children are left with fewer available options to choose from outside of school. Thanks for your comments.