The challenges that gifted students can face can be surprising to those who believe the myth that they do not need help, and that they’ll do fine on their own. Gifted children have differently-wired brains that make them unique compared to their neurotypical age-mates. While most individuals think of giftedness in terms of academics alone, giftedness also applies to a child’s social and emotional development. While all children must navigate the bumpy road of identity formation and social belonging, gifted children may experience these problems differently and more intensely as they develop and mature. To help parents and educators navigate common gifted behavior and emotional problems, here is a list of some of the most common challenges for gifted students as well as advice on how to help students through these challenges.
Some of the most common problem areas for gifted children include the following:
- Sensitivities and Overexcitabilities
- Social Skills
Sensitivities and Overexcitabilities
Research has shown that gifted students experience heightened sensitivities and advanced emotional processing. These abilities are often put within the framework of Dabrowski’s concept of overexcitabilities, which describes the heightened sensitivity and intensity for gifted children in the areas of psychomotor (surplus energy and movement), sensual (keen sense of smell, touch etc.), emotional (rich inner experience), intellectual (curiosity and search for knowledge), and imaginational (vivid imagination). Because of these unique characteristics, gifted children may have adverse reactions to intense stimuli, which can look like problem behavior on the surface. For example, a perceptive child may see something on the news that frightens them and refuse to sleep alone at night. Children who are overexcitable in the intellectual and psychomotor areas may not be able to sit still at their desk and interrupt their teachers with questions. Sensory or emotional sensitivity may contribute to a range of feelings, like frustration or sorrow, and a variety of gifted behavior problems, like acting out or withdrawing. Understanding how over-excitabilities or sensitivities manifest in your child may help parents find suitable solutions for problem behaviors.
As laid out by Nancy Robinson, many make the mistake of believing gifted children are inherently awkward and bad at socializing, which is simply untrue. Gifted child problems with socializing often stem from their asynchrony and educational setting. Asynchrony, or uneven development, is often considered a core trait of giftedness. These students may be college age intellectually but still 12 in terms of their social skills. As a result, it can be difficult to make friends who share their interests or hard to know how to appropriately express themselves in group settings. Depending on the educational environment, these children may be labeled with problem behaviors like being bossy, snobbish, anti-social, etc. Their difficulty making friends within a classroom may have nothing to do with their ability or desire to socialize, but instead be a result of not having like-mind peers whom they can form a connection with. When it comes to gifted friendships, there is a notable discrepancy between classmates, or age mates, and someone that they consider as a true peer.
As we wrote about in our article “Parenting Gifted Children: Challenges and Tips,” perfectionism can look like regular high-achieving behavior until it starts to damage the child’s wellbeing. Perfectionist children may display a range of challenging behaviors, such as competitiveness with others, achievement at the expense of socializing, or avoidance of activities they fear they will fail at. Perfectionism is often related to self-esteem when the gifted child, or those around the child, expect them to be gifted all the time, in every subject. While there is debate about whether perfectionism comes in both good and bad varieties, the issue for many gifted students is that this pressure to be perfect comes from their inability to see themselves beyond their role as the “smart student” in class. Gifted children should be reminded frequently that their value is not based on their grades or performance alone.
Self-concept is another of the most common challenges of being gifted. Gifted children hit many adolescent milestones earlier than their age-peers but may struggle to develop a healthy self-concept during crucial identity formation periods. While parents are the primary way children learn about themselves, negative experiences at school and with peers may harmfully influence the way a gifted child sees themselves. If the child feels unsupported and unaccepted at school, they may develop low self-esteem and feel that their giftedness alienates them. Low self-esteem can contribute to a wide range of emotional challenges, including anxiety and depression. While gifted children may not be more susceptible to anxiety and depression compared to their age-peers, according to research by Tracy Cross and others, their unique intellectual gifts may contribute to an acute experience of anxiety/depression.
If you suspect your child is suffering from anxiety, depression, or any of the issues described above, it might be time to reach out to trusted friends for advice or seek a gifted therapist.
Fortunately, what works well for a gifted child’s intellectual development may also help prevent these gifted emotional and behavioral challenges. Finding someone to test your child for giftedness, especially when using an individual assessment tools, may help reveal sensory processing issues so that parents and educators can collaborate to provide the appropriate accommodations. Gifted identification may also help families access special programs to support their development or advocate for acceleration. Using acceleration techniques, like ability grouping or grade skipping, can provide students with intellectual peers who get them and want to interact in the same ways they do. It may also come as a relief to not feel like they must be the smartest kid in class. The emotional and social benefits of acceleration are supported by the findings from A Nation Empowered. Supporting the intellectual and social needs of gifted children can help promote a healthier sense of self and a growth mind-set that will allow them to appreciate both their strengths and weaknesses.
How the Davidson Academy Helps with These Challenges
The Davidson Academy learning community focuses on exploring, discussing and supporting the social and emotional needs of students. Social and emotional development is a school-wide philosophy infused in our curriculum, activities, and events. Every member of the Davidson Academy team – counselors, staff, teachers, parents, and students themselves – work together to help our students grow socially, emotionally, and academically. Our staff is knowledgeable and has experience in working with the unique needs of profoundly gifted students. Counselors have the opportunity to get to know students and provide support on an individual basis. Services include, but are not limited to:
- Regular one-on-one check-ins with students
- Self-awareness and management
- Development in areas such as self advocacy, time management, and study skills
- Mindfulness and stress relief techniques
- Referrals to external professionals and resources in the local community as needed
- Elective courses covering relevant topics (such as Life Skills)
The Davidson Academy’s Student Services Team (SST) works closely with the students, parents and faculty to assist with creating and monitoring each student’s Prospective Learning Plan (PLP). The SST is available to provide assistance with educational issues or other concerns that may arise. With a wide variety of educational backgrounds and experience, the SST is able to offer many different perspectives and solutions in guiding our students. Support services include:
- Peer Advising Liaisons (PALs): Student leaders who communicate with faculty, staff, and students to identify academic skills that may need to be developed. They work with peers in one-on-one advising sessions to brainstorm, devise, modify, and implement strategies that facilitate academic progress. PALs also offer study skills presentations school-wide.
- Faculty–to–student and peer–to–peer tutoring for math, writing, history, and world language
- Character Strengths assessments and development
Read on for additional insights into gifted problem behaviors and emotional challenges: