HIGH ABILITY STUDENTS
In many ways, the needs of high ability students are no different than those of their peers. Sometimes, however, the unique attributes that characterize high ability students may have social or emotional issues associated with them. The adults in a high ability student's life must understand these unique needs in order to support their healthy socio-emotional development. Without this support, the resulting issues may prevent them from fully developing their gifts and talents.
Listed below are some common issues associated with high ability children. We have provided a brief description as well as resources for further information. You may access this link by clicking on each title. For additional information on high ability students please visit our resource pages.
Uneven development refers to the disparity between the cognitive development and the emotional or physical development of a child. High ability children are more advanced mentally than their peers, yet their physical and emotional development may be more in line with their chronological age. In contrast, the average child’s intelligence, emotional, and physical development progress at about the same rate. Silverman (2002) described this phenomenon as asynchronous development. Having mental abilities that are out of sync with emotional and/or physical abilities can cause frustration and emotional vulnerability. The further from the norm a child’s IQ is, the more dramatic the asynchrony becomes.
An example of asynchrony or uneven development would be a five year old who can read and discuss literature appropriate for 4th graders yet throws a tantrum when asked to share his toys with another child. Advanced cognitive ability does not enable high ability children to handle age appropriate emotions any better than their same age peers.
Bainbridge (n.d.) has the following suggestions for parents to help them handle the resulting issues related to uneven development:
Recognize that a gifted child's emotional and social development will not always match his or her intellectual development. Before responding to your child"s emotional outburst or concluding that your child is socially or emotionally immature, stop a moment to remind yourself of your child"s chronological age.
Understand that asynchronous development creates special needs. For example, gifted children need emotional support as do all children, but they also need advanced intellectual stimulation. A gifted four-year-old who can discuss black holes still needs comforting hugs.
Recognize that gifted children may not get their emotional, social, and intellectual needs met by the same peers. This means that they may be able to socialize to a degree with children their own age, but may also need opportunities to interact with other gifted children, older children, or even adults. Parents should make every effort to provide these opportunities.
Finally, understanding your high ability child’s development is the first step in helping them cope with the feelings and frustrations they encounter as a result of their asynchronous development. The Links page provides several resources for further information.
Bainbridge, C. (n.d.) Dealing with your child’s asynchronous development.
Retrieved October 30, 2008 from
Silverman, L.K. (2002). The social and emotional development of gifted children:
What do we know? (Niehart, M., Reis, S., Robinson, N.M & Moon, S. M.) . Waco:
Underachievement of high ability students is a an issue frustrating parents and educators today. While there is some disagreement on an exact definition, most contain some reference to a discrepancy between actual achievement and expected achievement based on some sort of intelligence measure such as an IQ test.
There is a considerable body of research on this topic and various causes and interventions have been identified. Siegle and McCoach (2005) discussed one potential cause for underachievement. They believe in some cases it may be related to “more serious physical, cognitive, or emotional issues such as a learning disability.” (Siegle & McCoach, 2005, p.22). This possibility should be ruled out before investigating any further causes. With this in mind, they suggest providing instruction to underachievers on the following factors associated with achievement in gifted students.
The first is that students who achieve see the relevance of what they do in school to their current situation or their future goals. Strategies to help produce this type of thinking focus on “building value into a student’s scholastic experience.” (Siegle & McCoach, 2005, p.23).
The second is that students who achieve believe they have the skills and aptitude to succeed. Intervention increases confidence by helping students recognize past success as well as academic growth.
The third is that students who achieve trust their environment and feel it supports their success. Student’s perception of their environment can be changed by involving them in determining what in the environment is hindering their success and then including them in developing solutions to the obstacles.
The final is that students who succeed implement self-regulating strategies such as time management and study skills. Because gifted students often experience a less challenging curriculum early in their school careers, they fail to develop these necessary skills. This problem can be solved by teaching self management skills as they are needed.
Underachievement is a complex problem that can keep high ability students from reaching their full potential. Its effects can be reversed when educators and parents work together to remediate the deficit skills. Dr. Siegle has provided parents with suggestions in his article, “Parenting Strategies to Motivate Underachieving Gifted Students,” which can be found at:
Siegle, D., McCoach, D.B. (2005). Making a difference: Motivating gifted students who
are not achieving. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38 (1), 22-27.
Sensitivity/OverexcitabilitySensitivity and/or overexcitability are characteristics of many high ability individuals. They seem to have a heightened response to stimuli. This response is often viewed as abnormal or overreacting.
The Theory of Positive Disintegration, developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, provides a framework for understanding the intensity, sensitivity, and overexcitability some high ability individuals experience. One part of Dabrowski"s theory identifies five areas of inborn intensities called overexcitabilities (OE). Tolan (1999) describes the five areas and their characteristics.
PsychomotorThis is often thought to mean that the person needs lots of movement and athletic activity, but can also refer to the issue of having trouble smoothing out the mind"s activities for sleeping. Lots of physical energy and movement, fast talking, lots of gestures, sometimes nervous tics.
SensualHere"s the "cut the label out of the shirt" demand, the child who limps as if with a broken leg when a sock seam is twisted. Also a love for sensory things -- textures, smells, tastes etc. or a powerful reaction to negative sensory input (bad smells, loud sounds, etc.) The kids tend to be sensitive to bright lights (squinting in all the family photographs, etc.), harsh sounds. A baby who cries when the wind blows in his face, for instance; a toddler who cries at the feel of grass on bare legs and feet. Another important aspect of this is aesthetic awareness -- the child who is awed to breathlessness at the sight of a beautiful sunset or cries hearing Mozart, etc.
ImaginationalThese are the dreamers, poets, "space cadets" who are strong visual thinkers, use lots of metaphorical speech. They day dream, remember their dreams at night and often react strongly to them, believe in magic (take a long time to "grow out of" Santa, the tooth fairy, elves and fairies, etc.).
IntellectualHere"s the usual definition of "giftedness." Kids with a strong "logical imperative," who love brain teasers and puzzles, enjoy following a line of complex reasoning, figuring things out. A love of things academic, new information, cognitive games, etc.
EmotionalThis includes being "happier when happy, sadder when sad, angrier when angry," etc. Intensity of emotion. But also a very broad range of emotions. Also a need for deep connections with other people or animals. Unable to find close and deep friends (Damon and Pythias variety) they invent imaginary friends, make do with pets or stuffed animals, etc. Empathy and compassion. A child who needs a committed relationship will think herself "betrayed" by a child who plays with one child today and another tomorrow and refers to both as "friends." This is also the OE that makes the kids susceptible to depression.
Gifted individuals may exhibit one or more OE to varying degrees. There are positives and negatives to OE. The goal for parents and educators is to help children manage the negatives and take advantage of the positives. After all, these inborn traits cannot be outgrown. They are a part of who the child is. Sharon Lind (2000) shares strategies for managing the characteristics of each OE.
PSYCHOMOTOR STRATEGIESAllow time for physical or verbal activity, before, during, and after normal daily and school activities-these individuals love to "do" and need to "do." Build activity and movement into their lives.
Be sure the physical or verbal activities are acceptable and not distracting to those around them. This may take some work, but it can be a fun project and beneficial to all.
Provide time for spontaneity and open-ended, freewheeling activities. These tend to favor the needs of a person high in Psychomotor OE.
SensualWhenever possible, create an environment which limits offensive stimuli and provides comfort.
Provide appropriate opportunities for being in the limelight by giving unexpected attention, or facilitating creative and dramatic productions that have an audience. These individuals literally feel the recognition that comes from being in the limelight.
Provide time to dwell in the delight of the sensual and to create a soothing environment.
INTELLECTUAL STRATEGIESShow how to find the answers to questions. This respects and encourages a person"s passion to analyze, synthesize, and seek understanding.
Provide or suggest ways for those interested in moral and ethical issues to act upon their concerns-such as collecting blankets for the homeless or writing to soldiers in Kosovo. This enables them to feel that they can help, in even a small way, to solve community or worldwide problems.
If individuals seem critical or too outspoken to others, help them to see how their intent may be perceived as cruel or disrespectful. For example saying "that is a stupid idea" may not be well received, even if the idea is truly stupid.
IMAGINATIONAL STRATEGIESImaginational people may confuse reality and fiction because their memories and new ideas become blended in their mind. Help individuals to differentiate between their imagination and the real world by having them place a stop sign in their mental videotape, or write down or draw the factual account before they embellish it.
Help people use their imagination to function in the real world and promote learning and productivity. For example, instead of the conventional school organized notebook, have children create their own organizational system.
EMOTIONAL STRATEGIESAccept all feelings, regardless of intensity. For people who are not highly emotional, this seems particularly odd. They feel that those high in Emotional OE are just being melodramatic. But if we accept their emotional intensity and help them work through any problems that might result, we will facilitate healthy growth.
Teach individuals to anticipate physical and emotional responses and prepare for them. Emotionally intense people often don"t know when they are becoming so overwrought that they may lose control or may have physical responses to their emotions. Help them to identify the physical warning signs of their emotional stress such as headache, sweaty palms, and stomachache. By knowing the warning signs and acting on them early, individuals will be better able to cope with emotional situations and not lose control.
PerfectionismIn general, high ability students tend to be perfectionists more often than their average ability peers. Perfectionism can be viewed as having both positive and negative consequences. Parents want their children to set high standards for achievement and to strive for excellence. In this way, perfectionism can be viewed as a healthy motivator for high achievement. However, when perfectionism prevents children from feeling good about an accomplishment because nothing they do is ever good enough for them then it becomes unhealthy.
Hamachek (as cited in Niehart, Reis, Robinson, & Moon, 2002, p. 72) described this type of perfectionism as neurotic. Neurotic perfectionism has been associated with underachievement, academic procrastination, depression, and eating disorders.
According to Rimm (2000) some children may only be perfectionists in certain areas. For example, they may be a perfectionist in their academics but not in other areas of their life such as organization or their appearance. Children who are not perfectionists in all areas of their life are more likely to be healthy perfectionists.
Research has shown there may be many different causes of perfectionism. Some suggest that it is a trait they are born with while others believe that children learn perfectionism by watching their perfectionist parents. Other theories suggest it stems from the excessive praise they receive and become dependent on for their self esteem. It may be a product of the high expectations parents and teachers continually place on students with high abilities.
Whatever the origin of perfectionism, the adults in a child’s life must help them keep their perfectionist tendencies within the healthy range. Sylvia Rimm (2000) has the following suggestions for parents and teachers to accomplish this.
How Parents and Teachers Can Help Perfectionists
· Help kids to understand that they can feel satisfied when they’ve done their best; not necessarily the best. Praise statements that are enthusiastic but more moderate convey values that children can achieve; for example, "excellent" is better than "perfect," and "You’re a good thinker" is better than "You’re brilliant." Also avoid comparative praise; "You’re the best" makes kids think they must be the best to satisfy you.
· Explain to children that they may not be learning if all of their work in school is perfect. Help them understand that mistakes are an important part of challenge.
· Teach appropriate self-evaluation and encourage children to learn to accept criticism from adults and other students. Explain that they can learn from the recommendations of others.
· Read biographies together that demonstrate how successful people experienced and learned from failures. Emphasize their failure and rejection experiences as well as their successes. Help children to identify with the feelings of those eminent persons as they must have felt when they experienced their rejections. Stories from How Jane Won will be helpful to discuss.
· Share your own mistakes and model the lessons you learned from your mistakes. Talk to yourself aloud about learning from your mistakes so children understand your thinking.
· Humor helps perfectionists. Help children to laugh at their mistakes.
· Teach children empathy and how bragging affects others. Help them to put themselves in the position of others. Say, "Suppose you messed up on your piano recital and Jennifer, the winner, told you that she had her best performance ever. How would you feel?"
· Show children how to congratulate others on their successes. They will feel they are coping better as they congratulate others.
· Teach children routines, habits, and organization, but help them to understand that their habits should not be so rigid that they can’t change them.
Purposefully break routines so your children are not enslaved by them. For example, if they make their beds daily, permit them to skip a chore on a day when you’re in a hurry. If you read to them at night and it’s late, insist they go to sleep without reading. Occasional breaks in routines will model flexibility and prevent them from feeling compulsive about habits.
· Teach children creative problem-solving strategies. Show them how to brainstorm for ideas that will keep their self-criticism from interfering with their productivity.
· Explain to children that there is more than one correct way to do most everything.
· If your child is an underachiever and avoids effort because he fears not achieving perfection, help him to gradually increase his effort and show him how that relates to his progress. Emphasize that effort counts.
· If your child is a high achiever, but overstudies for fear of not receiving an A+, help her to gradually study a little less to show her it has only a little effect on her grade. Help her to feel satisfied with her excellent grades with the reasonable amount of study involved. She needs to balance work with fun.
· Be a role model of healthy excellence. Take pride in the quality of your work but don’t hide your mistakes or criticize yourself constantly. Congratulate yourself when you’ve done a good job, and let your children know that your own accomplishments give you satisfaction. Don’t overwork. You, too, need to have some fun and relaxation.
· If your child’s perfectionism is preventing accomplishment, or if your child shows symptoms of anxiety related to perfectionism, like stomachaches, headaches, or eating disorders, get professional psychological help for your child and your family.
Schuler, P. (2002). The social and emotional development of gifted children: What.
do we know? (Niehart, M., Reis, S., Robinson, N.M & Moon, S. M.) . Waco:
Rimm, S.B. (2000). What’s wrong with perfect? Retrieved on October 30, 2008, from
Davis, G.A., Rimm, S.B. (2004). Education of the gifted and talented. Boston:
PEER RELATIONSHIPSIt is commonly thought that high ability students experience more problems with peer relationships than average ability peers. In a review of the published empirical studies, Janos (as cited in Janos, Marwood, & Robinson, 1985, p.46) found that most highly intelligent children show satisfactory social adjustment. There was a minority, which was larger than that of average ability, who experienced social issues, the most common of which were, isolation, loneliness, and finding appropriate friends.
A major cause of these issues is the fact that high ability students’ mental age is significantly above that of their peers. Consequently, they may have trouble finding friends who share common interests and intellectual ability among their age mates. The further from the norm their IQ is, the more likely it is that they will encounter peer relationship difficulties. Finding friends who match their mental age is not always the solution either. Though they may have similar aptitudes, their physical or emotional maturity may not be compatible.
The characteristics of giftedness may actually be a source of peer problems. For example, their extensive vocabulary and knowledge may cause them to dominate conversations. Their intensities may be seen as stubbornness or they may be viewed by peers as "weird." They may use a great sense of humor to respond to others with sarcasm. Obviously, none of these are conducive to developing friendships.
Adults can support the social adjustment of high ability children by helping them understand and appreciate their unique qualities and finding peers with similar interests, intellect, and social-emotional maturity. The resources listed below can provide additional information to help understand and provide support to high ability children who are experiencing problems developing friendships.
Janos, P.M., Marwood, K.A., Robinson, N.M. (1985). Friendship patterns in highly
intelligent children. Roeper Review 8 (1), pp. 46 -49.