Ever heard someone say, “Oh, yeah, I used to be gifted, but I’m not anymore”?
Gifted and talented is not a social club that you try out for or even a class for kids who like to study and make good grades. When done correctly, the goal of a GT program should be to identify and support individuals who not only learn differently, but also perceive the world and their place in the world differently. Educators should be trained not only in meeting the academic needs of these students, but also in their unique social and emotional needs.
It's a spectrum
Gifted students are not a homogeneous group. The experiences and needs of GT students are all over the board. Some students are high academic achievers while others are chronic underachievers. Some are in the center of every social group and extra-curricular activity, while others are always on the outside of the group, longing to find a way to fit in, and others still are loners who are completely content with their isolation.
While some, maybe many, possibly even most are well adjusted, there is a significant group that is not
“...being both gifted and adolescent means learning to understand and cope with unique developmental circumstances beyond the normal dimensions of adolescence. Gifted children have the intellectual ability to understand the world at a level beyond their chronological age, but they have the emotional development typical of their same age peers” (Buescher, 1985; Cross, 2004).
Training Is Important
One of our writers never quite fit in with the guys: he didn’t talk about girls sports, cars, or do other general guy stuff like cursing and drinking. He eventually funneled his “uniqueness” into religious extremism in an unintentional attempt to justify being different: wearing in-your-face Christian t-shirts, carrying a big Bible, listening to only Christian music, and parading through school on weekly prayer marches.
This public persona was only masking his inner pain. He was struggling with depression and feelings of low self-worth. He didn’t understand why he didn’t fit in. He didn’t understand why he was different.
Thankfully, he had a teacher his senior year who was trained in the social and emotional needs of gifted and talented students. She saw through the facade and put him on the path to being true to himself.
“Ah, the gifted and talented program: Everyone else thinks you are a freak of nature so here's extra homework” –Jeremy
Here is one student’s story:
I tried 3 times to be in the GT program. The first two were in the beginning of my elementary school days. I had two separate teachers suggest that I take the test. Both times I was 1 question short of being placed in GT. Not sure how it works now, but at the time I went to (name of school) which had the most exclusive GT program. All of the students who tested into the classes were completely separated from the rest of the school, except for lunch. So during lunches, I was able to be with my friends again. They spent all of their time talking about what they did in class and things they were working on. I've always been the type of person to find interest in things that didn't involve me, but after sometime of hearing inside jokes and things that I was missing out on, I stopped socializing with them the way I had before... I never considered myself smart enough because only the GT kids could be smart. Which is crushing for an elementary kid. I know now that I was being a little ridiculous and that my loss of friends was inherently more crushing than the class itself. My views on my intelligence (or lack thereof) shifted my last few months of 5th grade when I got my (state assessment test) scores back. I got commended on all, not shockingly so, but I received numerous perfect scores.
In jr high I didn't opt for any advanced classes because I assumed that they were only for GT kids. Luckily, my 6th grade English teacher strongly suggested I not make the same mistake going into 7th grade. He also set me up for another GT evaluation... That summer I took the test and made it. Finally!! Unfortunately for me, it didn't affect anything in my future. In the end, I was in classes with the same kids from the GT class of my elementary days. I would like to say that I don't think the program is necessarily negative. I just think it's unfortunate for kids like me who are so close to being in GT and have insecurities about their intelligence levels. It did not help that every year, teachers, meaning well, would question me on why I was in "normal" classes. It left me confused to say the least.
Life After High School
Life after high school is difficult for many GT students. After spending most of their lives with professionals who have been trained in understanding the nature and needs of the gifted, they are thrust into a world of people who don’t understand them and are no longer in the protection and safe environment of GT or advanced classes. They find themselves having to re-identify who they are, where they fit, and how to conform to the standards and norms of society at large.
While there are no formal standards or expectations for teachers to prepare GT students for this part of life, it is the least we can do.
Characteristics of GT
A great way to prepare GT students for the realities of life after high school is to help them better understand themselves. Gifted and talented is an educational diagnosis that should lead to both more effective learning and a greater understanding of oneself. Just because they have been identified as gifted and talented doesn’t mean that they have ever actually learned what that means or considered the implications of being GT.
A good practice is to hand out a list of characteristics of gifted and talented students. Have them mark the characteristics they can identify with then open it up for discussion. What did you see on the list that you didn’t expect? Did some of these characteristics seem negative? What did you see and immediately think, “Yes, this is SO me!”? Many students are shocked by some of the items on the list and often feel quite validated afterwards.
One of the most crippling characteristics GT students deal with is perfectionism. These students are often worried about not living up to the standards they may have created for themselves in previous years, not living up to the expectations of their parents and teachers, or not being as great as siblings or peers.
Here’s what some experts in the field of gifted and talented education have to say about perfectionism:
--- Expectations and standards are often extremely high for gifted students. A long history of high academic success; continual, glowing feedback from teachers and parents; and pressures from school, society, family, and self can contribute to the idea that peak performance should always be the norm for gifted adolescents (Davis & Rimm, 1998; Delisle, 1992; Silverman, 1999).
---- This emphasis on perfect performance instead of mastery learning is also a major contributing factor in neurotic or disabling perfectionism in gifted adolescents because gifted adolescents will set these unrealistic expectations in all areas of their life, and if they do not perform perfectly, they feel like failures (Davis & Rimm).
---- Although perfectionism can often breed excellence, it can also be destructive, leading gifted adolescents to believe that the only efforts worth making are those that end in perfect achievement (Delisle).
---- The all-or-nothing mindset of perfection or failure also leads students to the conclusion that there is no acceptable middle ground. This type of mindset manifests itself in perfectionistic tendencies such as setting unrealistic goals or focusing on the final product (grades) instead of the process of learning (Rathvon).
Most students are shocked to find out that procrastination, another trait common found among GT students, is often a symptom of perfectionism. Ever heard a student say, “I know it’s not great, but I didn’t start it until late last night”? Think about it - this gives them the excuse as to why it’s not perfect.
Once students can see the cause behind their procrastination, they can begin developing the tools and skills to overcome it while also dealing with their perfectionism.
Realities of Life After High School
When asked for their reflections on what college was like, here are the responses from several students who graduated from a gifted and talented program:
“I was not prepared to be around non GT people at college…” –Nicholas
“There were many times that I didn't (and still don't) want to ask for help because I didn't want to admit that I don't know what I'm doing.” -Courtney
“Of course the strangers in my class don't know exactly how to take (much less appreciate) the strange humored comments during lecture.” –Kalie
“I started to become very self-conscious when handing in assignments, and near the end of my college career, I just stopped handing them in all together. In my warped sense of logic, I felt that voluntary failure was better than facing such harsh criticism.” -Shelby
“I spent most of my classes in the bathroom panicking.” –Kristen
“I was almost forced to put my creative side aside in order to conform.” -Sophie
“I have a lot of people telling me to do more "practical" things like become a teacher or a flight attendant. And that's frustrating because I feel that my skills are valuable and that I have a calling. I don't want to settle for something I find completely uninteresting and give up on my calling just because it isn't as practical, immediate or well paying.” –Ashley
Preparing Students for Life After High School
Teachers can model kindness, caring, and concern for all students, and maintain high standards for positive behavior such as zero tolerance for any acts of unkindness. Teachers can also give positive feedback and recognition for appropriate behavior, and can provide experiences for students to learn problem solving and how to mediate arguments. Classroom teachers can develop and implement affective curriculum units in areas such as conflict resolution, decision-making, and leadership.
Gifted youth should be taught the stages of normal development so they can gain insights and develop healthy responses to thoughts and feelings they might otherwise regard as strange or disturbing.
In addition to discussing characteristics with your students (both positive and negative), consider the following:
--- Validate their social and emotional differences (normalize their weirdness by helping them see that they are not alone)
--- Talk about career multipotentiality (it is often impossible for GT students to decide upon a single career goal)
--- Make your classroom a safe place (think of it as a GT support group)
--- Encourage honest, transparent discussion (this may require you to teach appropriate responses and support in addition to modeling it)
--- Promote counseling services available at college (students are not aware that this is included in the tuition at most colleges and universities)
--- Be honest, real, and vulnerable