When we think about gifted and talented kids, we usually think about them from the outside: What is their IQ? Are there learning disabilities or other educational or emotional issues affecting their progress? Do factors such as poverty or race enter in?
All of these external factors have a significant influence, but if we want to understand why a gifted child behaves or thinks a certain way, we have to know what it all means from the child’s perspective. How does he or she experience the label “gifted,” and in fact, how is intellectual prowess and/or creative talent experienced, even if the label isn’t used?
Giftedness is a human quality, not a pathological condition, yet it can be experienced in negative ways as well as positive ones. Among many examples:
Gifted kids will have personal answers to two questions: Am I smart? Is being smart a good thing? Answers to these questions contribute to a major part of the child’s self-experience.
One aspect of self-experience is a child’s understanding of intelligence and how it works. Carol Dweck, in her extensive work on “mindsets,” has focused on students who believe that intelligence is a fixed entity, which you either have or you don’t, vs. those who believe intelligence is like a muscle which can be improved through effort. Students in her studies with a “fixed” mindset become discouraged by difficult tasks, thinking that the difficulty reflects lack of intelligence. Students with a “growth” mindset feel challenged and enriched by tasks requiring effort. We know, though, that there are gifted students who believe it takes a certain level of intelligence to achieve certain things, but who don’t necessarily believe intelligence is fixed. Some of these same students believe in their giftedness, but are not discouraged by difficulties or struggles when attempting challenging tasks. A larger issue seems to be at work.
To grasp this, it helps to first understand three basic elements of human psychology:
Gifted individuals, for example, give a particular meaning to their experience of intellectual prowess and creative talent. They have a sense of whether this is a good thing or not in the opinion of others, and their actions are based on whatever pride or anxiety this brings. Beyond a particular view of how intelligence works, the larger issue for many gifted students is whether they believe they are valued as people and if so, on what basis? Is it for what they can accomplish, or is it for the effort they put in? Although a student’s concept of how intelligence works can indeed determine how he or she approaches a task, many gifted students have no particular opinion on this issue. What they do sense is whether high achievement seems to be expected of them, or whether making an honest effort is.
When giftedness is a positive experience, gifted individuals see themselves as capable and the world as an exciting place in which to feel secure and connected. When giftedness has negative meaning, this sense of acceptance is not assured, and actions are taken to reduce anxiety and to have a sense of connection. If gifted kids are valued for their efforts, they can feel challenged, energized, and affirmed, even if achievement doesn’t happen to be outstanding. If they are valued instead for their performance or achievements, they will more likely feel defensive, anxious, and as though they are always one failure away from discouragement and lack of acceptance.
How can you help? It is vital for gifted kids to feel that they are valued for who they are, rather than simply for what they can do. The home environment, where we all discern much of what we know about who we are and where we fit in, is the place to build an environment of acceptance. Four important elements in the creation and maintenance of such an environment are:
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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