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The Social-Emotional Needs of the Highly/Profoundly Gifted Individual

Social and Emotional Resources

This Tips for Parents article authored by Dr. Robert A. Schultz is from a seminar he hosted for Young Scholar families. He covers a few of the topics discussed related to the Social/Emotional Needs of the Highly/Profoundly Gifted Individual, which can be one of the murkiest, yet most important areas associated with giftedness.

Advocating for Challenge vs. Being a Pushy Parent

Parents can be seen by many people (usually uninformed others and especially our kids!) as pushy when we have high expectations and advocate for our children to work at levels that challenge their abilities. It is very easy to sit back and be happy with all the A’s. But, we know our kids need more; and, A’s don’t necessarily mean very much when your child is bored to the extreme and beginning to either act up or shut down her/his inquisitive mind because of a lackluster curriculum. So, what should we do?

HG/PG kids are quick learners, often able to use an almost photographic memory to replicate information; and, therefore be very, very successful on tasks requiring memorization and parroting back information or actions. There comes a point (usually associated with the Arts or Music) where they are unable to perform or make conscious decisions requiring use of knowledge because they never really learned the information. “Hitting the wall”—very much like distance runners do when they reach the limits of their bodies and collapse—causes frustration, anger, anxiety and a “fight or flight” approach.

In this situation, self-preservation becomes important and you (dear parent) are seen as “pushing.” It is much easier for your HG/PG child to quit or otherwise drop the issue (likely while still earning high marks!) than to power through to resolution of the deficit. After all, this “coping” strategy has likely worked well in the past, allowing your HG/PG student to circumvent learning situations while still earning top scores.

You know your child best, so your drive to advocate for challenge can also be seen by others (teachers, most likely) as “pushing” as well. Realize few teachers have formal training in the nature/needs of gifted individuals; and, fewer still have any experience whatsoever working with a HG/PG individual. This lack of experience and awareness limit what teachers are able to do in classroom settings; especially since the curricular modifications necessary for a HG/PG learner in a specific content area may be drastic.

Fortunately, if you approach the situation from a position fostering collaboration, the teacher (or entire school for that matter) might be willing to take into consideration your requests—especially if you are able to teach them about HG/PG matters; and, if you have the local GT coordinator (or another professional with expertise) in your corner. Please remember, teachers aren’t necessarily blameless when it comes to a lackluster curriculum; but, they do need lots of assistance and outside training to be able to provide even a modicum of challenge in the curriculum for a HG/PG learner who likely functions several grade levels above the current setting.

On GIEPs (Gifted Individual Education Plans)

My daughter is a gifted writer. As stipulated in her GIEP, she has been pretested in English classes and has tested out of every regular unit thus far. The idea, though, was that she’d be freed up to focus on her writing, with or without a small group of similarly talented students. Instead, she has been offered writing contests to enter (in which she’s not at all interested), or “enrichment” packets that are just worksheets that are perhaps a bit more involved than those the other students complete. What are your views?

Bulletin Board Participant

It would be very beneficial to develop with the teachers and the gifted program coordinator, a GIEP that can serve as a “roadmap” to what types of enrichment or independent options are most suitable to your daughter’s needs. Please, though, do make sure your daughter is part of the meeting and discussion. She has the most at stake in the GIEP, and should be right at the table discussing and negotiating options.

The GIEP can stipulate that “instead of” work is used for your daughter rather than “in addition to” work. This makes if fair for her. If she is able to show mastery of the content and skills, she should be able to do something applying these at a higher level rather than being given the opportunity to do competitions or additional busywork (worksheets).

Another strategy to use is Contract Learning. Your daughter contracts with the teacher what she will do to cover the unit. Everything is detailed, including the assessment/evaluation for the work (with your daughter determining what and how this will occur) and how she will share her findings/results. This allows her to move at a pace, depth and breadth suited to her abilities and interests without having to constantly be on task based on the teacher’s thoughts about her abilities. Contract learning is a freeing experience for HG/PG individuals who typically spend more than 3/4 of their typical school day waiting for a challenging curricular activity.

Expectations: Externally vs. Internally Imposed

An issue I often discuss with gifted kids and teens relates to expectations that other people have for them. May talk about the extreme stress and anxiety they feel trying to anticipate what other people’s expectations are for them; and, then trying to not disappoint.

Adults tend to think this is all about academics; but, kids see it more as a total package of who they are rather than abilities or talents alone. This leads to many issues that, at the extremes can: a) cause a HG/PG child or young adult to become paralyzed into inaction since they don’t know which expectations they should work up to; or b) completely exhaust themselves striving to meet everyone’s expectations, but not ever getting a strong sense of their own expectations and loves in life.

These are extreme positions, but anywhere along this continuum lie issues associated with stress, anxiety, a sense of becoming, finding place and space in the world to exist and a sense of satisfaction with life.

Expectations levied upon a HG/PG individual can be extreme—yet totally exclude the being of the individual. We call this “burn out” when a person overexerts or works beyond their capabilities yet never seems to find peace in their life. For a HG/PG person carrying the burden of high externally imposed expectations and a need to perform, this burn out means they have totally and completely failed in life; and, this can be extreme.

Perfectionism is a term that might be rolling around in your head as you are reading this section. When a person strives to be perfect, any “chinks” are internalized as failure. As well, success to a perfectionist is based on the situation, but there is always a little underground feeling that one could have done better.

This is very different from excellence; which means a person accepts that (s)he has some flaws but is still able to function and perform at an exceptional level while feeling good about the result.

Things to try, if your family situation seems to align with the discussion so far include:

  • Talking about situations in your life where you messed things up and had to live with and take responsibility for the outcomes/consequences. This isn’t a character flaw. Rather, it is a means of showing others how responsible and trustworthy you are as a person. Use examples that are fairly innocuous and common for all folks (i.e. speeding ticket, late for work, forgot an appointment, had to pay late charges, etc).
  • Celebrate a lack of total success. Much of life is showing up and taking part in activities rather than always being best of the best. Just taking part in something novel and having some fun is cause for celebration. You can model this by taking up a hobby with your HG/PG child that neither of you has ever tried; and, doing it poorly together (while you laugh and enjoy each other’s company).

Trust in Your Child

Unfortunately, this continual state of being on guard can have some adverse effects on your family relationship. If your child is happy, do not consider this a façade. It just might be that (s)he is happy at this point in life.

Second guessing, or trying to find a hidden agenda shows a lack of trust that your HG/PG child will pick up on instantly. Communication begins to break down; conversations diminish; and everyone in the family is constantly on edge waiting for something unpleasant to happen.

This scenario is common. But, it can be resolved. Our expectations as parents need to be softened by the realization we are not our child. We have experiences they don’t; but, they need to have their own experiences instead of just listening to what we say. That is a part of life that builds character. Also, we need to establish trust and respect for our HG/PG children to make informed choices. Trying to find a hidden agenda is like trying to find treasure hidden in your backyard. You can dig and dig believing it’s there. Eventually, you don’t find any treasure; and, you don’t have a backyard either.

What’s the moral to this story? Keep a clear line of communication open with your HG/PG child so discussions can take place openly. Trust in him/her to make decisions based on information and possibilities while you, the parent, are available for consultation. And, teach your children that decisions have outcomes, and all of us live with the results of decisions we make.

Empathy and the Highly Gifted Individual

In the literature, there is mention (and some anecdotal evidence) about a higher state of empathy exhibited by HG/PG individuals. The theory goes that a person who is constantly aware of being very different from agemates and well beyond them intellectually is in a strong position to champion and support other kids facing similar situations. Usually this involves a HG/PG kid befriending and sticking up for a LD or OH or SBH individual. This makes sense; and, intuitively we would expect this to occur.

But, a higher state of empathy isn’t always the case. HG/PG individuals are just that—individuals. Some find empathy and compassion as worthy states of being. Others, though, see the world a little differently.

I find in my work and experience that empathy tends to be offset by Justice Seeking in HG/PG individuals. They are very likely to stand up for others if they don’t feel rules have been broken (on purpose, or by accident makes absolutely no difference) or as though they themselves have been wronged.

If you have a Justice Seeker (JS), candid (and constant) conversation should be your lead into the situation. Talk about the stress, frustration, anxiety and anger that bubble up when your JS feels rules have been broken and (s)he wants justice. Something like, “Yes, I know rules were broken, but we all need to have opportunities to learn from our mistakes and also have chances to really understand why rules are important. Wouldn’t you want the chance to learn from a mistake and make amends to a situation you handled poorly?”

Keeping a calm demeanor and thinking about outcomes associated with breaking rules before jumping to judge someone is also something to try. Ask your HG/PG JS to consider sides to an issue, including all the “grey” areas associated with the rules before coming to a decision. This is how the Law works; and, seemingly set-in-stone rules do have room for consideration of actions and outcomes.

Another strategy is “putting yourself in another’s shoes.” If someone has been unjustly wronged, first your JS needs to get an adult involved in the situation. Then, with the adult present, your JS can lead a conversation by asking the wrong-doer how (s)he would feel if (s)he was treated poorly by another person. Follow this by trying to resolve the situation by focusing on what could be done to be fair might just allow your JS to feel (s)he has had a positive impact on an action/event.

In conclusion

This Tips for Parents summary just scratches the surface of topics we discussed. And, those topics just scratch the surface of the varied and diverse social and emotional needs HG/PG individuals face on a daily basis.

There is much we need to learn before being able to make theories that attempt to cut across the entire spectrum of the HG/PG population. So much so, that I’m hesitant to come to any conclusions in this article!

I do know that we learn together in this process of understanding and assisting HG/PG children as long as we keep discussing ideas, insights, difficulties and outcomes. We also gain tremendous insights and expertise by teaching our HG/PG children to make informed decisions, and working to keep a constant open line of communication with them.

Communication is key. You must establish trust, respect and promote (foster) responsibility in your HG/PG child(ren). They need to be able to come to you with any situation and feel reasonably comfortable that they can discuss it without fear of being judged, cut-off, or otherwise emotionally “downgraded.” This is difficult to do; and, it takes continuous practice and emotional control to make it happen. It is always a work in progress.

Other people have high expectations for your HG/PG child. These externally imposed expectations tend to drive what happens in the life of a HG/PG individual regardless of interests or needs of the child bearing the brunt of these impositions. Keeping your HG/PG child aware that a “safe zone” exists in your household where expectations are built mutually is an important step in growing an emotionally healthy young adult.

Keep the conversations going; and, listen and hear what is being said. Provide possibilities and further discussion points rather than judging and jumping to a conclusion that might not necessarily be the appropriate choice. It’s hard, and personally I struggle with the process myself every day. But, it’s worth the outcomes—healthy, thriving young adults who are confident, trustworthy and who will make you proud to be a parent.


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