By Carolyn Ragatz, PhD
AAGT Board of Directors

As we head into another school year here in Arizona, I start to think of the unique social and emotional needs of gifted students. Whereas all students are special and their emotions certainly need to be taken into account by teachers and other school personnel, the gifted student usually has some distinctive traits that may set him or her apart. When teachers do not understand these, it can lead to unnecessary friction and misunderstanding and can often start the year on a negative note. Here is a list of some of the most common characteristics of gifted individuals.

  • Highly curious
  • Constant questioning, usually beginning early
  • Sophisticated sense of humor
  • Catches on to new ideas quickly
  • Unique way of looking at things
  • Outstanding memory
  • Idealism and sense of justice

A second important list comes from Dabrowski and his list of overexcitabilities. These characteristics can be even more challenging to deal with in a classroom.

  • A person’s heightened response to stimuli
    • Intellectual
    • Imaginational
    • Emotional
      • Complex emotions
      • Intense feelings
      • Strong emotional attachments
      • Heightened concern for the environment
      • Compassion
      • Empathy
    • Psychomotor
    • Sensual

Not only are some, if not all of these seen but many will show what I call the “more so” effect. It is as if the “emotion dial” as been turned up slightly. Making these and other characteristics more intense. It is why a classroom filled with these students can seem more energetic, passionate, and often exhausting for the teacher.

The first step for those working with gifted students is to understand these unique characteristics and the needs that come with them. When a child is feeling overwhelmed because things don’t seem “fair” in the classroom or on the playground, or is asking endless questions about a subject being studied, the adults around him/her must understand that he/she is not trying to be annoying or obstinate, but that is how he/she is “wired”. Strategies and systems need to be put in place in the classroom to deal with these strong emotions. Possibly, a box or log to write the feeling down so that it can be looked at later or a time set aside when everyone can vent what is on his/her mind. Two things need to be kept in mind in order to maintain control of the learning environment. First, although issues should be addressed at some point, it is not always at the exact moment the child wants it. Teachers (and parents) must remember that they are the adult and therefore in charge of the situation. When and how the strategy is used depends on the age of the child. As long as the child understands that his/her needs are important, learning to table them until a later time is a good skill to have. This brings us to the second point, children with these emotional needs must be taught coping skills. As much as these traits are a part of them, these individuals need to be able to live in the “real world” and handle themselves appropriately. When a child feels the need to question everything, it can be seen as challenging authority in many situations. That child could keep a log and write down the questions, then at the end of the day, select two to ask the teacher privately, teaching him/her that there is a time and place to voice ones’ opinions. A heightened concern for a specific issue in the world can be turned into a special project that the student, small group, or entire class can work on. This would show students that they can make a difference, no matter how young.

When a teacher is aware of these unique gifts of their students, along with their heightened intellectual capabilities, he/she can create a learning environment that enriches all areas of the students’ lives.