Gifted Kids Face These 6 Challenges, According to Science

Many people assume advanced intellectual ability sets kids up for success in school, so when gifted kids struggle, it can be confusing for educators and parents.

Emily Veno
• 
July 7, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

One day, when I was in first grade, my mom got a call from my teacher. “I’m concerned about Emily,” the teacher said. “I’m not sure she’s progressing in reading.”

“What?” my mom answered, surprised. “Emily’s a great reader.” She peeked around the corner to see me sitting on the couch, engrossed in a chapter book. “Actually, she’s reading right now.”

“Well,” my teacher explained, “every time we are reading together in class, and I call on her, she doesn’t know where we are. She’s staring out the window, completely lost.”

You can probably guess what this teacher was missing in my behavior. I wasn’t lost— I was bored. It was this incident that first got me tested for giftedness, and ultimately moved to an advanced reading class.

This story illuminates some of the common challenges gifted children face in traditional schooling environments. Many people assume advanced intellectual ability sets kids up for success in school, so when gifted kids struggle, it can be confusing for educators and parents. Sometimes, their academic struggles can mean kids aren’t identified as gifted when they should be. Outside of academics, giftedness is associated with specific social-emotional challenges also often misunderstood.

Programs for gifted children are designed to challenge them to reach their high academic potential, while also supporting their unique social-emotional needs. At Prisma, our interdisciplinary, personalized curriculum and coaching helps gifted learners follow their interests and build self-directed learning skills.

Parents and educators in all environments who want to better support gifted learners should understand what research says about their needs. In this post, we’ll list the most common challenges gifted students face, and share concrete strategies for addressing these issues.

What is giftedness?

Specific criteria vary, but gifted children generally perform at a level significantly above the norm for their age. This could mean a young child demonstrating an ability to comprehend books meant for much older children, or a student consistently outperforming their peers in mathematical reasoning. These students often show an advanced ability to learn and process information, high creativity, superior problem-solving skills, and a capacity for critical and analytical thinking beyond their years.

Giftedness is typically determined through IQ testing, or through standardized tests that strongly correlate with IQ, such as NWEA MAP. Gifted children typically score in the top 90-99% percentile on such tests.

However, it's important to note that "giftedness" is not simply about being high-achieving. A child can be gifted yet not perform well in a traditional school setting for various reasons, including lack of challenge in the curriculum, social and emotional difficulties, or learning disabilities. This is sometimes referred to as "twice-exceptionality."

What's Prisma?

  • Prisma is an accredited, project-based, online program for kids in grades 4-12.
  • We exist to ignite a lifelong love of learning and prepare kids to thrive in the future.
  • Our middle school, high school, and parent-coach programs provide personalized curriculum, 1:1 support from educators, and cohorts where kids build community.

Most Common Challenges for Gifted Learners

Boredom

Gifted children can sometimes feel bored in school because the curriculum doesn’t challenge them sufficiently. Their rapid understanding of concepts might lead to frustration with repetition or surface-level discussions of topics they understand at a deep level. It's essential to understand that giftedness doesn't just mean fast learning; it means these kids have a unique perspective on the world and an intense curiosity that needs to be nurtured.

To help your gifted child remain engaged, schools may offer differentiated instruction, where the teaching is adjusted to meet your child's specific needs, or acceleration, which might involve skipping grades or taking more advanced subjects. At Prisma, we offer gifted cohorts and the ability for gifted learners to move at their own pace through the curriculum, reducing boredom.

Asynchronous Development

Asynchronous development in gifted children refers to a discrepancy between their intellectual abilities and their emotional and social development. This means a gifted child might excel in complex areas of thought beyond their age level, yet their social skills and emotional maturity might align with their actual age or even lag behind. The child's advanced cognitive capabilities can create control issues or lead to competitiveness as they try to reconcile their intellectual maturity with building positive relationships with age peers. This can complicate making friends, leading to challenges in social development. The child might feel more comfortable interacting with older children who can match their intellectual discussions, yet their emotional needs may not be on the same level.

Addressing the challenges of asynchronous development requires understanding. Encourage your child's social skill development through activities that promote teamwork and empathy. Establish environments where they can interact with both intellectual peers and age peers. This can help them to make friends who can understand and relate to multiple of their experiences. Understand that competitiveness or control issues are often a sign of frustration, and help them to navigate these feelings constructively. Support their emotional needs by acknowledging their feelings, teaching coping strategies, and seeking professional help if needed.

Dabrowski “Overexcitabilities”

Dabrowski's "overexcitabilities" refers to a theory proposed by the psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, who suggested that gifted individuals often have heightened sensitivities in various areas, leading to increased intensity of experiences and reactions. These overexcitabilities are categorized into five areas: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional. Your child may struggle with some of these overexcitabilites more than others. These sensitivities can make gifted individuals more susceptible to “existential depression,” emotional problems, sensory overwhelm, and mental health challenges. Julia Chamberlain, MS, INHC, LMHC, puts it well when she explains, "Gifted children may become overwhelmed or overstimulated easily because of their natural ability to comprehend larger concepts and situations."

For instance, a child with emotional overexcitability might exhibit a strong emotional sensitivity, leading them to take criticism personally or experience emotional problems. A child with sensual overexcitability might become overwhelmed by intense or conflicting sensory input. Intellectual overexcitability might cause a gifted child to worry about large concepts such as death, sex, or the future, potentially leading to existential depression. “Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists,” writes James T. Webb. “However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them.”

To manage these overexcitabilities, strategies may include teaching coping skills, such as mindfulness, to help manage their intense emotional and sensory reactions. Regular physical activity can help manage psychomotor overexcitability, while opportunities for intellectual exploration can help children with intellectual overexcitability process their thoughts and concerns.

Rebelliousness

Have you ever found yourself telling your gifted child “You’d make a great lawyer!”? Rebelliousness can be a challenge for gifted students, particularly during adolescence. Their high verbal and reasoning abilities can sometimes manifest as argumentativeness as they question norms, challenge authority, and push boundaries in their quest for knowledge and understanding. This can result in behavior problems, as they may resist conforming to rules they find arbitrary or unnecessary. They might struggle with structures that inhibit their intellectual curiosity or personal growth, leading to conflicts in both school and home environments.

Thus, what might be perceived as rebelliousness could be a manifestation of their intellectual prowess, their strong sense of justice, or their desire for autonomy and self-determination! This underscores the importance of sensitive and understanding guidance to help gifted adolescents navigate these challenges.

Self-Esteem and Perfectionism

Gifted students can often struggle with self-esteem and perfectionism due to the high expectations and pressures they face, both internally and externally. This can cause a distorted self-concept, where they tie their self-worth to their achievements, leading to low self-esteem when they don't meet their own or others' expectations. Perfectionism can exacerbate this issue, as gifted children might set unrealistic expectations for themselves, driven by a desire to always excel and an impatience if they aren't good at something right away. This fear of failure can inhibit a growth mindset, as proposed by Carol Dweck, where challenges and mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning rather than failures.

For example, a gifted student might struggle with a new topic in math, leading them to question their abilities and worth, especially if they're used to quickly grasping new concepts. This might trigger fear of failure, leading them to avoid challenges, causing burnout due to constant self-imposed pressure to perform perfectly.

Try teaching your perfectionist gifted learner about growth mindset, emphasizing that it's okay to make mistakes and that learning is a journey, not a destination, and that no one can be perfect at everything. It's also important to foster their positive emotional development and self-esteem by celebrating their effort, resilience, and progress rather than only their achievements. Having open conversations about these issues can help them manage pressure and cultivate a healthy self-esteem.

Attention and Organization

Gifted students may sometimes struggle with attention and organization due to their unique learning style and high intellectual capabilities. They often prefer to think about the bigger picture and delve into complex concepts rather than focus on routine tasks or details they might deem unimportant or unchallenging. This can contribute to underachievement, as these skills are often crucial for success in traditional educational settings. While they have the capability to excel, their struggle with attention and organization can hinder them from realizing their full potential. Understanding and accommodating these characteristics can play a vital role in supporting their academic and personal development.

Twice Exceptional Gifted Learners

When gifted learners are "twice exceptional" or "2e", it means they exhibit high intellectual ability while also having one or more disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, or learning disabilities. These students can face unique challenges, as their advanced cognitive abilities can sometimes mask their disabilities, and vice versa. For example, a 2e child with autism might have strong academic skills but struggle with social interactions. Similarly, a gifted student with ADHD may have exceptional creative thinking skills but struggle with staying focused on a single task.

Because of these complexities, twice exceptional students often require specialized educational strategies and supports that address both their giftedness and their disabilities. At Prisma, we’ve found many twice exceptional learners thrive when able to go at their own pace, and make lots of choices about what they learn.

Ways traditional schools often don’t meet gifted learners’ needs

  1. Traditional schools often employ a one-size-fits-all approach to education, assuming all students of the same age have the same ability and needs. This approach, while practical for instructing a large group of students, can leave gifted students unchallenged, as the pace and depth of learning might not match their intellectual abilities. And, as we discussed above, letting them skip a grade does not always suffice, as they may end up in a social environment mismatched with their maturity level. At Prisma, we place gifted learners in virtual cohorts matching both their maturity & ability level (not necessarily their grade level) and let them learn at their own pace.
  2. Traditional schools focus on memorization and getting the “right” answer, which can lead to a lack of creative outlets for gifted students. At Prisma, through interdisciplinary, project-based learning, gifted learners challenge themselves to create hands-on representations of their deep understanding of complex topics.
  3. Traditional education offers limited choice for students. This can be especially stifling for gifted learners who thrive on autonomy, curiosity-driven exploration, and personalized learning experiences. At Prisma, all kids get to choose which projects in a given theme they would like to complete. For example, to demonstrate understanding of ecosystems & adaptations, Prisma kids chose between writing a science fiction story, building a digital or physical model, or making an infographic.
  4. Traditional curricula often lacks real-world relevance, limiting opportunities for gifted students to see practical applications of their learning. Such curricula can fall short of stimulating their keen intellects and sparking their interest. At Prisma, we design all learning around real-world, interdisciplinary themes, such as Build a Business, United Nations, and Games for Change; and always make sure learners know the purpose of the skill they are learning.

How to support your gifted child

  1. Seek a Gifted Diagnosis: If you suspect your child may be gifted, seeking a formal evaluation can be beneficial. This can provide an understanding of your child's unique strengths and needs. Once you have a diagnosis, explore special programs catering to gifted students, such as Prisma. These programs often provide differentiated instruction, enrichment opportunities, and the chance to interact with like-minded peers, all of which can be crucial for your child's intellectual and social development.
  2. Advocate for a Gifted Education Approach: Regularly communicate with your child's teachers and school administration about your child's needs. Advocate for an education approach including accelerated learning, project-based learning, or other strategies suitable for gifted learners. If you are homeschooling, incorporate these ideas into your own approach.
  3. Encourage Extracurricular Activities: Extracurricular activities can provide an outlet for your child to explore their interests, develop their talents, and interact with peers who share the same passions. Whether it's a science club, art class, sports team, or chess club, these activities can enrich your child's learning experience and foster their social-emotional development.
  4. Provide Emotional Support: Gifted children often experience intense emotions and face unique social challenges. Listen to their feelings, validate their experiences, and provide guidance as they navigate their emotional landscape. This can help your child build resilience and foster a healthy self-esteem.
  5. Promote a Growth Mindset: Help your child learn it's okay to make mistakes and to see challenges as opportunities for growth. This can alleviate pressure they may feel to be constantly perfect and can foster a love for learning, curiosity, and resilience.
  6. Connect with Gifted Mentors: “Gifted children who feel overwhelmed by the myriad choices of an unstructured world can find a great deal of comfort in studying and exploring alternate ways in which other people have structured their lives,” writes James T. Webb. “Through reading about people who have chosen specific paths to greatness and fulfillment, these youngsters can begin to use bibliotherapy as a method of understanding that choices are merely forks in the road of life, each of which can lead them to their own sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.”

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