Bane of the brain: Challenges of gifted education

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Like many other commonly held beliefs about gifted education, it’s a myth that gifted kids always thrive in the classroom. In fact, they often face challenges that non-gifted children never encounter.

Academics are not the only challenge for gifted students.

By Allie Nicodemo

Sep. 16, 2010

Fact or fiction? All gifted students are happy, popular and well adjusted in school.

Like many other commonly held beliefs about gifted education, it’s a myth that these bright children always thrive in the classroom. In fact, they often face challenges that non-gifted children never encounter.

The National Association for Gifted Children defines “gifted” as performing or having the potential to perform exceptionally well in one or more areas of expression. These areas vary tremendously and can include anything from an extraordinary understanding of mathematics to an ability to think creatively that is unmatched by peers. In a perfect world, gifted children are intellectually challenged and encouraged to take pride in their academic strengths. However, research shows that with a greater learning capacity comes a greater likelihood of being misunderstood.

ASU offers free seminars for parents of gifted middle-school children. The program, which is held at ASU’s West Campus, was initiated by Dina Brulles and Kimberly Lansdowne of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. This year’s workshops included sessions about challenges facing gifted boys and gifted girls. While both genders share some common obstacles, they also face their own unique issues.

Robyn McKay is a staff psychologist for ASU’s Counseling Services and a faculty member in the Teachers College. She led the seminar about gifted girls, who face several common adversities that can start as early as preschool. One of these challenges is boredom.

“Gifted girls tend to be precocious for their age,” McKay says. “When they aren’t challenged, they get bored and become disinterested and disengaged in their studies.”

McKay explains that one of the most effective, yet underutilized, methods for curbing boredom and reaching out to gifted girls is grade acceleration. This involves placing the child in a higher grade that will better suit her learning ability. McKay notes that parents often worry that their daughter, although more intellectually advanced than her age-level peers, will not fit in socially with an older crowd. However, she says that gifted girls, who tend to have higher maturity levels, often fit in better with their older classmates.

To put parents at ease, McKay offers this tip: “Think of it this way, your daughter’s friends might be waiting for her at the next grade level.”

Grade acceleration can certainly help ease the boredom a gifted girl experiences in her classes, but it won’t solve all her problems.

Another common risk for gifted girls is becoming so well adjusted that they lose their individuality. In these cases, a girl will virtually disappear in the classroom, “almost like a chameleon,” in an effort to fit in with her non-gifted classmates. To combat the chameleon effect, McKay tells parents to encourage their daughter’s unique abilities and talents so she sees them as strengths and takes pride in applying them to her studies.

Choosing which strengths to focus on is also important for gifted girls. “Multipotentiality” refers to the capacity to do many things very well. Although this may sound like a blessing, McKay explains that for gifted girls, it can be more of a curse. With so many interests, the child spends all her time and energy trying to be well-rounded rather than finding a passion. This, McKay says, is “not advisable” for any gifted person.

“Leaders who are exceptional in their field are not well-rounded,” she says. Educators often report cases of a gifted girl who becomes frustrated because she consistently aces English, but fails physics. Instead of trying to be outstanding in every class, McKay advises gifted girls to choose a couple of interests they are really passionate about and focus on excelling in those areas, while working to get at least B’s in the courses they don’t like.

For gifted boys, focus can be a challenge in other ways. For example, preschool-aged boys often have a hard time sitting still long enough to complete a test. This makes it difficult to assess their intelligence and learning ability. A low assessment test score can mislead parents and educators into thinking that the boy isn’t ready to move up a grade when, in fact, he is.

Sanford Cohn is a practicing psychologist and professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Cohn gave a lecture in June about the specific needs of gifted boys. He refers to the concept of misjudging a boy’s readiness to move up a grade as “Kindergarten redshirting.”

“It can have kind of a disastrous effect,” Cohn says, explaining that the gifted boy may become critical of his teachers and quick to accuse them of asking obvious or “dumb” questions, especially if he feels the material is not challenging enough.

“They can build up a lot of contempt for that,” Cohn says. As a result, the boy may become unmotivated, disdainful and indifferent to school and learning.

For the boys who do move up and are challenged enough to remain interested in school, another obstacle awaits – the pressure to conform. While his male classmates are focused on athleticism and the idea of being masculine, the gifted boy may find he relates better to girls and adults, which will ultimately result in his being “banished from the boy club,” Cohn says.

To help the gifted boy feel more comfortable among his peers, Cohn encourages parents to develop excellent listening and questioning skills. “They must get to know their son as a unique individual, rather than an extension of their own ego,” he says. By learning his interests and passions, parents can help their son find constructive and interesting ways to apply his talents.

Psychologists seem to agree that aside from using grade acceleration and special academic programs geared toward the gifted, the best thing parents can do for their gifted children is give them access to many sources of new and complex information.

“Gifted kids are very hungry for knowledge,” Cohn says, “They learn everywhere; it doesn’t only occur in the classroom.”

ASU’s gifted child seminar series continues through December. Workshops on the unique needs of gifted boys and girls will be repeated in 2011. For more information, visit:

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