9 Important Topics about the Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted (An Interview)

Updated: Jan 20, 2019

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question by Dr. Michael Shaughnessy: Carol, first of all, what do you see as the main social and emotional needs of the gifted?

Answer by Dr. Carol McGaughey: Early in my career as a teacher of gifted elementary students, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to help develop a public school pull out program that served over 30 schools. This was in the 1970s when attention and funding was focused on the gifted, and districts were trying different ways to meet their needs. This program gave me the opportunity to work with the same students from 2nd grade to 6th grade, which provided me with real insights into their unique social and emotional needs and their growth.

In trying to help determine the type of program to develop for the gifted in the district, many models were explored. Some of the earliest research on the effectiveness of gifted programs was difficult to interpret, as it seemed that whatever format was used showed gains for the gifted, not just in their intellectual pursuits, but in their social and emotional growth. A conclusion that was drawn from this was that just by putting gifted students with their peers, they thrived. I definitely witnessed that during my 26 years of teaching gifted students in several different programs. They need a peer group who accepts them, understands them, values them, and challenges them. It can be lonely to be the “only.”

Although the emotional traits of gifted children vary from extremely verbal and outwardly interactive to quiet and withdrawn, what is similar is the intensity with which they experience their emotions. Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, specifically his delineation of overexcitabilities, presents one way of understanding the intensity noted in the gifted. However, I believe this intensity may also be related to their metacognitive abilities in that they not only experience the emotions, but they analyze the experience as it is occurring as well as at a later time. Even one negative episode can be replayed over and over to seek a better outcome or pinpoint the error. Avoidance behaviors, anxiety, resistance, and creative excuses can all accompany a return to the source of the negative episode. They can have a long memory for an emotionally or socially painful episode, which can be a problem for parents, teachers, and for their own personal growth.

Even at a very young age, they may be dubbed stubborn due to their refusal to participate in an activity that was distressing initially. This can be related to perfectionism and fear of failure in that they wish to avoid the intense feelings engendered by a negative episode. Parents and teachers can assist by understanding the source of the gifted students’ resistance and scaffolding them to a positive experience in a related area.

Gifted students need to experience positive outcomes from their quest for information and to be supported in their passions which are sometimes highly defined at a young age. It’s not easy being “green” as a five year old who arrives at school in an SUV, finds pre-packaged snack packs in his lunch, and completes worksheet after worksheet in the course of one day. His protests may net him little results early on, but, with persistence, he may find success in modifying his environment to suit his intellectual model.

Therefore, I see as primary in relation to the social and emotional needs of the gifted their pursuit of self-definition. Self-definition can be most effectively accomplished in the company of peers with supporting adults who can guide the process.

Question: In some schools, gifted kids receive an IEP. What goals might a school consider to assist in their social and emotional development?

Answer: In the program I taught in during the 1970s, all gifted students were considered part of the special education population of that state. Each one of the over 100 students in my elementary pull-out GT program had to have an IEP. Needless to say, it was an enormous task to complete paperwork for such a large population using a form designed for a small population-all in a time before computers!

Some generalizations had to be formulated by our team of teachers for the various categories of goals and then applied, as appropriate, to the students in the program. When it came to social and emotional development, we looked at the areas relating to self and relating to others. Over the years, I believe this simple tactic worked well for clarifying dimensions that can be positively impacted by the schools.

For example, in terms of class cohesion, goals involving respecting others ideas and feelings as well as learning skills to enhance peer relations were universals for students. These are important in every classroom, not just with gifted. The difference is that young gifted students often seem oblivious to the effect their actions or statements have on others. A goal of participating in conflict resolution helped teach them an intellectual process to deal with differences of opinion. As individuals, general goals included communicating feelings and needs, acting responsibly, and coping with frustrations that arose. More specific goals were needed for those gifted who saw rules as only one of many options, assignments as choices, and anger or withdrawal as an appropriate response to requirements they didn’t like.

Interestingly enough, a small percentage of the students in our program were identified when they had been recommended to be tested as emotionally disturbed. The sheer boredom of the regular classroom had led them to act out in ways that caught the attention of the teacher and administration. Their IEP’s often had to include achieve