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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Although the emotional traits of gifted children vary from extremely verbal and outwardly interactive to quiet and withdrawn, what is similar is the intensity with which they experience their emotions.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 achievement motivation, accepting more challenging tasks, and acting independently to pursue and complete ideas. For all of the students in this district pull-out program, the positive influence of being with their intellectual peers assisted with their social and emotional growth beyond what could have been done in one-on-one tutoring or solitary enrichment within a regular classroom setting.

Question: Do gifted boys and girls differ in their needs and if so, how?

Answer: In my experience, there is a difference in the way the needs of gifted boys and girls are expressed. I believe the needs are very similar, but the outward manifestations vary. It would be simplistic to say that there is a clear gender division however, as a teacher of gifted, I noted clusters of differences. For example, gifted girls seemed to value peers and friendships at a younger age than the boys. The girls also seemed better able to rebound from a set-back, perhaps with the support of those peers. Since the elementary school is a more feminized atmosphere, the role models and activities often fit the social and emotional needs of the girls in the class better than the boys. In the past few decades with our quest for equity for the genders, gifted girls have benefited, as well as girls in general, eclipsing boys in college graduation rates and progress to higher degrees. That leaves the bright young boys out of the loop socially as their talents often lead them to boredom, rebellion, withdrawal, or counterinsurgency with the teacher and school as the enemy.

I refer to this as going over to the “dark side of the force.” This is especially true when neither a specialized GT program or a minimally effective differentiation of curriculum emphasis in the school district. Boys need more role models of intellectual prowess in the school setting. They also require teachers who implement activity-oriented teaching and learning and promote a classroom culture that values boys’ intense approach to learning. Both genders of gifted students need a classroom climate that fosters their multi-dimensional growth and, ideally, provides a peer group of quirky questers for meaning.

Question: Do gifted children differ in their social and emotional needs as opposed to gifted adolescents?

Answer: Having taught 2nd through 6th grade gifted students and worked with gifted adolescents and college students, I would have to say that the complexity of their needs differ. By adolescence, the gifted are more self-aware and analytical concerning their social needs. They may know they are socially on the outskirts of the group and feel that their own self-concept is low, but they don’t know how to change this or how to express a need for assistance.

Gifted children, however, may be unaware that they are offending their peers with their constant blurting out of the correct answers or their negative comments about childish concerns their classmates express. The younger children need to be guided to awareness of how to interact with classmates, while the older children need to be supported to find the equilibrium between still being themselves and finding areas in which they may gain social acceptance, possibly outside the classroom, such as in computer expertise, academic competitions representing their school, or in other areas of their talents such as the arts. Too often gifted adolescents develop a mask behind which they hide their capabilities. Although this may be socially effective, emotionally and intellectually this takes a toll. Parents, teachers, and peers can be supportive assets assisting the gifted to explore their potential rather than submerge it.

Question: Now, what about the highly gifted- those with I.Q.’s above 160- how are their needs different?

Answer: In my early years of working with gifted children, I privately called these highly gifted the “severely gifted” due to their greater difficulty in relating to the regular world. They needed much more intervention from teachers to help them coexist with even their gifted peers. The difference between their intellectual and emotional development was so great that they inhabited a land of ideational shadows that was often more real to them than the person standing right next to them. Their mind’s insatiable quest for information and synthesis of complex concepts blurred their view of reality. Is this something that can be fixed? By fixing it, are we damaging their unique perspective on the world?

We now speak of asynchronous development as an explanation for this manifestation, but the question still remains as to the best way to assist these children to grow emotionally and socially. Gifted programs with flexibility of assignments, GT peer groups, and enrichment programs that allow them to pursue their areas of interest have all shown positive results, yet more needs to be done to assist those who are at the top end of the spectrum.

I saw the most positive growth when a friendship with just one other gifted student developed during the course of working on a project, sharing a new experience such as an interactive field trip, or participating in an interest group such as computers, guitar, or cooking. Acceleration, early college admission, on-line advanced courses can all assist in the intellectual growth of highly gifted children, however, those guiding the intellectual development of these students should not ignore their emotional and social needs for friendship and acceptance, not just mentorship and expectation.

Question: What specifically have you written so that parents, teachers and counselors can learn more about helping with the social emotional needs?

Answer: My research focus has dealt with metacognition and the gifted, so most of my writing has been in that area. However, the overlap is that metcognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking, can be the bridge between the intellectual realm and the social /emotional realm. By teaching gifted students how to use their natural analytical thinking capacities and how to apply them to a social situation or a problem that is bothering them, they have a means to assist in their own growth.

In my university teaching and presentation of school district GT workshops, I try to emphasize that teachers need to recognize that the intellectually gifted need their support and help in their social and emotional growth. I urge teachers, counselors, and parents to read everything they can find on this topic and to watch the gifted individuals in their lives to gain insight into their world. Asking students their thoughts on a situation can be very revealing.

As a language arts teacher, I was able to use writing assignments as a source of release for the gifted. Their poetry and prose revealed their emotional states, often expressing a search for “normal.” Through introducing books that focused on complex issues or people, I could assist them to define a life that must be lived with difference.

Question. What role do guidance counselors play in assisting with the social and emotional needs of gifted?

Answer: It’s interesting that you ask this question. After only one year of teaching gifted children, I realized I needed more information to assist them in reaching their potential. I entered a master’s program in counseling and guidance with the intent of applying what I learned to my gifted students in the classroom. The research I did in the course of my masters definitely acquainted me with the major theorists in gifted education and ignited my own quest to promote this underserved population. It also served my intended purpose of gaining the knowledge and skills needed to assist my students through the promotion of a secure classroom climate that allowed the gifted to grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially.

In the reality of the public school, guidance counselors in the elementary grades have little to do with the gifted beyond placement unless the students present behavior problems. There are notable exceptions in communities that have well- developed and community- supported gifted programs. Unfortunately, with the advent of state mandated achievement tests, much of the guidance counselors’ time is now related to these tests as well as to the other special populations served in the schools. It is easy for the most capable students to be seen as needing the least help from a guidance counselor.

At the high school level, however, this situation often reverses itself with guidance counselors serving as college and career counselors pushing the gifted into AP classes, PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests, and other areas where their prowess could reflect positively on the school. Along the way, relationships can be formed with gifted students that are very positive for their adolescent development. Parents can be advocates for their children both at the elementary and secondary levels and request assistance from school counselors. In areas where parents have been more vocal in their requests for counseling attention for the gifted population, school districts have been responsive.

Question: What role do parents and grandparents play in helping with social/emotional needs?

Answer: Parents, of course, play a huge role in the development of a gifted individual. Although there is sometimes the assumption that parents have pushed their children to be labeled “gifted,” quite often parents have found themselves surprised by the abilities of very young children.

Question: I remember a father telling me about a sleepless night where he and his wife took turns walking their restless infant daughter. During one of his turns, he leaned wearily against the refrigerator in the kitchen patting his daughter’s back as she peered over his shoulder. She began to babble, and gradually, he made out one consistent word “Philco.” In astonishment, he turned to view the brand name of the refrigerator which was at her eye level; Philco. Fortunately, most parents rise to the challenge learning what they can about these children and investing a great deal of time and attention in their upbringing.

Grandparents can also be instrumental in valuing the child for being the child-the power of unconditional love without expectation of achievement. Both grandparents and parents can provide a safe haven for students who may be misunderstood by peers. They can also promote diverse activities so the gifted child can discover their range of areas of interests and talents.

Supportive parents are instrumental in students reaching their potential, although research has shown that some gifted individuals have thrived despite little or no attention at home. Having taught in low SES schools for most of my public school career, I have had many students who did not receive the support and enrichment that might be expected to be necessary for the manifestation of gifts and the realization of potential. In those cases, their own inner drive, combined with caring teachers or other adults who assisted in their development, propelled them to reach their potential despite a lack of early encouragement or support.

Parents of gifted students are their first teachers and are quite often wonderfully insightful and patiently supportive. Schools need to partner with them, appreciate them, and provide multiple opportunities for their gifted children to grow.

Question: What have I neglected to ask?

Answer: I think one area that needs to be addressed is what happens to these gifted individuals as they grow into adults. Is the folk wisdom of “genius close to madness” the reality, or does the “cannonball theory” that nothing can stop these high achievers from getting through school and accomplishing their goals more the norm?

Having started in the field of gifted education decades ago and progressed into the age of Google, some of my former gifted students are re-discovering my whereabouts. In fact, some students held a 20 year reunion of students who had attended the Learning Center during the 70’s and 80’s. So, on an anecdotal basis, I was able to discover the various paths these identified gifted individuals had taken. It was interesting to note that the majority had pursued their gifts achieving in their chosen fields. Some of the students had married other former students. There was a high level of satisfaction expressed and an eagerness to share pursuits-as well as to reacquaint with a peer group that had been instrumental in their early development having been classmates from 2nd through 6th grade.

In comparing my experience with these individuals with the research on adults who were identified as gifted when they were children, it is evident that some studies do show that those who were able to utilize their talents, work in the company of other talented individuals, and have outside interests beyond their jobs thrived. However, other studies noted that the same problems that plagued gifted children, such as social miscues, perfectionism, anxiety to achieve, and extreme self-criticism, also continued into the adult years. It is evident that more research is needed in this area so that effective strategies in gifted education can be implemented that assist the young gifted to grow in healthy self-definition. In the meantime, understanding the unique challenges of gifted children and providing support and a peer group can be invaluable to their social and emotional development.


Carol McGaughey, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education specializing in Curriculum and Instruction at Houston Baptist University. Carol has been a researcher at the University of Houston working with a national grant program to help design the implementation of a PT3 grant; Action Communities for Teaching Excellence; to incorporate technology into courses taught by education professors, an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University designing and teaching graduate courses in gifted education, a curriculum writer for GT curriculum in several states, as well as a teacher of gifted children for 26 years.

Carol earned her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from Baylor University in 1999, her master’s of education, counseling and guidance, in 1975 from the University of Miami, and a bachelor of science in education in 1972 from Illinois State University. Her most recent publication is “To be or not 2 bee: an examination of breaking set,” a chapter in the book Meta-cognition: A Recent Review of Research, Theory, and Perspectives edited by M.F. Shaughnessy, M.V.J. Veenman, & C. K. Kennedy. She has authored additional articles on metacognition and the gifted as well as on the implementation of technology to enhance curriculum. She has made numerous presentations at conferences and taught countless workshops on gifted education for school districts.

Dr. McGaughey conducts research primarily in the area of metacognition and the gifted. She also works directly with pre-service teachers and, as Director of the Alternative Certification Program at Houston Baptist University, graduate students who aspire to be teachers to inform them of modes of identification of the gifted, ways to meet needs of the gifted, and how to become involved in the field of gifted education.

Dr. McGaughey has appeared in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers for multiple years, received Teacher of the Year at her last public school, and has been a Piper Professor nominee. She is faculty sponsor of the Association of Student Educators, an officer of Kappa Delta Phi; an Education honor society; and Director of the HBU Summer Academy which brings gifted middle school students from a low SES public school to a college campus for a technology-rich summer program funded by donor contributions.

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