An Interview with Dr. Tracy Cross: The Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Children

Question by Dr. Michael Shaughnessy: Tracy, first of all, could you tell us a bit about your background and education?

Answer: by Dr. Tracy Cross: I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and come from an intact family wherein I was the only son with three sisters. Among his many interests, my dad was a sports enthusiast, especially of the University of Tennessee. My family had a number of great athletes in it, including my father, who received a scholarship to play football at the University of Tennessee. These things are important to my development, because more attention was paid to my athletic endeavors than to my academic ones early in my life.

My mother was extremely bright. She grew up on a farm in a tiny community in the mountains of East Tennessee. She showed up at school one day when she was 15 or 16 years old and was called to the principal’s office. She was handed her diploma with the principal saying “we can’t do anything else for you.”

I was an odd little boy in that I worried about existential and philosophical matters from an early age. I was destined to be involved with psychology in some form from my youngest days. The old Bob Newhart show got me interested in clinical psychology. My family owned an art gallery for many years. There I met innumerable artists.

Being unsure of what I wanted to pursue, I enrolled into community college while I worked full-time, third shift for a couple of years. One of the greatest weeks in my life was the week that I celebrated my birthday, graduated from community college, got married and went on my honeymoon. Immediately thereafter, I began my studies at the University of Tennessee, culminating in a Ph.D. in educational psychology. I also completed all the coursework and practica for a second Ph.D. in school psychology and was mentored for three years by phenomenologists.

Q: How did you first get involved in working with gifted children?

A: My first professional experience with gifted kids was in a school psychology practicum when I tested four-year-old kids all day for a semester. A good percentage of them were gifted. Seeing the wide range in differences among them, it made me come to appreciate the role of diversity and the limitations in assessing developmental readiness. Prior to this, however, I had grown up in a family made up of gifted individuals and had spent considerable time with my wife’s family, which had five gifted children. These early life experiences immersed in the culture of talented artists and gifted family members established my desire to be around people like this for the rest of my life. I found my niche at an early age.

Q: What do you see as the main social needs of gifted children and adolescents?

A: I would say their need to feel accepted. The referent group for that need is idiosyncratic. Therefore, it is difficult to make generalizations beyond the need to feel accepted.

Q: What do you see as the main emotional needs of gifted children and adolescents?

A: I think Maslow was right. And I think, for gifted children, there may be a stronger relationship of the higher order needs, such as the conative needs, and emotional development.

Q: Tell us about some of the counseling concerns and issues that teachers and parents of gifted students have—what are their worries?

A: I think that teachers and parents are often worried first and foremost about friendship development among gifted kids. Twinned with that is often a concern about general social skills. For a small number of gifted kids, adults worry about what we in the field describe as “existential angst.” In many cases, what is being observed is the manifestation of asynchronous development.

Q: We often hear the words “underachievement” and “perfectionism “ bandied about—how prevalent are these things and how frequently have you encountered them?

A: Let’s treat the terms separately. Philosophically, I believe all students underachieve – gifted and nongifted alike. I don’t think schools are set up to bring about maximum performance. We tend to look at many, many measures over time. When you juxtapose this with Olympic athletes or performance artists whose talents are developed to peak at a particular time, we realize that our schools are not designed to do that. Consequently, we seldom see peak performance from our gifted students. Therefore, we tend to see a lot of typical performance, which, by definition, would be putting our gifted students in a constant state of underachievement.

In my decade at the Indiana Academy, I saw clear evidence of perfectionism as described by Flett and Hewitt among a relatively high percentage of the students. I also saw it among a relatively high percentage of the faculty who taught the students. For the most part, the faculty who teach at the Academy had been gifted kids themselves. On the basis of this sample of 50 faculty and 2700 students (over 10 years), I personally have little doubt that perfectionism is common among gifted students. What I am less confident of is the rate of perfectionism among the population of general students. We simply don’t know how the two populations compare.