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

By Michael Shaughnessy.

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.

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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.

Question: Being understood, being valued, being appreciated are basic human needs. Are gifted kids getting listened to, and heard as much as they should be?

Answer: The United States provides an education for the populace of around 320 million people. I have been in many schools where children were listened to and treated well and many schools where that wasn’t the case. Where you have effective instruction, the students are listened to. To what extent this is a function of being gifted I can only hazard a guess. It’s only a part of the puzzle. For example, my experience with teachers of the gifted has been that they generally listen to students. But when you bring the camera lens back and look at society, adults don’t tend to listen to children much. That reflects parenting style differences as well. In general, I would conclude that our students are not heard as much as they should be, but I would not emphasize this as being only true of gifted children.

Question: Now, here is an opportunity for you to provide your take on “The Seven Great Gripes of Gifted Kids.” What have you found to be the top complaints of the gifted kids that you have worked with?

Answer: Over the years, I have found the most common concern expressed is feeling different and having to mask or hide aspects of themselves in order to be accepted. The extent to which they express this is influenced by the context of their school. For example, in early grade heterogeneous settings, as the children get closer to middle school, they tend to acknowledge feeling different and potentially unaccepted. As they reach middle school, the dynamics tend to change wherein most students experience the tension between the need to blend in and, at the same time, stand out. There is also a tension between the feeling that one is onstage all the time and the feeling that one is ignored. Gifted children have the capacity to manage information they have about themselves. So, depending on the relative development of their social cognition, they often mask aspects of their being. As they get older, the settings will either prove to be encouraging of revealing their true selves, or they won’t. This becomes especially important during adolescence, when, for many gifted children, the goal for authenticity replaces many other social goals.

Question: How about the Seven Great Gripes of Parents of Gifted Kids?

Answer: I have found the Seven Great Gripes of Parents to be fairly accurate. [Note: the Seven Great Gripes of Parents of Gifted Kids can be found in The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids, by Sally Yahnke Walker, Free Spirit Publishing, 2002]

Question: And, of course, the Main Concerns of Teachers of Gifted?

Answer: My experience has been that the concerns of teachers of the gifted fall under two categories: those that are nonspecific to context and those that are specific. For example, I often hear teachers of the gifted express concerns that they need additional training in differentiation and other special techniques of teaching gifted children; that the recent NCLB legislation has required them to focus on teaching to the test; that effective programs have been cut and replaced by the cheapest programs or services to offer; and that principal and superintendent are often not supportive of gifted education. Among secondary educators of gifted students, a common concern is that defining giftedness based on potential when children are young isn’t a good enough predictor when they are in high school.

For some teachers of secondary gifted education, they have a tacit definition of giftedness based solely on students’ facility for their subject matter. I also hear secondary teachers of gifted children complain that there isn’t enough research documenting effective teaching practices at the secondary level. Probably the most common concern of teachers of gifted at the secondary level is that the students have been ill-prepared for their classes.

Question: We understand that you have just been given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mensa Education and Research Foundation. How did you feel when you received this honor?

Answer: I was surprised with the award during my first day on the job at William & Mary in front of my new faculty colleagues during a day-long retreat. I thought the award was going to be given to my predecessor, Joyce VanTassel-Baska, when the Mensa representative arrived and started speaking. I was very proud because my wife was there in addition to the School of Education faculty. Such an award is one of the few advantages to getting older.

Question: What goes on at the William and Mary Center for Gifted Education?

Answer: Because I have inherited the great successes of my colleagues at the Center, my response comes with both enthusiasm and some humility. The Center is long known for developing world-class curriculum materials for gifted students. They are used throughout the United States and in numerous foreign countries. We also conduct a considerable amount of training for professional educators, run programs for hundreds of gifted children, offer training for parents of gifted children, provide testing of gifted children, and consult and provide training worldwide in gifted education. The Center also conducts and disseminates a considerable amount of research in the broader area of gifted studies. In conjunction with the School of Education, we offer endorsements and master’s degree in gifted education and two doctoral degrees in Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership with a cognate in gifted education.

Question: What have I neglected to ask?

Answer: I would like to comment on a group of special people in the field who have been instrumental in my development over my career. Larry Coleman was the first and most influential person in preparing me to conduct research in gifted studies. We began working together almost 30 years ago and still do today. Rena Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Susan Johnsen, Mike Pyryt, Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Mary Ruth Coleman, and James Gallagher have all been very influential. Joel McIntosh, owner of Prufrock Press, has provided me with many opportunities to publish in the field over the past 20 years. My colleagues at Ball State University for 16 years worked alongside me to improve the lives of gifted students. My children, Ian, Keenan, Colin, and Eva have kept the fire burning in my belly about the importance of being an advocate for gifted children. And my wife who keeps me from being embarrassed on a daily basis and helps me string together words that are occasionally …pithy. These people are the reason that you asked me the first 12 questions.


Dr. Tracy L. Cross holds an endowed chair, Jody and Layton Smith Professor of Psychology and Gifted Education, and is the Executive Director of the Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary. Previously he served Ball State University as the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Gifted Education, the Executive Director of the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development, and the Institute for Research on the Psychology of the Gifted Students. For nine years he served as the Executive Director of the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities – a residential high school for intellectually gifted adolescents. He has published well over 100 articles and book chapters, 40 columns, made over 200 presentations at conferences, and has published four books. He has edited five journals in the field of gifted studies and is the current editor of the Journal for the Education of the Gifted. He received the Distinguished Service Award from The Association for the Gifted and NAGC, the Early Leader Award and Early Scholar Award from NAGC, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the MENSA Education and Research Foundation.

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