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An Interview with Jean Sunde Peterson: About Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted

By Jean Sunde Peterson.

Twice Exceptional/Twice Successful: Back to School Strategies that Work

Jean Sunde Peterson, professor at Purdue University, directs school counselor preparation and focuses most of her research on gifted youth. Her workshops, keynotes, and presentations address social and emotional development, academic underachievement, development-oriented group work, bullying, advocacy, and parenting. She has authored over 80 books, invited chapters, and journal articles and has received several national research awards. Her latest book is Gifted At Risk: Poetic Profiles (Great Potential Press).

Interview by Michael F. Shaughnessy

Question: Jean, what do you see as the main social and emotional needs of the gifted?

Answer: Social concerns may include being a bully (with implications for future relationships) and/or being bullied, isolation, feeling unconnected to peers because of life circumstances, and having difficulty connecting to home or neighborhood because of interests and education. Perfectionism and other control issues (e.g., dominance, angry outbursts, anxiety), shyness, poor impulse control, and lack of tact are among several other concerns that may come to the attention of parents, teachers, and counselors. Social needs vary, according to how satisfied students are with interpersonal connections, how connected they want to be, and what might be interfering with connecting. Anyone with a poor fit with family, peers, teachers, coaches, directors, and neighborhood probably does not feel at ease socially.

Emotional concerns can be related to anything just mentioned. I do believe that sensitivity, intensity, and overexcitabilities are potential extra layers during life transitions, whether related to normal development, change and loss, or moving across school levels. That layer might exacerbate expected developmental struggles. In my view, including when there are learning disabilities, academic underachievement may be mostly a developmental phenomenon, with the possibility of “spontaneous remission” when developmental tasks are accomplished.

Needs that come to mind are these: 1) to be seen and appreciated as a complex person, not just as a performer or non-performer; 2) to have developmental tasks named and explained and struggles normalized, as related to giftedness; 3) to have associated characteristics recognized for what they are, and not pathologized (when pathology isn’t indicated); 4) to be viewed with compassion—even for having to bear the burdens of high ability; 5) to have someone who can affirm them where and how they are; 6) to know that angst, doubt, fear, anxiety, sense of inferiority, guilt, and even despair in the moment will not always feel the same, and that everything is always in the process of change; 7) to have a venue for learning to express concerns about present, past, and future.

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

Answer: Gifted kids have as much need as anyone else to learn about social and emotional development, to talk with a compassionate and nonjudgmental adult about growing up, to feel safe and secure at school, to have personal strengths unrelated to academics affirmed, to figure out their identity, to have assistance in career and relational development, to develop autonomy, and to learn how to be self-reliant, resilient, and comfortable in the world. Any of these are appropriate to focus on.

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

Answer: As a counselor, I’d say yes, but it’s important not to think in neat categories. As a researcher, I can look at a few of my studies. In one large high school, 75% of extreme underachievers were boys and 75% of high achievers were girls. I do view typical classrooms as being an easier and better fit for many gifted girls, especially those who are compliant and able to focus on the tasks at hand. When I selected 14 at-risk gifted high school graduates to follow for four years, there were more boys than girls, and at the end of the study the girls had accomplished an average of 3 developmental tasks (of the 4 of interest), compared with the boys’ 1.75. In a co-conducted study of gifted individuals who were gay/lesbian/bisexual, male subjects had sensed more danger. In a study of successful adults who once were underachievers, many of the females had been “feisty” adolescents in difficult family situations. Participants who became achievers last, in terms of age, were male. On the other hand, negative life events seemed to rain equally in another study, with both genders struggling.

Gifted girls had important research attention a few decades ago, and gifted males less so. Fortunately, the latter have had increasing attention in recent years. For both, personality factors and interpersonal strengths probably have the most impact on well-being. Those who do not fit gender stereotypes and lack peer support seem to be vulnerable to bullying. Both genders need compassion and support.

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

Answer: In general, their developmental tasks differ, although gifted kids may wrestle with typically adolescent identity and career development earlier than others their age. If abilities in gifted kids are obvious when young, childhood is likely affected, since significant adults are likely to interact with them accordingly. Others’ and their own high expectations may contribute to stress, and a sense that they should not disappoint highly invested adults may become entrenched during childhood—to the extent that they don’t reveal concerns, doubts, and distress.

Adolescent developmental tasks are related to identity, direction, relationships, autonomy, and differentiation within their family, and gifted teens have needs related to all of these areas. For instance, those who have potential in several fields may actually sense impending loss when needing to commit to a college major.

Based on my experience with gifted teens, they need to see professionals at work, especially in fields like engineering, of which media images are not common. They also need to be able to sort out their interests and desires with someone nonjudgmental and without emotional investment in their choices. The five areas of development mentioned above don’t “just happen.” Active and objective guidance at school, including within gifted-education programs, should be a given. I believe that gifted kids throughout the school years need to have psychoeducational information about development—and a place to talk, regularly, about it.

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

Answer: The degree of differentness has bearing on needs. A profoundly gifted child or teen or adult understandably is more likely to lack easy social connections and available intellectual peers, but some highly able individuals may have extraordinary interpersonal skills, too. Emotionally, sensitivities and intensities may match the level of their cognitive ability.

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

Answer: Potentially, an important role, but usually a relatively small role, unless behaviors call attention to needs. In recent years, school counselor preparation has emphasized addressing needs of ALL students, not just those in crisis or with obvious difficulties. But textbooks typically include only a paragraph or a page about working with gifted students, with almost no mention of concerns related to high ability and or differentiating counseling approaches. The Counseling and Guidance Network of NAGC made a concerted effort to ensure that ability level had a presence in the new 2009 counselor education standards. These now include reference to “ability” and “extreme ability” in at least a handful of standards. With that small beginning, there is now a need for pertinent modules for training programs. Counselors are trained to do both prevention- and intervention-oriented small-group work. However, only rarely do they consider group work for gifted students, who, in my opinion, have unique risk factors and need a place to talk about social and emotional concerns. The graduates of the program I direct at Purdue, as well as those at The University of Iowa, enter the field aware of needs related to giftedness and prepared to differentiate approaches accordingly. More programs will need to figure out how to meet those standards, and there is a great need for appropriate information nationally.

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

Answer: It is fortunate when gifted children have caring and available parents and parental surrogates who embrace the complexity of high ability, have a good handle on their roles, and view the gifted child as more than a performer/non-performer and fulfiller of dreams. The same is true for grandparents, especially in our highly mobile society. Important adults who are negative influencers can affect social and emotional development as well, of course. Both positive and negative situations can contribute to resilience.

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


• (Peterson, 2009) Gifted at risk: Poetic portraits. Great Potential Press. • (Peterson, 2008) The essential guide to talking with gifted teens. Free Spirit Publishing. • (Peterson & Mendaglio, 2007) Models of counseling gifted children, adolescents, and young adults. Prufrock Press. • (Peterson & Ray, 2006) Bullying and the gifted: Victims, perpetrators, prevalence, and effects. Gifted Child Quarterly, 50, 148-168 • (Peterson & Ray, 2006). Bullying among the gifted: The subjective experience. Gifted Child Quarterly, 50, 252-269. • (Peterson, 2005, June). Parents as models: Respecting and embracing differences. Parenting for High Potential, 12-15, 30. • (Peterson, 2002, December). A counselor’s perspective on parenting gifted children. Parenting for High Potential, 18-23, 30.

Question: What have I neglected to ask?

Answer: One closing comment. It’s easy for “the public” and educators to yawn at the idea that gifted kids need differentiated attention to social and emotional development. There’s a lot of work yet to be done, but I’m encouraged by the good attendance at NAGC conventions in this area and the increasing attention to it in state gifted-ed conferences.

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