An Interview with Sal Mendaglio: About Meeting the Emotional Needs of Gifted Children and Adolescent

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question: Sal, first of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your education?

Answer: Well, I was born in Capistrano—not the one where the swallows go back to, but the one in Calabria, Italy. My family moved to Montreal when I was quite young. I am the eldest son in a family consisting originally of seven children (most Italians know what that means), four girls and three boys. Of course, Montreal is known for its French language and culture, and, for a while, I was trilingual in Italian, English, and French. In those early years in Canada, I had experiences that I think are common to many immigrant children. I sum these up as living in two conflicting cultures, one at home and one in the outside world. I learned from experience that, among other things, young people run into extra challenges when they are different from the norm. Those early years were very difficult. Later, after surviving them, I began to value those early experiences. I believe that they enhanced my empathic ability. More than that, I think that my experience as an immigrant contributed to the different perspective I have on life. I noticed over time that I seem to think differently from others on many things. This is also evident to me in my approach to psychology and giftedness.

I received all my education in Canada. I received a Bachelor’s degree, major in psychology, at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, and Nova Scotia. After my BA, I taught elementary and junior high school for three years in Montreal. During that time, I earned a BEd degree from University de Montreal. My teaching experience sparked my interest in counselling. I left teaching and went to McGill University where I received a Master’s in counselling, and from there I went directly into a PhD in the counselling psychology program at the University of Toronto. My 1976 job hunting for academic positions led me to the University of Calgary, where I have been ever since.

After 20 years or so of contributing to the preparation of psychologists, I transferred to the preparation of teachers, the area that I have taught in since 1998.

Question: How did you first get involved in counselling gifted kids?

Answer: My involvement with counselling gifted individuals began rather serendipitously. In 1977, I was teaching a practicum course in our counselling program. This involved supervising student counsellors’ practice in community settings. To enhance my work with my graduate students, I decided that I needed to maintain my counselling skills. This led to establishing a very small independent practice as a psychologist. At that time, there were no psychological services for gifted children and their families. In fact, gifted education programs in public schools were in their infancy.

My involvement with gifted children began when I was approached by an educator who said that no one was working in the area of counselling gifted students and suggested that I consider working with that population. I had no academic background in the area, but I felt confident about my counselling skills, so I decided to give it a chance. When I received my first referral, being a good professional and needing to be a model for my graduate students, I, of course, went to the literature. I can still recall my amazement during my first interview with a gifted child of about seven or eight years old: I looked at my watch and was stunned that I had an adult-like conversation with him for forty-five minutes. As I think back, I remember that I was looking for clients that could challenge me so that I could evolve as a practitioner. Gifted children and adolescents experiencing difficulties were challenging indeed! Unlike other young people, they challenged me, not simply accepting my interpretations and suggestions because of my being a psychologist—they wanted me to explain my rationale to them. I was used to having adults do that, but not children. As I began to work with parents of gifted children, the challenges I experienced with children paled when I worked with their parents. It was then that I rea