Competing with Myths about the Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Students

By Tracy L. Cross

As a person who has dedicated himself to the study of the psychological and experiential lives of gifted students, I have encountered widely held myths and associated practices that have negative effects on the social and emotional development of gifted students. These myths are common among parents, teachers, administrators, and gifted students. As a wise person (Lao Tsu) once said, “Nothing is more difficult than competing with a myth.” Doing so, however, can create tremendous opportunities for people. Recall that it was not that long ago that myth prevented women from competing in long distance foot races.

The following list includes some of the most common and insidious examples of myths pertaining to the social development of gifted students. I hope that by discussing these examples, gifted students will be better served and barriers to their well-beings will be broken.

Myth 1

Gifted students should be with students their own age. The worry expressed here is that something inappropriate or untoward will occur if different age groups spend time together. Parents, teachers, and administrators worry that groups of multi-age children will struggle with exploitation, intimidation, inappropriate modeling, and sexuality. This prevailing myth undergirds some advocates’ preferences for educational models that emphasize enrichment rather than acceleration. The logic is as follows: “We should keep the students together even if they have already mastered the material.” Some believers of this myth will claim that research supports this point, but in fact they are mistaken. Writers have published this sentiment, but research does not support this idea. In fact, in my research with Larry Coleman, it is clear that gifted students need opportunities to be together with their intellectual peers, no matter what their age differences (Coleman & Cross, 2001). While there are plenty of appropriate reasons to provide enriching educational experiences, these decisions should not be made out of fear, worry or myth; they should be based on the needs of the students.

Myth 2

Gifted students are better off if they spend their entire school day amidst same-age, heterogeneous classmates. The claim is that if we allow gifted students to be clustered together through one of any means available, they will be unable to get along with others later in life, and this experience will cause emotional distress. Middle school principals and some middle school teachers regularly expressed these feelings. This concern includes the belief on the parts of the adults that gifted students, to be happy, must become socially astute. Becoming socially astute requires that gifted students spend as much time as possible in heterogeneous classroom environments. Once again, the claimed research that supports this myth is virtually nonexistent. Imagine all the opportunities students have to interact with other people. Church, sports, dubs, meals, camps, are just a few examples. Sacrificing learning and creating frustration based on this myth is unethical, in my opinion. This problem increases as the students develop and their knowledge base increases within a specific discipline.

Myth 3

Being perfectly well rounded should be the primary goal for gifted student development. Please note the carefully chosen phrase, “perfectly well rounded,” as opposed to “somewhat well-rounded.” Many parents, teachers, and administrators believe that it is their role to ensure that gifted students are perfectly well-rounded. To that end, they will encourage, prod, goad, push, threaten, and yell at gifted students to get them to spend less time engaged in their passion areas, so they can engage in something the adult wishes them to do. A very common example is that of an introverted gifted student who has great facility with computers. Adults will drag the child away from her passion to get her to participate in something she may loathe. While adults in each of these roles should be concerned with the well-being of gifted students, requiring them to engage in activities for which the gifted student has no interest (e.g., going outside and playing, or spending time with other children you do not choose to play with during the school day) as a means to make them happy later in life is misguided. Much of the research on successful gifted adults has revealed that they spent considerable amounts of time, often alone, in their passion areas as children. A more reasonable approach is to encourage and nurture other interests in the child rather than sending them the message that they are unacceptable as they are. For example, sending gifted children to a residential summer program can do wonders to broaden interests within a community where they feel emotionally safe and accepted for who they are.

Myth 4

Being gifted is something with which you are just born. A corollary to this is that things come easily when you are gifted or being gifted means never having to study or to try hard in school. This naive notion of giftedness, while intuitively proper, can be debilitating to gifted students’ development. Many teachers, parents, administrators, and gifted students hold this belief. It is not informed, however, by research on talent development and development in general. Moving from an entity notion of giftedness to an incremental notion, wherein talent is developed with hard work and some failure, is a much healthier and more nurturing experience of being a gifted student (Dweck, 1986). This change in understanding of giftedness is of particular importance before age 10 or so. That is because a school’s curriculum tends to get more focused as it moves toward middle school. Many gifted students experience this change as personal failure, causing self-doubt and distress, because they have internalized intellectual struggle as failure. To change this belief merely requires teaching gifted students about the two definitions, exposing them to models who failed in the process of great accomplishment (e.g., Thomas Edison) and having them go through processes that include struggle as part of growth.

Myth 5

Virtually everybody in the field of gifted education is an expert on the social and emotional development of gifted students. An extension of this is that every adult (parent, teacher, school administrator) is an expert on the social and emotional development of gifted students. The field of gifted studies is quite small, often yielding professionals in the field who are called on to be experts in numerous areas. This regularly plays out with a high percentage claiming expertise and being called on to provide wisdom on this topic. Another reason for this situation is the fact that we were all students once ourselves and that, supposedly, makes us familiar with gifted students’ lives. This is similar to my having played football as a youngster and now claiming expertise equivalent to that of Peyton Manning. Many factors combine to create situations where competing advice–sometimes by people who mean well, but do not know the research on the social and emotional development of gifted students–is given. As the field of gifted studies grows and matures, I think that children would be better served by having the expertise of those who specialize, rather than relying on a model that requires its experts to know a little about everything associated with the field.