Gifted Students with Attention Deficits: Fact and/or Fiction? Can We See the Forest for the Trees?

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

By Susan Baum.

ABSTRACT According to Gordon (1990), far too many high ability students are referred for problems with impulsivity, hyperactivity, and sustaining attention. Several important issues, rarely discussed in the literature on attention deficits, offer alternative hypotheses for the increasing incidence of hyperactivity and attention problems of gifted youngsters. These include theories on emotional development and excitability of gifted students (Dabrowski, 1938; Piechowski & Colangelo, 1984), evidence of unchallenging curricula (Reif, 1993), implications of the multiple intelligences paradigm (Gardner, 1983), and adult reaction to students’ extreme precocity (Rimm, 1994). These issues are examined in light of Barkley’s theory of inhibition as it relates to the manifestation of ADHD. The issues represent environmental conditions that may cause or influence ADHD-like behaviors in high ability students. Diagnostic and intervention strategies are suggested to counteract environmental contributors to the problem.

A master of Lego™ bricks, verbally precocious Chris is failing miserably at school. Despite an estimated IQ of 172, he was retained in first grade because of failure to complete work and poor motor and social skills for his age. In second grade, his teacher referred him for special education screening; because of his impulsive and disorganized behavior. Chris was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Referrals for attention disorders among gifted children have been growing at an unexpected rate (Webb & Latimer, 1993). Although the increases alone are troublesome, there is additional concern because of professionals’ lack of clear definitions for ADHD, giftedness, creativity, and a variety of other behavioral characteristics (Cramond, 1994; Jordan, 1992; Piechowski, 1991). Diagnosis of ADHD sweeps across a number of problematic behaviors such as impulsivity and hyperactivity, in addition to a collection of deficits in concentration, persistence for tasks, organization of thinking, and focusing attention. Such varied aspects of ADHD have prompted some researchers to claim that most gifted students with learning disabilities also demonstrate behaviors associated with ADHD (M. Cherkes-Julkowski, personal communication, March 9, 1993).

The most frequently prescribed intervention for ADHD is medication in the methylphenidate family, usually Ritalin-AE. Medications are usually successful in controlling behavior, but they are also suspected to inhibit creativity and intellectual curiosity in bright children. Anecdotal reports tell of gifted youngsters being “cured of their giftedness” in an effort to help attend to schoolwork. As Cramond (1994) put it, “perhaps we are lucky that medication was not available to stop the daydreams of Robert Frost and Frank Lloyd Wright” (p. 205). No conclusive research exists to explain the impact of such medication on various thought processes, including those related to potentially creative, productive thinking. Perhaps even more worrisome is that the behaviors thought to signal a disorder might sometimes be the result of an environment where bright but reluctant youngsters are expected to conform to a sluggish and boring curriculum.

The predicament of inattentive gifted youth has several important implications. First, the loss of valuable human resources comes at a time when the world depends increasingly on its brightest and most creative youth to assist in resolving the problems of tomorrow. If we cannot design appropriate interventions that will nurture human potential, much of the world’s best human capital will never reach its potential. A second concern is for lost achievement. Unfortunately, even when medication is appropriate to assist in behavior management, underachievement often continues (Lind & Olenchak, 1995). School administrators occasionally exacerbate the situation by viewing ADHD purely as a medical problem, thereby absolving themselves, teachers, and school curricula from responsibility. Parents, too, can excuse their child’s inappropriate behaviors rather than providing the support and structure some of these students need to practice academic and behavioral self-regulation (Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach, 1996). Medical professionals admit that if schools were more receptive to individual learning needs of students and were more cognizant of ADHD and its various treatment options, a number of children would not need medication (Barkley, 1990). Educators who are successful with bright but active youngsters argue that schools should be held accountable for providing appropriate educational options for these students (Reif, 1993). Whether medical or educational, the dilemmas are enormous for families confronted with rearing bright children who have ADHD. A spokesperson from the Association for the Education of Gifted Underachieving Students reported that the majority of inquiries received are from frustrated parents of gifted/ADHD students seeking information and strategies to help their youngsters (L. Baldwin, personal communication, November 12, 1996). The two to excerpts that follow illustrate the frustration and pain faced by the parents of bright students whose school experiences have been dismal:

1. My son is 15 and has just been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity. He has been steadily failing subjects since seventh grade even though his IQ is 130. We need help to restore his self-esteem and confidence. He has shown moments of brilliance since he was little, especially in any art or spatial design activity such as building with Legos™ and other structures. But any real blossoming has been shut down by his feelings of failure and years of people — teachers, counselors, and yes, his parents–telling him he is being lazy. We need help in learning how to parent so we are helpful and not harmful to our son.

2. I am a parent of two children, a girl of 15 and a boy of 12, both of whom have tested in the gifted range of intelligence and both of whom have some learning disabilities. Both have been diagnosed as having an attention deficit disorder. My daughter has poor organizational skills as well as a memory weakness and weak fine-motor integration skills. My son also has difficulty in reading with weaknesses in decoding. l am looking for ways in which I can circumvent their disabilities and stimulate them intellectually. … It has been difficult getting the schools to recognize their difficulties. Some teachers have been cooperative and others have not. The school system doesn’t recognize their attention deficit disorder as a disability. So much time is being wasted trying to find the right people to help. The process has been trial and error without success (L. Emerick, personal communication, April 17, 1994).

Contemporary educators do not seem to have appropriate strategies, knowledge, or confidence in providing an appropriate education for gifted students with learning and attention difficulties. As mentioned by one parent, so