Nurturing Social And Emotional Development In Gifted Teenagers Through Young Adult Literature

Updated: Feb 17, 2019

By Thomas Hebert and Richard Kent.

Manuscript submitted January, 1998. Revision accepted January, 1999.

We’ve all laughed and cried as our favorite characters succeeded and failed, because good literature is built on life itself – and life’s not always easy!

Cornett & Cornett, (1980, p. 7)

The school year begins with a summer-refreshed high school English teacher greeting a group of gifted students enrolled in an advanced literature class. Excited about exploring the worlds of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and other literary giants with intelligent, energetic young adults during the upcoming year, she is exhilarated by her students’ eagerness and intellectual vitality. As the weeks go by, she spends hours preparing lessons she is certain will enthrall her young literary protégés. Challenging assignments are tackled and high quality work is produced. Her students become prolific young writers and critical consumers of literature.

As the school year progresses, this dedicated teacher continues to enjoy her work with these gifted students yet realizes that not all is well with their world. It occurs to her that she has assumed that these gifted young people are free of worries, forgetting that although gifted students often appear to have so much going for them, and seem capable of handling life’s difficulties, they actually may need the emotional support of a caring individual. While enjoying their written reflections, she becomes aware that these gifted teenagers are often troubled by personal issues and often overwhelmed by the daily pressures facing young adults. Reading their journals, she understands that they are often unable to release building tensions and stresses. She wonders how she can help.

Gifted young adults are often highly sensitive and very aware of their feelings. They can also be intense in their depth of feeling (Silverman, 1993). Gifted teenagers who exhibit a heightened level of sensitivity, an intensity, or emotional overexcitability (Piechowski, 1997) need supportive adults who view these characteristics positively and have a clear understanding of their frustrations and anxiety. Teachers who work with gifted youngsters also need practical classroom strategies to address these students’ feelings and to create supportive environments where students feel comfortable expressing how they feel.

This article describes how young adult literature serves as a therapeutic tool, which addresses the emotional issues of gifted teenagers, and emphasizes the importance of having close friendships with people who appreciate their sensitivity. Following a discussion on bibliotherapy and its use with gifted students, a description of The Mosquito Test, a novel about young adult friend-ships, is presented. Students’ responses to the novel are described.

Young Adult Literature as a Therapeutic Tool As adult literature reflects society and culture (Ouzts, 1994) so does young adult literature reflect adolescent society and issues facing teenagers. Although secondary English literature teachers have recognized the positive impact of young adult literature in their regular classrooms, this genre has not been given the same importance in honors level English classes (Bushman & Bush-man, 1997; Rakow, 1991). Although gifted teenagers are often voracious consumers of literature, it is their ability to respond emotionally to the literature that is critical. Incorporating young adult literature, which addresses the moral and emotional concerns of young adults, in honors level and advanced English literature classes, provides gifted teenagers the same experience as their peers to benefit from the young adult literature in helping them understand their adolescent experiences.

Along with being asked to read classic literature, gifted students should be provided age-appropriate novels written by respected authors in young adult literature (Carlsen, 1980; Halsted, 1994). Young adult literature offers gifted students many well-written, carefully crafted and emotionally powerful novels which can be used to effectively teach all aspects of literary analysis as well as provide students opportunities to develop an understanding of themselves (Rakow, 1991). Halsted (1994) highlights another important feature of young adult literature stating that because authors often write about what they know best, many authors are gifted and were gifted adolescents, the characters in young adult literature are often characterized as gifted. Seldom, however, is the giftedness pointed out; it is simply there to be recognized by gifted teenagers who see something of themselves in the story.

When teenagers see something of themselves in a novel, identify with a character from the story, reflect on that identification, and under-go some emotional growth as a result of that reading experience, a teacher should be delighted. Such an authentic interaction with a novel that results in affective growth is referred to as bibliotherapy (Adderholdt-Elliott & Eller, 1989; Hynes & Hynes-Berry, 1986). Bibliotherapy is defined as the use of reading to produce affective change and promote personality growth and development (Lenkowsky, 1987). Bibliotherapy is an attempt to help young people understand themselves and cope with problems by providing literature relevant to their personal situations and developmental needs at appropriate times. Middle and high school teachers using this approach believe that reading can influence a student’s thinking and behavior. Moreover, through guided discussions, selected readings can focus on specific needs of gifted students.

To clarify the appropriate use of bibliotherapy with students in school, a distinction is made between clinical bibliotherapy and developmental bibliotherapy. Clinical bibliotherapy involves psychotherapeutic methods used by skilled practitioners with individuals experiencing serious emotional problems. Developmental bibliotherapy is helping students in their normal health and development. One of the advantages of this approach is that teachers can identify the concerns of their students and address the issues before they become problems, helping students to move through predictable stages of adolescence with knowledge of what to expect and examples of how other teenagers have dealt with the same concerns.

Halsted (1994) proposes that young adult literature can hook teenagers emotionally; hence, the bibliotherapy process using young adult novels is easy to understand. The therapeutic experience begins when gifted teenagers identify themselves with one or more characters in a novel. Teenage readers may feel relief that they are not the only ones facing a specific problem. The reader learns vicariously how to solve some of the problems upon reflecting how the characters in the book solved their problem. As young people enjoy reading a novel, they learn vicariously through the characters in the book.

Adolescents are usually able to deal with common emotional concerns. However, emotional upheavals experienced by sensitive teenagers are sometimes overwhelming and using appropriate literature may serve as a catalyst in getting young people through their hurt, to find some answers. In addition to the reader’s initial response, the therapeutic effect also depends on the group discussion facilitated by the teacher who provides follow-up techniques such as reflective writing, role-playing, creative problem solving, music and art activities, or self-selected options for students to pursue individually (Hébert, 1995, 1991; Hébert & Furner, 1997). When presented in this way, bibliotherapy can be enjoyable while providing a time for solid introspection for young people.

Why is bibliotherapy important for gifted students? The trials and tribulations of adolescence are difficult for all young people in this developmental period filled with many new stresses. When gifted students arrive at adolescence, their experience may be different because of their high level of emotionality and sensitivity which often accompanies high intelligence and may exacerbate stressful experiences of daily living (Piechowski, 1997). Meeting their social and emotional needs is critical for gifted middle and high school students (Buescher, 1985; Halsted, 1994). Like all teenagers, they want to fit in with their social group while maintaining their own identity, including their intellectual ability. It is important that middle and high