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Recognizing Social and Emotional Traits of Young Gifted Children

By Gregory K. Eckert and Keri M. Guilbault, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University.


Recognizing Social and Emotional Traits of Young Gifted Children

Priya, a profoundly gifted seven-year-old from the southeastern region of the United States, is an avid reader, often tucked away in a comfortable place at home, devouring young adult fantasy-fiction like School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. This love of reading, however, is not always seen as a positive. Priya’s mother explained, “She loves reading books, and I had to take away her books because she was not doing anything else.” Priya’s mother is presented with the challenge of helping to manage her daughter’s personal preference against other life demands.


In academic situations, Priya’s preference can sometimes create conflict with adults, giving off an impression of being unruly. A break from a daily routine can be catastrophic for Priya, making her seem oppositional or leading to her shutting down. This can be problematic in a school environment but also with extracurricular activities. At a recent violin lesson, Priya’s mother talked about how her teacher broke from the routine of checking homework at the start of the lesson and wanted Priya to play a song from two months prior. Priya noted an immediate change in her daughter, forecasting what would follow. She stated, “It is unlikely she will continue to do the lesson. The rest of the lesson, she will just sit there and do nothing.” This failed violin lesson left Priya stuck. The violin teacher’s perspective was that Priya was uncooperative and unteachable instead of tapping into Priya’s strengths and talents. At that moment, the gap between Priya and her violin teacher seemed insurmountable.


Young, gifted learners like Priya often display a wide range of emotions, experiencing the world with greater intensity than their non-gifted peers. As discussed by Tsomi (2023), adults can sometimes misunderstand the motivation behind certain behaviors with young gifted children. Tsomi argued that these behaviors are clear indicators of unfulfilled needs such as connection, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Instead of recognizing an unfulfilled need, adults may instead focus on observable behaviors such as outbursts and anxiousness. For a gifted youngster like Priya, understanding these moments becomes essential to their success across all environments–especially as they interact with adults who help guide their learning experiences.



Emotional Intensities and Overexcitabilities in Early Childhood

Gifted learners, especially younger children, may be described as intense. In particular, emotional intensities and sensitivities tend to be common observable behaviors in early childhood among high ability learners. These children have a great capacity for emotion and empathy, and these traits can be nurtured to help their optimal development.


Dabrowski, a psychiatrist and psychologist who developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration, defined overexcitability as having a “higher than average responsiveness to stimuli” (1972, p. 303). While Dabrowski’s predecessors perceived overexcitability from a deficit standpoint, Dabrowski himself noted the vulnerable nature of this population but also recognized the positive developmental implications to overexcitability (Wells & Falk, 2021). Even though not all gifted individuals display OEs, there is research to support the idea that some OEs may be more prevalent among those with high ability compared to the typical population (Mendaglio, 2022).


Two OEs that we will discuss as part of this article are Emotional OE and Intellectual OE. Emotional Overexcitability refers to the way in which the individual experiences relationships– the way someone connects or attaches to people, places, or living things, which can be positive (e.g., they often form deep connections and show a strong capacity for empathy), or might manifest as anxiety, fear, depression, feelings of loneliness, and a need for security (Gallagher, 2022). Intellectual Overexcitability refers to a tenacity to produce probing questions, a desire to analyze situations, ability for abstract thinking, and an admiration of logic (Gallagher, 2022).


Lucas (Intellectual and Emotional OE)

Parents of young, gifted learners often report that their child finds it difficult to follow their teacher’s or an adult’s directions without understanding why they must do something. They may be perceived as being oppositional or defiant when they question those in authority. For example, Lucas, age 6, is described as complaining and dragging his feet if he does not fully understand the purpose of an activity in school. He likes to ask many questions and often uses the phrase “What if…?” He shows a strong sense of autonomy and does not react well to having to follow someone else’s schedule. Whereas other students in his classroom complete tasks or move on to another learning concept without hesitation, Lucas becomes stuck due to his strong feelings. Lucas’ mother explained that situations like these have been challenging for Lucas’ mainstream teachers who may not understand the intensities of gifted children like Lucas.


Julianna (Emotional OE)

Julianna, age 7, craves authentic learning experiences where she can be creative. When she is abruptly asked to move to a new activity or topic by her teacher, she struggles, sometimes making sarcastic comments to her teacher out of frustration or isolates herself in a quiet corner and seems inconsolable. Julianna normally seeks out adult interaction, but when her intellectual curiosity is interrupted due to moving on to another task too quickly or without resolve, she comes across as challenging or disrespectful to her teacher. Julianna also shows a strong attachment to and awareness of the feelings of other people and animals. She is described as a good friend, helpful, and caring. When she was two years old, her older sister was sick with the flu. Julianna constantly checked in on her, bringing her stuffed animals and juice boxes. Her mother recalls watching Julianna place a wet washcloth on her sister’s forehead and saying, “You’re OK!” Her parents commented on how concerned Julianna was and how she cried as if she could “feel” what her sister felt.


Malik (Intellectual and Emotional OE)

Parents and caregivers frequently mention their child’s ability to speak and read at an early developmental age as well as having a strong affinity for books. Parents have described (and admired) the deep concentration their young, gifted child seems to have for areas of special interest–especially reading. Malik, age 7, was diagnosed as highly gifted with ADHD. His father reported that Malik becomes so engrossed in nonfiction books about the environment that he seems to not even hear when his name is called for family dinner time. His parents stated that they limit his screen time because if given his iPad, he would simply choose to spend hours at a time on strategy games and watching videos about nature. He is fascinated by natural disasters and is concerned about climate change, almost to the point where his father has referred to it as a compulsion. He has considered seeking counseling to help Malik handle his deep feelings and fears about the environment, something that his parents feel is a burden too heavy for such a young child to bear.


Challenges and Solutions

During early childhood (birth to age 8), gifted children often display asynchronous development, which coupled with OEs and intensities can make their first few years in school challenging. In the cases above, these young children showed signs of Emotional and Intellectual OEs. Some examples of the possible challenges faced by young, gifted children with stronger Emotional OE are as follows:

  • Steadfast beliefs about right and wrong as well as equity

  • Sensitivity to criticism of personal work

  • Prone to outbursts or overreaction due to frustration

  • Experience a wide continuum of emotions ranging from great happiness to despair as well as depression

  • Inability to concentrate on a task due to strong feelings

  • Show compassion for others or offers heartfelt sympathy

Strategies that can be helpful to address some of these challenges include acknowledgement of their feelings, teaching coping mechanisms, and self-awareness. Adults should accept the child’s feelings and help them process their emotions to facilitate growth. To avoid strong physical responses to their emotions, parents and teachers can help the young, gifted child recognize warning signs in their bodies, such as increased heartbeat, stomach aches, or headaches. Help them practice mindfulness or other coping skills so they do not get to a point where they lose control.


The other common OE displayed by these young, gifted learners is Intellectual OE. Some examples of the possible challenges faced by young, gifted children with stronger Intellectual OE are as follows:

  • Interested in how things work (the how and why)

  • Can become so preoccupied with a topic that it becomes difficult to move on to other topics

  • Follows curiosity with many questions or a few profound questions

  • Seeks out solutions to problems

  • Enamored by a new topic and motivated to learn more about it

  • Motivated by problem-solving strategies or even strategies to win at games. May be interested in chess

To help gifted children manage their Intellectual OEs, teachers and caregivers can help them find answers to their probing questions and allow them to work on self-directed learning projects for part of their day. Caregivers can encourage their child’s curiosity and allow them to pursue passion topics at home, through extra-curricular activities, or family field trips to museums, science centers, art galleries and nature walks. Talking through upsetting events they may hear about in the news or witness in their communities is a first step to help very young, gifted learners process events that they lack life experience to handle. Children can also be empowered to learn and take action about an issue they care about even in small ways such as writing letters to community officials or collecting food and blankets for a local animal shelter.


Conclusion

The young children described above have behaviors that are characteristic of giftedness as outlined in the literature. Research on the social and emotional development of the gifted points to common traits including heightened sensitivities, a strong sense of justice, empathy, and advanced moral reasoning (Rinn, 2021). Intensities coupled with asynchronous development leads to challenges in the classroom and at home that require different parenting strategies, counseling techniques, and adjustments in teaching to help them be successful.


While some critics argue that the gifted are no more prone to social difficulties than other children, it is generally understood that the gifted, and especially the highly or profoundly gifted, may experience these developmental stages at a much younger age than other children, and may have a stronger response to stimuli or events (Rinn, 2021). As Gallagher (2022) aptly stated, Dabrowski “recognized that individuals with overexcitabilities might need help learning how to manage their intensities, including knowing when and how to use them productively and when and how to regulate them” (p. 202). As Dabrowski recognized the value of Overexcitabilities, it is important that adults tune in to the social and emotional needs of young, gifted children to leverage their unique talents and interests.

________________________________________________________

Gregory K. Eckert, Ed.D. is an English Language Arts teacher at Derry Township School District in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He recently completed his doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University, School of Education, where he focused on the influence of educational mandates on the modern English Language Arts classroom. Greg is also a Research Assistant at Johns Hopkins University, carrying out research related to giftedness among primary school students. Follow him on Twitter @dctr_eckert


Keri M. Guilbault, Ed.D. is an associate professor and coordinator of the graduate programs in gifted education at Johns Hopkins University. She served three terms on the NAGC board of directors and received the Early Leader Award in 2019. Keri currently serves as chair of the Mensa International Gifted Youth Committee, She is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences on the topics of acceleration, parenting the highly to profoundly gifted, and social and emotional development of the gifted. Follow her on Twitter @drkerig


Recommended Resources

Fonseca, C. (2015). Emotional intensity in gifted students (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Robinson, N. M. (2018). When your child goes overboard: Fears and compassionate concerns. Retrieved from https://www.sengifted.org/post/when-your-child-goes-

overboard-fears-and-compassionate-concerns

Tetreault, N. A. (2017). Emotionally gifted navigating the world. Retrieved from https://www.sengifted.org/post/emotionally-gifted-and-navigating-the-world


References

Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. Gryf.

Gallagher, S. (2022). Openness to experience and overexcitabilities in a sample of highly gifted middle school students. Gifted Education International, 38(2), 194-228. https://doi.org/10.1177/02614294211053283

Mendaglio, S. (2022). Overexcitability research: Implications for the theory of positive disintegration and the field of gifted education. SENG Journal, 1(2), 23-32, https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.25774/16cy-5b24

Rinn, A. (2021). Social, emotional, and psychosocial development of gifted and talented individuals. Routledge.

Tsomi, K. (2023). Play in the service of growth: The sailboat metaphor. Retrieved from https://www.sengifted.org/post/play-in-the-service-of-growth-the-sailboat-metaphor

Wells, C., & Falk, R. F. (2021). The origins and conceptual evolution of overexcitability. Educational Psychology, 62, 23-44. https://doi. org/10.5604/01.3001.0015.3816




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