By Mark Hess.
Welcome to my third-grade gifted group, meeting out in my portable. Today is our introduction to a unit about air. As I begin to describe air pressure, Bailey’s eyebrows lift up under her bangs and seem to pull her out of her desk in the front of the room. “Well . . . actually,” she begins.
She turns to face the rest of her classmates. “Actually . . . air pressure presses on us all the time… 14 pounds per square inch, even under water where the deeper you go the more it increases!” In turn, their eyebrows rise and reply, “Wow!” Her classmates are delighted.
I don’t know how many times a similar scenario has played out in my classroom. A gifted learner will interject a point I was going to make or light up with a conclusion I’d hoped the class could arrive at ten or twenty minutes later in the lesson. “Hold that thought!” I might say, intercepting their momentum, literally taking their breath away as they were about to expound on their inspiration, shrinking back into their seats in resigned deflation like I had just poked a hole in their mylar birthday balloon. They know I get it, so I receive their grace and their reluctant patience. I know that they know that I will let them have their say. This classroom is a safe place for them.
Certainly, they can be frustrating as a teacher, these fast kids. They can be frustrating for parents, too. Shouldn’t we be asking Bailey to stop? Shouldn’t we be asking her to turn around and allow everyone else to catch up?
“Slow down, gifted kid. You might forget to dot an “i” or cross a “t.” You might make a careless mistake—forget to carry the 4 or misplace a decimal.”
“Stop worrying about everything in the world.”
“And can’t you decide? Just find something and stick with it.”
“Quit being so sensitive!”
“You are so dramatic!”
“Why are you so demanding?”
“Can you never be satisfied?”(1)
Bailey, at age 8, is approaching a peak of self-expression. She loves to explain ideas and share a big warehouse of information she has stored inside. She is so confident in her knowledge that she will explain ideas to adults if she feels the adults do not understand. She uses her verbal skills to settle conflicts and influence other children. As a young, gifted learner she may enjoy—even prefer—the company older children and adults—whom she relates to easily, joining in on their conversations.(2)
Shouldn’t we slow her down?
Is all that confidence possibly only leading to disappointment?
By age 10, Bailey’s confidence is at its peak. She experiences the world more deeply. She interacts with the world through a rich, textured, and nuanced lens—emotionally, physically, sensually, intellectually, spiritually, existentially. Her experiences find her processing and holding memories vividly, making rapid connections through intuitive leaps, and internalizing a strong sense of justice. Her experiences find her making creative and intellectual connections through abstractions and metaphors in ways other children her age cannot. Able to understand the point of view of others, she carries a vast capacity for compassion. Yet her intensities are beginning to make her feel different from others. In 5th grade her classmates are not eager to listen to her insights anymore. She is beginning to be seen as bossy. Her tendency to feel more deeply is beginning to make her feel a bit like she is wearing her shoes on the wrong feet.
Wouldn’t it do her good to quit being so sensitive?
Isn’t she a bit too demanding?
Shouldn’t she stop caring so much?
At ages 12 and 13 and 14, “gifted adolescents are attuned to the social disadvantages of being labeled gifted and identify social consequences as being the worst thing about being gifted.”(3) As Bailey and her peers reach middle school, they begin to try much harder to fit in—to wear the stylish and popular shoes so they can feel as if they are always wearing them on the right feet. That same little girl whose intense sensitivities to the life around her found her devasted that leaves must change colors, tumble from branches and die in the autumn, has said in an advanced learning plan interview that she can’t wait to get to 6th grade so she won’t be gifted anymore.
Bailey’s classmate Emmett, our gifted boy, would only raise his hand at circle time in kindergarten when the boy next to him raised his hand first. He didn’t want his classmate to feel bad if he didn’t know answers. By third grade, school is much too slow to meet his energy requirements, and he is beginning to get in trouble for being out of his seat and for blurting out answers. By 6th grade, he is trying very hard to be too cool for advanced math, and his energies seem to be channeled into a classroom comedy show . . . which his teachers do not always appreciate. He is starting to wonder if anyone actually likes him.
Maybe they both should have slowed down long ago?
When our children our young, we encourage them to enjoy being a kid without worrying about adult issues. “Hey, hey . . . just slow down a bit, would you? You’re going to grow up soon enough.” As they grow into teens and young adults, however, our narratives begin to switch in a confusing way. We are tempted to ask if they are living up to their potential. “How could you get a bad grade in such an easy class? When is your project due? You seem to be losing your spark.(4) Why don’t you care the way you used to?”
I am walking down the hallway at the gifted and talented office in our school district, and I see Emily, our district’s gifted facilitator, dash out of a doorway on her way to do whatever needs to be done for our district’s 1,700 gifted students. As she sees me approaching, she switches into an exaggerated slow-motion walk which makes both of us smile and laugh. We get it. We joke with each other and say things like, “slow down there, partner.” This workplace is a safe place for gifted kids—even for gifted kids who have become adults who work with gifted kids.
For those gifted adults reading this, please allow me to introduce you to yourself. It’s quite likely you fall in one of two categories. Either you understand you are gifted, but life has taught you not to go around making a big deal about it . . . or you are very good at explaining that you are not gifted: Sure, you are the CEO of the state’s largest non-profit. You’ve broken the glass ceiling. But oh, goodness, no, you’re not gifted! You do work hard, though . . . but that’s not gifted. You are pretty sure your daughter is gifted, but you are not. Or maybe you read two newspapers every morning cover to cover and, when passionate about a topic (and you often are), you speak in rapid fire barrages. You get lost in books and journals and documentaries, but surely, you are not gifted! Your son is, though, but one thing you surely want to impress upon him is that he should not make a big deal about that. You tend toward quirky obsessions—like researching tuberculosis cures in the early 20th Century and then purchasing postcards from 1908 with wonderful, flowing cursive on the back describing the experience of living in sanitoriums. You got hooked on Norwegian noir mysteries, and now it seems logical that you should begin to learn Norwegian, is it not? (Asking for a friend . . .) You tumble headlong into perfectionism, and even though you have been teaching and researching about the topic for more than a decade, you still haven’t figured it out for your own life. Drawn to the local college library, you enter just to browse a bit on a nice summer day, get figuratively lost, and in one of those lost moments, you exit through an alarm door. Well, dang! Unfortunately, now you can’t ever be seen in that place again! “There’s that guy who set off the alarm!” they will say. You’re quite certain the college president will show up at your doorstep someday. “We knew it was you. We got you on camera.” “Am I in trouble?” “No, but we want to make sure you feel really bad about what you did.” “OK. Pretty sure I got that covered.” You are sure that the next time you are in Texas, your face will be on a have you seen this person? billboard on the interstate because you drove a rental car on a toll road without a transponder. Sure, it was an accident, but you should have known better. You are getting so, so good at seeming normal–even when in your mind you are “fast listening” to friends and colleagues as they speak, finishing other people’s sentences in your mind. You got it, yes, you see, you know where they are going . . . patience. Smile. Nod. You’re normal.
“Slow down, gifted kid.”
What about those of us who don’t work in the gifted and talented department in schools or universities? I wonder how many work places manage to send messages to their gifted employees that they better figure out how to slow down? How many gifted adults have never outlived the middle school where they learned to stop living the world of an abundant intensity—a poetry of existence that can be both beautiful and, in its more existential moments, quite devastating? How many adults have learned to say, “I Used to be Gifted?”
Slow down, gifted kid. You might forget to dot an “i” or cross a “t.” You might make a careless mistake—forget to carry the 4 or misplace a decimal. Stop worrying about everything in the world. Can’t you decide? Just find something and stick with it. Quit being so sensitive! You are so dramatic! Why are you so demanding? Can you never be satisfied?
I am in first grade. It’s heads down time after recess. I can still smell the desktop, even today. Miss Snapp has rolled down the black shades on the tall classroom windows and has turned off the lights. This is a good time of the day for six-year-old perfectionists. While we close our eyes and breathe into our folded arms on desktops, she gathers materials for the afternoon lessons and talks to us in a voice that is like soft hands laying down on our shoulders. She tells us we are good kids. She seems to know what to say—the right words to help us finish our school day. Those words would have nothing to do with slowing down or making such a big deal out of everything or being too sensitive:
“I love your passion and energy,” she would say.
“You have such a big heart,” she would tell us. “I wish everyone had a heart like yours.”
“You have so many interests. There’s always something exciting around the corner with you. Someday, a world of opportunities will be at your fingertips.”
“You always want to do well, and you never want to disappoint anyone. It’s a beautiful way of living.”
Take heart, gifted kid, and I hope you always remember to be kind to yourself along the way.
With homage and respect to James Webb, Ph.D., Janet Gore, M.Ed., Ed Amend, Psy.D., and Arlene DeVries, M.S.E and page 22 of A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, the SENG Model Parent Group mainstay, 2007, Great Potential Press.
Michael Saylor, Investigation of Talented Students, University of North Texas. Online here.
Peairs, K. F., Putallaz, M., & Costanzo, P. R. (2019). From A (aggression) to V (victimization): Peer status and adjustment among academically gifted students in early adolescence. Gifted Child Quarterly, 63(3), 185–200.
James Webb, Ph.D., Janet Gore, M.Ed., Ed Amend, Psy.D., and Arlene DeVries, M.S.E. A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children. 2007. Great Potential Press, p. 58.
Mark Hess is an author, educator, and speaker with over three decades in K-12 public education—more than two decades working specifically with gifted learners. Mark has nine publications including Social-Emotional Curriculum for Gifted Learners, grades 3-5, Hands-on Literacy for grades 4-6, and I Used to be Gifted. As a teacher-trainer he specializes in helping educators understand and nurture nonverbal brilliance as well as understanding and meeting the social and emotional needs of gifted learners. He is a gifted specialist in a large, urban school district, a member of the SENG Board of Directors, Editor of the SENG Library, and President-elect of the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented.