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The Complex Simplicity of Gifted Well-Being

By Kate Bachtel.

Dear SENG Friend,

Imagine a community where everyone is a voracious learner. Educators are prepared to support various aspects of the emerging gifted student self. Instruction is designed so each is challenged and nurtured. Students question injustices and are provided opportunities to innovate. Certainly these circumstances would lead to each student and teacher thriving, right? I once naively held this belief and was confidently wrong. What does gifted well-being look like? Should it be measured at school? If so, how? What is the relationship between well-being and trauma? Let’s start with where I fell short.

A Gifted Failure. Rewind a dozen years. The social and emotional learning (SEL) movement was gaining momentum. SENG had become a nonprofit in 2001 as society was learning more about how gifted individuals experience the world - the increased awareness was a salve, a virtual hug. Still, too many gifted youth were suffering. I thought if a school program addressed each aspect of development outlined in the SENG mission (social, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual), each would flourish. This focus does help, often dramatically, but is not a guarantee of gifted well-being. And, there is more to supporting each developmental domain than many realize. Take physical development as an example. The definition of a healthy diet can vary dramatically; one person eats nuts as a primary protein source and another is deathly allergic.

I initially experienced wonder and connection working in the gifted program. On the surface, the environment appeared blissful. Over time I grew perplexed by the broad spectrum of behaviors; in one building I witnessed altruism and cruelty. Sometimes from the same person! My head spun. Why would the parent of a student who was joyful and challenged at school send harassing emails to the child’s teachers? Why was the profoundly gifted teacher most disapproving of the student in her class seemingly most like her? Later I learned these behavioral patterns are not uncommon when individuals experience oppression, abuse and/or neglect. The oppressed is at risk of becoming the oppressor, often unaware they are caught in the cycle. Invisible wounds can cause extreme behaviors.

In reflecting, the majority of families and educators had shared about traumatic experiences, many connected to school. I wish I had known that when a person grows accustomed to suffering, thriving can feel unfamiliar. In this event, it is not uncommon to subconsciously introduce discord to maintain the energetic status quo. Additional distress can occur when emotional pain is pathologized. Recalibrating a nervous system from hypervigilance to tranquility is not something most teachers are taught how to do. Furthermore, caregivers to individuals experiencing trauma are vulnerable to Secondary Traumatic Stress.[1] Knowledge gaps left me under prepared. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned communities fail to recognize these dynamics. Worse, when they do, they lack the courage to examine and address toxic policies and practices that contribute to unseen pain spreading like the flu.

Gifted well-being is an exquisitely complex and simple paradox.

Thank you for forgiving ignorant hope.

The Complexity. Given individual and environmental intricacies, predicting well-being can be as challenging as forecasting the weather. Integrated whole person development is a different recipe for each person that requires both disciplined practice and flexibility to achieve. What dimensions of development should be supported in order for gifted individuals to thrive? Emotional, creative, sociopolitical, physical, eco-literacy, intellectual, physical, multicultural and spiritual each impact the other and have a significant impact on life outcomes (SoulSpark Learning, 2017). In addition, understanding physiological differences among gifted individuals can help prevent mistreatment (Gifted Research and Outreach, 2019). To add to the complexity, peace can look different for cognitive outliers. Sometimes one person’s comfort makes another feel irritated.

"When Calm Moves Swiftly" Sometimes peace steps slowly, Other times it sprints. Varied speeds, Different perspectives, Exploring. The rate of Clarity Is individuated. With hope society Can hold The tension in Disparate velocities, And that those whose Serenity Is found at a swift pace Be liberated To move as they are Called.

Each thread of our being is nuanced. Consider the emotional heart center,

They (emotions) are composed of many different processes that are interconnected with each other. They do not occur in isolation but rather are created either as a result of an event or combination of events in the external environment or the mind. They are also dependent on a subject’s history and personality. In addition, it is very unlikely that one emotion occurs by itself (Laycraft & Gierus, 2019, p.3).

Plutchik’s psycho-evolutionary theory of emotions outlines how various emotions combine to form emotional patterns that increase a person’s ability to navigate complicated situations. Frequent emotional patterns can contribute to disposition (as cited by Laycraft and Gierus, 2019). Then consider that emotional literacy is only one of countless pieces to the emotional development puzzle. According to Six Seconds, there are seven other skills included within the construct (2019). Emotional intelligence (EQ) assessments support in identifying skills gaps, but few educators are taught how to effectively teach EQ competencies. Still, emotional development is only one of many multidimensional elements influencing the experience of well-being.

Gifted well-being is layers of stunning chaos.

Thank you for exercising compassion.

The Simplicity. Gifted well-being can be pursued in a straightforward cycle: listen, validate, challenge, create, repeat. No explanation necessary. We experience well-being in our bodies as a vibration; we intuitively recognize it when we feel it. More formally, the World Health Organisation assesses well-being with the WHO-5 index exploring feelings of joy, calm, purpose and vitality (2019). How might schools evolve if the WHO-5 was a measure of success? What would the data say about the health of students who do not have access to inclusive and responsive programming?

Specific to gifted youth, if the goal is empowerment, research suggests regularly practicing the following:

  • Engaging strengths and interests in purposeful ways

  • Creative behaviors

  • Nurturing connections to the natural world and cultural climate

  • Emotional skills linked to life outcomes

  • Cognitive, physical and emotional agility

Practice is a process without destination. What if school schedules were designed in flow with these habits? These five practices support the eight dimensions of development critical to gifted well-being referenced earlier (Bachtel, 2017).

In its simplest form, gifted well-being could be described as our ability to love. To love each other. To love the mystery. To love being. Love connects the gifted experience full circle with the human experience.

Gifted well-being is an imperfect practice.

Thank you for setting high expectations.

Domo arigato for teaching what supports well-being for one may not for another.

Merci for questioning.

Šukran for remembering standards can limit and create outliers.

Xiè xiè nǐ for appreciating the beauty of each culture’s intelligence.

Muchíssimas gracias for holding the vision of a society where every person thrives.

Thank you for listening to what sparks your soul.

With Gratitude, Curiosity and Smiles,


Resources & References:

Gifted Research and Outreach

Mind Matters Podcast


Six Seconds

SoulSpark Learning

Bachtel, K. (2017). Seeing the Unseen: An Educational Criticism of a Gifted School.


Gatto-Walden, P. (2016). Embracing the Whole Gifted Self. Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.

Laycraft, K. & Gierus, B. (2019). Acceptance: The Key to a Meaningful Life. Calgary, Alberta: Nucleaus Learning.

Schepers, O. (2017). A Teacher at Risk: Giving Voice to Teacher Secondary Traumatic

Stress. Dissertation.

The World Health Organisation-Five Well-Being Index (WHO-5). [Measurement Instrument]. Retrieved from:

Disclaimer: I am not a health care professional or clinician; my doctorate is in education with a specialization in gifted.

[1] Secondary Traumatic Stress occurs when caregivers exhibit signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without having been exposed to direct trauma themselves. With educators, this includes caring for students experiencing either psychological trauma (causes include, but are not limited to, abuse or neglect at home or school) or insidious trauma (causes include, but are not limited to, marginalization, oppression and invalid assessment practices) (Cates, 2014 as cited by Schepers, 2017).


Dr. Kate Bachtel is the founder of SoulSpark Learning, a nonprofit dedicated to optimizing the development and well-being of youth and the educators who care for them. Prior to launching SoulSpark Learning, she co-led the opening of Mackintosh Academy's Boulder campus, a K-8 school for gifted learners. She holds a doctorate in education with an emphasis in gifted from University of Denver and a master's in education with an emphasis in equity and cultural diversity from University of Colorado at Boulder. She also serves as a director at Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) and was president for the 2016-17 term.

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