Why Canned Social-Emotional Skill Programs in Schools Can Harm Gifted Students More Than Help Them

By Kathleen Casper.

Full Title: Danger in a Can: Why Canned Social-Emotional Skill Programs in Schools Can Harm Gifted Students More

Educators are aware that the drive for achievement and standardized test success in the school system often does not provide enough individualized opportunities for important social-emotional skill building, so a market for “canned” social emotional skill building programs has sprouted up in the last couple decades.

This sounds like a great thing- our students need to learn social-emotional skills, and our teachers are so busy that programs that can be rolled out quickly and easily seem like a quick fix to the problem. However, in reviewing many of these programs (those referred to both as social-emotional skills programs or character building programs,) it is apparent that these programs do not meet the needs of our gifted students for several reasons, and most could be downright dangerous for our most at-risk gifted children.

The programs I reviewed have many of the following characteristics and flaws that may negatively impact children who are gifted:

Overly sequential

Sequential lesson plans where kids have to discuss topics that are presented to them. This is problematic for gifted students who can move through curriculum quickly. It may seem boring and based on a lower comprehension skill level, as they often are connected to grade level curriculum assignments and are based on scripted lessons.

Not based on real life experiences

Most are not related to actual events that gifted students are dealing with in real time. The tasks are based on a set of problems an author created- not what’s going on now in that child’s life or what may seem relevant or useful. Gifted students have innate desires for connecting to the world around them and they react strongly to fairness issues. However they also can see through made-up scenarios and may see them as a waste of time when there are more interesting real-world issues to tackle.

Not created for gifted children’s needs

The research that is linked on the websites of most of the curriculum programs I reviewed did not show evidence of the programs being created by professionals who are trained in gifted education. The research that is being used to legitimize the programs are also not based specifically on gifted students, and do not even mention gifted children.

Forced partnering

Many social parts of the program include partner activities with students who often have nothing in common being paired up and forced to work together. Gifted kids have enough trouble finding strong peer relationships without being forced to work on remedial level activities with partners who may be difficult to communicate and interact with. This may create frustration and anxiety in all of the students, as research has shown that all children struggle to communicate effectively with people who are beyond 10 points of their own intelligence quotient. And even if that is not an issue, one of the most predominate issues that gifted children have is not feeling like other children and stressing friendships. If a program truly has a team-building focus, the gifted children may benefit from the activities, however if it is merely pairing kids up to act out or discuss social situations it may not only be stressful for everyone involved, but it may also set the gifted child up for potential bullying (as gifted children are often targets of bullying.) This type of activity should be approached with caution and guided by trained professionals in order to do more good than harm.

Friendship issues

On a related topic, the units on friendship building in these programs do not seem to even crack the surface of what gifted kids need in order to make meaningful friendships. They, in essence, emphasize skills for being polite and aim to make students aware of the need to include others in their activities who aren’t really their friends or who may be different than they are. But gifted kids have even deeper needs and they often feel uncomfortable and put on the spot when they feel they are the left-out children that the other students are being told they should be nice to.


The activities in the lessons can be silly and even embarrassing for students who feel different than their peers already. Puppets and breathing activities and other scripted group scenarios that may make other students laugh may seem silly and not as humorous to students who are uncomfortable in the peer group or who have a much higher level of humor than their peers. On the other hand, the gifted child may see humor in situations that were meant to be serious, which may lead them (further) down the road of school discipline.

Based on school pride