Tracy L. Cross, Ph. D.
The College of William & Mary
I have been asked to share some ideas about the social and emotional needs of students with gifts and talents (SWGT). To that end, I will describe five examples of endogenous characteristics. Endogenous means “about the person,” so these are characteristics about gifted children that I think are more common among SWGT than their peers of average abilities. I am not claiming that they are present for every gifted student, only that from my experience overseeing a residential high school for intellectually gifted students for nine years, my research and familiarity with the research literature, I believe that this list is supportable. The five are: asynchronous development, overexcitabilities, multipotentiality, excessive self-criticism, and perfectionism.
Asynchronous development results when there is a difference between two areas of development. For example, among SWGT there is often considerable difference between a child’s intellectual development (e.g., IQ scores) and level of development in the social and/or emotional areas. This gap can be quite difficult for the child. We often see SWGT whose intellectual capacity allows them to converse with much older people, but they still may behave as children of their chronological age. School personnel are often perplexed by these situations. Some consider asynchronous development an actual definition of giftedness.
The Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) was created by a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski. TPD posits the necessity for anxiety and tension to exist for positive growth to occur. An important part of the TPD is what Dabrowski called overexcitabilities, or heightened sensitivities. The theory has created a significant following among gifted educators, as it provides a good mechanism to consider the development of SWGT, to understand them and their needs. In this theory, there are five areas of heightened sensitivities Dabrowski believed were more common among SWGT: intellectual, sensual, imaginational, psychomotor, and imaginational. The theory is very complicated and detailed, so I encourage you to read about it to gain a fuller understanding of it. I found it particularly helpful when I worked as the executive director of a residential high school for intellectually gifted students. I got to know many of the students and found that this theory could easily be mapped on to approximately 70% of them. It became a practical window into how they functioned and allowed me avenues through which to communicate.
Multipotentiality is just what it sounds like. It is common for SWGT to also be especially good at, have great passion for, and/or be extremely interested in more than one area. In general, this is a good thing for their future well-being, in that its can enhance agency and self- confidence. However, when these areas cut across societal conventions and stereotypes, quite often stress is raised and limitations applied. For example, when female SWGT approach college and are good at both physics and music, they will often be encouraged to pursue the field that more closely represents society’s stereotypes. In addition to maintaining the stereotypes along gender lines, it also can cause considerable stress among the SWGT. Being supportive of these students’ passion areas is very important to their mental health. Moreover, it can be confusing to them when no clear direction appears as it may for others.
Excessive self-criticism is a less well-known common aspect to SWGT. Being self-aware and even critical at times are healthy aspects to growing as an individual. Being excessively self-critical can be debilitating to young (and older) SWGT. The good news is that it seems that excessive self-criticism is learned. This makes it similar to most phobias. Therapists are exceedingly successful at eradicating phobias, because what is learned can be unlearned. Excessive self-criticism is the same. With proper counseling, SWGT who struggle with this can successfully work through it with professional help.
The best-known and most misunderstood common characteristic has been left for last. Perfectionism among SWGT is fairly common. I believe more common than the general population, but clearly not an issue for all SWGT. In the early days many thought it to be a pathological need for flawless performance. In the past 20 years, considerable research has been conducted that better informs us about nuances of perfectionism. It was originally thought to be unidimensional and always debilitating. More recently we have learned that there are multiple types of perfectionism and that many, many SWGT function quite well as perfectionists. This is exciting work and as it increases its sophistication, our ability to better understand it and treat it, as need be, improves.
For further reading, I suggest going to HoagiesGifted.org. This website provides hundreds of publications about SWGT, including many on social and emotional issues. The articles are free and provide a good foundation on many topics. From there, I encourage you to contact me if I can be helpful to you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Tracy Cross is the Jody and Layton Smith Professor of Psychology and Gifted Education and the Executive Director of the Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.