School Adjustment of Gifted Children

Recently a “Family Ties” television special depicted a situation which seemed to epitomize what giftedness is about for the gifted child in a regular classroom. The classroom teacher, obviously frustrated with the class’s inability to correctly answer her questions, knowingly turns to Michael J. Fox, playing his character Alex as a child, for the correct answer. The young Alex anxiously responds correctly but secretly dreads being called upon because of the embarrassment it has caused him at being yet again singled out and made to feel different. This situation is repeated time and again for most gifted youngsters and may be one of several possible reasons for under- achievement in this population. The purpose of this article will be to examine this and other reasons gifted children experience school adjustment difficulties.

Perhaps the single most important reason for school adjustment difficulties in this population is the mismatch that often exists between the gifted child’s advanced cognitive development and his social maturity. To be a school achiever requires one to not only be relatively bright but also to possess the necessary maturity to be task persistent and motivated. For most children there is a certain degree of ambivalence toward both work and play. Given the opportunity, children may also be manipulative with their parents and teachers. Gifted children differ from their non-gifted in their ability to be creative in these situations as they tend to be more sensitive to cues in their environment and more resourceful in their attempts at avoidance. When situations become too difficult for them, they may regress to a safer more secure stage of development. A child who does not possess the necessary social maturity for the required tasks will find ways of staying young through fantasy and or play at the expense of school work. This is true in situations where children are not having their basic needs met and especially true in situations of undue pressure to perform.

A second common occurrence associated with school adjustment difficulties in the power struggles that develop between the student and various authority figures (especially parents and teachers). These power struggles may develop for a variety of reasons. Most notably is the child with passive aggressive tendencies. Rather than express his anger directly, and risk confrontation with the stronger foe, the gifted child is able to get back at his parents or teachers through non-compliance. In many instances this anger may be well justified, resulting from situations beyond the gifted child’s control. For example, in situations where frequent adjustments are required due to a family making a move during the school year, or where a child is transferred to a different school against his or her will and without adequate preparation, resentments are common.

While most gifted parents moreover, are involved with their children’s education, there is a fine line between involvement and over involvement with the difference some- times a matter of the student’s perception. Parents may cross this line for a variety of reasons. One or both parents may have a need to live vicariously through their child’s accomplishments. A parent, moreover, who is having marital difficulties may devote an inordinate amount of time and energy toward their child in order to make up for the other’s deficiencies. “If my spouse can’t meet my needs.” they may subconsciously reason, “then perhaps my child will.” In either case the child will see through this charade, experience distress and act out his or her anxiety in a variety of ways.

A further cause of underachievement involves the anxieties associated with both the fear of failure and the fear of success. Children who achieve at very high levels face additional pressures to continue to achieve at these levels. Once something exceptional is accomplished, others seems to expect it the next time. A child who wins the science fair one year is expected to win it the following year. Frequently a gifted child will feel that others don’t understand the effort that was put into those accomplishments. When successful, moreover, the reward is usually more responsibilities, which usually results in less free time, and more recognition which may be the very thing that the gifted child is trying to avoid.

Gifted children, like their non-gifted peers, also learn to behave in non-compliant ways by modeling their parents behavior. That is, if a parent demonstrates rebellious behaviors, the child may initiate them. When the child’s father talks negatively about his boss and his job and is himself tardy and unconcerned about his work, the child may also follow suit at home. If either or both parents, moreover express their ambivalence or negative feelings too strongly concerning their child’s attendance in generally a more demanding program (less time for recreation and family pursuits), the child may become confused and act out his parents attitudes through non-compliance at school. This generally occurs in homes where parents have a tendency to “rescue” their children from all perceived frustrations. The gifted child manipulates his parents into feeling sorry for him when he has “too much” homework and his parents may react due to their own anxieties concerning their child’s ability to deal with stressful situations. While in some situations the parent is appropriate in these concerns, especially where programs are ill conceived and not well integrated with the regular curriculum, other parents simply over-react to their children having to face even mild frustrations. Many of these children, unfortunately, never learn to deal effectively with their frustrations and when faced with challenging and/or disappointing events as adolescents or adults lack both the experience and confidence to solve their problems. Consequently, some eventually turn to alcohol or drugs as an escape.

Some problems appear more related to factors within the child. Gifted childre, characteristically, are perfectionists. They set unusually high standards for themselves and tend to over react when others or they themselves don’t measure up to these standards. It’s not unusual, for example, for a gifted child to become visibly upset to learn he has received a grade of “A.” It is also not uncommon for a child to complete an assignment, but to not turn it in because he was not satisfied with it.

Gifted children in special programs, moreover, frequently become ambivalent about their being in such programs. Depending on their level of maturity, they tend to vacillate between wanting the additional stimulation and challenge which these programs seem to offer, and simultaneously wanting to avoid the additional responsibilities and work that these programs also require. Children, further, as do most of us, resist any form of labeling. This is also true of being “gifted.” It is especially hard on adolescent females and where children, by virtue of their circumstances, are removed from their peer groups. Moving from a situation, though, where children were isolated and distinguished as the only “brain” in a regular classroom, into a self-contained situation may be an advantage socially for some but a negative adjustment for others. It is an advantage for those who felt different and not accepted because of their intelligence. It may be a negative adjustment for those who loved the attention they received in being the “big fish in the little fish bowl” and now are just “one little fish in a large fish bowl.”

Gifted children, additionally, are both blessed and cursed by virtue of their having so many talents. This may include the fine arts, science and math, music and sports. Unfortunately, not all gifted children are good at setting limits for themselves and occasionally become over-loaded. One youngster I know was involved with Boy Scouts, after school religious classes, after school floor hockey, Saturday advanced level math, Saturday advanced level Science, was on the school’s problem solving team, and participated in the school’s bank. When he found himself not able to keep up with his regular school work, he quickly started losing control of other aspects of his life as well. He started avoiding school, became severely depressed, lashed out at his parents and sister and was eventually hospitalized following a suicidal gesture. While the severity of this situation is rare, it does point out the strong need that some gifted individuals have to stay in control and the problems that could develop when they become over-involved in a variety of activities. On the other hand, gifted children can and often do , become over-involved in one activity (i.e. computers) and find little time for any other activity. While the emergence of genius occurs in the presence of strong tasks persistence and motivation to pursue a particular idea, it is a rare individual who will succeed at these levels. Consequently, parents should encourage moderation and restraint in their child’s choice of activities.

In summary, I described above some of the conflicts which gifted children and adolescents face. While certainly not inclusive, it is hoped that it will be of some benefit in providing insight to the nature of the cause of these difficulties.

April 8th, 2010

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