A common discussion in a Facebook Group for parents of gifted children I follow revolves around managing high emotional intensities. As a teacher who has spent the last twenty years working in gifted education, I also have first hand experience dealing with this component of a gifted child’s make up. There are also organizations like SENG that support parents as they deal with these complex challenges. This emotional intensity is a genuine concern. The paradox is there have been extensive research studies which do not support the correlation that being gifted somehow “hard wires” a person to have a higher level of emotional intensity.
When considering this issue further I revisited Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. This theory that certain needs must be fulfilled for a person to reach their full potential offers evidence that the educational system is contributing to the elevated emotional intensity of gifted children. In the traditional school system gifted children are not getting their psychological needs of belonging, having close friends, and feeling of accomplishment met.
Most public and private schools use a single birth date deadline for grade level enrollment. So even as early as preschool, before any determination of giftedness is identified, the gifted child is placed in a peer group where he or she doesn’t have a bond with others in the class. The teacher may report to parents: “child plays alone, completes work independently but does not follow directions, is inattentive during instruction.” These comments make it evident that the child does not have a sense of belonging or feeling of accomplishment in this peer group. This is a source of anxiety for the gifted child, which leads to higher emotional intensity.
As children continue in the educational system there are programs in place for gifted children including pull out services, grade level acceleration, or domain specific acceleration (usually only done for math). These services, meant to accommodate the intellectual abilities of gifted children, often exacerbate the gifted child’s sense of not belonging and impair the building of friendships.
- In the pull out model, gifted students are spotlighted as “different” and removed from the classroom for a special class which can be very uncomfortable. They spend an hour or two a week with peers and challenging activities where they can develop a feeling of accomplishment, but then it is back to the classroom where they are deprived of those psychological needs for the remainder of the week.
- Domain specific acceleration is much the same as the pull out program, the difference being that it is done on a daily basis.
- Grade level acceleration may accommodate the gifted child’s feeling of accomplishment, but it continues to place the gifted child in a group that is socially and academically quite different. An 8 year old child who is able to master the work of a 9 year old is more academically advanced than the 9 year old child doing grade level work. Socially and physically these children are also different.
So, year after year gifted children who are getting services continue to struggle to get their psychological needs met. This continuous emotional struggle for belonging and friendship as well as the need for challenge and a sense of accomplishment over years continues to build these children’s levels of emotional intensity. Having spent most of my career in schools specifically for gifted children, I recognize grouping gifted learners together is only the first step in helping to ease their emotional intensity. The next step is to eliminate the system of grouping children by their age. This is what initiated the use of learning bands in the Vanguard Model of gifted education. Gifted children need to be among both developmental and academic peers to have their psychological needs met. This is accomplished by having learning bands that encompass a range of ages learning together. In this dynamic learning model students find both developmental and academic peer groups and they establish lasting friendships with peers in the band who share developmental milestones and academic interests. They realize a personal sense of accomplishment from challenging learning activities with peers who appreciate and extend their thinking. With these psychological needs being met, their anxiety lessens and confidence builds. They become more emotionally balanced, reducing their emotional intensity and allowing them to reach the highest level in Maslow’s pyramid, self-fulfillment.