Addressing the Emotional and Social Needs of Gifted Students

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Working with gifted students requires that those who interact with them, such as teachers, counselors, and administrators, see their students holistically: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally. While this is true for all students, gifted young people create dynamics that intensify and accelerate the norms of human growth and development. Understanding the depth and complexity of the nature of gifted students allows for a more intentional and targeted approach for meeting their needs. These needs manifest themselves in several areas including physical and psychological safety, identity and relationships, meaningful challenge and autonomy, and pathways for expression and service. As these needs are met, students can move from dependence to independence to interdependence. This article will explore each of these areas through the lens of actual student experiences and the strategies that enhance growth and success.

Physical and Psychological Safety
From the work of Abraham Maslow, we have come to know that every human being has certain needs that must be met to create a healthy environment for growth and balance. The foundational needs are physical and safety needs. The physical needs include air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep. Safety needs include protection from the elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear (Mcleod, 2020). These certainly hold true for gifted students as well. When seen in the light of Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities, gifted students often experience the interaction with these needs across a broader spectrum with more intensity, particularly in the areas of psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginative, and emotional dynamics (Lind, 2011). While not all gifted students exhibit these characteristics, being aware that any of them could, allows educators to recognize these and differentiate accordingly.

Also read: Creating Engaging Learning Environment: Teachers Matter

For instance, at Gatton Academy, a residential STEM school in Kentucky, staff must be fully aware of both the physical and emotional needs of gifted students to create a thriving residential environment. Providing meals, housing, and recreational opportunities takes on greater significance when attempting to address these needs. The diversity of types of food students can eat, their specific needs for appropriate climates of warmth or coolness, and the type of lighting in the building are just a few of the considerations needed to run a successful program.
Most educators can easily recognize safety needs such as shelter from weather or protection from physical violence.  However, one of the areas that is often neglected is the need to ensure emotional safety to be able to express a student’s true nature. LGBTQ+ students have been minimized in most school cultures traditionally.
Introverted or shy students have had to endure working in school environments that are often chaotic, noisy, and distracting. Gender dynamics often unconsciously influence decisions and opportunities adversely for students. Racial biases and discrimination have created major issues across policies and procedures in schools which have historically alienated and marginalized students of color.
Once again, in the gifted population, these situations are expanded exponentially when overexcitabilities are factored into the equation. Students who are accelerated in their thinking or are hypersensitive in their emotional awareness will react strongly to any threat to their psychological safety. Being intentional in addressing the diverse characteristics of students helps minimize the obstacles for successful growth and development.
Palmetto Scholars Academy, a public charter school focused on gifted education, created an advisory model utilizing something like a British house system. The school was divided into groups where each “house” included students from all grade levels. The houses met weekly and had monthly school-wide activities that targeted social interaction and exploration of the diverse interests of students. Sessions included courses such as emotional intelligence training, Zumba, yoga, meditation, learning Italian, juggling, basketball, coloring, food preparation, and more.
Another area of concern is creating safe spaces where gifted students have room to fail. Carol Ann Tomlinson refers to this as “supported risk” (Tomlinson, 1997). Many gifted students struggle with perfectionism, greatly impacting their emotional well-being. Being purposeful about establishing assignments and projects that reward risk and give pathways to work through failure without impacting final grades is critically important in helping students develop a healthy mindset.

Identity and Relationships
Another major area of need is helping gifted students develop healthy relationships with themselves and others. Maslow’s hierarchy speaks directly of the need to belong and be loved as an essential component for well-being. Neuroscience has begun to confirm definitively that all people are social beings (Sukel, 2019). Gifted students are no different in this arena. One unique variation for gifted students is timing. Because many gifted students are asynchronous in their development, educators often are unaware that students exhibit complex relational dynamics despite their chronological age.
One substantial strategy to address this situation is to teach emotional intelligence directly across all grade levels. From the works of Daniel Goleman and Marc Brackett, giving students a framework for understanding emotional and social systems empowers them to be more highly functional and productive. As students develop and integrate the vocabulary and concepts of self-awareness, self-management, empathy, social awareness, and relationship management, they are enabled to navigate the world around them with more confidence and success (Brackett, 2019) (Goleman, 2020).

Meaningful Challenge and Autonomy
Moving up Maslow’s hierarchy, the next level focuses on esteem and achievement. Helping gifted students discover their strengths and utilize them is a critical part of the learning process. It is critical to provide these students with appropriately challenging work. One way of framing meaningful work for them is by focusing on Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD).  In the 1930s, Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of these zones that maximize learning. ZPD is defined as the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Billings & Walqui). The concept of ZPD helps reveal that if the targeted level of instruction is too low, students will disengage due to boredom. If too high, students become overwhelmed. In most traditional school environments, the level is too low for gifted students. Therefore, it is critical to determine the level of functionality of these students quickly so that curriculum and instruction can be differentiated appropriately to match their academic need. Due to their asynchronous development, these students can be months or years ahead in their academic capacity. Preassessment in all areas of curriculum is important to accurately determine the necessary ZPD for gifted students. This may require compacting of curriculum, acceleration in specific content, or complete acceleration across grade levels.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow speaks to the relationship of skill and challenge. Flow is defined as the holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement. Csikszentmihalyi created a challenge/skill ratio by charting challenge and skill levels on opposite axes as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Czikszentmikalyi’s Flow State Chart
 When high challenge levels meet high skill levels, flow is created. For gifted students, this is the optimal arena for meaningful learning. (Moore, 2019)
In connection to the skill and challenge level, gifted students need autonomy in their pursuit of learning. When students are given choice and flexibility in their options for learning, they develop a greater sense of intrinsic motivation (Pink, 2009). Another way to frame this is looking at the transition from dependence to independence. From birth, human beings begin a process of moving from total dependence to independence. One of the areas of hindrance for this process is not recognizing this need early enough for all students. This is particularly true for gifted students. From early elementary on, high ability students have the capacity to work on their own. This does not mean that direct instruction is not necessary. It means that a proper ratio needs to be determined. The goal is to reach a ratio where most student work is done independently.
Depending on the grade level, autonomy can be scaffolded and adjusted as students grow. In early elementary classes, rotational educational stations and student choice activities are good examples of appropriate teaching strategies. Infusing project-based learning and guided research could be appropriate options for middle school students. At the high school level, culminating projects or portfolios that integrate multiple disciplines are meaningful choices. For instance, independent research projects where students choose their own research questions and seek professional partners or mentors with whom to work have proven to be profoundly educational at the Gatton Academy and Palmetto Scholars Academy. Likewise, travel opportunities, both in the US and abroad, create one of the more relevant environments for independent student learning. For instance, students studying geology can take a tour of national parks such as Mammoth Cave or the Grand Canyon. Literature can come alive by going to the Globe Theatre in London.
Pathways for Expression and Service
It may be helpful to ask the question, what is the end goal of our present educational system? What should graduates of our schools be and be able to do. Considering Maslow’s hierarchy, it could be proposed that the end result should be self-actualization. Oxford defines self-actualization as the realization or fulfillment of one's talents and potentialities. One of the most significant ways for this to happen is in finding ways for students to use their gifts and talents in service to others. When gifted students are given pathways to do this, they can put their educational experiences into context and into action.
Another way of looking at this is developing an understanding of interdependence with students. As they move from being dependent to independent in their early life, it is important to emphasize that the next step is to move from independence to interdependence. This can be taught by providing multiple opportunities for students to help others. Most schools attempt to provide some options for students to get volunteer hours or do service projects. However, it is often a secondary thought in the overall school program. Like many other important elements of teaching and learning, unless there is an intentionality in providing meaningful choices, they often will not occur.
One way to make this happen is to put content into real world contexts. By emphasizing how the work across all disciplines is used to meet the needs of people across the world, students can internalize that their studies have a direct link to helping others. For instance, visiting industries such as Boeing or Volvo, students can see the application of STEM content as well as the need for clear and precise communication. Again, it is about being intentional to create a service orientation across all dynamics of school culture.
Bringing It All Together
Ultimately, addressing the emotional and social needs of gifted students requires a deep understanding of those needs and an intentional focus on meeting them. Maslow’s work gives a meaningful framework for revealing what those needs are. When this hierarchy is overlaid with our understanding of the characteristics of giftedness, we can develop targeted strategies to create space and opportunities for gifted students to grow and prosper. Essentially, this process helps build pathways for these young people to move from dependence to independence to interdependence. The end goal is to enable them to come to know themselves and their talents accurately and effectively and to equip them to use their gifts to make the world a better place. This result is certainly beneficial for all.
Billings, E., & Walqui, A. (n.d.). Zone of Proximal Development: An Affirmative Perspective in Teaching ELLs. WestEd.
Brackett, M. A. (2019). Permission to feel: the power of emotional intelligence to achieve well-being and success. Celadon Books.
Goleman, D. (2020). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books.
Lind, S. (2011, September 14). Overexcitability and the Gifted. SENG.
Mcleod, S. (2020, December 29). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology.
Moore, C. (2021, March 10). What is Flow in Psychology? Definition and 10+ Activities to Induce Flow.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive. Riverhead Books.
Sukel, K. (2019, November 13). In Sync: How Humans are Hard-Wired for Social Relationships. Dana Foundation.
Tomlinson, C. A. (1997). What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well. What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well | National Association for Gifted Children.
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Tim Gott
Educational Consultant & Life Coach

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