Sunday, February 24, 2013

Different than the rest: Social challenges of gifted adolescents

“I hate being different,” she lamented. "It’s nice being smart and all, but sometimes it would be better just to be normal.” The girl who voiced this complaint is not alone. Many gifted adolescents feel this way. They garner praise for innate talents considered an accident of birth, and must shield themselves from smirks and ridicule about their nerdy interests. They are labeled overachieving perfectionists when they rack up accomplishments, and slackers when they fail to meet their potential. They are often held to a higher standard, and social failings are rarely treated with compassion.

Many people think giftedness primarily impacts intellectual, educational and career pursuits. However, it affects every aspect of a child’s life. Some gifted adolescents, whose precocious aptitude drives their intellectual interests, may manifest asynchronous development. Their social skills lag behind their intellectual development, and they suffer the disadvantage of being both intellectually advanced and socially awkward, a lethal combination that invites derision from peers. Although the adolescent with asynchronous development may easily solve complex calculus equations, he may stammer when ordering food in a restaurant. She may be able to write a computer program, but only have a handful of Facebook friends. He might design the entire set for the school play, but (unintentionally) wear mismatched socks to school.

While some gifted teens appear oblivious to social cues, seemingly immersed in intellectual or artistic pursuits, many more are acutely aware of social interactions. They stand back, observe, and develop elaborate theories about the cliques, peer exchanges and social drama unfolding before them. Those who are bystanders may hesitate before venturing into the fray, or remain tied to small groups of like-minded peers. Even seemingly disengaged gifted teens may be more aware of the social climate than their behavior suggests. “I wish I could go to some of those parties,” one boy openly admitted, “but I don’t think I’d ever get invited, and if I went I don’t think I’d know what to do.” On the other hand, some gifted adolescents become cynical about social norms, rebelling or refusing to conform to what is expected.  “I won’t go to the prom,” a girl stridently announced, “I’d rather donate the cost of the dress to charity rather than spend it on such a waste of time.”

Clearly, not all gifted adolescents struggle socially. These are the popular students who are sought after by peers. Often these teens are athletic, attractive, and possess strong leadership skills. They are socially aware and confident, apparently unhampered by asynchronous social/emotional development. However, these teens are still cognizant of how their differences distinguish them from their peers, and they may assume high expectations for themselves in terms of academic goals. It is presumed that these children will go far, and these expectations create a nagging level of pressure that can be overwhelming.

Gifted adolescents need support and information to help them accept and appreciate their differences. They already know they are smart. What they really need is an understanding that while most adolescents may feel alienated at times, gifted adolescents really are different due to the nature of their cognitive complexity and its associated social/emotional features. Rather than railing against the “unfairness” of this reality, they can be encouraged to use their intellectual “gifts” of advanced reasoning skills, strategic planning abilities, conceptual complexity, and attention to detail, for example, to better understand their emotional reactions and interactions with peers.  They can learn to pay closer attention to their feelings, take interpersonal risks to reach out to others, and find like-minded peers (both in high school or off-campus activities) who share a similar world view. Again, just as schools attempt to support gifted students in their academic pursuits, the unique social and emotional differences gifted adolescents experience due to their innate complexity and sometimes asynchronous development need to be addressed. Otherwise, emotional roadblocks may further derail progress for these exceptional children.

Friday, February 8, 2013

What's in a Name? Gifted or High Aptitude Learner?

In my last blog post, I urged educators to identify a new term for “giftedness” since the label incites so much controversy (see “Let’s not call them gifted”). Although the term is not going to disappear any time soon, new alternatives still need to be explored. Given an opportunity for a change in terminology, what might constitute an improvement?

A term like “high aptitude learner” could describe gifted abilities without provoking so much debate. Use of a more technical-sounding name is less likely to generate an emotional reaction. The label of giftedness can inspire fantasies implying that a child is somehow more special and beloved. If a more technical, descriptive term were used, there might be less deliberation over whether one’s child is special or not. School administrators would not have to apologize for presumably offering an “elitist” program supporting special kids. When a term describes a variation in learning ability, not a judgment about a child’s inherent value as a person, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with the task of education.

Secondly, the new term focuses on aptitude, or “a natural ability to do something” ( Aptitude reflects one’s innate capacity to master something, referring to potential and what is sometimes seen as raw ability. While talents and abilities must be nurtured and developed, they are sometimes unfairly linked to images of pushy parents, flash cards, prep classes, or tracking. Misperceptions about aptitude sometimes lead to assumptions that gifted children are either pampered, privileged kids who have received every available learning opportunity, or conversely, have been rigidly bombarded with intensive academic demands, mountains of homework, and expensive tutoring.  While these unfortunate stereotypes may be the reality for some children, regardless of intellectual ability, they do not contribute to aptitude. Mastery of a skill involves learning, practice and experience; innate ability is not something that can be taught.

Finally, the concept of learning is essential to the new term. Learning continues throughout life; it does not begin and end with formal schooling. This is why most high aptitude learners demonstrate exceptional learning capability long before they start elementary school, and why they continue to seek out and absorb information at a higher level as adults. It also may explain why some run into conflicts with peers, spouses and co-workers as they adamantly espouse their complex view of the world, sometimes with little patience for those who fail to grasp their perspective. (This impatience, grounded in their quicksilver learning pace, will be the subject of a future blog.) Many high aptitude learners thrive on acquiring knowledge throughout life, obtaining great joy from the act of learning once they have moved beyond the constraints of traditional education.

Although I prefer the term “high aptitude learner,” in future posts, I will use this term and “gifted” interchangeably. “Gifted” is still the formally recognized label, and until consensus for another name is reached, it may be less confusing to use the more familiar terminology.  Hopefully, continued dialogue among education professionals will result in the eventual revision of the term, so that there is less time wasted in debate and more time devoted to education.