ISSUES IN THE SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL ADJUSTMENT OF GIFTED CHILDREN: WHAT DOES THE LITERATURE SAY?
University of Waikato
Traditionally, education of the gifted has focused on their cognitive abilities and has ignored their social and emotional needs. However, it is an area that is receiving increasing attention, with more research being undertaken in this field. During the last 20 years there has been a surge of research attempting to find out whether gifted students are better adjusted or are at more at risk for adjustment problems. There is research to support both views, which makes it difficult to come to any conclusions about whether gifted children are better adjusted or maladjusted compared with the non-gifted. According to the literature, gifted children's social and emotional adjustment is related to the type of giftedness, educational fit, and personal characteristics.
AFFECTIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF GIFTED STUDENTS
There are a number of characteristics that pertain to being gifted. Clark (1992) and Silverman (1994) list the following affective characteristics: advanced moral judgement; heightened self awareness; heightened sensitivity to the expectations and feelings of others; perfectionism; introversion; high expectations of self and others; idealism and a sense of justice; and higher levels of emotional depth and intensity. It is important not to generalise all of these traits to all gifted children, as some of these traits will not apply for all gifted. However, researchers and educators have identified that these characteristics appear more often among gifted children (Webb, 1993). The Maori culture also places a great importance on qualities in the affective and interpersonal domain (Bevan-Brown, 1993). These qualities include humility, sensitivity to others, service to others, caring, hospitality, selflessness and mana (Taylor, 1996).
Silverman (1994) believes that, while there are many descriptors that apply to gifted children, these foursensitivity, perfectionism, intensity and introversion have particular developmental, psychological, and social salience. She believes that in combination, they demonstrate the emotional complexity of the gifted. These descriptors are related to what Dabrowski (1967, 1972) called the 'overexcitabilities'. Dabrowski, a Polish psychologist and psychiatrist, found that creatively gifted individuals had more pronounced responses to various stimuli, which he called overexcitabilities (OEs). The OEs may be thought of as an abundance of physical energy, heightened acuity of the senses, vivid imagination, intellectual curiosity and drive, and a deep capacity to care (Silverman, 1994). There is evidence to indicate that the gifted have stronger OEs than their non-gifted peers (e.g., Nelson, 1989; Silverman, 1993). Sensitivity, perfectionism, intensity and introversion are all aspects of emotional overexcitability: concern for others and emotional ties - sensitivity; feelings of inadequacy and inferiority-perfectionism; extremes of emotion and complex emotions - intensity; and inhibition such as timidity and shyness - introversion (Silverman, 1994).
RESEARCH ON SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL ADJUSTMENT
1.Gifted Children are Better Adjusted
Some empirical studies suggest that gifted children are better adjusted than their non-gifted peers.
Supporters of this view believe that giftedness protects them from maladjustment; that the gifted are capable of greater understanding of self and others due to their cognitive capacities and therefore cope better with stress, conflicts and developmental dysynchrony (Garland & Zigler, 1999). Studies supporting this view report that gifted children demonstrate better adjustment than their average peers when measured on a variety of factors (Baker, 1995; Freeman, 1979, 1983; Jacobs, 1971; Kaiser, Berndt & Stanley, 1987; Neihart, 1991; Ramaseshan, 1957; Scholwinski & Reynolds, 1985; Terman, 1925, 1959).
For example, in Terman's (1925, 1935, 1947) longitudinal research he and his associates found that people of high ability exhibited a lower incidence of mental illness and fewer adjustment problems than average. Freeman (1983) found no differences in rates of emotional deviance when she compared 70 high ability children with two matched control groups. Beer (1991), in fact, found that gifted children are generally better adjusted than their peers of average and below average intelligence. Beer believes that gifted students overall are characterised by mental flexibility, emotional resilience and an ability to think positively, which may account for the better emotional adjustment.
There are some criticisms concerning the validity of the research reporting gifted children as better adjusted than their non-gifted peers. Several researchers cite sampling shortcomings in many of these studies (Freeman, 1994; Gallagher, 1990; McCallister, Nash & Meckstroth, 1996; Olszewski-Kubilius, Kulieke & Krasney, 1988). Gallagher (1990) identifies sampling errors in the Terman study, which he believes was heavily biased by educational and economic factors. He suggests that these factors would more likely create an environment conducive to the superior social acceptance and emotional status of gifted individuals.
McCallister, Nash and Meckstroth (1996) contend that 'research studies' show a mostly positive picture of gifted children, but reports based on 'experience' are more negative. They suggest that this discrepancy between research and experience is probably due to errors in research design. They raise number of interesting issues related to sampling procedures in some research studies and state that:
In the selection of the gifted group, the question must be asked whether referral of students by parents or teachers for gifted programmes may be influenced by the students' social adjustment. Would a child who is not well adjusted and not well adapted to the school setting, who is not achieving, not popular with teachers, be in the gifted programme? (McCallister, Nash & Meckstroth, 1996,p.274)
The point they are trying to make is that the probability of finding gifted children who are not socially competent in some of these samples is reduced. It could be argued that many samples might be biased and this may influence the perceptions of educators and parents in believing gifted children are better adjusted.
2.Gifted Children are More at Risk for Adjustment Problems
The second view is that gifted children are 'more' at risk for adjustment problems than their non-gifted peers; that giftedness increases a child's vulnerability to adjustment difficulties. Supporters of this view believe that gifted children are more sensitive to interpersonal conflicts and experience greater degrees of alienation and stress than do their peers, as a result of their cognitive capacities (Neihart, 1999). A significant number of researchers support this view, including Hollingworth (1942), Janos and Robinson (1985), Grossberg and Cornell (1988), Roedell (1986), Silverman (1983), and Tannenbaum (1983).
Hollingworth (1942) suggested that 'highly' intelligent children are prone to social and emotional adjustment problems. She originally proposed the concept of 'optimum intelligence' suggesting that a certain range of intelligence is optimal for a child's personal happiness and adjustment to society. Children with IQ levels between 125 and 155 are likely to have enough interests in common with peers to enable cooperation and mutually fulfilling relationships, however, beyond this range Hollingworth believed there is risk of psychosocial isolation. Dauber and Benbow (1990) conclude that the verbally gifted in particular might be at greater risk for developing problems in emotional and social adjustment than their less gifted counterparts. Roedell (1986) maintains that the more profound the giftedness, the more likely the student is to experience adjustment problems. This research suggests that gifted children's social and emotional adjustment is closely related to their level of giftedness.
In contrast, Grossberg and Cornell (1988) hypothesise that gifted children experience adjustment problems for the same reasons that other children do - familial, individual, and school issues - and not for unique reasons relating to giftedness. However, there is strong support for the contention that gifted children do experience adjustment problems that are specifically related to their giftedness. The belief that gifted individuals remain at increased risk for psychosocial problems persists, because of the unique characteristics that apply to the gifted. According to Garland and Zigler (1999), this connection becomes more apparent when you relate heightened intellect with heightened sensitivities, or to a collection of characteristics with the potential for promoting adjustment problems, such as perfectionism, nonconformity, idealism, developmental dysynchrony, excitability and unrealistic goals or expectations. Grossberg and Comell's (1988) argument has limited applicability when you examine these characteristics alongside the 'eight great gripes of gifted kids' (Schmitz & Galbraith, 1991). These include such' gripes' as, 'friends who understand us are few and far between', 'we feel different', 'kids often tease us about being smart', and 'we worry about world problems and feel helpless to do anything about them'. These comments are unique to gifted children, which suggests that there is the potential for this group to experience social and emotional problems for reasons different to non-gifted children.
It is important to note that this potential to experience social and emotional problems is strongly related to the gifted child's personal characteristics. For example, Dauber and Benbow (1990) found that extremely gifted students viewed themselves as more introverted, less socially adept, and more inhibited. They also reported that their peers saw them as much less popular, less socially active, less athletic, and less active in leading the crowd.
According to Neihart (1999), perfectionism and high performance expectations from others are possible contributors to the onset of eating disorders. Perfectionist behaviours can lead to the setting of unrealistic goals for oneself and others, and this can further lead to problems for the gifted individual when actual performance fails to meet the desired standard (Maker, 1977; Swesson, 1994; Whitmore, 1980). The 'asynchronicity' or uneven development reported in many gifted individuals, may also lead to an inability to cope emotionally with many of the issues their intellect or social conscience raises for them (Delisle, 1992; Dise-Lewis, 1988; Gross, 1997; Silverman, 1993; Whitmore, 1980).
Gifted children who report feeling different from their peers also report more negative perceptions of their social adjustment (Cross, Coleman & Stewart, 1995; Janos, Fung & Robinson, 1985). Janos et al, (1985) studied the psychosocial development of 271 high IQ children. They report that 37 percent of the children in this group conceptualised themselves as 'different' from their peers. Self esteem scores for the group who saw themselves as 'different' were significantly lower than high IQ children who did not see themselves as different. Hayes and Sloat (1989) believe that gifted children, by their very nature will encounter social problems because they are different in significant ways from the majority of children.
IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATIONAL PROVISIONS
The research on the social and emotional adjustment of gifted learners has implications for their educational provisions. Nail and Evans (1997) note that the association of giftedness and emotional maladjustment continues to influence the perceptions and decisions of adults and professionals regarding gifted youth. They suggest that the consequences of such a view may prove grave and detrimental when symptoms of maladjustment in gifted children are attributed to giftedness and are ignored. This could also apply to the view that gifted children are better adjusted and therefore do not need any help with regards to their social and emotional development. Peterson (1993) points out that a commonly held belief is that gifted individuals can and should look after themselves.
Finding the right educational provisions for highly gifted children can be a great challenge for educators. Several commentators agree that there is a level of IQ at which it becomes very difficult to find appropriate educational services, and it may be the lack of 'good educational fit' that most often contributes to the difficulties some highly gifted children encounter (Baker, 1995; Dauber & Benbow, 1990; Gallucci, 1988; Gross, 1993; Hollingworth, 1942; Parker, 1996).
A considerable body of research has looked at the types of educational provisions for gifted children and how this can effect their social and emotional adjustment. Despite several reservations from educators about ability-grouped programmes and acceleration for the gifted, the results generally show positive effects for children's self esteem and achievement. Longitudinal studies of gifted students, such as those conducted by Benbow and Stanley (1997) and their colleagues (Lubinski & Benbow, 1994; Richardson & Benbow, 1990) and by VanTasse1-Baska (1986) indicate that accelerated students are satisfied with their acceleration, and report enhanced achievement motivation, increased friendship choices and greater enjoyment of school and learning.
When researchers compare academic outcomes for accelerated and non-accelerated gifted students, the results tend to favour accelerands over nonaccelerands (Swiatek & Benbow, 1991). In a study of gifted students in Selective and Agricultural High Schools many students who entered the full-time ability grouping programme commented on the quality of the friendships they had been able to develop with other students who shared their abilities and interests (Adams, Ball, Braithwaite, Kensell & Low, 1992). Kennedy (1997) found that some form of homogeneous grouping benefits the most able and gifted students in terms of their academic achievement, as well as their attitudes concerning themselves as learners, and regarding their school experiences. Gross (1993) found disturbingly low levels of social self esteem in highly gifted children whose placement in the mixed-ability classroom prevented them developing supportive relationships with age-peers of similar ability and interests. Gross uses a clever analogy to help illustrate the impact of gifted children's 'educational fit' on their development. If the right educational provisions are not provided this may hinder their social, emotional and academic growth.
If big fish are placed in ponds that are too small for them, and if they are kept there too long, they stop growing. (Gross, 1997, p.29)
Contrary to the view of the positive effects of acceleration and ability grouping, is a concern that, in some instances, gifted children can feel more negatively about themselves by comparing their abilities with other, highly able children (Brookover, 1989). This was found to be particularly prevalent in streamed classes for gifted children.
PROGRAMMING FOR THE SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL NEEDS OF GIFTED STUDENTS
It is difficult to come to a precise conclusion about whether overall gifted children are better adjusted or are more maladjusted than the non-gifted, based on the conflicting research evidence. What is known is that there are still gifted children out there whom present with social and emotional problems that should receive careful attention and appropriate interventions which specifically address relevant academic, emotional and social needs (Nail & Evans, 1997). Gifted children who appear to be more susceptible to emotional and social adjustment problems, based on the evidence presented thus far, are those that are highly gifted, are in inappropriate classes that do not meet their academic needs, and display such characteristics as perfectionism and introversion that are unique to their persona.
It would seem that programming for the social and emotional needs of gifted children is essential, because some gifted do not have the skills to cope with the difficulties they may encounter. Silverman (2000) says it is imperative we provide environments in which emotional sensitivity can be nurtured and supported. The following are some suggestions that researchers have identified that could be helpful in programming for the social and emotional needs of gifted children.
The literature has acknowledged the importance of providing an affective component to gifted programmes (Bailey and Sinclair, 1992; Coleman, 1992; Mendaglio, 1995; Silverman, 1993). Ford (1994) claims that many 'at risk' gifted children need to be specifically taught skills that promote resilience, such as a positive and pro-active approach to daily life, flexibility, task persistence, divergent thinking and problem solving skills. According to Konza (1997) teachers can have a strong influence in the development of these important, perhaps even lifesaving skills.
Helping gifted children to discuss their beliefs and values is also acknowledged in the literature. Worell and Remer (1992) report that examining personal beliefs and attitudes enhanced the self-esteem of gifted adolescents. Konza (1997) suggests that teachers can facilitate this process by sharing some of their beliefs and values, while not suggesting that they are in any way superior to those of the students. Another way of exploring beliefs and values is to write in a journal. Lim (1994) reports that gifted students themselves have identified journal writing as an excellent way in which to explore and develop views. Doney (1995) and Sands and Howard-Hamilton (1994) also report favourably on the use of writing, particularly journal writing, to develop student self esteem.
Konza (1997) mentions that teaching goal setting and problem solving skills are important skills that gifted children need to learn. Children who are suffering from social or emotional problems may be unable to see the range of available options and alternatives (Appleby & Condonis, 1990). A goal setting approach may involve an analysis of periods of high motivation in order to help students understand the conditions under which they operate best (Konza, 1997). Konza suggests that teachers could model the processes required to make good decisions by taking them through the particular steps in problems solving.
Skills in problem solving can reduce a large problem to a more manageable one, and provide a constructive way forward.
Using co-operative groupings has been identified as a strategy for improving social skills amongst gifted children. Elmore and Zenus (1992) incorporated a co-operative grouping strategy successfully into a mathematics curriculum for gifted students. They found the social skills of all students increased. Similarly, co-operative learning activities have been used to develop skills in all domains with students of all ages (Ford, 1994; Johnson and Johnson, 1990).
As a result of the two conflicting opinions about the adjustment of gifted children it seems pertinent that more research needs to be undertaken in this field. A continued investigation in this area of social and emotional development will facilitate a better understanding of the gifted population, better identification of those at risk for emotional problems, and more effective treatment and guidance (Nail & Evans, 1997). We especially need New Zealand based research in this area, as we are still very reliant on findings from studies undertaken in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Further research with improved methodology, such as increased sample size, sampling from lower socioeconomic families and different cultures, should prove beneficial in understanding and addressing the social and emotional needs of gifted children (McCallister, Nash, Meckstroth, 1996; Nail, Evans, 1997). This will help to increase the validity of the results and then more accurate claims can be made about adjustment concerns of gifted children. Whatever the research might suggest, it is important to realise the gifted are not an homogenous group, and any conclusions which appear to suggest a high degree of homogeneity must be called into question.
The issue remains unresolved and the debate continues as to whether gifted children are better adjusted or are more maladjusted than the non-gifted. What is more conclusive from the research is that giftedness does influence social and emotional outcomes for children, but whether these outcomes are positive or negative seems to depend on the type of giftedness, educational fit, and personal characteristics. Evidence suggests that the extremely gifted are more vulnerable to social and emotional problems. So too are the gifted that are not achieving academically as a result of poor educational provisions. Ability grouping and acceleration has lead to positive effects on gifted children's self-esteem. Many researchers claim that there are a number of strategies that are beneficial in programming for the social and emotional needs of gifted children, such as providing an affective component in programmes, goal setting and problems solving, and using co-operative grouping strategies. More research in the field of social and emotional adjustment of gifted children is required so educators can provide appropriate interventions, which specifically address their relevant emotional and social needs.
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