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Balancing Academic Success with Social Challenges

Mallory is, as her mother would say, “brilliant”; and she truly is. With a Weschler test score of 131, doctors and educators alike consider her gifted. To keep up with her inquisitive mind, her school, which lacks a G&T program, has skipped this precocious 13-year-old two grades. Mallory keeps up with her fellow 10th grade peers in all coursework, and she particularly excels at math. Mallory maintains a 4.0 average, and instead of breaking for lunch, takes on an additional enrichment class to satisfy her interest in computer science. Mallory truly is the student teachers want to teach, and the student other students want to be – in theory, of course.

The Social Stigma of Giftedness

From the surface, Mallory has it all – the grades, the clout, and the potential to do and become just about anything. What’s missing from this equation are…friends. In classes with students nearly three years older, Mallory is often left out of typical high school discourse, and some of her peers even refer to her as the “smart baby” in the class. For this reason, Mallory often shies away from social interaction; she eats lunch alone, book in hand, and rarely speaks a word unless she is engaged in class. While Mallory takes on extra coursework, she doesn’t participate in any extracurricular activities; it is hard to fit in when “being smart” is looked at as a stigma rather than a gift. Mallory knows she is smart, and others do too; this makes her… “different.” And when we are in high school, the “cool” kids or “popular” kids are never “different.”

As parents and educators, we are often faced with students like Mallory, unbelievably smart and intellectually curious. As the most immediate need for these types of students is for them to be challenged academically, we naturally gravitate toward supporting academic enrichment the best we can. We cannot, however, forget the basic human need of all – the need for social interaction.

The Importance of Addressing the Social Needs of Gifted Students

Students, like Mallory, who are pushed solely in an academic sense often find themselves with higher rates of depression, a great shame of self, and an inability to engage with others. Ultimately, while one would inherently think that a challenging curriculum for these students equates to a more successful future, gifted students without a social circle statistically do not perform as well in future careers or aspirations as those who have a friend group. For this reason, social/emotional development and nurturance are just as important as intellectual stimulation.

We typically see what is referred to as an asynchronous development in gifted students; their intellectual growth develops at a faster rate than their social/emotional maturation. This discord can explain why a 13-year-old, like Mallory, placed in classes with 15- and 16-year-olds, would be able to compete academically, but socially, she just has not matured. What Mallory needs is not only a group of students who can challenge her academically, but also a group of students her age. When schools offer a Gifted and Talented program, such a social situation develops organically. However, in a school like Mallory’s, one must look toward outside social groups to supplement the lack of social/emotional enrichment she has within the school walls.

How to Encourage Gifted Students to Make Social Connections

Interest-based extracurricular activities, summer programs for gifted students, or finding other gifted students in the community are all great ways to encourage a social connection. Like most things in life, there must be a balance; in this case, securing the delicate balance between challenging these students within their academic potential and providing appropriate social opportunities for them. Keeping open communication with young people regarding their desires and preferences is key in maintaining that desired balance. Our goal is for gifted and talented students to achieve intellectual and academic fulfillment coupled with social and emotional satisfaction. A happy balance indeed!


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