Gifted Learners

Tukuna kia rere

Recognising and responding to particular needs

Social and emotional development

Educators need to be aware of the particular social and emotional needs of some gifted individuals. For example, understanding and accepting the gifted learner who has heightened sensitivities or sense of ethical and moral issues can ensure the provision of a more inclusive and responsive environment.

A number of factors influence the ways gifted learners think, feel and behave, such as:

  • Level of giftedness: Generally, the characteristics of giftedness are magnified for individuals at the highest levels of giftedness. This includes social and emotional intensities and sensitivities (Petersen, 2006).
  • Asynchronous development: Learners who have uneven development can present with extreme strengths and weaknesses. Some aspects of their development may be significantly out of step with that in other areas (e.g., in some 2E learners, or when judgement and intellect are out of alignment).
  • Overexcitabilites: The brighter the learner, the greater the likelihood that the learner will become super-stimulated.
  • Thinking and learning styles.
  • Cultural and personal identity issues.

Anecdotally, humour is often suggested as a trait or characteristic of gifted individuals. The ability to notice how things are related in abstract or complex ways can differentiate a gifted learner from their same-aged peers, as well as making intuitive leaps in thinking or creating alternatives to problems not yet considered. Gifted individuals often use humour to communicate their thinking or hypotheses. Humour can also be used by a parent or teacher to defuse a situation, engage interest, appeal to ‘quirkiness’ and hold attention on the subject matter.

Sometimes gifted learners gain social acceptance by being the ‘class clown’. It takes a high degree of intellect to be able to consistently control and manipulate a class full of learners. This advanced social skill can be diverted into leadership or other positive activity.

Some gifted learners struggle to form strong friendships, or find it hard to ‘fit’ with other learners of their age. They may have rigidity in adhering to rules and struggle with the normal ebb and flow of social relationships. They may think either much faster or much more slowly than their peers and find themselves out-of-sync with others around them. Some are unusually sensitive and vulnerable to perceived rejection.

There may be tension between the social desire of the learner to belong to a group and to be connected to others and that learner’s strong sense of integrity: ‘They don’t want to talk about the things that interest me and the things that interest them are not important to me’.

Some solutions are to:

  • consider friendships with different aged peers and opportunities to meet with others of like minds through, for example, local New Zealand Association Gifted Children (NZAGC) branches] or MindPlus. The opportunity to work with like-minded gifted learners is very important in the social and emotional development of gifted individuals – many children who do not usually join in activities finally leave their parents’ side at activities run by local associations for gifted learners, where there are many other learners like them.
  • follow the interests of the learner and see if there are local clubs supporting those interests
  • consider role modelling some of the social situations in which the learner is having difficulties.

Gifted learners often intellectually understand abstract concepts but may be unable to deal with those concepts emotionally, leading to intense concerns about death, the future, their sexuality, or other such issues. Some gifted learners participate in adult conversations about issues such as global warming or world hunger, but also experience intense feelings of helplessness as they cannot solve these huge world problems. Alternatively, some gifted learners might intellectually envision a result or outcome but lack the physical motor skills to complete it to the level pictured. These situations may result in an intense feeling of failure and disillusionment. These sensitivities may become barriers to a learner’s social and emotional well-being within the home and/or school environment and therefore require professional support.

It is recommended that you seek immediate professional help if you have any concerns that a gifted learner may be experiencing depression or having suicidal thoughts.


Books (or films) can be used to help learners to gain understanding and engage in problem solving of issues with particular relevance to themselves. This can help them feel they are not alone and give them some distance to look at a problem objectively in terms of the story they are reading. Bibliotherapy can be used in anticipation of an upcoming event or in response to a problem that has already arisen. It can also be used to develop the problem-solving skills of a learner who is thinking about world events and searching for meaning.

Bibliotherapy requires the learner to identify with a character in the story who is coping with similar issues or experiencing a similar event. The learner can be guided to release emotions after becoming involved in the story, by art, writing or discussion. Further assistance can be provided to support the learner to realise that the characters worked out solutions to their problems and that they may be able to do this, too.

The story is used as a way to begin a discussion of issues but should not be used as a substitute for dealing with those issues. An appropriate adult should be available to assist in controlling the depth of the discussion and to identify whether more help is needed.

Books and stories are used in Philosophy For Children (P4C) to discuss ethical and moral issues and some of the deeper questions related to the human experience. Gifted readers can access rich worlds of ideas and sophisticated language through literature.

Some of my best friends are books, by Judith Wynn Halsted, contains extensive information on different books, categorised by topic and age groupings (available from NZAGC Library)


Perfectionism is the combination of thoughts and behaviours generally associated with excessively high standards or expectations of performance. Silverman (2007) notes that perfectionism can have both positive and negative effects:

Perfectionism is an energy that can be used either positively or negatively depending on one’s level of awareness. It can cause paralysis and underachievement, if the person feels incapable of meeting standards set by the self or by others. It also can be the passion that leads to extraordinary creative achievement—an ecstatic struggle to move beyond the previous limits of one’s capabilities (‘flow’) (p. 234).

Positive effects

Positive aspects can include self-motivation to work hard and achieve. When combined with an acceptance of mistakes and a willingness to try new things, those mistakes and risks can become the foundation for further learning.

Some of the aspects of perfectionism that are often considered ‘negative’ can be looked at from a different perspective and recognised for the positive developments they can initiate. Recognised researchers, Dabrowski and Piechowski observe that although the drive for self-perfection can arise from inner forces that include emotions often considered ‘negative’, such as feelings of guilt and inferiority, it can lead to the personal, moral and spiritual development of an individual.

Negative effects

Perfectionism can have a negative effect on a learner’s development if the learner lives in a state of anxiety about making errors, perceives excessive expectations, questions their own judgements, shows a constant need for approval, or lacks effective coping strategies. The following suggestions can help teachers to deal with perfectionistic tendencies in learners:

  • Use humour in the classroom.
  • Learn to recognise when perfectionism in a learner becomes stressful (e.g., a delayed start; unwillingness to share work; refusal to turn in work or accomplish a goal; inability to tolerate mistakes; and impatience with others’ imperfections).
  • Offer challenging work that requires intellectual effort, to avoid the learner putting significant energy into less challenging work and focusing only on achieving the highest grades possible.
  • Share how you have handled failure and successes in your life. Use biographies of famous people in all subject areas to illustrate overcoming failures. Study an expert’s changing arguments or styles over time, to illustrate the way an individual’s ideas evolve.
  • Provide opportunities to fail in a safe environment – introduce learners to new experiences so they can learn to take risks.
  • Help learners to set realistic goals, to avoid them being overwhelmed, thinking they have to produce beyond their capabilities. Use specific criteria for assignments, or show projects and products that have been created by other learners previously.
  • Use contracts to encourage underachieving gifted perfectionists to finish or share their products.


Gifted learners can be introverted, with sensitivities and intensities, as well as a heightened awareness of themselves and of others.

Many parents and teachers will be familiar with the child who stands back and watches for some time before participating in an activity. Usually, with gentle encouragement and extra time, these children will join in to the extent appropriate for them. Teachers need to be aware that some learners will not volunteer to contribute during classroom discussions. They often have valuable comments and thinking, but may be reluctant to expose their ideas to the whole class, as peer reaction and comment is not always constructive. Consideration of options such as small-group discussions (sometimes carefully selecting suitable partners) can enable reserved learners to feel comfortable with contributing. Some learners are not comfortable being called on by the teacher and can become fearful of this. Occasional one-on-one time with the teacher to discuss contributions may be needed, to help build confidence and willingness to contribute. Opportunities to work with other gifted individuals who think at a higher, more complex level, often at an accelerated pace, is highly recommended.

The behaviour of an introverted child should not be compared with that of an extroverted child. Shyness is a temperament and does not usually need to be ‘fixed’. Some gifted learners may require assistance to develop social skills, such as taking turns in a group game, entering a group activity, or responding appropriately when greeted by another adult or child. This assistance should be tailored to the personality of the individual child and an awareness that the child does not need to become an extrovert to be happy or successful. Not all children want or need a huge social group. This assistance could take many forms, such as role-playing how they might engage with others in various situations.

An understanding parent or teacher who recognises how an introverted learner might best interact with the world, and provides appropriate strategies for this, can make a significant difference to the engagement and development of that child. Mentors within the school environment can be considered.

Forced-choice dilemma

This refers to an intrinsic dilemma that educators and other professionals can inadvertently place upon gifted individuals – the belief that they must choose between academic achievement and peer acceptance. For example, if a learner is identified as gifted and offered a place in a withdrawal programme, their friends may express feelings of abandonment and the learner may feel they cannot be a member of both groups. The forced-choice dilemma can also have cultural implications and challenges


Bullying of gifted learners can be overlooked or go unnoticed; however, it can leave these learners emotionally fragile, increasing the possibility of anxiety or depression. As gifted learners are often more sensitive and intense than their same-aged peers, their reactions to bullying can be magnified. As with any bullying, an extreme reaction from the child being bullied can encourage the perpetrator to continue. Gifted children often know they are ‘different’ from their peers and as with any group, ‘difference’ can make a child the target of bullying. Recently, social media has become a popular and often covert way of bullying others, particularly among teens.

Emergent sexuality and identity

A gifted child’s heightened sensitivity may give rise to increased questioning of the young person’s place in society during the personal and physical development of adolescence. In particular, gifted children who identify as LGTBQ (lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning) may have a difficult time with the transition from child to young adult.

Young people supporting LGBTQ+ 'rainbow' youth..

"Like all other adolescents, the highly gifted must cope with raging hormones, with the issues of gender and sexual identity, religious and moral values, relational commitments and social implications. What may be different about these adolescents is the ‘way’ they cope, the psychological tools (and wounds) and the mental processing they bring to the process. Here, as in all other aspects of life, there may be an ‘asynchrony’ to their development … One thing seems safe to assert: while there will be differences between individuals, the complex internal reality and the often painful external pressures that affect the highly gifted in other aspects of their lives will also affect their emerging sexuality (Tolan, 2007)."

Tolan, 2007

Twice Exceptional (2E) Learners

2E students are sometimes referred to as ‘double labelled’ or having dual exceptionality. Sometimes a student’s giftedness can mask the disability and sometimes the disability can mask the giftedness. These are gifted students whose performance is impaired, or their high potential is masked, by a specific learning disability, physical impairment, disorder or condition. They may experience extreme difficulty in developing their giftedness into talent.

Gifted students with disabilities are at risk if their educational and social/emotional needs go undetected. The frustrations related to unidentified strengths and disabilities can result in behavioural and social/emotional issues. Hidden disabilities can prevent students with advanced cognitive abilities from achieving high academic results and 2E students may perform inconsistently across the curriculum.

Some day, teachers, parents and administrators will realise that the uniqueness of twice-exceptional students can be the basis for more learning that should be the foundation of a high quality and personalised approach to educating all learners (Joseph Renzulli, Director of the National Research Centre for the Gifted and Talented, source).

It is essential to focus on the learner’s strengths first – strategies to manage or remediate weaknesses are secondary to maintaining the intellectual challenges and successes that these learners need to experience. Teachers and parents need to be aware of the extreme frustration that may be experienced by these learners and the associated risks to social and emotional well-being.

Anger, fear of failure, a strong need to control, low self-esteem and even fear of success is explained in Strop and Goldman’s work (2003) Counseling, multiple exceptionality, and psychological issues.

Differentiation for 2E Learners

Building choice into a student’s curriculum is vital, particularly in the selection of the topic (content). Utilising teaching strategies that are multi-sensory, have low written expectations and are creative often appeal to 2E learners (processes). Flexibility around what is handed in by a 2E student allows for personalised learning to occur (product). Negotiation is a key skill for teachers of 2E learners. A willingness to negotiate the content, processes and products will increase the motivation of many 2E learners.

2E learners have specific preferences regarding the manner in which they are taught and can learn most effectively – the process part of differentiation. Specific consideration should be given to these needs and adjustments made to the programme. Often, the adjustments required for the 2E learners benefit the entire class. The following are some general strategies for the whole class:

  • Allow the learners to speak in small groups about their ideas prior to writing them down, so they can clarify and sequence their thoughts.
  • Introduce philosophy into your daily teaching plan, so learners can participate verbally, utilising their creativity and deep-thinking abilities.
  • Explore options for curriculum compacting – pre-testing could indicate that some learners do not need to be taught some parts of a lesson because of their pre-existing knowledge, or do not require constant repetition.
  • Incorporate multi-sensory techniques, such as doing the same task using different media.
  • Give the ‘big picture’ at the outset of the lesson – this is especially important for visual-spatial learners, who need to have the big picture in view to help them scaffold the step-by-step information provided subsequently.

Specific strategies for 2E learners include:

  • allowing extra time on exams/tests/assessments
  • oral testing instead of written
  • use of a reader/writer
  • electronic recording of classes/lectures
  • use of laptops, keyboards or graphic organisers in classrooms
  • giving short, broken-up tasks
  • providing physical breaks during classes.

Idaho State Department of Education (2010, pp. 35–63) contains detailed information on recommended teaching strategies for 2E learners.