Gifted Students and Social Stigma

Table of Content

According to philosopher Benedict Spinoza, humans are social creatures, as stated in the quote “Man is a social animal” (Kaplan 278). The desire for social acceptance is an inherent aspect of human culture, regardless of whether individuals acknowledge or deny it. The pursuit of acceptance drives individuals, often causing them to become obsessed and even alter themselves in order to achieve it. Many people spend their entire lives striving for a level of social status they believe will bring validation. Unfortunately, acceptance is often denied based on superficial factors like clothing choices or affiliation with certain social groups.

However, gifted students are denied acceptance due to innate elements of personality. Stigmatizing them for their natural characteristics is both unwarranted and unfair. Gifted adolescents face daily disparagement and often lack the knowledge to cope with it. Their intelligence negatively affects their social abilities, with the most intellectually exceptional students being the least socially adept.

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The social stigma faced by gifted children ranges from negative peer perceptions to difficulties in social interactions, which can lead to extreme consequences such as suicide. Educators and parents, who are supposed to provide guidance and support, often contribute to the development of this stigma. Gifted children’s advanced abilities are typically noticed at a young age. However, the current educational system primarily focuses on teaching basic skills and fails to provide adequate challenges for these students.

Joyce Van Tassel, the Director of the Area Service Center for Gifted Education in southern Chicago, argues that the current education system does not challenge intelligent students enough. According to Van Tassel, these students already possess a strong grasp of educational fundamentals, and therefore, they are more interested in questioning the nature and reasons behind things rather than focusing on minimum competency and basic knowledge.

The curiosity of students can sometimes offend teachers, leading to negative perceptions from peers and the onset of a social stigma (Johnson 27). Another common approach to “educating” gifted students is to separate them from the rest of the class. The teacher assigns the gifted student a separate, advanced activity while the majority of the class remains engaged in regular activities. Consequently, both the gifted student and their peers become accustomed to this perceived difference in status.

The gifted student, by default, becomes an outsider in relation to the group due to their above average abilities. As a result, the educational treatment deprives them of the chance to learn social interaction at a young age. This lack of peer interaction persists as they progress through different grade levels. Moreover, in an educational environment that prioritizes grades, inadequate interpersonal skills are often more accepted than inadequate work-related skills (Wolfle 3).

As students, it is common for them to work alone and have their social and psychological needs disregarded. Even though they excel academically, gifted students often feel neglected and unheard. They are recognized for their achievements, but their personal development is overlooked (Johnson 27). Strangely enough, these students are seen as high achievers rather than individuals deserving attention. In the classroom, they are typically introverted, focused on their tasks, and rarely cause disciplinary problems.

According to Wolfe (2), in a typical classroom, the teacher tends to give attention to students who are unruly, at-risk, or have disciplinary issues, often focusing on them for the entire class period. However, teachers do not provide similar encouragement to gifted students, as stated by Van Tassel (cited in Johnson 27). The author argues that teachers assume gifted students will do well without acknowledging their accomplishments or making them feel proud. This unfair treatment and ignorance of their needs can result in stigmatization for the students.

According to Bruce Kline and Elizabeth Short’s research, gifted students are frequently neglected by adults. The study involved interviewing students to evaluate how adults responded to them in different emotional situations. The results showed that 46% of the participants stated being disregarded when they felt angry and frustrated, while 77% felt ignored during times of depression. Interestingly, 69% of male students believed that behaving disruptively was a way to attract adult attention. As a result, even negative attention is considered recognition (Kline 3).

The lack of concern among administrators, teachers, and parents can result in students exhibiting disciplinary issues and falling short of their full potential. This is especially crucial for gifted middle school students who are prone to adopting an underachieving mindset. At this stage, students become acutely aware of their unique qualities and react in various ways. Research reveals that during this period, students undergo heightened feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation. If these emotional needs are disregarded, students will become accustomed to burying their problems and disregarding their academic pursuits (Kline 4).

Both gifted and nongifted males in this age group face behavior issues stemming from general immaturity, such as instigating, restlessness, and intentional defiance of authority. It is important for adults to remember that even gifted males are capable of behaving like typical boys at times. Unfortunately, males are often criticized and misunderstood for exhibiting these behaviors, leading to their potential being disregarded and their abilities being underestimated from the beginning (Kline 2). Additionally, males also face societal pressure to be less social and emotional.

In her article “Underachieving Gifted Males: Are We Missing the Boat?”, Jane Wolfe discusses how societal thinking still holds the belief that men should be strong and financially provide for their households. This expectation is reinforced by praising men for their ability to handle problems and keep their emotions in check. Additionally, intellectually capable males who are underachievers may be overlooked because they have always been self-reliant and lack close friendships. As a result, society encourages young boys to be less emotionally accessible (3-4).

These males, in turn, have fewer connections with their peers and less opportunity for social interaction and support. In a study conducted by Kline and Short, gifted males were asked about their desired responses from others when they felt upset. The findings revealed that 29% preferred spending time away from friends, 43% wanted time apart from their mothers, 50% desired distance from their fathers, and a staggering 79% sought separation from their teachers (Kline 4). Interestingly, the majority of respondents wished to distance themselves from their educators – individuals who not only impact their academic lives but also contribute to the social stigma they experience.

At this stage, students attempt to distance themselves from other gifted students and their own giftedness, resulting in an underachieving mindset. Gifted females face specific difficulties and societal prejudices. The expectations imposed on females by society are predominantly social in nature, implying that they should have a greater inclination towards social interaction and emotions. Due to these societal assumptions, females who are used to being isolated face a double stigma: not only for their lack of social skills, but also for being a socially inept female.

According to Luftig (114), gifted girls are often marginalized for being dominant and aloof. The article “Assessing the Social Status of Gifted Students by Their Age Peers” states that these girls are expected to be both compliant and self-determined in developing their talents, resulting in complex relationships with their non-gifted peers. Gifted girls are expected to confidently pursue their goals, regardless of their limited social experience.

When the nonacademic needs of academically mature students are not addressed, adolescents can become confused and often give up their gifted associations in favor of underachieving. It doesn’t matter what gender they are, these gifted individuals can easily slip through school without having meaningful social experiences, and as a result, they miss out on the chance to develop social skills. They are simply labeled as “advanced” and “able,” and little else is done to support them. They are expected to rise above the influence of others’ attitudes (Peterson 2).

Being an adolescent means discovering one’s true identity, regardless of academic maturity, and it takes both a strong adult and an exceptional adolescent to completely dismiss others’ opinions. The intellectual accomplishments of gifted students are not relevant when considering their emotional requirements. It is incorrect to assume that gifted students, due to their advanced intellect, are automatically socially adept. In reality, their isolated existence, with constant pullout programs and segregated subjects, suggests the opposite of their social capabilities.

Gifted students, although they are exceptional in their abilities, are still adolescents who are going through the challenging period of adolescence. According to Tracy Cross, the author of “Psychological and Social Aspects of Educating Gifted Students,” it is crucial to recognize that these students are still children. Therefore, the challenges and needs they face often relate to their age group. Additionally, many of the needs they have in this aspect are either already present or worsened because they are children.

Although many psychological and social needs of gifted students are similar to those of nongifted students, it is crucial to initially address the issues related to normal development in order to meet all their needs. However, it is important to recognize the specific areas where gifted students have unique psychological and social needs. Despite their high academic abilities, gifted students still encounter challenges in both academic and social aspects of their lives. Often, the social needs of gifted students are overlooked or overshadowed by their academic achievements.

The perception of gifted students is frequently that they are excessively confident or distant. However, in reality, they often have less social confidence than their peers. According to Jennifer Clark and David N. Dixon’s study published in The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, gifted students possess high sensitivity and perfectionism, along with imbalances in their emotional and intellectual growth. They also commonly view themselves as being abnormal (Clark 1).

The inclination of adults is to perceive students as exceptional rather than eccentric. By eliminating negative assumptions related to age, gifted students can experience a stronger connection, particularly mentally, with adults. Establishing connections with older individuals serves as a method for students to distance themselves from the label of being gifted, and it is just one of the numerous strategies employed by gifted students to gain social acceptance. Although interaction with peers of the same age is not unattainable, it typically involves the gifted child concealing certain aspects.

Gifted students have numerous ways of dealing with their social difficulties. One particularly harmful technique involves sacrificing academic success to gain social acceptance (Wallace 1). This approach is known as underachieving. In addition, Cross explores five other coping methods employed by gifted students: truth, placate, cop out, cover up, and lie (Cross 5). Truth refers to providing information that students sincerely believe to be true, whereas lying involves deliberately sharing false information.

Placating is when one denies or reduces an assumed difference before acknowledging the truth. A cop out occurs when a talented student redirects the subject or alters the course of the conversation to divert attention away from themselves. On the other hand, a cover up involves completely evading the central question by vaguely mentioning the relevant matter. Gifted students display these behaviors in different ways. They minimize their grades and capabilities, intentionally date non-gifted students, adopt the role of the class joker, ridicule other gifted students, and fabricate their age in accelerated classes (Cross 5).

Research has shown that males tend to use humor as a way to hide their giftedness (Swiatek 22), while females often deny their abilities and become more involved in social activities (Swiatek 19). This has a profound effect on the physical and psychological well-being of gifted students who distance themselves from their own talents. They grow up thinking they need to suppress their true selves in order to fit in. Consequently, students often try to fit into one of three groups: high visibility students, invisible students, or disidentified students (Cross 6).

According to Cross (6), gifted students in school display their self-perceptions through their behavior, whether they perceive themselves as different or similar to others. They choose actions that enable them to be socially accepted. Although giftedness is not overtly stigmatized, these students often conceal it. The extent of this stigma is evident in the lengths these students go to downplay their abilities and blend in with their peers. This emphasizes the importance of gifted students developing social interaction skills while nurturing their talents at a young age.

Michael Spinner is a gifted student who falls into the underachieving, disidentifed category. Despite skipping more than half the school year due to a lack of intellectual challenge in class, his high school GPA was a 3.5. After graduating in three years from a well-recognized Tier Two College, he achieved the same GPA again without exerting any effort. His ACT scores were a 31 out of 36, and he consistently scored in the 99th percentile on standardized tests.

Also, Spinner’s ASVAB scores were impressive, leading to active recruitment from all branches of the armed services, including the CIA. However, the interview with Spinner proved to be challenging and monotonous. He clearly felt uncomfortable and frequently resorted to humor and diverting the conversation. After an hour of struggling with the interview, he admits, “I dislike discussing my giftedness.” When were you identified as gifted? I’m not sure. I’ve always been ahead intellectually. I participated in special programs starting from first grade. I started reading around the age of five. Although I didn’t start reading exceptionally early, I excelled in reading at a very young age.

I have always had a love for reading. At the age of six, I independently enjoyed books like Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Despite my comfort with books, I have never been the most social person. My social skills can be described as lacking. However, I excel in leadership positions where I have control over my interactions with others. In these roles, I am able to minimize my need for social interaction. Otherwise, I often feel overwhelmed and prefer to withdraw from social situations when there are too many people around.

Because I don’t believe it’s possible to connect with such a large number of people, especially in social situations where connecting with many people is expected, I feel overwhelmed. This feeling is caused by my synaptic overload, which is also a contributing factor to my being an asshole. How would you describe your social graces? Personally, I am not a good host. However, I can handle differences of opinion as long as they are defensible. It’s not necessary for someone to agree with me, but I do expect them to take a valid stance and be able to present their reasons effectively.

But most of the time, people can’t do either. Choose a few adjectives that describe yourself. Being a secluded hermit is my ideal state, which is my goal for retirement. What were some of the difficulties you encountered in the school system? In my school, there were none. We didn’t have any AP classes and the community college classes were easier than those in high school. I just did what was necessary to pass the class and nothing more. How did this impact your college academics? College was no different. I still wasn’t challenged even though there was more potential for challenge. The faculty wasn’t confrontational.

I felt that they were contributing to education rather than impeding it. Have you ever faced a challenge in your life? Not in school. Even my most difficult college class just required time and effort. I was exhausted, working 20 hours a day, but it wasn’t hard, just time-consuming. Are there any achievements that you take pride in? My girlfriend and I have a complex, mature social relationship that others can learn from. I believe we have succeeded where many others have failed.

I have never felt such a deep connection with another person before. However, I don’t view this as something I have conquered but rather as something that was previously unavailable. It was not that I was incapable of experiencing it earlier, but rather that there was no one with whom I wanted to share it. It is uncommon, but it is not an achievement. I still have not conquered any social fears. Why did you decide to pursue a higher education at the college level? Mainly for the qualification, which annoys me, but our society dictates that I need it to prove my abilities, and I am not free enough to go against that.

I succumbed to their suggestions and expectations regarding my behavior and actions in that particular situation. How did you interact with your teachers? Once we reached an understanding that attending school was not necessary for me, and that I could excel in their class without regular attendance, additional assignments, and just by taking the exams, our relationship improved. However, it took three years to reach that point; before that, our relationship was contentious. Prior to establishing this arrangement, I was viewed as a disciplinary issue since I did not see the importance of attending school.

When given the freedom to do as I pleased, things were fine. Were you ever reprimanded by teachers or administrators for not living up to your potential? Within the school setting, there was no opportunity to live up to my potential or even determine what it was. As long as I was passing, teachers and administrators disregarded my potential. How would you characterize your relationship with your parents? It was as if they assumed everything was generally fine. They never asked probing questions. Because I could fend for myself from a young age, our relationship was more friendly than familial. We were like companions.

There was an increased level of trust, respect, and equality in both sides of my high school friendships. Speaking about my high school friendships, I had a small circle of close friends, while the rest of the individuals were merely acquaintances. We would exchange greetings when we saw each other, but our interaction ended there. My close friends and I shared a similar sense of humor that allowed us to laugh together. However, I did not perceive them to be on the same intellectual level as me. Although a couple of them had the potential to excel in certain subjects if they put effort into it, they did not possess the same broad intellectual capacity as me. Did you also have any friendships with adults?

In friendships with older individuals, I have always noticed a balance where they compensate for my lack of experience. While I excel in intelligence, they excel in life lessons. Interestingly, most adults acknowledge that grades, extracurricular activities, and high school as a whole are merely hoops to jump through. Unlike educators who are obligated to attach a sense of importance to these educational games, my adult friends view them as insignificant. Once you navigate through them successfully, there is no need to repeat the process.

With the adults, I could relate to my struggle. When you say “it,” are you referring to education? Well, for the previous question, I specifically meant my education, but I believe it applies generally to life. Whether it’s your job, your parents, your spouse, or the law. Did you use any coping methods for your gifted abilities? I didn’t actively try to hide them. I also didn’t actively pursue foolish endeavors. If someone thought I was gifted, that was fine, but I wasn’t going to make an effort to convince them. Have you ever felt the need to downplay your abilities in order to connect with your friends? Absolutely.

Even teachers find themselves wanting to express their thoughts and provide specific comments. However, they become weary of others looking at them with confusion. The need to repeatedly explain themselves eventually leads to a point where they give up. Consequently, their close friendships are often based on shared humor, as intellect is not the primary foundation of their interactions. It is simply easier this way. Can you relate to being skilled at concealing personal issues? Absolutely. I don’t really have any problems myself, although I did struggle with anorexia during my time in high school.

I exercised excessively and didn’t eat enough, but my parents didn’t react to this as they didn’t consider it unhealthy. My weight was never dangerously low, so it was easy for them to overlook it. I never really thought about their lack of notice. My intention wasn’t to seek their attention; they were never involved in it at all. Do you think your talent affected how others perceive you? No, because the same skill in hiding issues also applies to hiding everything else. I became a more secretive person and became less willing and able to display aspects of my personality.

Because there is no opportunity to advance, everyone is in the same boat. Although I may be better at steering, it’s ultimately the same situation. Perhaps my gifted abilities are the cause of my social ineptitudes. Operating on a different wavelength than others makes it much harder to connect with someone. Trying to connect often results in seeing that blank look repeatedly, causing me to prefer being alone rather than making the effort. Finding someone who thinks “Hell yeah!” instead of “What the hell?” and connecting with them is rare. Currently, describe the people you connect with.

Despite not being able to connect with a large number of people, I am still able to connect with a few individuals. Currently, there are about four people with whom I am able to establish a connection. Humor plays a significant role in my connection with all four of them. Additionally, two out of the four individuals share my intellectual wavelength. In one of the remaining two, I can see certain aspects of myself, while the last person is simply someone I enjoy spending time with due to their admirable qualities. Are you disappointed by your limited connections? Although it can be frustrating at times, it also makes the relationships I do have more meaningful.

However, if I didn’t have even my meager four [goals], I would surely feel resentment. These four [goals] have prevented me from succumbing to overwhelming bitterness. What are your aspirations for the future? I don’t have any. I desire to live the rest of my life doing whatever I want. Spinner demonstrates several traits of a socially withdrawn, talented individual. Underachieving, developing friendships as an adult, downplaying one’s abilities, and using humor as a shield are all behaviors associated with gifted students. Spinner’s mention of being “in the same boat” as his peers can be seen as a form of appeasement among Cross’ coping strategies.

Spinner acknowledges his social deficiencies by describing himself as “reclusive.” He demonstrates a profound understanding of the importance of navigating societal expectations, referring to the need to “get by” and “jump through hoops.” This understanding is evident in his decision to pursue higher education despite encountering unsupportive schools and teachers. The absence of deep emotional connection with his parents is also apparent. Spinner’s declaration of the possibility of becoming “overwhelmingly bitter” in the absence of his four close friends proves that his unique abilities did not make him immune to social vulnerability.

Indeed, the reduced presence of companions indicates a heightened requirement for them, which is further emphasized by Spinner’s remarks about his greatest achievement—a profound social bond with another individual. The inference that he holds this accomplishment in such high regard is likely connected to his deficiency in social skills. The long-term consequences of the gifted stigma are exceedingly harmful, as there is a constant yearning for intimacy that paradoxically remains hindered due to these students not being taught how to establish close connections.

In The Journal for the Education of the Gifted, Rochelle Manor-Bullock, Christine Look, and David N. Dixon conducted clinical studies that reveal the long-term effects of stigma on students. According to Dixon (329), when asked about social perception, 65% of gifted individuals responded by acknowledging their social differences, while 69% primarily identified themselves in terms of academics. Thus, academics become their primary self-perception and means of communication. However, this behavior can be socially detrimental as most people cannot relate or communicate in the same way.

In her study “Preparing for College–Beyond the Getting-In Part,” counselor Jean Sunde Peterson explores the experiences of gifted students in college. Many students had negative reactions to living with roommates and felt very lonely (3). When asked about how their abilities have affected them in college, 27% of students said that they were seen as a social liability and this caused them to focus more on academics at the expense of social experiences. They also mentioned experiencing social ineptitude, inflated pride, and subsequent social problems (4).

According to research, approximately 60% of students perceive their gift as beneficial to their academic success in college. However, they feel unprepared for the social aspects of college life and often experience a form of culture shock known as collegiate culture shock. This phenomenon is commonly observed among gifted students. As a result, these students tend to prioritize financial pursuits and distractions over interpersonal values like marriage, religion, and relationships (Kline 2). Additionally, when it comes to employment preferences, gifted students are more inclined towards jobs that involve objects rather than interacting with people.

They prioritize individual issues such as “an exciting life, wisdom, self-respect, pleasure, and inner harmony” and become more argumentative and self-protective rather than focusing on social concerns such as altruism, social recognition, achievement, affiliation, and family security (Kress 205). They show no interest in community issues or establishing personal connections. With the advancement of technology and decreased human interaction, students may become further isolated from societal situations. If schools fail to instill social values in gifted students, they may never overcome their social ineptitudes.

Peterson asserts that social balance is still important despite high ability (5). However, the current system often isolates gifted students, leading to a lack of social interaction until high school ends. This assumption that gifted students are socially mature, even if they have no prior experience, perpetuated by schools, is nonsensical and harmful. These qualities of the educational decision makers are repugnant.

Social and personal connections are relevant in various professions and domains. If gifted students lack the necessary skills for engaging in an interactive world, their future achievements may be constrained. Assuming that students possess social abilities without being taught by the education system would condemn them to a life of wasted potential. It is essential for parents, teachers, and counselors to provide gifted students with opportunities for social interaction. This is crucial for their psychological development.

Gifted students need to have the opportunity to interact with both gifted and non-gifted peers. Restricting their interactions to only one group would not accurately represent the real world. It is important to use both individual and cooperative learning in the classroom, exposing all students to both methods. Teachers can encourage gifted students to help their classmates, as research shows that social contact has the greatest impact on students’ knowledge (Wolfle 5). By doing this, some level of peer interaction occurs, as opposed to completely separating them from their peers.

Gifted students should understand that failure is acceptable (Johnson 29) and that social interaction is a crucial and advantageous aspect of their growth. Providing gifted students with a mentor and counseling will allow them to address emotional matters and establish connections with others. Moreover, parents should thoroughly investigate potential schools and gifted programs, including how they cater to gifted students (Cross 7). Additionally, parents have a responsibility to actively support their child’s social skill development by facilitating and promoting interactions with peers.

In order to help young adults stay in control and solidly afloat, even during challenging times, Peterson suggests being prepared with things-to-do-when, practicing articulation of social and emotional concerns, and normalizing unsettling experiences (5). Cross emphasizes that educators and parents must understand that expectations should always align with the child’s level of maturation (7). However, the education system often overlooks the nonacademic needs of gifted children, limiting their ability to excel in areas besides academics.

The range of negative consequences resulting from stigma towards gifted students can vary from total isolation to social exclusion. Frequently, these students internalize their experiences and struggle to form connections with others, even into adulthood. Cross emphasizes that this underachievement is not limited to grade 12 but becomes a pervasive mindset that impacts not only academic performance but also overall well-being, resulting in psychological disassociation and negative outcomes in adulthood. In a world that is growing increasingly interactive, these students find themselves socially inept. It’s important to recognize that giftedness should be considered as a form of diversity, as suggested by Cross, and therefore incorporated into diversity training programs.

It is important for educators and parents to understand how to treat gifted students, as this will impact how these students treat others in the future. It is crucial to remember that gifted students are children first and gifted second.

Works Cited

  1. Benbow, Camilla Persson, and Susan L. Dauber. “Aspects of Personality and Peers Relations of Extremely Talented Adolescents. ” Gifted Child Quarterly. 34. 1. (1990): 10-5.
  2. Clark, Jennifer J. , and David N. Dixon. “The Impact of Social Skills Training on the Self-Concepts of Gifted High School Students. ” The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education. . 4. (1997): 1-11.
  3. Cross, Tracy L. “Psychological and Social Aspects of Education Gifted Students. ” Peabody Journal of Education. 72. 3-4. (1997): 180-200.
  4. Dixon, David N. , Christine Look and Rochelle Manor Block. “Is Giftedness Socially Stigmatizing? The Impact of High Achievement on Social Interactions. ” Journal for the Education of the Gifted. 18. 3. (1995): 319-338.

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