Gifted Children: Navigating Peer Relationships

The term “gifted” can be misleading.  Some people may think that since gifted children possess the special “gift” of high intelligence, they do not need any extra help and will succeed no matter what.  This line of thinking does these children a disservice. While it is true that many gifted children do very well both academically and socially, it is important to remember that giftedness can bring with it its own set of social-emotional challenges that require understanding and ongoing support from adults.  In this article, I discuss the challenges in navigating peer relationships that some gifted children face.  I also explore possible ways to address these challenges.

1) Friendship challenges

In our society, children are most often grouped by chronological age – at school, at summer camp, in extra curricular activities.  This kind of grouping can present a challenge for gifted children, whose mental age and capacity often exceed their chronological age.   Several studies have found that gifted children prefer the companionship of older children or other gifted age-peers (1).  Research has also shown that the most exceptionally gifted students have the most difficult time fitting in and making friends (2).  Difficulty finding true peers may create a kind of vicious circle for the exceptional child.  If a child is unable to find playmates that share similar skills or interests, he may withdraw and deprive himself of opportunities to learn appropriate social skills, which, in turn, would make it even harder for him to make friends (3).

One school-based intervention that is aimed at preventing this vicious circle involves clustering gifted children in one of several classrooms.  Mrs. Sarah Dorer, teacher of the gifted and enrichment specialist in the Bedford, MA, public schools, stresses the importance of making sure that each gifted child has at least one social peer in the same classroom every year, starting at a very young age.  Without this type of clustering, Mrs. Dorer explains, “it can be very lonely” for some of these children.  Researchers in the field of gifted education agree that the earlier a school can implement this type of ability grouping, “the more effective it is likely to be in preventing social isolation” (same as (1), p. 25).

2)  Peer pressure

At an early age, gifted students are generally well-liked, and are sometimes even more popular than their peers.   By middle school, however, this popularity advantage often disappears (1).  Being athletic becomes more important, while being perceived as “nerdy” or studious can become stigmatizing.   Studies have found that gifted students are often teased for their grades and intelligence, and bullying of studious peers is a serious problem in many schools (4, 5).  In order to cope with the anti-intellectual stigma, some gifted middle- and high-school students choose to hide or deny their giftedness from peers (4). Others purposefully perform poorly on tests or forgo advanced academic opportunities, for fear of being rejected by their peers.

School culture has a lot to do with how gifted students are perceived and treated (4).  Promoting a culture where academic achievement is recognized and celebrated as much as athletic achievement will make gifted children feel more accepted and valued.  While more research is needed to find ways to change school culture and societal attitudes in general, one possible intervention is to give academically talented children opportunities to participate in projects that have real-life benefits and a real-life impact.  A school could partner with companies that would offer competitive summer internships to teens, create opportunities for kids to lead or mentor academically-oriented after-school programs, or tutor younger students.  Schools could even help students start their own business in the area of their interest, be it building computers, designing webpages, or creating music videos.  These types of programs would make the achievements of academically talented students more tangible and visible to themselves and to their classmates.

In order to develop and facilitate these programs, it is important for school administration and staff to have an appreciation of the unique needs of gifted students.  “There needs to be a recognition on the part of a school district that there are students who think outside the box,” says Mrs. Sarah Dorer.  “In districts where there isn’t someone who is familiar with issues [of giftedness], kids can suffer.”  Mrs. Dorer points out that gifted children need an adult who will advocate for their needs and, as the students get older, will teach them to advocate for themselves.

3) Developing “Friend Smarts”

Although some gifted children may find it difficult to fit in socially, adults can help them use their innate abilities to develop and maintain friendships.  Gifted children are used to applying their superior problem-solving skills to solve a logic puzzle or find an answer to a math problem.  With some adult guidance they can also use their problem-solving skills to figure out social situations and resolve social challenges.  For some children, it might be helpful to explain that there are specific parts of our brain that are responsible for understanding and maintaining successful social interactions.   Just like skills such as practicing the piano or learning to do a cartwheel improve with regular practice, so too skills such as entering into a conversation, listening attentively, showing understanding and compassion, and compromising, can become more automatic once regularly and deliberately put into use.  One example of a curriculum that can be helpful in teaching children how to use their “friend smarts” to be successful in social situations is the Social Thinking TM curriculum developed by Michelle Garcia Winner (6). Another example of encouraging communication for peers is for the teacher to create a flexible grouping system in the classroom, where gifted children can work together to enhance their strengths and social skill development (7).

Gifted children, just like any other children, are not defined by their intelligence.  Although it is important to be honest about their intellectual ability, it is equally important to underscore that people have different areas of strength.  Even though gifted children may be faster learners, their fellow classmates can serve as role models for kindness, sense of humor, perseverance, or entrepreneurship.  Adults can point out that it is possible to connect with peers even if they don’t share all of their interests and abilities.  Even if a gifted child doesn’t develop a deep connection with a particular peer, he may still have a good time doing something that both children enjoy, be it playing basketball, listening to music, or talking about a movie.   

All children need friendships to thrive, and gifted children are no different.  It is important for parents and teachers to be aware of the particular social challenges that may come with exceptional intelligence and to remain proactive in addressing these challenges.  From implementing school-based interventions to working with children individually to teach social skills, adults can help gifted children feel competent not only in academics but also in navigating friendships.

References

(1)   Gross, Miraca U.M. (2002). Social and Emotional Issues for Exceptionally Intellectually Gifted Students. In Neihart, M., Reis, S. & Moon, S. (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? (pp. 19-29). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, Inc.

(2)   Rimm, S. (2002). Peer Pressures and Social Acceptance of Gifted Students.  In Neihart, M., Reis, S. & Moon, S. (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? (pp. 13-18).  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, Inc.

(3)   Roedell, W. C., Jackson, N. E., & Robinson, H. B. (1980).  Gifted young children. New York: Teachers College Press.

(4)   Cross, J.R. (2016).  Gifted Children and Peer Relationships.  In Neihart, M., Pfeiffer, S. & Cross, T. (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? 2nd edition (pp. 41-53).  Waco, TX:  Prufrock Press, Inc.

(5)   Peterson, J.S., (2016).  Gifted Children and Bullying. In Neihart, M., Pfeiffer, S. & Cross, T. (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? 2nd edition (pp. 131-141).  Waco, TX:  Prufrock Press, Inc.

(6)   Winner, M. G., & Crooke, P. (2008). You are a Social Detective!: Explaining Social Thinking to Kids. Think Social Publishing, Inc.

(7)   Smutny, J. F. (2000). Teaching Young Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom. ERIC Digest E595.

Acknowledgments

We want to thank all of the people who contributed to this blog series by sharing their experiences and offering valuable information on this topic.

This article was prepared with the invaluable help of:

Lindsay Rosen, M.A., a graduate of Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, who had interned at Growing Minds, LLC in 2015-2016

Jolie Straus, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Jolie is currently interning at Growing Minds, LLC, where she assists Dr. Dashevsky in gathering research-based literature on clinical issues and topics that arise throughout Dr. Dashevsky’s work with children and families

Mrs. Sarah Dorer, a gifted and talented coordinator and enrichment specialist for the Bedford Public School

Parents who have agreed to be interviewed for this blog series about their experiences navigating the educational system and continuously working to meet the needs of their gifted children

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