Coming to terms with giftedness

A blog by Shalon Sims about creative writing, literacy, education and psychology

Coming to terms with giftedness, your student’s or your own

When I was sixteen I took an IQ test and the result said my IQ was 145. I assumed the test was wrong. It had to be. I was horrible at math. Someone with a ‘genius’ IQ couldn’t be bad at math. I had obviously “tricked” the exam.

Tricking exams was, of course, something I was very familiar with—I did it all the time. I rarely studied over the course of the school year. Rather, I spent my time reading, imagining what the future would look like, writing poetry and short stories, or exploring my interests—world religions, Eastern philosophy, creating my own dictionary. Then at the last minute, I would cram an entire textbook into my head, sit down and “trick” the exam. It almost always worked. It was my little secret.

The secret everyone knew, right? The secret: the answer was almost always inside the question! You just had to figure it out. It was so obvious, wasn’t it? I tricked exams because I was lazy. Not because I was smart! Sheesh.

That’s what I must have done with that IQ test. Oh sure, yes, people called me smartie pants, but it was usually in a derogatory fashion, and okay, I graduated with honours, but you don’t understand, I failed math! I couldn’t be that smart. Plus, I was horrible at being human. I mean, people, no thank you. Books were better.

I never thought much about that IQ test again, really, until last week when I was assigned to research students with high ability for my B.Ed course, EPSE 317: Development and Exceptionality in the Regular Classroom.

“In EPSE 317, we focus on designing learning environments that support diverse learners to meaningfully participate socially and academically. Pedagogies that support social and academic inclusion are explored, including social and emotional learning, universal design for learning, trauma informed care, and RTI/MTSS.”

Exceptionalities is another word for differences. Differences include visual or hearing impairment, autism, learning and behaviour disorders, and intellectual disabilities. And giftedness, or high ability. Everyone in the class was assigned one of these to study in more depth. I was assigned high ability, and to be honest, I was a little disappointed. I’d rather study learning or behaviour disorders, which I personally thought were more interesting. High ability was more for those over-achiever types. How much help could they really need?

Imagine my surprise!

Imagine my surprise when I learned that high ability often comes with social, emotional and behavioural challenges. Imagine my surprise when I found out that someone with high abilities might be bad at math! Imagine my surprise when I found out that high ability students can fail academically or personally because they don’t get the supports they need to navigate the challenges that routinely come with high abilities.

Imagine my surprise when I felt like I was reading my own childhood diary as I poured through pages and pages of descriptions of children with high abilities. Highly sensitive and emotionally overexcited. Rich inner world and vivid imagination. Social challenges with peers. Craving knowledge. Deep sense of justice. Fascination with words and avid, sometimes obsessive reading. Perfectionistic with strong need to understand and create order. Questions authority and non-conforming.

Gulp.

My heart pounded in my chest. Blood swoosh-swooshed in my ears as my face warmed. I felt ashamed, like someone might see what I was reading over my shoulder. Like all the secret things inside me were being broadcasted to the world. Things I didn’t share with others. Things I worked SO hard my whole life to fix, to mask, to change.

Had I been a gifted child? Was I an adult with high ability?

The question rocked me. My entire memory and perception of childhood started to shake and crumble. Maybe I hadn’t been a “loser” after all. Maybe I hadn’t been “tricking” all those tests. Maybe my boredom in school wasn’t laziness.

Maybe my IQ really was 145. Maybe I had gone through fourteen years of primary and secondary school with no one realizing my high ability, with no one supporting me with the challenges of being gifted.

Coming to terms Coming to good terms with high ability

This is the beauty of education: I learn about the world, and I learn about myself. Here is a deeper look at some of the things I’ve learned about coming to good terms with students of high ability (and maybe coming to good terms with myself):

Asynchrony

Asynchrony means the insides don’t match the outsides. Everyone deals with this on some level. All students (humans) can have trouble navigating the difference between how they feel and think (insides), how they behave (outsides). To make it worse, we always compare our insides with other people’s outsides, not realizing that their insides don’t match their outsides either! Nuts, right? It’s the tragedy of being human: taking one dimension of self and thinking it defines self.

In students with high abilities, this can be even more pronounced. A five-year old with high intellectual abilities might come across as very developmentally mature in how they think and talk, but they are still only five years old with their emotions and their behaviour. This can be disconcerting for others.

Another example my professor, Dr. Katz, gave is how she consumed books on the Holocaust when she was very young, and was able to digest them intellectually, but emotionally she did not have the capacity to process what she was reading, and was traumatized. Relate!

Another type of asynchrony can occur with cognitive areas. As my case shows—I was skilled in arts and language, but not in math. I took one dimension of self—challenged by math—and defined self as ‘not that smart’ for basically the rest of my life.

Overexcitabilities

One of the most fascinating things I learned about high ability is the concept of overexcitability, which is a term coined by the Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski and is one of the key features of his theory of ‘Positive Disintegration,’ which posits that personal crises are an important part of development. Hence the idea of positive disintegration (of self). Having studied psychology for many years, and being particularly partial to Jung, I could not believe I hadn’t heard of positive disintegration before. I am very excited to study this more in future.

In any case, people with high abilities are more prone to overexciteabilities, which can be psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginational in nature. 

Learn more about overexcite abilities here.

Nowadays, these overexcitabilities are called heightened intensity, but the accepted manifestation seems to share basically the same features. Heightened intensity can be difficult to manage for both the person with high ability and others around them. It can be disruptive in the classroom, and mistaken for “bad” behaviour.

For myself, I can relate to all of these overexcitabilities, especially impulsive talking, a need to create order, and incredible sensitivity. I also had and still have an overwhelming drive to understand things. I was constantly asking my teacher questions, to the chagrin of my peers. I needed to understand exactly what the teacher was trying to say. I constantly challenged my teachers, and wanted to take the topic further. It was not something I could control, even though I knew my peers hated it. My only option was to shut off completely. I would read and ignore the teacher, and study topics on my own.

I thought I was empathic. Not empathetic, but actually empathic, like Deanna Troy. I was convinced I had this strange ability to know what people were thinking—I was hyper aware of people, to the point that it was much easier to be alone. I spent recess and lunch in the bathroom writing poems and reading.

At one point the doctors thought I might have ADHD, but my concentration was through the roof. I just could not hold myself back.

The word for me was, and still is to this day, “intense.”

Take this assignment. I spent an entire week researching everything I possibly could and created a nineteen page document outlining every single criteria, created a table with charts. Even right now, right this second, I know I should just wrap this post up and call it a day, but I’m driven to capture everything I have learned, to “memorialize” my learning. For the next week or two, none of my friends will be spared my latest intellectual obsession. Luckily the friends I have are used to it, and enjoy this aspect of me.

I’ve gotten better at managing these habits of mine. Somewhat. It still gets me into trouble, now and then, but I have learned how to meditate and calm much of my intensities.

But I wonder what my life would have been like if my teachers had seen this and actively found support for me to understand and manage these intensities at a young age?

What if my teachers had gone beyond helping me manage and control these intensities? What if they had helped me and my peers see the positive side of heightened intensity? There are very many, such as: 

  • Strong empathy and sensitivity can create compassion for others and for issues of social justice and world problems
  • Emotional intensity and strong attachments can help create deep relationships and a meaningful connection to the world
  • Vivid imagination can result in out-of-the-box thinking and inventiveness
  • Energetic enthusiasm can revitalize the class and ‘get things done’
  • Curiosity and active observation can help solve problems

I think it’s important that inclusive classrooms celebrate diversity, not just manage or tolerate it.

Perfectionism and fixed mindset

Growth mindset is something I am very passionate about and it falls outside the scope of this essay to talk much about it, but I feel it’s important to mention this in relation to high ability learners.

I learned about growth vs. fixed mindset last year in the B.Ed program. Fixed mindset believes that people are born with certain skills and aptitudes, and you either have it or you don’t. Growth mindset tells us that skills can be learned and failure is part of learning new skills.

This literally blew my mind when I learned it because I have been a victim of fixed mindset my entire life and didn’t know it. I honestly do not do anything unless I know 100% that I can be successful at it. I play it safe when it comes to my studies. In fact, I had avoided the B.Ed for twenty years, even though I knew it was my dream to become a teacher, because I did not know if I could be successful as a teacher.

Finally the day came when knew I was ready. decided to finally go for it.

However, I had to study college-level math for the entrance to the B.Ed program. As you know, math has been a life-long challenge for me. I had not studied math after repeating grade 10 math in 1995.

Unfortunately, last year I failed my math course. It was crushing. When I say crushing, I mean devastating. I never failed a course in my entire life.

My ‘tricks’ didn’t work!

It’s amazing to see how far I’ve come in just one year. Looking back now, I realize that perhaps I was adequate in math, but I had expected I should be excellent in it right away. In fact I quit math in high school because it was difficult, a sure sign of my very fixed mindset. I only wanted to explore the areas where I knew I could excel.

BTW, I did eventually pass the next math course last year with the help of a tutor. I got 83%!

A fixed mindset is a common feature of students with high ability. They grow accustomed to things being easy, and when they’re not easy, it can cause intense anxiety. The anxiety is the result of doubt about their identity. This relates back to Dabrowski’s positive disintegration and the need for identity to disintegrate in some ways, in order to truly grow.

Students with high ability should be challenged in weak areas, not because they need to be well-rounded, but simply because a fear of failure is a crippling, life-long disability. It stays with you and causes all kinds of problems.

Kids with high ability need to know it’s okay to fail. In fact, all kids need this. They need to know it’s okay to not be perfect at something. It’s good to try hard at things. This is something that has revolutionized my life! Honestly, I have been through some real health challenges lately, and the key for me to get through is to know that I don’t need to be perfect to be okay.

Masking effect

This next issue is particularly common with students who have multiple exceptionalities, of which, being gifted is one. For these students, their other exceptionality might mask their giftedness.

For example, someone with autism might not be recognized for giftedness because they do not have control of their body. Or someone with ADHD might have poor spelling and not be recognized for their brilliance with language.

In my case, I think my “intensities” and anxiety disorder definitely masked my giftedness. I had such a trouble in social situations, and this lead eventually to acting out. I tried to mask my strange behaviours by finding other strange people, who weren’t necessarily the healthiest people to be around. However, they didn’t mind my eccentricities, and that was what mattered to me.

Masking effect is something that teachers in particular need to be aware of, and relates back to this inside-outside asynchrony. We can’t assume that a child’s outer behaviour reflects their inner world.

Working with students who are gifted

There is new research that indicates that “giftedness” is not so much a character trait, but a process. It’s a process that requires support to achieve. A process that is open to everyone. Everyone is gifted in some ways, and revealing the gift requires a magical potion created by the right teachers, the right school, the right parents and the right opportunities.

As a teacher in training, it’s partly my job to figure out that magical potion, or to at least be a key ingredient in it, and it’s so pleasing for me to do so. I can feel my gifted spidey-senses tingling.

In my case, while I grew up in poverty with the odds stacked against me, I had some affordances that enabled me to excel in some ways in school. I had teachers who cared about me, for the most part. I had a mom who believed in me. I had an uncle who had gone to university and believed I could as well.

I could have received more support, though. I believe my emotional and mental health challenges were apparent to all of my teachers, and yet, I was never sent to receive support because I was a ‘good student.’ My mother advocated for me, but I wonder what could have happened if my teachers had advocated for me as well.

What does advocating for students with exceptionalities look like?

There is so much good stuff out there about working with students with exceptionalities and high ability. I’m not going to repeat it here. Basically, it’s all that good stuff that good teachers do:

  • Get to know your students, their strengths and weaknesses
  • Don’t assume because someone has exceptionalities or strange or unsettling behaviours that they don’t have talents
  • When something in the classroom isn’t working, troubleshoot to find a solution
  • Don’t give up on students. If they need support, find it. If the support isn’t working, find different support.

I mean, really, do we need to say this stuff? Apparently you can get a degree in this…

What next?

I will probably never really know the truth about whether I am/was gifted or not. It doesn’t matter, either. What matters is that I can come to terms with myself and know that some of those traits I mentioned—the heightened sensitivity, the perfectionism, the overactive imagination, the non-conforming attitude—were not character defects. They were probably inborn traits, or reactions to trauma. Life is hard. Sometimes it sucks. Comfort comes in knowing we’re not alone.