- My thanks to Shelley for her contribution of this article to our
Actualization of Giftedness:
Effects of Perceptions in Gifted Adolescents
by Shelley Fahlman
University of Regina
November 21, 2000
One of the most familiar markers of adolescence is the cognitive
concept of the personal fable - the part of adolescent egocentrism involving
an adolescent's sense of uniquenessÔ (Santrock, 2001, p. 134) -which
includes the adolescent's belief that no one can understand how they really
feel due to his or her exceptionality. This perception is usually a
misleading one for adolescents. Although this idea is commonly discussed
within the psychological sphere, questions about the adolescents who
actually are part of an exceptional group are rarely asked. If the field of
research on adolescent psychology is historically new, then the research on
gifted adolescents is even newer. Aside from the ongoing debate about what
giftedness really is, researchers and educators are also divided on the most
effective way to educate and counsel this group. Without a clear consensus
on what the concept of giftedness is, it is difficult to know how to
approach this group as a whole, much less the short but eminent
developmental period of adolescence. This paper examines the literature on
giftedness and problems of gifted adolescents. It first provides a short
description of what giftedness is and how it manifests in adolescence. It
reviews the implications of present research, especially in regards to the
actualization of giftedness. Though they are a group with high potential
for actualization of their talents, gifted adolescents face some of the most
challenging obstacles due to the lack of understanding of giftedness,
giftedness in adolescence, and approaches to the developmental changes of
this group. Specifically, this paper focuses on the developmental changes
in gifted students' self-perception and perception of the world. After
illustrating the importance of adolescence in gifted individuals and the
importance of the gifted individuals' perceptions, I propose a study
intended to further our knowledge and understanding of this valuable group.
What is Giftedness?
It is difficult to come up with a single definition of what it means to
be gifted. Stereotypically one may think of the intellectually advanced
young child with thick glasses who is versed in molecular physics yet cannot
drive a car. The picture that is often painted of gifted people can be
boring, unflattering, or even cruel. As Delisle (1992) points out, it is
understandable why gifted children, when told of their label, often
categorically deny it: "Gifted?" they say, "Not me. I'm just a regular kid." (p. 31)
Giftedness is found in mild, moderate, and profound levels and is more
infrequent as the level of giftedness increases (Milgram, 1991b). Often
researchers and educators fail to distinguish between mild and moderate
levels of giftedness, but levels of mental retardation are clearly
delineated (Milgram, 1991b). No one would suggest that mildly retarded
individuals learn the same curriculum, in the same manner and setting as
profoundly retarded, and as Winner (1997) notes, moderately gifted children
are very different from profoundly gifted children. In IQ terms, a
moderately gifted child has an IQ between about 130 and 150, whereas a
profoundly gifted child has an IQ of about 180 or above.
Although IQ is the most used method of classifying gifted and
non-gifted children (Winner, 1997), educators often define giftedness more
specifically. An influential report by the U.S. Office of Education
(Marland, 1972, cited in Dixon, 1998) defined six categories of giftedness:
(a) general intellectual ability,
(b) specific academic aptitude,
(c) creative or productive thinking,
(e) visual or performing arts, and
(f) psychomotor ability
Gifted children are more likely to be independent, active, and
persistent problem solvers. Beginning in early childhood, these children
show intense curiosity, high motivation, obsessive interests, and a
metacognitive awareness of their problem-solving strategies. Gifted
children also require less structure and supervision, and they score higher
on self-efficacy and internal locus of control (Griggs, 1991; Piirto, 1999;
Rogers, 1986, cited in Winner, 1997).
On the other hand, certain issues arise for gifted children that do not
arise for their nongifted peers. Gifted children must deal with higher
expectations from teachers and parents. Because they are often talented in
many areas (a term coined multipotentiality), decision making can be more
difficult. As well, they may confront feelings of isolation or loneliness
because of their cognitive and social differences (Griggs, 1991).
Although gifted adolescents go through the same developmental stages as
their age peers, they handle changes and transitions differently (Dixon,
1998). They are concerned with typical adolescent dilemmas (friendship and
love relationships) as well as with adult issues such as public welfare
(cheating, stealing, scandal), life-and-death scenarios (Colangelo, 1989, in
Delisle, 1992), and existential issues (finding direction and purpose in
life) (Delisle, 1992). They express more altruistic wishes than their peers
(Chiu & Nevius, 1990) and have a heightened awareness of the interdependence
among people, concepts, and environments, as Roeper (1989, in Delisle, 1992)
"[They] are global thinkers, apt to see the whole, the philosophy or the
scientific framework, before they concern themselves with the details.
They are concept-oriented, and have an enormous desire to make sense of this
world, to master it, and to make an impact on it. They want to find out,
they want to make discoveries, because of their inner need for intellectual
and emotional order." (pp. 9-10)
Special Concerns of Gifted Adolescents
It is interesting to examine when and how children who are different
learn this about themselves. From the time gifted children are very young,
they are able to detect differences between themselves and others. Delisle
(1992) uses the analogy of a physically able person and a physically
disabled person crossing the street. He says that even though one may cross
faster it does not make that one person "better than" the other, just
"better at". Gifted students do not become elitist about themselves, he
says. Rather, they become more empathetic:
"When people understand that others are not being different to spite them;
that ignorance or lesser ability in a certain area is not feigned; and that
excellent performance is usually spread out among many people and many
subjects, then their reactions are more likely to be empathetic rather than
critical. You understand the limits of others and do not expect them to
perform as well as you do. Instead, [gifted students] will see the limit
and extent of their gifts in relation to their own particular strengths and
those possessed by others." (p. 34)
As gifted children get older, their self-concepts become increasingly
differentiated and are greatly challenged during adolescence. This crucial
period of identity formation is the first time gifted students consciously
confront their giftedness (Dixon, 1998). The results of studies that
examine the impact of giftedness on adolescent self-concept are sparse and
inconclusive. Some say that gifted students seem to have no major struggle
in coming to terms with their own giftedness (Manaster, Chan, & Watt, 1994),
while others discuss dyssynchronous development: "the very real situation
that exists when gifted students have thoughts, ideas, and mental acuity
that outpaces their handwriting skills or shoe sizes" (Delisle, 1992, p.
Learning to deal with oneself is distinctive for gifted adolescents.
Delisle (1992) points out some problems gifted students have due to their
vast array of talents. Adolescents deal with the fact that they can be good
at something they do not enjoy doing; thus, they learn that being good at
something does imply that it must become one's primary life focus. As well,
gifted adolescents are prime candidates for performance anxiety. Gifted
adolescents often overcommit themselves to extracurricular activities while
still maintaining an extremely high average in the most difficult courses.
Gradually, they must learn to be productive without overextending
Delisle (1992) also discusses peer-related problems. Adolescents do
not want to stand out, and this is more pronounced for gifted adolescents
because their talents and skills often do stand out from the peer group.
Brown and Steinberg (1990, cited in Dixon, 1998) discuss how the peer group
does not work for academic excellence, inflicting peer pressure against
academic achievement. They point out the disappointing reality that many of
the most intellectually capable high school students strive to be less than
they can be in order to avoid rejection by peers.
On a more general level, gifted adolescents may need to address certain
questions about societal issues before the time preordained by society as
appropriate. As the naivete of childhood gives way to the sophistication
of adolescence, once-cherished beliefs and impressions shatter: parents do
make mistakes, teachers aren't always right, friends can stab you in the
back, politicians sometimes lie and lie again. (Delisle, 1992, p. 143).
These things may affect gifted students to a greater degree because of their
heightened awareness of issues of humanity, both on a personal and societal
There is a clear clash between the societal expectations placed on
males and females that becomes even more disheartening when it comes to
gifted females. Generally, gifted females do not show correlations between
IQ and career prominence while men do (Delisle, 1992; Dixon, 1998). In
addition, there is a marked difference between the aspirations of gifted
females compared with gifted males. Delisle (1992) reports that young
children do not differ by gender in their life aspirations, but difference
begin to occur during adolescence as a result of home life and societal
standards and expectations. While boys maintain their high-status profile
of career aspirations throughout the teenage years, girls show a clear
pattern of decline.
The gender problems are pervasive. Gifted girls may become
disinterested in academics if they find that boys feel threatened by
their abilities (Schwartz, in Milgram, 1991). They will fear
alienation from their girlfriends who may view them as showoffs
(Harter, Waters, & Whitesell, 1997, cited in Dixon, 1998), and they
may also minimize their talents in relationships with equally gifted
peers (Leroux, 1994, cited in Dixon, 1998). What is most ironic about
this problem is that gifted females are even less stereotypically
"feminine" than nongifted females and gifted males are less
stereotypically "masculine". Piirto (1998) recently investigated
this hypothesis of androgyny in the personalities of the talented. In
her studies using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Piirto found
a reversal of preferences from the norm. The group of gifted
adolescent girls preferred Thinking (T) to a greater degree than in
the normal population, and a greater number of the gifted adolescent
boys preferred Feeling (F) than in the normal population.
Gifted Adolescents and Schools
There is a persistent voice in gifted research reminding us that
gifted adolescents are not a homogeneous group and should not be
treated as one. A large proportion of research calls for
individualized, distinctive guidance and education of gifted
adolescents (Dixon, 1998; Griggs, 1991; Manor-Bullock et al., 1993).
Gifted education focuses so much on identification of students for
programs, evaluation of existing programs, or design of a curriculum
to meet and challenge the academic needs of gifted students, and
unfortunately, as Dixon (1998) notes, the whole child is not always
considered. She points out that the research indicates a strong need
for a better understanding of the process of adolescence and its
effects on gifted students, as well as the need to work with students
individually to help them actualize their potential.. As Winner
(1997) points out, gifted children are qualitatively different from
their peers and they often go underchallenged in the classroom.
Bricker and Braverman (1998), in their article "Are too many kids
labeled gifted?" also address the problem of keeping gifted students
in mainstream education, pointing out that too few gifted students are
getting the services they deserve. Mainstream education, a
"one-size-fits-all service", benefits the kids in the middle the
most, and because some people believe that equal opportunity means
everyone should get the same education, today's gifted students are
an endangered species. Although we would expect children with no
intellectual interests to be bored with school, it is disturbing that
the most able students often dislike school and feel they get little
out of it, as Winner notes (1997). As one girl describes, school
seems to squelch the gifted student's natural motivation: "I get so
frustrated with the things they make me do in school. I find myself
questioning whether or not they are seriously asking me to do this.
They really do think that they are giving me a challenging assignment!
I know I often forget that other people cannot do these sorts of
things easily. I am thankful for my gifts, but at the same time, I
get so frustrated because they make me do these mindless things when I
could be doing something else!" (Buchan, 2000)
Clearly, formal schooling does not always help exceptional adolescents
to self-actualize. Gifted people have what Piitro (1999) calls entelechy: "a
particular type of motivation, inner strength, and vital force; the ability
to actualize one's beliefs" (p. 352), but it is disheartening that the group
with the most interest and potential to develop themselves should have so
much trouble finding an appropriate milieu in which to do so. The findings
of recent research on gifted adolescents point directly to three ingredients
of self-actualization: self-concept, perceived challenge, and motivation.
Even early research, like Feldhusen (1986), argues that a positive
self-concept is a driving force in the actualization of giftedness.
He argues that gifted students must first of all have an "accurate
perception of self as gifted or talented and perception of self as
capable of creative or innovative endeavor" (p. 120). Dixon (1998),
in her literature review, concludes that a positive self-concept is
vital to the actualization of one's potential. She points out that
the newest trend in gifted education deals with social-emotional needs
of the gifted, including self-concept, self-efficacy, and social
adaptation. Indeed, it is crucial to help gifted students understand
themselves in order to reach their high-level potential. After
reviewing the current educational strategies, Delisle (1992) also
concludes in favour of positive self-concept, noting that no variety
of special programs can be effective if the participant does not
believe that she is worthy of them. This is especially important for
the gifted girls who tend to downplay their talents, as discussed
Recently, researchers have looked at how students' motivation interacts
with the level of challenge. Wong and Csikszentmihalyi (1993) reported that
intrinsic motivation predicted the difficulty level of the courses that
gifted students took over a four-year period. In their study of subjective
experience, Moneta and Csikszentmihalyi (1996) found that school life
affects the happiness and motivation of talented adolescents as a function
of the levels of challenges and skills it involves - in this case, the
unhappiness of underchallenged gifted students was actually measured. They
noted that when both challenges and skills are perceived to be low, the
person experiences apathy and the overall quality of subjective experience
is the lowest, but when one perceives high challenges and skills, the
overall quality of subjective experience is highest. Most recently, Rea
(2000) examined how talent development can be seriously undermined by a lack
of motivation. He notes that talent development requires optimal
motivation, where students are "absorbed so much that they lose track of
time and feel their efforts to be effortless" (p. 187). Thus, if want
gifted students to learn because of school and not in spite of it, we must
learn more about their perceptions of themselves, perceptions of their
skills, and perceptions about the level of challenge of various tasks. Once
this is understood, we can create more congruency between their perceived
level of skill and the perceived challenge of the task at hand in order to
maximize their subjective experience and promote their self-actualization.
So much of the literature focuses only on gifted children and gifted
adults. We know that the development of any kind of gift is a long-term
endeavor beginning early on in life, so how can we ignore the importance of
gifted persons' adolescent years any longer? It is the most important time
for developing self-concepts and identity for coming to terms with one's own
giftedness. It is during this time period that perceptions of oneself and
of the world begin to develop. Gifted children do not just become gifted
adults, these individuals must go through their adolescence as well. Tolan
(1994) illustrates the importance of this transitional period in speaking of
what happens to those gifted adults who do not learn about their giftedness
"Whoever gifted adults may be, they are not people with talents that should
be developed, but they are people with unusual minds. Gifted children do
not disappear when they graduate from high school or finish college or
graduate degrees. They become gifted adults. If they enter adulthood blind
to their unusual mental capacities, they may go through their lives
fragmented, frustrated, unfulfilled and alienated from their innermost
beings." (p. 137)
According to Buchan (2000), this is precisely what educators fail to
understand that giftedness is enduring and does not taper off after
childhood. Gifted adults will naturally become frustrated and confused if
they do not learn this very fact about themselves early on. Adolescence,
then, is an important and pivotal part of the development of gifted
It seems that the research focus is moving away from the development
and assessment of educational programs to the intrinsic aspects of the
gifted adolescents themselves. We know that these adolescents are not
sufficiently challenged. We know what makes for challenging, worthwhile,
enjoyable experiences - a proper balance between perceived skills and
perceived challenges. The problem is in the identification of the
appropriately challenging conditions. Previous attempts based their
educational programs on external ideas and theories. We now are turning
toward the subjective perceptions of the adolescents. This is an essential
task in identifying what a gifted adolescent will find challenging or not.
It is likely that since the minds of these students are qualitatively
different, the situations in which they are challenged will also be
qualitatively different. This idea has been wholly overlooked in the past.
It is an answer to the call for a more individualized approach to education
of the gifted. The complete reversal of an old method, however, cannot be
solved through one research experiment. We cannot answer the entire
question of how to change our approach based on the perceptions of gifted
adolescents, but we must begin somewhere, which is the purpose of this
study. We need to understand how the perceptions of gifted adolescents
differ from nongifted adolescents and how they change over the course of
this transitional period.
In order to get the best information about the changes that occur over
time, this study has a longitudinal design. By comparing two groups of
adolescents on more than one time of testing, we can observe both the
differences between the two groups and the changes that occur within the
groups over time. Because we know little about the qualitative differences
of gifted adolescent perceptions, this study is not experimental but
descriptive. We seek to discover the differences in perceptions of
challenge at various school tasks. One selected variable is giftedness,
which has two levels: gifted vs. nongifted. The subjective perceptions will
be collected repeatedly from the adolescents over a span of two weeks,
repeated twice per year for four years.
Following recruition procedures similar to other gifted adolescent
researchers, teachers of a large high school will nominate approximately 200
students as showing the greatest talent in one or more of the following
subject areas: mathematics, science, music, athletics, and the arts.
Participants will begin the study at age 13 (grade nine) and complete the
study at age 17/18 (grade twelve).
The perceptions will be measured using an Experience Sampling Method
(ESM) similar to the one used in Moneta and Csikszentmihalyi (1996). Each
participant is given an electronic pager to wear over the two weeks. The
transmitter signals the pagers about eight times a day at random intervals.
After every pager call, the participants fill out a sheet. The difference
in this study is that the participants will not fill out questionnaires upon
hearing the page, but an answer to two open-ended questions: 1) What are you
doing right now? and 2) How is it challenging (or not)?. The purpose of
this is to overcome the limitations of previous research where the
experimenters ideas were imposed upon the participants. The goal of this is
to get an unbiased response with the most information possible by asking the
students to describe their perceived level of challenge of the task they are
doing in school. Although it may be difficult to categorize the responses,
it will give us more insight as to what is really going on inside the minds
of the gifted and nongifted adolescents.
As already mentioned, participants will fill out a free description of
the level of challenge of the task they are doing when the pager goes off.
These samples will be taken from school life and home life in order to gain
some idea of what is challenging for the adolescents. This is to account
for the very likely possibility that nothing will seem challenging during
school hours for the gifted adolescents. Thus, we can get a picture of what
both groups of adolescents perceive to be challenging and in what ways.
Results and Discussion
This experiment investigates the hypothesis that gifted adolescents
have qualitatively different subjective perceptions than do nongifted
adolescents. Its purpose is to discover some of the similarities among
perceptions of gifted adolescents compared with their nongifted peers. It
would be one of the few studies that do not test for a specific measure but
allows for personal opinions. Once we understand more about the kinds of
processes or kinds of activities that gifted adolescents find challenging,
it will provide insights as to how they can make the best use of their time
in trying to achieve their full potential. It would be useful for
counselors, teachers, parents, and the students themselves to understand
under exactly what conditions they are challenged. From this study, we can
learn how to approach gifted education, whether it is by the tasks involved
or the processes involved in the tasks. We would learn more about exactly
what fulfills those individuals whose potential exceeds the average
requirements for fulfillment. We can try to understand more about the
precise situations in which girls demean their own talent. It would truly
be a relief for gifted students to expand their minds and abilities instead
of being underchallenged in educational situations that are inappropriate
for their level.
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