From the Archive

This article by former Potential Plus UK Education Consultant, Elaine Hook, originally appeared in the Spring 2008 print edition of NAGC Magazine.

To a large extent the social and emotional needs of gifted children are much the same as those of many other children. Generally, the same developmental stages occur, although in high ability children they often occur at a much younger age. However, some needs and problems appear more often among gifted* children and some are different altogether. Lack of understanding or support for gifted children or sometimes actual ambivalence or hostility towards them can also create significant problems. Some common areas of difficulty include:

School Culture

Gifted children are often “unusual” when compared with same-age children – in their cognitive abilities as well as social and emotional – and often require different educational experiences. Schools, however, generally group children by age. The gifted child often has a dilemma – to conform to the expectations for the average child of their age or be seen as non-conformist. Many can be labelled as naughty and can be misunderstood; depending on the environment, while some can find themselves eventually permanently excluded from school. Gaining as much knowledge as possible and an understanding of the issues, characteristics and traits of giftedness is important for all those living and working with high ability learners and students.

Expectations by Others

Gifted children – particularly the more able or creative – do not like to conform. Non-conformists tend to violate or challenge traditions, rules, rituals, roles, or expectations. Such behaviours often prompt discomfort in others and consequently gifted or high ability learners and students can be labelled arrogant, precocious and rude. A gifted child, sensitive to the discomfort of others around them, may endeavour to hide their “quirks” and/or abilities, dumbing down and sometimes becoming the class clown, thus leading to underachievement. Others can be perfectionists and put so much pressure on themselves to achieve that they can become stressed, anxious and even depressed. Lacking challenge at school, university can be the first environment where they find learning difficult which can lead to isolation, depression and a feeling that they are letting not only themselves down, but others too.

Peer Relations

Who is a peer for a gifted child? It’s a good question. Gifted children may need several peer groups because their interests, language and comprehension can be so varied. Their advanced levels of cognitive ability may steer them towards older children or adults where they find topics of conversation more interesting and challenging. They are often much more comfortable in the company of adults or very young children. Gifted children can be “loners” isolating themselves on purpose as this may be easier to cope with. Others enjoy company some of the time, but are very happy in their own company much of the time. The conflict some of them face between “fitting in” with the average and being an individual can be quite stressful. Many can feel they don’t fit in anywhere.


Depression can develop if a child is angry, frustrated or disappointed in themselves about a situation which is beyond their control.  Any natural tendency to self-evaluate will be inflated, and depression, together with academic underachievement, may increase. Sometimes educational misplacement causes a gifted young person to feel caught in a slow motion world. Depression can result because the child feels caught in an unchangeable and misunderstood situation; listening to a child or young person is extremely important and looking for the “trigger” for their negative or unwanted behaviours is often the key. High ability learners can be perfectionists, putting undue pressure on themselves to achieve extremely high accolades in many different areas and situations; be careful not to add to that pressure.

Family Relations

Families have a huge influence on the development of social and emotional maturity for all children. Some of the difficulties and misunderstandings that may occur are due to lack of knowledge and information about gifted children, lack of support and guidance or sometimes unresolved issues which may stem from our own life experiences; possibly with being gifted ourselves. Finding solutions which work for an individual gifted child may differ from the strategies and guidance being proffered. It is important to educate yourself with as much information as possible on all the topics and issues linked to high ability in order to make positive informed decisions and choices for your children and their education.

Common Social and Emotional Characteristics

Social and emotional characteristic strengths, common in many gifted children, can also lead to possible problems. Below we list many of these strengths, possible problems and ways that you can help your gifted child to develop positively.

Strength: Acquires/retains information quickly
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Impatient with others; dislikes basic routine, gets bored quickly
Ways You Can Help Your Child: Help your child to learn to wait for things, life isn’t always instant. Encourage turn taking and patience. Consider activities which involve patience like gardening, modelling and fishing. Teach and role model empathy skills when playing or working with friends. It’s important that they understand how others feel in certain situations.

Strength: Inquisitive: searches for significance
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Asks deep, difficult and/or embarrassing questions; excessive in interests; insatiable appetite for learning
Ways You Can Help Your Child: Encourage their own research to answer their questions using books, the library and the internet. Older children might direct questions to professionals or organisations, e.g. asking BP about carbon footprints or Ministers about God. Purchase a good dictionary, thesaurus, atlas and encyclopaedia. Don’t worry if they prefer factual information to story books. Due to their sensitivity, restrict their access to certain information, e.g. the news, documentaries.

Strength: Intrinsic motivation
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Strong-willed; resists direction, seems to know all the answers
Ways You Can Help Your Child: Give opportunities for children to plan and organise their own time where possible, so that menial tasks (homework, chores) are completed while allowing time for their own independence/free time. Praise effort more than results. Consider rewarding jobs/chores with fun activities, treats or special items/outings. Help children put positive planning and organising strategies into place to assist them in managing their workload and day. Help older children to manage a planner or diary. Makes lists in order to structure their time.

Strength: Enjoys problem-solving; able to conceptualise
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Resists routine; questions teaching procedures; doesn’t like rules, gets bored quickly
Ways You Can Help Your Child: Try to outline to the child the reason for a particular teaching style or rule in school and the necessity for structure and routine in many areas of life. Teach and role model that some of the things in life that we are obliged to complete can be boring! Encourage an awareness of others, and explain the need for working together to achieve the best possible results. Mentoring a younger/less able child is a positive move. See Advice Sheet  PA311 Mentor and Buddy Programmes (members can download this sheet for free from their resource index when logged into members’ area).

Strength: Seeks cause / effect relations
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Dislikes unclear/ illogical areas e.g. feelings
Ways You Can Help Your Child:
Help your child to explore the reason for lifestyles and traditions by exploring other cultures. Talk through issues that appear unfair. Help them to understand “life isn’t always fair.” Role model life skills. Many children dislike unfairness and injustice in any area intensely – this is linked to hypersensitivity. They can be very outspoken and have strong opinions in these areas.

Strength: Emphasises truth, equity, and fair play
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Worries about humanitarian concerns, world issues, tragedies, the planet
Ways You Can Help Your Child: 
Try to steer the worries/concerns into practical help e.g. fundraising for disasters, creating a project to show their school class about a particular issue. Encourage a “worry book” where the child writes down their concerns, which is then removed by the parent, thus taking the worry away, or a worry/fiddle object in their pocket. Many children can be hypersensitive to world issues and understand them in great detail. This can cause undue worries, stress and nightmares. Be as honest as you feel comfortable with.

Strength: Seeks to organise things and people
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Constructs complicated rules; often seen as bossy; arrogant
Ways You Can Help Your Child: 
Allow your child to assist in some organisational planning and highlight the need to consider others’ feelings and perspectives e.g. writing lists for shopping, arranging what to do on holiday, planning a day out. Encourage seeing the other person’s view and taking the needs of everyone involved into account; role model these skills in the home, school and/or workplace.

Strength: Creative/inventive; likes new ways of doing things  Possible Problems or Characteristics: May be seen as disruptive and out of step
Ways You Can Help Your Child: 
Channel creativity into positive ventures such as art/music. Encourage your child by adopting some of their new ideas within the home, and also encourage them to understand that sometimes things have to be done a certain way, particularly at school. Teach the life skills of compromise and working together.

Strength: Intense concentration, attention span and persistence Possible Problems or Characteristics: Neglects duties or people during focus, dislikes interruption, may be stubborn or even a perfectionist
Ways You Can Help Your Child:  
Can concentrate for long periods of time if interested. Create a workable timetable in collaboration with the child. Remind them when time is nearly finished on particular activities and when its time to do other work. Encourage choice, and awareness of time “I’ll do this for half an hour and then I’ll do…” Try not to add more pressure yourself to the child’s standard of achievement; they are quite capable of doing this for themselves!

Strength: Sensitivity, empathy; desire to be accepted by others
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Sensitivity to criticism, peer rejection, world issues
Ways You Can Help Your Child:  
Encourage your child to explore their own feelings using social/emotional story books which help your child to understand emotions. Practice and discuss these life skills at home as a family. Help your child to develop positive friendships with other children, and understand that constructive criticism in a safe friendship is good. Teach that one or two good friends are enough! Read about hypersensitivity – Advice Sheet PA610 Hypersensitivity (Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities) (members can download this sheet for free from their resource index when logged into members’ area).

Strength: High energy, alertness, eagerness
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Frustration with inactivity; moves around a lot, fiddles, may appear hyperactive
Ways You Can Help Your Child:  
Investigate groups or clubs that your child might be interested in joining e.g. football, gymnastics, swimming, Scouts or Guiding Movements. Or encourage active hobbies or interests at school or home. Encourage a fiddle stone or string of beads. Read about Overexcitabilities – Advice Sheet PA611 High Learning Potential and Active (Psychomotor Overexcitability) (members can download this sheet for free from their resource index when logged into members’ area).

Strength: Independent; reliant on self
Possible Problems or Characteristics: May reject parent or peer input; nonconformity
Ways You Can Help Your Child:  
Show your child it is all right to have support and guidance by modelling this between parents and child. Show acknowledgement and praise whenever your child works co-operatively, and value your child’s self-reliance. Give your child responsibility in a safe environment.

Strength: Strong sense of humour
Possible Problems or Characteristics: Peers may not understand humour; may be “class clown”; quirky sense of humour
Ways You Can Help Your Child:  
Encourage your child into appropriate uses of humour e.g. working on school play, creating a stand-up routine. Celebrate the creativity at appropriate times. Teach and role model appropriateness.

Resources Links (updated 2022)

  • Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends By Fred Frankel.
    A book to help with friendship issues
  • Hands are not for Hitting – Martine Agassi/Teeth are not for Biting – Elizabeth Verdick/Feet are not for Kicking – Elizabeth Verdick
    A range of boardbooks looking at emotions, for the preschool reader
  • What to Do When Your Temper Flares: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Anger – Dawn Huebner
    A Workbook for young people using cognitive behaviour techniques to help deal with emotions
  • How Rude!: The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior by Alex Packer
    A fun and informative book for teenagers
  • Your Emotions – Brian Moses
    A range of books for young readers issued on different emotions – links to books read on YouTube channels by teachers and school children.
    I Feel Sad
    I Feel Angry

    I Feel Jealous
    I Feel Frightened
    I’m Worried 
  • Just Because I Am: A Child’s Book of Affirmation By Lauren Murphy Pane
    A book to encourage self-esteem and value emotions
  • So Young, So Sad, So Listen – A parents guide to depression in children and young people Phillip Graham & Nick Midgley
    A book to help parents/carers/professionals with depressed children and young people
  • The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children by Maureen Neihart
    Useful book detailing different areas of development looking specifically at gifted children
  • Committee for Children
    Organisation working towards helping children in their social and emotional development
  • Young Minds
    Charity concerned with mental health of young people.

*please note that the term high learning potential was not introduced into usage by Potential Plus UK until 2013