This can affect students who otherwise need the support services in gifted education programs as sometimes teachers, administrators, and even school psychologists do not effectively refer or identify giftedness in students due to underperformance issues and a reliance on stereotypes for determining what gifted means. It is important that anyone working in school systems at any level (PreK-higher education) receive training in social-emotional traits of gifted people, rather than relying fully on a belief system that is often reinforced through misunderstandings in their teacher preparation courses or their work with others who have not received adequate training in this area. Such as those who rely on stereotypes including the idea that high performers and/or those who express themselves through a particular talent area are stressed as the only truly “gifted” children.
Gifted children are more likely to underperform in classes when they do not feel understood, when they are missing skills and are assumed to have them, when they are afraid to fail or feel “dumb”, when they do not understand their own giftedness and feel odd compared to other students, when they have social issues or problems at home, or more.
By understanding that giftedness and high abilities or high performance are all different things (kind of like on a Venn diagram with three circles that only intersect in one middle section), teachers and administrators can better refer students for services and then provide them with adequate services in gifted programs with a social-emotional piece, rather than further stress these students with courses aimed solely at acceleration or high level academic goals.
Here are some of the negative characteristics that gifted students may have that are otherwise misidentified or brushed off as not being gifted traits at all:
Students who show signs of high intellect through alternative ways than what is being tested or focused on in school or in a particular subject area
For example, students who won't do math, but who can talk about a current event like the presidential election with depth of understanding or an intense interest... Or a student who refuses to write but keeps drawing incredible scenes of alternate worlds... Or students who crack witty jokes with their friends and are the center of attention with multiple groups of other students, but who scores low on every test they are given... Etc.
Students like this may not be interested in anything going on in school or they may just tune out during one type of lesson or topic area. This type of student may be able to absorb information at a quick rate and not need the repetition, or may be so uninterested in what is being discussed that he is tuning it out so as to not become a distraction in class because of boredom. This also could be a gifted student who is lacking skills that she needs to be successful in that subject area or on that lesson and has stressed to the point of disengagement because she thinks she is a failure and doesn't know how to ask for help. We can't assume that just because a child is smart that they have all the puzzle pieces in every subject area. And many gifted children do not understand that it is ok to admit they don't know something. Or they may just have such depressing self-talk going on so that they believe they are just "dumb" and can't do the required work.
Those with major upheavals in their home life
A child with domestic violence at home, or a struggle due to custody issues or a parent who has left the home, or a family dealing with mental health or physical health issues, etc. will be unable to focus in school to their full potential, no matter how brilliant they may otherwise be.
Students who use silliness as avoidance behaviors
Sometimes the funniest kids are the smartest ones. And sometimes teachers do not see humor in outbursts or otherwise inappropriately timed jokes or banter. This comedian student is using comedy to get attention for some reason. Maybe he doesn't fit in with the other kids easily and has to stand out. Maybe she is bored and wants to create her own complexity in class so it livens things up. Or maybe the child thinks the teacher needs some humor in his or her life too. Whatever the reason, teachers should listen for high level thinking and notice the connections being made in the jokes and the comedic sideshow and keep track of the patterns regarding when the outbursts occur.
Those who show anti-authoritarian behaviors
This trait could be tied into the issue of the child not having appropriate tools and skills for success and could be a way for the student to put the blame on the teachers, administrators, parents or others who they feel have the control. Sometimes this trait is tied in with upheaval at home. Perhaps the student has had issues with other adults with authority who are the same gender as the teacher and has learned to believe early on that this gender cannot be trusted. Another issue could be a lack of rapport with the teacher in general. Does the teacher speak disrespectfully with students or treat them unpredictably? Has the student had reason to believe this person with authority will not help him if he needs help? A lack of trust is a sign of trouble with any child, but gifted kids often have an intense need for fairness and empathy and they stress what they cannot predict or understand, so excessive anti-authority issues could be a sign of a gifted mind as well as other issues.
This is often misdiagnosed as ADHD, or could be a product of ADHD in a twice exceptional child. Children with quick minds often need something novel to do or they get antsy. They also use movement and squirming to keep themselves focused at times- what may look to some like a child is goofing around and not paying attention just may be the child moving their muscles so they can think better instead of being in one position for too long and feeling like their brains are too tired to work right. Many gifted kids with quick brains also need to take breaks in between activities and may need a chance to move around more often than other children. And of course there are some kids who just play around instead of work, because they are pushing the boundaries and enjoy the drama when the teacher gets upset!
Students exhibiting lethargy
Is the student avoiding work for the above reasons or really exhausted? Sometimes gifted children have issues with depression and disillusionment. This is one of those character traits that can also be a sign of other much more serious issues too.
Some gifted children have parents who had awful school experiences due to misidentified gifted traits of their own or other reasons. Students who don't turn in homework or who have behavior issues sometimes are on their own with their academic needs more than other students may be. Although some kids have very involve parents who have learned to advocate strongly for their children since gifted support can be hard to come by, other parents just don't get involved due to other things going on, such as being sole wage earners in a single parent household. It’s important that teachers recognize what is due to student disengagement and what is showing up looking like student disengagement when really it has more to do with a lack of access to support outside of school. Homework success is not a fair way to measure student achievement because of these issues.
It is common for gifted students to struggle with organization. They tend to be in a hurry to get to the next item in their mind and don't clean up the last task well, or they just really lack the skills involved with knowing how to keep things neat. Often it's the gifted child in the class who can't find what he or she needs, is missing homework, leaves a mess when they leave the room, or who has the worst penmanship. Don't assume gifted children are going to stay organized no matter how many times you show them what they need to do!
This category include children who are sometimes on task and doing well, and then the next day they are goofing around and not doing anything they are supposed to do. The ups and downs of intense minds include ups and downs in performance too. Gauge these kids on their best days and help them get through the tough ones- emotional intensities may flare up on those days when they just can't seem to get it right, and this is when compassion and patience really helps them get back on track.
Although the above characteristics are troubling and add to the classroom management time in the schools, there are also some negative behaviors that we can (and should) work with because they can be positive traits if treated that way:
Students who are argumentative
These kids are so interested in the subject of discussion that they are overly involved. Or they may believe they know what is right or how to do something and are frustrated by another person challenging that belief. These students need the social skills for dealing with conflicting information and expressing themselves politely, but debate is a skill that can be developed to support their high level thought processes in the future and will help them communicate controversial beliefs in the future. Politics anyone?! This kind of student needs support with this skill but it shouldn't be squashed completely.
It takes a lot of brain power and energy to stay ahead of witty children, and kids who have mastered the ability to crack the joke that makes the class giggle are showing their thinking skills in a socially driven manner. The student who can crack the jokes that even the teacher sees the irony in, is even farther above the curve. Use this quick wit and bravery in positive ways. This is one skill even the smartest people in the world sometimes have no idea how to perform- guide them into appropriate uses of humor but laugh along with them sometimes too. Breaking the rules isn't always the worst thing, and those students who are willing to take risks and put themselves out there for possible peer humiliation for the chance they might actually receive laughter instead are the brave ones we want to stand up for us when there are more serious issues at hand such as civil rights issues or speaking up against those who cause harm. This skill can be cultivated and enhanced and add to a repertoire of tools for future gifted leaders.
Intense focus on other area/s of interest
Students who aren't interested in history lessons or literature studies may be able to sit forever at a lecture about space and the universe. This kind of focused (and potentially very limited) attention can be used to involve the student in higher level thinking activities by integrating the content areas into the student's interest area. This is the opposite from what teachers usually do, but by finding ways to bring math or history into the folds of the student's special interest, the teacher also gains tons of respect from the student because the teacher shows they care about the child's unique interests and needs and is willing to learn about it too. This bond may create a friendship and trust that goes much farther than forcing them to listen to serving they don't care about. And the teacher may learn new and interesting things from the student they otherwise may not have ever explored.
An obsession with fairness
The student who tattles or complains or is the first to worry about things that aren't his or her "business" may be gifted kids with emotional intensities and an inherent need to keep justice in balance. This is a core characteristic of leaders who make the huge changes in the world and help others. They can be guided to use their sense of fairness as student representatives on school advisory committees or as helpers during a special community volunteering activity. Their sense of right and wrong can be the basis for class discussions and debates as long as they are well supported by a caring educator who watches for signs of distress and can work through social issues as they come up- as this usually happens- and these students may need extra one-on-one conversations with the teacher and administrators so they can see their strong concerns are responded to with similar doses of care and respect.
Instead of treating children with negative traits as behavioral issues en total, keep in mind that giftedness shows itself in both positive and negative ways. Sometimes those positive ways are hidden behind traits that drive teachers and others who work with them up the wall. By looking beneath the first alarming level of behavior for signs of more troubling causes or for the positive pieces of the puzzle, teachers, administrators, parents and others who work with gifted students may find complexities that change the dynamics of the classroom. It is up to us to find these children before they give up on themselves, and by being the advocates these students need we can point them in the right direction and get them additional support that may just change their lives.