The Road Less Travelled: Supporting Individuals with Gifts and Talents

 

Professor Frank C. Worrell

University of California, Berkeley
California
United States of America

 

 

 

 

Robert Frost’s most well-known poem, “The Road Not Taken,” concludes with the lines,

 

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.” (1969, p. 105)

 

Frost’s words provide an excellent foundation to frame providing support for students who are classified as gifted and talented, because gifted contributions often come from ignoring the status quo, looking at things in a different way, refusing to accept the limitations of convention. That is, gifted contributions are frequently manifestations of taking the road “less traveled by” and those of us who are working with gifted and talented students need to encourage and support them on their journey to innovative contributions.

 

Why is it Important to Look After the Wellbeing of Gifted Individuals?

According to the talent development megamodel (Subotnik et al., 2011), giftedness begins as potential in childhood and through appropriate talent development opportunities, this potential is transformed into expertise and creative productivity in gifted adults. The TDMM also makes several other important points. First, the transformation of potential into creative productivity is the result of the interaction between environmental factors and personal characteristics. Consider the following:

 

If an individual who has tremendous potential in mathematics but less potential in other domains is sent to a school for the performing arts rather than a science magnet school, the environment is less likely to support talent development in mathematics. (Subotnik et al., in press)

 

In other words, talent does not develop in a vacuum; the environment plays a key role and for talent to develop, the environment has to be appropriate to the specific talent.

 

Second, the potential for gifted contributions is only a part of what any individual is. All individuals have emotions and cognitions; hopes, dreams, and fears; personality characteristics; and the hosts of factors that make up a complete human being. These factors all contribute to development and will play a role in the development of potential. Is the environment in which the gifted individual living meeting basic needs (e.g., food, housing, safety)? Is the environment providing for psychological needs (e.g., competence, autonomy, relatedness)? If a child is frequently hungry, worried about where they will be living, or lonely, or made to feel incompetent and inefficacious, that child is less likely to fully develop their potential into expertise and adult productivity, even if they are extremely talented and wish to do so. In a similar vein, an adult who is isolated with a low sense of agency, despite having developed their talents into expertise, is less likely to translate that expertise into creative productivity without environmental supports.

 

Thus, there are two primary reasons to look after the well-being of gifted individuals. The first is related to the fact that they are individuals first and foremost, irrespective of the gifts and talents that they have, and they should be allowed to flourish just as anyone else. The second reason is that gifted individuals encompass the possibility to make life better not just for themselves but for everyone. Consider the benefits of the printing press and electricity and the internal combustion engine and the computer to humanity. And consider a world with these scientific inventions but with no paintings or novels, or musical compositions, or dance. Gifted individuals make contributions to the body and the soul and all of us are incredibly indebted to them.

 

Strategies to Support Well Being

There is a belief that gifted individuals are qualitatively different from those of us not classified as gifted. My research suggests that gifted individuals differ from those who are not gifted only in their capacity for learning and performance or production in the area related to their gifts. Thus, they are similar to the rest of us in most ways, including in socioemotional functioning, and there is some research which suggests that gifted individuals may even be less vulnerable in the social emotional arena (Lubinski et al., 2014; Terman & Oden, 1959). That being said here are some strategies to consider in supporting the well-being of gifted individuals. 

 

  • Provide gifted individuals with unconditional positive regard: Remember that gifted students are persons first and that gifted is an adjective. Love, kindness, and respect should not be conditioned on winning a competition or on how well a student performs.
  • Respect the cultural traditions of the gifted student and their family: Identity and belonging are key variables for all individuals and individuals should not have to give up “who” they are in order to be classified as gifted.
  • Use developmentally appropriate supports with gifted students: A 7-year old who is taking calculus with 17-year olds is still a 7-year old developmentally. Gifted students’ asynchronous performance is only in the domain of their gift, and they still have to deal with the developmental challenges of childhood.
  • Provide ongoing social and emotional supports to gifted students, as well as their parents and teachers: Gifted students, especially those who have been accelerated, need ongoing support to help them deal with moving between the sphere of their same-aged peers and the sphere of their older peers with whom they are engaging in their talent domain. Teachers of these students in both spheres and parents are also in need of support as they work with gifted students who are navigating these “different worlds.”

 

In closing, it is important to reiterate that gifted individuals are individuals first and foremost. They may be exceptional in their area of talent, but they will be similar to same-aged peers with regard to their functioning. As the saying goes, “no man is an island,” and giftedness does not invalidate this tenet.

 

References

Lubinski, D., Benbow, C. P., & Kell, H. J. (2014). Life paths and accomplishments of mathematically precocious males and females four decades later. Psychological Science, 25(12), 2217–2232. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614551371

Subotnik, R. F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. C. (2011). Rethinking giftedness and gifted education: A proposed direction forward based on psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(1), 3–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100611418056

Subotnik, R. F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. C. (in press). Environmental factors and personal characteristics interact to yield high performance in domains. Frontiers in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02804

Terman, L. M., & Oden, M. H. (1959). The gifted group at mid-life: 35 years’ follow up of the superior child. Genetic Studies of Genius (Vol. V). Stanf-0ord University Press.

 

About Frank C. Worrell

Frank C. Worrell is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education and the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His current appointments include Director of the School Psychology program, Faculty Director of the Academic Talent Development Program, and Faculty Director of the California College Preparatory Academy.  Dr. Worrell’s areas of expertise include academic talent development/gifted education, the education of at-risk youth, scale development and validation, teacher effectiveness, and the translation of psychological research findings into school-based practice. 

 

Ph.D., Educational and School Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, 1994

MA, Psychology, University of Western Ontario, 1987

B.A. (Honours), Psychology, University of Western Ontario, 1985

 

The Road Less Travelled- Supporting Individuals with Gifts and Talents

 
 
 
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