Is Your School Setting Healthy or Toxic?
Lisa Rivero, M.A., author of Creative Home Schooling, A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Teens, and The Smart Teens’ Guide to Living with Intensity

(Reprinted and adapted from the book Creative Home Schooling for Gifted Children: A Resource Guide for Smart Families, by Lisa Rivero, Great Potential Press, 2002)


These children have no greater obligation than any other children to be future leaders or world-class geniuses. They should just be given a chance to be themselves, children who might like to classify their collections of baseball cards by the middle initials of the players, or who might like to spend endless afternoon hours in dreamy reading of novels, and to have an education that appreciates and serves these behaviors. ~Jane Piirto (1999)

Are there some educational programs, practices, and philosophies that are actually harmful to gifted children and are toxic academically, socially, and emotionally, while other learning environments, whether public school, private school, charter school, or home school, are healthy and effective?

We sometimes fool ourselves by thinking that certain educational experiences and settings contain a social and emotional component while others do not. The truth is that all learning and social environments shape the child emotionally in some way. Settings that expect gifted children to fit one mold are toxic and have a harmful effect on the child—especially if they expect the child to be like most other children in that grade level, without recognizing the wide variances in ability and personality common with gifted children, or if they equate social and emotional health simply with good behavior or being able to fit in.

Often we think of the well-rounded, emotionally healthy child as the child who fits in, the child who doesn’t stand out in any embarrassing way, the child who cooperates effortlessly and participates willingly. The advanced and sensitive gifted child, however, often does not fit in with other children and does stand out, whether she wants to or not. In addition, this advanced learner has a different understanding of cooperation and may prefer to participate on his or her own terms.

Social and Emotional Needs

Three important realities about the social and emotional needs and development of gifted children are particularly relevant.

(1) Many social and emotional needs of the gifted child are no different from those of any other child (Webb, 1993; Webb, 1994). In other words, goals of acceptance, understanding of others, and fulfillment of personal potential are common to us all.

When gifted children are socially and emotionally vulnerable, it is usually due to a lack of fit between characteristics common to the gifted—precociousness and asynchronous development, intensity, perfectionism, sensitivity, or complexity—and the child’s environment (Webb, 1993). Too often, the professionals in educational settings do not understand common traits and behaviors of gifted children, resulting in a setting that is toxic to gifted learners. A child who enters kindergarten already able to multiply numbers in her head, but unable to write, may not be easily accepted by other children (or teachers) who see the child as different or strange. The child will know she is “different” from others and may feel “not okay.”

(2) What may be normal for gifted children will at times be different from what is normal for their same age peers (Meckstroth, 1992). The gifted child’s excitiability may be mistaken for ADHD, his questioning of life’s mysteries may be seen as a mood disorder, or his love of organization can be misread as obsessive-compulsive behavior. Likewise, a discrepancy between the speed of his thoughts and his ability to write them down, often quite normal for many gifted children, may be diagnosed as a learning disability (Webb, 2000a). Not surprisingly, parents often remark that sending their child to school feels like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

(3) A child’s social and emotional health is intricately bound up with academic needs. When a child is challenged and able to learn at an appropriate pace and level, the child is closer to knowledge of self and acceptance of others than if the child is tied to a lockstep or inappropriate curriculum. Children who are not adequately challenged may never know, understand, or realize the full extent of their abilities, and because they do not need to work to master academic material, may have difficulty accepting and understanding different learning needs of more average learners.

Three important but common gifted characteristics are often misunderstood or ignored by school settings—uneven development, perfectionism, and complexity. Here are some questions to consider concerning the relative health and toxicity of learning settings, along with practical strategies.

Does the Setting Ignore—or AccomodateUneven Development?

Children who learn quickly sometimes have areas of uneven, or asynchronous, development. The gifted child is more likely than other children to experience a mismatch between intellectual and psychomotor development, language ability and reasoning development, or intellectual skills and emotional development (Terrassier, 1985). A gifted elementary school youngster might read at a high school level, for example, but will not be ready emotionally to deal with themes such as those in books about war or the Holocaust. A gifted youngster might say to a stranger, not realizing his questions are inappropriate, “Are you married?” or, “Do you have a new car?” Examples like this illustrate the mismatch of intellect and emotional maturity common to many gifted youngsters.

A toxic setting ignores this mismatch and expects children to be even, or at least close, in their developmental levels and expects emotions and academic performance to also be in sync. Children in such a setting will be considered normal or “okay” only if they have few “gaps” or discrepancies in ability as evidenced by select areas of strength. For example, too often, schools make a child wait to do challenging work in math simply because his skills in all other subjects aren’t yet at that same high level. Regrettably, this prevents the child from fulfilling his potential.

Conversely, a healthy educational setting will acknowledge, accept, and accommodate for the fact that it is normal for gifted children to have uneven developmental levels or mismatches between intellect and emotions. Healthy settings will help gifted children deal with these mismatches in development in three important ways: 1) by not forcing the child’s development to meet a generic timetable, 2) by being flexible and creative with curriculum materials, and 3) by encouraging self-directed, child-initiated study.

By avoiding generic timetables of development, adults can allow children to accelerate in individual subjects when necessary and can offer them individuated and appropriate work in areas of strength (Rogers, 2002). When a child is working at a higher than age-based grade level, curriculum materials should be chosen with the child’s other developmental needs in mind. History resources, for example, could cover high school-level material in a way that respects the gifted child’s high sensitivity, or a writing program could accommodate the still-undeveloped small-motor skills of a young precocious learner.

Adults can also accommodate gifted children’s uneven development by giving children greater choice in topics, allowing them to self-regulate levels of challenge and progression of study. Many experts in education recommend that children be given more control over their learning and education (Whitemore, 1980; Span, 1995; Cohen & Gelbrich, 1999; Cohen & Kim, 1999). Prolonged and carefully developed self-directed study can be found in a thematic unit approach, in which a topic is studied for a long time, or in the Autonomous Learner Model (Betts & Kercher, 1999), which integrates cognitive, social, and emotional needs.

Adults can gradually incorporate self-direction into a child’s education by beginning with one or two subject areas, such as math or reading (Whitmore, 1980). Children can be asked to set their own learning goals for an area of strength. If a child is good at math, for example, the child can work with the teacher or parent to choose curriculum resources and to set learning goals. As the child becomes more comfortable with taking responsibility for her learning, she can slowly add more subjects. The goal becomes that of being a lifelong learner rather than simply a good student (Betts & Kercher, 1999).

Accommodating uneven development,then, means respecting the child’s individual developmental timetable through flexibly seeking appropriate curriculum materials. Carefully developed self-directed study can allow the child to learn according to unique internal growth patterns without external pressure to perform according to a generic model of development.

Does your educational setting ignore—or accommodate—uneven development?


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