Social Development in the Gifted

Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D.

Gifted Development Center


Socialization means adapting to the needs of the group, whereas social development indicates positive self-concept and concern for the welfare of others.  The former may result in alienation from one's inner self, while the latter leads to self-actualization. Gifted children have positive social development when they are respected in their families; when their parents value the inherent worth of all human beings; when they find true peers of similar ability at an early age; and when they interact with the mainstream after they have developed a strong sense of their own acceptability.

Social Development vs. Socialization

There has been a remarkable emphasis in American education on the process of socialization, as if this were the primary responsibility of the schools.  This emphasis has intensified in the last ten years at the expense of learning, particularly in the middle school philosophy.  The students who love learning the most, and who are capable of learning the fastest, are the ones who have paid the highest price for this agenda.
It is generally assumed that unless the gifted are grouped with students of diverse abilities, they will "never learn to get along with others."  Therefore, all provisions for gifted students—ability  grouping, acceleration, pull-out programs, full day programs, special schools, homeschooling—are held suspect on the grounds that they will "seriously interfere with social adjustment."  Contrary to popular beliefs, an immense amount of research accumulated over the last 70 years indicates that gifted children tend to enjoy greater popularity, greater social competence, more mature social relations, earlier psychological maturity, and fewer indications of psychological problems than their less gifted peers (Silverman, 1993).  Almost all of this research was conducted with students involved with special provisions, such as acceleration or special classes.  In their recent comprehensive review of the literature, Nancy Robinson and Kate Noble report:
Perusal of a large group of studies of preadolescent children revealed [that] a group, gifted children were seen a more trustworthy, honest, socially competent, assured and comfortable with self, courteous, cooperative, stable, and humorous, while they were also seen as showing diminished tendencies to boast, to engage in delinquent activity, to aggress or withdraw, to be domineering, and so on. (N. Robinson & Noble, 1991, p. 62)
Clearly, then, socialization does not suffer when special provisions are made for these students' learning needs.  And there is no evidence that regular classroom placement enhances the socialization of gifted students to a greater degree than grouping them for instruction with others of similar abilities, level of mastery, and readiness to learn advanced content. 
Terms such as socialization and social development are used interchangeably in the gifted education literature, but these actually are very different concepts.  Socialization is defined as adapting to the common needs of the social group (Webster, 1979, p. 1723) or acquiring "the beliefs, behaviors, and values deemed significant and appropriate by other members of society" (Shaffer, 1988, p. 2).  Gifted youth do have the inclination to adapt to the group, but at what price?  If one works very hard at fitting in with others, especially when one feels very different from others, self-alienation can result.  In their desperation to belong, many "well-adjusted" gifted youth and adults have given up or lost touch with vital parts of themselves.
Social development is a much broader concept than socialization; it may be thought of as awareness of socially acceptable behavior, enjoyment of other people, concern for humanity and the development of mutually rewarding relationships with at least a few kindred spirits.  Lasting friendships are based on mutual interests and values, not on age.  Self-acceptance is a related goal, as people who like themselves are more capable of liking others.  When framed in this way, social development becomes a precursor to self-actualization, whereas socialization is merely the desire to conform, which may inhibit self-actualization.  If the aim for gifted young people is social development rather than socialization, they need to be provided with true peers who are their intellectual equals, a program of humanitarian studies to enhance their awareness of global interdependence, and counseling for greater understanding, acceptance and appreciation of self and others.

The Foundation of Social Development

A parent who had just learned that her son was highly gifted remarked fearfully, "But I want my child to be a good neighbor!"  She was worried that if her son was placed in a self-contained program for the gifted, he would not be able to get along with anyone except other gifted children—a familiar concern.  His IQ score was beyond the norms in the manual, estimated in excess of 170.  His parents were not prepared for their son to be this bright; his mother wanted more than anything for him to lead a "normal life."
For this child's parents, as for so many other children's, "being normal" means having the ability to get along with people from all walks of life.  This is an important value for most people, particularly parents of the gifted.  How does the gifted child learn to do this?  There appear to be four key factors involved in gifted children's social development:
  1. a responsive home environment in which the child is respected;
  2. parental respect for individuals of all backgrounds and socio-economic status
  3. opportunities to relate to other gifted children—particularly during the early years, when self-concept is being formed;
  4. opportunities to relate to the mainstream during adolescence.
Children are sponges, absorbing all that their environments have to offer—language patterns, attitudes, values, impressions of themselves.  They usually begin life trusting, affectionate, exhilarated with each new discovery.  If children are cherished by their parents, they come to cherish themselves and feel secure.  A child whose ideas and needs are respected at home is likely to respect the needs of other children.  Children also imitate the way their parents talk about and act toward others.  When parents genuinely appreciate people of all backgrounds and abilities, their children usually do the same.  
Due to their expert ability to pick up social cues, girls are better than boys at imitation.  Therefore, it is important for them to be in an environment where imitation is conducive to growth.  If they live in a home filled with kindness, they learn to be kind.  If they live next door to children who call each other names, they learn how to swear.  And if a girl who is mentally eight years old is placed in a kindergarten with only five year olds, she will imitate the behavior of five year olds.
Many gifted children receive a good foundation for self-esteem within their families.  Then something happens:  they meet other children.  By the age of five or six, openness and confidence are frequently replaced with self-doubt and layers of protective defenses.  Being different is a problem in childhood.  Young children—even gifted ones—do not have the capacity to comprehend differences.  They have difficulty understanding why other children do not think the way that they do.  They equate differentness with being "strange" or unacceptable, and this becomes the basis of their self-concept.  It's difficult for a child who has been wounded continuously by peers to feel generosity toward others.  It takes positive experiences with children like themselves to build the self-confidence needed for healthy peer relations.  Later, when their self-concepts are fully formed, they are better equipped to understand differences, to put negative feedback of age peers in perspective, and to gain appreciation of the diversity of their classmates.  But acceptance precedes positive social values.  
Children only learn to love others when they have achieved self-love.  The process usually involves the following stages:  
  1. self-awareness; 
  2. finding kindred spirits; 
  3. feeling understood and accepted by others; 
  4. self-acceptance; 
  5. recognition of the differences in others; and, eventually, 
  6. the development of understanding, acceptance and appreciation of others.
Self-awareness includes being aware of how one is like others and how one is different from others.  Gifted children are, in fact, different from their age-mates in many ways.  They tend to be ashamed of these differences and try to hide them unless they find kindred spirits early in life.  These kindred spirits help normalize their experiences and provide the safety for them to be who they really are.  They provide the acceptance, understanding, and give and take on an equal basis that is required for true, lasting friendships to develop.  When children find friends who accept them they become able to accept themselves.  From this strong foundation, they can see how others are different from themselves without needing to imitate the norm. 
When a solid base of self-esteem is developed in early childhood, gifted students are better equipped to branch out and make friends with others who are unlike themselves.  Adolescence is developmentally the most appropriate stage for these widening horizons of social interaction.  Gifted adolescents select their closest friends from among their mental peers, but they can also participate in team sports, band, extra-curricular clubs, church and community activities, and social events in which they have opportunities to interact with students who have a wide range of abilities.  With a support system of gifted friends and classmates, they can join in other groups without fear of rejection, and they are more likely to gain respect and assume leadership positions.  

Social Development of Gifted Boys

Young gifted boys have extreme difficulty relating to children who are not at their own developmental level. They think the games of average children are "silly" or "babyish."  A gifted five-year-old boy with an eight-year-old mind gets angry when the other children do not follow the rules; he is unable to comprehend that his age-mates are not mentally ready to understand the meaning of rules.  His own games tend to be highly organized and sophisticated.  If the other children cannot relate to his games, or if they laugh at him or reject him, he concludes that there is something wrong with him (Janos, Fung & Robinson, 1985).  Because he is unusually sensitive (Lovecky, 1991), he takes the teasing and criticism of others to heart and begins to develop a protective veneer.  This thin layer doesn't really protect him—underneath it he is as vulnerable as ever—but it manages to place some distance between himself and other children in hopes that they can't hurt him as easily.  This scenario is even more likely in the sensitive, artistic boy who is perceived as "feminine" and teased mercilessly for his lack of "manliness."
If a child is perpetually exposed to a hostile environment, he will withdraw more and more from social interaction.  He will come to see himself as awkward and unlovable, incapable of making friends. He will distrust not only the children who make fun of him, but most other children as well.  He will expect to be laughed at and rejected even by strangers.  A child who has had too many early negative experiences with others grows into an alienated adult, one who may withdraw permanently from social contact.  Too much risk is involved.
Fortunately, there is an antidote to this fate.  If the child has early contact with others like himself, he does not come to see himself as different or "weird."  He is able to make friends easily with others who think and feel as he does, who communicate on his level and share his interests.  Association with true peers prevents alienation.  Roedell (1985, 1988, 1989) has studied the social development of young gifted children.  She stresses the immense importance of true peers and suggests that a major function of programs for highly gifted children is to help them discover their true peers at an early age.   "The word peer refers to individuals who can interact on an equal plane around issues of common interest" (Roedell, 1989, p. 25).  Many gifted children have different sets of peers for different activities (Roedell, 1985, 1989).  Gifted preschoolers and kindergarten-aged children define themselves through their first social interactions, and if the gap between their development and that of their playmates is too great, they have difficulty adjusting.
While adaptation is important, gifted young children also need the give-and-take of interactions with others of equal ability, where they can find acceptance and understanding, the keys to the development of successful social skills and positive self-concept. (Roedell, 1989, p. 26)
As the child gets older, he grasps the concept that not everyone is alike.  He can take another's point of view and figure out how to make friends with children who are different from himself.  With the inner security gained from positive social interactions, he perceives himself to be a friendly person and expects others to like him.  Instead of becoming a social snob, holding everyone less gifted in disdain, he is more likely to become a humanitarian, recognizing that all human beings have value.  His giftedness predisposes him to concerns about justice and ethics (Roeper, 1991).  He will be equipped to be a good neighbor and a good friend, perhaps even a leader, because of his solid base of self-esteem and inherent values of fairness and empathy.
Disdain for others is a sign of low self-esteem.  Of course, it also can be a learned behavior.  Snobbery is a problem related to socio-economic rather than intellectual differences (Silverman, 1992).  If people are devalued at home, it will be difficult for the child to learn to respect others.  But when a child is respected at home and by his friends, respecting other people is a natural consequence.  Good social adjustment is a reflection of early positive social experiences.

Social Development of Gifted Girls

The problem of imitation is even more acute for gifted girls than gifted boys.  Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues, and their early programming as to the critical importance of social acceptance, girls learn more easily than boys how to modify their behavior to fit into a group.  If the girl's social group is mentally much younger than she is, she will frequently don the mental attire of her friends, and soon be imperceptible from them in thought, manner, and achievement.  The girl's chameleon qualities are her saving grace in social situations, but they are also her greatest handicap in the development of her abilities (Kerr, 1985).  What is to be gained for a girl in becoming an achiever?  According to the girls' reports, very little.
Researchers consistently have found that girls with high ability feel compelled to hide their intelligence (Bell, 1989; Buescher & Higham, 1989; Kerr, 1991; Reis & Callahan, 1989).  Bright high school girls are often less popular with boys (Casserly, 1971).  Boys value the reputation of being an intellectual to a much greater extent than girls (Coleman, 1961).  Fox (1977) found that highly capable junior high school girls would not leave their friends for the opportunity to accelerate in their coursework.  Women who use their intellect often do so at the expense of social relations (Bachtold & Werner, 1970).
Even more disturbing are the findings from the research on self-concept and achievement.  Locksley and Douvan (1980) discovered that girls with high grade point averages were significantly more depressed, had more psychosomatic symptoms and had lower self-esteem than boys with high grade point averages.  Petersen (1988) has found that self-image scores in high achieving junior high school girls increase as their grades decrease, whereas the opposite is true for boys.  A large scale study of 3,000 students documents an alarming loss in self-confidence and achievement in girls as they move from childhood to adolescence (AAUW Educational Foundation, 1992).  These losses are not matched in boys.  
Essentially, the gifted young woman is faced with a Sophie's Choice:  if she chooses to be true to herself, to honor her drive for achievement and self-actualization, she breaks some unspoken rule and faces disconnection (Gilligan, 1988), taunts and rejection from both male and female peers.  If she chooses to give up her dreams, to hold herself back, to redirect her energies into the feminine spheres—preoccupation with boys, clothes, appearance, observing her tone of voice, choice of words and body language, remaking herself to become attractive to the opposite sex—she is accepted and rewarded for her efforts (Silverman, 1995).  Since there is little immediate value in choosing achievement over social acceptance, a girl would have to have incredible self-assurance to make that choice.
For these reasons, it may be particularly critical for gifted girls to associate with mental peers early in life. Without the encouragement of the social group to develop their talents, much of their ability may be permanently lost.  The amount of waste of talent from atrophy and lack of development is incalculable.  Since life goals and attitudes toward achievement are often formed before school-age, the earlier positive intervention occurs, the more likely that girls will be able to value and develop their intellectual capabilities without loss of social status.
Roedell reminds us of the essential link between cognitive, social and emotional development:
When parents and teachers understand the implications of the differentness inherent in being gifted, they can create conditions that will support the child's positive social and emotional growth.  The first step is to realize the inextricable link between social and cognitive development...  If the child also makes the discovery that communication with classmates is difficult, and that others do not share his/her vocabulary, skills, or interests, peer interactions may prove limited and unsatisfactory.  We cannot ignore the gifted child's need for intellectual stimulation and expect social development to flourish.  (Roedell, 1988, pp. 10-11)


There is a pervasive myth that if gifted children are told they are gifted, they will gain “swelled heads” and hold everyone else in disdain.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Children who are never told about their giftedness often think that they are average, and if they understand something, everyone else should understand it just as well.  When gifted children are given the opportunity to discuss as a group what it means to be gifted, they understand themselves better and have greater compassion for others.  Gifted children from various parts of the world have shared in such groups that they believe everyone has equal worth, regardless of ability.  Giftedness does not mean “better than”; instead, it means “different from.”  When these specific differences are talked about, instead of hidden, children develop healthy attitudes about themselves and about others.  Many gifted children want to help, want to be of service, and are eager to support others.  They do not adopt elitist attitudes unless these are modeled by adults. Being placed in classes with other gifted children curbs arrogance, rather than fostering it.  Perhaps for the first time, the child realizes that someone else is more advanced in mathematics, is reading harder books, and knows more about dinosaurs or space.  It can be a very humbling experience to a child who thrives on being the “best” in the class.


Gifted children need acceptance and respect from their families.  They need parents who truly believe that everyone on the planet is of equal value and worthy of respect.  Parents with humanitarian values, who work for the common good, who are involved in community service, will teach through example how to use one’s gifts for the good of all.  Gifted children need to find other children like themselves as early as possible so that they feel accepted and understood.  This will form the basis of lasting friendships and true social development.  They need teachers to look for and develop their strengths, rather than to focus on their weaknesses or equalize their abilities.  And they need experience with the mainstream when they have formed a strong enough self-concept so that they are not dependent on acceptance from agemates who might not understand them.  Only then will they grow to be healthy, compassionate global citizens.


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