If you’ve had the opportunity to teach or work with gifted teens, you know what a paradox they can be: Giftedness (defined as having an IQ of 130 or above) does not determine performance. It can be both a joy and a challenge to inspire students capable of high-level thinking to achieve what they are capable of. Here are nine tips on working with gifted adolescents in an educational setting.
1. Remember that first and foremost, gifted teens are teens.
It doesn’t matter what an adolescent’s IQ is; they’re still going to go through all of the emotional and existential ups and downs that every teen goes through. In fact, they might even be prone to more moodiness and drama because they can overthink everything. Be as sensitive in the way that you speak to and interact with gifted teenagers as you would with any other adolescent.
2. Model and encourage appropriate social interactions.
Many times, gifted teenagers have a hard time relating to their non-gifted peers. While this is something that should have been practiced since early childhood, it’s likely that you will encounter some level of social awkwardness in some gifted teenagers. Encouraging good communication skills and being careful to model positive interactions can be helpful.
3. Find out their passions.
Some gifted teens have passions and interests that are not typical. Find out what they are and work toward incorporating those interests into whatever your gifted student is doing. Allow them to take off in innovative directions when it comes to assignments and projects.
4. Suggest some boundaries.
If your gifted student is an overachiever, they might have a hard time narrowing down a topic or knowing when to stop with a project. Rather than just giving the minimum parameters, be sure to include the maximum as well. For example, while a typical student can stick to an assignment that is a minimum of five pages, a gifted student might need an endpoint (i.e. a maximum of seven pages).
5. Work on organization strategies.
It might sound like a paradox, but type-A, perfectionist teens can succumb to major organization problems. Their thinking might be that if it can’t be perfect, they won’t even try, and this leads to chaos. Another potential reason is that they might not think in a linear or time-relative fashion. The rest of the world, however, does, so it’s important that they learn to conform, at least when it comes to when assignments are due and how they are storing and organizing their resource materials. Encourage your gifted students to tackle organization difficulties. Show them how to use planners and calendars, and teach them how routines can help them stay more organized.
6. Seek out opportunities in the community.
Not all of your gifted students will find their needs met at school. Encourage them to look for opportunities at local colleges and in other organizations. This is where their passions can come into play: Can a student teach a course at a community center or help develop a new program at a local museum? If you offer a few ideas, your students will likely take off on their own and find inspiration.
7. Encourage participation in activities that don’t spark their interest.
Sometimes, gifted teens are uninterested in a particular topic because it does not come easily to them. They might be used to sailing through anything related to math and science but think history is boring and tedious, for example. Or they might find art to be difficult and frustrating. For this type of student, challenge them to take part in a history fair or to enter an art contest. Gently push them to meet challenges head-on.
8. Accept and encourage wrong answers.
Sometimes gifted students are afraid to offer an answer if they’re not sure that it’s correct. They often expect perfection from themselves and assume that their educators do, too. Try to determine why they thought a particular answer was correct and show respect for the thinking process that they went through to come to that conclusion. You might be surprised by the insight shown, even if they’re on the wrong track.
9. Watch for signs of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
Gifted teens might be more prone than typical teens to developing mental health conditions. Some of the mental health red flags that an educator might be likely to notice include:
- A dramatic decline in school performance.
- Loss of interest in favorite activities and subjects.
- Abandonment of friends or picking up with a completely new crowd (particularly if you know that that group of students tends to be involved in substance use).
- Excessive moodiness or sadness.
- Drastic weight gain or weight loss.
- Signs of alcohol or drug use, such as bloodshot eyes, inappropriate anger, a lack of good personal hygiene, or uncharacteristic apathy.
As an educator, you have the unique opportunity to engage with gifted teens regularly. Enjoy them, encourage them, and be aware of the challenges of their giftedness.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.