Disrespectful or Misunderstood? Gifted Students in the Classroom

May 27, 2014

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

Gifted Students in the ClassroomI can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a parent say, “My child is gifted but he’s not one of those disrespectful know-it-all kids.” These parents are referring to the gifted gold standard: a child who knows the answers but politely participates in all of the class discussions with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm. Everyone wants this poster child, but they are hard to find, mostly because the traits that make them gifted also make it difficult for them to behave like model students. Parents might try to mold their gifted kids into this ideal, but it comes at a cost.

I learned the price of my son’s struggle to become a model student during our recent college road trip. We were sitting in a lecture hall filled with eager parents and high school students waiting to hear the admissions officer’s pearls of wisdom. Around 2:15, she started to talk. Around 2:25, I realized she hadn’t said anything. I had listened intently for 10 minutes and, as far as I could tell, she only made one point. Her speech was peppered with “…to put it another way” and “I don’t mean to repeat myself but…” I started to get annoyed. I was stuck in a room with 100 other awestruck parents and teenagers waiting for some information on the school’s culture, classes or admissions policies. Instead, I got a lot of words. So, I did what any mature 51 year old woman would do: I passed a note to my son. 10,000 words and still she hasn’t said anything, I wrote on a small notepad. My son’s eyes widened, he took the pen and wrote, I’m chewing gum to stay awake.

The information session went on for an hour and fifteen minutes. She made 3 points. By the time we left the school, I was mad.

“What a total waste of time. I can’t believe we all sat there while she said nothing.”

What he said next surprised me.

“You really haven’t been in school for a while. Now you know how I feel. I always thought it was my fault. I thought I wasn’t paying close enough attention. I thought I might have ADHD. It never occurred to me that they weren’t actually saying anything.”

My son had difficulty behaving like the model student his teachers and I wanted him to be. He is an intense child with a quick mind, excellent memory and excess energy. He got distracted when his teacher repeated a concept he already knew. He called out when the teacher introduced a subject that interested him. When he couldn’t politely deliver on his academic promise, he believed there was something wrong with him.

Thankfully, he had some understanding teachers who knew that he needed more than a warning to stop calling out in class. They helped him develop strategies to focus without squashing his enthusiasm. My favorite was his 11th grade math teacher. My son’s classmates had stopped doing their work because he would call out the answers before they could finish. At the teacher’s urging, my son developed a strategy that fed his competitive nature yet made room for other students to participate. He sat in the front row and rapidly worked on the class problem until he found an answer. Then he wrote the answer in big letters on a sheet of paper and flashed it at the teacher. She nodded or shook her head, thereby acknowledging his work. On a good day, he would put the sheet away and wait. On his more challenging days, he would turn around and show his answer to the students behind him, undermining the whole point of the exercise.

My interactions with my son and his teachers have taught me a few things:

  • Gifted students who call out or distract other student are not disrespectful or know-it-alls, they are in the in the wrong learning environment. These students need tools to manage their learning style, not disapproval from their teachers and parents. Judging them just makes them feel bad about themselves.
  • Gifted students need to be able to distinguish between those times a speaker is doing a poor job of conveying information (or is giving it at the wrong pace) and when they are having a bad day. Understanding where the problem lies allows them to demand more from themselves and their learning environment.
  • A teacher who is successful at silencing an extroverted gifted child loses the opportunity to harness the students’ energy to benefit the class. Energy and passion can be infectious and a positive influence on everyone.
  • Gifted students need a lot of self control to succeed in a regular classroom. When I was sitting in the lecture hall with my son, I was the one who started passing notes. At 51, I no longer had the incentive or will to sit quietly and listen. Without the support of parents and teachers, how long before our children come to the same conclusion and check out of the classroom?

I am going to take what I learned from my son and apply it to my daughter. She faces many of the same behavioral challenges he faces, but to an even more extreme degree. She chats, she sings, she calls out. She distracts other students. But now I know that these are challenges that require a group effort to solve. So I will work with the teachers to dispel any misunderstandings about whether she is a serious student or disrespectful. I will try to understand why she behaves the way she does and ask her teachers for help to provide her with the tools to channel her mind and mouth. But I will no longer critique her actions in an attempt to mold her into the ideal gifted student. My daughter needs need parents who understand and advocate for her. The world already has plenty of critics.

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