Psychologist Blames Stress for Gifted Students’ Misbehavior

By Susan Walton — December 14, 1981 3 min read
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Some high-school dropouts, chronic truants, and classroom daydreamers may be very bright children who use inappropriate behavior as a way to ease the distinctive stresses they and others like them often experience in schools, according to a psychologist who studies gifted children.

Speaking at a session of the National Topical Conference on Gifted and Talented Children held here recently, Professor of Psychology Fred W. Clemens of Radford University said that these “stressors"--internal and external demands placed on the gifted student--may lead to burnout, a syndrome more commonly associated with adults. The condition may be characterized by excessive tiredness, inability to concentrate, school phobia, and other “psychosomatic problems,” he told those attending the conference, which was jointly sponsored by the Council for Exceptional Children and the Association for the Gifted.

The exceptionally bright or talented student may find stressful some classroom situations that do not trouble an average classmate, Mr. Clemens said. “Gifted children are faced with unrelenting demands, some of which lead to stress,” he said.

But in many cases, he added, their methods of alleviating that stress are not acceptable to school officials.

In one study in Pennsylvania, for instance, researchers found, said Mr. Clemens, that about half of the children referred for special help because of their “problem behavior” qualified for the state’s program for gifted students. And in Iowa, another study showed that during one year, 14 percent of the high-school dropouts had I.Q.'s of over 130--the score at which, in many states, students are labeled gifted.

Mr. Clemens described some of the stressful situations to which extremely bright students are prey.

The classroom, he said, is fraught with potentially trying moments for all students--giving oral reports, doing badly on tests, being chosen last for the baseball team--but for the very bright, a different set of factors is at work.

“A primary stressor of gifted children is a curriculum that is poorly developed, unchallenging, and repetitious,” he said. This kind of curriculum can lead a child to behave “inappropriately,” wander around the classroom, or otherwise misbehave. The teacher is apt to punish the child, who then feels doubly wronged.

Programs specifically designed for gifted students may be another source of stress, Mr. Clemens said. The “discontinuous, disorganized manner” in which programs for gifted students are set up in the curriculum can cause problems; such programs are rarely integrated into the curriculum, and the child may be unable to meet the demands of the special activities as well as those of his regular classroom work, he said.

Many regular classroom teachers view ‘gifted’ work as extra work that is not part of the regular classroom, he explained. A student who is sent to a special class may miss the material presented to the rest of the class in his absence, but the teacher expects him to know it anyway. He cited the example of an elementary-school student who, upon his return from a special class, was presented with a quiz on material covered while he was gone.

Demands for high achievement in all areas of study are another source of stress for the gifted student, Mr. Clemens said. Counselors, teachers, and parents will say, “Gee, you could be making A’s in all your classes if you wanted to.” But this is not necessarily true, Mr. Clemens said, since a student may not be equally talented in all areas.

Social and interpersonal situations also contribute to bright students’ “burnout,” Mr. Clemens said.

“A child who demonstrates critical skills and unusual verbal abilities may threaten the teacher,” he said. “The teacher may try to control the nonconforming behavior by ignoring or verbally abusing the child.”

As a result, he said, the child who once eagerly raised his hand in response to the teacher’s questions may gradually stop doing so.

An unusually bright child also has a harder time finding friends, Mr. Clemens said. In small, rural schools, the child may have no true peers. This problem is less severe in large, urban districts, where there are likely to be higher concentrations of gifted students.

Stress, Mr. Clemens pointed out, is an unavoidable part of life. Educators who work with gifted children, he said, should try to make stressful situations less so, help such children to cope with stress, and learn to understand and appreciate the special talents of gifted children.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 1981 edition of Education Week as Psychologist Blames Stress for Gifted Students’ Misbehavior


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