Middle school introduces new opportunities for gifted adolescents to form rewarding relationships and develop their own identities. It can also present challenges to gifted students as they encounter new social structures and pressures.
Contrary to some popular negative stereotypes, most evidence indicates that gifted students are typically well adjusted socially and emotionally. Many studies show that they are viewed positively relative to their peers. Moreover, researchers tend to agree that when gifted children experience social problems, they are often in an environment that is ill-fitting to the students’ intellectual development.
This said, some gifted students do experience social and emotional difficulties transitioning to middle school. The following are common challenges of the middle school environment:
Gifted students’ intellectual abilities and interests can differ widely from their peers’, causing them to feel “out of sync” with their peers. Gifted child development theorists call this difference “asynchrony” and explain that this characteristic can complicate social relationships for gifted children. The degree to which gifted children are aware of and concerned about these differences can make finding compatible same-age peers more difficult during a time in development when great importance is placed on “fitting in.” Gifted students who are twice exceptional or from underrepresented groups may experience heightened difficulty in this area, as they may feel different from their gifted peers as well.
New Social Structure
For all students entering middle school, navigating new subcultures of peers or “cliques” can be challenging. As middle school students begin to form their own identities, they begin to assign stereotypes to each social group. This labeling can make students feel uncomfortable, as stereotypes of different groups are inaccurate representations of each student’s actual identity.
Despite the challenges of this new social environment, middle school also brings opportunities for adolescents to form closer friendships. Close relationships with peers can help combat middle school’s social challenges. Gifted students often form friendships with fellow gifted peers in their grades as well as with older peers. Many schools introduce more differentiation in middle school, so students can be paired with entire classes of accelerated learners in a certain subject. Additionally, more extracurricular activities are offered in middle school, which provide an outlet for students to find like-minded peer groups.
Conflicting Identity Values
Bullying and teasing for being “smart” or receiving high grades can reach its peak in middle school. Gifted students are often very aware of this stigma against intellectualism and adopt different strategies to adapt. Many gifted students start to hide their talents in an effort to be “like everyone else.” Others may become dissatisfied with a social environment that devalues intellectualism and begin to withdraw.
Forming an Identity
Another way that students can combat stress from stereotyping and teasing is to establish and develop confidence in their unique identities. When students are surer of who they are and where their values and priorities lie, judgments and challenges from others can have lesser effects. Whether a family allows children to develop and express their unique identities can greatly impact an adolescent’s social environment. Adolescents form their identity by taking risks. This usually entails harmless actions like adopting new clothing or hairstyles, trying out for a new sports team, or committing to an extracurricular project. With risks comes the possibility of failure or rejection, which may be new to some adolescents. A parent’s role during challenging times requires balance between supporting children and shielding them from life’s stressors. Adolescents can also face pressure to participate in more negative risks.
Middle schoolers can also benefit from the mentorship of coaches, teachers, and older students. They can help foster intense interest in a subject or activity and act as positive role models. Linking adolescents with successful young mentors—high schoolers, college students, young professionals, etc.—can allow them to see that they do not have to choose social isolation or hiding their intelligence to fit in.
Internal Transitions: Perfectionism and Self-confidence
Past studies indicate that perfectionistic tendencies may increase for middle and high schoolers. There is mixed evidence about whether gifted students are more likely to be perfectionists. Perfectionism can be a beneficial characteristic when students strive for excellence. However, it can be debilitating to students who only work to avoid failure, receive others’ approval, or reach unattainable standards. Emphasizing your child’s hard work instead of innate ability or performance can show your child that growth is more attainable than perfection.
Research suggests that adolescents can face increased negative feelings and low self-confidence during middle school. Various studies of the general adolescent population suggest that social stressors, less perceived support from adults, and school environments can contribute to this change. Declines in self-worth can bring periods of stress, anger, and depression. Children create their own coping strategies to gain control of their situations, but sometimes counseling is a helpful option. Research shows that when gifted adolescents cope with life’s problems, they are more likely to focus on solving those problems and working hard to achieve positive outcomes. They are less likely to engage in wishful thinking or to resort to smoking or alcohol use as stress relief strategies. This helps them build greater resilience in the face of challenges, resulting in greater emotional strength and skill. When parents allow their gifted students to discover their true selves through permitting independence, mistakes, and self-discovery, the students are able to create a more stable self-identity.
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