GIFTEDNESS AS ASYNCHRONOUS DEVELOPMENT
by Stephanie S. Tolan
TIP NETWORK NEWS, Spring, 1994
We identify and then measure
unusual intelligence ("giftedness") by externals -- performance and
achievement. Sometimes we do this by personal observation, noting that a
nine month old is speaking in full sentences or a toddler is picking out
the words on cereal boxes. Sometimes we do it formally with standardized
tests of one kind or another. Or we may assess portfolios of children's
writing or other sorts of hands-on projects. No matter what method we
use, we must inevitably focus on performance and/or achievement as we
identify the gifted.
All too often we then go on to
define the children themselves by the externals we have measured.
Giftedness becomes achievement, and so seems to reside outside the
individual, a reality having to do with grades, awards, scholarships,
and ultimately career choice, position, wealth, success or eminence.
It is vital to remember that
giftedness (in childhood and beyond) is an internal reality, mental
processing that is outside of norms. Achievement, as important as it is,
is merely an expression of that mental processing. Achievement may
fluctuate depending on a student's immediate situation, his relationship
with a particular teacher, the availability of courses of sufficient
challenge and interest, even physical health. Giftedness does not depend
on such variables. Whether or not it finds expression in achievement or
unusual performance the internal difference remains.
That internal difference is likely
to include emotional intensity, unusual awareness and tolerance of
complexity and paradox, and a potential for extraordinary moral
development. During childhood and beyond these innate attributes may
enhance or interfere with performance on various tasks, depending in
part on how well they are recognized, understood and guided by the
adults in the child's environment.
The child who perceives typical
rough and tumble competition on the playground as purposeless violence
and connects that violence to persistent ethnic warfare on a global
scale may become depressed and cynical about the future of humanity. He
may withdraw and become a bitter, self-isolating loner. Or he may,
instead, set himself the task of attempting to understand the roots of
conflict, and commit himself to a life of peace-making and diplomacy.
A young adult able to grasp the
astonishing complexity of the universe may hide from that complexity in
the simpler details of a conventional daily life, or she may become a
scientist dedicated to answering thus far unanswered questions about how
the universe works. The capacities of mind that make up giftedness can
create oddity or eminence, the unremarkable or the spectacular. For the
individual they can create fulfillment and success or pain and
confusion. Sometimes they create all of the above.
Often the products of gifted
children's special mental capacities are valued while the traits that
come with those capacities are not. For example, winning an essay
contest on the dangers of global warming may get a student lots of
attention and praise while her intense emotional reaction to the threat
technology poses to the planet and its life forms may be considered
excessive, overly dramatic, even neurotic. If she tries to act on her
beliefs by going on strike to force her family or school to renounce
what she considers harmful technology, she may be ridiculed, scolded or
even punished. Writing a winning essay is deemed not only okay, but
admirable; being the sort of person she had to be to write it may not be
When we focus only on what gifted
children can do rather than on who they are, we ignore vital aspects of
their developing selves and risk stunting their growth and muddying or
distorting their sense of themselves and their worth.
Recently, to counteract the
growing focus on achievement, a group of theorists, practitioners, and
parents suggested a new definition of giftedness in children:
Giftedness is asynchronous
development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened
intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are
qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with
higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them
particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting,
teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally. (The
Columbus Group, 1991).
This view suggests that gifted
children are on a developmental trajectory that is outside of norms from
infancy onward. They reach recognized milestones of development on a
schedule that is unique to them, putting them out of sync with society's
expectations. In addition, they may be out of sync internally, with
cognitive, social and emotional development on separate and sometimes
quite different timetables.
The young gifted child may appear
to be many ages at once. He may be eight (his chronological age) when
riding a bicycle, twelve when playing chess, fifteen when studying
algebra, ten when collecting fossils and two when asked to share his
chocolate chip cookie with his sister. This variability in behavior and
perception is difficult for parents and schools to handle and difficult
for the child as well. It is hard to "fit in" consistently when so much
of the child's environment is structured by chronological age, an age
which may be for the gifted child the least relevant aspect of his
Many parents and teachers would
like the gifted child to be perfectly "normal" in every way except the
ability to perform academic tasks. Life would be so much easier that
way. Over and over we see in media reports on gifted and highly gifted
kids the assurance that (except for taking college courses in calculus
while in the eighth grade) this child is just like everybody else. Even
those who work in gifted education often spend a great deal of time and
energy assuring people that gifted children are children first and
gifted only secondarily, that they're "just kids" who need a little
extra challenge in school.
This is simply not the case.
Though they are clearly children, with children's needs for play,
nurturing, structure and exploration, they have definite differences. A
child who reads early and voraciously cannot be said simply to have
attained a particular skill earlier than others. His life experience is
different from that of other children his age who do not read. Reading
expands his cognitive skills at a faster rate, and at the same time
exposes him to information, to the feelings, thoughts and experiences of
fictional characters, and to the imaginations and ideas of adult
writers. All this input is processed and sets the stage for the
processing of more.
The same can be said of early
language acquisition, since language plays a part not only in activating
cognitive abilities, but also in the biological organization of the
brain. Early abstract reasoning also means more to development than mere
precocity. The earlier the child develops the psychological tools of
higher thought, the more of his life experience will be processed with
those tools. As the developmental trajectory diverges from the norm
(very early in life) it takes on a unique shape that will remain unique.
Many gifted children are able to
develop their gifts and use them productively. But some of these
achievers, as adults, live their lives with a nagging discomfort with
themselves. They focus, as the people in their childhood environment
did, only on what they can do because they are ignorant of (or
uncomfortable with) who they are.
The winner of the global warming
essay contest may go on to a successful and lucrative career as an
environmental lawyer. But she may condemn in herself the intensity of
her emotional responses, just as they were condemned by family and
others. She may choose to shut them down as best she can and so shut
down important aspects of the energy that drives her.
Understanding giftedness as a
stable aspect of the self, an issue of differential development, helps
us to understand and support the whole gifted child, rather than only
her accomplishments. Understanding and support makes it possible for a
child to develop not only her ability to get good grades, win awards,
and move ahead on the career path she chooses, but to feel comfortable
with herself and valuable as a person.
Used by Permission