What I Wish My Teachers Knew About Highly Gifted Students

“We’re proud of our abilities, but singling us out can feel painful.”

Illustration of silhouettes showing what's in each head

For the last seven years, I’ve had the immense privilege of teaching middle school English at Spring Branch Academic Institute (SBAI) in Houston. SBAI was created as a public charter school by the district, Spring Branch I.S.D., to meet the needs of its highly and profoundly gifted children. Our K-8 students take all their core classes with SBAI teachers in special wings of local campuses, then join with peers for lunch, electives, and homerooms. In high school, they continue to take math and English classes with us but take all other courses with our local campus.

I didn’t know this until I joined the school, but highly gifted children are actually considered at-risk. If you’ve been teaching for any amount of time, it likely doesn’t surprise you that our brightest students can suffer from a range of conditions, disorders, and harmful thinking. Some have debilitating perfectionism, while others are committed underachievers. Anxiety, depression, and existential dread are common for our gifted students. And without their needs being met, they’re at risk for dropping out, committing crimes, and self-harm.

Of course, highly gifted children are far more than their struggles. They are inquisitive, delightful young people with hearts as big as their minds. They’re often sensitive and have a strong sense of justice. These students are hilarious (sometimes at your expense, but you’ll laugh in spite of yourself). They will demand the best of you as a teacher: asking questions even you never considered, finding every potential loophole in your rubric, and flying through material at warp speed. Simply put, they are astonishing.

Most districts don’t have a separate program for highly gifted children, let alone a separate school. Because of this, teachers might not even know whether they have highly gifted students in their classes or how to best meet their needs.

Though I could drone at length about what I’ve learned about these amazing young people from teaching at SBAI, I think it’s way more effective for you to hear what they’re like from the source. Savera is one of my former students—a gifted writer, actress, and singer who often arranged the magnetic poetry on my board into shocking works of literary … uh … genius (you’ll see what I mean). I think you’ll be entertained and informed by what she has to say about herself and her highly gifted, or HG, peers. —Kelly Treleaven

What I Wish My Teachers Knew About Highly Gifted Students


By Savera Karia

We’re all very different.

Contrary to popular belief, not all of us fit in the “Sheldon from Big Bang Theory” pigeonhole. Each of us is unique and special, meaning we all have our own quirks, idiosyncrasies, and sensitivities. I’ll be honest: We’re high maintenance. Then again, if you’re familiar with highly gifted kids, you probably already know this. While some of us may have difficulty integrating into a “normal” school environment, assuming all of us share this difficulty can feel infantilizing. So if you’re thinking about asking  preteens to play with Play-Doh in the hopes that they’ll end up confessing their overwhelming negative emotions to their classmates, hate to break it to ya, but we’re not one-size-fits-all.

Unsolicited pressure? No thanks!

I’m not going to claim that every highly gifted student stays on track with their goals without needing a push from the adults around them, because that’s far from true. Personally, I’ve needed that push more times than I’d like to admit. There have been a few stretches where it was less like a push in the right direction and more like a tie-her-down-and-throw-her-in-the-back-of-a-prison-bus-while-it-speeds-in-the-right-direction kind of a situation.

Other times you just need faith. Just like any other student, we’re bound to screw up on occasion. However, repeated reminders that we aren’t performing up to standard can do more harm than good. With highly gifted kids, one has to remember that our academic capabilities have been overemphasized by almost everyone around us, constantly. So, when we feel like we’re making mistakes, it hurts not just our pride but our sense of identity. Most of the time, just that self-realization serves as fuel to figure out where we are going wrong. In those cases, the added reinforcement from our teachers that we aren’t doing well enough ends up making us feel like we want to, figuratively, punch them in the face.

We’re proud of our abilities, but singling us out can feel painful.

While many educators appreciate an academically advanced student, our fellow peers don’t often share the same sentiment. In fact (now, this sounds crazy but hear me out), some of our classmates might even resent us for it. And as a general rule, we don’t particularly love watching these peers roll their eyes when teachers single us out. Whether that’s constantly and publicly complimenting our work, or telling the entire class that our intelligence is “God-like” (yes, this has happened), we don’t appreciate it—and neither do our classmates. We’re teenagers, after all! More than anything, we want to feel like we belong.  If we don’t, we’ll be eaten alive, and constantly drawing attention to our differences ruins our already-bleak chances of survival.

Motivation is the biggest hurdle.

From my perspective, it seems that the hardest part of teaching HG kids is making the subject not feel like a massive waste of time. See, one thing we tend to be great at is getting into vicious cycles. Once we’ve lost interest in something, we struggle to learn anything, which, of course, leads to further disinterest. In order to prevent such a situation from occurring, there are three very secret keys to success when one has highly gifted students in their classroom: 

  • Establishing real-world ties to what you’re teaching so we know the subject isn’t pointless
  • Having the option to express what we’ve learned in a way that engages us so we know we understand the content
  • Having the opportunity to ask questions and receive patient explanations that actually make sense so we know you understand the content

We may be smart kids, but we’re still just smart kids.

It’s important to note that despite the academic strengths we might have, we are still children. Being a 12-year-old in precalculus doesn’t mean we can be lumped in with everything else that relates to 16-year-olds, and that includes the workload that people often assume isn’t an issue. We need the time to make weird jokes and write nonsensical poems about alien bosoms melting off like nachos (I speak only from experience). We need to feel like it’s acceptable to be our age, and that our academic capabilities do not condemn us to skipping our entire childhood. We grow up fast enough as it is, so let us enjoy Crocs and cooties while we can.

What are your thoughts about highly gifted students? Tell us in the comments!

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What I Wish My Teachers Knew About Highly Gifted Students