ERIC Identifier: ED321493
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Kaplan, Leslie S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Helping Gifted Students with Stress Management. ERIC Digest
Stress is the body's general response to any intense physical, emotional, or
mental demand placed on it by oneself or others. While racing to meet a
deadline, dealing with a difficult person, or earning a poor grade are all
stressful, so are the excitement of playing a lively game of tennis, falling in
love, and being selected to join a special program for gifted students.
HOW CAN A YOUNGSTER EXPERIENCE STRESS WHEN NOTHING BAD IS HAPPENING?
Anything can be a stressor if it lasts long enough, happens
often enough, is strong enough, or is perceived as stress. Working diligently on
a project, performing many simple but boring tasks, or earning an "A" grade when
one expected an "A+" may all be stressful.
IS A GIFTED STUDENT MORE LIKELY TO FEEL STRESS THAN
Many gifted youngsters have a heightened sensitivity to their
surroundings, to events, to ideas, and to expectations. Some experience their
own high expectations for achievement as a relentless pressure to excel.
Constant striving to live up to self-expectations--or those of others--to be
first, best, or both can be very stressful. With every new course, new teacher,
or new school, questions arise about achievement and performance, since every
new situation carries with it the frightening risk of being mediocre. Striving
becomes even more stressful when unrealistic or unclear expectations are imposed
by adults or peers. The pressure to excel, accompanied by other concerns such as
feeling different, self-doubt (the "imposter" syndrome), and the need to prove
their giftedness can drain the energy of gifted students and result in
Stress occurs even when everything is going well. Youngsters get tired from
their constant efforts and may secretly fear that next time they will not be as
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER STRESSES ON A GIFTED STUDENT?
gifted students accept responsibility for a variety of activities such as a
demanding courseload; leadership in school activities, clubs, or sports; and
part-time jobs. Even if it were humanly possible, doing everything well would be
physically and emotionally stressful.
Vacations may be stressful if students are comfortable only when achieving
and succeeding. Taking time off may make them feel nervous and lacking control.
Gifted students need intellectual challenge. Boring, monotonous busy-work is
very stressful for individuals who prefer thinking and reasoning activities.
Boredom may result in anger, resentment, or, in some cases, setting personal
goals for achievement and success that significantly exceed those of parents or
Some gifted students value independence and leadership, yet the separation
they feel from their peers results in loneliness and fewer opportunities to
relieve stress. Finding a peer group can be difficult, particularly for
adolescents. Some experience a conflict between belonging to a group and using
their extraordinary abilities.
Gifted students are complex thinkers, persuasively able to argue both sides
of any question. This ability, however, may complicate decisions. Students may
lack information about and experience with resources, processes, outcomes, or
priorities that help tip an argument toward a clear solution. Furthermore, not
every problem has one obviously correct answer. Compromise and accommodation are
realities in the adult world, but they are not easily perceived from a young
person's viewpoint. Thus, decision making may be a very stressful process.
HOW CAN STRESS HURT A GIFTED STUDENT'S SELF-ESTEEM?
the early years, school may be easy, with minimum effort required for success.
If students are not challenged, they conclude that "giftedness" means instant
learning, comprehension, and mastery, and that outstanding achievement follows
naturally. As years pass, however, schoolwork becomes more difficult. Some
students discover that they must work harder to earn top grades and that they
have not developed productive study habits. Many suspect they are no longer
gifted, and their sense of self-worth is undermined.
Stress can hamper the very abilities that make these students gifted. Stress
clouds thinking, reduces concentration, and impairs decision making. It leads to
forgetfulness and a loss of ability to focus keenly on a task, and it makes
students overly sensitive to criticism. Under these conditions, they perform
less well and are more upset by their failures.
GIFTED STUDENTS HAVE SO MUCH POTENTIAL. HOW CAN THAT BE STRESSFUL?
Abundant gifts and the potential for success in many different
subjects and careers may increase opportunities and lead to complex choices.
Limiting options is a confusing and upsetting process because it means saying "no" to some attractive alternatives. A person cannot prepare to become an
architect and a financial planner, or an advertising executive and a scientist.
At some point, the education needed for one career splits from that needed for
the other. To set career goals, students must know themselves well as
individuals. They must understand their own personalities, values, and goals and
use self-awareness as a guide for making decisions. These activities are all
HOW CAN GIFTED STUDENTS COPE WITH STRESS?
Some ways of
coping with stress are healthy; others are not. Some healthy ways of handling
stress include the following:
Change the source of the stress. Do something else for a while. Put down
those study notes and jog for an hour.
Confront the source of the stress. If it is a person, persuade him or her to
remove the stress. Ask the teacher for an extension on a project. Sit down with
the person driving you crazy and talk about ways you might better work together.
Talk about the source of stress. Rid yourself of frustration. Find a good
listener and complain. Talk through possible solutions.
Shift your perspective. Tell yourself that each new situation or problem is a
new challenge, and that there is something to be learned from every experience.
Try to see the humorous side of the situation.
Learn skills and attitudes that make tasks easier and more successful.
Practice effective organization and time-management skills. For example, large
projects are easier and less overwhelming when broken down into manageable
steps. Learn to type and revise assignments on a word processor. Learn about
yourself and your priorities, and use the information to make decisions. Learn
how to say "no" gracefully when someone offers you another attractive (or
unpleasant) task about which you have a choice. Tell yourself that this
unpleasantness will be over soon and that the whole process will bring you
closer to reaching your goal. Mark the days that are left on the calendar, and
enjoy crossing out each one as you near the finish.
Take time out for enjoyable activities. Everyone needs a support system. Find
friends, teachers, or relatives with whom you have fun. Spend time with these
people when you can be yourself and set aside the pressures of school, work, or
difficult relationships. As a reward for your efforts, give yourself work
breaks. Listen to your favorite music, shoot baskets, or participate in some
other brief activity that is mentally restful or fun.
Ignore the source of the stress. Practice a little healthy procrastination
and put a pleasant activity ahead of the stressful one. This, is, of course,
only a short-term solution.
Get regular physical exercise and practice sound nutrition. Physical activity
not only provides time out, but also changes your body chemistry as you burn off
muscle tension built up from accommodating stress. Exercise also increases
resistance to illness. Nutritious food and regular meals help regulate your body
chemistry and keep you functioning at your sharpest. Eating healthy and
attractively prepared food can be an enjoyable activity on its own.
The following are some unhealthy ways students cope with stress:
Escaping through alcohol, drugs, frequent illness, sleep, overeating, or
starving themselves. These strategies suggest a permanent withdrawal or
avoidance rather than a time out.
Selecting strategies to avoid failure. Gifted students closely link their
identities to excellence and achievement. Failure, or even the perception of
failure, seriously threatens their self-esteem. By not trying, or by selecting
impossible goals, students can escape having their giftedness questioned. Only
their lack of effort will be questioned.
Aiming too low. This reduces stress by eliminating intense pressure or
possible feelings of failure. Dogged procrastination in starting projects,
selecting less competitive colleges or less rigorous courses, or dropping out of
school rather than bringing home poor grades allows students to avoid feelings
of failure in the short run. Sadly, this sets the stage for long-term
disappointment caused by a destructive coping style.
Overscheduling daily life with schoolwork and extracurricular activities,
selecting impossibly demanding courseloads, or fussing endlessly over
assignments in vain attempts to make them perfect. With this strategy, it is
possible to succeed only through superhuman effort; thus the student can save
face by setting goals too high for anyone to achieve.
HOW CAN I TELL WHETHER OR NOT A GIFTED STUDENT IS EXPERIENCING BURNOUT?
Not all gifted youngsters are stressed by the same
events. Individual responses to stress also differ. Younger students do not tend
to respond to stress in the same way that teenagers do. Since each student is
unique, parents and teachers will have to watch carefully to know whether a
child is stressed to the point of constructive excitement or to the point of
The following checklist includes many, but not all, symptoms of burnout:
is no longer happy or pleasantly excited about school activities, but, rather,
is negative or cynical toward work, teachers, classmates, parents, and the whole
school- and achievement-centered experience.
approaches most school assignments with resignation or resentment.
suffers from sleeplessness, problems in falling asleep, or periodic waking.
overreacts to normal concerns or events.
experiences fatigue, extreme tiredness, low energy level.
exhibits unhappiness with self and accomplishments.
has nervous habits such as eye blinking, head shaking, or stuttering.
has physical ailments such as weekly or daily stomachaches or headaches.
is frequently ill.
exhibits dependency through increased clinging or needing and demanding constant
support and reassurance.
engages in attention-getting behaviors such as aggressive or acting-out
has a sense of being trapped or a feeling or being out of control.
is unable to make decisions.
has lost perspective and sense of humor.
experiences increased feelings of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion in
work and activities that used to give pleasure.
HOW CAN PARENTS, TEACHERS, AND COUNSELORS REDUCE STRESS ON
Help each gifted student understand and cope with his or
her intellectual, social, and emotional needs during each stage of development.
In some ways, the needs of gifted students mirror those of more typical
children. Giftedness, however, adds a special dimension to self-understanding
and self-acceptance. If gifted youngsters are to develop into self-fulfilled
adults, the following differential needs must be addressed: (a) the need to
understand the ways in which they are different from others and the ways in
which they are the same; (b) the need to accept their abilities, talents, and
limitations; (c) the need to develop social skills; (d) the need to feel
understood and accepted by others; and (e) the need to develop an understanding
of the distinction between "pursuit of excellence" and "pursuit of perfection." VanTassel-Baska (1989) and Delisle (1988) have offered useful suggestions on how
to meet these needs.
Help each gifted student develop a realistic and accurate self-concept.
Giftedness does not mean instant mastery or winning awards. Parents and teachers
need to set realistic expectations for efforts and achievements and help the
student choose appropriate goals. It is important to recognize and appreciate
efforts and improvement.
On the other hand, giftedness permits people to learn and use information in
unusual ways. Given parental support and encouragement, personal motivation, and
opportunities to learn and apply their knowledge, gifted students may enjoy the
process of creating new ideas, especially if they believe that it is all right
to think differently than age-mates.
Help each gifted student be a whole person. Gifted youngsters are children
first and gifted second. While their learning styles may be special, they are
individuals with emotions, likes and dislikes, and unique personalities. They
will not wake up one day and be "not gifted." They should not feel responsible
for solving world problems, nor does the world owe them tribute. It is up to
each student to make life meaningful. Understanding these realistic limits to
the bounty of giftedness can reduce stress on confused students.
Gifted students have strong emotions that give personal meaning to each
experience. Emotions should be recognized, understood, and used as a valid basis
for appropriate behaviors.
Show patience. Let students select and strive toward their own goals. Do not
compare them or their achievements to others. Some gifted students are intensely
curious and may have less tolerance for ambiguity and unpredictability than
their age-mates. Help them develop patience with themselves.
Show acceptance and encouragement. Encourage students to work purposefully,
thoughtfully, and thoroughly and do the best they can. It is not necessary to
excel in every situation. Help them develop priorities to decide which tasks
require the best efforts and which require simply "good enough."
Accept and reward efforts and the process of working on tasks. Sincere effort
is valuable in itself and deserves reinforcement. The means may be more
deserving of merit than the ends. Efforts are within the gifted students'
control; the outcomes (high grades, prizes, honors, etc.) are not. Show love and
acceptance, regardless of the outcome. These youngsters need to be cherished as
individuals, not simply for their accomplishments. They must know that they can
go home and be loved--and continue to love themselves--even when they do not
finish first or best.
Encourage flexibility and appropriate behavior. Curiosity is frequently
mentioned as a characteristic of gifted learners. Many individuals agree that
gifted students seem to question rules automatically, asking "How come?"
Concerned adults can reduce stress on gifted students by helping them
distinguish between hard-and-fast rules that should be followed and those that
can safely be questioned or altered and helping them understand why rules
sometimes change from time to time.
Many people recognize that new ideas come from reshaping and discarding old
notions of right and wrong and want students to be inquiring, creative, and
resourceful thinkers. But society, schools, teachers, and academic subjects have
rules. In our society, flagrant rule breakers may be penalized and shut out of
opportunities for further growth and enrichment. Our students will become better
thinkers by learning that rules are man-made guides to behavior, not perfect or
divine, but they are to be learned, understood, and followed appropriately in
certain situations. For instance, not every student will like every teacher, but
showing respect is appropriate behavior even if the student privately thinks
otherwise. Wise adults can model problem-solving methods that result in workable
solutions and help gifted students learn when and how to use their novel
perceptions, creativity, and independent thoughts appropriately and effectively.
Understanding and following rules does not mean conforming to every
situation. There are some occasions when gifted students should not be expected
to accommodate others. For example, a severe mismatch between a youngster's
ability level and a school program may be very stressful. Altering the student's
curriculum may solve the problem.
Some parents unintentionally send mixed messages regarding behavior. When
children are rude or uncooperative and offend teachers, other adults, or peers,
their parents behave as though giftedness somehow excuses such behavior and the
offending actions highlight their child's specialness. Some even seem pleased.
These parents do their children a great disservice by denying them the
opportunity to learn empathy, teamwork, and tolerance for individual
Let students live their own lives. Caring adults support, encourage, and
celebrate students' efforts and successes, but they stand back a bit from these
efforts and achievements. They let students select and master activities for
personal enjoyment. Unfortunately, some students wonder whether their efforts
and gains are for personal satisfaction or to please overly involved parents,
teachers, or others. When these students wish to give up an activity that no
longer brings pleasure or interest, they fear they will disappoint others, and
they are likely to feel trapped.
Be available for guidance and advice. Some gifted students appear to be more
mature than their chronological age indicates. They have advanced verbal skills
and can talk a good line. Nevertheless, they are still children and need
realistic, clearly stated guidelines about limits, values, and proper behavior.
These young people may not have enough information or experience to make wise
and effective decisions. They may not understand decision-making processes, and
they need wise adults to listen and guide as they talk through the problem, the
alternatives, and the pro's and con's and try out choices. Knowing that they can
be independent and still talk through their thoughts with others without losing
face reduces stress for these students.
Gifted students need to hear adults openly state some of their perspectives
to understand expectations and acceptable limits. While these students are very
perceptive, they cannot read minds.
Gifted students may know more facts about their interest area than do their
parents and other adults. However, they have not lived longer; they need loving
concern and guidance.
Delisle, J. R. (1988). "Stress and the gifted
child." UNDERSTANDING OUR GIFTED, 1 (1), 1, 12, 15-16.
VanTassel-Baska, J. (1989). "Counseling the gifted." In J. Feldhusen, J.
VanTassel-Baska, & K. Seeley, EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATING THE GIFTED (pp.
299-314). Denver, CO: Love Publishing.
Ellenhorn, J. H. (1988). "Rules, roles, and responsibilities." UNDERSTANDING
OUR GIFTED, 1(2), 1,12, 13.
Higham, S., & Buescher, T. M. (1987). "What young gifted adolescents
understand about 'feeling different.'" In T. M. Buescher (Ed.), UNDERSTANDING
GIFTED AND TALENTED ADOLESCENTS: A RESOURCE GUIDE FOR COUNSELORS, EDUCATORS, AND
PARENTS (pp. 26-30). Evanston, IL: Center for Talent Development, Northwestern
Kaplan, L. S. (1983). "Mistakes gifted young people too often make." ROEPER
REVIEW, 6 (2), 73-77.
Pelsma, D. M. (1988). "Children coping with stress: A workshop for parents."
THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR, 36 (2), 153-157.
Pines, A. M., & Aronson, E., with Kafry, D. (1981). BURNOUT: FROM TEDIUM
TO PERSONAL GROWTH. New York: The Free Press.
Selye, H. (1978). THE STRESS OF LIFE (rev. ed). New York: McGraw-Hill.
VanTassel-Baska, J. (Ed.) (1990). A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO COUNSELING THE GIFTED
IN A SCHOOL SETTING (2nd ed.). Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional
Children/ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children.
Webb, J. T., Meckstroth, E.A., & Tolan, S. S. (1982). GUIDING THE GIFTED
CHILD. Columbus: Ohio Psychology Publishing.
Prepared by Leslie S. Kaplan, Director of Guidance, York County Public
Schools, Virginia, and author of COPING WITH PEER PRESSURE and COPING WITH