Counseling Gifted and Talented Students

Fall 2002 Masthead

Nicholas Colangelo
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA


I began my work in gifted education with a focus on counseling needs in 1973 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shortly after the Marland Report (1972), which brought gifted students to the consciousness of the nation. At that time, counseling and the focus on social-emotional needs was a rarity. Almost all attention was focused on identification issues and academic programming issues. As the years have passed, identification and academic programming have maintained their importance, and at times were overshadowed by issues such as teacher training, gender, ethnicity, inclusion, genetics vs. environment, and IQ vs. multiple forms of intelligences. Throughout these years of musical chairs regarding the in issue, the social-emotional needs of gifted has continued to be a solid, expanding concern, but never the star.

In 1973 you could count on one finger all the leaders in gifted education who made counseling issues their primary focus. In 2002 there is considerably more respect and attention for the social-emotional issues regarding gifted children (i.e., attention to counseling needs) than previously. A good example of today’s attention on social-emotional issues is the publication of the NAGC book by Neihart, Reis, Robinson, and Moon (2002) titled The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know?

My research throughout the years has focused on several areas, but I have remained connected to counseling issues and social-emotional development. A brief summary follows, highlighting my research as well as my clinical insights based on years of working in counseling situations with students, parents, and educators.


A defining characteristic of counselors is their use of the qualifiers “seems” and “appears.” For example, “It seems that Lisa is angry.” “It appears that David is underachieving as a way to get attention.” A counselor recognizes that an individual is complex and a composite of apparent paradoxes and thus does not want to make definitive statements that can be challenged. Gifted students, if nothing else, are complex. However, it does no good to pretend there are certain things we do not know when we do. Currently, we know considerably more about the social-emotional issues confronting gifted students based on research and clinical observation. To know something in the scientific sense does not mean it is an absolute or that it holds in a particular way in all circumstances. If this became a standard, we would know nothing. Scientific knowledge is an understanding of patterns and dispositions with the recognition that there are exceptions to all that we know about human behavior and development. As our research improves, exceptions become just that, rather than indices of the absence of a knowledge base. The following insights are based on a synthesis of research as well as my own observations/work over the past nearly three decades.

  • Gifted students are typically as well adjusted as other peers.
  • Social-emotional issues are present because of exceptional ability.
  • In our society it is not smart to be smart.
  • Meeting the cognitive needs of gifted students often meets simultaneously their social-emotional needs.
  • Teenage years are the most difficult socially for gifted students.
  • To be a gifted minority student is an added social challenge for these students.
  • Intelligence is no assurance of character.
  • Gifted students are not prone to suicide in any greater numbers than other students in their age group.
  • Depression, anxiety, and isolation are among the common difficulties with gifted students.
  • Gifted students do not have lower or more inflated self-concepts than nongifted age peers.
  • Gifted students are more sensitive to the social needs of their nongifted peers than the reverse.
  • The messages that students receive from society about exceptional talent are only ambivalent in regards to intellectual talent.
  • Underachievement in schools by gifted students is a manifestation of a combination of social-psychological tensions.
  • Parents do not always know what is best for their gifted children.
  • It is possible to be gifted and disabled (or have a disorder) simultaneously.
  • Children benefit from counselors as part of their development in schools. Gifted students get less than their share of counselor time and attention.

The self-concept construct has deep historical roots in psychology and education. Self-concept can be viewed as a “powerful system of cognitive structures that is quite likely to mediate interpretation of and response to events and behaviors directed at or involving the individual” (Nurius, 1986, p. 435).

A number of studies (see Neihart, 1999) have indicated that there are no differences between gifted and nongifted students on measures of self-concept. Self-concept needs to be viewed as multidimensional (Colangelo & Assouline, 1995, 2000) and changes with schooling. Colangelo and Assouline (1995) found that:

  • self-concept of gifted students is lower in high school than elementary school
  • as gifted students progress in school they become more anxious and isolated
  • gifted students have higher self-concepts in academic domains, and lower in interpersonal domains.

Closely related to self-concept is how students view their own giftedness. A study by Kerr, Colangelo, and Gaeth (1988) indicated that giftedness is seen by teenagers as a positive when it came to personal understanding and to performance in academics. However, they saw giftedness as a negative when it came to relations with peers.

Positive self-concept is associated with challenge-seeking, willingness to do hard work, take risks, and accuracy in evaluating one’s performance (Neihart et al., 2002).

At-risk Students

Gifted students are vulnerable to a number of issues and situations that can hamper their cognitive as well as affective development. Gifted students are vulnerable to underachievement, defined as school attainment considerably below ability level (Neihart et al., 2002). The outcome of underachievement is always the same—performance below expectation. However, the reasons and sources for underachievement are varied and complex. They include social isolation, pressure to conform, under-curriculum, family dynamics, rebelliousness, learning/behavioral disabilities, attention-seeking, trauma, deliberate underachievement, and lack of goals and direction (Colangelo, Kerr, Christensen, & Maxey, 1993; Neihart et al., 2002; Peterson & Colangelo, 1996; Reis, 1998; Rimm, 1997).

There is concern about suicide and delinquency among gifted. The traumatic effects of suicide do not rely on numbers-one suicide is catastrophic. While the numbers of suicide among gifted are in no greater number than for other students (Neihart et al., 2002), counselors need to recognize signs and actively intervene for any student who appears at risk. Gifted students who are isolated, anxious, depressed, can be at risk for suicide. A cry for help must be heeded (Gust-Brey & Cross, 1999).

The research on delinquency among gifted students, like that on suicide, suggests no higher incidence than among other youngsters. Psychological problems can manifest themselves into anti-social and illegal behavior. Especially in the teenage environment, acceptance trumps reason and safety. There is some information based on self-reports by gifted students that they commit offenses, but are seldom caught or taken to court (Neihart et al., 2002; Seeley, 1984).

The research on minority students has been rather consistent indicating that minorities (except for Asian-Americans) are underrepresented in gifted programs. African-Americans, Latinos, and Native-Americans are well aware of their minority presence in gifted programs and are conflicted about their participation in such programs. A most unfortunate phenomenon afflicts minority students and that is the association of academic excellence (e.g., gifted program) with “acting White” (Colangelo, 2001; McWorther, 2000). Gifted minority students deal with all the issues that other gifted students deal with and additionally, the ethnic issues of whether they belong in such programs and how they will be viewed by their ethnic group if they participate. We are missing highly capable minority students because they are conflicted about wanting to be found or identified.

Family Counseling

The family has been recognized as a primary and critical component in the development of talent (Bloom, 1985; Moon & Hall, 1998; Moon, Jurich, & Feldhusen 1998). Although research and writings have increased in the last 20 years (Colangelo & Assouline, 1995; Moon & Hall, 1998; Moon, Jurich, & Feldhusen, 1998), counseling with families of gifted is still an area of exceptional need and challenge. High ability students tend to come from families that are cohesive, child-centered, authoritative, and in which parents engage with their children (Neihart et al., 2002). By no mean does this mean that gifted children do not emanate from families that do not fit those descriptors (Colangelo & Assouline, 1995; Moon & Hall, 1998).

One of the important roles that parents assume is a relationship with their child’s school. Parents of gifted children do not always have the skills to advocate effectively for their children, nor the interpersonal skills to work well with school personnel. Parents are not always prepared to take on the challenge of a child who has different needs.

The identification of one child in a family as gifted changes the dynamics with other siblings who are not identified. Research has indicated that labeling a child gifted can have negative effects on siblings (Colangelo & Brower, 1987; Cornell & Grossberg, 1986; Grenier, 1985).

Transition From High School to College and Career Counseling

Gifted students do not always know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and intelligence does not necessarily translate into planning skills for college and career. Many gifted students will experience difficulty at this stage because of multipotentiality (Rysiew, Shore, & Carson, 1994). Rysiew, Shore, and Leeb (1998) outline some of the main concerns in addressing mulitpotentiality:

  1. Students find it hard to narrow their choices to one career since they have so many equally viable options.
  2. Multipotential students may also suffer from perfectionism, thus they look for the perfect or ideal career.
  3. Students feel coerced from parents and others to make decisions based on status and high earning potential.
  4. Students must make commitments that may have long-term schooling (graduate, professional) and a delay of independence in terms of earning a salary as well as starting families. These long-term training investments are also emotionally perhaps, or financially difficult to change once a student has embarked for several years towards a particular career, even if there are serious doubts about the chosen career path.

A review of research and writings on career development of gifted students recommends the following for counselors (see Rysiew, Shore, & Leeb, 1998):

  1. Remind students that they do not have to limit themselves to one career.
  2. Use leisure activities as a way to continually develop areas of abilities and interest, apart from one’s career.
  3. Use career counseling as a value-based activity, exploring broad categories of life satisfaction.
  4. Emphasize peer discussions and group work with other multipotential youth so that one can see that he/she is not alone with concerns.

Some gifted students have very focused career interests at an early age while others do not develop them until late high school or start of college. Research does not indicate an advantage to either. Career counseling should emphasize rigorous academic preparation and high aspirations (Neihart et al., 2002) since that will keep options open. Gifted students will eventually find their passion or niche—keeping options open is important. Research has indicated that females and minorities of high ability do not always have aspirations and career goals that are high and consistent with their abilities (Kerr, 1991; Neihart et al., 2002).

Counseling in Schools

While there are counselors and therapists in private practice or working in community outreach centers, no counselor will be in as much contact with gifted students as the school counselor. School is still the place where giftedness (for the most part) will either flourish or not. School counselors receive little specific training on the affective needs of gifted students and it is the very rare counselor training program that requires counselors to take a course on gifted students as a degree requirement. Thus school counselors are grounded in counseling but not in theories of giftedness.

Counseling in schools can be envisioned as either remedial or developmental. In remedial counseling, the emphasis is on problem solving and crisis intervention. With this approach the counselor is a therapist who helps correct problems. In developmental counseling, the counselor also has a therapist role, but the primary function is to establish an environment in school that is conducive to the educational (cognitive and affective) growth of gifted students.

Final Comments

Counseling gifted students and their families is one of the most challenging and rewarding functions for a counselor. Gifted students have tremendous variability not only in their cognitive capacity, but in their affective development. While there are clearly common themes to the social-emotional issues confronting gifted students, there are profound individual differences among gifted students. The business of school counselors is to help young people recognize who they are, make decisions, and develop their potential. Gifted students need the assistance and nurturing counselors can provide. It will be a sign of effective schooling when counselors regularly use their skills and expertise with gifted and talented students in their schools.

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