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  • Writer's pictureThe Knox School of Santa Barbara

Gifted Girls - Part 1


This article by Joan Smutney addresses some of the issues gifted girls face once they are in school. Gifted girls may feel they have to pay a high price for their talent because they are treated differently by their peers than the girls of average ability. They may also find that gifted boys are encouraged much more than girls. At times, these girls do not even realize they are gifted, they just know that they are different and sometimes feel like they are strange or something is wrong with them. The article outlines traits of gifted girls and recommends avenues to take with these children to help them to be able to express their potential rather than trying to hide their gift or adapting to an average life. "Just recently," reports 5-year-old Samantha's mother, "she drew a very accurate representation of the world on a napkin. In her drawing she identified specifically Africa, Europe and Asia, as well as individual countries, like Italy and Turkey. In kindergarten, they've looked over a map of the United States." "At age 2, she heard Copeland's 'Rodeo' used in a TV ad," Elizabeth's father related, "and identified both title and composer from having heard it once before. In school Lizzy, now 6, does 5th-grade reading and spelling words. Basic principles of science were also too easy for her, so the teacher designs different curriculum just for her in all those areas." Emily's parents sat together, with the mother speaking as her husband nodded. "Our daughter's in 1st grade but goes to 2nd for math. The teacher was discussing the commutative property of addition with the class, saying that 3 plus 5 is the same as 5 plus 3. She then asked about subtraction--was 5 minus 3 the same as 3 minus 5. The other students all said 3 minus 5 was impossible, but Emily said it was possible and that it would be 'a number under zero. 2 under.' All by herself, she'd 'invented' negative numbers." In the above instances, parents describe their young gifted daughters at a time in their lives when the world is a fascinating and wide-open field for understanding and discovery. It is a time often remembered wistfully in later years, when these same children begin a gradual retreat from their talents and lose interest in school. Many parents I know refer to this earlier period and wonder how the wide-eyed, buoyant and energetic girls they used to know became stricken with shyness, isolated from their peers and apathetic about learning, leaving all those many talents and interests barely visible. Gifted girls often face a range of social pressures in schools, causing them to shift priorities. In an accepting home environment, they may have felt free to be themselves, to pursue with energy and interest any subject that intrigued them. But in school, the desire for friends, a disinclination to stand out, fear of ridicule, along with the need for acceptance, often impel gifted girls to make their abilities appear ordinary or even nonexistent. One parent observed: "My daughter has become very, very shy and doesn't want to stand out in any way. As a result, she's reluctant to express information that would indicate that she knows anything beyond what's asked of her." Special Needs of Gifted Girls Gifted girls from all ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds are living an invisible life in classrooms across the nation. Kerr (1994) observes: "A society that wastes female brilliance has made it the norm for gifted women to lead an average life, and gifted women have largely adapted to that norm" (p. 171). The subtle and not-so-subtle messages downplaying the value of female achievement often begin early and accumulate over time. By age 11, many gifted girls do not know they have talents. Others, who know, guard it as a well-kept secret. This means that the abilities they could use to develop their potential are instead wasted on adjusting others' expectations (Eby & Smutny, 1990). For gifted girls, the discrepancy between ability and self-image may assume different forms, depending on their unique characteristics and background. Gifted girls may be those who: ● achieve well but remain blind to their accomplishments; ● perform poorly despite their high ability and attribute their poor performance to low intelligence; ● are disinterested in school or achievement and excel socially, sometimes assuming popular leadership in negative ways. These behaviors are signals that gifted girls need help--signals that will become increasingly faint as they grow older. Researchers have discovered that many girls, especially in the junior and senior high school years, have ambivalent feelings about self-expression and experience a conflict between "caring for themselves and caring for others, between their understanding of the world and their awareness that it is not appropriate to speak or act on this understanding" (AAUW, 1992, p. 12). So, the question may arise: What do gifted girls need that all girls do not? The answer is that while all girls need an ongoing support system for their development and freedom, gifted girls require support that is particularly sensitive to the dilemma that talent brings to the position of females in our society. Gifted girls face a quandary. They have abilities urging them forward, prompting them to explore all that education has to offer, yet education does not run to meet them. When boys ask questions, call out their answers (sometimes without raising their hands) or engage in debate, adults tend to see the signs of eager minds at work. Girls receive reprimands or disapproval for behavior deemed aggressive, pushy, unfeminine or impolite. This message is not lost on gifted girls. Gifted girls assume all sorts of extra burdens that educators need to understand. Often they don't know about their own gifts and talents. They only know they're different and, for many, they perceive that this difference is somehow strange or wrong. Consider the story of Leah and her early schooling, what amounts to an object lesson for girls, their parents and teachers. Leah's mother was a visual artist who stimulated her bright young daughter's imagination with books and art projects. Leah entered school as an unidentified gifted child but brimming with the stories and imaginative worlds she had invented. Most of the 1st-grade work bored her, except drama, an area in which she had free reign to imagine and explore. She looked forward to her class's daily drama time, which inspired her and made her feel free. But her mother grew concerned when Leah, who had always talked to herself and run around imagining things, started withdrawing from usual activities and staying up very late, far beyond her bedtime, to carry on with her creative play. Eventually, her mother met with school officials, and Leah was sent to the library during drama time. The little girl was crushed; the only spark of her day had been taken away and she never knew why. All she knew was that this thing she had--what was later understood as her gift, an imaginative force that drove her to explore and discover more and more worlds--was wrong, an unacceptable bent that would get her in trouble. Because she was only 6, believed in this "wrongness" of her passion and didn't want to get into trouble, she didn't question the decision, never spoke of her disappointment. This was the unfortunate beginning of a long and unsatisfactory school experience for Leah; she buried out-of-sight all that made her unique and devoted herself to anticipating others' demands and expectations. How might have things been different for this child if she'd been recognized and encouraged to use her own voice? In addition to their acute sensitivity, gifted girls play mental games with themselves--learned games they do unconsciously--in response to the conflicting expectations they experience both as girls and as talented people. Two examples frequently explored in the research are: ● "The Horner Effect" or fear of success, in which girls purposely hold back because of a need to please others (rather than compete with them), a need that is more intense with gifted than average girls (Kerr, 1994) ● "The Impostor Phenomenon," in which girls feel pressured to explain away their success since it goes contrary to social expectations and their own self-image. They maintain that they performed well due to luck or because people did not evaluate them properly (Kerr, 1994). Adults need to develop strategies for helping gifted girls negotiate around this emotional mine field. Many talented girls need to learn to recognize their own gifts and the emotional challenges that accompany them (Garrison, 1989). As a group, girls receive far less reinforcement than boys. Research has proven that the content or quality of teacher responses to girls' work differs significantly from that offered for boys' work. Based on a three-year study of more than 100 4th-, 6th- and 8th-grade classrooms, Sadker and Sadker (1994) identified four kinds of teacher response: praise, acceptance, remediation and criticism. "While males received more of all four types of teacher comments, the difference favoring boys was greatest in the more useful teacher reactions of praise, criticism and remediation. When teachers took the time and made the effort to specifically evaluate a student's performance, the student receiving the comment was more likely to be male" (AAUW, 1992, p. 69). Adults who are not aware of the unique sensitivities of gifted girls may inadvertently encourage destructive behaviors. Alas, sometimes, too much praise and confidence in a girl's ability may make it difficult for her to admit she needs help or result in dismissing her requests altogether. Ellen had this problem. She had considerable musical talent--at a young age she had perfect pitch and played quite expertly on the piano, but she couldn't read music. No one taught her because she already seemed to know how. When she tried to persuade adults that she couldn't, they would actually say things to her such as, "Oh don't be silly; of course, you can. Look at how you play!" Her desire to please increased her fear of failure and, eventually, of having her "flaw" discovered. The expectation that she should be able to do something which she had never learned to do set up her faulty, but not uncommon, logical model. Before too long, any gap in her knowledge made her feel that she was really a fraud. Not being able to read music sowed the seeds of low self-esteem, which her musical talent only intensified. People continued to expect her to perform at an extremely high level, while she herself struggled against this missing piece of musical education. Ellen came to expect extraordinary performance from herself, without having taken the steps or experiencing the freedom to learn and secure a solid musical foundation. Gifted girls can progress beyond self-defeating assessments of themselves when supportive adults listen to their concerns, questions and comments, and then go on to offer validation and reassuring responses that provide direction for their work. Ellen knew what was missing in her piano playing, but no one listened to her. As a result of her experiences, she began to doubt the value of her own voice--a common experience among girls (Gilligan, 1982). What she needed were sincerely listening adults who would have believed what she was telling them and then honored her requests for information.

Joan Franklin Smutny, Director of the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University in Illinois, teaches graduate students. Her books include Teaching Young Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom; and The Young Gifted Child: Potential and Promise, an Anthology.

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