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  • Writer's pictureThe Knox School of Santa Barbara

Gifted Girls - Part 2


This article by Joan Smutny 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. Characteristics of Gifted Girls To identify gifted girls in the classroom, educators really must draw from multiple criteria. Rather than rely on test scores alone, teachers should be alert for behaviors that indicate giftedness. Following are some general guidelines for detecting talent in gifted girls. 1. Become familiar with a range of gifted behaviors common in the general population of gifted students. Examples include:

  • Academic Behaviors

  • Reads voraciously and retains what she reads

  • Communicates ideas well both verbally and in writing

  • Possesses superior analytical and conceptual abilities

  • Explores issues from multiple points of view

  • Creative Behaviors

  • Expresses unusual, out-of-the-ordinary points of view

  • Demonstrates special ability in the visual arts

  • Shows promise in performing arts (music, drama, dance)

  • Manifests improvisational ability in a variety of contexts

2. Become aware of the special challenges of gifted girls:

  • Low self-esteem

  • Apathy, based on resignation or feelings of inferiority

  • Fear of taking risks

  • Exaggerated concern about being accepted among peers

  • Ambivalent feelings about talent

  • Conflict between cultural identity and school achievement

3. Examine the signs of potential giftedness in this population. While each girl expresses talent in very unique ways, common indicators include:

  • Discrepancies between performance and self-concept

  • Discrepancies between average or low test scores and exceptional originality, imagination and insight in independent projects or assignments

  • Disinclination to participate, despite signs of talent or ability

  • Sudden, unaccountable appearance of some ability in a seemingly average girl

  • Misbehavior in class that shows ingenuity (despite its disruptiveness) or reveals leadership ability

  • Notable contrast between school performance and the abilities, achievements and/or activities reported by parents or community members

Contexts for Discovering Giftedness in the Classroom In order to find the behaviors that indicate giftedness, teachers need to broaden the range of activities in which talent can occur. Tests and in-class assignments do not always reveal talent in many gifted girls. They may appear to be average students until some unique challenge inspires them. Teacher and parent observations, as well as a greater variety of student projects, will produce a clearer, more detailed view of girls' abilities (Eby & Smutny, 1990). Gathering information from a variety of sources is even more vital for gifted girls from other cultures and from socioeconomic backgrounds which add unique stresses to their school achievement. Torrance (1977), a pioneer in identifying talent in culturally different and lower-income children, maintained that giftedness often occurs in behaviors that are easier to observe than to measure. He created a list to encourage teachers to think along new lines. The list provided useful examples of talent in populations that do not have all the advantages of a white, middle-class environment. Following are some of these indicators as a guide for locating talent in culturally different girls:

  • Ability to improvise with commonplace materials and objects

  • Articulateness in role playing, sociodrama and story telling

  • Enjoyment of and ability in creative movement, dance, dramatics, etc.

  • Use of expressive speech

  • Enjoyment of and skills in group activities, problem solving

  • Responsiveness to the concrete

  • Responsiveness to the kinesthetic

  • Expressiveness of gestures, body language, etc. and ability to interpret body language

  • Humor

  • Richness of imagery in informal language

  • Originality of ideas in solving problems

  • Problem-centeredness or persistence in problem solving.

  • Emotional responsiveness (p. 26)

In the context of formal schooling, peer pressure to underachieve among culturally different students is strong, especially where many of the teachers and administrators are white. In addition, many girls find the competitive structure intimidating and isolating. Gilligan's (1982) research on the moral psychology of women demonstrates how girls adopt an ethic of caring that conflicts with the competitive structures of the classroom. Many culturally different and low-income students experience academic achievement as a betrayal to their social group. Consider Lakesha's story. An attractive African-American junior high student, she sat silently in the corner, never speaking. Although Lakesha was extremely bright, she was shy and performed more like an average student. Added to her discomfort was the fact that her good looks attracted the attention of the boys who enjoyed staring at her and making remarks just loud enough for her to hear. Lakesha felt uncomfortable about this, because it seemed to make the other girls, with whom she wished to be friends, feel hostile toward her. In response, she retreated into herself. One day, the teacher showed a film about several American artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe. Lakesha was enthralled. As she looked at the O'Keeffe paintings, she felt she could dive into the vibrant colors and shapes and never come back. After the film, the teacher asked the students to write responses--stories, poems, essays--about what they had seen. Lakesha wrote a startlingly beautiful and eloquent poem, which was sincerely admired and praised by both teacher and the other students. This one experience represented a turning point for Lakesha, who continued creating poetry, allowing her considerable writing talent to flourish. The opportunity to choose other ways to explore a subject creates neutral ground, as well as freedom from the constraints and pressures of more conventional assignments. In this case, the simple alternative of a poetic medium gave Lakesha a whole new view of herself as a student. Another strategy which can bring buried talent to the surface is small-group activities or paired work with students with whom gifted girls feel a freedom to express themselves. This can be particularly effective in math and science, where, for reasons having nothing to do with competence or talent, female achievement in all socioeconomic populations has lagged significantly behind male performance (AAUW, 1992). Another girl, Magdalena, had mathematical talent. Her mother remembered how quickly she computed the prices in the grocery store and how she enjoyed calculating what they would save if they bought the cheaper brands. Magdalena was a Latina who attended a school where the other Latina girls, her best friends, did not share her academic interests or drive. But Magdalena continually resisted placement in groups with students who shared her intellectual needs and who performed at her level; over time, she was becoming an average student. As with Lakesha above, sometimes individual acts can influence a person's self-perception and approach, and so it was also with Magdalena. Her teacher gave the class a math problem, allowing students to work with friends. Magdalena quickly grouped together with her two best girlfriends, both of whom were very weak in math. Throughout the exercise, she enjoyed helping them understand the concepts, and, in the process of answering her friends' questions, they discovered a new approach to the problem. Because her friends benefited from Magdalena's talents and felt affirmed by their joint success, she felt renewed encouragement to express her academic gifts. Recognizing this small spark, the teacher looked for such opportunities and incorporated more "elective groupings" in her lessons. Cooperative activities that focus on invention and exploration will offer teachers more opportunities for discovering math and science talent in gifted girls and encouraging them to develop their gifts. This would be especially helpful for gifted minority girls who feel they have to pay, at least initially, a high social price for exceptional achievement. It is important to understand that identifying gifted girls demands more than simply expanding the methods of identification. Concerned teachers may need to consider at least some minor changes in the instructional strategies and activities they use. Girls cannot express talents for teachers to identify if the conditions for their expression do not exist. Even a few activities, integrated now and then into the regular curriculum, can encourage them to take risks. Gifted girls crave freedom. They long for someone to see who they are, open the often closed door of their minds and say, "Go, fly!" Since they cannot give themselves permission to fly, they need the aid of a discerning adult. For gifted girls, a sensitive, caring teacher may be all that stands between quiet resignation and the beginning of fulfillment of their potential. Torrance (1983) perhaps provides the best guidance for the gifted girl who is unsure of where to turn when he suggests:

  1. Don't be afraid to fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity and depth.

  2. Know, understand, take pride in, practice, develop, use, exploit and enjoy your greatest strengths.

  3. Learn to free yourself from the expectations of others and to walk away from the games that others try to impose upon you. Free yourself to "play your own game" in such a way as to make good use of your gifts. Search out and cultivate great teachers or mentors who will help you accomplish these things.

  4. Don't waste a lot of expensive energy trying to do things for which you have little ability or love. Do what you can do well and what you love, giving freely of the infinity of your greatest strengths and most intense loves (p. 78).

This article was reprinted with permission from the author. 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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