There are two common conceptions of high-achieving gifted students and their relationship with academic stress: one, that gifted high achievers are more likely to feel stress because it is what compels them to work hard enough to succeed; and two, that gifted high achievers are less likely to feel stress because their previous successes bolster their confidence in tackling new challenges.
The tricky thing is that both of these statements are true.
There is even ample research literature supporting both ideas. Some research concludes that gifted students are more likely to feel stress if they’ve previously had little academic challenge, because easy academic success is central to their self-concept and identity, and is an increasingly fragile construct as coursework gets more challenging in high school. Additionally, the characteristic sensitivity that can accompany giftedness can lead to “unhealthy perfectionism, socialization problems, and heightened sensitivity as well as…external pressures, including overdemanding [sic] adults and unchallenging schoolwork” (Haberlin, 2015).
On the other hand, there is other research that says that high ability is a protective factor against stress, because more cognitive firepower means increased opportunity to think of and implement adaptive behaviors that result in reduced stress, including “self-regulating learning patterns [such as] task management, time management, problem-solving, and self-efficacy” (Shaunessy & Suldo, 2010).
So… which is it?
GIFTED AND COPING WITH ACADEMIC STRESS
First, it is important to distinguish giftedness from achievement. As we described in our recent piece on talent development, it is the difference between having high potential and doing something with it, the latter of which might be called “gifted behavior” (Renzulli, 1978). Gifted children are not always successful in school, just as high-achieving students might not always be gifted — effort and persistence play a major role in the way all students perform in the classroom, and those things are not always inextricably linked to intelligence.
As is so often the case, the rarity of gifted children means that there is less experimental, data-driven research that we can call upon to understand what is going on “under the hood,” so to speak; there are, however, a few studies specifically focusing on differences between gifted students and non-gifted but high-achieving students.
One such study describes a contrast between the way gifted and non-gifted students enrolled in an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program handled stress (Shaunessy & Suldo, 2010). IB programs are notoriously challenging and come with a demanding workload; while AP courses are selected “a la carte,” an IB diploma program is a complete high school meal of core courses and electives, so it is perhaps unsurprising that all the IB students in the study perceived higher levels of stress than their peers in the general education program at the same school, whether they were identified as gifted or not.
While there were some adaptive coping strategies shared by all IB students, there were also distinct differences between the gifted and non-gifted students. Gifted students were much more likely to avoid academic stress by participating in unrelated activities; to intentionally make a plan to alleviate the academic stress; and to use humor to manage their stress. Non-gifted IB students, on the other hand, were more likely to “engage in active, conscious problem solving and decision making” about their stress (an approach literally never mentioned by any of the gifted students); more likely to spend time with close friends (again, an idea that went unmentioned in the gifted); and more likely to do something relaxing to alleviate their stress. Gifted students were also slightly more likely to display angry behaviors in response to academic stress (sarcastic remarks, raising their voices, blaming others), which is perhaps reflective of their characteristic intensity (Shaunessy & Suldo, 2010).
The gifted and non-gifted students also described their social connections to students outside of the IB program in very different ways. While the non-gifted students generally turned to friends to take their minds off of academics by engaging in fun activities, the gifted students’ social connections served a different function. Instead of focusing solely on companionship, they explained that their friendships with non-IB students offered them a different frame of reference that allowed them to think about their own stress from an alternate perspective. Like the non-gifted students, they valued their friendships, but were also able to gain insight into their own problems by seeing them from a new angle after spending time with friends.
PERFECTLY STRESSED OUT
Those familiar with gifted students are likely also familiar with their tendency to perfectionism. Whether it originates in increased ability to envision an “ideal” outcome of their work or whether it is a response to a perceived expectation of nothing but excellence, perfectionism can be debilitating to a gifted student, preventing them from fully engaging in their education and learning enough to realize their potential.
They may “live in a constant state of frustration due to the ever-present gap [between] how they believe they are performing and their self-imposed, ambitious goals” (Haberlin, 2015). Some of this anxiety may turn into a paralysis whereby they avoid challenging work if there is a possibility that their efforts might yield less-than-perfect results.
Aside from anxiety in the moment, perfectionism may be accompanied by another long-term and insidious effect: burnout. Students who work incredibly hard to get to some perceived “finish line” — which may continually move from college acceptances to college honors to getting a “good” first job out of college, etc. — may find that once they arrive at the destination towards which they have been diligently striving, they have no more gas in the tank.
Gifted or not, they have achieved some goal, crossed some threshold they perceived to be critical to success and/or happiness in adulthood, only to be so exhausted when they arrive that they are in no condition to take full advantage of the moment or appreciate their accomplishment. Sadly, perfectionism can be self-defeating, tarnishing or even eroding entirely the pleasure of achieving a long-sought-after goal.
WHAT HAVE WE TAUGHT GIFTED STUDENTS ABOUT STRESS?
There is definitely something we have not taught them: how to effectively recognize and manage academic stress. Frustratingly, research on the efficacy of teaching gifted children mindfulness techniques, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy has failed to yield significant or promising results (Haberlin, 2010).
Research also shows that gifted students may need specific, explicit instruction about using the resources available in their schools, such as guidance counselors and/or school psychologists (Shaunessy & Suldo, 2010). Failure to take advantage of available supports to manage stress is not the same thing as self-reliance or independence, after all.
Then again, perhaps their reluctance is more intentional, reflecting instead an awareness that few such professionals (or few of their teachers, frankly) have specific training in the social-emotional development of gifted children to begin with, and are thus likely to be ill-equipped to help them. (You can hardly blame gifted children for finding that predicament less than appealing.)
It is clear that direct instruction about stress management would be beneficial for gifted students, especially those whose intrinsic drive towards challenge can be compromised by a streak of perfectionism. Happily, gifted students’ advanced vocabulary and abstract reasoning capabilities may make this particular kind of education more possible at younger ages than with typical students. Learning about metacognition — and neurology, especially, whose polysyllabic Latinate vocabulary is especially enticing to gifted children — is not only a novel subject in schools, but often a welcome one; after all, who doesn’t want an owner’s manual to their own brain?
While we wait for experimental research to provide data about the efficacy of different stress management techniques, perhaps the best thing we can do for gifted children is talk: talk to them about their brains, talk to them about their feelings, and talk to them about their stress.
If we provide challenging, enriched, highly responsive educational environments that show them that we care who they are and what they need, perhaps they will be less driven to join the frantic performance of high-GPA-flavored excellence. Perhaps they will instead be more comfortable being genuinely themselves rather than racing towards an ever-shifting and ultimately unfulfilling box-checking, GPA-optimizing, and emotionally exhausting finish line.
That is a goal whose importance we cannot stress enough.
American Psychological Association (2020). Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis. Retrieved October 11, 2021.
Connor, J., Pope, D., Galloway, M. Success with Less Stress.
Dwyer, L. (2014). When Anxiety Hits at School. The Atlantic. Retrieved October 11, 2021.
Haberlin, S. (2015). Don’t stress: What do we really know about teaching gifted children to cope with stress and anxiety? Gifted and Talented International 39(1 & 2): 146-151.
How to Help High-Achieving Students Manage Stress. Teach.com. Retrieved October 11, 2021.
Renzulli, J. S. (1978). What makes giftedness? Re-examining a definition. Phi Delta Kappan 60, 180-184, 261.
Shaunessy, E., and Suldo, S. M. (2010). Strategies used by intellectually gifted students to cope with stress during their participation in a high school international baccalaureate program. Gifted Child Quarterly 54(2), 127-137.
Stoeber, J. and Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 295-319. Retrieved October 11, 2021.