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Gifted and Introvert

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: My son is 6 years old. He is 1 grader in a gifted school.

Basically, he is a smart and shy boy and like to be challenged. But he is a bit mature than the boys at his age and always criticizes himself. For example, I got his grade progress last week and he had highest score at every parts like achievement, behavior, homework, effort... I was very happy to see the progress report and told him he is a best student and I am really proud of him. But he looked very calm and said there will always be some one better than him and he cannot be the best. He said he was not good at raising his hand to ask and answer the question although he wants to ask question or he knows the answer.

He knows he is smart but he also think he is not smart enough. It is good he works hard since he wants to be smarter. But he told me that he doesn't want to be a leader and he doesn't want to impress the teacher and the other students in the class. He said he just wants to be an "ordinary" boy. Of course it is OK he is ordinary. But I know his ability and he can do much better than he thought. I try to say every words to encourage him all the time. But he still insists his thought and is still quiet in the class. I wonder if his thought is changeable and what I should do in order to encourage him to be more "aggressive".

A: Researches on gifted children have indicated that a good number of them are introverted, shy and sensitive due to their heightened awareness of self and others. It sounds like your son may be an introvert. It is popularly believed that introverts are asocial, friendless loners who lack social skills. But this is simply untrue. They just happen to have different social needs and preferences. However, when they are gifted as well, as parents we feel that they can do so much more and are simply not doing enough so sometimes, we tend to ‘push' them a little which may at times be a little too much for them causing them to sink into further introversion.

It is fine to be quiet in class but it is also not helpful when it comes to socializing. You mentioned that he is shy, so I assume that he may not have very good social skills. It is perfectly fine to have a few friends, but he does need to have friends preferably of similar mental age. He also probably requires a lot of personal space. You may also find that he likes being alone in the room. This is not a sign of withdrawing but rather a preference for introverts as they are more comfortable this way. It is possible for him to find being around others rather tiring and requires some “alone time” to regain energy. A gifted child who is an introvert also uses this time to figure things out without any interruption.

You may probably find that she chats happily with you and other members of the family, and possibly close friends but does not talk much in class - which may be quite puzzling. Unfortunately, in most cultures introversion, sensitivity, and childhood shyness are misguidedly seen as problems; and that too ones that needs fixing. The very fact is that shyness is just a temperament. Rather than wanting him to be more “aggressive” you may need to help him develop social skills to fit his temperament.

Go on further to help the teachers understand his traits and communicate to them that he is just fine even if he is quiet and shy in class. In the classroom, get the teachers to help him with a little push as he needs time to warm up. Give him time to adjust in any new environment as some gifted children tend to observe before indulging in any activities. Perhaps the teacher can help him by asking him his opinion or comment on any topic, and by further asking him additional questions to start a discussion. He may shy in the beginning but will eventually get used to it and perhaps become a little more participative in the classroom.

Here are some strategies by Lynne Henderson, PhD (director of the Shyness Clinic) that parents can use to help shy children participate in school and social activities:

  • Give your child a chance to warm up to strangers. Before school starts, take your child to school and introduce him or her to the teacher.

  • Seek an optimal learning environment for your child. High-stakes, competitive learning environments may give a child a good learning experience, but sensitive children can be adversely affected by them. If you notice symptoms like performance anxiety or sleep disturbance, work on supportive self-talk and relaxation exercises. It may be helpful also to consult a psychologist.

  • Involve your child in extracurricular activities such as music classes, school clubs, academic competitions, or physical activities like swimming and golf or team sports. Make sure that he or she spends some time with other gifted children. It also helps to associate with older friends who are not threatened by your child's gifts or talents.

  • Arrange for your child to help younger children with schoolwork, sports, or other games or to perform some other volunteer activity to promote a sense of social competence.

  • Share books with your child that provide helpful role models. Children can learn social skills through literature. Look at Caldecott and Newbery Medal-winning books for titles. Consider biographies of shy children who became leaders, like Eleanor Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln.

  • Role-play social situations and brainstorm coping strategies. “What do people do when they forget what they want to say? When they stammer or blush?” Model social interactions for your child using humor to recover from gaffes or mishaps. Have your child practice approaching children and speaking up in class, with you acting as the other child or the teacher. Afterward, tell your child what you liked about what he or she said or did.

  • Discuss your child's progress using self-supportive thoughts, such as “Social skills are learned, just like anything else.” Have your child reflect on or write about both negative and positive experiences and savor behavior that worked well. Think aloud about how he or she can try new things. Encourage your child to share experiences and express emotions.

  • Help your child test hypotheses about others' intentions by asking them questions or by trying new behaviors. Suggest how to invite others to play a game or to share a toy.

"Above all, maintain age-appropriate expectations while communicating empathy and respect for your child's natural way of being. Help set manageable goals for your child and establish the means to attain them, but avoid using negative labels and exerting unrealistic pressure. Remember that shyness is a universal human experience important for prosocial adaptation." - Lynne Henderson, PhD (2009)

Hope the above has been helpful. Good luck.


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