The Black Sheep Gifted Student

Pygoya, January 12, 2005  

(part of the presentation as guest speaker for a symposium for teachers in the Gifted 
Student Program of the Koko Head school district of Honolulu, January 2005)



     “Habits of Mind” is the work of Dr. Arthur L. Costa, professor emeritus of the California State University.  He identities traits and cognition of successful people.  The implication is these variables are consistent with the "gifted."  These are the following, with my comments about each:

-Remaining open to continuous learning- there is always the curiosity to know more, in various or the same field or activity

-Persistence – they never give up their quest, or always bounce back from failure to try again in some other way; tenacity is their middle name

-Striving for accuracy – without  the truth one’s progress can be impeded by false assumptions and beliefs which lead to erroneous conclusions and unexpected results that  lead to failure; trial and error

-Thinking flexibly – the ability to consider multiple approaches to a problem and solution; “more than one way to skin a cat”

-Thinking interdependently – be able to work as a team that can lead to creative answers; think tank player

-Creating, imagining and innovating – be like Einstein (or Mike)

-Metacognition – don’t know the definition of this, possibly seeing how something fits into a higher order?

-Finding humor – be able to laugh one’s mistakes, situation, outcome, or self

-Responding with wonderment and awe – not losing one’s childhood perception of life; able to feel deeply and not cover up because of a sense of insecurity

-Gathering data through all senses – using right (creativity, intuition)  as well as left (analytical, cognitive) brain simultaneously, to include unconscious mental processes; use empirical strategies

-Applying past knowledge to new situations – see the connections between the dots; having a multi-discipline point of view, be able to “think out of the box,” use analogy and metaphors in problem solving

-Precision of language and thought – clarity in documentation and organization of data, cause and effect, and conclusions are necessary

-Questioning and posing problems – must be able to identify the problem, raise the right hypotheses, look for correlations and association among things and events; have a scientific mind

-Managing impulsivity – don’t go off on tangents, stay on course and time, focus efforts instead of becoming a “scatter brain”  (I fail here)

-Taking responsible risks – don’t be a gambler, use precautions, common sense before selecting the size of risk suitable for the potential reward; be able to not make a move but walk away from opportunity, live for another day; save money by picking one’s shots (I fail here)


     Now don’t we all wish we had all these traits.  But if we did, would this guarantee our success, or prove we are “gifted?”  Is a life time of hard work through “persistence” a guarantee to success in life, whether financially or emotionally?  Can one be over dedicated to a goal that lost of balance of life ends in tragedy?   Can one have not enough “impulsivity” that he or she is afraid to try new things  after having achieved a level of success, thereby placing a ceiling on further achievement or personal growth?  Maybe it depends on how this combinations of traits and habits integrate with one’s personality, life situation, societal position, or even health.


     Is it possible that early in life many of these attributes of the successful adult are not yet evident, especially to the teacher of a young troubled child, who in spite of what everybody else thinks, is covertly “gifted.”  Could it not be that not all “gifted” students are straight A, model students but even placed into the wrong group.  “Exceptional students” define both extreme range limits of normal behavior and ability.  Many brilliant successful people were called “crazy” or “weird” during their developmental years. Microsoft founder Bill Gates dropped out of college to start his computer business in a garage.   Let me attempt to identify some possible deviant behaviors and attitudes that can either be consistent for those with “learning disabilities” or camouflage of latent talent for those I label the "Black Sheep Gifted Student.”





     The student may not be motivated to excel in the class. This can be because the subjects are boring, presented in an mundane way, or possible actually be too difficult for the stage at which the student is at. The latter can happen if the child is younger than the rest of the class or starts elementary school without socialization through preschool and/or kindergarten.  If the child also has an introvert’s personality, then there can be fear of class participation and ridicule, resulting in withdrawn and quiet behavior.  Most times report card comments will criticize such a child for not participation enough in class.  It may not be a lack of knowledge but a real personality problem that should be handled with understanding, maybe professional counseling as some sort of remedial special education.  A lack of attention may not indicate too short an attention span or hyperactive restlessness but disinterest in the subject or a preference for one’s own more interesting day dreaming world that can assist the child in managing boredom, even conflict,  in class. 

      Other social factors such as being a minority, having English as a second language, possessing a physical handicap might all contribute to lack of gregarious behavior and even social  isolation of the student.  There’s no worse feeling than not having peers as personal friends, to be paranoid that everybody can see their situation of solitaire. All this can contribute to lower grades, loss of self-confidence, reinforcing the conclusion of self worthlessness.  Teachers and parents acceptance of grades as true measurements of ability further hinder the student to rise above his performance level.  

     Sometimes the child defends his ego by lashing back at the system, rebelling against rules and authority.  He or she may act eccentric,  further confusing the self, authorities, and exacerbating the  problem situation.  Becoming “abnormal” in behavior, the child can become isolated – a loner at lunch hours, selected last in group games or team formations, look away when spoken too, never looking authority in the eye.  Problems add to problems and so bad habits such as unsuccessful time management, inadequate sleep and diet, lack of aspiration and motivation culminate into failed lives, the opposite of  the winners Dr. Costa identified above.

     But within this troubled group, can we not identify concealed gifted potential like some sort of diamond in the rough? Could it be sometimes we are using the wrong instruments of measurement to assay individual growth potential and miss critical times when certain field related skills need to be practiced and developed, or “miss the boat," even the calling of one’s life ... one's destiny?  Teachers, counselors, and child psychologists have critical roles to save the Black Sheep Gifted not just from themselves but for the huge benefit of society.

     Sometimes genius cannot be measured by standardized IQ tests.  Questionnaires on interests and investigation of home hobbies and activities may help.  Find out what the student likes most in life.  How much time is allotted to homework.  If less than average, how  is time away from homework spent?  How does this satisfy the child in some way, therefore not "wasted time?" Is the child persistent and dedicated long term (years) to the subject or activity? Does it demonstrate a collectic nature, a bent towards order, classification, and organization at least in one part of one's life or environment?    Does it get him/her positive reinforcement through social recognition?  Would the activity be consistent  with or predicted by personality test results?  Does the skill or activity produce compliments and recognition by teacher and fellow students?  Once the special skill is identified, even if not valued as an essential core academic subject,  are there “tracks” of special education to place the student in to augment the skill’s learning process for development of mastery? Can the activity be aligned or modified so that it promotes  growth and interests in other subject matter, especially those that are formally graded?

     As a teacher observe the student's behavior among peers and in the classroom.  Watch for ridicule from normal students, both bright and average.  Judge the student’s personal perception of self image within the group and classroom environment.  Is there maladjustment?  Look for deviation in tasks, such as does the student stray in response to ordinary responses and recited answers.  For example, if all students color an animal picture in naturalistic colors, does one choose instead to risk ridicule and “correctness” by rendering it in rainbow hues?  Reward off-the-wall creativity instead of reprimanding it for being a disruption or nuisance in class due to the "ridiculous"  response, devious easy-way-out  solution or failure to accomplish directed  tasks.  If there is any sense that the child is not behind but also shows surprising moments of creativity or heightened awareness, be more observant to gain more in depth understanding and evaluation  of  this student.

      Yes, the Black Sheep Gifted student can be someone the teacher wishes was assigned to another class.  Such a child can be confrontational and have “an attitude problem.”  He or she can be cynical, even critical of the teacher and the structured learning process, a threat to authority and control of the learning environment.  This child may not be afraid to be different and criticized, jeered by other peers.  Part of this apparent rebelliousness could be extreme confidence in one’s beliefs and values,  in defense of the vision of eventual achievement of personal goals, unknown to others, which the student vows to learn on one’s own.

     In spite of negative personality traits, the gifted student may have the following attributes-

-independent thinker, works best alone with ideas and one-on-one projects

-not a team member or contributor; lets others dominate, be the center of attention in group interaction

-have a fluency of solutions to problems or ideas to fulfill projects

-be a workaholic, Type A personality

-tremendous energy, applied towards one's goals, passions

-be a perfectionist over what he or she has a passion for; over emphasis on attention to detail

-confrontational back talk as defense when perceived as  wrongly judged ; strong willed

-select a solo versus team sport, such as tennis or cross country instead of football or basketball

-not take things so seriously, have a sense of humor; laugh off failed attempts

-experimental in nature, willing to try the unbeaten path

-choose risks over security, willing to chance falling out of a comfort zone for the sake of advancement to some altered personal reality

-not afraid to be different, stand out in a crowd instead of remaining on the bandwagon or blending in with the crowd

-be visionary and make concrete steps to materialize one’s dream

-never giving up, never coping out, willing to make the sacrifices and take the risks to achieve ultimate personal growth potential

-perceived leader or guru even if the recognition is not desired, shrugs it off as not important

-the self as toughest critic

-balance in life, to include maintaining good health through exercise and diet

-many varied interests to the point of being called a “Jack-of-all-trades,” “eccentric,” or “scatterbrain;” or in other words, multi-disciplinary

     In summary, measuring performance and achievement of the Black Sheep Gifted can be difficult. Professionals have to look beyond the confounding emotional, social, physical, and intellectual deficiencies and search for the good in such students.  Identifyr the positive, hope, what brings a sense of joy, personal satisfaction or pride for the individual.  Attempt to show empathy and interest in these positive discoveries, project that it is also of value too to the teacher or counselor.  Find  ways to assist in the development of this personal interest through special programs, with the goal to integrate this interest pr special ability into areas of academics.  Construct methodology through which the  interested subject can serve as example in other areas, such as math, science, and reading.  Structure class activity so the special talent of child can be showcased in front of the rest of the class, even entire school, to bring needed attention and reinforcement that he or she IS special.  Such isolated manipulated experiences of success can motivate and instill belief within the self that areas that are problematic for the individual can be solved, that he or she is smart enough to “make the grade” or even excel. 

     Through teacher and parent support comes self-confidence,  then effort to improve, and finally an attitude for generalized success as well as actualized extraordinary achievement in one’s field of interest or giftedness.   I like to think  that in each of us there is not only some good, but also some special talent. Unfortunately, for the majority, life goes by without fulfillment of God given talent.