Characteristics of Giftedness

Giftedness in Socio-historial Perspective
Parenting for Achievement

Overcoming Underachievement

Giftedness is the product of a developmental process that involves the synergistic interaction of biological, psychological, and social/environmental forces, which seem to differ for each person. As individual abilities differ in degree, the quality of the synergistic interaction between them also differs. For people who are gifted, such differences result in perceptions, experiences, and needs that differ from those of people with average abilities.

Gifted people are endowed with extraordinary cognitive and creative abilities that enable them to manipulate internally learned symbol systems and function at such high ideational levels that they are capable of complex problem solving, creative innovations, and critical and evaluative thinking. Neither intelligence nor creativity is sufficient in

itself for the highest levels of functioning. Gifted people are complex, as well as versatile, and they also possess heightened sensitivity and intensity. As a result of their uniqueness, they commonly experience feelings of difference but often lack an accurate understanding of how they are different. Their ability to perceive and understand things as young children before they have the emotional resources to cope with what they can cognitively comprehend makes them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling for optimal development, which for gifted children tends to be asynchronous.

Gifted children begin to experience other people’s ambivalence toward them at a very young age, usually before they understand what’s happening and have adequate emotional and social resources to cope with what they are experiencing. A review of the research on gifted children led James Gallagher to conclude

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that just about everybody seems to be afraid of the gifted child. The consequences of this can be severely damaging. In the second edition of his book, Teaching the Gifted Child, Gallagher (1975) wrote:

“These youngsters are the most thorough threat to the status quo that one could possibly invent. These children are the innovators, the changers, the modifiers, the people who will remold and reshape our culture from the way it is today into the way it will be in the next generation (Galagher, 1975).”

Any definition of superior ability or
giftedness must be both time- and culture- bound because the human abilities people value most reflect changing societal needs. In other words, giftedness is a time- and culture-bound concept that reflects prevailing societal values and

needs. For example, the abilities valued most by prehistoric people were probably related to their needs for physical survival. While such concerns still exist, higher level needs now take primacy.

Today, our society professes to place great value on intelligence, but many people, including educators and mental health professionals, discriminate consciously and unconsciously against those who are gifted. In 1971 psychologist Abraham Maslow explored this discrepancy in his studies of self-actualizing adults and offered the following explanation in his book, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature:

“Certainly we love and admire good men, saints, honest, virtuous, clean men. But could anybody who has looked into the depths of human nature fail to be aware of our mixed and often hostile feelings toward saintly men? Or toward very
beautiful women or men? Or toward

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great creators? Or toward our intellectual geniuses? … We surely love and admire all the persons who have incarnated the true, the good, the beautiful, the just, the perfect, the ultimately successful. And yet they also make us uneasy, anxious, confused, perhaps a little jealous or envious, a little inferior, clumsy. They usually make us lose our aplomb, our self-possession, and self-regard. … My impression so far is that the greatest people, simply by their presence and by being what they are, make us feel aware of our lesser worth, whether or not they intend to. If this is an unconscious effect, and we are not aware of why we feel stupid or ugly or inferior whenever such a person turns up, we are apt to respond with projection, i.e., we react as if he were trying to make us feel inferior, as if we were the target. Hostility is then an understandable consequence.”

Maslow further stated, "…we are also in a perpetual and I think universal – perhaps even necessary – conflict and ambivalence over these same highest possibilities in other people and in human nature in general (Maslow, 1971).”

In 1977, another psychologist, Max Fogel, former Director of Science and Education for American Mensa, pointed out that:

“Most levels of society have markedly ambivalent attitudes toward the highly intelligent, ranging from respect and admiration at one pole to distrust, fear and hostility at the other… Why do we so often hero-worship and cater to our physically and athletically talented specimens and at the same time avoid and resent the intellectually and scholastically gifted?…

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We tend to isolate and shun those whom we cannot understand or identify with, even though they may be perceived on objective grounds as being superior to us on certain dimensions of ability."

In 1980 I conducted a phenomenological survey of the life experiences and psychotherapeutic needs of 254 intellectually gifted adolescents and adults, supplemented by data derived from a small pilot survey of 18 psychotherapists. These surveys were designed to determine how the needs of gifted adolescents and adults could best be understood and met within the context of therapeutic, growth-oriented relationships. Through my surveys I found that many people who are intellectually gifted continue to experience painful personal and interpersonal problems as a result of their intellectual deviance during adulthood as well as during childhood and

adolescence. Such problems include feelings of difference, interpersonal difficulties, lack of trust in authority figures and feelings of social isolation during adulthood as well as during childhood and adolescence. The survey results also suggested that gifted women experience added difficulties as a result of their deviance from traditional sex-role norms (Schneider, 1982).

The most significant findings derived from my surveys relate to feelings of difference and distrust of authority figures. While 96 percent of my 254 gifted survey respondents reported that they felt different as they were growing up, only 59 percent attributed such feelings to their high intelligence. This discrepancy probably stems at least in part from the fact that nearly 60 percent said they were unaware of their high intelligence when they finished elementary school, and a little over a third said they were


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still unaware of it when they finished high school or reached the age of 19. In addition, less than 10 percent of my respondents said they trusted one or both of their parents as they were growing up, and about half of them also lacked heroes or heroines and role models during childhood and adolescence (Schneider, 1982).

Unfortunately, the limelight that surrounds gifted people who successfully make it to the top seems to obscure the fact that many who are gifted never get the chance to develop their talents for the good of themselves or society. And few psychologists and educators seem to know how to help gifted underachievers once they have reached the upper elementary grades.

Those of us who want to change existing attitudes toward the gifted must do more

than just decry the tremendous loss of potential contributions to society that occurs as a result of our collective failure to nurture extraordinary human potential. In accord with the age-old adage that a problem well defined is a problem half solved, I think we need to explore and understand what societies gain by suppressing extraordinary potential, or failing to nurture it, so that we can find less costly ways to meet societal needs.

Historical Beliefs About the Origin of Superior Abilities

Throughout history people have searched for explanations of the origins of superior human abilities. My own exploration began by tracing the changes that have occurred in the way that “genius” has been defined and valued in western society. The word “genius” is derived from the Latin verb “gignere,” which means to beget or bring forth.

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Early Bronze-Age Greeks (c. 2000-1000 B.C.) believed that spirits, or daemons, inhabited the regions between the gods and men, serving as messengers of the gods (Nitzsche, 1975). The group or community was seen as having a soul, which belonged to the God-King, and individual men were believed to be entirely physical beings, which belonged to the state and were like the spokes of a wheel. There was group cohesion, and men were led to believe that they were reactors, not initiators, and without individuality. Such beliefs prevailed until a group of rebellious poets, Sappho (7th Century B.C.), Anacreon (6th Century B.C.), Archilochus (7th Century B.C.), and other unknown poets preceding them, broke away from the tremendous pressures of their society, challenged the prevailing conception of man and community, and attributed the ability to

act as agents of their own thoughts and feelings to themselves. In order to do this, they had to change the way they thought about themselves and develop a new mode of self-reference, which was neither physical nor corporeal but spiritual. Thus they created the concepts of inner space, individuality, and the concept of “I” as separate from the group (Rabkin, 1970).

The Greeks subsequently came to believe that a man’s internal god, or daemon, was the highest form of the soul and represented reason or intellect. In his Apology Socrates (469-399 B.C.) spoke of a messenger, or divine spiritual voice, which had been with him since his boyhood. While Plato (429-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) recognized the role of divine inspiration, or mania, in prophecies and poetry, they made a clear distinction between divine disturbance and physical or mental illness (Becker, 1952).


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If any individual in the ancient world could be considered a paradigm for gifted, it would probably be Socrates. Plato made Socrates the chief speaker in many of his dialogues, thereby immortalizing him and conveying his teachings to the Greek world. He quoted Socrates as saying, “What is honored is cultivated, and that which has no honor is neglected” (Plato, Republic, 8). However, Socrates’ revolutionary ideas were so threatening to the status quo that he was charged with impiety as well as corrupting the young and forced by officials to commit suicide by drinking hemlock (Jaworowski, pers. comm., 2006).

Nitzsche (1975) traces significant changes in the meaning of the word “genius” since its origins as a begetting spirit worshipped by the Romans during the third century B.C. At first this spirit was associated with the head of the

family and was believed to serve as a procreative force. However, in time, it came to be associated with any man, regardless of his marital status, signifying virility, life energy and even temperament or personality (Nitzsche, 1975).

The Greek daemon and the Roman genius seem to have merged sometime during the second century A.D. However, through an apparent misunderstanding of the original Greek, two demons or genii were subsequently believed to be allotted to each man at birth, symbolizing his paradoxical nature, spiritual yet corporeal, and reflecting a mind/body dualism (Nitzsche, 1975).

During the 12th century A.D. the concept of genius acquired additional meanings and came to be viewed as both the archetypal poet-philosopher-orator and the agent of art and inspiration. Eventually, the creative activities attributed to this archetype altered the


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meaning of the term, “genius” to signify a mysterious quality or creative energy that men could possess. “Genius” continued to denote this quality or energy until the middle of the eighteenth century, when the term began to include not just the quality but also the person possessing it (Nitzsche, 1975).

While early Christian scholars rejected the Roman genius and Greek daemon, these spirits continued to live on, disguised as Christian angels and pagan demons. These Christian analogues were used during the Middle Ages to express the complexities of human nature, especially with respect to man’s moral and psychological conflicts (Nitzsche, 1975). The association of mental illness with demonic possession was developed in detail during the Middle Ages and continued to dominate popular thought

well into the nineteenth century (Coleman, 1972). This association continues to be reflected in the stigma that is still associated with mental illness.

The application of the word “genius” to men who possessed that quality in the mid-eighteenth century posed a tremendous threat to the existing hierarchy by substituting innate creative ability in place of blood inheritance as a superior criterion for the evaluation, and elevation, of men. This substitution had serious implications with respect to the existing system of stratification (Becker, 1958).

The romantics of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries sought to legitimize the prestige and power of extraordinary men of genius by suggesting that, as the supposed possessors of truth, they were destined to guide and renovate the world, as well as to serve as a consecrated force for its redemption. As a result, men of genius

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were generally regarded as potential agents of change and revolution, which they often were.

The nineteenth century fascination with great men and heroes, together with widespread admiration for creative men, helped to establish the man of genius as a dominant, potentially disruptive, and socially destabilizing force. However, the democratic and industrial revolutions robbed the men of genius of their traditional sponsors and resulted in an increasing commercialization of the market place, leaving them in a very precarious position.

The Mad Genius Controversy

One way in which western society controlled men of genius was to label them “mad” in order to lower their previously exalted public standing.

Evaluation of genius in the context of pathology caused people to doubt their moral authority and served to discredit their intellectual and artistic products (Becker, 1958).

Two developments contributed greatly to the pathological classification of genius. First, the leaders of the newly founded social and psychological sciences helped to foster a new deterministic image of man. Within this framework many men of genius began to be viewed as victims who produce compulsively in a semiconscious state of inspiration. This deterministic view persisted until the middle of the twentieth century, probably because early learning theorists, whose behavioral theories were introduced during the early 1900’s, generally ignored individual differences in their search for universal laws of behavior.

Second, the development of the science of statistics during the 1840’s facilitated

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the pathological labeling of men of genius as “mad” through popularization of a mathematical conception of the statistically average, or “normal,” man as the foremost example of health and sanity. This narrowed the boundaries of mental sanity, and henceforth, many minds whose capacity exceeded the statistical average came to be considered diseased (Becker, 1958). Today the medical or disease model of mental health continues to prevail, with a resultant focus on mental disability and few norms for the super healthy or the gifted, except with respect to IQ.

The needs of our industrializing society also contributed to the popular acceptance of a pathological view of genius. With the introduction of mass production, machine parts were standardized and made interchangeable

to enhance efficiency, save time, and increase profits. At the same time, there was strong societal pressure to standardize the education and behavior of those who would build and operate the machines so that they would be as interchangeable and replaceable as the machine parts and, therefore, highly controllable.

While our social rhetoric stresses equal opportunity as the primary purpose for compulsory education, public schools were originally organized and supported to meet societal needs for trained manpower with industrial and military needs in mind. As John Holt (1970) wrote in an article entitled, Why we Need New Schooling, “What children need, even just to make a living, are qualities that can never be trained into a machine – inventiveness, flexibility, resourcefulness, curiosity, and above all judgment” (Holt, 1970). Today, our schools should be preparing children for a world that is and will be instead of a world that was. But

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what industry needed then was not the qualities Holt mentioned, or even equality, but sameness, because those who deviated from normal standards might impede the work being done in the production lines. The workers themselves contributed to the acceptance of such standards by harassing “rate-busters” whose productivity exceeded average expectations. While envy of the rate-buster’s abilities may have been a factor in the harassment, co-workers also had reason to fear that the rate-buster’s standard might become the norm and result in more work for less pay for other workers.

In keeping with the new mechanistic view of man, a philosophy of “adjustment” was developed to encourage conformity as well as to discredit and label deviants. Those who failed to adjust were, and often still are, seen as abnormal and

therefore pathological. Once genius was defined as a variation from the “normal,” the labeling of all geniuses as members of a morbid or degenerate group soon followed and seems to have peaked between 1880 and 1920. During this period when the mad genius controversy was at its peak, the label “mad” was generally reserved for men of genius whose innovative ideas and unconventional products posed a threat to the existing status quo, as well as for others who were viewed as revolutionists, anarchists, and leaders of subversive movements (Becker, 1958).

The intellectuals and artists of the Romantic Period may have shared responsibility for the redefinition of “genius” in terms of pathology. Being labeled “genius” gave them freedom from the conventional constraints imposed by the academies, and their willful behavior may have also been motivated by a need for an affirmed identity that emphasized

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their otherness and made them members of a superior group. This is consistent with Erikson’s ideas concerning people’s formation of pseudo-species to meet their needs for personal and collective psychosocial identities (Erikson, 1968). However, since the men of genius’s criticisms of existing social values and their disregard for established rules were seen as signs of instability, it seemed logical that the uninformed public should be protected from such dangerous men.

Women of Genius


Where were the women of genius, and what were they doing? While there are a few notable exceptions, women generally seem to have been regarded as inferior to men throughout recorded history. When deviation from the statistical norm was considered pathological, women were believed to be more variable than men.

However, following the introduction of Darwin’s theory of evolution, variability took on a positive value as the adaptive mechanism of evolutionary progress. Thereafter, men were believed to be more variable than women, not only in their physical characteristics but also in their mental abilities (Hollingworth, 1914; Shields, 1975). Thus was science used to support existing social values.

Those who believed that genius was a peculiarly male trait that led to eminence, power, and prestige, used the variability hypothesis to rationalize existing forms of sexual discrimination. This discrimination and popular beliefs about the alleged inferiority of women were based on erroneous evidence, including the idea that females’ energies were so naturally channeled toward biological reproduction that they had little energy left for the development of other abilities and that women’s intellectual inferiority stemmed from a cessation of mental growth at

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puberty. This latter idea was further extended to include the equally ridiculous notion that forcing females’ brains to work would use up blood that was needed for menstruation. Women’s smaller brain size was also cited as a reason for their comparative lack of originality (Shields, 1975).

The notion that women were less variable implied that they had a more limited range of intelligence than men. This belief was used to justify existing social attitudes that favored separate, “appropriate” education for women, which was designed to prepare them for roles as wives and mothers. Thus, it is not surprising that until relatively recently, nearly all of the women whose literary achievements have endured never married (Olsen, 1965, 1972, 1978). In spite of their achievements, the fact that these noted female authors never married and remained

childless was seen as evidence that they were unfulfilled, inadequate, and abnormal. Unlike male authors, they also lacked the invaluable advantage of supportive spouses. While the use of the variability hypothesis to “explain” the alleged inferiority of women and justify sexual discrimination declined during World War I, it was revived again during the mid-1920’s, as reflected in Lewis M. Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius (Terman, 1925, 1947, 1959).

When the Terman study began in 1921, the gifted girls who were followed throughout their lives in his longitudinal study were asked if they preferred the duties of housewife to those of any other occupations. Seventy-one percent of them responded with a resounding, “No!” And their answers were reportedly decorated with exclamation points and under-scorings. However, by 1955, in spite of their earlier aspirations, half of Terman’s gifted female subjects were housewives with no outside employment (Terman, 1925, 1947, 1959; Sears, 1977).

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Terman was the one person who was probably most responsible for disproving the widespread popular beliefs about the supposedly pathological nature of genius. He based his own beliefs on the conclusions he drew from his longitudinal study of highly intelligent people who were formally identified as children using an individually administered test of intelligence. The first Binet-Simon Scale, an individually administered intelligence test, was developed in France in 1905 to identify mentally retarded children. Soon afterwards this scale was translated and adapted for use here in America under Terman’s direction at Stanford University. It was called the Stanford-Binet.

Earlier efforts to identify men of genius involved post hoc studies of people who achieved eminence as a result of using their powers of invention to produce great original works and make a major

impact on their fields. Terman initially believed that an IQ of 140 or over constituted “genius,” and he assumed that the prevailing beliefs about intellectual prodigies were probably well founded. However, he discovered that the bright children he worked with as he revised the Binet-Simon intelligence scale were not at all like the prodigies he had read about. He subsequently embarked on a predictive longitudinal study of children with IQ’s of 140 or over, who were formerly identified by means of individually administered IQ tests. Publication of Terman’s research conclusions began in 1925 and has continued since then.

On the basis of follow-up studies, Terman and his colleagues concluded that, with few exceptions, their gifted subjects became able adults, superior in nearly every respect to the general population. While they also concluded that gifted children are far more likely to become intellectually superior,

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vocationally successful, and well-adjusted adults than those of lesser intelligence, they noted that their subjects’ intellectual superiority did not preclude emotional instability or social maladjustment. Terman’s research findings helped to combat the prevailing notion that those who are precocious are also subject to early deterioration, i.e. early ripe, early rot. In fact, Terman and his colleagues found that the relative intelligence of their gifted subjects continued to increase at least through fifty years of age.

While there are some weaknesses in Terman’s research methodology, especially with respect to the way his subjects were selected, specifically with regard to his racial and gender sampling and the socio-economic level of his subjects, few have questioned the validity of his general portrait of the

gifted. Nevertheless, it seems likely that gifted children who were academic underachievers, not sufficiently active in class, or emotionally ill would probably not have been nominated for inclusion in Terman’s research sample of subjects.

I view the extraordinary intellectual ability of those who score at gifted levels on IQ tests during childhood neither as evidence of a pathological syndrome nor as an indication that they will generally become sane and successful adults who are superior in every respect to the general population. While those who are now considered gifted may have the potential to be more successful and psychologically healthy than others of lesser intelligence, I believe our societal emphasis on competition and “adjustment” to average norms as well as traditional sex roles often inhibits or prevents the kinds of synergistic interactions that seem to be essential to the development and constructive expression of intellectual and creative potentials.

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Theorists and researchers now view intelligence as multi-faceted, and the concept of “multiple intelligences” is currently a popular notion. The most recent version of the Stanford-Binet (SB-5) uses a model of intelligence, based on extensive research, which includes five-factors: Fluid Reasoning, Knowledge, Quantitative Reasoning, Visual-Spatial Processing, and Working Memory, each of which is measured through verbal and nonverbal channels. However, most of the individually administered tests of intelligence used today still lack sufficient ceiling at the upper limits to measure the full extent of some highly gifted people’s extraordinary abilities, and they also underestimate the performance potentials of people who are creatively gifted.

In 1969-70, 58 percent of the schools surveyed by the U. S Office of Education (USOE) reported that they had no gifted

children enrolled. Obviously, something was wrong with the identification procedures that were being used. Part of the problem stemmed from the widespread use of group tests of intelligence for screening and identification purposes. Research has suggested that using group tests is one of the least effective ways to identify gifted children and that the higher the ability, the greater the probability that group tests will overlook it. Martin and Lessinger found that using a cutoff score of 130 on a group test eliminated 51.5 percent of those who would have scored at or above that level on an individually administered Stanford-Binet. (Gallagher, 1975; Marland, 1972; Martinson & Lessinger, 1975; Pegnato & Birch, 1959; Tuttle & Becker, 1980.

This problem still persists today. Here at the Center for the Gifted, we recently tested a six-year-old boy who had been denied admission to his school’s gifted program because his score of 122 on the

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Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) was too low to qualify. The OLSAT is a widely used measure of abstract thinking and reasoning ability, which in this case was used as a screening device to identify gifted children. It is a paper-and-pencil test for students between the ages 5 and 18 and is typically administered in a group setting. Less than two weeks before he took the OLSAT, the same boy earned a Full Scale IQ score of 148 on an individually administered Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, Fifth Edition, as part of a comprehensive psycho-educational assessment here at the Center for the Gifted. The battery of tests he took also revealed that he has great creative potential, which suggested that he is capable of performing at even higher levels than his Highly Advanced Stanford-Binet 5 IQ score of 148 would

suggest. In fact, his Total Achievement score on the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement fell above the 99.9th percentile, with a Standard Score of 175 (100 is Average).

Individual comprehensive psycho-educational evaluations provide the most accurate information about the abilities and needs of students, gifted or otherwise. However, providing such assessment services to every student in public school settings is unfeasible given the limited financial resources that are available and the demands placed on school districts by federal and state mandates regarding the identification of students with educational handicaps. In their attempts to satisfy legislative mandates and serve the needs of gifted students, enlightened school districts attempt to devise feasible means of identifying their gifted students, recognizing that feasible is not optimal and that greater flexibility may be called for in individual cases where the methods

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of identification appear to generate inaccurate results, as was clearly the case in the example presented above.

One suburban school district tackled this problem by establishing a multidisciplinary task force charged with the responsibility of devising feasible methods of identifying gifted students. This team developed a tiered identification process that begins with a group test or brief individually administered test of intelligence used for screening purposes. If a student earns a minimum score of 125 on one of the screening tests and a percentile rank of 95 or above on a reading or math achievement test, he or she is then referred for a Gifted Multidisciplinary Evaluation (MDE), which includes individual IQ testing. If a student fails to meet the minimum IQ score of 125 on the group or brief IQ test, and his or her

teachers and/or parents suspect gifted potential, they can also request that an individual assessment be performed. Then, if the student does not earn a Full Scale IQ score of 130 on the individually administered test, which is traditionally required for formal identification as Mentally Gifted, a deeper analysis of the testing data is done to look for signs of gifted potential. Students who fail to meet the formal IQ requirements but score at the 95th percentile or above on achievement tests are identified as Academically Talented and provided with the same differentiated instruction and enrichment programs that are available to MG students, without having a formal Gifted Individualized Education Program (GIEP) (Snieska, 2006, pers. comm.). Similar accommodations are often necessary for creatively gifted students, and in some enlightened school districts, portfolio assessments and formulas are used to include multiple factors in the gifted identification process.

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Based on a comparison of two groups of adolescents, one highly creative and the other highly intelligent, Getzels and Jackson (1962) found that highly creative adolescents with IQs in the 120s achieved academically at performance levels that were similar to those of their less creative peers whose IQs were 20 to 30 points higher. Despite a difference of 23 points in the mean IQ’s of the two groups, their scholastic performance was equally superior to the student population as a whole (Getzels & Jackson, 1962, 1975). Getzels & Jackson concluded that there is a positive relationship between performance on tests of creativity and tests of scholastic achievement. Since this relationship seems to hold in a variety of situations, they also questioned the prevailing practice of labeling students whose scholastic performance exceeds

expectations based on their IQ’s as “overachievers,” suggesting instead that the difference in scores may be related to cognitive functions that are not sampled by conventional IQ tests. In other words, if a child’s academic achievement scores are significantly higher than his or her FullScale IQ score, that should be regarded as possible, maybe even probable, evidence of creativity. At the same time, Getzels and Jackson also found that teachers showed a clear preference for gifted students who were less creative (Getzels & Jackson, 1962, 1975).

Present Socialization Practices Breed Problems for the Gifted.

Since the way we define and view superior ability and the value we place upon it depends upon the changing needs of society, we must consider these needs in order to understand current attitudes toward the gifted.

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After the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century successfully broke the existing yoke of socio-political oppression, a newer, more subtle form of oppression began wherein most of us maintain the illusion that we are more independent, self-determined and free than we actually are. This new form of oppression was instituted to meet the needs of our mechanized mass society. While our society values goods and power above all else, the primacy of these values and the reality of our oppression continue to be obscured by humanistic rhetoric.

Examination of our pervasive national emphasis on competition offers a good example of the discrepancy between our social rhetoric and reality. For example, the competitive spirit is instilled in us by our families and other agents of socialization, including our schools, through socially sanctioned practices

such as competitive grading systems and athletics. Although we rationalize such practices by saying that competitiveness motivates people to strive for excellence and achieve, competition is really designed to spur people to produce more goods in less time to generate profit. Since modern methods of mass production are geared to what is fastest and cheapest rather than what is best, our emphasis on competition, tends to emphasize economy and expediency at the expense of excellence.

Competition generally increases the flow of adrenalin, which can improve people’s physical performance in sports and on assembly lines. However, constant competition for grades, with the ever-present possibility of failure, frequently results in anxiety, which can disrupt and disorganize the higher level thinking processes involved in learning and creativity. Therefore, competition for

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grades often interferes with the learning process instead of facilitating it, and school children generally seem more motivated by fears of failure and rejection than by a love of learning.

Competitive evaluation also discourages people from taking the kind of risks necessary for creative activity, thereby minimizing the possibility of disruptive changes in the status quo. Traditional male sex-role socialization and hormonal drives (Gurian, 2003) further contribute to the problem for men, who are taught to compete and structure their relationships with others hierarchically. Consequently, they are more likely than women to associate emotional openness with competitive vulnerability. This can interfere with men’s ability to establish and sustain healthy interpersonal relationships as well as to network

collaboratively with others, which Daniel Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence has shown to be important for both effective leadership and the bottom line (Goleman, 1995, 1998).

While those who are gifted often have a clear advantage in the competition for our society’s limited rewards, gifted students who are not challenged in accord with their abilities are not only short changed but can also make the grading game seem worse for their classmates. Students of lesser intelligence who are forced to compete with gifted students may appear and feel less competent by comparison and may experience threatening losses of self-esteem. Consequently, they may have feelings of envy and hostility toward gifted students, who seem to have an unearned advantage in the competition and are not required to work for the good grades they get.

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Hostility and envy often underlie active opposition to special programs for the gifted. Such opposition is frequently expressed through charges of elitism, which are in accord with our seemingly egalitarian social rhetoric. However, people who invoke egalitarian ideals in support of their opposition to special programs for the gifted do not realize that what we are actually striving for in our society is not equality or even equal opportunity but sameness and standardization in accord with average norms. In addition to being established to mold young people to meet the needs of our mechanized society, compulsory education and the development of our public education system were also instituted to defend society against adolescents’ potential for disruption and social change (Clark, 1975).

Those who threaten the status quo by deviating from the tolerable limits of

accepted normative standards become subject to negative labeling and
sanctions to encourage their conformity or, in the absence of conformity, to assure their isolation and punishment. Such sanctions and isolation may inhibit people’s intellectual, emotional, and social development.

A major part of people’s sense of personal identity and self-esteem, as well as their attitudes toward interpersonal interaction and their goals in life, are derived from their associations with other people. Those who are intellectually and creatively gifted usually sense that they are different from other people, but they may lack an understanding of just how they differ. Consequently, they may attribute their differences to real or imagined personal deficiencies rather than to strengths within themselves, with resulting damage to their self-concepts and self-esteem.

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In efforts to remedy or mask their supposed deficiencies and gain acceptance from others, many gifted children try to conform to other people’s expectations and average norms through the suppression of their extraordinary capabilities. However, if they are unable to resign themselves to this situation, they may experience feelings of frustration, anger and alienation.

In spite of Terman’s (op. cit.) success in refuting the pathological views of genius, remnants of the mad genius controversy continue to remain with us today in the form of inaccurate, but still popular, myths about the gifted. Such myths include the presumably comforting but inaccurate notion that those who are favored with extraordinary natural endowment in one area are afflicted with a compensating weakness in some other area. Thus, we may picture those who

are highly intelligent as puny and unattractive weaklings who tend to be withdrawn, physically inactive or clumsy, and noticeably odd, freaky, or weird. In addition, expressions such as “smart as a whip,” “sharp as a tack,” and “mind like a steel trap” embody a note of danger or fear and convey feelings of suspicion and distrust.

It would be all too easy to blame those who feel threatened by excellence for their efforts to oppose it in order to gain increased feelings of security. However, the real source of the problem lies in our dubious national values and our oppressive socialization practices; and an awareness of these oppressive forces is crucial to understanding the problems now confronting people who are gifted. While all societies probably socialize people in oppressive ways in the interests of social stability, we have now reached a point where some of our oppressive socialization practices have

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become a threat to our very survival, and a major part of this threat stems from the ways we socialize those who have the greatest potential to deal with the complex problems which now confront us.

Oppression serves as a defense against change, and it is a perversion of the need for self-preservation or survival. In the face of rapid scientific, technological, and social change, defensive behaviors tend to increase and intensify; and systems tend to become most rigid and brittle just before they collapse.

In order for people to be oppressed, either as individuals or groups, there must be an oppressor. Oppressors generally have, or appear to have, some kind of power, such as the control and/or ownership of valuable resources, which they fear losing should substantial change occur in the status quo. In order

to deal with the fear of change and protect their powers in situations where they feel threatened, oppressors impose unreasonable limits on others to regain a sense of control (Clark, l975).

The imposition of unreasonable and oppressive limits on other people is aggressive behavior that violates their rights, but oppressed people are often unaware that their rights are being violated because the limits imposed on them are aimed not only at curtailing their behavior but also at warping their consciousness. This is accomplished through the suppression and invalidation of feelings and thoughts and the inculcation of certain basic assumptions and values that serve the interests of the oppressors (Clark, 1975).

Since oppression limits change, it also limits growth and development, which are predicated on change. However, oppressive limits are generally

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rationalized in ways that cloud people’s consciousness and perpetuate a state of conditioned unconsciousness with respect to the nature and extent of the oppression they experience. So warped can the consciousness and reasoning ability of oppressed groups become that they fail to see that many of the values and assumptions they have accepted are completely untrue. Consequently, even those who feel oppressed may lack an understanding of how, by whom, and for what purpose they are being oppressed. People also tend to hear what supports their existing beliefs and ignore or discount what does not. However, if and when they become aware that they are being oppressed and express their anger and outrage, they are often blamed for the results of their oppression, as William Ryan so convincingly argued in his book, Blaming the Victim (Ryan, 1971). More commonly, because of their social

conditioning, oppressed individuals seek or accept the limits imposed on them and willingly suffer the oppression in order to avoid the seemingly greater risks of freedom (Clark, 1975).

The oppression which young people experience in our schools is tremendous. In spite of what we now know about the kind of conditions that are optimally conducive to human learning and creative expression, children in our public schools are usually still assigned to seats where they are forced to remain for hours on end. Even though we now know from neurological studies (Hannaford, 1995) that physical movement helps children to incorporate what they learn, they are not allowed to talk, doodle, move around the classroom or move from place to place, even to go to the bathroom, without permission.

So great is the emphasis on order, efficiency, standardization, and control

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that teachers who use more enlightened methods of education become subject to negative evaluations because their classrooms tend to be noisy with the excitement and joy of discovery, and disorganized by the diversity of individualized learning. The “good” teacher from the system’s point of view is always in control of his or her orderly, efficient, and quiet classroom, and creative chaos in the classroom is taken as a sign that a teacher is either failing or incompetent. This is especially true today as a result of the current emphasis on mainstreaming and the inclusion of students with developmental disorders and behavioral problems in regular classrooms. Such students’ needs for increased structure and consistency then take precedence, forcing teachers to exercise more control over their classrooms than they would otherwise have to.

Thus, it is not surprising that after children’s natural creativity and desire to learn have been thwarted by rigid and undifferentiated educational programs for several years, their creativity decreases. When teachers recognize this, they may try to teach their students to “think outside the box,” but wouldn’t it be better to encourage and validate children’s naturally endowed creative functioning from the beginning while, at the same time, we also teach them how to focus and verify their creative ideas?

Analytic/Sequential vs. Global/Simultaneous Thinking

Human beings process information differently from one another. So-called right- or left- brained thinking fluctuates on a continuum between two extremes: Analytic/Sequential (Left-brain) and Global/Simultaneous (Right-brain).

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Analytic thinkers are concerned with details, rules, procedures, and directions; they like specific, step-by step instructions and will memorize things if they need to without knowing why the memorization is required. They observe and analyze pieces, parts and facts using linear logic, looking at differences in a planned and structured manner. This is an auditory, language-oriented process. Global thinkers are concerned with end results; they need overviews and the “big picture.” They like general guidelines, variety, alternatives, and different approaches; and they need to understand why it is important, or not, for them to memorize specific information before they are able and willing to do it. This is a visual process that focuses spontaneously on images, insight and imagination as well as metaphors, meaning, rhythm and rhyme (Dunn, 1992; Hannaford, 1995).

The younger children are, the more likely they are to be global processors. At the secondary level, between 50 and 60 percent of all students tend to be global, and as many as 85 percent of students who achieve slowly or have difficulty in school cannot learn successfully in an analytic mode. This does not mean that global thinkers are less intelligent than analytic processors but that each group achieves best when taught with instructional approaches that match its individual members’ learning styles (Dunn, 1992).

Of the gifted and talented students the Dunns tested for processing style, 19 percent were analytic, 26 percent were global, and 56 percent were integrated processors who functioned in either style, but only when they were interested in the content (Dunn, 1992). Cody’s doctoral research also suggests that most gifted children with IQs of 145

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or higher are global and that the same is true of most underachievers (Cody, 1983). Utilizing “case histories” that included men of genius such as Einstein,
Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Mozart, Picasso, and others, Psychiatrist, Dr. Jan Ehrenwald, also concluded that genius emerges from the unique native endowment of the right hemisphere working in concert with the finely honed skills and discipline of the left side of the brain (Ehrenwald, 1986).

Unfortunately, of the thousands of teachers tested by the Dunns, fully 65 percent were found to be analytic, and textbooks also tend to be analytic rather than global. “Thus a serious mismatch between analytic teaching styles and global learning preferences occurs far too often, resulting in disaffected students with low scores, poor self-discipline, and damaged self-image” (Dunn, 1992).

Research suggests that students whose characteristics are accommodated by educational interventions that are responsive to their learning styles can be expected to achieve three fourths of a standard deviation higher than students whose styles are not accommodated (Dunn et al., 1995).

Teachers fail to nurture children’s creativity adequately not simply because 65 percent of them prefer an analytic/sequential mode of cognitive processing but also because our schools were not designed to produce creative thinkers and innovators who might disturb the status quo. Even in our broader society, excitement is associated with loss of control and deemed unacceptable. We cannot expect people to be creative when we teach them to suppress and deny their own feelings. Creative peak experiences are impossible without passionate personal commitment.

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Typically inquisitive and questioning gifted children can be a constant source of irritation to authoritarian adults. These children can often penetrate the prejudices of a society with such precision that they seem to be equipped with exquisitely sensitive “crap” detectors. This frequently results in devastatingly accurate criticisms, which are naturally experienced as personal attacks and threats by those in power within the systems being penetrated (Gallagher, 1975). In response to such criticisms, those who feel threatened generally try to structure the situation in order to regain a sense of adequacy and control. This usually involves an increased emphasis on rigidly defined roles and the imposition of unreasonably oppressive limits, as well as negative labeling and isolation or expulsion to punish the offender and serve as an

example to others. Such oppressive limits designed to control deviant youth force them to rebel, conform (if only on the surface), or escape.

Today, in spite of the fact that research has consistently supported the benefits of academic acceleration for gifted students (Colangelo et al., 2004) and in spite of continuing concerns about the pervasive problem of underachievement among so many members of the gifted minority, most schools still oppose the admittance of gifted children to first grade before the standard age of six, and they consider academic acceleration unwise, especially at the high school level. Thus, in accord with our pervasive social emphasis on average norms as optimal, gifted children are generally required to suppress their abilities and creep along with others their age who are intellectually less able instead of being encouraged to develop their

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abilities and soar to the heights of which they are capable. As a result, the educational system in America today “is more likely to crush a bright child’s spirit than nurture her intellect” (Davidson & Vanderkam, 2004).

When gifted children are educationally bound to others less able, they are also deprived of opportunities to interact with children who have similar interests and abilities, with whom they are most likely to form close relationships and resolve developmental tasks that are crucial to their continued emotional and social growth. I do not mean to imply that people who are gifted should not attempt to understand and appreciate others and accommodate themselves to the needs of society. However, such accommodations should be based on a recognition and appreciation of their differing needs and abilities rather than on a denial of such differences.

What Can Be Done Now

While I believe that there can be no truly lasting solution to this problem without a significant shift in our national values and educational policies, there are some things that can be done today to provide gifted young people with the educational and psychological assistance they need to achieve their potential.

The first thing we need to do is to provide gifted children and adolescents with good teachers, counselors and psychotherapists who do not feel threatened by them. Teachers identified as successful by intellectually gifted, high-achieving high school students not only share their students’ needs for achievement but are also mentally superior themselves. In fact, in one study, the average IQ of such teachers fell within the top 3% of the general population (Bishop, 1968). In other


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studies schools with a higher percentage of teachers with advanced degrees were found to be more successful in working with gifted students.

If teachers were more self-accepting and saw themselves more as guides and coaches than as information givers, they
would probably feel less threatened and inadequate in the presence of others who are more able or knowledgeable in some ways than they are. We need to return to the original meaning of the word “education,” which is derived from the Latin word “educere” and means “to bring forth or draw out,” instead of continuing to “instruct,” which comes from the Latin word “instruere” and means “to pile upon.”

Some simple solutions to the problems that plague gifted children in America’s schools today include ability grouping,

allowing gifted children to accelerate and learn at their own pace, and assuring that they are given material that challenges them to work to the extent of their abilities in an environment with other children who love to learn (Davidson & Vanderkam, 2004; Ruf, 2005). Although an extensive body of information already exists describing educational strategies teachers can use to work effectively with gifted students, little or no time at all is devoted to the special needs of gifted children in most teacher training programs; and in-service programs to remedy this lack among trained teachers are sorely inadequate.

Public attitudes and actions toward people who are intellectually gifted continue to be quite negative for the most part; and the effects of early aversive experiences tend to become internalized and last a lifetime. Consequently, I think one of the most important contributions school

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counselors can make to the difficult task of fostering the growth and development of gifted children may lie in their efforts to create a climate of awareness and understanding of the special abilities, needs, experiences, and problems that are common among gifted children. Counselors should also provide gifted children with safe places where they can develop and express their full potential without fear of negative social sanctions and reprisals for doing so.

School counselors and psychologists should do all they can to make sure that gifted children receive comprehensive testing to identify their abilities and needs so that these needs can be adequately addressed through differentiated educational programs that are individually designed for each child. School psychologists and counselors should also help parents of gifted children

learn to work the system in ways that enable them to serve as advocates for their children instead of adversaries of the school systems that serve their children.

While psychotherapists who are highly intelligent and creative have a distinct advantage in working with clients and patients who are gifted, most of the psychologists and psychiatrists I surveyed through my doctoral research (Schneider, 1982) were unaware of what I call “gifted issues” until my survey questions helped them to examine their own experiences and make the necessary connections, which was part of my intent in conducting the survey.

Psychotherapists who work with gifted people need to be aware of the differing perceptions, experiences, problems, and needs of people who are gifted in order to be optimally effective in working with them. My survey results also suggest

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that even some psychotherapists who may be effective in working with people of average intelligence may experience feelings of threat, intimidation, awe, envy, competitiveness, and inadequacy when working with people who are gifted; and they may, therefore, be less effective at working with members of the gifted minority (Schneider, 1982).

Although I am not going to include all of the differences I have discovered through my work with people who are highly intelligent and creative, some of the “gifted issues” psychotherapists need to be aware of and incorporate into their own work with gifted patients and clients include helping them to understand exactly what it means to be gifted. There is a common need for validation of their feelings of difference as well as for help in understanding how to cope with and anticipate other people’s reactions to

their gifts and behavior. Learning how to  read and interpret their own and other people’s body language can help gifted people become more aware of their own feelings and the impact their behavior and gifts can have on other people, as well as to help them become better able to anticipate the probable consequences of their statements and actions.

In addition, therapists should recognize that intellectualization bears a positive relationship with intelligence (Haan, 1963), and this may result in an imbalance between emotion and intellect that needs to be addressed. Given this tendency among gifted people to rely heavily on their intellect and set their feelings aside, outside of their awareness, they often seem to need expressive training to identify and express their feelings. They may also need to understand intellectually just how their psychotherapists are trying to help them before they become willing to take

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emotional risks. Teachers need to be aware of this too so that they can employ educational strategies designed to help gifted young people accept, integrate, and express their emotional and creative potentials along with their intellect.

Given their seemingly greater than normal needs for independence and their frequent difficulty dealing with authority figures, gifted people seem to respond better to a therapeutic approach that is collegial, or like coaching or mentoring, and they want to be active participants in the process. The appropriate use of humor after a trusting therapeutic alliance has been formed can help to level the playing field, although humor should not be used with patients who have borderline personality disorders or are overly sensitive to slights.

Psychotherapists need to be real rather than to just play a role in their therapeutic relationships with gifted clients and patients, and they should avoid trying to play psychological games. Gifted patients and clients will probably see right through the games, and when they do, it will damage the trust in the relationship. People who are gifted often find it hard to trust authority figures, particularly when their parents and teachers have allowed or forced them to remain in stultifying academic situations that have failed to meet their needs or nurture their development and have left them feeling trapped and helpless.

Therapists also need to be aware that competition and lack of interaction with true intellectual peers with whom they can form close friendships may leave gifted people feeling lonely, isolated, and lacking in the emotional and social skills

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they need to lead happy and fulfilled lives. Gifted people need to learn that because of their relative scarcity in the general population, they may have difficulty finding others who share their interests and abilities; and they may need help learning how to network to build a supportive group of close friends, which will help them to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Gifted children commonly need to learn networking skills earlier than other children in order to find others with similar abilities and interests with whom they can form close friendships and resolve developmental issues that are vitally important for their continued emotional and social growth. Participating in programs offered through the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and the Davidson Institute, as well as others, can not only meet gifted

children and adolescents’ needs for academic stimulation but can also allow them to interact with others who share their abilities and interests. The Hoagiesgifted.org website is a good source of information about these and other resources.

Identity issues also appear to be common in gifted adolescents and adults who seek counseling and psychotherapy. Gifted people commonly have such wide-ranging interests and abilities that it may be hard for them to choose from among such a wide array of options. We call this multi-potentiality. Vocational interest testing can facilitate the choice process by either expanding gifted people’s awareness of their options or helping them to focus on a more reasonable number of them. Over-identification with gifted children and adolescents by significant adults may make it difficult or impossible for them to separate

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psychologically as they normally would to explore their own desires and find the kind of meaning and purpose that will sustain them throughout their lives. Finding a healthy and positive sense of psychological separateness is particularly important for gifted young people who have a sense of mission and seek a quest to which they can dedicate themselves and their lives as part of their search for identity. Experimenting with career options and close association with achieving role models and mentors who share their interests and abilities can facilitate the search process.

Psychotherapists need to be aware that when gifted adolescents and adults want to avoid facing things they would rather not deal with in therapy, they may be extremely adept at leading their therapists down a garden path by talking about other things that may be

interesting and even tangentially relevant but are not the source of the problem. My own signal that this is happening is that I begin to feel sleepy, which is unusual for me.

Psychotherapists should also be aware that people who are gifted may be exquisitely sensitive to and concerned about problems that are much too big for them to tackle and resolve by themselves. Gifted patients and clients need to realize that perceiving a problem doesn’t mean that they have to solve it. Developing criteria or questions gifted people can ask themselves to help them decide whether or not to get involved or to leave some of the problems they see for others to solve can be helpful.

Creatively gifted people may need help in learning to set priorities and focus their energies because they tend to have too many fingers in too many pies. Often, creatively gifted people also need to learn that the pauses for replenishment they

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experience following creative peak experiences are a natural part of the creative process and need not be cause for depression, instead of expecting themselves to produce creative products steadily, like machines.

Every parent and teacher of gifted children should read the Templeton Report on Acceleration (Colangelo et al., 2004) and use every available opportunity to make other parents, teachers and educational administrators aware of it. Parents and teachers who are interested in increasing their knowledge of existing educational strategies and children’s legal rights to gifted education can do so by attending meetings of local, state, and national gifted associations. Public support for these organizations will also strengthen and enable them to educate and influence those who are responsible for

devising and implementing laws regarding children’s rights to gifted education.

In the absence of effective interventions, the negative academic and social pressures currently being applied to intellectually and creatively gifted students in America’s schools will continue to result in the loss of extraordinary human potential that could be far better used to solve the complex problems now threatening our survival as a society and as a species. Intelligence alone is not enough to determine who should now be considered gifted; emotional intelligence and creativity are also needed to see new possibilities within a huge and complex framework. If we want our best and brightest to behave in a pro-social manner, we have to provide them with the resources they need to learn and grow and treat them with kindness and consideration so that they will care enough about the rest of us to devote their extraordinary talents and energies to solving our society’s most pressing problems.

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The preceding article is based on parts of Giftedness: Syndrome or Synergism (Schneider, 1982). This unpublished doctoral dissertation was reviewed and approved by psychologists Dr. Max Fogel, Director of Science and Education for American Mensa and an Adjunct Professor at The Union Institute, and Dr. Donald C. Klein, Core Faculty Member from the graduate school of The Union Institute, in 1982. In addition, the following experts from the fields of psychology and education participated in a recent peer review process and provided comments, suggestions and thought-provoking questions that were invaluable:

Janet Emsley, M.A.
Michael Emsley, Ph.D.
James LoGiudice, M.A.
Edward F. Jaworowski, M.A.
Susan Price, M.A
Naomi Reiskind, Ph.D.
Joan S. Schmidt, Ed.D.
Edward Snieska, M.A.


Copyright © 2006 by C. Suzanne Schneider, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.