Guided Group Discussion to Help Gifted Teens Develop Healthy Relationships

By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of Get Gifted Students Talking: 76 Ready-to-Use Group Discussions About Identity, Stress, Relationships, and More (Grades 6–12)

Guided Group Discussion to Help Gifted Teens Develop Healthy Relationships“Being known” offered protection for many participants in a national study of bullying of and by gifted kids. Not being known meant vulnerability. When new to their school, some gifted kids were targeted. When they excelled in competitive classrooms, some were vulnerable. The highest prevalence of bullying was associated with the transition to middle school.

All those vulnerable times involve social changes. Jockeying for social position is not uncommon, even when entering kindergarten, and the same phenomenon happens when kids come to middle school from various elementary schools. During this transition, kids may not know or be known by most peers, and in middle school they no longer have one main teacher to relate to and feel supported by. Self-worth, self-confidence, and sense of safety can feel precarious.

In the study, not being known was a theme when bullied students talked about experiences during their first eight years of school. These statements were typical:

  • “That was before kids knew me.”
  • “In speeded classes, we weren’t in contact with kids in other classes.”
  • “When [the student who bullied] got to know me, we became friends.”

Developing relationships is a complex developmental task. It isn’t just shy kids, kids with negative attention-getting behavior, or kids new to school who can benefit from assistance with relationships. Even high-achieving, highly talented kids can struggle socially.

But gifted kids’ social stress might not be obvious to parents, peers, and teachers. As a researcher and counselor of gifted kids, I’ve learned that gifted kids may be excellent at hiding social and emotional concerns. I’ve concluded that they need and deserve attention to peer relationships, including with their bright peers.

Proactive Connection

Small-group discussion about growing up can help gifted kids normalize social and other struggles—proactively, before problems occur or before small problems become huge. Such discussions can be a social and emotional curriculum in themselves, be part of a special program, or be a short-term or longer-term series of meetings. Counselors can include discussion groups as an efficient and effective strategy for addressing social-skills deficits, behavioral problems, and emotional concerns.

But anyone can conduct these discussions as well, either when co-facilitating groups with a school counselor to learn “group skills” and listening skills or after studying how-to information in a small-group resource book. Group size, length of meetings, recruitment strategies, logistical challenges, ethical guidelines related to privacy, and what to do when are usually clarified in such material.

Bright kids may not have opportunities otherwise to discuss “growing up.” Being able to connect with others like themselves, in the presence of a nonjudgmental adult, about struggles related to development may help them avoid serious mental health concerns. They can discuss figuring out who they are, where they are going, how to manage complicated relationships, and how to cope with stress.

They are likely to find common ground quickly—and may find mind-mates, especially when bright kids are grouped together. They’re usually surprised that they and others have similar concerns. They’re “normal,” not “crazy,” as some kids with heightened sensitivity and intensity fear. They develop emotional vocabulary—a new language for some. Comfortable, trusting relationships built through small-group discussion may be crucial to well-being.

Guided Discussion

In contrast to content-oriented classroom discussion, information in these small-group discussions comes from the kids. An adult is a facilitator of discussion, not a “leader” or “teacher” in the usual sense.

Social problems are best resolved socially, and small-group discussion is meaningfully social. The nonjudgmental facilitator asks open-ended questions, avoids giving advice, and monitors behavior in the interest of psychological safety.

When group members realize they can “be real,” trust develops as they interact respectfully. They learn to withhold judgment and to appreciate others’ perspectives. They recognize nuanced differences between pride and arrogance. They gain skills in listening and responding, and they develop expressive language.

Ideally, they begin to use these skills when interacting with peers and adults outside of the group—and at home.

Bright kids across achievement levels, cultural backgrounds, and social and economic strata can find common ground when discussing social and emotional development. Therefore, group meetings are purposeful, not just “hanging out,” an aspect that helps justify using school space for meetings. The groups are semi-structured but flexible. There is a focus for each meeting, but the general topic is broad, open to new strands that emerge.

According to what I learned from several years of listening to up to 100 gifted kids a week in small groups, even best friends may not talk about developmental challenges. Tense shoulders quickly relax when teens dive into topics like stress, intensity, perfection, competition, social image, change and loss, encouragers and discouragers, loneliness, disappointment, anger, and mood swings.

They learn that “feeling stuck” is common among both high achievers and gifted underachievers. They learn that listening can feel like “hard work,” but they also gain psychoeducational information about giftedness, relationships, and themselves as they practice new skills.

Applying Small-Group Learning to Relationships

Social learning that occurs during proactive, focused-but-flexible, development-focused discussions potentially contributes to healthy relationships currently and in the future. Basic elements are these:

  • Recognizing the importance of listening
  • Recognizing the importance of both verbal and nonverbal skills in conversation
  • Having “facilitative language” available for engaging others
  • Recognizing when “biting one’s tongue” is wise
  • Being able to “grab the moment” to compliment someone
  • Being able to express compassion and appreciation
  • Recognizing when it is wise to ask for help
  • Avoiding assumptions about the thoughts and emotions of peers, teachers, coaches, administrators, and family members
  • Recognizing that everyone is constantly developing—and probably struggling with something
  • Understanding that teens who seem confident may not feel self-assured
  • Recognizing that everyone feels stressed, angry, worried, sad, and socially inept at times
  • Recognizing that bright kids are sensitive to tensions at home and at school
  • Recognizing that all teens are concerned about social image—at least to some extent
  • Understanding that struggle helps build resilience and wisdom

Small-group discussion is ideal for bringing gifted underachievers and high achievers together. Both deserve, and can benefit from, a noncompetitive opportunity to focus on nonacademic life. Gifted underachievers need contact with academic achievers because the former will not always be as they are during adolescence. Predicting the future is difficult. Developmental tasks will be accomplished, with tempo varying, and circumstances will likely change.

Underachievers need opportunities that remind them that they have capabilities and worth, regardless of whether they can perform academically during adolescence; achievers can benefit from attention to more than just their high performance. Small-group discussions can also improve relationships among cultures, socioeconomic levels, rival gangs, and school social groups—and contribute to a safer and more harmonious school climate.

Programs for gifted kids should be multifaceted, with options that appeal to students with wide-ranging achievement levels. If advanced classes are not available because of limited staffing, if they are severely limited, or if only one program component is possible, I recommend small-group discussion about growing up—for addressing important needs of all bright students efficiently and effectively.

Skills and awareness gained through “social practice” can help gifted kids experience healthy relationships at school, at work, at play, and eventually in marriage/partnership and parenting. Feeling “known,” and that they matter, can also help them survive adolescence.

Jean PetersonJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books, journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.

how and why to get students talkingGet Gifted Students TalkingJean is the author of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking and Get Gifted Students Talking.

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