During my first year of teaching sixth grade language arts, I assigned my students a narrative in which they were to create a dynamic duo. After much prewriting and planning, most of my students produced approximately 3-4 page stories and moved on to editing and revising. One student, however, was still writing the exposition of her story – and was on page 20. And this was not your typical sixth grade narrative with too much exposition and not enough rising action. (Fellow ELA teachers know how tough it is to get them past that!) Nope, this was the beginning of a full novel. And it was GOOD. It was a fantasy story with characters who had just discovered their powers and were being sent to a magical school.
As the teacher, I could have made her stop and conform to the timeline of the rest of the class, smash a quick ending onto her story, and move on to editing, revising, and final drafts. Instead, I told her the proverbial, “Go, fly!” I gave her the time and space and let her write. She was writing with a purpose – following her plot outline – but she was also writing with PASSION – perhaps the very beginning of fulfillment of her potential as a creative writer. As teachers, what more could we hope for our students?
This particular girl is gifted in every sense of the word. She is highly intelligent, unique, quirky, an abstract thinker, and resistant to repetitive work. In a different setting, she might have been shut down and forced to conform – a quiet resignation to societal and school norms. That is the case in too many classrooms for too many gifted females.
Gifted females are a unique subset of the gifted population. They have characteristics that differentiate them from their male counterparts. They experience different social pressures than do gifted boys. They are treated differently in the classroom and by their parents and peers.
- Are highly capable, but they may perform poorly in school and attribute this poor performance to low intelligence or ability
- Are often blind to their accomplishments or attribute accomplishments to outside forces
- May appear disinterested in school but excel socially with peers – sometimes gaining popularity in negative ways
- Are acutely sensitive
- Experience conflicting societal pressures as girls and talented individuals
- Are less likely than gifted boys to attribute success to their giftedness
- Are able to hide or silence their abilities, causing teachers and parents to overlook their potential
During adolescence, gifted girls’ self-confidence rapidly declines, and even girls who excelled in school may begin to hide their giftedness. By age 11, many gifted girls are actively hiding their talents – or may not even know they have talents. Gifted girls may purposely hold back talents because the need to please is stronger than the need to achieve.
In society – and especially in middle school and high school – different is not often celebrated or desired. Gifted females know they are different – but they often don’t know why – thus, believing themselves strange or wrong. This leads to low self-esteem, apathy, and fear of taking risks.
As teachers and parents, we have the power to change this trajectory for our gifted girls. First, we must identify underachieving girls who are slipping below our radar.
Common signs of underachievement in gifted females:
- Discrepancies between average/low test scores and exceptional originality, imagination, and insight
- Discrepancies between performance and self-concept
- Unwillingness to participate despite signs of talent
- Sudden, unaccountable appearance of ability in seemingly average girl
- Misbehavior that shows ingenuity/leadership ability
- Contrast between school performance and abilities & achievements reported by parents or other community members
It is imperative that teachers and parents of gifted girls understand their unique characteristics and cultivate experiences to help our gifted girls fly. Teachers can bring out previously hidden talents by incorporating group or partner work into daily instruction and pairing girls with classmates with whom they are comfortable (which may not necessarily be their friends). Create opportunities for and encourage girls to debate, ask questions, and push back on information. Model for gifted girls that differences are accepted and celebrated. Discuss what it means to be gifted and what it means to be a gifted female in today’s society. Celebrate your gifted girl’s unique strengths and encourage her to explore her talents.
We cannot afford to waste female brilliance any longer. For our society to grow and thrive, parents and teachers must support and encourage gifted girls in reaching their true potential.