#6 Gifted Students Develop Asynchronously

“But I am sure the Naval Research Laboratory has a gift shop that sells scanning tunneling microscopes so I can create my own quantum dots with identical, deterministic sizes!  Why can’t I have one?  Don’t you understand that I need one for my own research?”, screams the 12-year-old gifted child as he falls to the floor in a heap, crying, beating his fists on the floor, and intermittently screaming and then begging for his parents to buy him this highly-specialized and expensive microscope.

This example may seem exaggerated, but is not so far from the reality many families experience when their gifted child is academically light years ahead of his chronological age, but some years behind his same-age peers in emotional maturity.  The often-said quip on this is, “I never know which age I’m dealing with at any particular time!”  This means that your 12-year-old may have the knowledge of a 25-year-old, but often behaves like an 8-year-old.  And you think parenting is tough?

This is asynchronous development.  Gifted students often develop emotionally, socially and intellectually asynchronously while their typical peers usually develop evenly in those domains.  Ironically, gifted students may appear as small adults because of the advanced knowledge base they have and exhibit, but at the same time, their emotional maturity may be lower than their age-mates. So, although the 13-year-old gifted student in your classroom appears to act just like an 18-year-old, he may have the emotional tolerance of an 8-year-old.  Just because they act like an adult does not mean we can expect them to behave like an adult, and we must not treat them as an adult!

Asynchronous development means that a gifted child has the intellectual capacity to understand and synthesize information that usually is many years more advanced than what a typical child of the same chronological age could understand.  Yet, their emotional maturity is much less advanced, maybe well-below their chronological age, and they are unable to handle the emotional impact that may be inherent in understanding this advanced information.

What this may look like in a social or educational setting is a child who is obviously extremely intelligent and can hold an advanced, seemingly adult conversation on a topic well above his age.  Subsequently, as a parent, teacher or other involved adult, you also come to assume that since this child talks like an adult, he is also emotionally and socially more mature, much like an adult.  This cannot be further from the truth!  Further, as the adults in a gifted child’s life, we cause significant emotional damage to the gifted child when we hold expectations of their social and emotional behavior relative to their intellectual behavior.

To me, this is the crux in a gifted child’s life that causes the most permanent psychological damage.


Here’s a story I titled “Besides John”:


As a teacher, you have a gifted boy named John in your 4th grade classroom who waves his hand frantically to answer each and every question you ask.  You know John has the right answer; he always does.  You pass over him every time because you need to give another student a chance to answer.  As you see his hand waving like there is an emergency in the back of the class, you may get a bit annoyed and jokingly say something like, “Who else knows the answer …… besides John?”

Right away with that one statement you have singled out this child to his classmates, setting him up for possible rejection or teasing by his peers.  To this gifted child, you have just instilled in him a sense of doubt about his ability to be a successful student, and you have now given him a reason to  believe he does not fit in ………. he wants to be someone else “besides John….”

John continues his school days now, dumbing down and trying to fit in, which, to you, may look terribly awkward and appear that he is trying too hard to be a normal part of the crowd.  In reality, he is trying hard to NOT be the “besides John” who you singled out in class.  His grades begin to slip because of his new  “someone else besides John” performance; this pretending to be someone he is not takes a lot of effort and is exhausting for him.  John manages to get through the day wearing his pretend persona of “someone else besides John”.  Once he gets home, or even once he gets in his mom’s car for the drive home, he completely loses it.  Tears, frustration, anger and confusion pour out into his total emotional meltdown that lasts for hours.  Homework is forgotten and goes undone.  Learning is no longer a joy or a priority; reinventing himself as  “someone else besides John” becomes the priority leading to his poor performance at school and his failing grades.

As John’s teacher, you know he is gifted, and because of your understanding of gifted children, which is lacking, your expectations for John are, “he’s gifted, he’s smart, so he should be doing much better in school.”  Your “diagnosis” of John, given John’s intellectual capacity, is that he is lazy and has poor work ethics.  As John’s teacher, you make no bones about your expectations of him.  If you expect high performance, your students will rise to the challenge!  Then you receive a request from John’s mother for a parent-teacher conference because she is concerned about his poor grades.

As John’s teacher, your goal at this upcoming parent-teacher conference is to prove to his mother that John should be doing better in school.  If he would only turn in his homework or complete his classwork, he would have better grades.  So, you bring in several of John’s failing test papers to show to make sure his mom understands how John is simply not working up to his capacity.

John’s mother comes to this conference with a heavy heart.  She knows her son and because she has had first-hand experience with raising a gifted child, she understands all the ins and outs of giftedness in children.  John’s mother is not as concerned about his grades because she knows that unless his emotional issues are addressed, he will never be able to focus on learning.  John’s mother portrays a child who is in significant emotional distress which seems to contradict the intellectually-advanced near-adult-like student you see at school.  Ha!  Now!  You immediately figure this situation out: John is lazy and doesn’t care about school, but in order to avoid repercussions from his parents, he pretends to be sad or upset at home.  John must be pulling the wool over his parents’ eyes!

And so this parent-teacher conference is fruitless because as John’s teacher, you see an intellectually-advanced gifted student who you know is way too smart to not be successful in school, and way too mature to be acting like the pitiful little child his mother has portrayed.  So, you resolve to “set him straight” and “put him in his place”.

John’s mother goes home realizing his teacher and school administrators don’t believe her, and the school refuses to understand the role giftedness plays in a student’s education especially emotionally and socially.  John’s mother secures the advice of a psychologist who specializes in gifted children to help advocate for her son at his school, but the school holds firm on their opinion that John brought all of this on himself by not doing his schoolwork, and that giftedness should NOT be keeping him from doing his work.  To the contrary, giftedness should be the reason for all of his schoolwork to be exceptional!

And John is caught in the middle and he is overwhelmed with the feeling that he is different, a failure and that it sucks to be gifted.  And so the psychological damage is done.


Asynchronous development is the most critical component we should all understand about giftedness.  

Just because a gifted child has the intellectual capacity to know all about scanning tunneling microscopes and quantum dots does not mean he has the emotional maturity yet to accept that he cannot have a scanning tunneling microscope.



In my recent blog post A Gifted Child Checklist for Teachers , I listed ten basic characteristics and traits of gifted children.  It is a list intended to easily help teachers and others by providing a brief and basic listing of gifted traits and characteristics which aren’t always so well-known, recognized or obvious.  I also hoped my checklist would dispel some myths and correct some incorrect information about giftedness.  Be sure to follow all the posts in this series!

Gifted are Diverse

Is coming up next!

7 Comments on “#6 Gifted Students Develop Asynchronously

  1. Thank you so much for your blog! I have always known my child was exceptionally bright but his principal recently confirmed my assertation. She suggested I start researching the Gifted Child and I stumbled upon this! About a year ago we started therapy because I just could not figure out why he was so defiant and not “acting his age”…Your blog brings clarity to why he acts the way he does! It brings me such relief to know my child is “normal” and now I can start to learn how to parent my wonderfully gifted child! Thank you again!

    • You are welcome! Yes, your child is normal, perfectly normal, his normal, and his normal is “wonderfully gifted!”

      Thank you, Colleen! <3

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  5. I needed this today. I had to under-arm my 6 year old (PG) son out of a Robotics lecture. He sat for the lecture perfectly, and asked intelligent and thought provoking questions. He seemed so mature during the lecture part. And them came the hands-on part… Alas, his 6 year old self simply could not wait in line to try out the robots! Major melt down!!

    • Oh Caitie, and it doesn’t get any easier just because they may be older! Just a bit of a warning, lol! Thanks for sharing your asynchrony story!

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