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We know gifted students are far more complex than their test scores suggest. And while we expect certain quirks, others blindside us: a strange reaction to sound, a sudden outburst of tears, or a need to stand up at inopportune times.
Kazimierz Dabrowski identified five types of “overexcitability” that he believed connected strongly to giftedness: intellectual, psychomotor, imaginative, sensual, and emotional.
However, these same five overexcitabilities also make it difficult for students to work within the confines of the classroom. Carrie Lynn Bailey writes:
A challenge for gifted individuals is that they can often be viewed negatively, or pathologically, particularly in educational settings. Overexcitabilities and Sensitivities
Mendaglio and Tiller found, in 2006, the tie between overexcitabilities and giftedness to be looser than previously thought.
1. Intellectual Overexcitability
Curious, questioning, and sharp, a child with intellectual overexcitability asks the questions that flummox you, makes the connections that amaze you, and arrives at understandings that leave your curriculum in the dust.
They will want to go deep into interesting topics, talk about theoretical concepts, and move faster through content than you can handle.
2. Imaginational Overexcitability
Fueled by creativity, a love of stories and drawings, and fictional worlds, students with this overexcitability might daydream, doodle, or otherwise occupy their minds while a dull teacher drones on.
Young students with an intense imagination may tell stories that sort of seem like lies (but maybe aren’t intended to be). For example, as a kid, my niece would tell people that she had been to Hawaii. Her elaborately detailed tale was very convincing. She had not, however, been to Hawaii. I’ve also heard parents talk about their child who told the teacher all about the baby at home… but there was no baby at home. What, to the kid, are imaginary tales, seen like weird lies. Kids grow out of this.
3. Sensual Overexcitability
Despite the provocative name, we’re talking literally about the five senses here. Students with sensual overexcitability receive more input from their senses than expected. This could show up as a strong reaction to sounds, light, textures, or tastes. This reaction could be positive, with a desire to continue experiencing a sensation, or negative, driving the student away from the stimulus.
As a child, I loved rubbing a satin blanket on my face. As an adult, I go to sleep easier when I have the pressure of a thick blanket. These odd quirks might be a result of sensual overexcitability.
4. Psychomotor Overexcitability
Students with psychomotor overexcitability appear to have too much energy. It might manifest as fidgety behavior, rapid or excessive talking, and overactive physical behavior. It sounds like ADHD and might easily be misidentified as such.
5. Emotional Overexcitability
Tragedies, injustice, and reminders of mortality might trigger an unexpectedly emotional response from students who experience emotional overexcitability. To a teacher, they might appear overly dramatic or out for attention. However, these students just feel emotions more intensely, whether joy or sadness. This sensitivity could show up as strong compassion, empathy, and caring for others.
How does this theory help a teacher up to his neck in the day’s work? Identifying these overexcitabilities puts us on the road to alleviating classroom problems:
Too many detailed questions from a student in the middle of a lesson? She’s exhibiting intellectual overexcitability. Give her ten minutes of computer time to get those questions answered!
A student is deeply involved in a movie or book’s fictional world He’s showing signs of imaginational overexcitability. This kid needs an ongoing, creative outlet for these feelings. Give him an open-ended, creative project as a “what do I when I’m done?” option.
Fidgety actions causing annoying noises during work time? The student might be experiencing psychomotor overexcitabilities. Be sure to offer options for moving around, constructing objects, and getting that energy out.
Sobbing rage over a minor recess transgression Offer a listening, non-judgemental ear and a chance for the student to explain the event. Give some “cool-down” time. Later, discuss ways to deal with strong emotions before they become overwhelming.
Overreaction to a sound in the class, agitated behavior over clothing Try to get to the root of the problem, identifying what exactly bothers the student so you can help structure the day to avoid those sounds, sights, or textures. You may also attempt to counsel the student with ways to deal with troublesome sensations.
Finally, realize how easily these five traits could overshadow a child’s gifts.
For a deep dive into the overexcitabilities, grab a copy of Living With Intensity
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