Gifted kids who have enormous amounts of physical energy are often misunderstood and misidentified. Let’s try to understand how the same energy that makes them disruptive in class fuels intense concentration when they’re engaged in an activity they love.
The Five Overexcitabilities
I wrote earlier about Dabrowski’s five overexcitabilities. A quick recap:
- intellectual – a deep passion to learn about specific topics
- imaginational – possessing a rich imaginational world
- sensory – having one or more heightened senses
- emotional – an unusually large range of emotions
- psychomotor – an excess of physical energy
If you want to dig in deeper to overexcitabilities, I recommend Living With Intensity (quoted below).
As I first learned about the overexcitabilities, psychomotor seemed the most surprising. A wild gifted kid? Running around? Falling out of chairs? That doesn’t sound right. They should be well–behaved, model students!
But here’s Susan Daniels and Elizabeth Meckstroth:
Psychomotor overexcitability is significantly correlated with high intelligence (Ackerman, 1993). Gifted children characteristically exhibit a high energy level. Susan Daniels, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Meckstroth M.Ed, M.S.W, Living With Intensity
A high level of physical energy isn’t rare, it’s to be expected in children with high intelligence. In fact, Dr. Linda Silverman writes:
…several studies [show] that psychomotor OE is an important means of differentiating gifted children from other students Linda Kreger Silverman Ph.D., The Theory of Positive Disintegration in the Field of Gifted Education
Why This Energy Is Awesome
To understand how giftedness and physical energy are connected, stop picturing a fidgety kid interrupting the class. Instead, imagine that child deeply engrossed in their favorite activity.
The very energy that makes a child disruptive during a dull lesson empowers them to:
- create a highly-detailed Lego replica of an actual castle
- design a video game within Minecraft
- become a self-taught iPhone programmer over spring break
When their engaged in something they love, the high-energy student enters a level of focus that few can understand. Their energy keeps them going long after peers become bored, fatigued, or distracted.
This child becomes a mini-Michelangelo working tirelessly on their own Sistine Chapel.
But, since abundant physical energy is so opposite from the typical image of a gifted learner, it’s shamefully easy to overlook this child’s intelligence and focus only on their “behavior”.
Many of these issues can be solved with a simple pre-assessment. The physical movement cranks up with boredom. If a child (any child) already knows something, move them onto something interesting stat!
Or, if a kid is brimming with physical energy, don’t ask them to contain it (which is impossible). Give them a chance to burn it off. Quick “movement breaks” are great, and not just for your high-energy kids.
These kids might need a few easy adaptations:
- an exercise ball to bounce on in place of a chair
- the option to stand in the back of the class rather than sit during a lesson
- a squeeze toy to release energy during a test
Make Them Part of the Team
Talk to students directly about their needs. You can bet they’ve heard the same thing, year after year: “you need to settle down!”
What a relief to be told that their energy is actually a super power for learning and creating:
You know, Tiffany, that energy that makes it hard to sit still can actually be an amazing advantage when you’re doing something you love.
Make them part of the team, rather than a problem to be fixed. Help them to adapt and get through challenges:
If you feel that energy building, I want you to give me a little signal. It’ll be great for you to recognize when you’re feeling that way.
You Can’t “Fix” It
Kids aren’t going to “grow out of” their overexcitabilities. High-energy kids become high-energy adults. This is why self-understanding is so vital. Learning to work with their intensities is a life-long skill that push them closer to their amazing potentials.
I get a lot of email from parents about this topic. Unfortunately, I cannot offer any useful advice over email. I highly recommend speaking with your pediatrician or contacting an expert in your area for in-person help!