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Gifted Students and Overexcitability

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a gifted student in your care who is routinely excited, sensitive, and intense. His or her emotions run high, almost all day, and their social-emotional life can be an extreme rollercoaster. You, my dear teacher friend, have met a student with an overexcitability.

While overexcitabilities can be found in any student (or adult for that matter), this emotional state is prevalent among cognitively gifted children. So, just what is an overexcitability (or OE for short)?

Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski defines an overexcitability as??One who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner? (Dabrowski, 1972). In other words, students have intense emotions, feelings, or actions that are difficult to control. One important thing to know about OE’s is that they can be both physical and emotional in nature, and students can have one OE or a combination of OE’s. After all, each child is unique!

Dabrowski identified five areas of overexcitability in humans. You’ll notice that many of your gifted students have more than one excitability, and one will be prevalent and most notable with each child. These five areas of OE include psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginational.

I’ve broken each OE down for educators. We’ll look closely at two things for each OE: what does this look like, and how do I support my student? So, let’s get started!

{Important Note: OE’s should be said with Person First Language. It is correct to say “A student with an OE”; it is incorrect – and impolite – to say “the OE student” or “the Psychomotor student”.}

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What It Is:?The Psychomotor OE is, very simply, having too much physical energy. These are your students who are always active, need to stand or use wobble stools and yoga balls, and sometimes appear to be “misbehaving” or unable to sit still. This OE is probably the most prevalent in our schools right now, and for our gifted students, this can pose a complicated problem. Why, you ask? Students who have a Psychomotor OE, especially those students who have psychomotor as their prevalent OE, are often misdiagnosed with ADHD. If you have a gifted student in your class and are concerned about their physical activity, it’s important to determine if that child is still paying attention and is still successful in school. If they are, then you have a student with Psychomotor OE. If that student is losing focus often and shows other signs of ADHD, then you might want to bring these concerns to the parents’ attention.

How To Support Students With This OE:?While this OE is not related to ADHD, you might think of interventions and ways to assist this student in very similar ways. Students with the Psychomotor OE can benefit from flexible seating (as simple as being able to stand when they need to and/or have access to a yoga ball); having built-in breaks during learning that allow them to expel physical energy; self-monitoring tools; and planning learning environments and projects which encourage movement.

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What It Is:?Students with the Sensual OE are your students who are extremely sensitive to certain stimuli. Before we move on, students in this category do not necessarily have heightened or extreme emotions. Students with Sensual OE’s literally have five senses that pick up much more input than the brain expects. For example, students with this OE might think music is too loud. They might ask to wear sunglasses in the classroom because the sun is too bright. They have very specific foods that they will eat, often because of texture. They might ask their parent to cut off tags from clothing, or they might demand that there is only one brand of socks that they will wear because they feel the best. Each student will be different; some students have all five senses heightened, while some might only have one or two.

How To Support Students With This OE:?First and foremost, it is our job as educators to stop using phrases like “stop being overly sensitive” or “you are such a picky eater”. Almost always, whether gifted or not, these heightened senses are real and are not an excuse or an avoidance technique for students. It’s important to communicate these needs to substitute teachers, specials teachers, etc. Depending on the age of the child, you might ask your school leadership for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones for fire drills and band concerts. Parents with a student who has a Sensual OE should be allowed, and encouraged, to send in snacks that the child will eat. Most importantly, help the child realize that their OE is normal, accepted, and appreciated. It makes them unique and awesome!

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What It Is:?This OE is one that many educators will immediately announce, “Yep! I have students with that OE”. The Emotional OE is probably the easiest of the five to understand and identify. Students with the Emotional OE have extreme, intense emotions. This can present itself in many ways, and can include extreme anger and frustration; inconsolable sadness and crying; anxiety; rumination of justice (wanting things to be fair and/or feeling like someone didn’t get the correct reward or punishment); and more. It can also be extreme happiness or pride, which for some gifted students comes across as gloating and/or bragging. Generally, a student with this OE will react in a more extreme way than a student who does not have this OE. For example, I had two students who were researching manatees for an informative essay unit we were working on. Ginae*, my gifted student with the Emotional OE, was inconsolable for a good chunk of our ELA block that day because she was heartbroken at how poorly manatees have been treated. Kendra*, who is not gifted and did not appear to have any OE’s, thought it was unjust and felt bad for the manatees, but she quickly moved on with the assignment. {It’s also important to note my pride when Kendra did anything and everything possible to comfort Ginae. WOOT!}

How To Support Students With This OE:?Continuing the story above, it’s all about the way you handle a student’s emotional reaction. My colleagues and I know that Ginae has an Emotional OE and can be very emotional. We support her and make it a point to use positive language when she is emotional (even if that emotion is anger). In the mind of a child who has this OE, their reaction is completely normal and justified. You don’t need to intervene with a student unless their symptoms begin to affect their quality of life. For example, with Ginae, I spent time with her talking about self-calming strategies (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, walking laps in the room, repeating a personal calming mantra, etc.) and being mindful of the reaction balancing out the cause of the emotion (in other words, was your reaction “in balance” with the reason you got upset). For Ginae, she realized that she cried far too long about the manatees because?she felt like she let Kendra down by not being present during their research time together. As educators, we can still coach students on appropriate reactions without demeaning the original reaction.

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What It Is:?This OE is another overexcitability that many of our gifted students will have some sort of relationship with. Intellectual OE is the term we use for students who have an extraordinary desire to learn, especially about specific topics they are interested in. You can often find students with the Intellectual OE reading a book furiously, problem solving intensely, and researching something on their own time. These students will be able to maintain focus on a topic and/or assignment for an extended period of time; in fact, these students may sometimes ask to skip the break you give your students, or take their book to lunch and recess with them. You’ll often find these students debating theories, worrying about social justice, or hyper-fixating on a topic.

How To Support Students With This OE:?In my experience, students with this OE generally don’t need much coaching from us as teachers. However, I want you to imagine an empty lemonade jar {your student with an Intellectual OE’s brain}. Start pouring in lemonade {content they want to learn} and ice cubes {content you want them to learn, but they aren’t interested in}. Eventually, all of that matter will fill the jar and it will overflow. Using this analogy, your students with this OE are having the same reaction. They may start to shout out answers at inappropriate times (especially if they also have a Psychomotor OE), or they may “shell up” and withdraw from class so they can explore their own topic. Either way, these should be tell-tale signs that this student has had enough and needs time to invest in their own learning and passions. In my classroom, I call this time “Genius Hour“. When my students with an Intellectual OE need a break, I instruct them to take 15 minutes of Genius Hour time, and they can do/research/read/play whatever they want {with limitations, of course!}. This is a procedure and routine we rehearse at the beginning of the year, so students are fully aware of the expectations. If they break those expectations, I simply pull them back into the whole class lesson.?Edited: Sometimes, Genius Hour is a whole-class activity in my classroom. There are also times when I have my gifted students with Intellectual OE’s stop what I’m asking them to do in class – because they are bored and/or I see symptoms of their OE flaring up – and allow them to focus on their interests and passions.

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What It Is:?The Imaginational OE is a hyperactive focus on something “bigger”. Students who exhibit this OE might be avid storytellers. They might be daydreamers who want to solve a problem. They may spend hours wondering why something is the way it is, or trying to figure out how something works. They combine fictional worlds with our world, which also means that they sometimes mix in falsehoods with their truth. Students who have this OE might present this in the arts, excelling at drama, vocal music, instrumental music, visual arts, etc. They are often divergent thinkers. These are thinkers who challenge the status quo, ask “what if” questions, or propose changes to things that already work. {You can read more about divergent thinking HERE.}

How To Support Students With This OE:?The most common support that students with this OE need revolves around telling the truth. Often, these students will tell stories by mixing in truth with lies. In their head, this is standard procedure and often won’t see anything wrong with what they’ve said. It is important for educators to understand the difference between playful, harmless storytelling {make-believe, fantasy, etc.} and storytelling which involves lies that could hurt others or themselves. Encourage your students to make a Venn diagram or T-chart and analyze what the difference is between Storytelling and Lying. It’s also incredibly important to give these students choices when it comes to assessments and other assignments. For example, a student with an Imaginational OE that excels in drama might struggle immensely with a written test; however, if you allow them to somehow act out the learning objectives or present the content in an artistic way, you’re allowing their creative juices to bring out the content knowledge you are asking for.

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In Closing

No matter what the makeup of your classroom of students, chances are you will have some combination of overexcitabilities (OEs) in some students. Building relationships with your students is never more critical than when identifying possible OEs that a student might be exhibiting. When possible, schools should coordinate notes about students that include their OE tendencies. This allows you to be ready for this student on Day 1. While the majority of students who present an OE are gifted, remember that even non-gifted students could potentially have an OE or two in their DNA. As educators, if we look at each student individually and try to understand what might be happening in each unique brain, we’re definitively better educators through the knowledge and understanding we gain.

Do you want a handy-dandy one-pager with tips and tricks to help your student with an OE find success in the classroom?

References
Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. London: Gryf.
Dabrowski, K & Piechowski, M.M. (1977). Theory of levels of emotional development (Vols.1 & 2). Oceanside, NY: Dabor Science.

*All student names have been changed to protect their identity.

Comments

  1. Li Lu says

    As stated in the article, building positive relationship between teacher and students is critical, especially for students with OE. Here is I have been doing in my class:
    (1) Provide well-designed content and challenging questions.
    (2) Teach with enthusiasm and passion.
    (3) Have a positive attitude.
    (4) Incorporate humor into lessons. My students really get my sense of humor, especially GT students
    (5) Make learning fun.
    (6) Incorporate story telling into lessons. My students found story telling inspires their learning.
    (7) Show an Interest in their lives outside of school. I went to the orchestra concert, marching band competitions, soccer games, football games, academic decathlon etc.

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