by Steven Pfeiffer
One of the early and hallmark defining characteristics of being gifted is precocity. A great many young gifted children speak early, read early, can solve problems more typical of older children, and tend to enjoy interacting with older peers and adults. What is not often recognized by parents, educators and mental health providers, however, is that many gifted youth are also precocious in their readiness for exploring career options at an early age. There is even some research to suggest that most gifted students begin thinking seriously about their work futures by age nine or ten!
During my tenure as Executive Director of the Duke TIP program, I spoke with a great many adolescents attending the summer programs offered on the Duke campus. I was impressed with the large number of thirteen-to-fifteen year olds who were quite interested in learning more about different careers in the sciences, arts, law, medicine, engineering, and the humanities. These were anything but superficial conversations during course breaks under the shade of the stately oak trees on campus. These gifted middle and high school students were exquisitely curious about how they might best apply their personal gifts in pursuing further coursework and mentorships toward a career path which they might find personally fulfilling and rewarding. These were probing and passionate conversations by young gifted adolescents who wanted advice on decisions that would impact their preparedness for and path toward specific career options.
Experts in the career development counseling field advise that a best career choice takes into consideration, and attempts to match, a person’s unique abilities, interests, values and passion. This is equally true for the gifted. Authorities in the talent development field respect the need to consider a gifted person’s interests along with their profile of unique cognitive abilities. As most in the gifted field recognize, both the overall ability level and pattern of unique abilities (for example, visual-spatial, mathematical, verbal-linguistic, artistic, creative, interpersonal) are of monumental importance in career planning. What is less-often appreciated and too infrequently considered when helping to chart possible career paths for gifted adolescents is the importance of considering their interests, values, and passion for specific activities.
One example may help illustrate this point. I recall a difficult telephone conversation I once had with the parent of a very bright Duke TIP student who insisted that their daughter register, against the daughter’s wishes, for a calculus or engineering course. This young girl’s overall ability (IQ well-above 140) and specific mathematical ability (SAT math score of 680 in the 7th grade) ensured her success in a calculus or engineering course. Both parents were engineers and hoped that their daughter would follow in their successful career footsteps. Unfortunately (for the parents), this young girl had little interest in taking a fast-paced summer course filled with spatial-mechanical or numerical-quantitative content. Against her parents’ wishes, this gifted adolescent was dead-set on registering for a social science, humanities or leadership course. Her personal interests were passionately centered in the social/interpersonal domain, and she already saw her future as a public defender or community organizer.
The point of this story is to emphasize the dual relevance of abilities and preferences when working with the intellectually gifted. There are ways to assess preferences, just as there are ways to assess general and specific abilities. Holland’s Making Vocational Choices is still considered the gold standard and has been used with great success with gifted youth. My colleague at Florida State, Jim Sampson, coauthored the Career Thoughts Inventory(CTI; 1996), which has also been used with gifted youth. You can learn more about the application of the CTI as a tool for career planning for gifted youth in the gifted handbook which I edited (2008). Another way to assess preferences is to ask the gifted adolescent which courses, assignments, and school projects they have most (and least) enjoyed–not necessarily done well on! You will begin to see a pattern that points toward certain preferences (e.g., some students prefer investigative and hypothesis-testing intellectual activities, whereas others prefer artistic, political, or service-learning assignments).
Preferences tend to crystallize in Western culture by around age seventeen-to-eighteen in the general population. Among the gifted, it is reasonable to assume that crystallization may occur as early as thirteen-to-fifteen. This suggests that it is not too early to begin talking with your gifted son or daughter about their preferences and what they are passionate about in middle school and early high school. These conversations can become a part of their talent development plan and their early career planning roadmap. Of course, no adolescent should be forced into a career path against their wishes or desires, and not every gifted adolescent is ready to commit to a certain career trajectory by high school (or even college, for some!). But it is helpful to remember that you can best provide valued learning opportunities for your gifted son or daughter when you consider not only their overall and specific abilities, but also their interests, preferences, values and passions.
Achter, S., & Lubinski, D. (2005). Bending promise with passion: Best practices for counseling intellectually talented youth. In S. Brown and R. Lent (Eds.). Career development counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 600-624). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Sampson, J., & Chason, A. (2008). Helping gifted and talented adolescents and young adults. In S. Pfeiffer (Ed.).Handbook of Giftedness in Children (pp. 237-246). NY: Springer.
Steven Pfeiffer is a Professor in the Psychological Services in Education program in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State University. Prior to tenure at FSU, Dr. Pfeiffer was at Duke University, where he served as Executive Director of Duke’s internationally renowned Talent Identification Program for gifted students (TIP). Professor Pfeiffer is lead author of a new scale to identify multiple types of giftedness, the Gifted Rating Scales. He also coauthored the Devereux Scales of Mental Disorders and the Devereux Behavior Rating Scale-School Form and he recently co-edited a popular book for parents of young gifted children entitled Early Gifts: Recognizing and Nurturing Children’s Abilities. Dr. Pfeiffer maintains a private practice where he works with children, adolescents and families.