Focusing on Strengths of the Heart Supports the Success and Well-Being of High-Ability Kids. By Steven I. Pfeiffer, PhD, ABPP

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash


Not all gifted kids grow up to be successful and well-adjusted young adults. This short article talks about the concept of “strengths of the heart,” in understanding how to support the success of bright kids.

In my research, clinical practice and writings while at Florida State University, and before that, at Duke University, my students and I have focused on understanding why not all very bright kids grow up to be successful young adults, and what educators and parents might be able to do to nudge high ability kids onto a success path. This led me to look closely at strength-based interventions and the exciting work in positive psychology in support of gifted kids at risk for psychological problems.

Based as much on clinical experience as on our own and others’ published research, we came to understand that gifted kids who are successful in life possess three important, and related but not identical, qualities or attributes. I came to name these three attributes, “strengths of the heart.” These three attributes- considered by others skills, traits, personality characteristics, and even abilities, make a real difference in the lives of successful bright kids. Well, really all successful kids! What are these three qualities, you ask! The three attributes that make up “strengths of the heart” are: emotional intelligence, social skills, and character strengths. Together, when they are all present, these three attributes help make a huge difference in the youngster’s life!

Let me briefly explain each of the three components of my “strengths of the heart” model. First, let’s briefly look at Emotional Intelligence. Most investigators view Emotional Intelligence or EI as the ability to understand, read, and control one’s own and others’ emotions. Obviously, this is an important set of skills to be successful in life! In my early work while at Duke University, I thought that EI might be the panacea to potentially help protect all gifted kids from psychological and emotional conflicts and distress. But I was wrong. EI is important, but we found that it isn’t the only thing that ensures success and well-being amongst gifted kids.

This led me to look for the other pieces of the successful life jigsaw puzzle. We found two other important pieces to the puzzle: social skills and character strengths! Social skills consist of literally hundreds of discrete, age and developmentally appropriate – and culturally-nuanced, skills and behaviors that are learned in the home, school and community. We all are familiar with social skills. Some examples of social skills are making good eye contact, thanking someone when they do something helpful or nice for you, sharing, complimenting others, waiting your turn on a line, helping a fellow student, respecting personal space, displaying good manners in the lunchroom, and accepting feedback. There are actually published scales to measure a youngster’s level of social skills, and curricula to teach them in the classroom.

Finally, the third element of ‘strengths of the heart’ are character strengths. Readers are all familiar with character strengths! They include things such as empathy, gratitude, compassion, tolerance for, and open-mindedness to different points of view, kindness, generosity, humility, love of learning, bravery, integrity and honesty. Character strengths, often called virtues, are important for gifted kids to learn and embrace if they are going to successfully navigate the world as they grow up.

In my clinical work, and in my roles as Executive Director of the Duke TIP gifted summer programs and as co-Director of the Florida Governor’s School for Science and Space Technology, I observed that high IQ does not alone protect a gifted child who lacks character strengths. I also found that high IQ does not necessarily protect a gifted student who lacks important social skills. And finally, I have too often seen that high IQ does not protect a gifted youth who has low Emotional Intelligence. These observations, over the course of 40 years, led me to view Emotional Intelligence, social skills, and character strengths – what I have come to call, “strengths of the heart,” as critically important in the success and psychological well-being of high-ability students. In fact, they are every bit as important, in my opinion, as “head strengths” – which we all-too-often over-emphasize to the relative neglect of “heart strengths” in our work with the gifted.    

Note: This blog is a greatly abridged version of a 2016 article that appeared in the Austin Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (Vol. 1, Issue 1).  A more detailed discussion on “strengths of the heart” can be found in the article: Pfeiffer, S. I. (2016). Success in the classroom and in life: Focusing on strengths of the head and strengths of the heart. Gifted Education International.