One Important Lesson Learned Working with Gifted and Creative Kids


The author, a psychologist with over 40 years’ experience in the lab, classroom, and clinic, shares an important lesson that he has learned in his work with gifted and creative kids. The lesson is that talent development among bright and creative kids requires more than high intelligence.

I love reading success stories about young prodigies who grow up and become highly accomplished, creative, and successful adults. We are all familiar with the compelling stories about the Mark Zuckerberg’s, Bill Gates’s, and Lady Gaga’s of the world. These amazing and heart-warming stories keep those of us in the gifted and talented field enthusiastic and pumped-up about our own work in identifying and supporting intellectually precocious children and youth.

I have worked with high-ability and highly creative kids for 40 years. In a variety of settings and capacities. I have counseling many very bright and creative kids and their parents. I have consulted with many teachers and administrators of highly precocious students. In my academic world, I taught a course on the psychology of giftedness, and directed an active research lab that conducted research on the social and emotional needs of, and the unique challenges facing, gifted and creative kids.  I also served as Executive Director of the Duke University gifted program, TIP. TIP provides fast-paced and highly intellectually challenging and rigorous academic programs for some of our brightest-of-the-bright adolescents.

In my career as a psychologist working with gifted and creative students, one lesson stands out as particularly memorable, even poignant. The lesson is this: the development of talent among highly gifted and creative kids requires more than simply a whole-lot-of-smarts. More than what I call in my writings on “strengths of the heart,” “head strengths.” Let me explain what I mean.

With young gifted students, even child prodigies, we can at best only predict the likelihood of later outstanding accomplishment, such as this year’s three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine, William Kaelin, Jr., Peter Ratcliffe, and Gregg Semenza. Who could have predicted, early in their academic lives, that these three scientists, from Harvard, Oxford University, and Johns Hopkins, respectively, would have made the ground-breaking discovery that oxygen sensing is central to a large number of diseases!  The same question can be asked about Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the most prestigious award in mathematics. The Fields Medal.  The truth is that a great many students identified as gifted when very young group up, and as adults, demonstrate no special, unique or extraordinary talent. Not everyone with super intelligence grows up to be a Stephen Hawkins or a Steven Spielberg.

I find equally intriguing the fact that many kids who were not recognized as having any special gifts when young- based on our best identification tests or measures, or teacher report, are late bloomers, and astound us with extraordinary accomplishments, inventions, and performances as adults! Think of Giuseppi Verdi, who sketched his ideas for composing Othello at age 73. And what about the famous detective fiction writer, Raymond Chandler, who didn’t write his first short story until he lost his job during the Great Depression at the age of 44. The lessons here are that it is not always easy to predict who will reach their full potential in life – including the very gifted child prodigies.  And that many non-intellectual factors go into the algorithm in determining who, exactly, will end up traveling the greatest distance and reach the highest heights of their hypothetical successful trajectory!

What I am getting at is this. The full development and actualization of talent at its highest levels requires, in almost all professions and fields, more than high intellectual ability. It requires time and hard work, what the Chinese aptly term “chi ku,” meaning “eating bitterness.” Truth be told, the development of our very best and most accomplished and creative writers, scientists, surgeons, psychotherapists, detectives, teachers, artists, performers, political leaders, and others requires a tremendous amount of practice, considerable patience and persistence, and a healthy dose of frustration tolerance. To reach the highest levels in any field also requires a passion to excel in that chosen field, and adults available to support, and serve as inspiration and role models. And luck! This is one very important lesson that I learned in my 40-year career working with gifted and creative kids!

Note: This is an updated and revised version of an earlier paper that appeared in The Creativity Post.




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. 

A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Ways to Ignite the Motivational Flame Among Gifted Kids (Part 2) By Steven I. Pfeiffer, PhD, ABPP


Not all high ability kids are equally motivated. High ability students vary tremendously in their motivation, even at an early age. Here is a baker’s dozen of motivational strategies that parents and teachers can use to re-ignite the motivational flame.

You may recall in Part 1 that I promised to share a “Baker’s Dozen,” thirteen proven motivational strategies and techniques that can and often do make a real difference in motivating high ability kids. Some of these techniques and strategies are what I call universal. They work for almost all students, irrespective of learning style or level of ability. They tend to work regardless of geography, gender, or social class. There are other motivational strategies, on the other hand, with less robust and more limited effectiveness. They work with some, but not all students. Some apply to both parents and teachers, but most are specific to helping educators ignite the motivational flame in their students.

Stop Telling Kids That They are Smart. This is one of those universal principles that applies to all kids, but especially bright kids with motivational issues. It is a recommendation that can be utilized equally to parents and teachers. Reminding kids how bright they are is well-intentioned but inadvertently conveys to the child that because they are so smart, because they have such a special brain, they shouldn’t have to work very hard on academic tasks. This can create what Carol Dweck calls a fixed or entity self-conception of one’s intelligence. A more powerful message that parents and teachers can offer is to repeatedly communicate how very important effort and working hard is for success in the classroom and life.

Give Frequent, Early, Positive Feedback. This is one of the non-universal motivational strategies; it can be very effective for some, but not work for all kids with motivational issues. It is what psychologists call a ‘behavioral’ intervention, based on reinforcement principles. When applied in the classroom, especially when a student is learning new material, it can reinforce the student’s belief that they can succeed. It can also help to encourage a student developing grit. However, be forewarned that some kids find this behavioral approach, using charts, happy faces, tokens, and tangible rewards and incentives, manipulative and controlling and even disingenuous! In other words, it is worth experimenting with, but it doesn’t always work and can, in fact, backfire!

Make Learning Real. What I mean here is help the youngster find personal meaning and value in the learning material. This is another of those universal motivational strategies. It works for almost all kids, across the globe. If we hope to encourage and inspire intrinsic motivation – a virtuous and noble goal for all students – then teachers should create learning activities that are clearly relevant and meaningful to the students in the class. Ways to help make this happen include infusing local examples, current events, and pop culture into the curriculum and classroom activities. A quote from my recently published book underscores this point: “…if we hope to reach the uninspired, the unmotivated, the bored student, then educators must connect the subject matter that they are teaching with their students’ personal interests and the actual world that they live in outside of the classroom.”

Build Relationships with Your Students. This is another universal motivational strategy; it works for all kids, of all ages, and is especially powerful in helping re-ignite the motivational flame. Connecting with a student who is unmotivated or turned off by school on a personal level can oftentimes create a sometimes substantial, almost magical, shift in how the student views you as an adult and authority figure. I know firsthand from my experience as a therapist that kids who believe that an adult respects, cares for, and appears interested in them personally are more willing to listen to them. Of course, this same motivational principle holds for parents. Taking the time to really listen to your child’s reasons for their expressed boredom, frustration, criticism and disapproval of school, school work or their teacher helps build a trusting, deep and caring relationship. I’ve found that even the most disenfranchised and angry student is willing to at least listen to an adult who the student perceives as caring and noncritical.

Make Homework Assignments Enjoyable, Challenging, and Creative. This is one of those no-brainer recommendations! Try to assign work that is stimulating and encourages the student to be innovative, creative, think ‘outside the box.’ Of course, some assignments need to be rote and are not terribly enjoyable – the same was true when I observed the training of elite World Class soccer players. But the best and most successful coaches mix the tedious and painful drills with fun training exercises.

Be Excessively Enthusiastic about What You’re Teaching. I encourage teachers who ask me how to increase motivation to think about ways to ‘spread enthusiasm like a virus’ in the classroom. The best teachers, at all grades, are contagiously excited about what they’re teaching. This isn’t, of course, an antidote to low motivation, but it certainly helps ramp-up the level of excitement in the classroom. The enthusiasm must be genuine and sincere- bright kids can see through disingenuous enthusiasm!

Give Early, Concrete, and Immediate Feedback. This is one of those motivational recommendations borrowed from principles of learning theory. Kids learn best and are less likely to become frustrated learning new material, if they are provided clear comments about their work – not about the student. Especially if the feedback is negative or corrective, it has a better chance of being ‘heard’ by the student if it is specific and focuses on the task.

Ask Students What Makes their Best Classes “Most Motivating” and Steal Some of these Ideas. In my college classes, I ask my students what makes the best classes that they’ve taken ‘most motivating’ and then see if I can apply some of these ideas to my class. I’ve pocketed a few great motivational ideas over the years that other professors have used in their classes with apparent great success!

Emphasize Mastery and Learning and De-Emphasize Grades and Performance. Grades are important, of course. But the pendulum has swung way too far in the direction of over-emphasizing performance. This is true in America today and in many other countries that I have visited. Parents and schools both need to place greater importance on mastery and the love of inquiry and the learning process. Grades and goals and performance standards are important. …Very important. But at least equally important is nurturing a passion and respect for inquiry and mastery.

Limit Excessive or Intensive Competition. Competition, like grades and performance outcomes, is important and part of the fabric of our culture. But excessive academic competition and competition that occurs too early in the talent development process, and that doesn’t focus at all on effort but only on winners (and losers), will dampen if not extinguish the motivational flame for many students.

Create “Learning Contracts.” There is some research that suggests that learning agreements or ‘contracts’ with unmotivated students can help create a new spark to ignite the motivational flame. I caution parents and teachers that learning contracts, like other behavioral techniques, are effective with some, but not all unmotivated students. This is another of those non-universal motivational strategies.

Provide Student Options and Choices that Encourage Autonomy. Students are individuals. We sometimes forget that. All individuals value and appreciate options and choices, including young children. Of course, the amount of options and choices, and how frequently we provide these alternatives, should match the child’s level of developmental maturity. Older students, and more mature and responsible students, should be afforded more freedom and more decisions in their learning.

Identify Mentors in the Community as Role Models. The last recommendation in my baker’s dozen is one that the gifted field has found effective as a motivational technique. It is also a bit tricky to arrange and not without logistical and even ethical challenges. That said, the idea is to identify role models in the community who are willing to spend time with unmotivated students. Two examples from my counseling practice: an unmotivated 5th grade male student from a single parent home responded favorably to an honor’s student-athlete from the neighboring high school who was willing to help him with his school work two evenings each week and spent time on weekends hanging out, and a bored but otherwise bright 9th grader got her motivational pilot re-lit after an attorney in a small law practice in our community agreed to let her help out around the office (and provided time to discuss law and his cases with the student).


Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared on The Creativity Post

A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Ways to Ignite the Motivational Flame Among Gifted Kids (Part 1) By Steven I. Pfeiffer, PhD, ABPP


Not all high ability kids are equally motivated. High ability students vary tremendously in their motivation, even at an early age. Here is a baker’s dozen of motivational strategies that parents and teachers can use to re-ignite the motivational flame.

In workshops that I have given, both in the USA and internationally, a frequent question that comes up, asked by both educators and parents alike, is how to deal with underachieving high-ability students. Teachers and parents seem especially perplexed with how to motivate bright students lacking even nascent motivation. This is an important question. However, I have found that it is not easy to answer, especially in an audience of 600 parents or teachers! There are so many different reasons for low motivation. Perhaps, in fact, there are as many causes for underachievement as there are gifted students who appear turned off by school and academics.

Of course, motivation is very important – really, it is critical for learning to occur. Especially higher-order learning. Motivation is important at all levels of learning and for high-ability students at every age and grade. And motivation is equally important for all learners; kids of average ability and students of low ability, not only a problem unique to high ability kids. Having served as Executive Director of the pre-collegiate gifted program at Duke University for many years, and more recently as co-Director of a summer academy in science, engineering and space technology for Florida’s brightest high school students, I have repeatedly observed first-hand the importance of motivation. Even among extraordinarily bright students, we all-too-often see marked individual differences in students’ levels of drive, enthusiasm, persistence, determination, commitment, and zest. This is, simply put, a fact of life. Kids vary tremendously in their motivation.

I’ve observed that bright kids of all ages and varying profiles of abilities and talents vary tremendously in their level of academic motivation. The field doesn’t yet have a measure of motivation with quite the preciseness or discriminatory ability of IQ tests. But if we did, we’d see that kids vary as much in how much motivation they are willing to expend in school as they vary in their intellectual ability.  Spend ten minutes talking with any seasoned teacher – a kindergarten teacher working in an inner-city school or a Professor at a small, elite New England college, and they’ll both relate stories about bright students that they’ve had in their career who were inexplicably apathetic, bored, disinterested, unmotivated. They’ll also be able to share stories about the passionate and animated student who relished challenging learning activities and even seemed to enjoy homework assignments! …Highly motivated students who they fondly remember as enthusiastic, determined, persistent, and passionate about learning.

Readers familiar with my research, writing and workshop talks know that I pirate much of my thinking about motivation, kids’ achievement and success in life from my work with young, elite futbol (soccer) players. Two recent books on high ability kids-both available on, Serving the Gifted: Evidence- Based Clinical and Psycho-educational Practice (NY: Routledge) and Essentials of Gifted Assessment (NJ: Wiley) both discuss the processes underlying talent development on the playing field and in the classroom. I observed from the sidelines as a parent – and later as a psychologist consulting with the Duke women’s soccer team, how important motivation is in transforming the quite extraordinary general and specific sports-related abilities of very young athletes into the highly developed soccer skills of NCAA competitors and even world class champions. I’ve come to recognize that the same developmental processes hold true in the classroom and science lab as on the soccer field (as well as in the courtroom, surgical operating room, artist’s studio, performing stage, or really any culturally valued arena!). Motivation makes a real difference.

There are many theories and a ton of research on motivation and its relationship to learning and performance. I would bore to tears most of you expounding on this rich literature. Let me only very briefly mention a few noteworthy names and theories. Early pioneers include Henry Murray, who wrote on curiosity as an innate motive in the 1930’s. David McClelland later introduced the concept of achievement motivation in the ‘50s. Of course, Ivan Pavlov in Russia and B. F. Skinner here in the USA pioneered our understanding of classical and operant learning. Robert White, also in the ‘50s, proposed the competence motive. More recently, Albert Bandura at Stanford University introduced us to social learning theory and the power of self-efficacy, and Edward Deci and Richard Ryan – whose work I am rather fond of, advanced a theory of self-determination, proposing the psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness. As you can see, there is indeed a rich motivation literature that helps explain both why a high ability student might be unmotivated, and how to ignite a spark to kindle the motivational flame.

Rest assured that I’m not going to discuss these theories or the many reasons for low motivation. That’s a story for a much longer blog! What I will share in an upcoming blog are thirteen proven motivational strategies and techniques that can and often do make a real difference. Some of these techniques and strategies are what I call universal. They work for almost all students, irrespective of learning style or level of ability. They tend to work regardless of geography, gender, or social class. There are other motivational strategies, on the other hand, with less robust and more limited effectiveness. They work with some, but not all students. Some apply to both parents and teachers, but most are specific to helping educators ignite the motivational flame in their students

Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared on The Creativity Post