An overexcitability (OE) is a marker of giftedness and can help alert parents and teachers to giftedness in a child (Winebrenner, Brulles, 2012).
Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902–1980), whose work laid the foundation of today’s OE research, established five OE categories to describe these innate intensities: emotional, imaginational, intellectual, psychomotor, and sensual.
Most gifted kids have two to five OEs, though these vary in dominance and one OE usually stands out as the most dominant. Many gifted kids have all five of the OEs. If understood and leveraged, a gifted child’s particular OEs can complement his or her education, such as when an understanding of what appeals to the child is used to personalize a lesson for maximum engagement. However, OEs can also prove problematic, especially when they are not recognized or understood.
OEs are one aspect I cover in my book Engaging Challenging Gifted Students: Tips for Supporting Extraordinary Minds in Your Classroom (Rankin, 2016). Below I will use celebrities and fictional characters to illustrate the five OEs that impact gifted children’s educations. These examples are accompanied by summarized suggestions to help you make the most of gifted children’s innate intensities.
Emotional—Kanye West and Ellen DeGeneres
Kanye West’s surge of emotion caused him to seize the microphone from Taylor Swift as she accepted an MTV Video Music Award Kanye didn’t feel she deserved. Ellen DeGeneres became vegan upon hearing of how poorly animals are treated within the meat and dairy industries, and she continues to be a staunch animal rights activist. Both Kanye and Ellen are highly gifted. I would also argue they both have the emotional OE, which can mean any of the following: strong emotions and sensitivity, empathy for those who suffer to the point of activism or action, overreaction to situations, intense fear or anxiety, strong attachment, and heightened awareness of feelings.
How to Help: Do not accuse an emotional child of overreacting, because to him or her the feelings are very real. Instead, let the child know feelings are natural, help the child to understand the feelings, and focus on what he or she can do to behave in appropriate ways even when these feelings surge.
Pippi Longstocking is a highly creative day-dreamer who embraces unconventional ways of doing things. For example, rather than use a mop, she straps brushes to her feet and skates along the wet floor. Pippi is highly gifted. I would also argue Pippi has the imaginational OE, which can mean any of the following: overactive imagination, heightened creativity, imaginary friends or worlds, and poor organization or concentration.
How to Help: Adjust projects or assignments to include imaginative options for imaginational children. You can even encourage the child to propose a unique way to complete an assignment. Assist with organizational systems as necessary, and allow the child to doodle provided it doesn’t distract him or her further. View daydreaming as a challenge to you to make lessons more engaging for creative minds.
Hermione Granger is passionate about acquiring knowledge and finding answers to questions. She thinks deeply and independently, exhibits deep concentration, and pulls from a strong visual memory. Hermione is highly gifted. I would also argue Hermione has the intellectual OE, which can mean any of the characteristics described above and can also mean highly observant and even arrogant or impatient with peers.
How to Help: Adjust projects and assignments to allow intellectual children to investigate issues in depth. Support the child’s use of varied tools to find answers, and help the child learn how to evaluate sources and cross-check facts. Coach the child in humility, collaboration, and growth mindset, and watch for signs of depression, particularly as the child grapples with world tragedies or existential questions.
Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, is highly energetic, enthusiastic about his ideas, talkative, and impulsive. Tony is highly gifted. I would also argue Tony has the psychomotor OE, which can mean any of the characteristics described above and can also mean competitiveness, difficulty sitting still, and nervous habits.
How to Help: Though psychomotor kids are often misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), many ADHD-friendly strategies prove helpful when psychomotor is present. Find opportunities for the child to move within lessons (such as with hands-on learning and station rotations) and between lessons (such as getting up to erase the board). Also, give the child time to talk at regular intervals (particularly within lessons). Provide open-ended learning options and celebrate trying hard over outperforming.
Tyrion Lannister, the witty dwarf from Game of Thrones, loves his wine and his women. Tyrion is highly gifted. I would also argue Tyrion has the sensual OE, which involves a heightened propensity to find pleasure or displeasure from any of the five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
How to Help: Do not accuse a sensual child of overreacting (e.g., “Calm down, your peer’s body spray isn’t that strong”), as the stimuli is truly bothersome or distracting to the child. Instead, remove or limit the disturbance. For example, give the teenager scissors to cut the offensive tag from inside the collar of his or her shirt, or seat the child far from the bulletin board collages that are visually overstimulating.
The Whole Package
Every gifted child represents a unique combination of OE characteristics, blended with his or her unique personality and background. Finding what works for each child is a delicate science requiring strong communication with the child, parents, and other staff. As you find and apply what works, the child’s particular OEs can complement his or her education, rendering success and a love of learning.
For further tips and references, check out:
Rankin, J. G. (2016). Engaging Challenging Gifted Students: Tips for Supporting Extraordinary Minds in Your Classroom. Alexandra, VA: ASCD.
Winebrenner, S., Brulles, D. (2012). Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom: Strategies and Techniques Every Teacher Can Use. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.