Sensitivity and Giftedness

Many of the children at Madrona exhibit a high degree of sensitivity. Their nervous systems are in high gear, easily affected by stimulation from the environment around them. This trait often accompanies intellectual giftedness, accounting for some of the strengths in learning and memory that set such children apart. Living with sensitivity isn’t always easy, either for the children or the adults who care for them. Many school settings are overwhelming for those who:

  • Register every change in temperature, noise, or light
  • Are aware of (or even distracted by) subtleties of interpretation
  • Experience nuances of emotion with painful intensity.

A level of stimulation that feels right to many people may be too much for highly sensitive children.

Sensitivity is partly governed by genetics, and partly influenced by environmental factors. Whatever contributes to sensitivity levels, we need to offer care and protection to children while their brains are maturing. They don’t get to choose what or how much they feel, and if we try to “toughen up” children we have deemed oversensitive, we risk provoking their defences against vulnerable feelings. Such defences may interfere with the process of maturation so that those who most need to develop resilience become much less able to do so. Anxiety and attention problems can result when sensitive brains are consistently pushed beyond their ability to cope.

It is a common misconception that gifted children are “bored” and therefore need more stimulation. This apparent boredom may indicate that their brains are actually shutting out too much of the wrong kind of stimulation, protecting them but at the same time cutting them off from their own sense of engagement with the world. A different pace of learning might benefit them (more than increased stimulation). They also need rest and relief from pressures that feel overwhelming.

Madrona deliberately operates on a small scale, with a high teacher-student ratio, so that sensitive learners can thrive in our environment.

We make room for emotional intensity, and we help to manage problems the children are not yet able to manage for themselves. Sensitive kids often feel a drive to try to take control of their surroundings (and their caregivers) so they can make themselves feel more comfortable. When their teachers understand, expect, and address issues related to sensitivity, children can relax and focus their energies on learning rather than on trying to take charge.

Highly sensitive children often come across as difficult, picky, impulsive, fragile, and frustrated. Yet children with unusual levels of sensitivity have the potential for extraordinary caring, concern, and empathy towards others, and for prodigious accomplishments of learning. Their teachers need to provide a context where they can drop their guard and trust adults to have patience for the challenges they face. These children are particularly vulnerable, but with special care they can fulfil their remarkable potential.