Jean Sunde Peterson, a professor at Purdue University's College of Education released an interesting study on gifted kids and bullying last month. The university's official press release is available here.
I'm always wary of studies on gifted kids and bullying, because of certain social stereotypes. We assume that gifted kids are the ones with the Coke bottle glasses getting their lunch money stolen and being called "nerd" or "geek." Indeed, since the bullying definition used in Peterson's study included name-calling, it's no surprise that about two-thirds of gifted kids said they'd been bullied. A slightly more surprising result: 16% of gifted kids identified themselves as bullies. And in fact, based on some other studies of bullying, it appears that gifted kids are no more likely to be bullied than other kids. Everyone gets it at some point or another. Perhaps we should be more surprised that one-third of gifted kids hasn'tbeen bullied.
The one difference that does matter is the one Purdue points out in the headline: gifted kids are especially vulnerable to bullying when it does occur. Anyone who's spent a lot of time around gifted young people knows they have a heightened interest in fairness and social justice. This makes it tougher to brush off bullying of themselves -- or others.
Like other children, some gifted children respond to bullying with thoughts of violence. As the researchers pointed out, this could be anything from kicking a trash can to blowing up the school. The problem is that gifted kids are often quite imaginative -- and may dream up more elaborate methods of revenge than a kid whose brain doesn't work that far out ahead. The infamous school shooters had psychoses that begged to be treated, but many of them were also of above-average intelligence. Clay Shrout, who in 1994 murdered his family and took a class hostage in Union, Kentucky, had a tested IQ of 160. At the sentencing of Kip Kinkel, the Springfield, Oregon school shooter, his psychiatrist noted, "He's cognitively bright, above average. Even though he has a learning disability, his overall IQ is high."
There is no easy way around this. In a world where 16% of gifted kids admit to being bullies themselves, ability grouping will create classes where being smart isn't a teasible characteristic, but won't get rid of bullying. The bullies will find something else to attack.
In general, when kids feel good about their accomplishments and their place on the planet, they don't bother bullying other kids, and they brush it off themselves. This isn't a call for self-esteem building exercises, though. When kids are challenged, work hard, and have caring adults around them, self-esteem follows. That will make bullying less of a problem for gifted kids and other kids alike.