How to Provide High Aptitude Learners with Social and Emotional Supports

As champions of equity and believers in the potential of all learners, teachers spend countless hours working to support and challenge at-risk students to ensure their success. However, it can be difficult to find the time and resources to simultaneously support gifted, or more recently termed, high aptitude learners, though these students depend just as much on attention and instruction from teachers. Additionally, like all students, high aptitude learners benefit from social and emotional learning (SEL) supports as well as academic instruction.

In fact, research suggests that SEL could be the missing piece of high aptitude learner success puzzle. Although high aptitude learners have a predisposition for high achieving academic performance, some research indicates the high aptitude learner’s demographic could be one of the most severely underserved and underachieving student populations (9). Emerging research suggests SEL can be a key component of building learning experiences that not only produce effective outcomes, but are enjoyable, engaging, and promote positive interactions among all students — including high aptitude learners who may otherwise be isolated in the classroom.

Who are High Aptitude Learners?

A high aptitude learner is any learner who displays an accelerated ability for acquiring, retaining, and applying knowledge. These learners demonstrate “a natural ability to do something” (6), or an innate ability to accomplish a learning task. It is not uncommon for high aptitude learners to have additional co-occurring characteristics as well (e.g. learning disabilities, English learners, etc.).

When analyzing characteristics high aptitude learners possess, advanced insight and interests, creativity, and sense of humor are among the most common traits found (9). At the same time, these students also sometimes demonstrate an intense fear of failure, lack of engagement and motivation, and a need for emotional support and guidance (9). Below, we review a few of the common social and emotional challenges that high aptitude learners face, as well as how educators can support students in navigating those challenges through targeted SEL.

The Fearful Perfectionist

High aptitude learners have often been found to place unrealistic pressure on themselves to strive for perfection, which can ultimately backfire (8). Indeed, in striving for perfection, many develop what is termed “perfectionism.” Perfectionism, “can paralyze gifted students with fear of failure and reduce their academic self-efficacy, causing them to underachieve” (9).

Teachers can use SEL supports to help address this challenge. SEL instruction that provides students with opportunities to grow in their problem-solving abilities and helps them develop stress management strategies can breakdown high aptitude learners’ affective barriers (10). In practice, establishing a respectful and supportive environment for giving, receiving, and applying feedback, can create an atmosphere of problem-solving that helps to alleviate symptoms of perfectionism among high aptitude learners (7).

Placing greater focus on process than product is a strong avenue for teachers to begin alleviating fear of failure in high aptitude learners. Finding where a student is struggling in the learning process will not only help them learn but it will keep communication lines open during their product development (2). Teachers can also choose to utilize this communication time to get to know student interests and shape their future work around those interests. This in turn will build engagement in the classroom.

Another strategy for alleviating fear of failure in the classroom is the practice of promoting a growth mindset in SEL instruction. High aptitude learners are often found to be motivated by good grades; however, a growth mindset shifts the focus from grades to feelings of self-efficacy and self-worth (3). A growth mindset encourages students to flip their mental script from “I can’t read this,” to “I can’t read this yet!” Such a mindset can help high aptitude learners not only extend upon their natural abilities, but also take a more positive approach toward failure (3). Research also indicates that a positive classroom atmosphere that increases enjoyment of learning, builds support and acceptance among peers, provides new opportunities for high achievement, and may alleviate feelings low self-esteem and depression (9).

The “Gifted Underachiever”

Research suggests that up to 40% of high aptitude learners are actually low achievers — some experts have noted that they in fact may be the lowest achieving group among all subgroups (9). According to one national survey, “anywhere from 1 in 50 up to 1 in 200 academically gifted students fails to complete high school, depending on the criteria used to determine giftedness” (10).

Why this paradox, when high aptitude learners demonstrate such strong learning potential? There are many factors that can lead to this disconnect, and here too is where social and emotional supports come in to play. When high aptitude learners feel unchallenged, undervalued, and isolated from peers, they are less likely to feel motivated to reach their highest potential. However, teachers have the power to change this equation.

For example, a common default solution for educators when high aptitude learners are bored, or finish work early is to provide them with additional practice materials. However, this practice may not be the most effective strategy for promoting growth and engagement. In fact, high aptitude learners become frustrated with more work, or tasks that are too easy or repetitive; they crave challenge and creativity (8).

Building upon student interests can play a key role in alleviating underachievement (10). One method for creating engagement of this sort is to develop classroom content about around topics of student interest. Not only do students get more excited about real-life applications, but teachers can utilize this excitement to seamlessly grow student’s skills (4). Research suggests students “need content that is relevant to their lives, activities that cause them to process important ideas at a high level, and products that cause them to grapple with meaningful problems and pose defensible solutions” (7). Through this incorporation of SEL in the classroom, we are likely to see an increase in student achievement.

The Socially Cautious

For some high aptitude learners, a conflict can exist between the need for academic achievement and needing to be socially accepted among their peers. Teachers can empower students to maintain their individuality and interact socially through “clustering.” Clustering is a framework that places 4–10 high aptitude learners in a group dependent on their capabilities. These students meet together daily with a teacher who has specific training on instructing high aptitude learners (9). Through this clustering, students grow in relationship with each other and in an environment that supports their differences and strengths, building confidence in their abilities.

Another trending research suggestion for educators is encourage high aptitude learners to find learning opportunities outside of school. For example: contests for their work, academic clubs, and groups. Not only can these opportunities provide excellent resume builders for students’ future academic success, they can create opportunities for educators to show personal interest in their students’ passions. Academic opportunities outside of school can also be an excellent place for high aptitude learners to mingle with peers and grow their social circles.

Research on the best approaches to SEL for high aptitude learners is still emerging and will likely continue to grow as educators work to support such an accelerated group of students. For a deeper understanding of high aptitude learners, SEL, and growth mindset see:


1) Al‐Dhamit, Y. and Kreishan, L. (2016), Gifted students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and parental influence on their motivation: from the self‐determination theory perspective. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 16: 13–23. doi:10.1111/1471–3802.12048

2) Cardenuto, N. E. (n.d.). Engaging Students in Learning English and Language Arts. Retrieved from

3) Post, G. (n.d.). What’s in a Name? Gifted or High Aptitude Learner? Retrieved from

4) Tomlinson, C. A. (19, January 21). What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well. Retrieved from

5) Hansen, J. B., & Toso, S. J. (2007, Fall). Gifted dropouts: personality, family, social, and school factors. Gifted Child Today, 30(4), 30+. Retrieved from

6) Macy, P. (2017). Underachievement in gifted students: Understanding perceptions of educational experiences, attitudes toward school, and teacher training (Order №10637686). Available from ProQuest Central. (1965442271). Retrieved from

7) Courtright, R., Niki, Munger, K., Colleran, & Munger, K. (2008, February 19). Advocacy. Retrieved from

8) Taylor, H., & Larson, S. (1999). Social and emotional learning in middle school. Clearing House, 72(6), 331–36.