Who are the Gifted and Talented?

A Conversation with Giftedness Expert, Dr. Steven Pfeiffer

Part 2

Steven Pfeiffer is a popular speaker on topics related to raising successful, high-ability children. He is Emeritus Professor at Florida State University. Prior to his tenure at FSU, Dr. Pfeiffer was a Professor at Duke University, and served as Executive Director of Duke’s gifted program, TIP. He also served as Director of Devereux’s Institute of Clinical Training & Research, headquartered in Villanova, PA.

Dr. Pfeiffer has worked as a Pediatric Psychologist at the Ochsner Clinic and Medical Center in New Orleans and served as a Clinical Psychologist in the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps. Trained as a clinician, Dr. Pfeiffer enjoys an active clinical and consulting practice, and speaks internationally on topics related to successful parenting and the social-emotional needs of high ability kids. Author of 200 articles and book chapters, he is lead author of The Gifted Rating Scales, published by MHS.  Among his most recent books, he authored Serving the Gifted (2013; Routledge) and Essentials of Gifted Assessment (Wiley; 2015). He is Editor-in-Chief of the APA Handbook on Giftedness and Talent (2017), Springer’s Handbook of Giftedness in Children (2018, Second Edition), and The Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted: What do we Know?, co-edited with Tracy Cross and Maureen Neihart (2015; Prufrock Press).

A long-time advocate for the socio-emotional needs of children, Dr. Pfeiffer testified at the White House and before the Italian Parliament. Eminent scholar Alan Kaufman of Yale University considers Professor Pfeiffer, “Among the small group of the world’s leading experts in the (gifted) field…”  His websites can be found at: Steven Pfeiffer Psychology and Gifted Assessment Insights.

You can find Part 1 of Dr. Pfeiffer’s interview here.

Dr. Steven Pfeiffer


Following up on your Tripartite Model of Giftedness, I’d like to zoom in on the viewpoint of “Giftedness Through the Lens of Potential to Excel.” I think this could be an excellent approach to explore and nurture the gifts and talents of twice-exceptional students and those who experience learning or social and emotional challenges. I’m interested in learning how your model could be applied to educational programming for twice-exceptional children, and those who are not able to reach the IQ thresholds expected for gifted identification through the traditional psychometric approach. What would be some essential elements to consider when designing a curriculum that views giftedness through the “Potential to Excel” vantage point?

Dr. Pfeiffer:

Let me admit at the outset that I am not an educator. I am a clinical-child and pediatric/family psychologist. My expertise is not in the area of classroom instruction, curriculum design, or in best pedagogical approaches for the high-ability student or for the 2e student.

I have learned over the years to avoid answering any question- either from parents or teachers of a student that I am working with, or from a member of an audience that I am speaking with, if the question falls outside of my area of expertise.  So, I am going to politely and respectfully decline to answer your question about “essential elements when designing a curriculum” for a 2e student. I don’t have a smart answer to your very excellent question! 

In my opinion, too many purported experts in the gifted field are quick to offer opinions about the gifted child without the requisite training, extensive knowledge, or deep experience that answers to these questions deserve.

I try to limit my professional focus to the few areas that I do have some experience and knowledge about, specifically gifted identification and gifted assessment, and the unique social-emotional needs of high-ability kids and adolescents.

Really, these are the only two areas that I have studied in any great detail, have researched and published in, and have worked clinically with many high-ability kids, including 2e students. I will tell you, in my experience, that all kids, gifted and not-gifted kids, 2e and not 2e kids, all thrive on classroom work that is meaningful to them.

Assignments that clearly they interpret and understand as carrying evocative and consequential meaning in their lives. Assignments and classroom learning activities that capture their interest and curiosity and strike them as relevant to their inner world and/or their personal environment; be it, their peers, family, church, community.

The more relevant and personally significant the topic, and way in which it is introduced, discussed and dealt with in the learning environment, the more likely the youngster, gifted or not gifted, will find it worth focusing on. This idea perhaps goes back to John Dewey but has been poignantly reaffirmed by many brilliant educators who followed in Dewey’s footsteps. 

bulb gifted

My own particular interest in the curriculum has narrowly focused on one thing: How can we introduce and infuse social-emotional learning into the daily curriculum of today’s classrooms and schools. There has been an awful lot written about this very topic.

Research has rather conclusively confirmed that social and emotional learning fosters critical skills for building healthy students and healthy schools. There is a growing body of fascinating research identifying the neuroscience of social-emotional learning. I have focused my research and interest on this one aspect of the curriculum. We do know that what makes a huge difference in the success of social-emotional learning in schools is the relationship between the teacher and the student. So I suspect that the impact of the teacher and the quality of her relationship with each student plays a critical role in the success of the curriculum and whatever learning occurs for the 2e learner or for the “high potential to excel” gifted student in my tripartite model.

I guess you could summarize my long-winded non-answer to your question in this way: Based on my experience, two things seem critical to ensure the success of the curriculum and for deep learning to occur: One, each and every student needs to believe that what they are learning is personally meaningful in their lives and captures their imagination and interest; and two, teachers need to be “gifted” mentors, advisors, and guides, so that their students feel a sincerely personal connection to them.

I’ve written about this before in using the analogy of the therapeutic relationship being key to effective psychotherapy. I believe that the same is true in effective learning in the classroom. I hope that this makes some sense to your readers. 


I love this analogy of the therapeutic relationship, and I would even extend that to the coaching relationship. In my work as an Emotional Intelligence coach, I focus extensively on building a solid connection and meaningful rapport before attempting to work with a child.  If we want a child to engage, we first need to be engaging.

Your response made me think back to my training at FSU and learning about the importance of rapport building from many of my outstanding professors, including you. This was a strong component of our training. You and other professors would always talk about how and why to build a strong rapport during counseling and the assessment process. Now I truly understand why this was such an important piece to get right!

I believe we cannot ask children to be authentic or engage in authentic learning if we are not authentic ourselves and gifted children can spot inauthenticity from a mile away! So I agree with you that building a sincere and personal connection is critical when engaging with gifted and 2e children in any capacity.

Dr. Pfeiffer, this has been a wonderful 2-part interview, and I truly enjoyed it! Thank you so much for your time in sharing your knowledge and expertise in this area!


About Day

Day Sanchez is a bilingual school psychologist, education specialist, and social and emotional intelligence coach and facilitator. She has over a decade of experience working with gifted and neurodiverse children in public, charter, private schools, and nonprofits in New York, California, Florida, and New Jersey. Her approach draws on social and emotional learning, positive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive behavioral techniques. She has taught yoga and mindfulness meditation to children and also provides specific support to children and young adults experiencing ecological grief and ecological anxiety. Day is on a mission to inspire all children and young visionaries to embody their highest potential, contribute their gifts to the world, and help us accelerate humanity’s evolution.

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