Feature

In hopes of urging more researchers from fields within and beyond psychology to study gifted children, the American Psychological Foundation (APF) is awarding Esther Katz Rosen research grants to researchers who are new to the field and to seasoned giftedness researchers who are collaborating with graduate students. This year, the foundation awarded grants to three researchers.

"These research proposals are exciting because every proposal must be authored or co-authored by someone new to the field of giftedness, so not only are we conducting innovative research, but we are also seeding the field with talented new scientists," says Camilla Benbow, EdD, chair of the Esther Katz Rosen committee, which selects the grantees.

Three researchers and their teams received grants of between $25,000 and $75,000. Two teams will explore what best motivates gifted children to learn, and the third will examine whether being gifted affects mental health.

Learning motivation

What motivates gifted children to learn: internal, or intrinsic, factors like personal satisfaction or genuine interest, or external influences, like the desire to please a teacher or earn high grades and accolades? Researchers have long linked intrinsic motivation to greater academic achievement in children, but this relationship has been less studied in gifted children, says Peter Marshall, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at Philadelphia's Temple University who specializes in research on social and emotional development in children. Marshall will use his one-year, $25,000 Rosen grant to examine gifted children's motivational styles and look for connections between types of motivation and both behavioral and neurophysiological reactions to success and failure.

Marshall plans to compare gifted third-grade children with age- and gender-matched non-gifted children from Philadelphia-area elementary schools. Researchers will ask both groups what subjects they like, why they like them and how they perform in various subjects. Past research suggests that gifted children are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. Marshall will seek to replicate that finding, and also explore whether gifted children tend to ascribe failure to external or internal factors and how failure affects future performance.

But Marshall isn't just interested in outward behavior. He also wants to know what's going on inside these children's heads.

"With non-invasive electrophysiological measures we can actually gauge the brain's response to mistakes," he says. Marshall will do this by having the children take a computerized attention test while wearing an electrode cap, which will enable recording of the electroencephalogram throughout the task. He will then study the children's brains' responses to both failure and success on the task.

Specifically Marshall will use the technique of event-related potentials to average the brain's electrical responses to failure and success. As children make mis takes on tasks such as the one used, electrical activity in the brain shows a characteristic pattern. The magnitude of this pattern is usually associated with the tendency to respond more slowly to subsequent trials on the computer test. Researchers believe this is an indication of a child's recognition and internal assessment of the seriousness of the error. By studying gifted children's brain responses and reaction times, and matching them with motivation style, Marshall hopes to gain a better idea of how the brain and behavior interact. He hypothesizes that intrinsically motivated children might handle failure better and recover more quickly than externally motivated children.

Marshall believes that gifted children will show slower reactions after mistakes than non-gifted children, but that this is an indication of their self-assessment skills. Since gifted children are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, Marshall's theory is that they will pick up on the error, look for an internal explanation and so recognize and correct performance problems more quickly. In other words, although the gifted children will perform more slowly than the non-gifted children, they will also be more likely to reduce errors and ultimately perform better on the test.

"I would hope that the findings would have implications for teaching gifted children," says Marshall. "In particular, [they] might help us understand the needs of children who are identified as gifted but who tend to underachieve."

Group work and flow

Using their three-year $75,000 Rosen grant, Bruce M. Shore, PhD, and his doctoral students Lindsay A. Borovay and Lisa R. French, who specialize in the study of gifted individuals and how they learn, will also examine motivation in gifted children. In particular, they will look at learning styles and whether group- or individual-learning environments best spur gifted students to learn.

"You often run into the statement that bright kids like to work alone," says Shore, a professor of education at McGill University. "We're curious if this comes from their educational environment."

Gifted children may be used to leading groups and taking on most of the work, says Shore. However, those children may be more likely to want to work in groups when their peers are equally interested in the subject matter and share in the workload.

The team will not directly ask students whether they prefer to work in groups or by themselves. Instead, French will test this theory by interviewing 150 gifted and 150 non-gifted students and asking them to rate by preference certain school activities which can be categorized as group or individual tasks. She will also ask them how they like to spend their time outside of school. She hopes that learning about students' hobbies will help indicate a clear preference for group or individual activities.

Drawing on Lev Vygotsky's theory that people learn better when they are supported, French will ask students whether they feel encouraged by their teachers, parents and peers to see if this influences how they answer survey questions. Items on the survey will also offer participants the opportunity to speculate on why some people prefer working alone instead of in a group.

Shore's group is also interested in how motivation influences learning style. Borovay will explore this question by examining the nature of gifted students' motiva tion through their experience of "flow"-the theory of a state of effortless learning posed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD. Are gifted children more intrinsically motivated? Does this motivation enable them to reach flow? And what kind of learning environment would best encourage flow? Shore's group believes bright children are more likely to experience flow in "inquiry-driven" educational settings, in which they are more engaged, as opposed to more heavily structured "traditional" environments. Inquiry-driven programs feature more interaction between teachers and students, and between the students themselves. For example, students may collaborate with teachers to design curricula that are partially based on students' interests. Group exchanges and collaboration also are encouraged in the pursuit of knowledge.

In contrast, more traditional environments feature more passive learning, driven by lecture-type settings in which students learn from set curricula and have limited opportunities to share in the learning process.

To test her hypothesis about gifted children's responses to more flexible learning environments, Borovay will interview students from one inquiry-driven and one traditional seventh grade class, asking them about their favorite subjects, the kind of school activities they like and why they enjoy these things.

"We're interested in how people can break free of the traditional environment," says Shore. He hopes that by reexamining learning environments and their influence on how gifted children learn, educators can design programs that use students' interests to encourage learning for learning's sake.

Giftedness and mental health

It is unclear from current research whether gifted children exhibit higher rates of mental health problems, says Laurie Thayer Martin, ScD, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health who specializes in the study of cognitive performance in childhood and its effect on physical health. In a three-year study funded by a $75,000 Rosen grant, Martin will explore how common mental health problems are, and whether they lead to lifelong mental illness.

Earlier studies on gifted children and rates of mental illness have been small and have shown conflicting results. By analyzing data from two large-scale studies that track mental health over a lifetime, Martin hopes to home in on how intelligence affects mental health during a lifespan.

"For example, if a gifted child shows signs of mental health problems, does that change when they reach adulthood, or do they continue to have problems?" asks Martin.

Martin is analyzing data from the National Collaborative Perinatal Project (NCPP) and the Terman Life Cycle Study of Children with High Ability. Starting in the 1950s, the NCPP tracked 50,000 children from birth through age 7 with the goal of identifying factors during the prenatal, perinatal and early-childhood periods that influence a child's health and development. Researchers tracked the children's cognitive development and physical and mental health by interviewing mothers about the children's development, physically examining the children, and, in some cases, drawing on lab tests and observation. In 1999, approximately 2,000 participants-gifted and non-gifted-enrolled in a follow-up study, which Martin believes will allow her to link childhood cognitive skills to mental health status. She will also examine information taken in the original study, such as family socioeconomic status (SES); parental education and occupation and income; child gender and learning disabilities; and family mental health history. Martin will match this information with data from the adult survey, which includes DSM diagnoses, age of onset of the disorders and other symptoms of mental illness. The Terman study followed 1,470 gifted children with wide-ranging IQ scores every five to 10 years since 1922-information that will help Martin examine whether degree of giftedness affects mental health outcomes.

Based on her work linking higher cognitive function with better physical health, Martin believes that gifted children will have a lower incidence of mental illness-partly due to SES, but also because they have more inner resources. These resources, such as enhanced planning, problem-solving, communication and reasoning skills, may help protect against mental illnesses, and that protectiveness may rise with level of giftedness, Martin theorizes. Martin hopes that the combined data from both studies, particularly factors such as demographics, learning disabilities, health behaviors and social relationships, may elucidate how giftedness and other factors affect mental health.

While Martin knows that one study alone cannot prove her theory, she hopes that this work will help guide the delivery of school and local mental health programs for gifted children.