How Overexcitabilities Can Help You Learn – And How They Can Hold Children Back in the Classroom

How Overexcitabilities Can Help Us Learn

Can the intensities and sensitivities that often come along with high ability help us to learn? Or do they get in the way of learning?

Earlier this year I co-wrote an article about overexcitabilities and education for a MENSA newsletter. My fellow author Simone de Hoogh* had lots of interesting insights about how each of the OEs might affect a child’s experience of classroom learning. You can read our article below.

Shortly after I wrote the piece, I had my own eye-opening experience of being back in the classroom, when I took a week’s intensive Spanish course. (Let’s just say I have renewed empathy when my children occasionally grumble about their classes.)

I’ve written about these first-hand insights in a separate post, which I’ll share next week.

How overexcitabilities can help you learn – and how they can hold children back in the classroom

Too many bright children aren’t recognised as gifted and talented because the overexcitabilities (OEs) that may come with their high intelligence prevent them from achieving in a school environment.  This is not only harmful for the young people concerned – it’s also a waste for society.

According to Kazimierz Dabrowski, the more OEs a person has, the greater their development potential and their drive to improve not only their own life but also the world around them.

Dabrowski viewed overexcitabilities as innate personality traits. He identified five  types of OE, each one of which can be a double-edged sword. When supported, OEs can contribute positively to a child’s ability to learn, but in the wrong learning environment these OEs can severely impact a child’s development.

People with overexcitabilities experience life differently from those who do not have the traits. They are often intense, hyper-sensitive and react strongly to stimuli that others don’t even notice. OEs can also bring above-average energy, pleasure, creativity, interests and empathy.

Here are some of the ways OEs can affect a child’s experience of learning:

Psychomotor OE

Psychomotor OE brings abundant energy, drive and zest for life. But when a person with this OE is stressed, their urge to express their psychomotor energy grows stronger.

Imagine what happens when a well-meaning teacher who doesn’t know about OEs (and often doesn’t realise how bright her pupil is) tries to keep a child from being ‘disruptive’ by occupying him with busywork.

As the child gets more stressed (because he finds the work boring), he finds it impossible to contain his energy and becomes more and more fidgety. Being required to keep still increases his stress levels further. He’s caught in a vicious circle.

Children with psychomotor OE can find themselves in a catch-22 situation: they can’t focus on under-stimulating work, which means they don’t achieve enough to be identified as gifted and therefore offered work more suitable to their level of intelligence.

Intellectual OE

Children with intellectual OE are deeply curious and can focus for extended periods on complex issues that interest them. However their deep thirst for knowledge can give rise to incessant questioning and an inability to accept ‘because I say so’ as an answer.

These young people also have a strong sense of justice and an inability to tolerate unfairness of any sort. In adult life this drive to understand and deep sense of justice will serve them well, but at school their tendency to argue and question authority can be seen as disrespectful and challenging.

Imaginational OE

Imaginational OE, meanwhile, can bring great creativity.  But in the classroom a creative child’s tendency to go off on tangents is not usually welcomed by a teacher who needs to get through the curriculum.

Children with imaginational OE are often seen as distracted and showing a lack of respect, which means they learn to repress rather than appreciate the creativity which could later be channelled towards new inventions and future solutions to world problems.

Sensual OE

Individuals with sensual OE are capable of deeply appreciating art, nature, music and other sensory experiences.

But their acute sensitivity to stimuli can make the noise, lights, smells and general hubbub of the average classroom unbearably overstimulating, rendering children with sensual OE incapable of doing their best work.

Emotional OE

Dabrowski saw emotional OE as one of the most powerful traits contributing to personal development. Children with this OE are often deeply empathic and sensitive to others’ needs.

But at school these young people’s strong emotional reactions and their need for depth in relationships can leave them vulnerable to bullying.

Children with emotional OE can also be deeply affected by news topics discussed at school, and may struggle with the mature themes in books they are assigned if their reading level is more advanced than their chronological age.

Similarly, they may struggle to contain and process their emotions after being shown films that may be age-appropriate but which affect them much more intensely than others.

Unfortunately many teachers aren’t aware of the social and emotional challenges OEs can bring, and even those who are informed struggle to accommodate the needs of these twice-exceptional learners within the confines of the school system.

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This is a big topic which I know I’ve only touched on here. I’d love to hear from you and then maybe write in more depth about aspects of OEs and learning that you find interesting.

How do your children’s OEs affect their experience of learning?

How do you support them?

Do you have any other questions or comments about OEs and education?

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* Simone de Hoogh,  Parenting Consultant and ECHA Specialist in Gifted Education, was inspired by her experiences raising her two (now adult) children to set up PowerWood, the UK’s leading not-for-profit organisation committed to raising awareness and supporting the emotional wellbeing of families dealing with the intensity, hyper-sensitivity and super-reactivity (OEs) that often accompany high ability.

If you’d like support dealing with OEs, join me, Simone and other kindred spirits at the friendly PowerWood FaceBook group.

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I hope you’ll come back next Monday to read about my week as a student. In that post I’ll be sharing a few ideas my time in the classroom gave me about how we can support our intense children’s learning. To be sure you don’t miss it, just leave your email address in the box below or above left and you’ll receive my weekly posts straight to your inbox. 🙂


Hat tip: Thank you to Devon Goodwin, editor of the British MENSA Education Special Interest Group newsletter for coming up with the title of this post!

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2 thoughts on “How Overexcitabilities Can Help You Learn – And How They Can Hold Children Back in the Classroom

  1. Lucinda, are you finding unschooling helpful for your children? And would you say in general it could be the best method for children with over excitabilities?

    1. Claire, I’m not sure I had much choice really! When you’re a leader – as I think we are as homeschooling mums – you need a clear vision of where you want to get to, but you have to let each individual team member take the path that works for them. It’s no good making birds march or cheetahs swim (unless you really want to do things the hard way and possibly lose them along the way!).

      The children I’ve met with OEs often look very different from one another. Some love structure while others prefer to freewheel, for instance. But what I know from my own children is that they usually have very strong views about what they want to do (or not) and that even if they go along with something to please me (as a child with emotional OE might, in particular), it doesn’t last very long before I see their stress and we make a (big or small) adjustment.

      So to answer your question, yes I’m finding unschooling helpful, and certainly it’s a method I think could work for other children with overexcitabilites.

      (Thank you for asking a question that both made me think and has given me the idea for a new blog post. 🙂 )

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