Supporting the social-emotional needs of high-ability students

High-ability students may have different social-emotional needs from their peers. Students need to know how they can support their social-emotional learning. They also need to know how to self-regulate their emotions. Teachers can help students to do this.

Strategies to support the social-emotional needs of high-ability students

Not all high-ability students will present with the same social-emotional needs. Some high-ability students will need little help, whereas others may need extensive support. Research shows that high-ability students may need targeted help with:

Peer relationships

Research says that when high-ability students are asked what they most want, the answer is often “a friend”. Relationships with peers are one of the biggest challenges faced by high-ability students. 

Many high-ability students have interests that are more like those of older students. They can prefer older companions. Sometimes high-ability students prefer the companionship of a teacher to their peers. High-ability students may also prefer to have one or two close friends. This is instead of having a large friendship group.

High-ability students often have different expectations of friendships from their peers. This can lead to confusion when the high-ability student pairs with friends who do not share the same expectations. Teachers need to foster meaningful relationships for their high-ability students. They can do this by creating opportunities for like-ability interactions. These can be across year levels or between year levels.  


Perfectionism can be both healthy and unhealthy. Healthy perfectionism can drive performance. For example, there is the musician who strives for perfection or the athlete who works at an elite level. Unhealthy perfectionism happens when a student sets very high standards that are unreachable. This can lead to a student refusing to try to achieve when they see that they will not meet the standard they have set. 

Teachers can support healthy perfectionism and challenge unhealthy perfectionism. Some of the signs to look for in unhealthy perfectionism are:

  • high levels of anxiety
  • self-criticism
  • tendency to magnify imperfections
  • criticism of others
  • reluctance to try new things
  • difficulty sharing responsibility in group work - “I’d rather do it myself”.
  • feelings of inadequacy.

High-ability students should be challenged in their learning when they are young. High-ability students may not develop the necessary skills for learning if things are always easy. These skills include risk-taking and perseverance. Both of these are needed for healthy perfectionism.

When students are not challenged, they may become fixated on grades or results. Problems can occur as the demands of learning increase. The high-ability student may not have the skills they need to achieve high results. The high-ability student may then choose not to try rather than achieve a lower grade.

To encourage healthy perfectionism, teachers need to:

  • provide challenging and rigorous learning experiences
  • support students to set realistic goals
  • provide feedback on effort and process
  • model positive self-talk
  • model and encourage a growth mindset.

In this short video, a teacher from Mill Park Secondary College describes how some students identified as high-ability may struggle with perfectionism.


Asynchronous development

Asynchronous development means a gap exists between different parts of a students’ growth. For high-ability students, this means a gap between:

  1. intellectual development, and
  2. their physical and/or social-emotional development.

This gap can cause difficulties for some high-ability students. For example, a student may be able to work with abstract concepts. Yet they may not have the emotional ability to cope with their meaning.

Teachers can support high-ability students by:

  • knowing their level of intellectual development
  • knowing their level of social-emotional development
  • knowing their level of physical development
  • providing experiences for the different levels of development
  • providing opportunities for high-ability students to show higher levels of thinking and learning.

Teachers should remove any barriers that might exist to student learning. For example, a younger student may be able to create a long narrative. Yet they may not have the handwriting or typing skills to produce the text. Providing a scribe may help here.

Post-secondary planning

Some high-ability students will have difficulty with planning for life after school. These students are likely to excel across two or more areas. Some characteristics of these students include:

  • difficulty with decision making
  • difficulty with follow-through
  • excellent performance in many subject areas
  • many hobbies and extra-curricular activities
  • little free time
  • leadership roles in a variety of groups
  • some signs of stress or exhaustion
  • difficulty in making post-school decisions.

To support these students with planning for life after school, teachers will need to:

  • remind students they do not have to limit themselves to one career
  • remind students that leisure activities can help develop interests outside of their career
  • provide opportunities for discussions with like-ability youth. This can help students recognise that they are not alone in their concerns.

Other factors may also lead to difficulties with making post-school decisions. These include perfectionism and cultural influences. 

The ‘forced-choice dilemma’

The ‘forced-choice dilemma’ refers to a choice some high-ability students may face. This choice:

  • is between a need for peer acceptance and a desire for high academic grades
  • begins when students compare themselves to their peers
  • worsens in the teenage years when ‘fitting in’ can become more important than achieving
  • can lead the high-ability student to mask their abilities.

Masking may be more pronounced:

  • in small rural communities
  • in some cultural groups
  • amongst boys.

Teachers can support students grappling with the ‘forced-choice dilemma’ by:

  • fostering meaningful friendships and like-ability interactions
  • providing challenging learning experiences through differentiation
  • providing students with access to mentors in areas of interest.


Metacognitive strategies teach students to think about their thinking. This helps them to become aware of the learning process. With this knowledge, students can gain control over their learning. Metacognition is also important for self-regulation. It helps students to manage their motivation for learning. Metacognitive activities can include:

  • planning how to approach learning tasks
  • evaluating progress
  • tracking comprehension.

Teaching metacognition is one of the ten High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS).

Metacognitive strategies are also important for social-emotional learning. Social-emotional learning involves the:

  • development of the knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to a healthy self-image
  • the management of emotions
  • the achievement of individual and group goals
  • the maintenance of supportive relationships
  • the ability to make good decisions.

Social-emotional learning for high-ability students is affected by their social-emotional characteristics. For example, a high-ability student may challenge the teacher when they see something as unfair. They need to develop the knowledge of their mental processes that lead them to respond this way. 

They will then need to learn the skills to regulate their response. This could include arranging a meeting to talk about the issue after class.

Social reflection questions can support high-ability students. These questions might include:

  • How do I think about another's thinking and feelings?
  • How do I think about my thinking and feelings?
  • How do I want people to read my intentions?
  • How could others possibly be reading my intentions in ways I hadn't considered?
  • What do I think that person is intending, based on what they are doing and saying?

If students have good metacognitive skills, they will be reflective and understand their own emotions. They will be able to resist acting impulsively. They will recognise that decisions have consequences for themselves and others.


Self-regulation means a student can manage their behaviours and emotions. A student's capacity to do this may impact their learning and well-being.

Teachers can help high-ability students to learn how to self-regulate. First, teachers must know the emotional traits related to the different domains of high-ability. This is very important for high-ability students in the intellectual and creative domains. These students often show strong emotions. They may worry about global issues such as conflict.

High-ability students who have trouble with self-regulation may have other issues. These can stem from:

  • depression
  • perfectionism
  • high-ability spread across many areas
  • eccentricity
  • emotional sensitivity.

Some high-ability students may also develop asynchronously. This means their social-emotional development does not match their cognitive and/or physical development. This may cause frustration for the student and can lead to more difficulties.

Teachers can support their high-ability students to develop self-regulation skills through:

  • social role play
  • setting positive personal best (PB) goals
  • learning experiences that explore real-life issues
  • mindfulness.


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