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Introducing Debate to Young Gifted Students

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Recently I was speaking with some parents at an information session and one parent asked about how to be encouraging with his son, who seemed to see the worst in everything, at first. For example in visiting a museum or zoo, he might first criticize everything he saw as wrong or inferior with the exhibits or site, but would eventually have a good time and enjoy himself. The parent was wondering how to get away from that negative behavior in his five year old.

Sometimes, gifted children may exhibit highly critical behavior due to their intensities, perfectionistic tendencies, or high expectation of everyone and everything, including themselves. This behavior can come across as negative or irritating. Young children sometimes have not yet learned to filter their comments or consider the feelings of others.

One suggestion I made to this parent was to acknowledge the child’s ability to think about different aspects of a situation and to use it as a teaching platform for debate. That way, changing the behavior is a way of teaching a skill rather than criticizing the person. For example, the dad could say, “You’ve done a great job of finding all the negative arguments for why this demonstration is not as good as you expected it to be. Now can you think of as many ways that other people might think it is a good demonstration?” That type of question changes the thought processes, challenges the child to see another point of view, and introduces the idea of debate. Eventually you would move further into stating evidence for your arguments (the colors of the exhibit were wrong vs. the colors of the exhibit were made to show up for night exhibits where they appear correctly), and finally asking the child to rebut one of the opposing arguments with additional evidence. These processes also help the child to speak precisely, extemporaneously, and with confidence, as he or she is able to understand and state many sides of any argument.

Many gifted children have the skills of natural debaters. I encourage parents and educators to take advantage of their innate abilities to think complexly and to retain interesting facts and to use these skills as a springboard for formal debate at a young age. It could help to balance the one-sided critical negativity we perceive in our interactions with them.

Please feel free to share your thoughts with us by emailing me at

All the best,

Dr. Barbara Swicord, Ed.D.
Executive Director, National Society for the Gifted and Talented (NSGT)
President, Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG)

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