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Counselor and family therapist Andrew Mahoney often begins presentations to colleagues with a blunt question: "What do you think when I say the word 'deviant'?"

An uneasy murmur rolls through the room. Wait a minute. Isn't this talk on giftedness? What are you doing discussing deviance?

"It's an eye-opening exercise," Mahoney says. "The terms gifted and talented connote excellence and achievement -- and they evoke high expectations and pressures for success."

But in fact, the development of gifted people often deviates from the norm in areas other than intelligence -- areas that can eventually cause dissonance and internal conflict, he says. "It's important for people who work with the gifted to understand that deviance -- and their own notions about the term -- and to understand how both play out in the emotional development of gifted people.

"It really all comes back to their identity as gifted people," he says. "It comes back to their being able to see themselves as gifted within the systems that tell them who they are -- their family, their schools, their community. Their giftedness is a variable in their identity, and for a counselor to ignore that is to ignore a key part in the puzzle they're trying to piece together."

For more than 20 years, Mahoney, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist, has explored and developed frameworks for the counseling and psychotherapy of gifted and talented people. In his Pittsburgh and Bedford, PA, offices, he works with clients individually, in groups and with their families. Nationally, he often presents his work at conferences, symposiums, consultations and training workshops for fellow counselors, educators and parents. His focus on identity offers a new and original perspective. In addition he is a professional Pastel Artist. See: www.andymahoney.com

"Behavioral interventions work with the masses, but not with the gifted," he says. "The brighter and the more gifted an individual, the more unique they are in their make-up, not the more similar. And serving these individuals and their needs is exponentially much greater than working with the norm. The complexities are so much greater."I addressed these complexities primarily through the development the Gifted Identity Formation Model, and I use a very complex methodology to try to understand and account for as many of the unique variables as possible.

"There is nothing like the Gifted Identity Formation Model," he says. "There are no other frameworks out there to account for the variances when counseling the gifted."

A native of Pennsylvania, Mahoney's personal experience led him to focus his work on the gifted and talented population.

"There were two influential factors," he says. "First, I demonstrated exceptional artistic talent at a very early age. That was my life entry into the field of the gifted and talented. That talent is my life foundation.

"The second factor was my own first experience in counseling and therapy, which was influenced by a therapist who acknowledged that my giftedness was a variable in my life struggle. [She also] looked at giftedness as a variable in the family constellation and what one's culture considers giftedness. Her acknowledgment of these issues is what triggered me to say that there is something really awesome that is being overlooked in the counseling and psychological process. Giftedness must be looked at as a variable."

That experience came during his graduate studies at Western Illinois University, when he first started working as a counselor.

"I immediately set out to explore and learn more about the issues related to the psychotherapy process of the gifted and talented population," Mahoney says. "That led me to develop my specialty in this area."

As he began to apply his work to his practice, the counseling community began to hear of his interest. Referrals followed, his client load grew, and eventually in 1989, he established Andrew S. Mahoney and Associates, in Herndon, VA, where counseling the gifted and talented has become the sole focus of his work.

"The idea for the Gifted Identity Formation Model (GFIM) came from Sharon Lind a colleague in gifted education, who valued what I'd done. She challenged me to take my work to another level so it would be available for future practitioners and researchers as a pragmatic and foundational contribution to the field. My mission is to 'democratize' the information, to get the topic out of the ivory tower and put it into hands of counselors who can apply and test it."

Mahoney earned his bachelor's degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his master's at Western Illinois University and completed postgraduate work in counselor education, supervision and family therapy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He has taught at George Mason University. Mahoney was a long-standing executive board member and the past chair of the Counseling and Guidance Division of the National Association of Gifted Children. He also is a trainer and supervisor of counselors.

As stated earlier, Mahoney continues to pursue his artistic passion. He's currently studying the art of pastel plein-air painting. See: www.andymahoney.com.

In question-answer form, he addresses some of the key issues faced by gifted and talented people and their counselors, educators and parents:

What are the most significant challenges you’ve seen your gifted and talented clients tackle?

It has to do with dealing with others’ expectations of their ability, and how they reconcile that within their own desires and expectations. The automatic assumption is that because you're gifted you should be able to perform at a much higher level than the norm -- and this carries on into adulthood. The difficult problem is that the gifted individual may internalize external expectations and add their own level of expectation on themselves. These expectations usually aren't realistic or achievable, particularly if there is an undiagnosed learning problem.

What about the feeling of being "different"? Don’t all children have those feelings as they develop their sense of self? What distinguishes that among gifted children?

All children can feel "different," particularly in adolescence. What distinguishes gifted children is that it can occur earlier and be both a qualitatively and quantitatively different experience. They can be aware of feeling different or isolated from the group at an earlier age, and the intensity of the extreme nature of the experience would be a much more intense feeling of alienation and isolation and would typically have secondary problems associated with it. For example, the child would be afraid to do something to the point they'd try to avoid it by manipulating out of the activity or semantically avoiding the experience.

What is the most important thing a counselor can do in his or her work with the gifted?

Counselors must understand the diverse and complex nature of the gifted individual and make some accommodation in their work to account for the deviance that’s inherent in this special population. Counselors must understand the diverse nature of gifted behavior so as not to "pathologize" it. Sometimes a gifted child may act out in the classroom not because they are impulsive and hyperactive but because their anxiety level is so high that they’re feeling an underlying sense of inadequacy or ability to perform at the level they’d like to. Are they hyperactive? No, they’re having anxiety response to something they’re not able to perform up to their own self-imposed expectations. Often narcissistic behavior in some gifted children is not understood in terms of its true origin as it relates to their struggle with being different and having systematic wounding from the experience of being different because of their giftedness.

What about this framework, the Gifted Identity Formulation Model? How is it different than other tools a counselor uses in work with gifted and talented people?

There is nothing like the Gifted Identity Formation Model. There are no other frameworks out there to account for the variances when counseling the gifted. I truly believe this is the first comprehensive framework and model for counseling the gifted.

What are the biggest challenges facing educators of gifted and talented people?

Many of the problems now being labeled as social and emotional concerns for the gifted are really underlying undiagnosed learning problems that can be attributed to the asynchronous development of the individual. For instance, the gifted child can compensate and cover up any underlying learning problems longer than the average child can. The child has been so successful that people close to him tend to attribute the problems to boredom or depression or external factors like family problems or difficulty with peer group. Often times these issues are secondary manifestations of learning problems where the child hasn’t been able to execute full potential, thus creating a state of learned helplessness. The learned helpless child is getting something for nothing. They use their giftedness to compensate in a way that looks as though they’re achieving when in reality there’s a subtle erosion against their self esteem and self concept because they're not performing or being challenged at the level they could be.

What about assessments of giftedness?

I am more satisfied than I used to be about how well the gifted are being assessed. People are looking at it from a variety of personal attributes not just a measure of general intelligence, the traditional or academically oriented view. Now people are considering emotional ability and other areas of talent development.

What can our educational system do better for gifted and talented children?

Integrate social emotional issues related to being gifted into the academic curriculum and see how addressing their unique social and emotional concerns can enhance the overall well-being and motivation to learn.

Have a better working definition of what it means to be gifted, so gifted and talented children are not just given the label of being gifted with no understanding of what that label means.

What single thing is most important in the relationships between parents and their gifted and talented children?

That the parents' expectations of the child truly match where the child is developmentally in relationship to their giftedness. Sometimes the parent becomes seduced by the gifted attributes in such a way that they’re then not able to meet the needs of their gifted child. This often occurs when the child is younger and has particular strengths in verbal fluency. In essence the child appears more competent to the parent than what would be considered normal. The parent then assumes that the child will sustain this level of competency across the board academically and keeps the expectation level high.

What challenges face adults who are gifted and talented? Is there a difference in those challenges among adults who have accepted their giftedness?

Gifted adults are even more likely to be walking around feeling disconnected, alienated and misunderstood about who they are than gifted children. They're likely more entrenched in a lack of awareness about their gifted attributes and resigned to an outlook to totally overlooking anything that has to do with the notion of their giftedness, because they’ve gone a whole lifetime without having their needs met or understood. Another challenge is understanding who they really are in relationship with this gift they possess and not being able to find an acceptable context or meaning in who they are -- in relationships, work, and quality of life. If you could change something about the way our society perceives the gifted and talented, what would it be? Understanding that if we don’t help provide an appropriate challenge for the gifted we are working against the notion that we are going to be an equal society. An equal society is where everyone’s needs are being met. People need to understand that special needs exist when you’re gifted. Oftentimes people believe that the gifted have everything they need because they appear competent in more ways than they actually are gifted.

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