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
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.
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
"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
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 youve 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"? Dont 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 thats
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 theyre feeling an underlying sense of inadequacy
or ability to perform at the level theyd like to. Are they
hyperactive? No, theyre having anxiety response to something
theyre 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 hasnt
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 theyre achieving when in reality theres a
subtle erosion against their self esteem and self concept because
they're not performing or being challenged at the level they could
What about assessments
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 theyre 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,
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 dont 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
are being met. People need to understand that special needs exist
when youre gifted. Oftentimes people believe that the
gifted have everything they need because they appear competent
in more ways than they actually are gifted.