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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Is It a Panda?


Gifted children have been compared to cheetahs—a unique member of the cat family, that loses its ability to run fast if not used regularly. While I personally love Stephanie Tolan’s analogy (read it here), I would like to offer up a slightly different analogy, one that addresses a particular kind of gifted child.

Warning: this is not the warmest and coziest analogy for gifted kids, but one that I think rings true in some cases and really needs to be considered. So here it is:

Some gifted kids are like giant pandas.

The giant panda lives a low-stress lifestyle, avoiding exertion and stressful situations.  They can spend up to 14 hours a day eating a low-energy diet of stems, shoots, and leaves of bamboo.  Giant pandas sleep a few hours between meals, lying flat on their backs, stomach, or sides (sounds like a nice life, right?).

Giant pandas prefer solitude. Males, other than mating season, live apart. Females also have a defined living space.  These pandas are also shy, burying their heads and covering their faces when coming across people.

What’s this have to do with gifted kids?

Some gifted children perform considerably below their potential, throughout their school lives and into their adult lives. Experts have deemed them “underachievers,” when performance does not live up to potential.  Researchers are still somewhat baffled by gifted underachievement, which becomes more prevalent in the middle and high school years.  There’s no consistent, reliable method for reversing underachievement, though some factors play a role such as parental support, outside interests and activities, caring teachers, and separate classrooms or programs.

Unfortunately, like the giant panda, some high-potential children seek the path of least resistance, avoiding challenge and exertion.  These smart kiddos have figured out how to do just enough to get an A in class, to please the teacher, to keep their parents happy—but are they developing their potential, using their “gifts?” Troubled by thoughts of perfectionism or fear of failing, these students play it safe, rather than go for their goals. While they might be able to lead the student council, start their own club, learn an instrument, master a new language, research a new topic, they prefer to sleep between assignments or “lay on their backs or stomachs” and relax.

And like the giant panda, some of these same children lack the social skills to be successful. They prefer to bury their heads in a book (there’s nothing wrong with reading, of course, but not when it’s used as a mechanism to escape or cope with social anxiety). They put their heads down, lacking the self-esteem and confidence necessary to develop their potential. They constantly want to work alone on school projects. And while the giant panda has figured out how to live a mainly anti-social life, students require social intelligence to succeed in today’s world.

Educators need to be on the lookout for these “giant pandas.”  Though they may be getting good grades and playing the game, these children need consistent challenge and opportunities to develop their gifts and talents.  They need a safe, supportive environment that allows them to gradually exert more effort, to strive for bigger goals, to take comfortable risks. They need a taste of what they can accomplish. In addition, they need activities and lessons that teach them how to effectively socialize. In essence, they need “people skills.”

It’s time to wake these pandas up.


Steve Haberlin is a teacher of gifted in Tampa, Florida, and regular contributor to He can be reached at [email protected]