Case Studies: Educating the Gifted Adolescent

By Jan Slater, Director, Early Entrance Program, California State University, Los Angeles

The young student and her parents arrived 15 minutes early for the interview. The father carried an inch-thick folder of the awards their daughter Grace had received. This was the opportunity they had been looking for.

After brief introductions, Mr. Xonophon began speaking almost immediately. “Grace hasn’t been challenged at school for the last two years, yet they refuse to move her to the next grade. The gifted program is just a lot of busywork. She’s so bored she no longer enjoys school.”

“Sometimes she comes home in tears,” Mrs. Xonophon urged. “She is very unhappy now. Can she enter your program at the university?”

Grace sat almost motionless, looking from parent to parent as they revealed her story. Occasionally she cast an anxious glance at the counselor. When asked how she felt about school, Grace simply nodded her answers.

Somewhat concerned about the young girl’s passivity, the counselor gently questioned Grace, hoping she would reveal something of her own personality. The parents, however, continued to answer most of the questions themselves.

Grace’s test scores had been high. In fact, they were third highest among the 650 gifted middle school students last tested. She received straight As in school. On the strength of her academic performance, the counselor conditionally admitted the 13-year-old girl to the Early Entrance Program, a program of radically accelerated education for the precociously gifted. The counselor hoped that she would be able to handle the demands of college classes and eventually show motivation of her own.

The first 10-week quarter went well enough. Grace attended two courses: biology and cultural anthropology. She worked diligently at her classes and appeared each week for her meetings with the program director. Her parents drove her to and from the university each day. She had little free time on campus. Naturally, she developed no more than a passing acquaintance with the other students in the program. She received an A and a B; these grades qualified her for permanent status in the program. She was 13 and a full-time student in college.

At the review meeting with the family, Grace managed to express, although shyly, her desire to remain in the program. She apologized for the B in anthropology. Her father assured the counselor that she would do better now that she understood what college work was like. She planned her courses with her parents and the counselor. The counselor made sure that her three classes would put her on campus four days a week and give her several hours between classes. It was critical for Grace to achieve some independence from her parents and begin to relate to her peers in the program.

This picture of Grace is a case study of a gifted adolescent. A case study gives an in-depth description of an individual. Usually individuals selected for a case study are atypical in some way. The case study may describe the person’s life circumstances, symptoms or special abilities, or the success (or failure) of a treatment program. The writings of Sigmund Freud contain many case studies drawn from his clinical work. Erik Erikson used case studies to give us psychological profiles of well-known historical figures such as Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi. A case study of a woman suffering from a multiple-personality disorder became the basis of the film The Three Faces of Eve.

Case studies are useful because they provide information about conditions that are so unusual they would not otherwise be available for study. Like other forms of naturalistic observation, they provide rich sources for hypotheses that can be checked against other sources of data. They also share the disadvantage of not allowing the investigator to disentangle cause from effect or otherwise isolate the conditions presumed to be responsible for the interesting behavior being described. That type of analysis must await the application of other research procedures. Let’s return to the gifted adolescent in our case study and see how successful she has been.

With her first year of college behind her, Grace had developed in measurable ways. At the weekly meetings with the counselor, she admitted that her father had dominated much of her life and that she wished to be free of her parents’ ambitions for her. She managed more As and Bs, but became more and more self-critical each time she achieved less than she expected. Like many gifted students, Grace’s standards for herself were extremely high. By the end of that first year, both motivation and judgment were more hers than her parents. The social aspect of Grace’s personality also began to flower. Toward the middle of the first year, she made two friends in the program. The three girls were within a year of each other in age and class level, yet very different in personality. The oldest, a 14-year-old college sophomore, was studious, determined, and rather flatly assertive. Nina provided a standard by which many of the students could measure their achievement. Lindy, on the other hand, was quick and socially vigilant, often sacrificing achievement to amusement and exploration. She easily got Bs and seemed satisfied for the time being. Although Grace remained the shyest, she began to develop a wry sense of humor. Her style of dress evolved from the little girl dresses she originally appeared in to the studied messiness that was standard for adolescents. A little rebellion began to surface.

But only a little. In the following two years, Grace occasionally resisted her parents’ and even the counselor’s advice, often making very good decisions for herself. She maintained her original friendships and slowly added new ones. Her academic work grew stronger as she matured, yet her standards were never compromised. She planned to enter medical school and had her sights on the best in the country.

Today, Grace is 16 and a junior in college. She is studying for the MCAT, the exam that will play a large part in determining where she will be accepted for medical school. She has progressed from a nearly speechless girl to a quietly confident young woman. Her first friends, Nina and Lindy, have also progressed in their own ways. Nina is planning for her first year in law school. Lindy thinks she might take another year to finish her major in biology, with minors in chemistry and music.



The 27 gifted adolescents in the 1991 Early Entrance Program at California State University, Los Angeles; compiled by Jan Slater, Director. In P. C. Cozby. (1997). Methods in behavioral research (6th ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.