Defying the odds: gifted and talented young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds

Socioeconomic status New Zealand

Abstract: The aim of this study was to explore the lived experiences of gifted and talented New Zealand young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with an emphasis on risk and protective processes that might foster resilience. Ninety-three young people between the ages of 17 and 27 participated in this study, each having been identified as gifted in one or more of the following areas: academic, sporting, creative arts, and leadership.

The participants were sourced from First Foundation, an organisation that awards scholarships to gifted New Zealand secondary school students who come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. At the time this research was undertaken, there were 181 past and present First Foundation scholarship recipients, and invitations to participate were extended to each of these young people.

The qualitative methodology considered to be most appropriate for this study was Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), as it allows the researcher to get an ‘inside perspective’ of how individuals make meaning of their experiences (Smith & Osborn, 2008). This study involved an anonymous electronic survey of 93 gifted young people, and a further eight in depth interviews. The survey and interview questions focused on broad themes related to the participants’ giftedness and personal circumstances, including: their talents and interests; their education and schooling; the influence of family and friends; the presence of role models and mentors; and their childhood experiences.

‘Identity’ was one of three key themes that emerged from this study. One of the most significant findings was that the limitations of being gifted presented as more of a risk factor than limitations associated with personal circumstances, particularly in relation to a sense of identity. This finding contradicts numerous other studies that focus on the relationship between giftedness and low socioeconomic status.

Many studies of gifted individuals suggest that ‘drive’, which emerged as a second key theme, is common amongst those who achieve to significant levels. In this study, however, the majority of participants reported that their drive was directly related to the socioeconomic challenges they had faced. For many, their drive translated into a strong desire to use their gifts and talents to benefit others facing similar challenges.

‘Opportunities’ were also considered crucial for enabling the talent development process and many of the young people in this study indicated that relationships with other people rather than material opportunities had been most valuable. The opportunistic natures of the participants also enabled them to recognise, seek out, and make the most of opportunities, despite the limitations of their socioeconomic circumstances.

Little is known about how gifted New Zealanders from financially challenging backgrounds fare in terms of their talent development and this research addresses recent calls for investigation in this area. The findings from this study contribute broadly to existing knowledge about gifted and talented learners in New Zealand, and provide specific insight into the lived experiences of those from socioeconomically challenging backgrounds. One significant finding is the nature of risk and resilience processes operating amongst this group of young people, which may serve to extend understanding of how gifted individuals who face adversity are able to develop their talents. There are also important implications that arise from this study for those who live and work with gifted young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

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