How to Spot Wild Colts in the Classroom

How to Spot Wild Colts in the Classroom

How to Spot Wild Colts in the Classroom

E. Paul Torrance paved the way for us to find and support misunderstood creatives in our classrooms and homes.

Recently, a distraught mother from Chicago called me.  “Jason has always been a good student, but all of a sudden in third grade he is acting out, crawling under his desk, refusing to do school work. It seems like he has become a different person.”  This is a story that I hear multiple times per week, one that saddens me and gives me hope at the same time. 

Indeed, my work with families like Jason’s often leads to the conclusion that the child is a highly creative or divergent thinker, intellectually gifted, or a combination of both.  Some have been good students and high achievers in the past, but have dropped off and begun to manifest characteristics that are interpreted as behavior issues or attention problems.  Some have sloppy handwriting or tune out so often that it causes adults to think there is a major learning problem.  Some do the opposite, and call out answers.  Some receive concerned notes on their report cards that, “Jason would much prefer to spend time talking with teachers than playing with students at recess,” an idea which frequently leads to the notion that Jason has a significant social problem (but is a common characteristic of creative or gifted children).  

It is disturbing to see the Jasons of the world misunderstood, but on the flipside, when I hear a story like this, I am heartened that there is a positive, effective approach to turn it around.  An expert that I often turn to in these cases is E. Paul Torrance, a psychologist who began to examine the issue of misunderstood creativity in the 1950s.  Early in his career, he worked at a boarding school for boys, many of whom had been sent there for misbehaving.  Torrance noticed there was something different - even special - about many of these boys.  It crystalized for him when “. . . he read Margaret Broadley’s Square Pegs in Square Holes (1943), in which she described creative individuals as those possessing an ability which, ‘unless it is used and directed into the right channels . . . is like a wild colt roaming the prairies’” (Cramond, 2013, p. 27).  After this, Torrance began to see wild colts everywhere.  Of particular concern to him were creative students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that were misunderstood.  He set out to develop the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking to understand more about creative strengths, specifically because he saw a pattern that very creative children were consistently viewed as behavior problems or outcasts (Cramond et al., 2005). 

Did you know that in the animal kingdom, colts become evicted from their herds early in life?  They must then find a roaming group of stallions to join until they can form their own herds, at which time they develop their own identities, sense of belonging, and stability.  There is a period of time during which colts run wild because they are looking for this belonging.  I believe that many children that Torrance observed, like Jason, are mostly looking to be understood and valued for their strengths.  When there is a gap between their capabilities and the domains they are asked to exercise in the academic experience, an uncomfortable feeling or restlessness often arises that causes them to act in a myriad of ways.  For example, a child that has many original ideas but has nowhere to apply them in the context of his academic day can become frustrated and reactionary, or quiet, self-doubting, and withdrawn.

So, how do we demonstrate to Torrance’s colts that we do, indeed, understand them? 

First, begin from a standpoint of creative strengths.  Using creative characteristic checklists, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, observation, parent questionnaires, and portfolios, find the strengths and interests of the child. 

Second, provide academic work that allows for these strengths to come forth.  Again, Torrance gave a relatively simple answer when he specified the distinction between three levels of learning (see figure).  

Stepping up to a level 3 history prompt is really as easy as show on the chart, beneficial for students, and the concept can be applied to any academic subject.  Allowing for original thought and application removes the learning ceiling and lets each child to respond at his or her individual level.  Creative individuals require level 3 thinking and learning.  They must imagine, invent, experiment, discover, and explore.  Like a colt roaming the prairies must have space to run and grass to eat, a child who is deeply creative must be allowed to do these things.  Otherwise there is risk of becoming bottled up, and the thoughts and ideas are applied through frustration in ways that are productive for no one.  Colts benefit from being engaged at a deep level in a way that is meaningful to them. 

Sometimes when I underscore this point, parents question it, “Yes, that makes sense, but I know in life he is going to have to do boring work so isn’t it better to make him just figure this out and conform?”  Emphatically, no.  As an adult, you are thinking about your own life and job in which you have to do mundane and annoying things day in and day out.  We all do.  But the difference is motivation and self-understanding.  You have motivation to slog through the bad days because of the good days when every ounce of your skills are being used, or, maybe you are motivated by providing the beds upon which your children lay their heads.  As humans, we build our lives most solidy on a foundation of connection and purpose.  When children are misunderstood, they don’t understand themselves either; once we turn this around, help them see their own creative identities, and allow them to participate in academic activities that inspire and engage them, they can make progress on many fronts.  

But isn’t this Pollyannaish to come from a standpoint of creative strength identification and development?  What about potential issues that need other interventions?  “According to Torrance’s observations, discovering and nurturing creativity in children may redirect some children’s misbehavior toward more positive pursuits and away from diagnoses of psychological disturbance” (Cramond et al., 2005, p. 283). Torrance proved in his work and research that to build from a standpoint of strengths can lead a child towards self-actualization and meaningful personal growth.  Once she begins to understand her strengths and is engaged more deeply, she is more likely to be open to working out the kinks. Having come from this standpoint, we can now leverage her interests and strengths to help us get there!  The point is, when we use a strengths-based approach, there is little downside, while the misdiagnosis of a creative child can lead to a life of depression, self-doubt, and substance dependence.  

Xenophon, a student of Socrates, said, “For what the horse does under compulsion . . . is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.”  We can find wild colts in our homes, classrooms, and offices, work to understand them on an individual level, and support their need to do things differently.  If we do, they just might be the people that change the world — fueled by the intrinsic motivation that comes from knowing oneself and one’s purpose. 


Broadley, M.  (1943).  Square pegs in square holes.  New York, NY: Doubleday,Doran.

Cramond, B.  (2013).  The life and contributions of E. Paul Torrance.  In E. Romey,
        (Ed.), Finding John Galt: People, politics, and practice in gifted education,
        (pp. 25-31).  Retrieved from

Cramond, B., Mathews-Morgan, J., Bandalos, D. & Zuo, L.  (2005).  Report on the
        40-year follow-up of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking: Alive and well in the
        new millenium.  Gifted Child Quarterly, 49, 283-290.

Copyright 2014 Kathryn P. Haydon.  All Rights Reserved.

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