Poetry, Politics, and the 3rd Way

Two roads diverg, and between these two major roads is a hill, with a hand-laden path of stairs.

“Five thousand tongues applauded…” but I look up to see blank stares. I continue anyway:   

“Then the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip.” Snickers and giggles from junior high boys (“Huh, he said ‘ball’). I shot a quick, teacher glare to regain control. 

After five painful minutes of  “Casey wouldn’t let that ball go” and “the force of Casey’s blow” I finally finished my straight-faced recitation with the line that was published 133 years ago: “..mighty Casey has struck out.”    

Glossed over eyes met my stare. I thought the worst was over. I was wrong. I then went to the whiteboard and wrote, TPCASTT. “Each of these letters,” I explained, “Stands for a way to analyze poetry.” I was clutching my teacher curriculum guide tightly, reading from the page, 

“The ‘T’ means Title. It’s when we look at the title…” I was reading directly from the book now (and probably sweating a little), “…it’s when we look at the title before reading the poem, and we make predictions about what the poem will be about.” 

I looked at the students.

They looked back at me.

“Umm..so, we already read it; so, let’s pretend that you hadn’t read it, okay?” Now I was turning red. “So. Umm, what do you think the title means, ‘Casey at Bat’…that is, if you hadn’t already read it?”

No one in the room was buying it. I was sweating, stumbling, and it was painfully clear that I had no idea what I was talking about.  

To understand how I got to this spot as a veteran teacher holding viable curriculum, we’ll have to take a step back.  

First, you should know that school systems purchase professional, published curriculum, and it comes with guided lessons, practice workbooks, reading passages and assessments. There are online components and extension resources. The advantage here is that when a school purchases curriculum, the teachers are immediately on the same page with access to the same resources. 

You should also know that there is nothing inherently right or wrong with published curriculum; but that is like saying there is nothing inherently right or wrong with politics. In both regards, curriculum and politics exist to provide access and opportunity. In politics, it is the opportunity to have the individual voice represented, and with published curriculum, it is the opportunity to provide resources to every individual student. 

Curriculum designed to engage and challenge students may be too difficult for some, too easy for others, or unrepresentative of the individual student.

To quickly continue the comparison, those who are familiar with politics know that the difficulty lies in the individual differences of the people being represented. A policy to provide benefits for some often does so at the expense of others. The system of politics is not to blame, it’s the difficulty that comes in enacting singular policies that meet the needs of the individual. 

Those familiar with education know that the difficulty lies in the individual differences of the teachers and students. Curriculum designed to engage and challenge students may be too difficult for some, too easy for others, or unrepresentative of the individual student. 

In my story, I’m holding a teacher guide that our school district had purchased for every junior high. That means that every 7th grade teacher, like me, had access to the same reading passages, questions, and quizzes.

…the story is about how individual differences test the limits of any “one-size-fits-all” system. 

When the curriculum was purchased, the district did everything perfectly–they rolled out the new program by training every teacher. They shared documents that had been internally constructed to match our schedule. We knew what page of the textbook we should be on and when. The school also reinforced why we were adopting new curriculum–because it guaranteed every student (regardless of which junior high they attended) access to viable curriculum. Now, a student who attended School A would be learning the same, rich content as students who attended School B. 

Again, nothing is inherently good or bad about any of this; but the story is about how individual differences test the limits of any “one-size-fits-all” system.   

It’s about a week before the painful recitation, and I’m sitting in lesson planning with my team of teachers. We’re looking through the upcoming lessons–the next few days would be spent on poetry. I want to be perfectly clear: I love poetry. In high school, I performed in a Beatnik band; I attend poetry slams…even now, I have pages of scribbled poems and a few published pieces. 

As you can guess, I was pretty excited about the upcoming chance to share a personal passion with the students. That is until we all opened our district-purchased, guaranteed and viable curriculum. There was a reading passage about baseball and then a poem about baseball that was published in 1888. Then, there was a sterile, one-way method for analyzing poetry…regrettably titled TPCASTT. It was more of alphabet soup than a functioning acronym, and it all boiled down to a recipe for disengagement. It was clear that none of the teachers in the room were excited, but it was early in the school year, we had been told to use this curriculum. The importance of “guaranteed access for every student” had been pounded into us. We shrugged and moved on…relinquishing ourselves from any obligation. 

“The second ‘T’ means…” I look down at my curriculum guide, reading along now, “‘Title.” I pause, confused. Undeterred, I keep reading: “It means to read the title again looking for different meanings.” I move to the white board and turn to ask the students, “So, uhhh, now that we’ve read the poem, what does the title ‘Casey at Bat’ mean to you?” My face is in full-on blush and words are more chewed and spit than spoken.   

It was less than fifteen minutes into the poetry lesson, and as I stood there, I realized I was done. A lack of obligation had translated into a lack of preparation. Finally, I relinquished control. I mumbled an apology to the students, closed the curriculum guide, and set it lightly on my desk. I started again. This time, I started from a raw but familiar place: “Poetry,” I began, “Poetry is art…painted with words. It’s meant to be read aloud, to be performed–so that you can feel the beat of the syllables, the syncopation, the ups and downs of intonation. Shakespeare didn’t simply write his plays, they were live and loud and performed.” 

Time was suddenly without measure. For the rest of class, we shared favorite song lyrics. We played with words and internal rhyme–trying to rhyme “orange” with “door hinge” and break the rules. I had students physically limping around the room, demonstrating how iambic works (and why it’s called iambic). We took apart the poem “Casey at Bat” and turned it into a beatnikesque found poem that we all snapped to at the end. It was fun, it was raw, it was magical. 

I am not so naive to think that every student left that day loving poetry, but they were inspired towards an appreciation for poetry. Every Friday for the rest of the year, we did a poetry performance. Often it was me, bringing in a selection, but other times, students would perform favorite songs or even recite their own original poems. We never deconstructed the theme, but instead, inferred meaning by allowing the flavor of sound and definition to linger. 

This “Captain, My Captain” moment, fueled by passion and knowledge, flew in the face of guaranteed and viable curriculum.

It would be great to leave the story there, but the truth is that not everything was smooth sailing. This “Captain, My Captain” moment, fueled by passion and knowledge, flew in the face of guaranteed and viable curriculum. It wasn’t long until my team uncovered what I was hiding, that I had not been doing the same lessons on poetry. 

At the time, I felt like the system had presented me with a Catch-22, or at least some ethical conundrum where either side of the binary was met with loss: teach the curriculum for the sake of the greater good, but give up who you are and forego student engagement. Or, go rogue and inspire students, but at the expense of your team and at the expense of providing equal opportunity to faceless others across the school district. I chose to go it alone, and this was both the most rewarding choice but also the most isolating. It was this loneliness and a desire to change the system that eventually drew me out of my public school classroom.  

The irony is that it was not a binary choice, but it took me leaving the system to recognize that. Allow me to quickly explain, and see if you agree:

The system of education measures a student’s learning using objectives. These have a variety of names (content objectives, knowledge objectives, standards, learning targets, etc.), and what is being measured is if the student has acquired and attained mastery over certain knowledge. These objectives can be as straightforward as what year was the Declaration of Independence was signed to how well a student can analyze a poem. The role of a teacher is to help students reach these objectives the best way possible. The curriculum is simply a tool in her hand. One teacher may be able to use poems about baseball and pour his love for the game into teaching students how to analyze poetry. Another teacher may need to show her students the recitation “The Hill We Climb” by National Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman.

“…[do] not place the system above the needs of the individual, but instead, provide a system that supports individual opportunity and growth. 

There is a false ethical divide where teachers feel they must either “stay within unhealthy limits” or “isolate themselves.” There is a third way, and it is to ensure that every teacher knows their objectives, ensure that every teacher has access to curriculum, and then (most importantly) stand to the side and coach as the teacher breathes their individual passions and talents into the life of their classroom. When objectives and standards are being met, then the path is justified–whether that path be baseball and TPCASTT or Slam Poetry.

This “end justifies the means” may sound utilitarian, but when it comes to measuring the quality of instruction, this third way actually provides space for the individual, both for the inspired teacher and for the individual preferences of the student. This third way reminds us to not place the system above the needs of the individual, but instead, provide a system that supports individual opportunity and growth. 

What a Teacher Really Needs

Heading for blog about curriculum and instruction

The diploma reads, “Curriculum and Instruction.” Two words often tied together with an ampersand. It wasn’t until much later, during a job interview, that I ever considered why both words came bundled together.

Her eyes moved to the next question: “What is the difference between ‘curriculum’ and ‘instruction’?” 

I stumbled, “That’s a great question…” Face turning red, reaching for thoughts that swirled without form. 

For the next five minutes I vomited up nomenclature and ed-speak, smatterings of “assessment” and “delivery” and “pedagogy” all blurring together. After the interview, I was embarrassed–how did I finish a masters degree in a field I can’t even define? When I was done cycling through the “shame and blame game,” I created a simple working definition: 

Curriculum = What

Instruction = How   

There is nothing revolutionary about this definition, but it does benefit from its simplicity–curriculum is what you are teaching and instruction is how you teach it. The simplicity is the Occam’s razor to slice through the gummed up discourse and confusion surrounding much of education. 

“Unfortunately, in the pursuit of standardization, the education system gums up the path to inspiration.”

You see, at NuMinds, we believe in the power of the impassioned educator–we use the term Inspirator. When an Inspirator is fully alive, getting his or her “teach on,” it’s amazing to watch. Whether joining the students on the rug for reading time or positioned behind a lecturn, an Inspirator uses her eyes, voice, and gestures to move about the room. The simple shift in inflection, the gleam of excitement–all adding to the magic. 

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of standardization, the education system gums up the path to inspiration. Teachers are required to write lesson plans using scripted templates, log every phone call, use the required textbooks, forego planning in order to attend meetings or monitor the cafeteria. Teachers are expected to be on the “same page” as the rest of the team–even when the same “lock step” isn’t feasible . Test data is analyzed with a focus on wrong answers, with little consideration for the individual student. 

What does every teacher (including the best Inspirator) really need? Ready for the razor? The answer is access to flexible curriculum and support with instruction. 

Provide teachers with access to curriculum (the what) 

  • Engaging questions a teacher can ask his or her students; 
  • Resources (passages, videos, websites) a teacher can pick-and-choose from; 
  • Short problems used to practice applying knowledge and making manageable mistakes, 
  • Projects that are relevant, challenging, and adaptable based on student’s interests. 
  • Assessments that demand critical thinking, 

Support teachers with instruction (the how) 

  • How to spark curiosity and engagement;
  • How to know what needs to be taught directly versus what the students can learn best by trying themselves;
  • How to monitor learning to make sure the students are getting it; 
  • How to provide feedback and encouragement that supports growth; 
  • How to get to know students and form relationships; 
  • How to foster creativity; 
  • How to support students working in a group; 
  • How to encourage students to become aware of their own behavior and choices;
  • How to help students take ownership of their own learning.  

“…the what and the how serve more as a litmus test to know if our efforts are truly supporting a teacher and the work she does in her classroom.” 

These are not some idealized lists or lofty goals, nor are they a panacea for all ills in education; instead, the what and the how serve more as a litmus test to know if our efforts are truly supporting a teacher and the work she does in her classroom. 

As a curriculum writer and a trainer for teachers, I use this list with every lesson and training we create. When creating curriculum, we need to know if the content is aligned, providing a clear pathway to learning, and at the same time, is it flexible enough for a teacher to adapt as needed? If one rowdy kid in the third row acts up, if the video isn’t as interesting as anticipated, if technology fails, or if the teacher uncovers a handful of students have learning gaps–is the curriculum flexible enough to bend to these unique demands? 

Every teacher training we create must focus on the how by sharing strategies, ideas and examples, while always recognizing that there is not one right way. Effective instruction varies by grade level, class, or even time of day; so our training must reinforce the value of coaching–real time feedback on actual performance.  

If I could turn back the clock and sit in that interview again, I would quickly use what and how to explain the difference between curriculum and instruction. And then, instead of babbling, those next five minutes would unpack exactly what teachers need in order to do their job and thrive–access to flexible curriculum and support on how to deliver. I would end my interview response by saying, “Anything else is a distraction.”  

The Next Wave in Education

The day is calm. Your feet are in the sand. Waves gently lap onto the shore, rising to your ankles and gliding across the tops of your feet. Silently, the wave retreats, tugging gently on your toes as it returns to its undulating dance. 

Although you stood still, you are surprised to find your feet have sunk millimeters deeper into the sand. With each passing wave, your feet become more encased–cool to the touch, comforting, and at the same time, morbidly fascinating as you watch yourself received into the belly of the Earth. 

In 2013 the tide of education was turning. For a decade, the wave of No Child Left Behind had slowly eroded the foundation of our schools. With no end in sight, many educators began to revolt, forming new collectives with new ideas and new approaches to learning that abandoned the old, sinking model. Project-based learning; curriculum infused with creativity and innovation, and a global charge to individualize the profession.

“It was amidst this Edvolution that NuMinds was formed. Utilizing a love for curriculum creation and enrichment learning…”

Following the first step of any bohemian revolutionary, we created a manifesto. Replace absinthe with coffee and paint brushes with dry erase boards, and you have the stage set for constructing our new model for learning. We borrowed from the old while synthesizing our beliefs and experiences. What we created, we named Bamboo Curriculum. It served as our initial compass, and it still guides every learning experience we create today. The formula, the approach, and the structure was so unique, we even applied for and received a U.S. patent.

Over the next six years, we were met and embraced by so many unseen hands–like-minded individuals hungry to change the world, who believed in us as we believed in them. This web of support allowed us to train thousands of teachers in our methods; write hundreds of courses and deliver amazing programs all over the world. In true devil-may-care fashion, we took from our profits and created programs for those in need. It is one thing to practice your own methods and believe in their validity; it’s another to watch refugees, children in foster care, Syrian orphans, impoverished inner-city and rural youth, English learners and countless others respond to our passion-based approach to integrated learning. 

In 2019, we piloted a new business model, a way to deliver programs across the globe–which cost communities very little but delivered a huge impact. The key was building the capacity of local teachers. With training, support, and healthy autonomy, open-minded teachers edvolved into Inspirators–igniting their own spark and delivering our programs with fun and fidelity. 

The pilot took attention and time, and making a full operational pivot for 2020 was a huge gamble. We knew that this approach would only work through economy of scale (i.e.–make a little money in a lot of places, and you can keep the lights on and the absinthe flowing).

As we all now know, 2020 was not a year to make large gambles.

Shipwreck Boat Ship - Free photo on Pixabay
“All the while, from our tumbling vantage point, the monolith of education could be seen in the distance.”

As we all now know, 2020 was not a year to make large gambles. 

An unexpected wave pummeled the shoreline, impacting everyone. We spun like flotsam, treading to keep our head above water. Tumbling. Free resources. Furloughs. Tumbling. Virtual programs. Lay offs. Tumbling. Skeleton crew. Half time. Part time. All the while, from our tumbling vantage point, the monolith of education could be seen in the distance. The edifice of public education wasn’t just sinking into the sand, Covid had cracked its very structure!  

2021. The wave has not yet receded, the devastation is not yet over. However, instead of the battering of an oncoming surge, we are instead finding our footing on the sand–a beach strewn with litter, wrack, and broken shells. Covered in grit, those who have withstood the wave are taking stock of where they are, who they are, and the best next step.       

“I wish to God is didn’t take a global pandemic and so much suffering to finally awaken this level of clarity. Unfortunately, it did…”

Teachers are covered in grit, and it is now clear to everyone that they are the most important component in education. Policy makers failed, awash in political tumult. Organizations closed their doors before crumbling. The top heavy structure of education was exposed by the storm for its indecisiveness and poor decision making. The only thing that truly matters are teachers–teachers who strive to reach their students, imparting knowledge, wisdom, and love.  

I wish to God that it didn’t take a global pandemic and so much suffering to finally awaken this level of clarity. Unfortunately it did. The flight of fancy that launched Numinds in 2013–a vision to upturn education by empowering teachers–proved to be more prophetic than we ever anticipated. 

Now that we are all here and now that we are all covered in grit, please listen. We must empower teachers. They need support and resources, but most importantly, they need the autonomy to do what is in their professional capacity to do–teach children. We cannot train and certify teachers only to have them squashed by oversight, fleeing in search of other opportunities. Instead, we must all allow teachers to design and enact learning experiences that speak to each student’s individual zone of genius. 

In 2021, NuMinds will continue to hoist the flag of real inspired learning. We’ll use this time of rebuilding to offer training and resources–including turnkey curriculum and methods from our Bamboo Curriculum that enable teachers to create their own learning experiences. We do not claim that our way is the only way; every student is different, and there is nothing under the sun that will work every time with every kid. But by focusing on empowering the individual teacher, instead of pouring into policies and oversight, we now know that it is the best step towards rebuilding a sustainable model of education. So that when the next wave in education surfaces, this new foundation will stand above the sinking sand. 

GT in PTAs?  Include all special needs!

Advocacy remains critical to the survival and growth of gifted education.  Despite decades of research, and though gifted students exist in all populations, many states continue to neglect funding and accountability for educating gifted and talented learners.  National and state organizations for the gifted have brought about positive changes, but even in states with GT laws and funding in place, educators need parent support to maintain and improve programs and services at the local level.

Parents are critical to gifted advocacy, but to advocate effectively, parents need to form groups, learn about gifted education practices, and partner with educators.  When starting a local nonprofit is not an option, or when a local GT parent group could benefit from additional partnerships and support, is there another way to facilitate collaboration and advocacy?

For the past decade in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, parents in several school districts have worked in joint committees to help PTAs increase support for all special needs and learning differences, including both disability needs and gifted needs.  When strong PTAs are present, creating one of these combined committees can offer parent-school collaboration, awareness of gifted needs, and a recognizable presence for positive advocacy.

                History of PTA (Parent Teacher Association)

In 1897, two mothers began a movement to “eliminate threats that endangered children” (PTA.org).   After merging with the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers (NCCPT), the organization became the National PTA.  For some, the “PTA” name may conjure up images of bake sales, but the strength of PTA advocacy has improved public education and children’s health in numerous ways, including the creation of Kindergarten classes, improved child labor laws, improved public health services and immunization, lunch programs, improvements in school safety and juvenile justice, and the inclusion of arts in education (PTA.org).  National PTA prioritizes collaboration, diversity, and inclusion, and at all levels, PTA units advocate for the support and accountability needed for a free, appropriate education for every student, regardless of income.  To use the PTA name and resources, school PTA units must follow rules set at the National, State, and Council PTA levels.

                Special Education PTAs

In some areas of the country, the unique challenges of educating children with disabilities have led to the formation of Special Education PTAs, or SEPTAs.  SEPTAs include a wide range of disability needs, and all members share the goal of including disabilities in PTA advocacy and support.  Creating a dedicated PTA unit allows parents to prioritize specific goals, but it can also limit opportunities to increase disability awareness within campus PTAs.  Separate PTA units also require a reliable flow of volunteers to maintain nonprofit paperwork, to update Bylaws and Standing Rules, and to fill the board roles necessary to keep the PTA unit in good standing.  Parenting children with disabilities can be exhausting and all-encompassing, and not all school districts are able to maintain a separate SEPTA.  Even when a district SEPTA is present, without representatives in a PTA Council and local PTA units, it can be a challenge to ensure special needs are prioritized districtwide.

                SAGE (Special and Gifted Education)

In 2004, in response to requests for the opportunity to collaborate, the PTA Council in Plano, Texas formed a committee called “SAGE,” which stands for Special and Gifted Education.  Precedent existed for combining gifted needs with disability needs: the Council of Exceptional Children (CEC) was founded in 1922, and its advocacy includes both special education and gifted education.  CEC is a professional association for educators, however, and SAGE provided a unique, new way for both parents and educators to partner and collaborate within existing PTA units to support all special needs and learning differences in public schools.  For gifted families, SAGE finally recognized gifted learning differences as an educational need.  National PTA includes Special Education in its support and advocacy, and it includes Gifted Education resources in its Special Education Toolkit (National PTA).

The SAGE concept has spread to additional Texas area PTA Councils, and its volunteers hope the vision will continue to grow!  In some districts, where the acronym “SAGE” is already in use for another program or group, PTAs may wish to use a different name, such as an “Exceptional Students Committee” (following the CEC example, discussed above).  Regardless of name, the concept remains the same: SAGE or Exceptional Students Committees can help a Council or campus PTA to include all special needs and learning differences in PTA support, education, and advocacy.  Any school or Council PTA nationwide can vote to add a SAGE position to its board – and it’s easy to get started.

                Procedures and Approval

Parents or educators interested in adding a SAGE committee to a PTA unit should identify a volunteer willing to serve on the PTA board for the entire school year.  Both parents and educators can serve.  Since few individuals have knowledge about all special needs in a school or district, the volunteer should be open to input from other parents and educators.  When a volunteer is ready, the board can follow PTA procedures to add SAGE as a new board position.  In Texas, for example, if the intent of the motion is clear, does not conflict with or repeat items in the bylaws, and follows Texas PTA procedures and guidelines, the board can vote to recommend the amendment, and general PTA membership can approve the change by majority vote (Texas PTA).

Is your PTA board reluctant to add another position?  Do board members need help understanding why SAGE is needed – and more importantly, why SAGE can benefit all students?

                Benefits for Gifted Educators, Parents, and Students

Nonprofits draw strength from numbers, and through SAGE, parents and educators of students with all special needs can maximize their volunteer impact.  Combining forces allows for stronger committees, events, fundraisers, and publicity.  Additional benefits of SAGE for gifted education include:

Support for educators.  Is your gifted program staff stretched thin?  PTA committees can mobilize parents for volunteer tasks, saving planning time for educators.  PTAs can donate recess equipment, supplies, or professional development resources.  In districts where gifted specialists serve multiple schools, specialists are sometimes left out of usual PTA appreciation for educators; including gifted education in PTA committees can fill gaps and provide encouragement and volunteers.  When general education teachers, specialists, and administrators have the support required for students with special needs, they are better able to meet the needs of all students on campus.

Education for adults.  Increased awareness can increase empathy and inclusion for all students with differences.  Through SAGE, PTAs can partner with districts in hosting events for both parents and educators, and they may be able to seek approval for Continuing Education credits for teachers.  For the gifted area of SAGE, topics could include gifted characteristics, special populations within gifted education, social and emotional needs, dealing with stress and anxiety, gifted underachievement, twice-exceptional (2e) needs, parent-educator partnerships, self-advocacy, supporting underrepresented populations in gifted education, enrichment strategies, and more.  To help parents become informed partners in supporting gifted services, a district can work with SAGE to facilitate or promote a roundtable event, a parent symposium, or even a “Gifted 101” workshop for parents.

Beliefs about the gifted.  For parents and educators of gifted students, the most significant benefit of SAGE may be the shift it can bring about in perceptions of the gifted.   When gifted education joins forces with Special Education, people ask: why is the “G” in SAGE?  What do gifted students have in common with students with disabilities?  Why should giftedness be considered a special need?  Answering these questions can increase awareness and lead to important conversations, support, and positive action.  SAGE volunteers see firsthand that “gifted students are different learners” and are “often misunderstood.”  One SAGE leader explains that “SAGE can help to shine a light” on gifted challenges “so they are not viewed in as much of a negative way.”

Partnerships with existing support groups.  Does your district have an existing GT or disability support group for parents, or would parents like to help one form or grow?  SAGE Committees can partner and collaborate with local support and advocacy groups for specific disabilities and learning differences, including local GT parent groups.  Successful joint projects have included teacher and staff appreciation lunches, co-hosting or helping with district parent education events, advocacy meetings, and assistance with publicity for events and drives hosted by each entity.  SAGE Committees can absolutely coexist with other groups supporting GT needs or disability needs, and SAGE Committee leaders can function as PTA liaisons for communicating about projects with shared goals.  Successful SAGE Committees enhance rather than replace existing local support for specific special needs in schools, including GT needs.

Inclusion of Twice-Exceptional.  Parents of gifted children with disabilities can feel isolated in both gifted support groups and disability support groups, especially when “dealing with ‘invisible’ disabilities, like processing disorders,” as observed by one SAGE volunteer.  As a public school district gifted specialist explains, “it is imperative to make sure that educators and parents are aware that many children are twice and thrice exceptional.”  Through involvement in SAGE, twice-exceptional families can feel fully included in all respects, and parents and educators can work with a single organization that supports and advocates for the full range of their students’ needs.

Support for services.  When funds for any educational services are at risk, it is important for parents to mobilize and to be heard.  PTA offers a powerful advocacy voice for public education, and it draws that power in part from membership numbers.  When gifted education is represented through SAGE, PTA legislative chairs can help monitor legislation and local district budgets, and they can include gifted services in their advocacy.  Including advocacy for learning differences in PTA can help more parents of children with these differences to see the benefits of joining their local PTA.

Support for students with disabilities.  The above benefits focus on gifted education, but SAGE has even more benefits for families of children with disabilities.  Many parents of gifted children have friends or other family members who live with disability challenges, and SAGE allows these parents to support and advocate for disability needs while supporting the gifted needs of their own children.   SAGE disability support can include:

  • hosting disability awareness simulation programs for students and teachers
  • funding disability-accessible playground equipment
  • appreciation treats for Special Education teachers, dyslexia specialists, and other staff
  • advocating to increase accessibility during schoolwide events
  • advocating for playground fences to address wandering
  • building inclusive parent support communities
  • hosting meet and greet events with Special Education department leaders
  • donating sensory-friendly classroom equipment
  • bringing or promoting speakers to help parents understand Section 504 and the ARD process

…and many more.  Unlike the role of Treasurer or Parliamentarian, the role of a SAGE Chair is flexible and can be adapted to meet the needs of your campus.

                Advice for Success

Are you ready to start SAGE in your school district?  Below are some tips based on successes (and challenges) shared by SAGE volunteers from five districts.

Use committees.  SAGE volunteers agree: committees can help ensure that all special needs are represented and consistently included in SAGE.  One volunteer advises, “target each group separately although invite all.”  Another volunteer recommends including both Special Education and Gifted services in committee leadership.  As a committee grows, adding additional leadership roles can maintain consistent inclusion of all needs in SAGE.  In one PTA Council SAGE Committee, for example, formal Vice Chair positions provide a way for PTA leaders to focus specifically on supporting Special Education, Gifted, Dyslexia, and Social-Emotional Wellness, including mental health.

Focus on shared needs.  While it’s important to raise awareness about specific diagnoses, it is still critical to remember the needs shared by all students.  In the Richardson ISD “Understanding Differences” program, students are reminded that although students are different on the outside, they all have hearts and feelings on the inside.  Both disability needs and gifted needs can lead a student to feel that he or she does not belong.  Both extremes often require modifications to the general education curriculum in order for the student to learn in school, and both can be misunderstood by some educators, parents, and other students.  As one former SAGE chair also notes, “both groups may be bullied because of their differences.”  SAGE families and educators can work together to support schools in addressing social-emotional needs along with academic needs.

Maximize publicity.  When SAGE volunteers work hard on an event, low attendance is discouraging.  To expand the reach of SAGE, PTA Councils can add a SAGE Chair to their boards, and he or she can distribute SAGE news to district PTA Presidents and SAGE Chairs.  Council SAGE volunteers may also wish to build relationships with local professionals and organizations.  To increase support for gifted services specifically, parents can form a Gifted committee within SAGE and can explore partnerships with district GT Specialists, with local gifted support groups, with Gifted Education centers at local universities.

Listen and learn.  SAGE volunteers recommend learning about the needs of the community.  Since challenges can differ from school to school and from district to district, volunteers need to learn “what your parents need from the group.”   SAGE volunteers can and should listen to educators, as well, and can use this knowledge to improve support.  By sharing and including perspectives of both parents and educators, SAGE can “help open lines of communication and bridge gaps.”

Ideas from campus parents can help SAGE grow, as well.  As one SAGE chair describes, “I had parents asking me if dyslexia would be included, vision services… with each question came a new group represented under our umbrella.”  To build partnerships, SAGE can meet with administrators for all special services and can ask “what SAGE can do for them.”  Another volunteer recommends seeking input from everyone within a school: “staff, principals, janitorial staff, and cafeteria workers.”

Be inclusive.  Are multiple languages spoken by parents in your district?  Consider seeking a volunteer to help translate your flyers and materials.  Seek diversity in your committees, and work toward an understanding of all district populations.   SAGE or Exceptional Students Committee leaders can partner with Inclusiveness and Diversity PTA positions to improve inclusion, acceptance, and celebration of differences districtwide.

Be persistent.  When starting SAGE, volunteers may encounter “pushback from unexpected people/places… some parents are not as open as others.”  Experienced SAGE volunteers recommend respecting boundaries, but they advise leaders to “be persistent,” and not to “get discouraged immediately because it takes a LOT of time/effort to build a solid SAGE program.”

Advocate to include parents in district planning.  Parents are eager to support teachers, but they are also eager for partnerships and collaboration with school and district administrators.  When PTAs request that campus and district leaders include SAGE representatives in planning, the resulting collaboration can improve communication and may help prevent small challenges from becoming bigger ones.  A former High School PTA President explains, “the more that the district works hand in hand with SAGE, the greater benefit the district, parents, students and educators have.”

Schools and districts may wish to form a gifted advisory council or focus group to allow all stakeholders to provide feedback and input on improvements to services.  The Davidson Institute offers advice for educators on communicating with parents, and some of their tips can apply equally to educators working with parent groups: they suggest working together to develop a plan for learning, maintaining contact to make sure the plan is working, offering support, and seeking out specialized training (Davidson, 2004).  SAGE committees can help open the door to request this communication.

Lead through positive examples.  To encourage SAGE volunteers, the Wylie ISD PTA Council has included a “SAGE Spotlight” in Council meetings:  “we would highlight one campus and something they were doing” for students with special needs, gifted needs, or for the educators of those students.  Several SAGE Committees maintain a social media presence to promote positive news and to raise awareness.

Help increase PTA memberships.  When PTA advocates for public education at any level, membership numbers count.  To ensure that SAGE is included within PTA, SAGE leaders will want to encourage all supporters to join their local PTA units.

                Words of Caution

Open minds, respect differences.  Without bad intentions, parents and educators of the gifted can damage partnerships with the language they use.  SAGE volunteers must take the time to become familiar with person-first language and sensitive subjects for families of children with special needs.  When advocating for gifted funding, avoid comparisons with funding for disability services.  While it’s true that gifted services do not receive enough funding, comparisons to Special Education funding can seem dismissive of the serious, lifelong impact of disability needs.  Given the differences in educational goals and anticipated outcomes, such comparisons can be both hurtful and counterproductive.

Build relationships.  Not all parents of children with disabilities initially understand why gifted children need services.  To make the SAGE collaboration work, gifted volunteers must build partnerships by continuously including, supporting, and partnering with parents who focus on disability needs.  When this did not happen in a district for a period of time, a parent with disability needs reflected, “in my experience I don’t see the two joining [forces] in any area …on this journey with special needs, gifted has never been a part of it.  It is hard for me to even relate.”  To address this, she suggests creating publicity and events “that show unity” within SAGE.  Though gifted needs may represent a quiet crisis nationwide, for SAGE partnerships to succeed, it is critical for parents of the gifted to also advocate for and support disability needs.

Prepare for positive leadership.  In educating children with differences, misunderstandings and setbacks are inevitable.  Stress levels rise for all involved, and not all parents exercise self-restraint when discussing the need for improvement.  SAGE leaders should be prepared to set expectations for constructive communication, and they may need to moderate group discussions and social media posts to ensure that bridges are built and not burned.  Educators can help by creating opportunities for parent group collaboration that promote positive support and advocacy.

                Public Education for All

The mission of PTA is “every child. one voice.”  For all of us who believe in the importance of public education, advocacy for vulnerable populations is becoming more and more critical.  To ensure that these students do not fall through the cracks of an already strained public education system, they “need advocates and people concerned with how they are functioning in the district.”  By representing special needs and learning differences in PTA committees, and by including gifted needs among those differences, parents and educators can help PTA to include the ability needs of every student in the PTA advocacy voice.

Though educators and parents already work together in many wonderful ways, SAGE offers a strong, unique, and necessary opportunity to support one another in achieving best practices for the education of all students.  We hope you will join us.


                Connect with SAGE and Exceptional Students Committee leaders!

The Texas SAGE and Exceptional Students Coalition is a collaborative project of SAGE and Exceptional Students Committee leaders across Texas.  Please “like” and follow the Texas SAGE Coalition Facebook page for news about SAGE/ES groups and SAGE needs in Texas:  https://www.facebook.com/TexasSAGECoalition/

We offer a separate discussion group for district SAGE/ES leaders in Texas.  If you are a volunteer looking to start SAGE or ES in your district, please message us to learn more!


Interview credits:  Many thanks to Tina J. Puckett, Alicia Post, Dragana Pavlesic, Liz Gluckman, Sandra Colston, Christina Rigby, Jennifer Brown, and Caroline Winfield for their assistance, their willingness to be interviewed about SAGE, and their incredible work for students with all special needs and learning differences.

Council for Exceptional Children.  CEC Milestones.  Web.  https://www.cec.sped.org/About-Us/CEC-Milestones

Davidson Institute for Talent Development (2004).  The teacher-parent connection: tips for working with the parents of a gifted student.  Educators Guild Newsletter, 1(3). Web. https://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10319

National PTA (Parent Teacher Association).  History.  https://www.pta.org/home/About-National-Parent-Teacher-Association/Mission-Values/National-PTA-History

National PTA (Parent Teacher Association).  Special Education Toolkit.  https://www.pta.org/home/family-resources/Special-Education-Toolkit

Texas PTA (Parent Teacher Association).  Adopting or Amending Standing Rules. http://www.txpta.org/standing-rules


About the Author: 

Emily VR is a graduate of Harvard Law School.  Her articles have appeared in the Gifted Education Review, the WeAreGifted2 blog, Tall Poppies magazine, and The Fissure Blog from NuMinds Enrichment.  She is a supporter of public education, of meeting both disability needs and gifted needs, and of improving diversity in gifted education.  She served on the board of the RISD Council of PTAs as SAGE Chair (Special and Gifted Education), and she completed the Graduate Certificate in Gifted Education through the University of North Texas.

Originally published August 22, 2018.  Updated August 21, 2019.




Balancing High Expectations with Emotional Support

You change your tone of voice–it’s more demanding now: “Because I said so.” Immediate frustration–her eyes begin to well. Now you’re met with stonewalled resistance.  You know there’s a better way. New strategy. New tone: compromise. “Look, sweetie, if you study your vocabulary words then you can have technology time.”

Still nothing.

You pivot again. This time, pleading: “Come on. If you won’t do it for me, do it for your teacher; she’s works so hard.” Finally, with nothing else working, here comes guilt: “I work every day so that you can have the things you want, and you have one job–to do well in school.  What if I ‘just didn’t want to’ go to work one day?”

Ultimately, this whole conversation ends in some degree of defeat. You think you’re being supportive, but actually you spend 25 minutes of painful, step-by-step hand holding–where you do the majority of the work.


It doesn’t matter if you have a six-year-old or a sixteen-year-old, parts of this conversation have taken place in your home. When we ask our kids to do something–like complete schoolwork, write thank you notes, or clean their rooms–there is a wide range to how we ask. On the far right is ordering and demanding (“Because I said so”) and on the far left is defeat and enabling (“Fine, I’ll just do it.”)

We’ve heard the arguments: if you push too hard, you’re a tiger parent, driving your kids to succeed with stress that ultimately drives them away[1]. If you enable, you create entitled kids who lack resiliency[2].  Fortunately, there is a middle ground, and it is a choice that is quickly gaining popularity.[3] The choice is empathy.

As a quick, working definition: empathy is where you feel with the other person. This is different from its cousin, sympathy, where you feel for the other person. Showing empathy allows us to love our kid for who they, where they are, while still holding them accountable with high expectations.


But what does it mean to show empathy?  The following three steps are simple to type, simple to read, but only manifest with patience and practice. But I promise you, as someone who practices, fails, and reattempts these steps every day, the times that you get all three steps right are the greatest moments of parenting and bonding you will experience with your child.

Step One: Remove the self.  At first, this step sounds like you simply leaving the room.  Although that may be necessary to gather yourself, this step is actually about removing your sense of self (aka — your ego) from the equation. Too often, when our kids get angry, we get angry. Any parent can attest that this never ends well. Meg Meeker in her 2017 book, Hero[4], implores us NOT to take our child’s anger personally. Our child may be angry that free time is being used or that he has to do something less interesting than video games and playing with friends. This frustration will be pointed at you, but your child is not angry with you. So, when your kid gets angry, remove you from the equation–know that they are angry at something, but not necessarily you.

Step Two: Meet your child where he is (without judgment). Put the following words in your mouth: “You’re right.” Now, say them with feeling and sincerity–you’ll know if you’ve got it because the pitch of your voice will go up, not down. Once you’ve got it, try the following phrase, but while you’re saying it, imagine talking to someone who just lost his or her job.  “You’re right; that is tough. I’m sorry you’re having to go through that.” This practice is not meant to belittle you, it’s just that this exact phrase meets the individual right where he or she is at, without putting any personal spin on it.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me the personal spin does come in, and I often say things like, “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad,” or “You got this. This is nothing.”  Although well-intended, these phrases do nothing to build the other person up. Quite worse, they undermine the other person’s feelings. If you’re six, then cleaning your whole entire room is an insurmountable task comprised of endless hours of work; you saying, “It’s nothing, you got this,” is not helpful. Instead, meet them where they are without judgement.

Step Three: State your expectations (they will figure it out).  When students are asked what grade they think they will earn on an upcoming assignment, they are surprisingly accurate. In fact, the third most accurate indicator out of 195 other indicators and influencers[5]. Why? Because kids know what they’re capable of and what they’re willing to do to get there.

Want another example? Pretend that your kid says he’ll only score a 70 on an upcoming spelling test; so you ask him, “Why didn’t you choose a higher score?” He answers with things that fall outside of his control–the words are too hard, the teacher doesn’t like him, he only has one day to study.  However, if you ask, “Why didn’t you choose a lower number,” your kid will respond with everything he does have control over: “I’m not dumb. I know how to spell over half of these. Some of these words are easy. I’ve already studied some.”[6]

These examples may be focused on grades, but they really do drive the point that kids know what is expected, what they are capable of, and what they are willing to do to get it.

For the parent who has utilized the first two steps (remove the self and meet your child without judgment), the third step is to layout clear expectations. There is no anger because you are removed from the situation; instead, you simply state the fact that “In this house we don’t do half of our homework”, or “We clean our rooms on Saturday,” or “We always put forth our best effort.” Don’t budge, your child will figure out what they are capable of doing.

This is not a new concept. Many schools have caught on to this tactic by utilizing a system called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support[7]). You’ll know if a school has a PBIS system if the hallways are covered with posters that say “At Smith Elementary we show respect, follow directions…” The school is making it clear that these are the expectations, and the students then learn to rise to this level. You love your children, and Brene Brown tells us[8] that love is manifested through accountability, so state your expectations without wavering–they will figure it out


Let’s return to that opening conversation–this time eavesdropping on what you might say using our three-step approach to empathy,

“What homework do you have to do? … “You have to memorize all 20 of these words?” … “You’re right; that is tough. I’m sorry you have to do all that.” … “When’s the test?” …. “What do you think you’re going to get?” … “A 70? Hmm…why didn’t you say 50 or 30?” … “Okay, so you know how to spell some of them. What would you need to do to score a 90 or a 100?” … “It sounds like you know what to do in order to do your best work.” … “In this house you are expected to do your best work.” … “Well, you just told me what you need to do, and it sounds like you know how to do it.” … “I won’t do any of your work for you, but let me know if you get stuck.”


Then we delegate, give directions, or teach others, there is a continuum of support ranging from demanding to enabling. Either one of these extremes is counterproductive, stagnating affective growth and decreasing chances of both short and long-term success for the person we are ultimately trying to help. Somewhere in the middle, is a place of empathy–a form of genuine understanding where we remove ourselves, feel with the other person, and hold those we love accountable while showing respect. Continue to practice these three steps with me, and you will experience the rewards that come with cultivating resilient, caring, respectful, fun, interesting, and successful kids.


About the Author

Justin Vawter is Co-Founder and CCO of NuMinds Enrichment (headquarters in Addison, TX). He has taught and brought inspiration to his students for almost a decade–ranging from 6th graders to college-bound seniors. He holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of North Texas, and has served as both a curriculum writer and professional development author/presenter. His passions include travel (most recently a Western European and Central American excursion), long-distance running, triathlon, and implementing new ideas into the classroom. As of today, he has finished over a dozen triathlons, including the IronMan, and seven ultra marathons. Publications include submissions to The Delta Blues Symposium and The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached directly at Justin@numien.com.

[1] examples found in Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley (2013)

[2] The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups by Leonard Sax (2015); The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World by Amy McCready (2015).

[3] “Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations,” Hidden Brain (audio recording), released 1/22/2018

[4] Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need (2017) by Meg Meeker

[5] Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie (2011)

[6] Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything–Fast, Michael Pantalon (2011)

[7] PBIS.org

[8] The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown (2010).

Letters to Those Silently Suffering: Let’s Talk About It – Bringing Light to What Stigma Forces Us to Keep in the Dark.

by Vanessa Sanford

*This post is intended to help parents and educators learn the impact of Stigma and how it effectively gets in the way of learning compassion and courage. Stigma silences our hurts. This letter educates us on how to protest against Stigma in hopes it may save a life–maybe the life of someone you love. Vanessa M. Sanford, LPC  practices in Frisco, Texas, and specializes in multiple areas of counseling for children, teens, and adults. 


Dear Stigma around Suicide Prevention and other Hard Conversations,

This is my Breakup Letter to You,

I know we have been together for a long time. As a matter of fact, you have been controlling lots of people. I have quieted my real feelings to keep you around. I guess I thought if you were running the show, I would be safe and hidden from pain. I am finally brave enough to call you out on hypnotizing us to only focus on our kids grades and achievements, or on being perfect with our bodies and décor.  I want to provide a disclaimer about this breakup letter. It is going to be imperfect and messy and vulnerable. I have thought a long time about how to say this to you, but couldn’t find the perfect words. So here goes…

I am no longer willing to see pain and then run or hide or numb or ignore or cliché my way from it. I have come to realize I can do hard things. I want you to understand I can trust myself more than I trust what you require us to believe “but what will people think?” and “we can’t talk about that” and “that doesn’t happen to us.” I have come to realize your superficial pressures teach us all to lie. When someone says, “How are you?” We are taught to say, “I am fine, and you?” Well, Bless your little heart, Stigma. Your rules are what keeps us sick and silent and scared to tell the truth. You have taught me to glorify fear and to avoid risk, failure, pain, or struggles. You have taught me to stay in my comfort zone, not to trust courage, but hide from anything imperfect. You want me to only put my best Christmas-card-captured-moments online to sell to everyone: “No struggles here.”

Well, I am sure you are criticizing this break-up letter, but I am continuing anyway.

I am beyond mesmerized by those who defy you. We will never forget when 9/11 happened. We saw broken hearts show up with open arms and help, donate, pray, and be there openly for one another. It was so tragic and beautiful to see such love and connection. When hurricanes and earthquakes or any natural disasters happen, we all just put you away and do whatever we can to help our brothers and sisters. I am forever grateful you stay quiet during these times.

Please know I am so confused, Stigma. Why, why, why are you so quiet during natural disasters and terrorism, but so ferocious when many of our brothers and sisters are silently suffering with internal terrorism and emotional disasters and contemplating suicide? Without you, the image I see is open arms and broken hearts leaning into the suffering of others with charity and empathy. When you are around, the image I see is our hands over our mouths and our eyes shut as we run away from suffering.

Here are some questions I have for you: Why won’t you let us listen to someone’s pain so they feel heard, not hurt, especially when they are contemplating suicide? Why must you create such pressure for us to interrupt and spray out “know better advice” all over someone desperately needing light into their darkness? Why do you confuse us into talking instead of bravely listening to understand and staying curious as to what they are feeling? Why do you dangle carrots of numbing and judgment and criticism all over so that we get distracted from having hard and awkward conversations about suicide and how to prevent it?

YOU just tell people to get over it, move on, deal with it, or suck it up.  You tell them, “my story is harder than yours,” or “that won’t happen in our family,” etc. I no longer want to subscribe to your cult. I no longer want to participate in keeping people silent. I want to learn to be brave in discomfort instead of staying comfortable in resentment. I want people to know they are not alone in their loneliness. I want leaders and parents and teachers to understand we all are sick and tired of being scared.

What an insult it is, Stigma, that you have led me to believe I am not capable of these hard conversations. I urge you to stop leading companies, churches, classrooms, sports, dinner tables and bedtime routines. Shutting others pain down for us to stay comfortable is something I will no longer do. I will listen, even if I am scared and do not know what to say. Glennon Doyle says, “fear is love holding its breath. It’s our job not to convert fearful people but to love them.” Yes, Glennon, I agree. I have to unlearn how to fight fear with fear. I have to learn how to lovingly see fear and not join, but to also respect that I cannot force or pressure or blame others into letting go of it. I know there are lots of places and people who role-model this, like the Suicide Hotline Center and therapists, hospitals, and artists. Where truth and love and fear are spoken, and expressed imperfectly and messy, but not silenced. I am learning not to shut down in fear and to also respect how powerful fear is. Fear can keep us safe, but not by the standards you want us all to uphold. So Stigma, I now know your Full Name: Stigma-Comparison-Judgey-Avoider of Hard Things-Love-holding-its-breath.

I have been going behind your back for years planning my escape. I am officially ready to leave because I have found enough people not buying into your lies. I am so mad at you for betraying all those that died because they were silenced and felt alone. I was deceived by advertisements you promoted to buy your product. Stigma, I challenge you to look closer into how YOU have role-modeled what to do in struggle. Just in case you didn’t know, September is Suicide Prevention Month. That’s right, I am breaking up with you during this important month spreading awareness on suicide. I want to shout as loud as I can to those suffering in silence, “You matter, you deserve to be heard.” I have also learned when people feel suicidal, they really just want to kill their pain. They do not understand if they die, their pain actually doesn’t even die. It spreads to all those that love them. We don’t understand pain when we follow your lead. The options you have provided us are to run away and hide, get scary and big and loud, or please our way out of pain. You haven’t taught us to lean into pain, to get curious, and to be gentle and loving and non-judgmental. I am learning these things now that I am not with you anymore.

You know Stigma, I was watching this rap artist named Logic perform on the Video Music Awards

He did not follow your rules. He stood up and spoke out. He even titled his song the Suicide Hotline Prevention Number, 1-800-273-8255. He sure did! I thought it was brilliant. You know what? People stood up and clapped and were inspired by his courage. People were so moved, the Suicide Hotline Center reported a 50% increase in calls since that performance! Can you believe that? He stood outside of his comfort zone and spoke truth. He was asked why he made this song, and he said that lots of fans would tell him all the time how his lyrics changed or even saved their lives. He said he would be grateful outwardly, but on the inside, would feel confused and wonder, “I didn’t create this art to save people.” He goes on to say, “What can happen if I took myself out of my comfort zone and made a whole album about everybody and everybody’s struggles including my own which is one I’ve never done. What if I silenced my own fear and I say, ‘I’m scared talk about my race. I’m scared to talk about the state of this country but I’m going to do [it] anyway. I’m going to persevere. Man, how many lives can I really save then?’” So, now that I am breaking up with you, I have a lot of time on my hands. I may even become a rap artist, like Logic.

I also watched a Netflix series not too long ago called 13 Reasons Why. It is about a girl in high school who commits suicide and leaves reasons why she did it. There was so much of you, Stigma, around this series. So much fear and concern from lots of professionals and parents that thought this series was dangerous and put ideas into kids heads about suicide. Dear Stigma, I will bravely admit that I liked that series. It goes against your rules of offering an emotionless, sterile, and easy way to talk about suicide. It goes against the story ending in a pretty bow with all struggles heroically returning us back into our comfort zones. It defied you. I liked that about it. It was messy and scary and too real and I watched some of the episodes in panic with my hands over my eyes. I cried and talked and thought about the characters as if I knew them. You know what else I liked about this series? Stigma, you were actually in the series! There were characters that kept silent and were just bystanders to pain. That is what you do best. Then, there was some starting to learn the importance of being Upstanders. They went against the silence and tried to speak up and do the right thing and not ignore someone in pain. What a lesson! I invited others to talk about this too, and we did not stay in silent judgment. We disagreed and shared fears and worries of how this will negatively impact or glorify suicide. I thought about what myths are already out there about suicide and if this series makes these narratives worse. I was aware many teens had seen it before their parents. We are all hungry for a safe place to tell truths like, “I am having a bad day and feel sad” instead of “I am fine.”

Stigma, your rules have stood in the way of too many lives.

I read a book recently called Braving the Wilderness, The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, by Brené Brown. She is a researcher and storyteller, and I feel this book helped me break up with you, Stigma. She talks about the difference between fitting in and belonging. She says, “Even in the context of suffering – poverty, violence, human rights violations – not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth.” Being able to detach from Stigma means I get to lean more into self-worth and true belonging. Brown goes on to say that based on her research, there are three outcomes when we feel broken…

  1. You live in constant pain and seek relief by numbing it and/or inflicting it on others;
  2. You deny your pain, and your denial ensures that you pass it on to those around you and down to your children; or
  3. You find the courage to own the pain and develop a level of empathy and compassion for yourself and others that allows you to spot hurt in the world in a unique way.” (Brown, 2017, p. 14)

Did you know suicide doesn’t only destroy the lives of young teens? Sometimes even the obituaries in the newspaper do not tell the whole story of how a person really died. Many elders, treasures full of wisdom and cherished stories, take their lives. They painfully feel ignored and of no value. They kill themselves too.

I also watched this TED talk by Shane Koyczan.

He soulfully shares his story of being told messages he was unworthy and how this silenced his inherent right to feel love and belonging.  His story is gut-wrenching and brave because he talks about learning his worth from within, and about letting go of what others think. It made me cry and think about all the people that are made fun of, laughed at, ignored, and shamed because they are different. Stigma, you make being different a bad thing.

I am not as sad as I thought I would be to break up with you. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, songs, books, art, poetry and even rap have been defying you all along. I will try to be more creatively defiant when in fear. I have learned that the opposite of anxiety is not calm, it is self-trust. I would even add that the opposite of courage is self-betrayal. I feel free to believe in myself and believe in others without you by my side. I am aware you will still be around, and I am sure I will bump into you since we live so close to each other. When I see you, I will not say hello or ask how you are doing, out of self-respect. I might just give you a nod–or not.  I will have to remind myself you are charming but dangerous. You are so good at lying to me and others, forcing us into silence. You focus on what others think. I choose to loudly treat myself and others with love and kindness.

Dear Stigma, please do not write back. This is like one of those emails that clearly states DO NOT REPLY.

Love when in Fear,

No longer Silent


Dear Lives Lost to Suicide,

We miss you every day. We miss what you would have been like if you had received help, if you weren’t told to be quiet and hide your pain.  


Dear Lives Contemplating Suicide,

We want to hear about your pain. YOU don’t have to die. Tell a professional, parent, teacher, doctor or someone you trust. Keep telling until someone hears you. Write, draw, paint, cry, scream, sing, dance your way out of the silence and into the lit driveway of Love.  Help is waiting for you! Listen to Logic’s song and memorize the title and call it. Just be messy, imperfect, and vulnerable. Know asking for help is Brave and Right.


Dear Lives Afraid to Speak up about a Loved One Struggling,

Please remember, it is better to say something, even if it is imperfect, then to say nothing at all. Say something like, “I don’t know what to say, but I love you and am so glad you told me. Let’s find someone who can help.” Stop saying, “They are just saying that for attention.” Stop ignoring or gossiping or seeing someone struggle from afar and do nothing. Do something, anything. We all need to know we matter. Lead with Love not Fear.


Dear All Ready to Break up with Stigma Alongside Me,

I hope we start to learn that hiding behind Stigma hurts not only ourselves but others. What if we all realized that when we see someone struggling and make fun of them or ignore them or don’t know what to say so we say nothing, that this is exactly what Stigma wants? It’s not going to be easy but I found help in this quote I found in Brené’s book Braving the Wilderness, “Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not good enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially your own. No one belongs here more than you.” (Brown, 2017, P.158)

Professional Disclaimer: The artists mentioned in this article are not a replacement for professional help for those struggling with suicide or rape, but they are powerful artistic expressions defying Stigma’s rules. Artists create expressions every day that are controversial. It is okay for people to not like them. Stigma loudly protests against messy and imperfect storytelling and we start blaming and fear-mongering. In regards to The Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, it is my professional opinion this is an eye-opener and it goes against what Stigma wants when it doesn’t offer a positive ending. Suicide, in real life, isn’t a positive ending. Listen to that uncomfortable feeling this series triggers and consider it a great starting point for others to recognize how they handle discomfort and pain: do we blame and shame, or increase our understanding and not silence ourselves from helping? Whether it is a helpful series or not, teenagers were glued to every episode quietly and secretly in their rooms. That tells me that this isn’t something okay to talk openly about with parents. This also tells me kids are hungry to find some place to understand this more. It is messy but also brings light to such a dark topic. It is okay that professionals disagree on this. The hope is to disagree and seek understanding, not stay quiet because it could possibly offend someone. Suicide is pervasive and sad and confusing, and we need more parents getting comfortable in the uncomfortable so kids can trust their parents to get out of their rooms and into an open space and talk about this together. This post is not intended to substitute for professional help, and I encourage individuals considering suicide to reach out to a professional who understands (1-800-273-8255 / https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/).

Resources for Parents of Teens: www.granthaliburton.org


Logic song and interview https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/08/28/the-story-behind-logics-powerful-suicide-prevention-anthem-1-800-273-8255/?utm_term=.4d54c1ade468

Shane Koyczan’s TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/shane_koyczan_to_this_day_for_the_bullied_and_beautiful

Netflix Series, 13 Reasons Why

*please check out the extra episode explaining the reasons behind the series

“Come out, Come out, Whoever you Are” article by Glennon Doyle in October 2017 issue of O Magazine

Brown, B. (2017) Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.


Reluctant Gifted Learners: Solving the Puzzle

by Emily VR

Parents and teachers of gifted students: if you are reading this post, you are probably looking for help.   Whether you teach in a classroom or at home, you have hoped to inspire your student(s), to foster a love of learning, and to help develop skills needed for future success.  The problem?

Your gifted student is producing disappointing work.  Crappy work.  Or at least, right now, mediocre work.

If you are new to gifted education, or if you thought “gifted” meant “kids who always make ‘A’ honor roll,” you may be confused.  (Hint: that’s not what gifted means.)  You’ve tried various strategies: introducing topics you find interesting yourself, providing challenging work if she earns it (by finishing her regular assignments with good grades first), focusing mainly on improving her areas of weakness, and giving her same-level activity menus, the same as the other students.  After all, you want to be fair.  Your campus offers extracurricular contests and awards.  Surely some of that should be inspiring her, right?  What’s wrong with this kid?

Unfortunately, these approaches won’t benefit the gifted students who need help the most, and in some cases, are almost guaranteed to make things worse.  What should you consider trying, then, as you teach this puzzle of a student?

(1)    Separate ability from achievement

For gifted underachievers, remember to examine evidence of their ability needs separately from their current achievement.  Though it seems counterintuitive, an underachieving gifted learner may actually need higher-level work in one or more areas of strength.  This can be especially true for students in certain special populations, including twice-exceptional students (gifted with one or more disability) or the exceptionally to profoundly gifted.  Just as it isn’t unfair to the class when one student needs disability accommodations, it isn’t unfair when we make necessary curriculum modifications to meet gifted instructional needs.  Gifted abilities involve different learning needs, and a student’s level of instruction should be based on need, not earned.

How, then, do you determine instructional needs for underachieving gifted students?  You can collect data from different sources, such as past and current school performance, the student’s parents, ability assessments, above-level achievement assessments, campus gifted specialists, pre-assessments, credit-by-exam testing, and documentation of any disabilities.  Consult with a gifted specialist and/or familiarize yourself with gifted curriculum recommendations to help determine when to consider using depth and complexity, a type of acceleration, or other modifications to meet needs.

(2)  Consider misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis in the gifted

For gifted children, the risk of being misdiagnosed with a disability is so significant, the nonprofit SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) educates parents and professionals through their Misdiagnosis Initiative.  One such scenario: unmet gifted needs can be misinterpreted as attention issues.  (Can any of us sit attentively through a year of content we already know?)  Asynchronous development, or uneven development across different areas, is listed in several sources as common in gifted children.  Unfortunately, gifted students can also be at risk of missed diagnosis: their abilities can compensate for and mask disabilities, resulting in invisible struggles, work avoidance, and underachievement.  For a thorough exploration of both situations, consult Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults (2nd edition) by Webb, Amend, Beljan, Webb, Kuzujanakis, Olenchak, and Goerss (2016).

For twice-exceptional students (gifted with one or more disabilities), some educators focus primarily on remediating areas of weakness, rather than accelerating and enriching areas of strength – yet experts recommend the opposite.  To maintain motivation and self-esteem, “the strongest emphasis has to be on developing the areas of strength” (Castellano & Frazier, 2011).

(3)  Learn the basics about giftedness

Would you set a broken arm without medical training, or repair a PC without knowing how it works?  If you are teaching a gifted-identified child, it is important to know the basics about gifted characteristics, needs, and recommendations.  Though some gifted education topics are still debated, best practices have been established based on decades of research.  Your district or state gifted organization may offer training, or you can explore resources through organizations such as the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), Gifted Homeschoolers Forum (GHF), Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page, Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), and the Davidson Institute.

If teachers and parents are aware that high intellectual ability comes with specific characteristics and academic needs, that ability needs are not necessarily evident from current achievement, that ability level can vary significantly within the gifted-identified population, and that gifted-identified students require curriculum modifications in order to learn — they will be off to a good start.

(4)  Discover differentiation and acceleration

Effective differentiation requires more than a menu.  Are you familiar with content, product, and process differentiation, and do you know when each is helpful and needed?  Do you start units with pre-assessments, incorporate depth and complexity, and use student data to assign reading passages targeted to your gifted student’s comprehension level?  Are you familiar with the research on the benefits of acceleration, do you know when to consider different acceleration options, and are you willing to consider curriculum compacting, when appropriate?  If not, these topics offer exciting and important opportunities for professional growth as an educator.  Differentiation strategies that benefit most students – such as menus with on-level activities – are often insufficient for gifted students who need more challenge.  Effective differentiation may require adding to your toolbox of instructional strategies, and it may initially require help from instructional specialists or other educators.

An important point: children with above-level needs need different work, not more work.  (Gifted expert Lisa Van Gemert calls extra work “more-ferentiation,” or “differentiation’s evil imposter.”)  If we require students to trudge through inappropriately easy work each day before allowing work that helps them learn and grow, is it a surprise when some of them lose interest and motivation?

(5)  Individualize

Needs can vary significantly from student to student, especially for “special populations” in gifted education:  twice-exceptional, CLED (culturally, linguistically, or economically diverse), students facing gender obstacles/challenges, students in rural settings, or extreme gifted levels.  Gifted students have different ability and achievement levels, strengths, weaknesses, personality characteristics, and obstacles to achievement.   Because of these extreme differences, “students must be assessed and planned for on an individual basis” (Shore & Enerson, 2007).

When differentiating for gifted learners, teachers and parents may wish to ask:  am I targeting the evidence-based needs and interests of this specific student?  Or am I only prioritizing goals for the entire class (or my own preferences)?  See educator Ian Byrd’s post on narcissistic teaching for questions to help avoid this pitfall.

(6)  Consider possible stressors

According to many parents and educators, gifted children experience life more intensely.  A number of psychologists and educators who work with gifted children observe behaviors associated with overexcitabilities (OEs), or intensities, in this population.  Several OEs can cause distraction and distress in situations where other students seem unaffected.  Understanding social and emotional gifted characteristics can allow both teachers and parents to improve the learning environment and help students cope.

During group work or activities, do your gifted students or children have regular access to other children who understand and share their differences, or do they feel isolated and misunderstood?   Time with “intellectual peers” is considered important for both academic growth and social-emotional development.  Ability grouping provides this access in classrooms, and local gifted parent support groups can schedule events to foster friendships.  Gifted homeschoolers can connect through local gifted groups or organizations such as the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum.  In schools with gifted services, including an affective curriculum can also give students an opportunity to learn coping skills in a safe environment.

A note about competitions: while some gifted children enjoy competing, “schools that support a competitive environment” can “promote antilearning cultures” and may have a detrimental effect on gifted children (Cross, 2016).  An “emphasis on competitiveness at the individual level can interfere with peer relationships and lead to rejection” of gifted students, but “[i]f competitions are unavoidable, having low stakes and distant competitors (i.e., at other schools)” can reduce stress (Cross, 2016).

Socioeconomic status is considered a strong predictor of academic achievement, and gifted students from low-SES households may need additional school support and require special considerations for identification (Matthews & Shaunessy, 2008).  Additional awareness and support for culturally diverse gifted students is necessary to prevent underidentification and to help mitigate the potential negative effects of social pressure for some populations (Matthews & Shaunessy, 2008).

(7)  Incorporate other talents and interests

Does your student seem motivated only by interests or abilities outside of school subjects?  If your un-academically-motivated student has a passion outside of school, differentiation based on student interests might increase motivation at her desk.  In his book Parenting Gifted Kids, author and educator Jim Delisle describes how he tapped into one underachiever’s entrepreneurial interests to differentiate the student’s lessons, resulting in improved student attitude and performance (Delisle, 2006).  Advancing Differentiation by Richard Cash explores several strategies for motivating learners: teachers can survey students and group them based on interests, can allow students to opt out of assigned work by substituting “passion projects” based on individual interests, can encourage students to help design lessons or projects, and can engage them in solving authentic problems and creating resources for other students (Cash, 2011).  Parents can search for extracurricular activities to spark motivation and increase self-esteem, especially during and after difficult school years – like a chess camp, robotics class, or hands-on enrichment classes that finally challenge a student and validate her problem-solving abilities.

In Ken Robinson’s book The Element, he explores the benefits of finding the “meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion” (Robinson, 2009).  As parents and educators, though we have an obligation to guide students through state-mandated concepts, if we want to encourage long-term success and help students find fulfilling careers, we should consider using strategies that respect both their abilities and their interests.

(8)  Preserve relationships

Parents of twice-exceptional children in particular will tell you: while it is important to set high, achievable expectations, excessive pressure on a student can damage both parent-child and parent-teacher relationships.  In discussing motivation and underachievement, psychologist James Webb emphasizes that “probably the single most powerful factor in motivation is the personal relationship” (Webb, 2007).  Webb advises “building upon the relationship,” connecting with the child, and helping the child to develop confidence and self-esteem (Webb, 2007).  As gifted students get older, if they show strengths in multiple areas (multipotentiality), it may help to choose between advanced opportunities to preserve time for their passions and their mental health (Taibbi, 2012).

In research on gifted high school dropouts, some researchers cite a negative attitude toward school and teachers as a contributing factor.  They found that a perceived “good teacher” is “the most positive element of school,” that fewer students dropped out when their teacher “was flexible, positive, and creative,” and in recommendations for prevention, note that “student and teacher relationships should be improved” (Renzulli & Park, 2002).

(9)  Explore motivation

When a child loses motivation for schoolwork, stress levels rise for everyone involved.  Underachievement frustrates teachers and parents, and it can feel like a tailspin to those who see a student’s underlying abilities.  Most of all, it can hurt a student’s self-esteem and future opportunities.  Causes can include a stressful classroom environment, inadequate work level challenge, a need for disability help, a fear of failure, mood disorders, social stress or pressure, language barriers, economic stress, or home stress (Whitney & Hirsch, 2007).  Some causes require special services and an awareness of specific challenges impacting special populations.

For gifted motivation in general, Carol Whitney and Gretchen Hirsch recommend considering the “Four C’s”: Challenge (is the work challenging enough?), Control (how much control does the student have over his/her learning?), Commitment (does the student feel a sense of belonging and importance, and does she know the value of activities?), and Compassion (is the child understood and supported by parents and teachers?).  In A Love for Learning, Motivation and the Gifted Child, the authors offer tips for educators and homeschoolers: setting high but achievable expectations, basing part of the curriculum on the child’s interests and learning style, focusing on “personal best” rather than competition, rewarding the process as well as the product, providing good feedback, staying flexible, providing hands-on and relevant explorations, continual assessment, and remembering self-care for teachers (applies to parents too!), to keep their own motivation fresh (Whitney & Hirsh, 2007).  Additional recommendations for the school environment include strategies such as “promoting belongingness to the class and school,” building “warm and supportive teacher-student relationships,” articulating the relevance of lessons, and pacing learning appropriately for gifted students (Liem & Chua, 2006).

* * *

If these approaches sound like trial and error, to some extent, they can be.  Once a strategy begins to work, some students can be moving targets: children grow and change, and adjustments may be needed.  Don’t give up hope, and don’t blame yourself for a student’s struggles: if underachievement were easy to prevent and fix, there would be no need for articles, chapters, and books on the subject.  If parents and educators learn what they can and they keep trying, their investment of time can lead to improvement and positive outcomes for gifted students.  (As always, please do not take my word alone – read further!  The below list offers a few places to start.)  In addition to teaching and nurturing these students, we can help them by continuing to listen to them, by learning from and about them, and by remembering to be flexible throughout their education.


References and Further Reading

Assouline, S. G., Colangelo, N., VanTassel-Baska, J., and Lupkowski-Shoplik, A. (Eds.) (2015).  A nation empowered: evidence trumps the excuses holding back America’s brightest students.  University of Iowa.

Byrd, Ian.  On grouping gifted students.  Web. http://www.byrdseed.com/on-grouping-gifted-students/

Cash, R. (2011).  Advancing differentiation: thinking and learning for the 21st century.  Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Castellano, J. A. and Frazier, A. D. (2011).  Special populations in gifted education: understanding our most able students from diverse backgrounds.  Waco: Prufrock Press.

Cross, J. R. (2016).  Gifted children and peer relationships.  In M. Neihart., S. I. Pfieffer, and T. L. Cross (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: what do we know?  Waco: Prufrock Press & NAGC.

Daniels, S. and Piechowski, M. M. (2009).  Living with intensity: understanding the sensitivity, excitability, and the emotional development of gifted children, adolescents, and adults.  Scottsdale: Great Potential Press.

Fiedler, E.D., Lange, R. D., and Winebrenner, S. (1993).  In search of reality: unraveling the myths about tracking, ability grouping, and the gifted.  Roeper Review, 16(1), 4-7.

Gross, M. U. M. (2000).  Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students:  An Underserved Population (section on “Reversing Underachievement”).  Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page; originally published in Understanding Our Gifted, Winter 2000.  Web.  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/underserved.htm

Johnson, R. (2017).  The lunch bunch: affective curriculum for elementary gifted students.  Gifted Education Review, 1(4), 1-3.

Liem, G. A. and Chua, C. S. (2016).  Motivation in talent development of high-ability students: research trends, practical implications, and future directions.  In M. Neihart., S. I. Pfieffer, and T. L. Cross (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: what do we know?  Waco: Prufrock Press & NAGC.

Lind, S. (2001).  Overexcitability and the gifted.  The SENG Newsletter. 2001, 1(1) 3-6.  Retrieved from http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/overexcitability-and-the-gifted

Manning, S. and Besnoy, K. D. (2008). Special populations. In F. A. Karnes and K. R. Stephens (Eds.), Achieving excellence: Educating the gifted and talented. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Matthews, M. S. and Shaunessy, E. (2008).  Culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse gifted students.  In F. A. Karnes and K. R. Stephens (Eds.), Achieving excellence: Educating the gifted and talented. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Renzulli, J. S. and Park, S. (2002).  Giftedness and high school dropouts: personal, family, and school-related factors.   National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.

Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., & Enerson, D L. (2007).  Best practices in gifted education: an evidence-based guide.  Waco: Prufrock Press & NAGC.

Taibbi, C. (2012). All AP? Not for me! Why gifted students shouldn’t take the highest level classes. Psychology Today. Web. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/gifted-ed-guru/201201/all-ap-not-mewhy-gifted-students-shouldnt-take-the-highest-level-classes

Tolan, S. S. (1996). Is it a Cheetah? Retrieved from http://www.stephanietolan.com/is_it_a_cheetah.htm

Tomlinson, C. A. and Allan, S. D. (2000).  Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms.  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Whitney, C. S. and Hirsch, G. (2007).  A love for learning: motivation and the gifted child.  Scottsdale: Great Potential Press.

For parent groups in Texas:  if your group is interested in bringing after-school, weekend, or camp enrichment experiences to your area, to help gifted students meet one another outside of school, NuMinds Enrichment (founders of this blog) offers a variety of options.


Our blog is proud to participate in Gifted Homeschoolers Forum blog hops!  For more posts, please visit the September 2017 GHF blog hop about Teaching a Reluctant Gifted Learner: Ways to Reach and Teach the Gifted.


Young Minds, Grown-Up Worries: 5 Resources for Parents and Educators

by Emily VR

For some children, the usual milestones and recommendations rarely seem to apply.  Whether because of disability differences, gifted ability differences, or both, parents and educators gradually learn to expect the unexpected.

Because of these differences, children can also surprise adults with early worries about big-picture, life-and-death concepts.  In some cases, this can be the first sign of high-ability needs.  How do you cope with a two-year-old’s concerns about death, heaven, and an infinite universe?  How can you handle a student so concerned with social justice that she argues with her peers, or an emotionally sensitive child who cannot sleep because of stress over homelessness and foreign wars?

When the usual parenting and teaching advice doesn’t help, consider checking out the below resources to help young children with mature worries.

Living With Intensity.  Danels, Susan and Piechowski, Michael (2009).  Living with Intensity explains Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration and the “Overexcitabilities” (types of emotional and physical intensity), and it offers perspectives from a number of professionals on coping with intensity in children and adults.  Learning about the imaginational and emotional “overexcitabilities” may help parents better understand the thoughts and emotions behind a child’s concerns.  Much of the book focuses on the gifted population, however, anyone with a child or student experiencing extreme or advanced worries may find the coping strategies helpful.

Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope.  Webb, James T. (2013).  Like Living with Intensity, psychologist James Webb’s book discusses giftedness, but it offers help for anyone struggling with discouragement over weighty questions. Webb tackles the subject of existential depression with compassionate, thoughtful perspective and a number of ways to cope.  Though geared toward adults, several strategies can be used by parents and educators to support children, such as focusing on ways to live in the present moment, bibliotherapy, journaling, and helping children to feel they can make a difference through causes related to their concerns.  (Parents and educators can help children get involved – check out Hoagies’ Blog Hop on Child Activists for ideas!)

The Mama’s Boy Myth:  Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes them Stronger.  Lombardi, Kate Stone (2013).  Mothers with sensitive sons can find both relief and validation in this well-researched book.  Lombardi debunks stereotypes and misconceptions about close mother-son relationships and sensitive boys, and she shows how nurturing the emotional sensitivity of male children can actually benefit both the child and our society as a whole.

Some of My Best Friends Are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers.  Third Edition.  Halstead, Judith Wynn (2009).  Books and workshops on parenting gifted children frequently recommend bibliotherapy as a technique for coping with life’s stresses, and it can help adults, as well.  Halstead’s classic book offers a number of suggestions that can appeal to the interests, strengths, and struggles of gifted-identified readers.  (For a few additional gifted bibliotherapy recommendations, check out the NuMinds Vodcast on this topic!)

Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth.  Prober, Paula (2016).  This recent book by Paula Prober, a licensed professional counselor and former teacher, can support parents with all types of sensitivity in their families, including the emotional sensitivity associated with creative abilities. Prober’s Rainforest Mind metaphor reassures and validates readers as she guides them through strategies to both cope and reframe negative associations they may have formed about their sensitivity.

Though our first instinct is often to protect our children and students from pain, under Dabrowski’s theory, experiencing certain intensities can lead to the development of empathy and altruistic behavior.  Stress about current events can also provide opportunities for discussions about essential topics, such as conversations about racial bias, equality, and the importance of truthfulness and peaceful problem-solving. Parents of young children with extreme worries may find it necessary to filter or restrict certain adult topics in news or fiction, however, even when a child is capable of grasping the concepts.  The AAP has released recommendations on the impact of violent media and video games on children, and websites such as Kids in Mind, Common Sense Media and Compass Book Ratings can help screen adult content in films and books, which can be helpful for young children with high comprehension levels.  In any discussion with children, but especially those involving life’s big questions, children will learn by example and appreciate an adult’s honesty with them.

For educators:  parents and experts agree on the importance of understanding individual differences and diagnoses when helping children through difficult behavior.  For example, classroom strategies which work for typically developing children could trigger panic instead of compliance in a child with certain disabilities.  To work through behaviors influenced by big-picture worries, both parents and educators will want to start with a compassionate understanding of how a child may process his or her world differently.

Counseling Notes

As adults, we play an important role in helping children to learn from their pain.  According to counselor Vanessa Sanford, “the way for kids to be wise, kind, resilient, and brave is to learn from pain and worries and struggle, not run from it.  Kids need to see parents allow the compassionate space for kids to make meaning out of struggle and believe they are capable of hard things instead of fixing or protecting kids all the time.”  She explains that this “doesn’t mean we want kids to get hurt, but we do want to send a message, ‘I am here, I see you, I know this is scary, but you are brave and we can do this together.’”

How can adults create this space?  Sanford explains, “courage must be a component… Courage to hold a safe space for kids to express their worries and not shut them down… Courage to not have the answer, but to just allow kids to explore their own way around worries. Courage to ask for help when an adult feels over their head with the struggles. Courage to believe the adult is capable of handling this and that the kid is too. Courage to practice empathy and compassion instead of just running to logic and cognitive space. When kids have grown up worries, they need to know the ones they are trusting with this are safe and allow enough space for emotion. Logic can return into the conversation once emotion is seen, valued, respected, and [it is] explained that we all feel messy and complicated feelings. Normalizing this for kids is so powerful and invites them to continue opening up about these worries,” she says.

According to Sanford, parents need the empowerment and encouragement to know “that they can do hard things. Their kids can do hard things. That if their kid has existential questions, the most important thing to consider is how brave and vulnerable the parent [must be] to role-model so the kid can feel safe, respected, valued and loved.” Though we cannot stay forever at their desks or bedsides, when our children and students struggle with their first existential questions, as adults, we can model empathy and provide those safe spaces for them to process their feelings – which can help them for the rest of their lives.

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Note:  Some worries are too big for children, parents, and educators to handle on their own.  If a child’s worries are interfering with his or her quality of life, or if adults see warning signs of mental illness, it is important to seek professional help, just as we would for physical injuries or illnesses.  Parents may find it helpful to search for counselors and psychologists familiar with known conditions or diagnoses impacting their children.

For more help, this video from Dr. Brené Brown explains the benefits of empathy and the difference between empathy and sympathy. 

Many thanks to Vanessa M. Sanford, LPC for her invaluable contributions, interview, and video link.  Ms. Sanford practices in Frisco, Texas, and specializes in multiple areas of counseling for children, teens, and adults. 


What strategies have you found successful in helping your child or students cope with existential stress?  Let us know in the comments below.

The Fissure Blog is proud to participate in blog hops from Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page!  For additional posts in the Philosophical / Spiritual Anxiety Blog Hop, please click on the below image (credit Pamela S. Ryan!).21078458_10212344733746027_8908226935862427228_n


Summer Learning: Exploring National Parks

by Emily VR

Parents and caregivers:  if you haven’t visited a National Park or National Historic Site recently, there is probably one near you, and it might make the most memorable day or weekend trip of your summer.  These places offer a unique, hands-on opportunity for kids to explore, learn, and satisfy their thirst for adventure while getting excited about nature and history.  (Park and Historic Site finder here.)

Does your child thrive on physical activity?  In National Parks, kids and their adults can climb to mountain waterfalls near the continental divide, watch the sun rise over layers of geologic time in the Grand Canyon, or canoe through lakes and rivers rich with both natural and human history (multiple parks).  Young park visitors and their families can trek past rock formations in Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns, explore forest and desert habitats, scale ladders to abandoned Native American cliff dwellings, and learn about the earth’s crust through the force of geysers and volcanoes.


Is your child obsessed with paleontology or archaeology?  Kids can see dinosaur skeletons still embedded in rock at Dinosaur National Monument, or they can examine ancient petroglyphs in New Mexico.  Budding history buffs can trace American history – walking right where it happened – from settlements like Historic Jamestown to the buildings and battlefields of the Revolutionary War and Civil War, important sites in African American and Native American history, and memorials from the Civil Rights movement.

Interpretive program

Many sites offer Visitor Centers with educational exhibits and/or guided programs by Park Rangers, and at any Park kids can practice photography or journal writing.  (Tip: some sites have limited tour availability and recommend advance reservations – check the website before you go.)  For young adults, National Parks can offer even more in-depth learning and internship opportunities: the Mosaics in Science program, for example, provides on-the-ground, science-based NPS work experience to youth underrepresented in natural resource science career fields.  NPS includes accessibility solutions for guests with disabilities, and it offers several resources for teachers, as well.  Visiting Parks can even be good for your health: the benefits of exercise and spending time in nature are so significant, this year marked the 2nd annual Park Prescription Day around the country – an opportunity to reflect on both self-care and the value of our natural environment.


To help younger kids process and remember their experiences, you can ask about the Junior Ranger program – most National Parks, historic, and battlefield sites offer educational activity packets (available from a Park Ranger, often at the main Visitor Center).  Activities vary by age, and additional programs are available in some parks.  (Tip:  some activities ask kids to record details from the site, so you may want to pick up packets early in your visit.)  Kids can earn collectible “Junior Ranger” badges after completing assignments – in my family, these have been treasured souvenirs of adventures together.

National Parks are inexpensive, and in some cases, free:  fourth graders and their families can sign up for free access to the National Parks for a year, and NPS offers free U.S. military passes, free Access passes for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities, and a few free entrance days for all.  Until August 28, 2017, seniors can pay $10 for a lifetime Senior Pass.

For some learners, it can be hard to find inspiration in textbooks and articles alone, and many students thrive on hands-on immersion.  Let them dive in and surround themselves with learning, and consider visiting natural wonders and historic places during your family adventures.  Your children can expand their knowledge and discover new interests – and together with you, will make lifelong memories.


p.s.  If your family feels (as mine does) that these sites should be preserved for future generations, you can visit https://www.npca.org/advocacy and contact your elected U.S. representatives to request protection for National Parks land and funding.  For children, writing letters to Senators and Representatives can be a multidisciplinary learning experience, too.

p.p.s.  If you are in a National Park this summer, consider sharing that experience with the NuMinds community by participating in their #NumiTravels campaign. Find more info at NuMiTravels.com!

Children of STEAM: Our Future

We started Camp Pursuit because we’re passionate about education and we believe that passion can lead to a great many things. Our vision is to give students a curiosity-fueled platform to explore different aspects of STEAM in a fun and thoughtful environment where they have the chance to dive into the many different creative outlets that come along with science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. A choice-based learning environment driven by high-interest themes, rather than arbitrarily designated subject areas, exposes students to key concepts and skills ACROSS the aspects of STEAM. Aside from the benefits learning new skills give children, it also builds the desired skill sets CEO’s are looking for in the long run.

When asked, CEO’s said “Approximately 60% of job openings require basic STE[A]M literacy and 42% require advanced STE[A]M knowledge. Nearly two-thirds of job openings that require STE[A]M skills are in manufacturing and other services.” Unless your kids start a business as their first job and entrepreneurship becomes their career, a CEO in their future will look to them to have a knowledge of STEAM. If they end up being super successful as an entrepreneur, they’re going to need to know enough STEAM to keep up with the demand of our culture.

It’s not just CEO’s who we look to for answers when it comes to the children we work with and their future. In our research, we found that non-STEM careers have a projection of 9.8% growth whereas STEM careers reach 17% projected growth. In 2010, STEM workers made up 1/18th of the workforce and earned about 26% more than those who didn’t work in STEM. These numbers are rapidly growing and are expected to grow even more in the future.

So why is it so important for your kids to attend Camp Pursuit? Your kids are our future. STEAM education teaches them to work with others, have patience, not give up, look outside of the box, and create something new. We want a future where your kids are equipped for growth. STEAM is growing, and your kids are growing in a parallel path.