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

References

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.

 

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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.

book

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Overthinking: Weakness or Strength?

by Emily VR

Some children (and adults) seem prone to making quick, impulsive decisions.  At the other extreme, some seem to be held hostage by choices, evaluating and reevaluating options long past the point most of us would consider helpful.

For adults somewhere between, watching a child “overthink” can trigger frustration.  Parents and teachers may worry about a child’s stress, delays, and possibly sleeplessness as a result of runaway thinking.  Adults may not know how to provide help.

Consider this: in some cases, what if a student’s tendency to “overthink” might be a sign of an unmet need for higher-level analysis?  A sign of advanced, untapped problem-solving ability, ready to be channeled and harnessed?

Below are a few resources for helping students (or adults) feed a hunger for problem-solving, some of which may help guide deep thinkers toward constructive analysis.  Though perceived overthinking is not limited to children with gifted-level cognitive needs, they are sometimes described as exhibiting this behavior, so GT-friendly strategies are included below.

Teaching about Thinking

Critical thinking can be taught, both at school and in home.  Educators continue to develop new and innovative ways to incorporate Bloom’s Taxonomy, critical thinking skills, and other ways to “think about thinking” (metacognition) in the classroom.  Simply developing an awareness that humans move through different processes in our thinking – and that to some extent, we can deliberately control those processes – may bring peace of mind to some children who worry about their thinking.

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Image: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.  Creative Commons Attribution license.

Teachers can create assignments that help develop thinking skills and awareness of the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning, strategies for validating information, methods to compare and contrast, and ways to sequence and prioritize information (Cash, 2011).  For more ideas about teaching critical thinking, please see the resources below.

Habits of Mind

The Habits of Mind were developed to help students “appreciate the value of and to develop the propensity for skillful problem solving using a repertoire of mindful strategies applied in a variety of settings” (Costa & Kallik, 2008).  In a district in my area, the GT program includes the “Habits of Mind” in the curriculum, providing instruction on deliberate skills to help students overcome or compensate for social-emotional challenges such as perfectionism, masking, and impostor syndrome.  Some of these strategies may help all students to develop analytical skills and to make better use of their thinking.  The Habits include Thinking Flexibly (“putting on a different kind of thinking cap for the moment”), Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations, Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Finding Humor (may help ease stress, if worry is a trigger), and Taking Responsible Risks, among others.  The authors of Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind outline ideas for teaching the Habits in the classroom, as well as strategies for creating a “mindful language of learning” that parents can try at home (Costa & Kallik, 2008).

Affective Curriculum

Talking with other students who share their challenges, particularly with the guidance of an adult, may help students “self-reflect, reflect about others, learn expressive language, explore careers, self-regulate, make decisions, and progress with developmental tasks” (Peterson, 2016).  An affective curriculum is designed to address the well-being of students, and it may help with some of the social and emotional needs that can sometimes lead to perceived overthinking.  For ideas on how an affective curriculum can be used in a “lunch bunch” setting for gifted-identified students, check out The Lunch Bunch: Affective Curriculum for Elementary Gifted Students (Johnson, 2017).

Differentiation and Acceleration

Teachers: does your curriculum go beyond rote memorization, providing opportunities for cross-curricular analysis?  Does it allow students to dive deeper into topics of interest, and/or to explore and compare additional examples of a concept?  Do students have choices in assignments and opportunities to respond in ways that tap into their individual strengths?  Are pre-testing, curriculum compacting, or other acceleration strategies used for students that already know the material?

If the answers are negative, consider pursuing campus or individual professional development on differentiation strategies, including research-proven strategies for modifying the curriculum for gifted learners.  For more information on differentiation and curriculum modification, please see the resources below.

Working with Perfectionism

While perfectionism can cause stress, and can sometimes lead to perceived overthinking or “paralysis,” some experts note that it can also bring “intense satisfaction and creative contribution, depending on how it is channeled” (Schuler, 2002).  It has been noted that in gifted students, research shows “a lack of challenge may contribute to the development of perfectionism,” which calls “for an increase in challenging curriculum that support for curriculum compacting, acceleration, enrichment, and teaching at a more conceptual level” (Neumeister, 2016).  In writing about gifted children, authors Jim Delisle and Judy Galbraith offer a strategy that can help all perfectionists:  instead of aiming for perfection and constant success, children (and adults) can shift thinking toward a “pursuit of excellence.”  This might involve the celebration of trying new things (despite temporary failure), a deliberate choice between activities (rather than focusing on the absence of equal talent in everything), and the decision to focus on trying again, if desired (Delisle & Galbraith, 2002).

Enrichment

If school hasn’t (yet) satisfied a student’s need for knowledge and exploration, consider enrichment opportunities, either online, locally, or at home.  A wealth of parent ideas can be found through gifted parents’ blogs (such as those in Hoagies Blog Hops), and your area may offer classes and clubs in your student’s areas of passion.  Local universities sometimes offer summer camps geared toward students with special interests and learning differences.  For more information about STEAM-based, passion-based learning through NuMinds Enrichment (founders of this blog), check out their mission here.

Final thoughts:

Adults may want to consider whether an overthinking child is actually overthinking.  Some types of decisions require careful analysis and the anticipation of all likely (and less likely) outcomes.  Is overthinking causing the child stress?  Does it have a negative impact on his/her quality of life?  Or is it leading to better, more carefully considered decisions?  If a child feels happier with detailed analysis, in some situations, could that be a strength?  (We certainly appreciate that architects and aerospace engineers anticipate ways things might fall down…)  With the conflicts and deep differences in our world, more and more, we need problem-solvers able to consider a multitude of perspectives.  For your student, could you seek out and provide guidance on selecting pursuits where his or her strengths are needed and valued?

Please remember to take children seriously.  When adults listen, children may be more receptive to learning which information might be helpful to consider in detail and which might require less attention.  If a child is suffering, please seek expert help (beyond the scope of this post) – but in some cases, careful thinkers may need guidance, not repair.  We may discover that our children and students can come up with innovations and solutions that work better than our own.

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This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overthinking.  Our blog is proud to participate in Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hops!  Please click on the graphic above (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to read other Hoagies’ Blog Hop posts!

 

References and Further Reading

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

Costa, A. L. and Kallick, B. (2008).  Learning and leading with habits of mind:  16 essential characteristics for success.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Delisle, J. and Galbraith, J. (2002).  When gifted kids don’t have all the answers.  Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Neumeister, K. S. (2016).  Perfectionism in gifted students.  In M. Neihart, S. I. Pfeiffer, and T. L. Cross (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: what do we know? Second Edition.  A Service Publication of the National Association for Gifted Children.  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

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

Peterson, J. S. (2016).  Affective curriculum: proactively addressing the challenges of growing up.  In K.R. Stephens and F. A. Karnes (Eds.), Introduction to curriculum design in gifted education.  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Schuler, P. (2002). Perfectionism in gifted children and adolescents.  In M. Neihart, S. M. Reis, N. M. Robinson, and S. M. Moon (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: what do we know?  A Service Publication of the National Association for Gifted Children.  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Stephens, K. R. and Karnes, F. A. (2016).  Introduction to curriculum design in gifted education.  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Roberts, J. L. and Inman, T. F. (2015).  Strategies for differentiating instruction: best practices for the classroom.  Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

 

** I would like to thank Monica Simonds, M.Ed., for making me aware of the benefits of and instructional strategies for the Habits of Mind, for incorporating them in the GT curriculum, and for her work to nurture the social-emotional needs of students.

 

To Thine Own Self Be True, Except During Testing

A guest post by Rebecca Gray

It’s spring and standardized testing is in full bloom. The poppies of the classroom, gifted students, are often overlooked during this time of assessment. Advocates for GT learners can ensure the diverse breadth of gifted students are accommodated before and during high stakes testing.

Once testing season rolls around, anyone with a learning anomaly faces increased anxiety and scrutiny as administrators, teachers, parents, and legislatures begin the process of accountability to the state. Gifted students may be seen as an asset or as a liability at this time. It all depends on their giftedness. High achieving GT students make schools, administrators, and teachers look good with their commended scores that surpass the norm. A different story emerges, however, when the twice exceptional student enters the picture. The intensities, hyperactivity, inability to sustain attention during a prolonged silent 4 hour test, anxiety and overanalysis of simple, easily answered questions becomes a liability for all stakeholders who stand a chance to gain or lose based on outcomes of high stakes testing.

Gifted students encompass much more than one test can marginalize. Academic giftedness, in its many forms, shares a broad swath across a diverse educational landscape. In many school districts, gifted students receive services based on identification of need just as students on the opposite end of the same bell curve receive accommodations based on their identified learning differences. Accommodations on one end of the bell curve should be well balanced with accommodations on the other end as well.

Proponents and advocates of gifted students expect accommodations to be made for GT students in the self contained GT classroom. The same must be said for standardized testing as well as in the preparation for state mandated assessment. Allowing the accelerated learner to bypass often onerous review exercises, frees up opportunities to explore curriculum geared toward the GT student’s special interest and intellect level. In addition, targeted accommodations may be made to ensure gifted students test in an environment conducive to success.  The test setting can be accommodated and the test proctored by a teacher or administrator well versed in the intensities and exceptionalities of GT students. For a testing administrator, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to allow the simple testing accommodation of small group testing for identified GT students.

Gifted students cannot turn off intensities and exceptionalities with the flick of a switch. High achieving GT students have the capability to bring high scores to the standardized testing table. Accommodations geared toward the needs of the diversity of gifted learners allow them to achieve favorable outcomes on state mandated assessments. Allowing students a testing experience conducive to success should be a right, not a privilege, for all.


Rebecca Gray is a mom of two gifted girls, an educator, and advocate for gifted learners. She can be reached at rebeccaminergray@gmail.

Recovering From a No-Good, Very Bad Year

by Emily VR

Dear Parents:  You aren’t alone.

Among families with learning disabilities, gifted needs, or other special needs, it seems nearly everyone has had a no-good, very bad year.  Sometimes more than one year.

Perhaps your child was excluded by peers, or perhaps he or she just had trouble making friends.  Perhaps he or she has a disability, and at the time, no one knew.  Perhaps symptoms were misinterpreted as bad behavior, and everyone was frustrated.  Perhaps there was unkind treatment by other children, or, though rare, by an educator.  If your child is identified as gifted, especially in a special population, perhaps his characteristics and needs were misinterpreted and/or not considered in his/her work level.  Perhaps her degree of need was discovered because of underachievement, perfectionism, anxiety, or negative behavior.  Perhaps your child has a diagnosis that isn’t well understood, or you discover disagreement between experts.  Perhaps it’s difficult for educators and specialists to keep up with changing research on your child’s diagnosis.

Perhaps your voice, as a parent, was not heard.

A bad school year is hard on a child’s entire family.  Unlike the routine bumps in the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, a hard school year can have a lasting impact on a child, and sometimes, on parents.  From my experience connecting with parents and assisting with parent workshops, below are some parent-to-parent thoughts to consider.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Professional Help

If a child shows signs of possible depression or anxiety, do not hesitate to get help.  If a child’s arm looks broken, parents get X-rays; if a child seems to have a mental health need, please talk to a professional.  Though parents worry about misdiagnosis, and in the case of gifted children, intensity can be mistaken for other diagnoses – if your child’s happiness and quality of life are decreasing, or if you see other warning signs of depression, don’t wait.  In teens, professionals say that signs can be easy to miss, and it’s a good idea in general to learn about the social and emotional wellness of children and teens.

If parents experience anxiety themselves, they should not be embarrassed to get help, either.  Dealing with a child’s special needs and school advocacy are incredibly stressful experiences for anyone.  Some counselors and psychologists have experience in advising and counseling parents of children with special needs, including gifted needs.  For gifted needs, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, Hoagies Gifted Education Page, and SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) each maintains a list of mental health professionals.  Additional counselors and psychologists with expertise in your family’s specific challenges may be available in your area.

Connect With Other Parents… and Children  

Numerous online and local groups support families with all types of special needs and learning differences.  While reaching out can be frightening, other parents can be wonderful sources of tips and resources targeted to your child’s specific challenges and interests.  Some online communities offer closed discussion groups for increased privacy, and many communities offer local support groups for a variety of special needs.

Your child, too, may benefit from connecting with others who share his or her experiences.  Consider checking locally for museum or movie theater events for special needs, such as “sensory-friendly” days or screenings.  For children with high-ability needs, local enrichment courses may offer a chance to meet intellectual peers and explore their areas of passion (one mission of the teachers who founded NuMinds Enrichment and this blog).

Prepare for Positive Advocacy

Beware of using the word “fight” in connection with school needs!  Solutions to school challenges require listening, learning, positive communication, and collaboration.  Learn what you can about your child’s diagnosis and specific needs, and seek additional evaluations if you feel they are warranted.   Share your child’s story with future teachers, and search for advice about positive advocacy.  If you find yourself facing a roadblock, the book Getting to Yes offers negotiation guidance that prioritizes preserving relationships (critical in schools) and may help in addressing everyone’s concerns.

Make Friends With and Support Teachers

A wise teacher friend once said:  “remember, nobody goes into teaching for the fabulous pay.”  Educators have stressful jobs, and bad years can result from miscommunication or factors outside their knowledge or control.  The vast majority of educators work long, hard hours, love children, and dedicate their lives to doing the best they can to teach every single student in their classes.  They worry about their students at night and on weekends, and for years after their students leave their classes.  Once a parent makes a connection with even one teacher who truly understands their child, that teacher can be one of the most important advocates in a child’s education.  Learn about the challenges facing teachers, work to help them, and let them know how much you appreciate their care for your child.

Consider Educational Options

Public schools should (and for children with disabilities, must by law) provide access to a free, appropriate public education.  In some cases, however, parents may find another option to be best in the short or long term for their specific child.  While public schools should provide appropriate level learning and follow evidence-based practices for gifted children, not all states have gifted education laws.  Parents considering homeschooling for gifted and twice-exceptional reasons can check out the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for an online community and other great resources.  (GHF resources can be helpful for anyone with gifted and 2e needs, and the site is not limited to homeschoolers!)

Take Lemons, Make Lemonade

The experiences of parents and children can drive lasting, positive change to help others, and activism can help with both existential stress and situational stress.  Consider getting involved with a nonprofit dedicated to your child’s needs.  Your child may even wish to help make things better for other children like himself/herself, or may discover a passion for helping people suffering from greater trauma, such as refugees.

Look for a Silver Lining

Though it is little comfort right after a traumatic year, in the long run, difficult years can result in better understanding of a child’s needs.  Challenges in school can lead to diagnoses and knowledge about modifications and accommodations that can make future years – including a child’s high school, college, and career experiences – far easier.

A “no-good year” can also provide an opportunity to help children and teens overcome absolute, all-or-nothing thinking.  While some memories may seem irredeemable, recalling positive experiences from the same year may help provide perspective.  Remember the P.E. teacher who went out of her way to say something positive, or that one classmate who watched out for your child?  Even in times of fear and disaster, as Mr. Rogers wisely advised, looking for the helpers can help us maintain hope.

Focus on Joy

You may see it in her face after encouragement from a summer camp counselor, or when she gets a hug from next year’s school or enrichment teacher, who will love her.  You may hear it when he sees mountains for the first time, builds a sand castle on the beach, or visits a museum exhibit about his passion.  You may decide to create it with a mom-and-me (or dad-and-me) date or with a camping trip.  Seeking opportunities to experience joy can help with healing, not only for your child, but for your family.

Hang in there, take care of yourself, and give your child a big hug.  We’re all in this together.  Kids are resilient, and your child has the best possible advocate in his or her corner: you.

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Dear Teachers:

When a child or parent first enters your classroom after a hard year, they may be carrying baggage.  Negative experiences at school can be terrifying for both children and parents.  In difficult situations, please try to see things from the perspectives of students and their parents.  Please seek advice from a school specialist if a situation is confusing, or if it upsets the student or parents.  If you find yourself frustrated with a student, please search for causes and solutions rather than blaming the student or dismissing a parent’s concerns.  Yes, we all know some parents are easier than others, but they can bring information needed for their children to succeed.  Take a deep breath, be patient, try to learn more, and seek help.  Remember: each parent trusts you with the most important person in his or her universe, and a single teacher can make the greatest positive difference in the life of a vulnerable child.  Please be that teacher.

Thank you for all you do.

GHF March 2017 hop

Our blog is proud to participate in Gifted Homeschoolers Forum blog hops!  For more posts, please visit the March 2017 GHF blog hop about The Difficulties of Being Gifted.

Disclaimer:  This post is not medical advice.  As noted above, please seek professional guidance regarding any mental health or behavioral concerns.  

3 “Messy” Tensions to Challenge Our Thinking on Learning and Productivity

by Ben Koch

There’s an unspoken truism most of us adults have internalized that goes something like this: “If only I were more organized with my time, more focused on my goals, and more disciplined with my tasks, I’d finally achieve X.” Around New Year’s each year, this guilt-infused mantra is the fuel for many a well-intentioned resolution involving elaborate new systems of organization and task management.  In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford turns this assumption on its head.  In his book, Hartford probes people, organizations and events which demonstrate how embracing disorder, uncertainty, and messiness can be the catalyst for amazing achievements and unforeseen breakthroughs.

Although geared toward leaders, innovators, and thinkers in the world-at-large, I found the book full of insights for parents, teachers and edupreneurs as we guide and nurture our students. Here I choose 3 binary tensions highlighted by Harford and connect them directly to issues relevant to our interactions with learners.

Hyper-Focus vs. Distractibility

We often assume great successes are the result of sustained, laser-like focus on a problem.  As Harford points out, however, “distractible brains can also be seen as brains that have an innate tendency to make … useful random leaps” (p 17) which lead to creative or innovative breakthroughs. And there is research to back up a correlation between distractibility and higher creativity. Harford cites a Harvard study in which researchers measured the ability of students to filter out unwanted stimulus. The weak filter students scored higher on all kinds of creative measures (p 17).

What we infer from this study reaffirms my own observations regarding the “6 Gifted Profiles,” as delineated by George Betts and Maureen Niehart (1988).  “Type 2” profile students, The Creatives, are often perceived as uncouth, distracted, and associative thinkers with a lower threshold for sustained focus. Could it be they are simply selective consumers, choosing to follow the trail of deep, non-obvious connections being triggered by their learning environment? A Creative’s penchant to process the world holistically makes her more distractible, but indeed makes her predisposed to draw fantastic insights from apparently disparate information.  Teachers: have you ever felt you’ve been suckered into a tangent by a Creative student making an elaborate observation, only to find that somehow, it winds right back to the topic, which is now afforded a new level of depth and complexity?  

Bonding Social Capital vs. Bridging Social Capital

When a group or team needs to accomplish a major task, it makes sense for them to bunker down, remove all infringements of the outside world, and one-pointedly push through, right? Maybe not. Harford highlights the distinction between “bonding social capital” and “bridging social capital.” On a team wired for bonding social capital, you seek to “Minimize disruptions, distractions, obstacles; identify what you have to do; focus your energies on doing it as effectively as possible” (p 39). So what could be missing? As it turns out, the sparks of inspiration that can come from interactions across groups and teams–known as bridging social capital–may be what allow the team to make the leap from good to great. Harford cites examples in the world of collaborative mathematicians and in the video game industry, where “a great computer game is like a great mathematics paper. It requires bridging: the clever combination of disparate ideas” (p 41).

The benefits of sparking exchanges outside of a student’s usual, closed, tight-knit group is one reason why my company, NuMinds Enrichment, designs all our programs as mixed-age learning experiences. I still remember our first summer camp several years ago when I walked into a classroom to find a 1st grader and 8th grader co-presenting on a project. Think the benefits go only one way? Think again. We find the older students are just as likely to benefit from the sparks generated by the “disparate ideas,” genuine curiosity, and the beginner’s mind exhibited by younger students.

Careful Planning vs. Improvisation

When you need a project management certification to keep a grip on a child’s weekly schedule, you know we live in an an era of hyper-managed and overscheduled students. Parents feel compelled to leave nothing to chance, and this desire to control outcomes has crept into the classroom in the form of perfectionism and anxiety

What if, by not occasionally relinquishing control, we are missing out on surprising creative results and rich, unforeseen experiences? Harford cites numerous extraordinary examples of history-making moments that were the result of moments of improvisation, from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech to the ground-breaking “Kind of Blue” album by Miles Davis.

But examples need not be extraordinary to be revealing. That very first week of NuMinds summer camp, we had planned an elaborate, musical, technology-infused series of morning assemblies. It was part of our morning “shock and awe” plan to get campers excited for a day of passion-based learning (it’s summer, after all, and they often need a little help). We rolled into the venue the weekend before to get set up, and, major obstacles: no projector, malfunctioning microphone system, and no way to send music through the speakers. Plan B. Wait, there was no plan B! This situation forced us into an improvisational state of mind and, lo and behold, being forced to go low tech and intimate with our morning assemblies ended up defining the spirit of Camp Pursuit. Sure, we’ve got mics and flashy visuals now, but to this day, the “fireside chats,” puppet shows, and acoustic sing-alongs we developed that first week–because a messy situation forced our hand–are integral pieces of the Camp Pursuit experience.

Harford cites three clear benefits of an improvisational approach to managing a project (p 98):

  1. Speed
  2. Economy
  3. Flexibility

In other words, when compared to meticulous and calculated planning, embracing or even seeking a little messiness will not only drive improvisation but can take less time, cost less, and by its very nature will be more responsive to uncertainties.

But, let’s face it: millions of students in the U.S. and around the world, including refugees whose lives have been torn asunder by world conflicts, don’t have the luxury of worrying about over-planned and scripted lives. For them, improvisation isn’t an experiment, it’s survival. Perhaps there is much we can learn from their resilience about coping with a disordered world.

It’s hard to imagine a “messier” situation than poverty, but we can take heart that even in circumstances like this, curiosity, persistence and incredible improvisation can propel education. If we can appreciate and learn from this Indian school under a freeway, perhaps we can all find ways to improvise heartfelt teaching and learning, even when the promise and principle of our public education system seems under assault. Not to excuse that students or teachers or our very own public schools should ever be asked to perform miracles with lack of resources, funding, and support, but the innovative resilience we develop while continuing the fight for fairness, justice, and equity will only increase our effectiveness as we move closer to those ideals.

Harford highlights many more tensions we can utilize to explore our notions of learning and productivity, including groupthink vs. cognitive diversity, hard vs. soft spaces, the paradox of automation, “neats vs. scruffs,” and organized play vs. informal play. In an era of uncertainty and flux, if we can reconsider our ingrained assumptions and attachments to order, structure and predictability, we may find “messiness” a valuable impulse.

Sources

Harford, Tim. Messy: the power of disorder to transform our lives. New York: Riverhead , 2016. Print.

http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/09/15036358-a-free-school-under-a-bridge-in-india

https://u.osu.edu/pressuretobeperfect/truth-about-perfectionism/

https://thefissureblog.com/2015/08/01/gifted-101-the-6-gifted-profiles/