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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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






Why Gifted Education Belongs in Public School

by Emily VR, from a guest post on WeAreGifted2

I am a believer in public school.  Growing up, I attended public school from K – 12.  During law school, I explored the history of educational inequality in the United States, including segregation, desegregation, the risks of tracking, and inadequate school funding.  I believe that each of us has a civic and moral responsibility to support and fund public schools, and that we must actively defend the right of every child to access a free public education.  I believe in diversity in education, and in the critical importance of equal educational opportunity for all populations.

As you can imagine, when I had children, I planned for them to attend public school.  When my older son entered first grade, however, we faced a situation not uncommon for children identified by psychologists as gifted: without significant adjustments, the curriculum did not fit his development.  For him to learn in school, we needed help from our district’s gifted specialists.

When a few family friends learned of his learning levels, some made well-intended comments:

“Public school won’t meet his needs.”

“Public schools have limited resources.  They can’t help kids like him.”  

While this may be the temporary reality in some cases, and especially in states without gifted education laws, I would argue that these statements are offensive:  many parents of children “like him” cannot afford alternatives.

As parents and educators, we must work to shift perspectives.

The decision to pull advanced children from public school is common, particularly in areas with inadequately funded schools.  Resigning ourselves to this practice, however, would reveal a terrible bias:  if we fail to hold public schools responsible for meeting advanced learning needs, we assume that (a) children from low-income backgrounds cannot be advanced learners, or (b) advanced learners from low-income backgrounds somehow have less right to learn than students with average academic development.  Experts know that intellectually advanced children are present in culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse populations.  We need increased research to improve methods of identifying giftedness in underrepresented populations, but in the meantime, we can already identify children in families unable to afford alternatives to public school.

If we permit public education to remain underfunded, and if we excuse schools from serving high-ability students, where does this leave gifted children from diverse backgrounds?

For students with any learning difference, flexible strategies and continued monitoring are often needed.  Luckily for my children, our state has gifted education laws, an advocacy organization for educators and parents, and state recommendations for serving gifted children in diverse populations.  We are lucky to live in a district with dedicated gifted specialists and administrators who work hard to identify and meet gifted needs in all populations.  Not all families are so fortunate.

Unfortunately, some education advocates have criticized gifted programs as elitist, unfairly blaming the concept of gifted education for disparities in school quality.  While any strategy can be misapplied or misused, research supports the need for gifted education:  just as children with learning challenges require different interventions, depending on their difference from the norm, children with extreme, advanced differences need curriculum modifications.  As much as we wish it were simpler, schoolwide approaches, in isolation, may not succeed with some learning differences.  Students with extreme differences – including the ‘gifted’ – exist at all income levels.

To succeed in our commitment to equity and the needs of all students, education advocates must find common ground.  As educators, parents, researchers and lawmakers, we must advocate for improvement in public education as a whole, and we must increase efforts to better identify students with learning differences in diverse populations.  At the same time, we have a duty to advocate for programs, professional development training, and interventions needed for students with all types of special needs and differences – including gifted needs.


by Emily VR, written as a guest post for WeAreGifted2, the blog of Joy Lawson Davis, Ed.D.   Many thanks to Dr. Davis for permission to repost.  Dr. Davis currently serves on the NAGC Board of Directors and is the published author of several chapters and three books, including her most recent book, Gifted Children Around the World: Diverse Needs, Exemplary Practices and Directions for the Future.


This post has been added to the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop for March, 2017.  The Fissure Blog is proud to participate in blog hops from Hoagies!  For additional posts about Educational Options, please click on the below image (credit Pamela S. Ryan).


5 Lessons for Teachers and Parents from Adam Grant’s Originals [Infographic]

by Ben Koch

Adam Grant’s book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World is a fascinating exploration of the often counter-intuitive principles and practices that drive the world-changers among us. It provides a rich trove of insights for those in business and industry seeking an innovative edge, as well as those in the arts and sciences looking for breakthroughs or pathways toward new paradigms.

As an educator who works with FUTURE world-changers across all industries, I read it with a slightly different filter. I asked myself, “What from this chapter could I tell a teacher at next week’s training or a parent at my next workshop that could help shape tomorrow’s originals?”

In all honesty, my first list was way too long for an infographic. Choosing these 5 concepts feels like a betrayal to the dozen or so I left out, but my hope is they’ll be surprising and impactful enough to prompt you to read it yourself!


Like-Mindedness and the Denial Gene

by Justin Vawter

All men have a denial gene when it comes to aging and their ability to play sports.  It’s a complex chromosome that activates somewhere in a man’s late 20s and then takes full control of the prefrontal medial cortex by his late 30s.  You can observe this phenomenon every weekend, as men with knee braces, back supports, and talcum-powdered loins take to the field or court to “put the smack down” (a stagnated phrase left over from a time when the man’s physical prowess allowed him the mobility of said smack).

I have this gene.  That’s why, this summer, I signed up for mixed-aged martial arts at the Lone Eagle Fighting Arts dojo.  Here I am, with my entry-level white belt, surrounded by a group of kids who are all two feet shorter and at least two belt degrees higher than me.  Fortunately, there were other adults who looked just as awkward as me, and we all lumbered through the steps together.  

This is mixed age.  This is community.  This is what your gifted child needs–a group of like-minded individuals brought together based on interest and ability.

It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth lesson that I lost sight of the age gap.  Perhaps my denial gene kicked in, but there I am kicking a practice dummy, giving both my daughters high fives, and taking advice from a 12-year-old girl with a green hair band that matches her karate belt.  This is mixed age.  This is community.  This is what your gifted child needs—a group of like-minded individuals brought together based on interest and ability.

In 1993, Miraca Gross published her study where she looked at the social isolation of gifted children, concluding that when gifted children were accelerated to be with intellectual peers, the isolation disappears and the students are able to form warm and supportive relationships with older classmates.  As adults, we have all experienced this phenomenon.   For example, colleges do not make your age a prerequisite for attending class.  I know this first-hand because I’m in the same program as Noel Jett, the eighteen-year-old doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas (DeLeon, 2015).  Why then, to quote Sir Ken Robinson, is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are…their ‘date of manufacture?’” (2010).  

And Sir Ken wasn’t simply being tongue-and-check; the very same study from Gross (1993) has some chilling evidence: “In almost every case, the parents of [intellectually gifted] children retained in the regular classroom with age peers, report that their student’s drive to achieve, the delight in intellectual exploration, and the joyful seeking after new knowledge, which characterized their children in the early years, seriously diminished or disappeared completely” (pg 8).  

Whether it’s at the dojo or school, you need to find ways to get your intellectually gifted child with like-minded peers.  In the school context, this takes the form of subject acceleration (where the subject matter is streamlined) and grade acceleration (where Timmy completely skips 3rd grade).  

Perhaps the same denial gene that tells me to high kick with no regard for tomorrow’s aching muscle is also responsible for perpetuating an inadequate system in the face of research and reason.

Be warned, all ye’ brave parents, while acceleration is well-researched as an effective intervention for precocious youth, you generally won’t win any friends at your school. Other parents will misconstrue your advocacy as elitism; administrators will baulk at paperwork and adjustments to the master schedule; and the teacher, who is tasked with challenging every student, will take personal offense to being told that her class simply isn’t challenging your son or daughter.  Perhaps the same denial gene that tells me to high kick with no regard for tomorrow’s aching muscle is also responsible for perpetuating an inadequate system in the face of research and reason.  “What? He doesn’t need to advance grade levels.  He’ll be fine after he ‘levels out’.”    

After you’ve come to terms with these obstacles and have still mustered up the courage to move forward, start by learning the vocabulary and approach.  One resource is this publication out of NSW; it’s straightforward and helpful. http://www.curriculumsupport.education.nsw.gov.au/policies/gats/assets/pdf/polimp.pdf  

Quick side note: I would love to know the experience and suggested resources of my readers who have attempted (successfully or not) to advocate for acceleration.  Your stories help me to build a trove of anecdotes when I work with schools.               

The take away is that there are ways to find like-minded peers inside and outside of the classroom.  I joined a mixed-aged martial arts class because of my over-active denial gene; however, I have become invested in the process.  When I’m there, I’m surrounded by other students who are training with equal gusto, regardless of their age.  Imagine some bizzaro world where every 40-year-old in the neighborhood is required by law to show up to karate at 7pm.  I’m not saying that I’d be the best, but I guarantee I would be one of the few who are eager to learn the sport.  This is your kid in class.  She’s looking around and wondering why the others don’t want to do more math problems or read for fun.  It’s up to you to seek out and advocate for ways where your child can be surrounded by like-minded peers and community.     


DeLeon, J. (2015, June 12).  Studying gifted young people.  The North Texan. Retreived from http://northtexan.unt.edu/node/5704

Gross, M.U.M (1993). Exceptionally gifted children. (Print) London: Routledge.  

Gross, M.U.M. (2000). Exceptionally and profoundly gifted students: An Underserved population.  Understanding our Gifted.  Winter 2000.

Robinson, K. (2010).  Changing education paradigms. Video. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms      

Justin is a teacher, gifted specialist, curriculum writer, and fledging practitioner of karate.  He is best known for his creation of mixed-age programs and professional development in the field of gifted education.  You can find learn more about him here.

We’re pleased to join this month’s Gifted Homeschoolers Blog Hop with this post! Click image below for a complete list of this month’s collection.


Relational Aggression and Learning

by Emily VR

Words can do lasting damage.  As we know from tragedies involving social media, bullying isn’t limited to black eyes or stolen lunch money.  Thankfully, “sticks and stones” beliefs are finally disappearing as more adults recognize the harm caused by verbal aggression and social exclusion.

In schools, educators work to reduce bullying through awareness, prevention efforts, district policies, and interventions.  There is no universally accepted definition for bullying, but generally, it is said to include a real or perceived power imbalance, multiple incidents, and an intent to cause harm.   Some experts debate whether bullying should also include “relational aggression” and two of its forms, “peer rejection” and “ostracism” (Zins et al., 2007); depending on the facts, these behaviors may or may not meet bullying policy definitions.  Unfortunately, when anti-bullying programs focus on a narrow definition, adults may miss opportunities to both foster empathy and address harmful behavior – which can negatively affect the learning environment.

What exactly is relational aggression, and how does it impact education?

Relational aggression defined

Relational aggression, or RA, is also referred to as “social bullying,” “friendship bullying,” “covert aggression,” or “female bullying,” though it is not limited to one gender.  RA behaviors are intended to hurt another person, and they involve emotional rather than physical harm.  In her book Mean Girls Grown Up, Dr. Cheryl Dellasega defines RA as “the use of relationships to hurt another,” or “verbal violence in which words rather than fists inflict damage” (Dellasega, 2005).  Dellasega explores short and long-term harm from RA at all ages.  Behaviors can include:

  • manipulation using friendships or other relationships,
  • excluding an individual from a group,
  • spreading negative or false information about another person,
  • deliberately unkind treatment (either in private or in front of others),
  • criticizing and belittling another (Coloroso, 2008; Dellasega, 2005).

RA behaviors can involve efforts to gain or maintain social control (“queen bee” behavior), avoidance of admitting one’s mistakes, taking credit for others’ work, gossip, reputation damage, and/or negative treatment of an individual perceived as competition, threatening, or inferior (Coloroso, 2008; Dellasega, 2005; Oiker, 2011).   Aggressors often exert efforts to look good to perceived superiors and give preferential treatment to beneficial relationships.  Barbara Coloroso notes, “devious and manipulative, [the aggressor] can act as if she is a caring and compassionate person, but it is… a tool to get what she wants” (2008).  An aggressor may single out only one or a few individuals.  The intent and frequency of RA behaviors determine whether they qualify as bullying under an existing definition or policy.

RA can deeply hurt children, and it often involves someone the child had perceived as a trusted friend.  Attempts to confront the aggressor may be unsuccessful: as a ninth-grader explained to the author of Odd Girl Out, “‘she’ll turn it around,’ ‘she’ll make it about me,’ or ‘she’ll get everyone on her side’” (Simmons, 2002).  Bystanders or “middle bees” may enable or facilitate RA by passing along rumors (Dellasega), or, out of fear or a desire to “fit in,” may fail to speak out against RA behavior (Coloroso).

While it is thought that media exposure may play a causal role (Ostrov, 2013), children can engage in RA at surprisingly young ages: preschoolers have been observed attempting to exclude children from play (Reddy, 2014).  Aggressors may suffer from insecurity, or they may observe and learn RA behaviors from other children and adults, including parents.  As suggested by the title of one of Coloroso’s chapters, “it runs in the family,” parents may engage (sometimes unknowingly) in psychologically manipulative tactics with their children, may focus heavily on competition, or may model RA behavior toward other adults.  Several sources discuss adult RA in the workplace, volunteer organizations, and other groups, including groups connected with schools.  An article from the National Education Association notes that children who witness parents “practicing exclusion or manipulation of friends or family members will likely exhibit the same behavior in school” (Ross).

Impact on learning

RA in the school setting can cause the victim to dislike school (Zins et al, 2007), and it can also have an impact on academic performance and future educational options.  According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, bullying can result in school avoidance, higher rates of absenteeism, decrease in grades, inability to concentrate, loss of interest in academic achievement, and an increase in dropout rates (PACER, 2015).   While research continues on bullying and race, it is thought that bullied Black and Hispanic youth are more likely to suffer academic harm than their white peers (Stopbullying.gov).  In some cases, bullying of students with disabilities or other specific differences (race, religion, ethnicity) can trigger the protections of federal civil rights laws.  RA occurring outside school, such as in social groups and extracurricular activities, may also impact students in the classroom.

The impact of RA on education is not limited to bullying between children: several sources discuss negative incidents involving some teachers’ treatment of students (Kam; Price, 2015), bullying between parents, treatment of teachers by colleagues or supervisors, and bullying of educators by parents.

Students at risk

Who is most vulnerable to RA?  Any child may become a victim, but children with special needs have been targeted by peer bullies more frequently than other children (PACER, 2015).  Children identified with gifted needs are also at increased risk of psychological harm from bullying (Medaris, 2006), possibly due to academic and social/emotional differences in the gifted population (Price, 2015; Taibbi, 2012).   Students perceived as different in other ways may be at additional risk.  Differences can include religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, gender identity, and sexual orientation (SPLC; Stopbullying.gov).

What can educators and parents do?

Simply teaching students to “be kind” is often not enough:  for students engaging in RA, the ability to engage in kind behavior is often not the issue.  Aggressors can be very kind toward those who benefit them.  The deterrent for both aggressors and bystanders involves empathy:  students must learn to understand and relate to different perspectives, to feel the suffering of others, and to choose to prevent harm caused by aggressive behavior or inaction.

Part two of this post will explore a few promising (and less promising) strategies for fostering empathy at school and at home.  In the meantime, when considering bullying in schools, the first and most important steps in addressing RA may be (a) recognizing the threat RA poses to students’ well-being and learning, and (b) taking a fresh look at how we help our students and children to relate to the feelings and experiences of others.


Because of the increased risks for gifted children, this post is included in the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop on Gifted Social Issues.  Contrary to myth, gifted students are not necessarily high achievers, and their needs and characteristics can be misunderstood by peers, parents, educators, and other professionals.  For additional resources on gifted children, please visit Hoagies Gifted Education Page.

The Fissure Blog is proud to participate in blog hops from Hoagies!  For additional posts, please click on the below image (credit Pamela S. Ryan).

August Hoagies Image

Sources and Additional Reading

Books and articles

Ayer, R. (2014, Dec. 1).  UGA study finds it’s mean boys, not mean girls, who rule at school.  UGA Today: University of Georgia.  http://news.uga.edu/releases/article/uga-study-mean-boys-not-mean-girls-rule-at-school-1214/

Babbel, S. (2011, March 15).  Child’s bullying consequence: adult PTSD.  Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/somatic-psychology/201103/child-bullyings-consequence-adult-ptsd

Coloroso, B. (2008).  The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander:  From Preschool to High School – How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence.  New York: HarperCollins.

Dellasega, C. (2005).  Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees.  Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Kam, K. Teachers who bully.  WebMD, Health and Parentinghttp://www.webmd.com/parenting/features/teachers-who-bully

Medaris, K. (2006).  Study: Gifted children especially vulnerable to effects of bullying.  Purdue University News.  http://www.purdue.edu/uns/html4ever/2006/060406.Peterson.bullies.html

Oliker, D. M. (2011, Sept. 3).  Bullying in the female world: the hidden aggression behind the innocent smile.  Psychology Today: The Long Reach of Childhood.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-long-reach-childhood/201109/bullying-in-the-female-world

Ostrov, J. M. (2013, August).  The development of relational aggression: The role of media exposure.  Psychological Science Agenda: American Psychological Association.  http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2013/07-08/relational-aggression.aspx

Peterson, J. S. (2016).  Gifted children and Bullying.  In M. Neihart, S. I. Pfeiffer, and T. L. Cross (Eds.), The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know?  (pp. 131 – 144) (2nd ed.).  Waco, TX:  Prufrock Press.  A service publication of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Price, P. (2015).  Gifted, Bullied, Resilient: A Brief Guide for Smart Families.  Olympia, WA: Gifted Homeschoolers Press.

Raison, C. (2009, March 21).  Can schoolyard bullying lead to PTSD?  CNN: Expert Q&A.  http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/expert.q.a/03/31/bullying.ptsd.raison/

Reddy, S. (2014, May 26).  Little children and already acting mean: children, especially girls, withhold friendship as a weapon; teaching empathy.  Wall Street Journal.   http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304811904579586331803245244

Ross, D. M.  Parents’ role in bullying and intervention.  National Educational Association.  http://www.nea.org/home/56805.htm

Taibbi, C. (2012, Aug. 26).  Bullying and the gifted: welcome back to school?  Psychology Today.    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/gifted-ed-guru/201208/bullying-and-the-gifted-welcome-back-school

Whitson, S. (2012, Nov. 9).  When friendship is used as a weapon: revealing the hidden nature of relational bullying.  Huffington Post.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/signe-whitson/girl-bullying-_b_2093158.html

Zins, J. E., Elias, Maurice, J., and Maher, C. A., Eds. (2007).  Bullying, Victimization, and Peer Harassment: A Handbook of Prevention and Intervention.  Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

Web resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2016, June 8).  Safety and children with disabilities: bullying.   http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandsafety/bullying.html

Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page.  Bullies and Bullying.  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/bullies.htm

NoBullying.com.  Let’s understand relational aggression.  http://nobullying.com/relational-aggression/

PACER, National Bullying Prevention Center:  Bullying and harassment of students with disabilities.  http://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/students-with-disabilities/

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  Bullying Basics.  Teaching Tolerancehttp://www.tolerance.org/bullying-basics

Stopbullying.gov.  Bullying and youth with disabilities and special health needs.    http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/special-needs/

Stopbullying.gov.  Considerations for special groups.  http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/

The Ophelia Project (organization discontinued, website still available online) http://www.opheliaproject.org/about.html#mission

Blog posts

Gordon, S. (2016, June 17).  8 ways bullying affects gifted students: why gifted students are targeted.  Verywell.com: Bullying.  https://www.verywell.com/how-bullying-impacts-the-gifted-student-460594

Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop:  Bullying across the gifted/2e lifespan.  http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/blog-hops/bullies-bullying-gifted2e-kids/

Gross, G. (2013, Oct. 3).  Girls who bully and the women they learn from.  Huffington Post: The Blog.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-gail-gross/girls-who-bully-and-the-women-they-learn-from_b_4034100.html

Trépanier, C. (2014).  The burdens of gifted children.  http://crushingtallpoppies.com/2014/03/06/the-burdens-of-gifted-children/

The Mysteries of SQ: Our Most Important Intelligence


NOTE: While doing research in graduate school, I became frustrated with how limited views of intelligence were narrowing the educational system and approaches to curriculum in general. Then, I came across the concept of Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) via the book SQ: Spiritual Intelligence – The Ultimate Intelligence. In this post I share my discoveries on SQ and invite you to reflect on this largely-undiscovered concept. 

Of all the gifts a teacher has the potential of offering a student, perhaps the most vital and significant is to empower the student with the ability to create a meaning and a vision for her life. 

Yet how do we as humans create meaning for our livesThis is a philosophical, even theological, question well beyond the scope of simple assertions. Yet if we narrow our scope to explore what teachers can do within the classroom to help students develop the capacity to create meaning, we can indeed gain a little ground. Brain-based learning expert Eric Jensen (2000) asserts that our brains are designed to seek out meaning, and that unless teachers are able to provide students with opportunities to discover meaning, “we will continue to produce robots and underachievers” (p. 279). Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1984) holds an even stronger belief that the will to meaning is the primary motivation of our existence. 

With the search for meaning being such a basic part of our makeup, it would seem that a teacher’s job in this regard would be relatively straightforward—we simply push along, or guide, our students in their natural, spontaneous quest for meaningful contexts. But what if the educational system itself is sabotaging this natural, healthy quest for meaning, and in fact depriving students of opportunities and contexts for the healthy development of meaningful lives? The very fact that standardized tests have become the guidepost around which all curriculum seems to revolve, and so much teacher energy is devoted, is a sad indication that this deprivation is occurring. Educational philosopher William Ayers (1993) believes that “standardized tests push well-intentioned teachers and school leaders in the wrong direction; they constrain teachers’ energies and minds, dictating a disastrously narrow range of activities and experiences” (p. 118). Many other roadblocks to meaning will be discussed in later sections.

Unless we as teachers want to propagate our future with the robots that Jensen has warned us about, we must quickly and skillfully remedy, or at least counteract, the narrowing effects of the current educational system. Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall (2000) have given us a wonderful framework through which to do just that. They have developed the concept of “spiritual intelligence (SQ).” In their book, Spiritual Intelligence, The Ultimate Intelligence they outline the basis and technique for engendering the overarching intelligence in human consciousness that enables our capacity for meaning, vision, and value.


Despite uncertainty about this very question, the current educational environment regards the nebulous idea of intelligence with a certain holy deference. “IQ” scores are used to determine student eligibility in Gifted and Talented programs, or to determine whether a struggling child belongs in a “Special Education” program. Across the country, state-developed standardized tests are used to gauge student achievement and even rank schools into categories. However, research is increasingly demonstrating that our traditional definition of intelligence is an extremely narrow view and does not acknowledge a vast spectrum of human abilities and insights.

Zohar and Marshall (2000) posit that there are three kinds of intelligence we can recognize based on observation of neural organization and processes, as well as human behavior. The first is a linear, serial intelligence that one might associate with logic. We can consider this rule-bound thinking. Neural tracts in the brain are hard-wired to follow specific rules in accordance with formal logicThese are the neural tracts we access to perform highly logical tasks, such as learning the times tables, or grammatically diagramming a sentence. This is the kind of thinking that is measured on traditional IQ tests as developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905 (Wigglesworth, 2002). No one would argue against the usefulness of this kind of intelligence, but unfortunately, argue Zohar and Marshall, this kind of intelligence does not provide us with our sense of meaning. It simply processes information but cannot make any qualitative assessment of it. After all, computers can have a high “IQ” in the context of this type of thinking, but we would never ask a computer to make a qualitative decision for us, such as what shirt we should wear to work, or even who we should marry. 

But another piece of the puzzle is filled in by a second type of intelligence based on a different type of neural wiring we all possess. Neural networks, as opposed to linear neural tracts, are associative in nature, and provide us with our “associative, habit-bound, pattern-recognizing, emotive thinking” (Zohar & Marshall, 2000). This associative thinking allows us to literally associate objects in our environment, and thus make connections. In its simplest sense, this represents conditioned response, and the most classical example would be the scenario of Pavlov’s salivating dogs. However, the important difference between associative thinking and IQ is that associative neural networks are not hardwired, rule-bound tracts; rather, they “have the ability to rewire themselves in dialogue with experience” (p. 52). Because this is the type of thinking that allows us to make links between our emotions and our feelings, events, people, etc, it is often referred to as “emotional intelligence” (EQ). In fact it is this type of neurological processing Daniel Goleman popularized with the phrase “emotional intelligence” in 1995 (Wigglesworth, 2002). Jensen (2000) also puts great emphasis on the importance of emotions in learning. Because emotions trigger the release of crucial neurotransmitters which signal to the brain the importance of what is being learned, there is no way to separate emotions from other cognitive processes

So IQ and EQ form a sort of neurological tag-team in our learning process. This is not a unique claim of Zohar and Marshall; it is simply a summary of current consensus. What Zohar and Marshall’s unique contribution is that these two alone are not enough to explain the human capacity for creating value and meaning from experience. There is a third, most crucial intelligence which transcends these first two, and this third intelligence, though it does seem to possess transcendent qualities, does indeed have a neurological basis.


Both IQ and EQ represent kinds of thinking that can be replicated by computers—serial and associative. Yet as humans we possess a certain awareness, and even an awareness of that awareness, that we know intuitively no machine or computer is capable of. This third dimension of intelligence is what allows us to think creatively, to make rules, and, of course, to break rules. A computer must simply follow its rule-bound and associative programs when given a command. A human being, on the other hand, has the ability to question the command, or even refuse to do it! This is a direct reflection of this third, unitive intelligence.

 Zohar and Marshall (2000) take an extensive look at the most recent neurological research and find striking support for a neurological basis of this unitive intelligence. Because the purpose of this post is more practical, and aims to support teachers in applying these concepts to benefit students, this post will only briefly summarize the supporting research. 

 Zohar and Marshall (2000) describe how recent research has shown there are oscillations of varying frequencies that occur in the brain. You might almost think of them as “waves” or frequencies that vibrate throughout different parts of the brain. Scientists have been able to associate these oscillations of different frequencies with specific levels of mental activity and alertness. In essence, these oscillations seem to be another way for the brain to communicate with itself. For example, upon perceiving a specific object, different areas of the brain might oscillate simultaneously. Of particular significance, however, are neural oscillations at the frequency of 40 Hz. These 40 Hz oscillations occur throughout the whole cortex, occur whether one is awake or sleeping, and seem to “transcend the ability of any single neuron or localized group of neurons” (p. 74) in that they integrate processing across the whole brain. In other words, these 40 Hz oscillations are such a crucial, indispensable piece of the puzzle because they seem to allow the brain to “see itself” in a wider context than a single neural tract or neural network. This neurological process translates into allowing us to reframe our knowledge and experience in a wider context of meaning. For this reason, these holistic oscillations are what Zohar and Marshall cite as the neurological basis for SQ. 

The discoveries of the role of these 40 Hz brain oscillations in unifying consciousness obviously open the floodgates for a whole new wave of questions. What is consciousness? What is mind, and where does it come from? Zohar and Marshall do passionately delve into these questions, and in the end rest in a position that recognizes a self-transcendent quality of consciousness: “We conscious human beings have our roots at the origin of the universe itself. Our spiritual intelligence grounds us in the wider cosmos, and life has purpose and meaning within the larger context of cosmic evolutionary processes (p. 88).

The significance in finding this innate human physiological basis for SQ is that we can acknowledge it as the birthright of all human beings, and not simply the special aptitude of a few “blessed” individuals. Whether consciously or not, we are all creating meaning, and we all have the potential to increase our capacity for value and meaningfulness by developing this innate intelligence.

Obviously, this view makes spiritual intelligence absolutely crucial in the quest for creating meaning and purpose. In fact, this third, unitive kind of intelligence that allows one to create a meaningful context seems to be exactly what Adlerian psychologists Mosak and Dreikurs (2000) are referring to when they say: “If social embeddedness is the key to a person’s feeling at home on Earth, then cosmic embeddedness is its counterpart in the existential realm” (p. 263). So it seems no coincidence that SQ is directly linked to Adler’s foundational principle of “social interest.” Like social interest, SQ is the pathway by which one creates meaning and moves toward a state of self-realization.

One useful and crucial quality of the concept of SQ is that is doesn’t, in fact, rely on any particular religious platform. It is simply an acknowledgment that human beings create meaning and value through a holistic, unitive form of intelligence. For some, this may indeed find its resonance in a traditional religious tradition. However, Zohar and Marshall emphasize the fact that even an atheist can have very high spiritual intelligence, and an extremely devout religious fundamentalist can have very low spiritual intelligence. Which leads us to the next important question: What does spiritual intelligence look like?


Though it may be difficult to articulate, teachers have an intuitive understanding of SQ as the ultimate form of intelligence. At least, we all understand that IQ and EQ alone are not enough to explain a student’s state of “intelligence” or well-being, or value. For example, we’ve all met students who are recognized as highly “gifted” (high IQ), but have no social skills and act out with self-destructive behavior. This scenario alone, repeated year after year in schools across the country (and world) is proof that IQ is not a valid measure of the potential for a successful, meaningful life. Such a student obviously has a gap in which EQ is not developed, but the self-destructive behavior suggests a more crucial gap. There are many other scenarios in which the variables change, such as the highly charismatic, socially fluent student (high EQ) who is failing math. These all prove the same thing—namely that teachers need to recognize a third, more crucial variable of intelligence—SQ. What, however, are the qualities of a person with highly developed SQ?

Cindy Wigglesworth (2002), president of Conscious Pursuits, Inc.—a company which trains organizations in developing spiritual intelligence—has adapted Zohar and Marshall’s descriptions of SQ into a list of nine qualities of a spiritually intelligent person:

  1. She is self-aware.
  2. She is led by vision and values.
  3. She has a capacity to face and use adversity.
  4. She sees the world holistically.
  5. She thrives in and celebrates diversity.
  6. She possesses courage, or field independence.
  7. She has a tendency to ask “why?” 
  8. Spiritual Intelligence
  9. She has the ability to re-frame things into a larger context of meaning.
  10. She possesses a spontaneity that allows her to be responsive to the world.

It is clear from this list that these are natural human qualities independent of any religious or particular spiritual doctrine, and yet at the same time they are qualities we might easily identify in those people we consider to be highly spiritual, of whatever religion. It is also easy to see how each of these qualities, without exception, would assist a student in creating a meaningful context in which to develop. This makes spiritual intelligence a particularly useful and effective way to discuss the higher order development of students without treading into dangerous discussions of religion.


The sole purpose of developing SQ in teachers and students is for them to lead healthy, whole, and connected lives. There is no need here to discuss the abounding evidence that young people today are, for the most part, not leading this sort of life. One could examine statistics on dropout rates, gang and other school violence, drug use and so on and quickly eliminate “healthy,” “whole,” and “connected” from their descriptions of many students. Spiritual sickness, Zohar and Marshall (2000) argue, occurs when we are cutoff from the nurturing spiritually intelligent centers of ourselves through “fragmentation, one-sidedness, pain or distraction”.  As an entire culture we are sick, they argue, due to an “alienation from meaning, value, purpose and vision, alienation from the roots of and reasons for our humanity” (p. 170-1). Frankl (1984) blames the “existential vacuum”—a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness—as a root cause of depression, aggression, and addiction. Though Frankl didn’t say it as such, this void certainly equates to the same alienation from SQ that Zohar and Marshall describe. 

To frame it another way, we might say that spiritual sickness occurs in students when their “will to meaning” is obscured and they begin to shut down their connections with the world and beings around them, one by one. In this state of hopelessness students might react in one of two equally unproductive ways. First, they may emotionally withdraw in order to isolate themselves in an attempt to reduce their pain. Second, they might attempt to overcome their hopelessness through control and intimidation of others and their environment (Beaves & Kaslow, 1981). By helping students develop the “tools” of SQ, teachers can prevent both of these extreme reactions to students’ struggle for meaning.

As teachers, are we propagating this spiritual disease of alienation by neglecting our students’ greatest tool for creating value and healing themselves? If teachers had the ability to engender the nine qualities of SQ described above, how many fragmented, disconnected young people would be able to reframe their embattled lives with a wider, transcendent view of self that might actually bring healing and new hope? SQ can serve as what Zohar and Marshall call our “compass at the edge.”


Though SQ is a quality that has been present in humanity for millennia, it is a relatively new conceptualization that has not yet achieved wide acceptance. Since it is such a young concept, still in its establishment and validation stage, its direct application into specific fields is very undeveloped. Even Zohar and Marshall make minimal references to how SQ might be applied in the field of Education, even while acknowledging the natural SQ qualities that manifest in children, who in many ways are more in touch with their spiritually intelligent centers than adults who have had many more years and opportunities to become fragmented and disillusioned. 

So the role of this post, to a modest, minimal degree, is to take those first steps at integrating the concept of SQ into the hearts and worlds of teachers in the hopes that wider knowledge and development of the concept will soon create a more fertile ground for these ideas to be tested and discussed further. 

Here are eight ways I believe teachers can directly and indirectly engender SQ in their classrooms, thus laying before students tools with which they can create meaningful lives. Within the description of each I have included which of the nine qualities of SQ described by Wigglesworth I believe it encompasses.

1. Embody SQ as teachers

By whatever means is most appropriate to their own lives, teachers should continue to evolve and develop their own connections to their spiritually intelligent center. Cynthia Wigglesworth defines SQ in a way that I think is extremely appropriate for teachers: “the ability to behave with Compassion and Wisdom while maintaining inner and outer peace (equanimity) regardless of the circumstances” (Wigglesworth, 2002-2004). Modeling these qualities as a teacher creates the framework through which students can begin to conceptualize their own spiritually intelligent selves.

2. Engage in creative insubordination (She is led by vision and values)

Curriculum and teachers today are enmeshed in a world of standardized testing in which measurable results drive all else. Because this situation is not naturally friendly to the development of SQ, teachers must engage in what William Ayers (1993) has called “creative insubordination”. He tells the story of how he once stood on a chair to unscrew and disconnect his classroom loudspeaker after his students’ learning time and space had been interrupted several times in a single morning. These harmless acts don’t hinder student learning, which is what makes them justifiable, according to Ayers. In the context of SQ teachers may need to occasionally close their curriculum books and open their hearts. They will need to take risks in their lessons and their classrooms that stimulate the very centers of students, rather than simply rustle them out of their naps long enough to answer a few multiple choice questions. When we as spiritually intelligent teachers are led by a vision of social interest, in which our purpose is truly to benefit students and not simply further our careers, then the wide, inclusive framework within which we create our classrooms and encounter students will empower us to take skillful actions that benefit students, regardless of whether or not they harmonize with robotic bureaucracy.

3. Dwell on the Synthesis and Evaluation level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (She has a tendency to ask “why?; She has the ability to re-frame things into a larger context of meaning)

Most teachers are quite familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, especially in relation to levels of questioning. The taxonomy has six tiers: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. The higher the tier you work from as a teacher the more higher-order thinking you are requiring from students. The Knowledge and Comprehension tiers, for instance, require little more than recall of facts and basic ideas. These are certainly important building blocks for developing knowledge and thinking skills, but in the context of SQ these are skills deeply embedded within linear thinking (IQ) and will not help a student build value and meaning.  Based on my analysis of the taxonomy, I propose that only when teachers can consistently question and hold discussions from the top two tiers are we developing and honing SQ. In Synthesis it is said the student “Brings together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for new situations” (Lujan, 2003). Only in Synthesis does the student begin to reframe knowledge and experience into a larger context—a hallmark of SQ. And yet we can extend student thinking (intelligence) even further with Evaluation, in which the student “Makes informed judgments about the value of ideas or materials. Uses standards and criteria to support opinions and views” (Lujan, 2003). In Evaluation students finally arrive at the stage of assigning value to knowledge and experience—an ability which I’ve argued in this post is possible not through the limited neurological systems of IQ and EQ, but only through the transcendent capacity of SQ. 

Again it is no coincidence that this ability, highly linked with SQ, is at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. Yet how often as teachers and schools are we evaluating students from the lower tiers of development? In our rush and frenzy to prepare students to pass standardized tests, which only rarely enter the higher tiers of the taxonomy, how many opportunities to develop SQ are we losing?

4. Create mindmaps and give students the opportunity to create them (She sees the world holistically; She has the ability to re-frame things into a larger context of meaning)

Creating mindmaps is a tested technique for drawing connections between words, ideas, concepts and entire worlds. The connections that mindmaps uncover help develop a sense of the natural interdependence of objects and ideas. One of the first and most widely known proponents of mindmapping, Tony Buzan (1993), says that mindmaps develop the mind’s “radiant thinking” capabilities, which empower the individual to see connections and make decisions beyond the normally limited state and become a “mentally literate human.” A mentally literate human, he says, is “capable of turning on the radiant synergetic thinking engines, and creating conceptual frameworks and new paradigms of possibility” (p.287). One skill of a spiritually intelligent person is that she is able to reframe concepts into larger contexts and therefore create “new paradigms.” So it seems the use of mindmaps would be a naturally effective way of engendering this aspect of a student’s SQ.

5. Create an Appreciation of Deep Diversity (She thrives in and celebrates diversity): 

The phrase “deep diversity” is simply my own way of suggesting that we need to go beyond tokenism in the classroom and give students the chance to encounter diversity on a deeper level. As teachers we don’t always have control over the students that end up on our roster, but we do control many of the interactions our students will have throughout the year. A teacher might create opportunities for his students to interact with classrooms of students of a different age, race, ability, ethnicity, or even language. A teacher whose class is predominantly white, for example, might create meaningful encounters for them with ESL, Bilingual, or Special Ed students on the same campus. These encounters should personally engage students and not be mere superficial presentations of holidays and customs (which are great in some contexts). I believe that appreciating diversity in the context of SQ means seeing oneself in the “other”, regardless of how far removed they seem from one’s cultural context. Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to develop this aspect of students’ SQ by giving them meaningful encounters with diversity.

6. Help students create their own visions and goals (She is led by vision and values):

Teachers should openly model and discuss their own goal-setting strategies and the visions that propel them. When students see examples of how intention can bring about fruition, they may begin to develop faith in the goal-setting process. Also, journal exercises and discussions which force students to confront their own beliefs and articulate them (at whatever level they are capable) will lead students toward to a deeper understanding of their own value. In an ideal scenario, the teacher could help students create an evolving “mission statement” that reflects their own vision and values. The teacher could possibly hold the students accountable to their statement as a sort of “vision contract.” A vision that is grounded in SQ will help a student transcend the vicissitudes of life’s daily struggles and develop a capacity for resilience.

7. Provide opportunities to journal and reflect (She is self-aware):

Students should have a venue to explore themselves at all three levels of intelligence—intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—that is non-judgmental and supportive. Journals are the perfect outlet for this type of reflective exploration if they are understood to be confidential AND the teacher is able to provide regular constructive feedback. It is up to the skillfulness of the teacher to guide students’ journaling towards a deeper self-awareness.

8. Study and discuss biographies of spiritually intelligent people (She has a capacity to face and use adversity; She possesses courage, or field independence): 

Students arrive with a variety of life experiences. At a young age some have already encountered great adversity that has tested their spiritual fabric and courage. In these cases teachers should have the courage to recognize and help the student use that adversity to grow their SQ and develop their own courage. In other cases, students have had relatively sheltered lives and little opportunity to encounter and learn from adversity. Yet we know that as human beings they certainly will encounter adversity.  In both cases students need good models and frameworks through which to encounter and learn from adversity. Whenever possible the teacher himself should model this SQ skill. He should be open to discussing how he overcame and learned from difficult situations in his own life. He should be able to discuss times in his own life when he had courage, and times when he didn’t. This modeling can be broadened by studying the lives of those we might recognize as very spiritually intelligent. There are some obvious example, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi, but it would be easy to find examples that might relate to particular students or groups of students. How about Helen Keller for students with some form of disability? How about Jim Abbot, the pro baseball pitcher with one arm, for students with a connection to athletics? This list would be easy to extend, but it would be most appropriate for the teacher to use his own understanding of his students to provide them with good models of courage in the face of adversity.


A key facet of creating hope is to “develop or rediscover beliefs in values beyond one’s own being and one’s family, a relatedness to the larger universe and a feeling of harmony with (at least part of) it” (Beavers and Kaslow, 1981, p. 122). Engendering SQ will indeed give students a vision beyond their own being and develop their sense of connectedness with the universe. In this sense, SQ is an incomparable guide to hope. In fact, as Zohar and Marshall suggest, we are neurologically developed to experience the world in a way that transcends our limited selves, which reinforces that as teachers we are simply guiding students to the state of meaning, value, and harmony that is a student’s birthright. 

Numerous obstacles stand before the teacher whose heart is in the highest interest of his students. Some of these are externally relevant—standardized testing requirements, curriculum restrictions, financial limitations. Yet many other of these obstacles are the result of his own internal limitations. Frankly, we teachers, as much as the students themselves, become alienated and fragmented in the storm of what’s expected of us in our occupation. Perhaps the problem is, as Dreikurs suggests, that we lack the “courage to be imperfect.” In fact it is two qualities of SQ—courage and spontaneity—that Dreikurs suggest we most need as teachers in order to transcend our own self-interest and instead skillfully encounter the needs of the situation. Only then, he argues, can we achieve a state of “inner freedom” and in turn impart a healthy philosophy of life to our students. This resonates strongly with the concept SQ. In short, it suggests that only spiritually intelligent teachers can produce spiritually intelligent students. 

In the generous and invigorating spirit of social interest, we must become worthy as vehicles of temporary transference onto which students can project their hopes and gradually develop their own SQ. By temporarily “borrowing hope” from teachers in a way that Beavers and Kaslow describe (1981) for therapeutic situations, students can “develop or recapture a sense of basic trust and its corollary, an optimistic belief that life has value and meaning” (p. 121). 

If developing SQ were simple, campuses and classrooms would be happier, healthier places in which the values of harmony, vision, and values thrived. Yet these kinds of classrooms are rare. Spiritually intelligent schools require spiritually intelligent teachers, and these certainly constitute a minority. A teacher might become hopeless or discouraged about ever transforming so many minds in a sea of spiritual sickness. Yet that would deepen the very existential vacuum we are trying to fill, or overcome. Instead, we can, as Frankl (1984) proposes, accept the “challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless everyone does his best” (p. 179).

Armed with an awareness of our own innate capacity to develop the spontaneous and healing qualities of SQ, we should enter classrooms and schools with the boundless, selfless courage of a warrior, emboldened by the vigor of a cosmic social interest. 


  • Ayers, W. (1993). To teach: The journey of a teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Beavers, W. R. & Kaslow, F. W (1981). The anatomy of hope. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April, 119-126.
  • Buzan, T. & Buzan, B. (1993). The mind map book: How to use radiant thinking to maximize you brain’s untapped potential. London: Plume.
  • Dreikurs, R.. The teacher’s struggle with herself. Psychology in the classroom.
  • Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Pocket Books. 
  • Jensen, E. (2000). Brain-based learning. San Diego: The Brain Store.
  • Lujan, M L. (2003). Critical thinking reference: TEKS checklist, 4th grade.Teacher Resources, L.P.
  • Mosak, H. H. & Dreikurs, R. (2000). Spirituality: The fifth life taskThe Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(3), 257-265.
  • Wigglesworth, C. (2002). Spiritual intelligence and leadershiphttp://www.conscioiuspursuits.com. Conscious Pursuits, Inc.
  • Wigglesworth, C. (2004). Spiritual intelligence and why it mattershttp://www.conscioiuspursuits.com. Conscious Pursuits, Inc.
  • Zohar, D. & Marshall, I. (2000). Spiritual Intelligence: The ultimate intelligence. New York: Bloomsbury.


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All Along the Watchtower: Jimi Hendrix and the Search for Diverse Gifted Learners

by Ben Koch

The recent death of Prince has prompted us here at The Fissure to think about giftedness in celebrities, particularly in the arts.  In this era of selfies and news scandals, we sometimes equate celebrity with a shallow narcissism, and we can forget that many highly successful artists and performers reach the pinnacle of their craft as a result of extraordinary ability and resilience.

As more stories and anecdotes come out about Prince as a young passion-driven musician, we can’t help but draw a keen comparison between Prince and another gifted artist: Jimi Hendrix. Like Prince, Hendrix was able to redraw the cultural lines of racial, ethnic, and gender expectations.  Both developed their gifts against the odds, in an often hostile world, and produced a legacy of beloved music in the process.

In this post, we present Jimi Hendrix as a case study of our need to identify and develop the talents of young, gifted students from diverse backgrounds.  Using Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities as a framework, and drawing on the research of Reva C. Friedman concerning giftedness in low-income families, educators can learn important lessons from his journey.

In the summer of 1966, a virtually unknown and self-taught musician named Jimi Hendrix walked into a New York club to audition for a show.  In a typical and all-too-common scenario, his guitar had been stolen the previous night, so when he got on stage another musician handed him a right-handed guitar.  For most musicians in Jimi’s situation this would have been the end of it, and he would have needed to forfeit his audition—Jimi was left-handed.  Yet, without a second’s hesitation, Jimi took the guitar that had been handed to him, flipped it over, and, to the astonishment of all present began jamming on it upside down as effortlessly and seamlessly as if he were playing his own lefty guitar.
This display of uncanny, virtuosic talent was typical of Jimi Hendrix’s meteoric rise to fame, and within a year of this event he was enjoying the success of nearly worldwide renown. In the end, however, the rags-to-riches story of Jimi Hendrix is the tragic tale of a gifted human being whose unique needs were never met.  Just like a meteor, his life came crashing to a fiery end, leaving us to wonder what spectacular displays his creative mind might have given us.  The life story of this gifted musician and performer holds many insights and lessons for educators and researchers interested in the identification and development of gifted children—in particular those under-identified students from a low SES background, like Jimi.  Through his lens we can examine gifted identification and mentoring, the importance of developing an internal locus of control, and the consequences when gifted individuals are unable to achieve the positive disintegration that Dabrowski described as essential to healthy growth and human development.

The life story of this gifted musician and performer holds many insights and lessons for educators and researchers interested in the identification and development of gifted children—in particular those under identified students that come from a low SES background, like Jimi.

Using traditional achievement-based methods of identification, it is doubtful that Jimi would have been identified as “gifted” in most programs. Growing up in Seattle in the 1950’s, he displayed the classic symptoms of underachievement:  there was a gross inconsistency between his perceived potential and his academic performance.  Adults in his life considered him bright, polite, and even insightful, yet in elementary school his grades were never better than mediocre.  He did show enough enthusiasm for a very high attendance record during elementary school, and he displayed talent and interest in art.  He had a notebook that he filled with drawings of “flying saucers and drag racers” (Cross, 2005, p. 46) and he liked drawing cars so much that at one point he mailed several car designs to Ford Motor Company.  As Jimi progressed through middle and high school, however, both his grades and attendance gradually declined, and at the ultimate low point, during his senior year, he flunked out of Garfield High School.

From a purely academic, achievement-based viewpoint, the case for Jimi’s giftedness seems dismal.  There are no records of any conducted IQ tests, yet several aspects of his childhood show early suggestions that he was indeed the very gifted diamond in the rough who would later stun the world with his creative talents.

The fact that Jimi made it to his senior year is, in fact, a great testament to his resiliency, and a trait recognized in gifted students from culturally diverse backgrounds (Werner as cited by Davis & Rimm, 2004).  Growing up in a severely broken home, his exposure to abuse, poverty, and alcoholism, the death of his mother, and his nearly daily battle with hunger would have led most in Jimi’s situation down a path of violence or escape.  It’s easy to believe there were many such invitations extended to Jimi—to sell drugs, to join gangs, to use drugs and alcohol—yet time and again, Jimi carried on as if enveloped by a protection from such threats.

This bombardment of struggles and challenges would provide the potential for positive disintegration under Dabrowski’s theory, yet amid it all, it wasn’t innocence or naivete so much as a hypersensitive sense of destiny which seems to have helped Jimi sidestep dangerous fates at an early age. This hypersensitivity is related to a very high imaginational overexcitability, and it is exhibited in many aspects of Jimi’s childhood, particularly as it relates to music.

If anyone—a teacher, a relative, a well-meaning adult—could have recognized and acknowledged the power of Jimi’s focused obsession on becoming a musician, that early energy could have been effectively channeled into helping him become a well-rounded and successful individual in addition to a musician.

Many stories of Jimi’s special sensitivity come through extended community members:  though Jimi and his brother were essentially left to fend for themselves, even to the point of stealing food to survive, they had many unofficial foster families throughout their Seattle neighborhood.  One story involves Jimi’s sudden interest in music at about age 11.  Having never so much as touched a real guitar, he procured a broom and transformed it into his imaginary instrument.  Nearly every day after school he would turn on the radio and strum along with his broom as if he were playing.  One man in the neighborhood observed that he would “play that broom so hard, he would lose all the straw” (Cross, 2004, p. 52).  Later, Jimi was able to upgrade his broom to a beaten-up acoustic guitar with one string.  To most, this would have been a useless instrument, but to the now-obsessed Jimi it became more of a science project: “He experimented with every fret, rattle, buzz and sound-making property the guitar had” (Cross, 2004, p. 52).  He was now displaying incredible aptitude and creativity as an engineer, if you will, or even a scientist in the sense that he was solving authentic problems. This singular obsession, driven by his intense imagination, totally overtook Jimi. When he saw the movie “Johnny Guitar,” in which one of the actors walks around with his guitar hung on his back, he began to carry his one-string guitar around like that, even at school. He would wander the neighborhood and whenever he heard music coming from a garage or home, he would wander in and ask if he could play along. This same one-pointed focus would drive him throughout his career. As an older musician, he would bring his guitar to clubs and shows and pester musicians to teach him tricks, or beg them to let him plug into their amplifiers during breaks. Though generally an extremely shy and understated person, when it came to anything related to advancing his music career, Jimi was a fearless risk-taker.

If anyone—a teacher, a relative, a well-meaning adult—could have recognized and acknowledged the power of Jimi’s focused obsession on becoming a musician, that early energy could have been effectively channeled into helping him become a well-rounded and successful individual in addition to a musician.  Yet as it was, no one, not even other musicians, would begin to recognize Jimi’s special gift until years later.  Though in nearly all other areas of his life he lacked confidence and self-esteem, for this one passion, his music, he seemed to possess the internal locus of control so typical of many gifted individuals. This allowed him to carry on despite the criticism and harsh reactions of those around him.  In all aspects of the concept, he was a “self-made” talent. It is not a surprise, however, that Jimi’s teachers were not armed with the knowledge to properly identify culturally diverse gifted students in the forties and fifties – it is a struggle educating teachers even today. If teachers weren’t even properly equipped to assist Jimi’s development, then how could we expect his parents or other relatives—just struggling to stay alive—to understand the subtleties and special developmental needs of gifted children?  Reva C. Friedman (1994) points out several traits of low-income families which show resiliency despite the stressors which challenge the success of gifted children:  they establish a “supportive climate for development” (Friedman, 1994, p. 326) and are “organized in ways that promote predictability of functioning and reliability” (Snow et al. as cited by Friedman, 1994, p. 326). Yet Jimi had even these two strikes against him! He lived most of his childhood in transitory homes with a father who thought his interest in music was a waste of time, and his family’s few resources were hardly “supportive.”  The most predictable aspect of Jimi’s family life that when somebody drank, somebody would get hit (Cross 2005).

How was it, then, that against so many odds, and with no encouragement whatsoever, Jimi persisted in the development of his special talent?  Evidence suggests that his imaginational OE and vision were strong enough to overcome even these odds.  One surrogate mother who described Jimi as “introverted, downcast…[and] extremely sensitive” tells of an evening when young Jimi uttered an “otherworldy” statement to her whole family. She recalls how he told them all that he was going to become rich and famous, and leave the country and never come back. (Cross, 2004, p. 47). For a poverty-stricken, nearly homeless boy to make such a statement in the early fifties must have seemed incredible, and his announcement was, in fact, met with laughter. It would, however, turn out to be an eerily prophetic statement.

In Dabrowski’s concept of positive disintegration, heredity, environment, and autonomy are the three driving factors that determine how one will overcome the suffering and struggles of life.  In many ways, Jimi did resist and overcome the trappings of his heredity and environment. During his maturation he became fixated on his desire to be a musician, and doing so, he discovered a need to develop personal goals and to acquire the tools to realize them. As was mentioned above, his internal locus of control in this area of his life seemed to indicate the “strong instinct to development that leads to the individual’s higher level of being.”

Yet unfortunately there were many events and circumstances of struggle in Jimi’s childhood that he never was able to positively disintegrate. The authoritarian shadow of his father, for example, seemed to haunt him even after he was a famous rock star. The unresolved theme of his mother’s early death due to alcohol was one that came up again and again both in his music and in personal conversations. The fact that his father had prevented him and his brother from attending their mother’s funeral seemed to only add to the unresolved nature of the experience.

The fact that no mentor appeared in Jimi’s life who understood the special developmental needs that his sensitivity and giftedness demanded is the great tragedy of his story. On stage, he was a genius in complete control and command, displaying a spontaneous virtuosity that was unparalleled. Yet in many ways “the same trait that made him such a talented musician—the ability to be lost in the moment of performance—also caused Jimi to act on his immediate desires of urges, with a recklessness at times” (Cross, 2005, p. 179).  Offstage, the internal locus of control he seemed to possess in relation to his talent seemed less influential, and he was often manipulated by those around him with ulterior motives. Eventually this lack of a compass in his off-stage life led him into the dangerous waters of drugs and groupies, and these would prove to be influences that would lead to his early death.

The great lesson in Jimi’s story for educators is the importance of expanding the net we cast in our search for the gifted, and searching very carefully through what we find. Using the multiple criteria approach outlined by Davis and Rimm (2004) would certainly be a big step forward by overcoming many of the limitations of using standardized tests as the sole identification method.  However, Jimi’s story takes us one realization further—there may be many whom our current system of gifted education simply isn’t ready to support. Until that time, educators need to be vigilant in watching for students who display a special talent, sensitivity, or single-minded passion.  These kids may not find a home in a gifted program, but they do need a special mentor.  They need a guiding hand that can lead them to develop a well-rounded confidence in life, and to develop an internal locus of control to help them navigate their passion to maximum success and fulfillment.



Cross, C. R. (2005).  Room full of mirrors: A biography of Jimi Hendrix. New York: Hyperion.

Davis, G. A. and Rimm, S. B. (2004).  Education of the gifted and talented (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Friedman, R. C. (1994). Upstream helping for low-income families of gifted students: Challenges and opportunities.  Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 5(4), 321-338.

fMRI Thinking Caps: Watch Your Child Learn

A Short Story by Justin Vawter, M.Ed.


The rise of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)—and its ability to see our brain’s activity in real time—holds unlimited potential for scientists and researchers. Martin Lindstrom, in his book Buyology, even discusses the current research and implications of neural imaging in market research. For example, do choosy moms really choose Jif peanut butter, and if so, what subconscious processes are driving their purchasing decisions?

As an educational researcher, I love daydreaming about using fMRI to better understand how humans think, learn, and build new knowledge. Imagine if Piaget had access to one of these machines!  What happens on a subconscious level as students are engaged?  Is blood flow increased to various areas of the brain, which allows for heightened neuro-receptivity?  Why do some kids “get” the material while others are left dumbfounded?

However, the prefix “sub” means below/hidden/beneath, and many of us would prefer for our subconscious to remain right where it is—hidden and beneath the visible surface. I admit, I learned a lot in my junior high history class, but that was because I had a huge crush on my teacher. If she could have run a real-time fMRI brain scan on me…well, either she’d be really flattered or I’d be expelled. Either way, let’s leave that pubescent fascination out of my report card, thank you. This example highlights just one example of why we may or may not want to go poking around in the subconscious.

As advocates of neural imaging increase, the opponents of so-called “brain probing” gather together to voice their concerns—and no, the majority do not consist of junior high boys. The argument goes like this: if we know what makes the subconscious work, what keeps us from manipulating reality to control the subconscious? It’s a slippery slope, but a valid ethical conundrum.  It should be noted that valid ethical conundrums typically accompany major scientific discoveries and anomaly shifts.

This is an incredible topic, and it’s fun to look at both sides of the implication coin. However, I am neither smart enough nor well-versed enough to provide a definitive answer about the use (or misuse) or fMRI. Instead, I prefer to keep my contributions to daydreams and silent reveries.  As my contribution to this discussion, I offer the following narrative piece as a simple “what if.”  What would school be like if students were required to wear actual “Thinking Caps®”—a network of lighted diodes that visibly register their brain’s activity? No more daydreaming, but instead, complete and regulated engagement.


It’s 11 minutes after the bell as Yuri slides through the door and into his seat. Teach looks, but just jots it down and moves on. Yuri is closed to being finished—everyone knows it.

He unloads his bag and puts his school items in place: bun-board, isoscope, wax frog figurine—the usual. Yuri places the Thinking Cap® on his head and presses his table’s on switch.  After the initial wince as the cap fires to life, he’s ready.  Sucking in a deep breath of air, Yuri expels a low, droll tone between puffed cheeks, and slowly deflates into his seat.

The diodes on Yuri’s cap fade in the front, flicker, and with decaying pulses, shift into a dull, throbbing light at the base of his skull. Just two minutes and already he isn’t paying attention.

Now, we all knew, you didn’t bother Yuri for those first few minutes. You didn’t ask where he was or why he was late. But Yuri was close to being finished, and Teach wouldn’t miss an opportunity like this.

Right on cue, just like every time Yuri’s lights fade to the back, Teach begins to move to the far side of the room, skirting the windowsill, making her way methodically towards Yuri.  As she moves, closing in on a daydreaming Yuri, Thinking Caps® about the room begin flickering blue and red. Excited orange taints the stream of engaged green.  No one is listening to the lecture; we want to know what’s going to happen to Yuri. Sensing the change in color, Teach turns her attention and gaze back to the class:

“As we do in the proper order.  Right, children?”

We murmur “Yes, ma’am,” and the oranges and blues are gone, replaced by green lights of the Thinking Caps®. Teach glances around at the engaged learners, satisfied. She continues to close in on Yuri.

I focus forward, desperately putting my full attention to the lesson splayed on my bun-board. I can see the green reflection in the screen, letting me know that my mind is in the right place.

But what’s going on? What’s going to happen?

Teach is still moving. I turn to look back at Yuri and jump in my seat—there’s Teach less than three feet away and moving my direction. I must have flicked a frightened yellow, because she places a firm, but calm hand on my desk before moving past.

Her smell. The smell of dust, decay, and cold, dead smoke strike me, and I’m sure my helmet is an array of colors. It doesn’t matter though; she’s passed, and is now close enough to Yuri’s desk not to mind a flicker amidst the fading greens around the room.

I turn to look back, and there’s Yuri—the front of his Thinking Cap® still a faint maroon, while the back of his head beams whites and purples. His colors are so bright they splay the back wall of the room like a floating orb.  Rarely does a Thinking Cap® glow as bright as Yuri’s; too bad it was always on the wrong side.

“Yuri!”  A yellow band of light beams from his head, jumping in scattered directions. Greens grapple with white: a sensory overload.

“Pay attention!” All of Yuri’s lights dance yellow, then blue, and then…instead of settling on green where they should, they suddenly go out. Black. Pissed-off black, we call it.  Teach notices, and the color purple carpets the white walls of the entire classroom; no one is engaged in the lesson—we’re all thinking of the possibilities. Teach freezes—processing the boy before him.

“Yuri! How dare you think as such? In my class? In my school?” Teach presses Yuri’s desk off. Another wince as the magnetics release their hold. “You are dismissed.”

Yuri stuffs his backpack and walks out of the room. He would leave school, and we wouldn’t see him until the following day. There would be no after-hours playtime for Yuri. No socialtime. No development trainings. Yuri is done for the day, and would return tomorrow for much of the same, until he either learns to stay engaged on the lesson instead of his dreams, or gives up entirely.


Recognizing Giftedness in Diverse Populations

by Emily VR

If you follow news about gifted education, you know that there is often a lack of diversity in GT programs, and that it is a dilemma nationwide.  A teacher friend recently voiced concerns about the absence of diversity in her GT courses, and she is far from alone.  The problem concerns researchers, educators, and parents of children in underrepresented populations.

This isn’t just an issue for families in those populations, however, or a problem just for educators.  If you have a child receiving gifted services, or if you have any involvement at all with gifted education or gifted advocacy, then this is your problem, too.

Let me explain.

First:  for children with gifted needs, gifted education is necessary.  Though definitions and identification methods can vary somewhat between experts, services for the gifted exist because of extensive research showing actual developmental differences in children at the extremes of ability testing.  Just as with other learning differences, gifted differences require ongoing adjustments and interventions for affected children to learn in traditional schools.  While some researchers focus on the talent development aspects of gifted education, from the perspective of many parents and psychologists – and teachers, as public schools continue to be underfunded – the real purpose of gifted services lies in the danger of not providing those services.  Failing to understand and accommodate gifted needs can put some students at risk of negative outcomes, including underachievement, social isolation, emotional challenges, and dropping out of school.

It is also necessary to prioritize diversity and quality education for all students.  Since the Civil Rights Movement, equal opportunity has been a leading priority in education law and policy, as it should be.   Unfortunately, past injustices have a continuing economic impact on families and communities, and in many areas, students in low-income households do not receive the school and/or home support they need to succeed.  It is important to note that segregation in education was still widespread within the lifetimes of many adults today, and educational testing has not always been used for ethical purposes.  Someone 65 years old today was 9 years old in 1960, when, six years after Brown v. Board of Education, African-American students in New Orleans were tested in an attempt to prevent them from attending white schools – and Ruby Bridges became the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South.

In light of that history, it is not hard to understand the criticism of social justice advocates – particularly in parts of the country with struggling public schools – leveled at the absence of diversity in schools perceived as “elite,” with admission based on test scores.

Sadly, some of that criticism unfairly targets the very concept of gifted education, ignoring decades of research on the extreme, measurable differences and needs of students identified as gifted.*

We do know that CLED (culturally, linguistically, and/or economically diverse) populations are underrepresented in gifted identification – NOT because students from diverse backgrounds are less likely to have high ability needs, but because identification methods used in many districts and states need examination (Matthews & Shaunessy, 2008).  Concerns range from problems with referrals for gifted screenings (students from diverse populations are less likely to be referred) to the possibility of language and/or cultural bias in testing tools.  Undiagnosed learning disabilities can sometimes impact testing.  Poverty can impact student performance in numerous ways, including nutrition, overall health, and a parent’s ability to be involved in a child’s education.  Misdiagnosis is a concern for gifted students in general, because of their unique characteristics and reactions to a lack of challenge in school, but culturally diverse students are thought to be at an even higher risk of misdiagnosis (Beljan, 2011).  In some environments, without an understanding of diverse learners, signs of high-ability differences can be misinterpreted as symptoms of a disorder.  Improving identification is a difficult challenge, but if we fail – if educators and policymakers are unable to find and include more gifted students from diverse populations – these programs WILL appear elitist, and will remain vulnerable to attack by critics, whose energy and advocacy could be directed instead at improving education for all students in need.  Continued attacks may also reduce support for identification and necessary services – which impacts all gifted children.

At first, for some, discussing this might feel uncomfortable.  It should make us uncomfortable.  If we can get past the initial stigma of the “gifted” word, and if we can defend that advocacy, then we can admit that common screening practices are far from perfect, and that they need our immediate attention.  If we ignore this problem, we are failing the children – our children – most in need of help.

How can you advocate for recognition of giftedness in diverse populations, regardless of your own background?

1)           Learn about the problem.   Check out some of the resources below, do your own research, and consider connecting with the NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children), SENG (Supporting the Needs of the Gifted), and the gifted organization for your state.  Most website resources are free, as are the e-newsletters of some organizations.  Other organization newsletters require a nominal membership fee for parents, part of which helps to support efforts to address this very problem.

2)           Learn about solutions.   What is your district doing to identify gifted students from diverse populations?  Could your local parent group help support improvements?  Research on this issue is ongoing, but some current approaches include universal screenings (testing all students in a grade or grades, rather than relying solely on referrals), a talent pool program to identify candidates for further investigation, portfolio work/review, using multiple criteria for identification, using appropriate tests for English Language Learner (ELL) students, inviting parents to submit information for the screening or appeals process, and raising teacher awareness of the different manifestations of G/T characteristics in special populations.  My own family feels fortunate to live in a district using all of these.  A number of resources and publications discuss solutions, including the work of Dr. Joy Davis, an advocate for increasing access and equity in gifted education, and a board member of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).

3)           Learn about G/T education in your state.   Local G/T policies are shaped by state law, if your state has G/T laws.  Learning about current laws and policies can help you better direct your questions and efforts to support improvement.

4)           Get involved.  What is your state G/T organization doing to support G/T students in CLED populations?  Does the group offer opportunities to help with their efforts?  An example:  the “Gifted Plus” Division of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented (TAGT) works to support special populations in G/T education.  You can also join efforts to support increased school funding, improved early childhood education, and the reduction of poverty and hunger – obstacles not only for some gifted students, but for ALL students facing barriers to achievement through education.  If your time and resources are limited, you can still help correct misconceptions and raise local awareness among parents and educators.   Check out the NAGC Myths about Gifted Students, and look for opportunities to reframe discussions about giftedness.  In the district where I live, educators deliberately use language indicating that students qualify for gifted services, rather than “getting in.”  Gifted accommodations are not a perk or an honor, but are designed to meet educational needs – and these needs are found in all cultures and populations.  Gifted services ensure that students with learning differences can learn in school.

Can you advocate for diversity in G/T education if your child homeschools or is in private school?  YES!  Gifted students in all educational settings benefit from continuing research and strategies used to support gifted education programs in public school.  Families forced to choose alternatives to public school can often relate to the struggles of unidentified gifted children needing services – and some children have no viable alternative to public education.  For the benefit of gifted children in all schooling situations, it is critical to support improvement in identification.


This post barely scratches the surface of several complex issues, and it is not intended to be comprehensive.  You don’t need an advanced degree to be part of the solution, however.  No matter what role you play in education, if you care about the future of students from diverse backgrounds, or about the future of gifted students – my hope is that you care about both – this matter deserves your attention and your action.

To answer the critics of gifted programs:  ignoring research on successful interventions is not an answer to the diversity dilemma.  If researchers discovered a failure to diagnose and serve all children with a learning difference – as they often do – they would not recommend taking successful accommodations away from other diagnosed students.  The same logic applies to gifted differences.  If children with advanced learning needs are arbitrarily held back, and if they are refused the opportunity to learn, the long-term harm is real and significant.  The answer:  we must do a better job of identifying students with these needs.

It is possible to be an advocate for social justice and equal opportunity in education and a supporter of services for children with learning differences and special needs – including gifted needs.  So, please, learn more, and consider getting involved in your district and in your state.  It matters for the future of gifted education.

It matters for the children who need services the most – and taking action is the right thing to do.


Sources and Further Reading

Beljan, P. (2011).  Misdiagnosis of culturally diverse students.  In J. A. Castellano and A. D. Frasier, Eds., Special populations in gifted education: understanding our most able students from diverse backgrounds.  Waco, Texas: Prufock Press, National Association for Gifted Children.

Biography.com.  The Ruby Bridges biography.  A&E Television Networks.  http://www.biography.com/people/ruby-bridges-475426

Brown, E. (2015).  How does a teacher’s race affect which students get to be identified as ‘gifted’?  The Washington Post, April 22, 2015.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/04/22/how-does-a-teachers-race-affect-which-students-get-to-be-identified-as-gifted/?tid=a_inl

Davis, J. L. (2010).  Bright, talented, and Black: a guide for families of African-American gifted learners.  Scottsdale, AZ:  Great Potential Press.

Matthews, M. S. (2009).  English language learner students and gifted identification.  Digest of Gifted Research.  Duke TIP.  https://tip.duke.edu/node/921

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.

National Association for Gifted Children [NAGC].  Myths about gifted students.  Accessed March 2016. https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/myths-about-gifted-students

National Association for Gifted Children [NAGC].  Networks – Special Populations.  Accessed March 2016.  http://www.nagc.org/get-involved/nagc-networks-and-special-interest-groups/networks-special-populations

Nisen, M. (2015).  Tackling inequality in gifted-and-talented programs:  using testing to place students in the advanced-learning programs can actually help level the playing field.  The Atlantic.  Sept. 15, 2015.  http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/09/inequality-gifted-programs-schools-testing/405013/

Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., and Enersen, D. L. (2007).  Multiple criteria for identification.  In Best practices in gifted education.  Waco, Texas: Prufock Press, National Association for Gifted Children.

Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., and Enersen, D. L. (2007).  Developing Talents in Culturally Diverse Learners.  In Best practices in gifted education.  Waco, Texas: Prufock Press, National Association for Gifted Children.

Silverman, L. K. (2013).  What is giftedness?  In Giftedness 101: the Psych 101 series.  New York, NY: Springer Publishing company.

Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented.  Gifted Plus Division.  http://www.txgifted.org/gifted-plus-division

* Research and debate over nature vs. nurture and fixed vs. malleable intelligence are beyond the scope of this piece – but it is worth noting that several psychologists have studied early signs of gifted development, including characteristics thought to be present during a child’s first year.  For observations about early gifted development, see:

Ruf, D. L. (2009). 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Kearney, K. (2000).  Frequently asked questions about extreme intelligence in very young children.  Davidson Institute for Talent Development.   http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10162.aspx

Resources from the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum:

Gifted Cubed:  The Expanded Complexity of Race & Culture in Gifted and 2e Kids.  http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/ghf-press/gifted-cubed/

Gifted and Minorities:  Articles, Blogs, Organizations, Websites, and Books.  http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/resources/parent-and-professional-resources/articles/gifted-minorities/


We are proud to include this post in the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum blog hop:

Recognizing Giftedness in Our Children and Ourselves.