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.

Blooms

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

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

Habits of Mind

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

Affective Curriculum

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

Differentiation and Acceleration

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

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

Working with Perfectionism

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

Enrichment

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

Final thoughts:

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

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

overthinking

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.

 

Ode to a Rush-Free Childhood

by Pia K. Ruda

As parents, we are constantly playing catch up in several fields at once, trying to keep up with the others. Almost two months before the new school year started, I was already too late to sign up for library duty at my son’s school.  More efficient and organized parents had taken the shifts, on the first day of sign ups.  To get the optimal time slots for piano lessons, tennis, or art classes, you have to be on it.  I am an outcast in this game.  In fact, I am growing to celebrate it.

I’ve seen many kids pushed into too many activities by perky parents, but especially by parents of endlessly curious, high ability children (code for gifted).  These parents sigh that their offspring is “just so interested in everything.”  They say that their kids insist on being a part of all those activities.  Gifted children do often have natural abilities in several areas:  sports, acting, music, or art, to name a few. Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.  

Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.

Choosing the rush-free path can be especially hard with the multi-talented gifted child. What if he could be the next big thing in something that we rule out?  What if he misses out, if he doesn’t reach his potential?  Well, then, I guess we will never find out – and I choose to take comfort in that.  I believe that true passions are not so easily silenced, and that they will thrive even in less optimal conditions.  I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

Having moved to the U.S. a little over a decade ago, it has been interesting to observe parental roles and expectations in this country.  Here, filling a child’s life with as many structured activities as possible seems to be one of the key measuring sticks of successful parenting.  Families aim for perfectly planned and balanced schedules with a great variety of activities.  These tightly packed days start in toddlerhood.  I remember watching my boys’ classmates getting hastily transported to activities after Pre-K, shoving down a snack in the car.   They ran to karate, ballet, violin, baseball, art, or gymnastics – a different activity each day.   “You want them exposed,” parents would say.  “You want to give them all these choices.  You don’t want them to miss out.”

But what if they miss out on their own childhood?

A gifted child, especially one with the perfectionism monster lurking on his shoulder, can get anxious with the pressures and demands. Some gifted kids base their self-worth on their achievements, on what they measurably do.  Especially for these children, it can be beneficial to consciously shift the focus towards celebrating learning itself.  They need awareness of their own discoveries, their new connections and thoughts, and the feelings found within themselves, through the exploration of a new field. In order to give room for character development, I firmly believe in allowing our children breathing room.  They need space to discover who they are, and what is truly important to them.  They need unstructured time, to discover their inner world, without too much push-and-pull and direction.  

Social-emotional growth and well-being need both time and space.

Cultural reflection is where I spend a lot of my own time.  From my perspective, I see this game – scheduling and programming our children and youth – in the revealing Arctic light.  In my native country, little Finland, things are different.  We have no school sports teams, no cheerleaders, and no prom queens or kings.  In Finland, college admissions are solely based on academic success in high school, as well as subject specific entry exams.  As a result, the kids are not required to have inhumane numbers of recorded achievements from a variety of extracurricular activities.  In Finland, kids spend their afternoons playing, with a hobby of their choice, or sometimes just getting bored.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.  I see the rush-free childhood as a right, much like recess and school lunches.  These are children’s rights, not privileges.  For me, this is closely linked to “instinct parenting,” which gives the parents the right to follow their own safe instincts when parenting their own children, instead of religiously following the manual of the moment.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.

So, I’ve decided it is just fine not keeping up with it all, and I think we’re still going to be just fine in the end.  I have never heard an adult complain bitterly that he had too much time to play as a kid, or that he spent too many hours reading books and riding his bike.  I have, however, heard bitter adults share memories of parents making them play a certain sport, or practice an instrument for which they themselves felt no passion.  

Yes, my boys are missing out on so many activities in which they could potentially shine.  But I would rather have them not miss out on their own childhood.  I want to give them space to find themselves, and not force-feed the ingredients of the ideal overachiever. That is where my priority lies. With the long American school days, and excessive amounts of homework, it is hard — but I try to give my sons the leading parts in their childhoods. Now is the time, for there won’t be any dress rehearsals.

A Student Poem to Vindicate Our Mission

IMG_86771
Super Camper and poet Alexa with camp directors Ben Koch (left) and Justin Vawter.

by Ben Koch

As part of our NuMinds gig, Justin and I direct a mixed-age, choice-based summer camp.  And, just like Justin and I don’t quite fit the norm, our camp doesn’t quite fit the mold of your everyday camp (CampPursuit.com).  Not being marketing gurus, we try again and again to articulate what makes it such a unique experience for kids:

“It’s like a mini-university–students choose 4 courses from our course catalog each week, based solely on their passions, NOT on their age!”

Or

“Teachers create and teach super specific inter-disciplinary courses that THEY are passionate about, and that passion becomes contagious.”

Yes, we’ve got some descriptive and detailed marketing copy, but nothing quite captures the essence of our camp experience like the testimonies of the students and parents who have experienced it; especially when that testimony comes in the form of a thoughtful, heartfelt poem.  In her words, she “woke up Monday night after camp and couldn’t go back to sleep.”  She “just started writing this poem.”  At Tuesday morning’s assembly, Alexa shared her poem with her fellow campers, and we now share it with the world as the perfect vindication that our mission for a real, inspired learning experience is being realized.

Here’s Alexa’s poem.

Camp Pursuit

Camp Pursuit is number one

Our day is filled with learning fun

I may have bonked my head a little

But Camp Pursuit’s not skittle dittle

From myths and tests and programming

To Egypt, sculptures, and cooking

Swing on in to learn something new

Your blood’s not red; the sky’s not blue

We’re curious we’re big and smart

Our IQ level’s off the chart

Our creativity is put to the test

At Camp Pursuit we never rest

The young ones are smart; don’t let them fool you,

And probably more creative too

From bar to bar we jump in level

We love to learn, explore, and play

I wish that I could be right here

A little mastermind like devil

I wish I could be here all day

Every hour, week, and year

Now this is the final test

To see who is the very best

And while our numbers just keep blooming

We leave our competition fuming

But although we know they try so hard

So when you need a summer camp

Camp Pursuit’s the number one champ

They miss the cutoff by a yard

PS. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat

It was probably just a rabid rat

Brilliant!  Thank you, Alexa, for sharing your poem.  For more information on Camp Pursuit visit CampPursuit.com.  We run year-round programs and are looking to expand our summer camp to new areas in summer 2016.