Recovering From a No-Good, Very Bad Year

by Emily VR

Dear Parents:  You aren’t alone.

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

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

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

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

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Professional Help

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

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

Connect With Other Parents… and Children  

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

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

Prepare for Positive Advocacy

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

Make Friends With and Support Teachers

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

Consider Educational Options

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

Take Lemons, Make Lemonade

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

Look for a Silver Lining

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

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

Focus on Joy

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

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

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Dear Teachers:

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

Thank you for all you do.

GHF March 2017 hop

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

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

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The Catch-22 of Gifted Underachievement

by Emily VR

Imagine you’re a school counselor, and you have parents sitting in your office.  They say their child isn’t being challenged in school.   They ask you to arrange higher level differentiation, enrichment, or subject acceleration.

At home, they say, the child shows ability far above her grade level.  Prior testing identified her for gifted services.  You agree to investigate options, and you speak to the child’s teacher… who shows you the child’s work.  It’s full of careless errors, some of it is incomplete, and the child’s grades have dropped this year.  In the teacher’s opinion, the child should not try challenging work until she gets her act together.  In the past, the child produced above-level work; now, she daydreams, distracts classmates, and occasionally, even corrects the teacher.  The teacher agrees the child is bright, but feels the child should work harder on behavior and grade-level work.

What do you do?

If you haven’t received training in gifted education, the teacher’s perspective might make perfect sense.

If you’re familiar with the characteristics and outcomes of gifted students, the situation may ring a warning bell.  You see a student who might qualify as gifted, who has likely lost motivation, and who, if the situation continues, could be considered at-risk for a negative academic outcome.  You want to help, but you face a problem:  now that the student is underachieving, she is no longer producing work which allows easy assessment of content mastery.  You don’t know what material she already knows, and you don’t have classroom evidence showing that a higher level placement is likely to be successful.

This is the catch-22 of gifted underachievers.

A “catch-22” is defined as “a dilemma from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.”  The term was introduced by Joseph Heller’s World War II novel of the same title: in the book, the main character, Yossarian, desperately wants to stop flying bombardier missions.  He discovers that under a fictional military policy, a bombardier can be grounded for being “crazy” – but the bombardier must first request to be grounded, and since the desire to avoid death during missions indicates sanity, the request can never be granted (Heller, 1955).

Students suffering from a loss of motivation may find themselves trapped by policies which require them to excel before they can be challenged, though challenging work may be necessary to motivate them to excel.  Educators bound by state testing requirements can feel equally helpless.  School factors have been studied as a cause of underachievement in gifted children (Webb, 2007), in children assessed as highly to profoundly gifted (Gross, 2000), in creative-type gifted children (Betts & Niehart, 1988), and in twice-exceptional children (gifted with a disability).   Insufficient challenge in the classroom can lead to problem behaviors in gifted students (Webb, 2005).  Even when a child has been identified with gifted needs, our counselor is still faced with schoolwork which does not reveal the mastery needed to skip material and immediately tackle higher level content.

All is not hopeless:  with training and/or aid from a gifted specialist, underachieving gifted students can get help.  How?

1)  Look for other forms of achievement.

If a child is believed to need acceleration, information other than grades may help in decisions.  While students are considered better candidates for a grade skip if they are “already motivated to perform well in school,” according to the manual for the Iowa Acceleration Scale, “[t]eam members responsible for making an acceleration decision for a student must take into account not only how motivated the student is at school, but also how motivated that student is in other learning situations.  Parents or guardians are good sources of information about the learning activities that their children have been involved with outside of school” (Assouline et al., 2009).  A gifted child who is currently underperforming may still show higher subject level needs through an achievement test, such as the WIAT.  Tests used for credit by examination can also be useful in determining readiness for full-grade or subject acceleration.  Scores indicating readiness to accelerate may range from 80% to 90%, depending on state or local rules.

2)  Try other interventions.

When acceleration is not a current option, other interventions may help gifted students.  Unit pre-testing and curriculum compacting can be implemented without skipping grades (Reis & Renzulli, 2005).  These strategies allow a student to pursue either higher-level work or projects of interest instead of grade-level work; requiring students to complete grade-level work first is rarely successful (extra work is unlikely to motivate).  Successful strategies may differ depending on a gifted student’s personality and strengths.

Training or assistance from a specialist may be necessary to provide teachers with a nuanced understanding of challenges faced by gifted students, and to help implement in-classroom solutions.

3)  Collect objective data; seek expert advice.

To reach the best possible solutions during negotiations, the authors of the bestselling book Getting to Yes recommend using objective criteria (Fisher and Ury, 1991).  Information such as testing reports and work samples in a child’s areas of strength or interest, when considered with research on gifted learners, may help facilitate next steps.  If a specialist, teacher, or administrator has training in gifted education, he or she may be able to assist with problem-solving.

4)  Practice listening and empathy.

School challenges are frustrating for parents, educators, and the students themselves.  Parents and educators may find common ground by seeking to understand the situation from other perspectives.  Fisher and Ury recommend that negotiators “focus on interests, not positions.”  If parents and educators can share and listen to the concerns behind others’ positions, better communication can facilitate better problem solving.

5)  Learn about gifted motivation.

According to A Love for Learning, a number of factors can impact motivation, including a lack of school challenge (the “turn-off effect”), learning disabilities, and physical, emotional, or social factors (Whitney & Hirsch, 2007).  A child’s social or classroom environment, perfectionism and fear, asynchronous development, and rapport with his/her teacher can all impact the desire to achieve.

6)  Don’t try to oversimplify.

There’s a reason educators pursue graduate degrees specializing in gifted education!  Like other special needs, gifted needs can be complex.  A student may need a dedicated, open-minded team of educators and parents to problem-solve and find a successful solution.

In some cases, parents and educators may need to dig even deeper.  Creative-type gifted learners often have strong interests outside school, and these can sometimes be brought into the classroom.  Underachievement is not uncommon in students evaluated as exceptionally to profoundly gifted, and acceleration is cited as reversing underachievement in this population (Gross, 2000).  Undiagnosed learning or attention disorders can also cause school difficulties: a gifted child with another special need is known as twice-exceptional, or 2e (Webb et al., 2005).   Further complicating matters, some typical gifted characteristics look like symptoms of other conditions, creating a possible increased risk of misdiagnosis.  When evaluating a child for possible disabilities, parents may wish to seek a practitioner familiar with research on children identified as gifted (Webb et al., 2007).

7)  Don’t write off public school.

In some situations, especially in states without gifted education laws, parents may be forced to consider alternatives to public school.  A number of states have gifted education requirements and laws permitting acceleration, however, for good reason:  as with students with other special needs, gifted children can suffer harm if adjustments are not made for extreme learning differences.  Students with gifted needs exist in all populations, and not all families of gifted children can afford other alternatives.  Many public schools do work hard to meet the learning difference needs of all students.  In some states, gifted children qualify for an IEP (Individualized Education Program), just as children served by Special Education.

8)  Don’t give up on a student.

If a single approach worked in every situation, fewer books would be published in the field!  Fortunately, in addition to learning about differentiation, enrichment, and independent projects, educators can access research on twenty types of gifted interventions through A Nation Deceived and A Nation Empowered, available through the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa.

Contrary to myth, many gifted children will not be fine on their own (NAGC).  According to the research of George Betts and Maureen Neihart, gifted students with certain problem behaviors “may be ‘at risk’ as eventual dropouts for drug addiction or delinquent behavior if appropriate interventions are not made by junior high” (Betts & Neihart, 1988).  Betts and Neihart offer specific recommendations for challenging/creative and “at-risk” students.  To prevent gifted dropouts, researchers have noted the importance of improving student-teacher relationships, as well as students’ attitudes toward school and teachers; one researcher found that fewer students drop out when their teacher is “flexible, positive and creative” (Renzulli & Park, 2002).

 

Unfortunately, there is no magic motivation wand.  Finding solutions may take some teamwork – but both research and personal stories show it can happen.  Returning to our school counselor:  if she consults the school’s gifted specialist, has attended gifted training, or investigates material provided by parents, she is less likely to miss potentially critical information.  Prepared now with a more complete picture, the child’s team can explore to find causes, to make a plan, and to inspire the child.

Are there strategies you’ve found successful with your students or your child?  Please share your comments below!  We would love to hear them.

 

We are proud this post is part of the Other Achievement Blog Hop on Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page!

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Blog Hop graphic by Pamela S Ryan – click above for more Blog Hop posts!

Sources and Further Reading

Assouline, S., Colangelo, N., Lupkowski-Shoplik, A., Lipscomb, J., and Forstadt., L.  The Iowa Acceleration Scale: A Guide for Whole-Grade Acceleration K-8.  Manual.  Scottsdale: Great Potential Press, 2009.

Betts, G. and Neihart, M.  Profiles of the Gifted and Talented.  Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Reprinted from Gifted Child Quarterly, National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) 1988.  Web.  Jan. 2016. http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10114.aspx

Delisle, J. R.  Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Happy and Successful Children.  Waco:  Prufrock Press, 2006.

Fisher, R. and Ury, W.  Getting to Yes.  New York: Penguin Group, 2011.

Gross, M. U. M.  Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students:  An Underserved Population (section on “Reversing Underachievement”).  Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page; originally published in Understanding Our Gifted, Winter 2000.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/underserved.htm

National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).  Gifted by State.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/gifted-state

National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).  Myths about Gifted Children.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/myths-about-gifted-students

Reis, S. M. and Renzulli, J. S.  Curriculum Compacting: An Easy Start to Differentiating for the High-Ability Learner.  Waco: Prufrock Press, 2005.

Renzulli, J.S. and Park, S.  Giftedness and High School Dropouts: Personal, Family, and School-related Factors.  University of Connecticut.  The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, Dec. 2002.

State Acceleration Policy: State List.  Acceleration Institute, Belin-Blank Center, College of Education, University of Iowa.  Web.  Jan. 2016. http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/Resources/Policy/By_State/State_List.aspx

Webb, J. T., Amend, E. R., Webb, N. E., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, F. R.  Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc., 2005.

Webb, J. T., Amend, E. R., Webb, N. E., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, F. R.  Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children.  Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/misdiagnosis-and-dual-diagnosis-of-gifted-children

Webb, J. T., Gore, J. L., Amend, E. R., and DeVries, A. R.  A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007.

Whitney, C.S. and Hirsch, G.  A Love for Learning: Motivation and the Gifted Child.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007.

Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22.  Laurel: New York, 1955, 1961 (p. 40).

“Catch-22.”  Def.  The Oxford American College Dictionary.  2002.  Print.