Creativity, Trauma, and Processing Speed: SENG Mini-Conference Take-Aways, Part 2

https://www.sengifted.org/events/seng-online-fall-mini-conference

 

As promised, I’m returning with Part 2 of my reflections from SENG’s Fall 2020 Mini-Conference. Videos of all recorded sessions were recently shared with participants, and I had a chance to catch up on the ones I missed.

Here are the sessions I’ll be sharing my thoughts on in this post:

  • Matt Zakreski’s “Fostering Creativity In and Outside of the Classroom”
  • Jamie Castellano’s “Educating Gifted Students with Trauma”
  • Sarah Ward’s “Practical Tips and Tricks to Increase Speed of Processing”

I will save my thoughts on Heather Boorman’s “Narcissism and the Gifted Soul” because I have enough to say on that topic to fill an entire post. 

Matt Zakreski – who openly identifies as a “former gifted kid” and attendee at John Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth – began his presentation on fostering creativity with definitions and key ideas from research. Creativity has been defined in various ways – from Michael Mumford’s notion that creativity “involves the production of novel, useful products”, to E. Paul Torrance’s position that creativity is “a process of becoming sensitive to problems” and then making and testing hypotheses to solve them, to James Averill’s description of Emotional Creativity (EC) as “a pattern of cognitive abilities and personality traits related to originality and appropriateness in emotional experience.”

Each of these definitions has its challenges and limitations, so Zakreski ultimately prefers looking at creativity as simply “the ability to create” and “the use of the imagination or original ideas” – rather than including qualifiers related to crafting something useful, solving problems, or exhibiting “appropriateness in emotional experience” (!) Zakreski noted that creativity has long been studied alongside intelligence – and given that gifted individuals are “naturally divergent thinkers” who “make connections and see relationships that others would not”, it makes sense to take a closer look.

I especially appreciated learning more about James Kauffman and Roland Beghetto’s notion of the “Four Cs” of creativity and how these may play out: mini-c “creativity” refers to “personal hacks” for learning (i.e., mnemonics and metaphors), while little-c “creativity” refers to everyday problem solving and “thinking outside the box”, pro-C “Creativity” refers to those who tap into their creativity as part of their profession, and Big-C “Creativity” refers to groundbreaking insights that transform the world. Of course, we hope that at least some gifted kids will ultimately land in the latter category, using their gifts for the betterment of humanity – but Zakreski pointed out that it’s important to honor and encourage all the “c”s, given that you never know where things may lead.

Jamie Castellano‘s presentation on “Educating Gifted Students with Trauma” was a no-holds-barred look at the significant traumas many gifted kids face – specifically ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).  By sharing his personal experiences working with gifted kids and teens experiencing trauma, he demonstrated the additional layers of support and rapport needed when working with this unique group of students.

Castellano shared his newly developed “5 Minute Whole Gifted Child Assessment”, designed to help teachers quickly identify students who may be struggling with ACEs. The assessment asks teachers to rank each of their students on a scale of 1-10 on each the following ten criteria: self-understanding, emotional understanding (of self and others), social relationships, productivity, physical health, mental health (happiness), resiliency, cognitive growth, academic aptitude, and exhibition of advanced and complex learning.

An overall score of 80-100 indicates that the student is “in the green zone cognitively, academically, socially, AND emotionally” with “no major concerns manifest[ing] themselves.” An overall score of 60-79 indicates the student is “in the yellow zone either cognitively, academically, socially, OR emotionally”, and that there may be “a pattern of where the student is challenged… in one area”, thus indicating the need for intervention. Finally, an overall score of 0-59 indicates the student “is in the red zone” in one or more areas and needs not only interventions and monitoring of progress but additional support from the school’s multi-disciplinary team.

Castellano’s presentation offered an invaluable supplement to our emergent understanding of twice-exceptional kids: some students may be struggling not only with the challenges of giftedness coupled with a disability, but also significant distress from environmental factors (ACEs) such as poverty, divorce, violence in the home, etc. Castellano didn’t touch much on identification of gifted kids experiencing trauma, but it seems logical that they would be significantly under-designated for gifted services – thus compounding the situation. We clearly have a lot of work to do in this area, and Castellano rightly identifies this as a key and critical topic for future exploration in the gifted community. Given my volunteer work with incarcerated adults, I’m especially interested in learning more about how many (often undesignated) gifted kids eventually end up justice-involved, given a combination of their high intensity and intelligence combined with challenging life circumstances; I will return to this topic in a future post.

Sarah Ward‘s presentation on “Practical Tips and Tricks to Increase Speed of Processing” was creatively designed,  easy-to-follow, and offered a lot of new and useful information about executive functioning (EF). Since EF isn’t an area I struggle with myself, I’m always eager for any support I can get to “put myself in my kids’ shoes” – especially my 12-year-old daughter C., who is seriously struggling these days to keep up with online learning in middle school during the pandemic.

Early in her presentation, Ward shared a photo of a produce stall at a grocery store, and asked us to describe what we saw and how things seemed to be organized. From my perspective, I saw various types of colorful vegetables arranged in containers, with bell peppers (the prominent vegetable on display) further categorized into different colors (yellow, red, and green). Ward informed us that invariably – when she shows this photo to kids who struggle with executive functioning – they point out details in the photo (such as the “out of place” bell peppers) rather than the overall organizational schema.

Sure enough, when I showed the photo to my 12-year-old daughter C. and asked her “How are the peppers organized?” her immediate response was, “Badly”; she pointed to one red pepper that had fallen into the green pepper bin, and another which had fallen down into a yellow chili pepper bin. I had so instinctively looked for the overall categorization scheme in the setting that the “outliers” eluded me at first glance – but they IMMEDIATELY stood out to my daughter. So fascinating. 

Ward explained that ADHD could/should more accurately be referred to as Executive Function Development Disorder, given that kids with ADHD tend to experience asynchrony of about 3-3.5 years in their developmental timeline with regard to how far into the future they can anticipate and plan for.  For instance, kids in K-2nd grade (like my youngest daughter, I.) “should” be able to plan ahead for several hours, while kids in 3rd through 6th grade (like my son D.) “should” be able to plan ahead for 8-12 hours, and 6th-12th graders (like my 12-year-old daughter C.) “should” be able to plan ahead 2-3 days. These expectations make schooling challenging even for synchronously developing students – i.e., a high schooler who needs to plan ahead for a essay due in 3 weeks, who is really only thinking about the next few days – but it’s especially challenging for twice-exceptional kiddos.

So, what to do? Ward put forth a fascinating approach she referred to as Mimetic-Ideational Informational Processing (i.e., mental trial and error simulation). She began by explaining that Executive Functioning could be viewed as the following equation: non-verbal working memory + situational intelligence = mental dress rehearsal, or MIMEMake an image (what will it look like?), I (What will I look like?), M (How am I Moving?), Emotion (What will I feel like?).

Ward stressed numerous times that non-verbal working memory involves “visually holding information in your mind while mentally working with or updating it”, and pointed out that this is CRITICAL for managing anything that “unfolds over time”. She stressed that a checklist – even a visual checklist – doesn’t support kids in their non-verbal working memory because it’s a verbal working list. Checklists cue semantic recall, rather than episodic future memory.

Situational awareness refers to being able to “STOP and Read the Room” = that is, being aware of and navigating the space you’re entering into (what’s there? who’s there? what’s going on? what’s expected?), getting onto the timeline (what time of day is it? what’s happening at this moment?), being mindful of objects (where are critical objects located? what objects are NOT critical right now?), and reading the people in the room (what are they doing and saying with their voice and body language?).

My two biggest take-aways from Ward’s presentation were the ideas of 1) “block and box” (chunking a space or item out into discrete, labeled areas) and 2) taking a picture of the desired end result – such as a clean and organized bedroom – and using this as a “backward planning” guide (If… then) for success. If we can help kids literally picture where they want to be, they can engage in the MIME process and mentally rehearse (plan) the concrete series of steps they’ll need to take to get there. She emphasized the importance of gesturing while articulating this plan (“When we gesture, we’re pre-experiencing our plan”), which most definitely jives with recent research I’ve seen related to, just for instance, gesturing and memory.

I will report back on how these strategies work with my kiddos – and will share about one more SENG session (“Narcissism and the Gifted Soul”) in my next blog post.

 

The “Whack-A-Mole” of Parenting Three 2E Kids

https://live.staticflickr.com/3289/2651852001_36b5df8a0d_b.jpg (Creative Commons License)

Parenting three 2E kids – especially during a pandemic – is flat-out exhausting, given that they never (okay, rarely) “just do their work”.

The most visceral analogy that comes to mind is playing whack-a-mole:  as soon as I start feeling good about the progress I’ve made with helping one of my three kiddos get more confident and independent with their schooling (“Yes! They’re doing it on their own, without prompting!”), a new or lingering challenge will inevitably pop up with another.

(I don’t mean to refer to my kids’ struggles as pest-like critters needing to be pummeled into submission; this is just how it sometimes feels for me energy-wise, as their mom.)

This past week, for instance, I’ve toggled between the following concerns:

  • Realizing that my 12-year-old daughter C. will receive failing grades in several of her classes next week unless or until I: 1) go through each of her class assignment sites with her, one by one, to see what’s missing; 2) reach out to her teachers for support and understanding (please, be understanding!) that C. wants to do well but is stymied by the challenges of navigating online learning while dealing with pandemic-related anxiety and overwhelm; 3) help C. determine a plan of action for either doing (or re-doing) each missing assignment, and then ensuring that the oh-so-important “Submit” button is actually pressed and her teacher is notified by email of the late submission;
  • Seeing my 10-year-old son D. refuse to turn his video on during orchestra class this morning, then logging out early before coming to inform me he left because: 1) he had his (virtual) hand up for the entire session and his teacher didn’t see or acknowledge him; 2) when he tried speaking out loud, no one listened to him; 3) he already knows how to hold his violin bow; and 4) he wanted to eat his breakfast;
  • Knowing that nothing whatsoever in my 7-year-old daughter I.’s Seesaw Assignments folder will get done until I go in to look through it all with her, one at a time; that each assignment – especially anything involving writing – will involve a negotiation of some kind and a request to do it later; and that there will inevitably be insistent questioning about when she’ll have “done enough Seesaw assignments” that she can get back to her Minecraft world creation.

Okay, so that’s the current slate of rotating challenges with each of my kids. But, here are a few positives – there are always positives! – to balance things out:

  • Seeing the glow of pride on C.’s face when she sees a one-word comment from her art teacher that the “Shadings” assignment she submitted is “beautiful”; hearing the gratitude, relief, and excitement in C.’s voice when I read her an email from a teacher who’s written back to say they’re happy to meet with her one-on-one; sitting down with C. as she slowly works her way through overdue assignments and we watch a fascinating CNN 10 news clip together about underwater habitats with wi-fi;
  • Meeting last week with D.’s awesome team of educators to outline an IEP plan to support him with his socio-emotional learning and communication goals at school; hearing D. logging on without prompting to all his (non-orchestra) Zoom meetings throughout the day; seeing D. sitting up in bed during class time rather than lying wrapped up in a blanket;
  • Hearing I. having fun connecting and laughing with her new classmates during live Zoom sessions; listening to I. practicing her division facts confidently with a classmate; hearing I. proclaim proudly to her teacher how much she LOVES reading.

Although I’m perennially exhausted, I’m also grateful that the Whack-a-Mole of parenting during a pandemic at least allows for breaks. I’ll tackle the next critter as soon as it emerges – but for now, since I’ve gotten my own critical work-work done, I’m going to lie down and listen to a book-on-tape while playing Candy Crush. Self-care is the top order of the day.

 

 

 

Support and Knowledge: SENG Mini-Conference Take-Aways

https://www.sengifted.org/events/seng-online-fall-mini-conference

This weekend, SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) hosted its annual mini-conference – all online, of course, which made attendance even easier than usual. I liked the fact that there was an intriguing but limited array of discussions to attend (i.e., no need to make choices), and that I could miss certain sessions without too much regret or guilt given that all registrants will receive session recordings at a later date.

Whew. All boxes checked. It’s almost like SENG anticipates highly anxious, perfectionist individuals’ concerns and addresses them in advance. 

In this blog post, I’d like to share a few key take-aways from the sessions I did manage to attend “live” (in between caring for my kids and managing the inevitable array of needs that come up when five people are co-existing in one living space together).

I missed the opening remarks (by Mike Postma) and first session (by Jaime Castellano) because I failed to notice the small but important detail of all events occurring on Eastern Standard Time – whoops.

(Believe it or not, I actually appreciate making errors like this, since it helps me tap into authentic empathy for my overly busy adult students as well as my own kids, all of whom struggle with executive functioning challenges in some way.) 

I thus entered into the second presentation (on nurturing creativity, by Matt Zakreski) midway, and was too discombobulated to continue. I’ll revisit the recording later.

The biggest draw for me was Seth Perler‘s talk entitled “Imagine a New Normal That Addresses Executive Functioning Needs of the Gifted”. I first heard Seth on Debbie Reber’s Tilt Parenting podcast a couple of years ago and was struck by how relevant and useful his work is – but I was also instantly overwhelmed by how much work I still need to do to help set my kids up for independent success (and so… I set it mostly aside).

As I took notes during Seth’s SENG talk this weekend, I reflected back on all the (probably similar) notes I took when first listening to him on Tilt Parenting, and was reminded about the power of revisiting concepts in a cyclical fashion, after some time has gone by. My deep dive these past two years into the challenges gifted kids face has been truly overwhelming – especially since I have three of them, my husband also struggles with executive functioning issues, and I’m busy processing my own gifted childhood and adulthood. I’m constantly reminding myself to look at this journey as a marathon, not a sprint.

In terms of take-aways from Perler’s SENG talk, here are a few:

  • Put simply, “executive functioning” (which sounds super-fancy and complicated) simply means “how you get things done.” However, executive functioning is far from simple. It’s actually enormously complex, and involves many components that all need to be in place in order for things to be moving along smoothly – including but not limited to planning, time management, organization, prioritizing, decision making, details, transitions, self-starting, and follow-through. (No wonder I was and am overwhelmed! If these things don’t come “naturally” to a person, it’s a pretty big task to tackle them one by one.) 
  • As parents, we need to consider how to personalize and customize a study routine and environment for our child while addressing their preferences and brainstorming work-arounds. In other words, “best practice means differentiation.”
  • Speaking of best practice, Seth notes that “great teachers help students feel safe, seen, and engaged.” Amen to that.

After listening to Seth’s inspirational and compassionate talk, I decided it’s finally time to outsource this critical work to an Executive Functioning coach to ensure my 12-year-old C. (struggling in middle school) gets explicit help sooner rather than later. I’m trying to shift my thinking from:

“If only I were on-top-of-it-enough, I could help C. implement all these strategies!”

to

“Thank goodness there are professionals out there experienced in this work, who we can tap into as part of our extended learning and support community”.

The closing afternoon session – entitled “Perfect is Boring. Improv Comedy for Gifted People”, hosted by members of the Improv Therapy Group – was one I attended BECAUSE it was the only option on the menu, though I quickly realized how fun and informative it actually was.  I had to turn my video ON and actively participate (!), which was all part of helping audience members feel less self-conscious and more willing to take risks.

Despite my lifelong dislike of improv (“I’m not good at that! I can’t study for it! I will embarrass myself!”), I grew to actually enjoy all the activities we engaged in – especially as the facilitators explained how and why they were each valuable learning opportunities. (“Oh, I’m learning something? Cool! I can dig it, even if it’s uncomfortable.”)

Take-aways from this session include a much deeper understanding of how valuable (indeed, therapeutic) theatrical improvisation really is, given that:

  • Improv artists have to pretend to do things they’ve NEVER done.
  • Improv teaches you sometimes there are things you just can’t ever get right.
  • Improv teaches you to be okay with whatever’s being created by the group.
  • Improv allows you to turn a seemingly awful activity into something enjoyable.

The next morning I once again missed the two earliest SENG sessions – not just because of wanting to sleep in later than 7:00 a.m., but because I had to host a “live” (by Zoom) seminar for students in a class I’m teaching this quarter. When factoring in an additional one-on-one check-in with a student, and getting my youngest child settled into a playdate with her quarantine-bubble friend, I wasn’t ready to join the SENG Mini-Conference again until it was time for the session intriguingly entitled “Gifted & 2e Students: Now is Your Chance to Change the Rules”. Okay! That sounded really good to me.

This session was co-hosted by Jacqui Byrne and Lynne Henwood, both involved with an amazing set of private schools for 2E learners called FlexSchool, with campuses in New York and New Jersey. They argue that now is actually a perfect time to rethink “how we do schooling” given how much is already changing in the world, through no fault or volition of our own.

I took fewer notes overall during this session and was more just resonating and nodding along with the concepts, all of which made complete sense to me as an educator and someone who has repeatedly rejected (or at least strongly questioned) traditional schooling models myself. I want something like FlexSchool available for my kiddos!

One note I will share, though, is that I was struck by their emphasis on how 2E kids question their elders – they don’t automatically assume that because someone is older, they’re “right”. This is a complicated reality, since it goes against so many taboos – including the deep reverence for knowledge of elders in indigenous communities. There is enough to explore in the topic of gifted kids vis-à-vis elders that I’ve just realized I’ll need to designate a separate blog post to this – but for now, I will simply state that gifted kids tend to both question authority AND seek out guidance and friendship from and with older people without hesitation. I think this is a net benefit.

The final session of the SENG Mini-Conference had a twist: the slated presenter didn’t show up, so Mike Postma pulled up one of his many presentations on twice-exceptionality and talked us through some  of his key ideas. As far as I was concerned, this was an awesome opportunity, given I still have a ton of questions about the current state of neurodiversity – both in terms of what research is being done, and how it’s being perceived more broadly by stakeholder communities. His presentation gave me a lot to ponder; just a couple of take-aways include:

  • We are currently learning a LOT more about what’s going on in neurodiverse brains. It turns out we all have a“brain fingerprint” that identifies each one of us as uniquely us.
  • Mike’s approach to neurodiversity is to emphasize that it’s “who you are: not a condition, not a mal-adaptation, not a mind set, not a syndrome.” In a previous post about my 10 year old son D., I similarly noted the need to approach neurodiversity from a strengths-based perspective, so I appreciated having this reinforced.

(Interestingly, during the seminar I held earlier that morning with my own students – before I was able to rejoin the SENG conference – one of my participants, a doctoral student in Special Education, mentioned her frustration that her textbook for a course – published as recently as last year – still approaches the autism spectrum from a purely medicalized – and hence, pathology-oriented – perspective. Grrrrr.)

Back to the SENG Conference, I left feeling “full” and grateful. I tend to resist over-stuffing my hours with too many screen-based webinars and conferences, which are all over the place right now due to COVID; the sheer amount can feel overwhelming. However, there is a true value and joy in joining people “real time” (albeit virtually) to discuss important ideas – and SENG’s offerings are exactly the type  of support I need these days, as I’m figuring out both my own past as a gifted kid AND how to understand and support my three highly unique gifted kiddos.

It’s incredible to know that people at these conferences really do have each other’s backs – or at least, that’s how it seems to me. We’re all there because we understand how much it (can) hurt to be different, and we’re driven to express our diverse perspectives on challenging issues, working through them together.

Stay tuned for Part 2, once I watch the recorded sessions I missed… 

 

Loss and Too-Soon Death

https://pixabay.com/photos/stop-teenager-suicide-white-red-rose-2369114/

My dear friend E. lost her 24-year-old son A. to a drug overdose last week.

The news could not have come as more of a shock. I still don’t know any details about what led up to this loss, and am waiting for some time to pass before reaching out.

E. and I were very close friends for years (I was present at A.’s home birth), but we drifted apart as our belief systems diverged – and I know at this point she is leaning most heavily on the people still within her spiritual group who can help her make sense of this loss through their unique lens of the world and what death means.

With that said, I wanted to take a brief moment on this blog to acknowledge the sometimes-devastating impact that creativity, giftedness, and intensity can have on young people – especially during this mind-numbingly challenging era of COVID-19, when finding one’s way through the world has suddenly become (is it possible?) even more difficult.

What I know about A. is that he studied art in college and was a talented photographer, hoping to eventually earn a living through his craft, and working temporarily as an Uber driver. What I don’t know is:

  • Had A. been struggling with drug challenges for years, or was this a tragic sudden accident?
  • Was the overdose intentional?

And, most importantly:

  • What could we, any of us, have done to prevent this?

I am grateful that life never got tough enough for me as a gifted teen and young adult to seriously consider either drugs or suicide*. At varying times I hated life, couldn’t understand life, wanted “out” of life, felt I didn’t belong in life, withdrew from life – but I thankfully made it through the roughest spots and managed to reach later adulthood.

I sincerely believe that we – society, not just individuals or families – need to do whatever we can to nurture and hold up young people (i.e., adolescents and adults under the age of 25) as their prefrontal cortices continue to develop. While they may be brilliant, creative, and independent individuals – and possibly even parents already themselves – folks in this age range are at heightened risk of making choices that are more informed by the very-real intensity of their emotions than by “rational” decision-making – and drugs can be an appealing and far-too-readily-available “option” to manage those emotions.

My own kids aren’t teenagers – not quite yet. However, we’re nearly there, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the wise practitioners and fellow parents out there who have paved the way with invaluable information and advice, which I will be readily tapping into.

In the meantime, I’m sending virtual love and support to all the gifted, sensitive, artistic, “too much” people out there who are hurting right now.

We can and will make it through this unprecedented time together.

* The Mind Matters podcast has dedicated three of its 68 episodes (episodes 39-41) to the topic of suicide in gifted populations.  They are well worth a listen. 

Book Reflections: “If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back?” by Jen Merrill

As my second Book Reflection blog post, I thought I would comment on If This is a Gift, Can I Send it Back? Surviving in the Land of the Gifted and Twice Exceptional (2012) – a delightfully humorous and insightful book by Jen Merrill, author of the Laughing at Chaos blog and interviewee about parenting self-care on the Mind Matters Podcast.

On the back of her book, Merrill asks us:

When is life like a prize fight, a garden, and a quiz show, all hurtling down the road on an office chair, wrapped in song?

Her response:

When you’re living in the land of the gifted and twice exceptional.

The enduring theme throughout Merrill’s book is brutal honesty about how hard parenting a 2E kid (each one “more unique than snowflakes”) can be. Yes, of course it’s also rewarding, invigorating, and often fun – but more than anything, Merrill argues, you’ll need to roll with the challenges each day, allow yourself a glass of wine before conking at night, and accept that parenting doesn’t look anything like what you planned it to be.

Actually, prior to becoming a parent, I don’t recall holding many preconceptions – but I CERTAINLY didn’t anticipate how bone-crushingly exhausting it would be. There’s simply no way to know the truth of Parental Exhaustion until you enter into those shoes for yourself. And with 2E kids, Even More So.

With that as my brief introduction, here are my take-aways from Merrill’s book:

Chapter 1: Connecting the Dots 

Citing a commencement speech by Steve Jobs, Merrill notes that sometimes you can’t make sense of your child’s journey until you’re looking backwards and “connecting the dots” (p. 2). I love this framing of life as the narrative we create for and about ourselves: it empowers us to search for key points that may have seemed like insurmountable challenges, but turn into critical milestones in retrospect.

I also appreciate Merrill’s coining of “adult-onset, child-induced ADHD” – such a perfect description of what happens to even the brightest (perhaps especially the brightest?) of new parents. After admitting that she’s “been entirely unable to concentrate on one thing for longer than a few minutes” since her oldest (2E) son was born, she adds:

It’s just, well, I miss my brain. We used to go for long walks through thoughts together. Double-dated with new ideas. We used to dive into activities and barely take time to come up for air. Now my brain is crashed out on the mental couch, drooling a little, while I perch anxiously, waiting to spring into action, my Mom Radar spinning wildly 24/7 (p. 7).

This was exactly how I felt when my kids were younger, and I was desperately reaching out for daily support and assistance in as many ways as possible. Now that my kids are older, I’ve learned to tame my brain enough not to be on super high alert, given that quiet no longer means something challenging or dangerous is about to happen – it simply (ha!) means parental guilt that I’m leaving them to their own devices (literally).

Finally, Merrill offers a list of things she wishes “the world knew about parenting 2e kids”, including:

We are not making up this stuff (p. 8).

(This reminds me of how gifted kids can sometimes be “gaslit” into disbelieving their own uniquely intense reality, as described by Linda Silverman. Apparently the same is true for parents of 2E kids.)

Sometimes we appear over-protective, while sometimes we seem neglectful (p. 9).

(Every day, in every way, I need to continue to practice the art of – as my husband would put it – “not giving a f***” what other people think about my parenting decisions. As a former people-pleaser-extraordinaire, this has been a monumental challenge – one I’m still working on.)

Not every 2e kid has the same issues. Every single one of these kids presents differently, and they are not in parenting magazines or books, mainstream blogs, or general societal acceptance (p. 10).

(This is a sobering reminder of how isolating it can be to look at “mainstream” parenting sources and not see our own experiences and realities reflected – hence, the need for support groups, blogs, podcasts, and books specifically for parents of 2E kids.)

Chapter 2: One Heck of a Ride 

In her second chapter, Merrill responds with brutal honesty to the quip “Must be nice to have a gifted child” with her own “must be nice” rejoinders:

Must be nice to have a child whose racing brain doesn’t keep her awake into the wee hours (p. 13).

(My 12-year-old C has “insomnia issues”, just like me. In addition to endlessly racing minds, we each have our own laundry list of hacks and supports needed to help us fall and stay asleep. I’ll write more about insomnia in another post.)

Must be nice to not have to worry about your child making and keeping friends (p. 13).

(My number one wish for my 10-year-old neurodiverse son D. is that he’ll finally make a new and trusted friend this year – not exactly easy during a pandemic.)

Must be nice to take your kid somewhere new and not worry about having to leave early because of over-stimulation (p. 14).

(Heck, I’ve always just assumed we won’t stay long! We aim for an hour, and anything beyond that is bonus.)

Also included in this chapter is a hypothetical letter written by Merrill to her child’s teacher (“You have too many students, not enough time, and there’s just no money to do anything different… Trust that I wouldn’t tell you how he learns unless I thought it would help you help him.”), and Merrill imagining what her own Gifted and Talented Conference opening speech might sound like (“Parents, you need to remember to take care of you.”)

Chapter 3: Taking the Leap 

Here, Merrill talks about “taking the leap” to homeschooling her 2E son. In a hilarious passage, she compares a series of statements said by a teacher to “what’s actually meant” and “what is heard” by the parent on the receiving end:

What is said: Your child refuses to participate in any class activities and will not put down a single word, even when given the words to write.

What is meant: Your kid is the most passive-aggressive ODD child I’ve ever known and I haven’t the slightest clue how to motivate him…

What is heard: Your parenting skills are just below those of a psychotic hamster. (p. 31)

I resonate with Merrill’s insecurities. Like her, I was formerly a classroom teacher, and well remember what it was like to feel frustrated and exhausted by “out of the box” kids who, quite simply, made my job a lot harder. Now, as a parent, I’m constantly walking a fine line of wanting to empathize with teachers while also advocating for what my kids need – and hoping I come across as just-the-right-mixture of humble-but-proactive-and-informed parent.  It’s tricky.

Chapter 4: Our Grand Homeschooling Adventure 

When discussing her experiences with homeschooling (only chosen as an option when her designated gifted kid was denied services at his new local school due to his twice-exceptionality), Merrill shares:

I am not a patient woman. I know this about myself and barely accept it. I walk fast, I talk fast, and I want to scream when my computer isn’t as caffeinated as I am (p. 36).

Hear, hear. My nickname as a kid was Speedy (no joke), and it remains insanely challenging to slow down enough to roll with the ride of parenting and accept imperfection on a daily basis. I may know (hypothetically) all the things I “could” be doing with my kids to optimize their learning experiences, but constantly have to settle for the reality of how much I actually get done – because ultimately, self-care trumps even the illusion of “parenting perfection”; nothing is more important.

Chapter 5: Living My Walter Mitty Fantasy 

In her final chapter – after singing the praises of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) as the ultimate cinematic representation of a gifted family (love that movie!) – Merrill notes that back in her pre-kid days, as a professional flutist, she was actually living her “Walter Mitty fantasy” – that is, her daydream of a perfect alternative life. Now, as a parent of a 2E kid, she vacillates between loving and hating the work she has cut out for herself:

I love homeschooling my son… I don’t miss the fights over homework, the breathtaking anxiety about his psyche, or the conferences with teachers about everything he was doing wrong and nothing about what he was doing right.

I hate homeschooling my son. It’s all on me. (pp. 55-56)

Yes, exactly. I’m thrilled that during this learning-at-home pandemic time, it’s actually not “all on me”: I get to do a mix of both, with my kids’ teachers determining their curriculum (for better and for worse – but mostly for better), and it “simply” being up to me to supervise them and make sure it all gets done.

Back when I first attended a SENG parent support group, our facilitator reminded us repeatedly that there’s never a perfect solution to our kids’ schooling needs – there’s only compromise and striving for the “best possible”.

That’s certainly been my own experience, with plenty of highs and lows over the years. So much depends on the grace, understanding, and flexibility of our kids’ teachers – and, like Merrill, I “stand with teachers” (p. 38) while also standing with students and parents.

I appreciate Merrill’s closing reminder in her book:

“If you decide to confide in others, you’ll discover you’re not alone” (p. 58).

Speaking of that, last night I participated in a webinar and support group for parents of gifted kids (hosted by the Institute for Educational Advancement), and got multiple dopamine hits from having my experiences and challenges validated again and again – ping, ping, ping.

I was reminded that the more we come together and share honestly – as Merrill does in this book – the happier (and less alone) we’ll be.

 

Book Reflections: “Giftedness 101” by Linda Kreger Silverman

This is the first entry in what I hope will be an ongoing series of reflections on books related to giftedness and 2E learning.

After listening to a Mind Matters podcast interview with Linda Kreger Silverman – Episode 20, entitled “IQ Isn’t Everything: Reevaluating Evaluation” – I ordered and read Silverman’s Giftedness 101 (2013) by Springer Publishing.

This book is part of a series of “Psych 101” books, described on the back cover as “short, reader-friendly introductions to cutting-edge topics in psychology… for all students of psychology and anyone interested in the field”.

The chapter titles alone were enough to pull me in:

  1. Invisible Gifts
  2. What is Giftedness
  3. The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Gifted
  4. Life at the Extremes
  5. The Psychology of Giftedness
  6. Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness
  7. Optimal Development of the Gifted
  8. Where Do We Go From Here?

While I couldn’t help turning immediately to chapter 3 (what a tantalizing title!), I quickly realized I should start at the beginning and work my way through – which I did, in concentrated chunks over the last few days. I marked up pages like mad with my pencil, and will share a few of my thoughts – accompanied by quotes – from each chapter.

Chapter 1: Invisible Gifts

“Undetected ability is an immense loss to society; the pain borne by the individual is beyond measure” (p. 2).

Silverman’s poetic first chapter makes a case for the fact that giftedness is often hiding under the surface of the small percentage of individuals who stand out through their “eminence” – indeed, one of the most commonly used strategies to cope with giftedness is “invisibility”.

“Without being given the opportunity to soar, [gifted kids] disappear into daydreams. Thousands of extremely gifted children become so disillusioned that they drop out of school and insist on being homeschooled” (p. 6).

As the quotes selected above indicate, the consequences of not acknowledging and supporting gifted kids can be dire – both societally and individually.  Although my own giftedness was recognized at a fairly early age (through elementary school testing) – and I was placed in a weekly pull-out program – I didn’t receive counseling or other emotional support. I ended up developing a life-threatening eating disorder at the age of 12, and dropping out of school in the first semester of 7th grade. I only made it through morning classes in 9th and 10th grade before formally dropping out of K-12 schooling for good.

I insisted on being homeschooled – actually, on being an autodidact – and became obsessed with forming my own curricular path based on my unique passions and interests. This included several part-time jobs out in the “real world”, where I deeply appreciated the chance to interact with adults rather than teenagers. (My best friend was 20 years older than me.) I made it through my teenage years, just barely – but I sure wish I’d had more support earlier on.

Chapter 2: What is Giftedness? 

“Giftedness is a political football” (p. 20)

In this chapter, Silverman discusses the fascinating history of how we’ve chosen to define giftedness over the decades – and the ramifications this has had on both identification and services. While she notes that emphasis was previously placed on “eminence” (that is, gifted kids who “achieve their potential” in society), she points out how problematic this is on so many fronts.

Silverman prefers viewing giftedness as “asynchronous development”, with a focus on training “therapists and counselors who understand [gifted kids’] inner worlds and the role that giftedness plays in their identity development” (p. 49). She points out that while giftedness studies originated in psychology, they’ve drifted away towards the education realm (i.e., talent development) – and she posits that psychologists have a moral imperative to step back into the fray.

The quote I selected from this chapter stood out to me given my own professional journey in education, and how I’ve been forced to “take sides” one way or another given the political tides at play. I’m hopeful that once Marc Smolowitz’s documentary “The G Word” can finally be released, it will provoke a much-needed and overdue societal discussion about how to best meet diverse gifted kids’ needs.

Chapter 3: The Crusade to Vanquish Prejudice Against the Giftedness 

“Stereotyping the gifted is commonly accepted and, in the past, has mushroomed into scapegoating… and persecution” (p. 67).

In Chapter 3, Silverman provides additional historical context for giftedness – including wading into the decidedly unpleasant waters of Sir Francis Galton’s founding of eugenics (boooooooo!) while also covering the trajectory of work by Alfred Binet, Lewis Terman, and Leta Hollingworth (who coined the challenge of “the woman problem” in giftedness – i.e., being responsibility for child-bearing and caring while also nurturing one’s own gifts).

Silverman debunks numerous myths and stereotypes about gifted individuals – both old and new. Older myths include “Early ripe, early rot” and “giftedness is akin to madness”. Newer myths – still ever-present – include “all children are gifted”, “giftedness is just a manifestation of helicopter parenting”, “acceleration is socially harmful”, “gifted programs are elitist”, and “gifted kids can make it on their own”. A recent interview with my own parents reveals that they hold several of these beliefs, and that I would not have received any special services for my giftedness unless my school had provided them.

Chapter 4: Life at the Extremes

“The higher the individual’s IQ, the more intense the struggle for identity, meaning, and connection” (p. 87).

In this chapter, Silverman compares and contrasts the atypical developmental needs of kids at both ends of the intellectual spectrum. She argues that just like intellectual disability, giftedness should be seen as an “organizing principle” that would allow behaviors to be “perceived within the context of those with similar abilities, rather than viewing them as ‘aberrant’ in relation to those in the average range” (p. 93). She names such challenges of extreme giftedness as advanced vocabulary (which “hinders communication”), depression, loneliness, so-called “mania” (i.e., intense focus and enthusiasm), and “perfectionism” (actually a common character trait of giftedness, rather than a defect to be overcome).

Silverman discusses the various levels of giftedness, noting that “gifted educators have been so focused on the development of talented children (approximately 120 IQ and above) that they have not taken seriously the needs of children in the higher extremes of ability” (p. 101) – many of whom are “hidden” due to being homeschooled.

Finally, in this chapter Silverman discusses giftedness throughout the lifespan, beginning with the earliest potential indicators in infancy (including the high value of early identification – especially for kids who may not otherwise be given services to nurture their gifts), and giftedness in adults – which I’ve written about quite a bit already on this blog. (Naturally, much of this portion of the chapter is heavily underlined… )

Chapter 5: The Psychology of Giftedness

“It is time for a psychology of giftedness – time to recognize the developmental differences, personality traits, lifespan development, particular issues and struggles of the gifted, as well as the consequences of not being acceptable” (p. 121).

Silverman covers quite a few topics in chapter 5, including: feeling different (and what this means for “stages of friendship”); gifted kids’ quintessential adaptability (“Who would you like me to be today?”); the inner experience of being gifted; Dabrowski’s “theory of positive disintegration”; perfectionism (both healthy and unhealthy); and introversion.

So many ideas in this chapter resonated with me – perhaps most especially the idea that gifted kids “quickly learn what is expected of them and how to elicit the responses they desire from adults” (p. 129). This was enough the Story of My Childhood that I’ll devote a specific blog post to it later on, since it played a pivotal role in my eventual disintegration into an eating disorder and “failure to thrive”.  Briefly, I spent so many years being who others thought I was – or wanted me to be – or needed me to be – that I was unable to make it safely across the bridge of adolescence without crashing and burning numerous times.

In Silverman’s discussion about the “inner experience of giftedness”, countless ideas stood out; here are just a few, rat-a-tat:

“Excitement with new insights is dampened when there’s no one with whom to share them. Social exchange becomes a minefield when one is attuned to a symphony of nuance” (p. 131).

“It isn’t fun or funny to be laughed at for who you are. The dread of being ‘abnormal’ impels the gifted to lead a double life. They feign normalcy attempting to mask their vulnerability” (p. 132).

“Anti-intellectualism, under the guise of egalitarianism, is pervasive worldwide” (p. 132).

“The tall poppies syndrome is a social phenomenon of attacking those with exceptional ability” (p. 133).

“Benign neglect of the gifted is customary, with the rationale that they can take care of themselves and other students are in more need” (p. 133).

Yikes – and, yes!

Silverman undeniably has her pulse on the inner worlds of gifted kids – and how many challenges they face that most would consider insignificant. It’s tiring “feigning normalcy”, feeling unheard, trying not to “stand out”, and knowing that your needs are considered much less important than others’.

However, I really stood up and took notice during the next portion of this section, in which Silverman discusses various “personality characteristics” associated with gifted kids – and I saw my own challenging history in each one:

First:

“The gifted are gullible. Their first inclination is to be truthful, so they tend to believe nearly anything anyone tells them… Early humiliations leave deep scars…” (p. 134).

I was relentlessly bullied (by my so-called friends) in second grade, and will write about that in a separate post – but yes, the scars ran deep.

Second:

“When gifted individuals cannot find anyone who understands their reality, they begin to doubt their sanity” (p. 134).

Because others “do not observe, apprehend, feel, experience, or intuit in the same manner” as gifted kids, they may tend to feel “gaslit”.  So interesting. I hadn’t made that connection before, but it rings very true.

Third:

Gifted kids tend to have a “logical imperative”, leading to “imposter syndrome” because they:

“… compare their knowledge with all there is to be known about a subject” and “soon become aware that they’ve barely scratched the surface… The gifted often feel like they’ve just fooled everybody into thinking that they are smart, and at any moment they will be found out” (p. 135).

Ummm… Yes. Exactly. And, making things even worse:

“The gifted hate hypocrisy and they have uncanny perception, which often puts them at odds with bosses, co-workers, teachers, and parents who sport inauthentic facades” (p. 135).

I can’t stand in-authenticity!!!!  I’ve had to intellectualize and compartmentalize its social necessity in order to function. (FWIW, studying sociology and evolutionary psychology has been a godsend for this.)

Furthermore, Silverman notes:

“[Gifted kids] are paradoxical: self-assured and insecure, bold and timid, idealistic and practical, compassionate to others and unkind to themselves, mature and immature” (p. 135).

How is it that so many contradictions mutually co-exist? And yet, they do.

Moving on, Dabrowski’s work deserves its own blog post, especially given how much controversy there is in the “gifted world” around his concept of “overexcitabilities” or OEs. Perfectionism and introversion are also blog-worthy entries in their own right, so I’ll also pause on those for now.

Chapter 6: Comprehensive Assessment of Giftedness 

“IQ scores are never an end in themselves; they are simply tools to be used wisely in the hands of professionals who understand giftedness” (p. 190).

As someone completely unversed in psychometrics, I learned the most from – and feel most humbled by – this chapter. There is a LOT that goes into accurately assessing giftedness, and I finished this chapter with more questions than answers. This is clearly a growth area for me; in the meantime; I’m grateful for all the individuals who dedicate their lives to doing this important work, and doing it well.

Chapter 7: Optimal Development of the Gifted 

Silverman begins her penultimate chapter by emphasizing the need to stop “bashing” parents of gifted kids, instead focusing on the critical role they play in their children’s development – and pointing out that they need support (yes!).

She discusses how to foster an optimal home environment (primarily by being responsive to kids’ needs and interests) and the fact that giftedness tends to “run in families”. (Unfortunately, she seems to take genetic relatedness among all members for granted, which is far from always the case; or, if I’m misreading her, the importance of environmental influences rather than or in addition to heritability should be called out more explicitly.)

She also briefly covers elements of an “optimal school environment”, which among other things boils down to listening to what kids want and need – and then listening some more.

Chapter 8: Where Do We Go From Here? 

Silverman’s short closing chapter is a “call to work” for fledgling psychology students to join the fray of the giftedness sphere – which she acknowledges has “no truce in sight”. She reminds the reader:

“If the gifted and twice exceptional should become your passion… you will be paid in appreciation. Your work will be a wellspring of creativity. You’ll be outside the box avnyway, eyed suspiciously by the system, so you might as well enjoy the freedom to access your creativity” (p. 232).

I appreciate that Silverman doesn’t sugarcoat the realistic challenges of working with and for gifted individuals. I’m writing this blog anonymously (for now) for a reason. I need more time to make peace with my passion for giftedness – which has always been there, but wasn’t allowed to blossom until I finally had kids of my own and needed to find ways to help them.

In closing, I recommend Giftedness 101 for anybody just stepping into this world, who wants a concise yet compassionate overview of where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we should head.

As Silverman notes, there’s plenty of work left to do.

“Ideal” Versus “Real” Home Learning

There have been many moments during the past few weeks of remote learning when I’ve been tempted to stop and write a post about a “sample day” – just to give a taste of what life in our household of three twice-exceptional learners is like.

The moment that led to the “Frozen blanket pic” above is what finally motivated me to take the time to write for a bit.

My 7-year-old “I” entered an advanced placement 2nd grade classroom this year, which covers 3rd grade math standards. (I wrote about her math anxiety in a previous entry.) Since she basically skipped 2nd grade math content, we’re working hard to help her feel comfortable with lots of new concepts.

Thankfully – and perhaps predictably – “I” understands the underlying concepts of multiplication and division just fine. However, she still struggles with anxiety and avoidance around both demonstrating her knowledge in writing and memorizing basic math facts. She’ll guess, equivocate, try to flee the room, state “I can’t do this!”, ask for a snack, groan, twist around with her legs up in the air, and basically do anything except “just” sit and “do the work”. It’s exhausting watching her (and, truth be told, supporting her).

Indeed, the picture taken above was preceded by a ton of rolling around on the floor (“I”, not me – though I sometimes resort to yoga poses myself to de-stress); “I”‘s purple dress hovering over her head for awhile; her dress finally coming off (you can see it in the background); and finally the “Frozen” blanket being wrapped all around her as a protective cocoon. Throughout this process, we talked about how many wheels are on 1 tricycle, 2 tricycles, etc., as I filled out several function tables for different items. I scripted all her responses in her hard-copy math workbook, and she then added all the answers electronically to her formal Seesaw assignment to turn in. (Yes, she had to take the blanket off and sit in front of her computer to actually input data. But once the anxiety of doing the actual work itself was gone, this was no problem.)

It struck me as humorous that the reality of our “working from home” schooling looks so incredibly different from all the posed pictures you see in online articles – like the one I placed as a contrast photo at the beginning of this post. I’m sure there are plenty of households where kids actually sit in front of their computers at a kitchen table or desk, waiting for break time to eat the perfectly ripe bananas in the foreground – but that’s not us. 

During her live Zoom meetings, “I” will either be lying sideways on the floor or huddling in her bed, chewing on hunks of ice. My 10-year-old D. turns off his video (with permission from his teacher) and hides himself in his blanket on his bed while (hopefully) listening. My 12-year-old C. either sits on the sofa downstairs in her pajamas, or stays in her bed surrounded by pillows and blanket and stuffies. They are never at their actual desks (which are too filled with random project items to be much use as working surfaces anyway). 

Posture and sensory needs, however, are only part of the picture of online learning in our household. On the same day I took the above picture, my son D. came by my room to quietly inform me that C. was sobbing in her bedroom. When I headed over to see what was going on, C. was muted and had her camera off, so she was able to say to me in between tears, “I DIDN’T KNOW I WAS SUPPOSED TO DO THE MAP TO BE ABLE TO DO THE BOSS BATTLE! EVERYONE ELSE KNEW! I KEEP TELLING MR. B BUT HE DOESN’T ANSWER!” I checked the chat box in her Zoom class and was mortified to see that C. had sent numerous panicked texts – ALL IN CAPS – to her geometry teacher Mr. B. during instructional time, while he was trying to hold class. She even used the phrase “FLIPPIN’ ASSIGNMENT” at one point.

Yikes.

My first task was to calm C. down enough to get a sense of what was actually going on. She explained, through sobs, that she had no idea a particular assignment was due that day – she didn’t see it in her “Upcoming Assignments” tab, and hadn’t seen an email coming through about it. (C. has a diagnosis of ADHD-Inattentive, so keeping effective track of assignments is an ongoing challenge.) She felt even worse because it seemed that somehow all her classmates had known about it, and she wasn’t able to check in with one of them (like she would in a real-life classroom) because chat between students is disabled during Zoom. I asked her if she had contact information for any of the other students – so she could try texting them by phone – but she didn’t. She finally stopped crying, and was able to focus enough to get back to listening to her teacher. I told her she owed him an apology after class for sending him so many upset chat messages during class, and she agreed. We also talked about needing to brainstorm what had gone wrong in terms of not having the information she needed to be successful.

Eventually she checked in with Mr. B. and was able to get (mostly) caught up. (And I was reminded I need to follow through on setting up a meeting to discuss C.’s 504 plan with him and her other teachers…)

That day, however, my equanimity was shot. Having two of my three kids get so upset over schooling that I had to sit with them to help them emotionally move through it was simply indicative of how hard this learn-from-home reality really is.

With that said, I remain genuinely grateful – on some levels – for the “forced-opportunity” to stay so closely involved in my kids’ learning. Pre-pandemic life was moving so quickly, it was easy to feel like days were simply slipping by. I happily outsourced schooling as much as possible, and was able to get away with not worrying about specifics – but I also wasn’t really clued-in to the details of my 2E kids’ unique learning challenges and triumphs in every subject.

Now, I can’t help but be involved – for better or for worse.

Like every other parent in the world whose kids are learning from home right now, I’m taking things one day at a time, one class at a time, one assignment at a time – and I simply laugh when I see pictures of what things “should” look like.

Not in a million years.

My Parents’ Experiences Raising Gifted Kids

Image from: https://www.needpix.com/photo/download/258757/family-together-parenting-lifestyle-parents-beach-vacation-shadows-free-pictures

Life has been busier than ever in recent weeks, as my three kids have become more immersed in their online schoolwork, and my own work of overseeing their learning while also engaging with my own (paid) job and daily household tasks has ramped up.

With that said, I took a “break” of sorts this past week to binge-listen my way through a fabulous podcast I stumbled upon called Mind Matters, described as follows:

The Mind Matters Podcast features discussions with leaders in the fields of psychology, education, and beyond, with an emphasis on gifted/talented and twice-exceptional children and adults. Mind Matters explores parenting, counseling techniques, and best practices for enriching the lives of high-ability people.

Score! Everything about this podcast series sounded right up my alley – and I wasn’t disappointed. In my typical “gifted-kid-all-grown-up” immersion fashion, I listened to nearly all 68 half-hour episodes  in rapid succession and took semi-voracious notes. I am grateful to Emily and Dave (the married host and producer) for all the labor and love they’ve clearly poured into this endeavor, and have a ton of ideas for topics to follow up on myself in HalfoftheTruth.org.

With that said, I want to start this particular blog post by reflecting on my own upbringing as a gifted kid. We went to hang out with my elderly Norwegian-American parents (ages 83 and 81) on their back porch this weekend – and while my three kids were out zipping around on scooters and other wheeled devices in their driveway, I told my parents l wanted to interview them on a “new topic”.

(I’ve actually interviewed my parents quite a bit in recent years. I set up a well-lit “studio” in their living room back in 2015 and spent many hours interviewing each of them about their childhood back in war-occupied Norway, their experiences immigrating to America and becoming parents, their lifelong participation in a unique spiritual group, and other thoughts about life. It was important to me to archive their memories while they were still lucid.)

This time, however, I wanted to ask them specifically about raising gifted kids in America.  I’m the third of four kids, and all of us except my younger sister were identified as gifted and went through gifted programming in school. (I’m convinced my younger sister has an undiagnosed learning disability that prevented her from testing in; she has extreme anxiety around test-taking.)

Here’s a brief run-down of what my parents shared during the interview, followed by my own thoughts:

Me: What was it like raising kids who were identified as gifted kids?

Mom: I didn’t have any other kinds, so I couldn’t compare it to anybody – I just assumed that that’s how kids were! They learned to read at age 5, do all the homework without help; it was easy that way.

Pop: Well, I mean, the fact is that you guys were all different – so I think we had to deal with each one.  The fact that you were all fairly smart is something I guess we assumed…

Me: Why did you assume that?

Pop: Because we  considered ourselves to be pretty smart, I guess! [laughs] Anyway…

Me: What did you think about the term “gifted” that was used in America? I’m assuming that wasn’t used in Norway. My dad looks confused. I repeat: Gifted? He is still confused. So, kids that get a label of being gifted – if they score high on an IQ test?

Pop: Yeah, I always had questions about that.

Me: What were your questions?

Pop: It seemed – you in particular were being identified as gifted, and it was like… A lot of parents were saying, “I have a gifted child!” as though not everyone was gifted. It seemed a little weird to label people like that, because then you have labeled other people as not being gifted, even though they might just be a little later or have different kinds of gifts. So, that always seemed a little strange to me… [Plus], all the “gifted children” [in your program] were white, the ones who had been identified – and they had pushy parents for the most part.

Me: You guys are NOT pushy! You’re anti-pushy…

Mom: They [the teachers] really made us understand that they appreciated that.

Me: OK. But your perception of the other parents in that program is that they were pushy?

Pop: Yeah. My impression was that there were some parents who were going to make sure that their kids were identified as “gifted”. They were going to fight for it. Therefore, the whole thing didn’t make so much sense, I thought. On the other hand, of course, it makes sense to put some people on a faster path if they really are showing exceptional gifts. In my case, of course, I skipped first grade because I had been away and not been able to go to school but my grandmother took me to the principal at [my local] school and he gave me a newspaper and asked me to read it, and it was about some political developments in Europe and the Soviets moving in and all that, and I really didn’t know anything about that, but I read it fluently, so then he put me in second grade.

Me: Okay!

Pop: So – which I was very thankful for, because I would just have been very bored if I had been with the kids who were just learning to read when I already knew it. So, that made sense to me. But the notion of identifying all these kids as gifted, the way it was done in [your school] at that time, it seemed a little questionable to me.

My mom and dad talk about how things were really egalitarian in schools when they were growing up in Norway, other than kids with similar interests and abilities naturally clustering together – and how the only exceptions were kids who had to repeat a grade.

I ask them if they remember anything about the gifted program I attended as a child, and they truly don’t have any recollections. My dad says, “My impression was it was just a class of kids.” I decide to pivot away from the topic of schooling and back towards parenting more specifically.

Me: Did you ever have challenges with parenting kids who were super smart and curious and, kind of, fast brains?

Pop: [confused] You were kind of… what brains?

Me: Fast brains.

My husband [trying to clarify]: Did you think it was harder to raise your children because you noticed they were more smart or more easily bored or… ?

My dad laughs uncomfortably and looks at my mom, who also laughs.

Pop: Did we have kids like that?

Me: So, kids who are designated gifted – there tends to be a really strong correlation with emotional intensity. Did you find that we were highly emotionally intense kids?

Pop: Emotional intensity? [He’s confused.] 

My husband: Did you think you had to calm your kids down?

Me: Were our emotions stronger than other kids, or…?

Pop: No, I don’t remember much of that.

My mom starts talking about challenges she had with my younger sister getting failing grades in high school, but I redirect her back to the elementary school ages.

Me: As kids, you didn’t experience us as being especially intense?

Mom: No – it was more the opposite. You could entertain yourself. I don’t remember – maybe you can remember – that there was much arguing between you children, or fighting, or anything very emotional… I don’t remember.

Me: Okay! Anything else?

Pop: About what? (He laughs.)

I end the conversation at this point, because it’s clear they really don’t have much to say on the topic of giftedness. Their kids – us – simply were who we were. We were smart, yes (just like them) – but in their perception, we knew how to take care of our own needs and weren’t particularly intense or challenging.

My parents’ egalitarian nature made them shy away from calling out their kids’ giftedness per se, and they saw gifted programs as being primarily a way for “pushy [white] American parents” to assert their dominance. Their only conception of gifted kids needing something more or different related to the notion of acceleration in certain subjects – or, in my dad’s case as a child, not having to suffer through first grade when he already knew how to read.

None of what I heard from my parents was particularly surprising, but I’m glad I asked directly. It’s clear they really had no idea how distressing it was for me being a gifted kid, or the role it played in my extremely challenging teenage years – including my eating disorder and dropping out of school repeatedly – and thus couldn’t validate this or address it. Their own experiences growing up in a small Scandinavian nation hadn’t prepared them for the nuances of public schooling in 1980s America. Like many first generation American parents, they simply accepted the school system and assumed we were doing fine – until we weren’t, at which point they assumed our journey was a highly individualized and spiritual one that we would work our own way through with support from God.

This may help to explain why I was so hesitant as a parent myself to explore giftedness in my own kids – and also why I don’t spend any time at all explaining to my parents why we’ve chosen to put our kids into accelerated programs.

There’s no point. They wouldn’t disapprove, but they also wouldn’t have much to say.

My parents’ awkward silences and nervous laughter during my interview with them on giftedness make it clear that they don’t have a frame of reference or an entry point for these discussions – so the journey needs to continue to be mine, with support from the like-minded parent-peers and friends I’ve made along the way.

Meanwhile, my own parents will simply love their kids and grandkids in the ways that make sense to them, regardless of giftedness.

Rainforest Minds in Academia

Image from: https://pixabay.com/photos/academic-ancient-architecture-2769/

I’ve been working in academia for 12 years now – longer, if you count my four years as a graduate student. My goal in this post is to explore whether rainforest minds flourish in academia – and why or why not. I’ll begin by providing context for my own journey in this space.

As an undergraduate majoring in literature, I got good enough at theorizing and writing academic papers that I was told I should/could consider a career in academia. However, writing detailed analyses of novels, plays, and poetry – while satisfying as an abstract skill-set – didn’t strike me as particularly useful for the world. I was eager to get out and make things better, by teaching kids.

With that said, as I wrote about in a previous post, teaching elementary school only lasted so long as a novel learning sphere to explore. Earning my doctorate degree and taking my education studies to the “next level” felt like a logical next step once I had a few years of practical teaching experience under my belt.

I was naive enough to only apply to one institution: the local public R1 university in the major metropolitan city where I lived and worked. I crossed my fingers that things would work out okay (not knowing the slightest thing about how fickle graduate school admissions really are), and was lucky enough to be accepted for both a masters and a doctoral degree in one fell swoop. Whew.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted out of academia other than the ability to “teach teachers”, but I was surprisingly clear in my focus on the end goal of earning a Ph.D.  (This bears mentioning because of how often I’ve read about other RFMs starting degrees and not finishing them; for whatever reason, this wasn’t an issue for me. I’m actually a pretty hardcore “completist” about certain projects or goals in life, and this gets me through.)

I did worry, however, about how a career in academia would mesh with my goals of having a family. I wasn’t getting any younger (I was 29 when I started my four-year program), and knew I would need to make some high-stakes decisions pretty soon. I decided not to worry about it for the time being, and simply finish up – which I did.

When I got pregnant during my first year after graduation, I still wondered how it was all going to work out – but went ahead and applied for tenure line positions anyway. And, I got one. I gave birth to my daughter C. a couple of weeks before the start of the fall quarter at my new institution.

The position I accepted was at a local liberal arts college, with high expectations for teaching and community service, and low expectations for research output. This seemed in alignment with my goal of simultaneously being a new parent, but it meant I suddenly shifted into a radically different type of academic space than the one I’d been studying in for four years.  It was a stark difference, to say the least – and while I adored being back “on the ground” with teachers, I missed the intellectual stimulation of being around so many top-notch researchers.

Within a few years, my husband and I decided we wanted to relocate to another state where raising our growing family would be both easier and cheaper – so, I bid adieu to my tenure-line position and sank into existential depression over what would come next for me work-wise. Thankfully, an inquiry email led to a meeting with someone at the major R1 university in my new city, who happened to be looking for a qualified instructor for a specific course, which turned into a part-time directorship of a masters program, then a full-time directorship, and eventually back to part-time once I realized I couldn’t actually stay healthy and parent my three kids effectively while working that much.

I’ve been on a 0.6 lecturer contract in academia for quite a few years now, and it’s been a nearly perfect balance in terms of workload and flexibility. I don’t really conduct much research of my own anymore; instead, I work with masters students on their “action research” projects, teach and construct plenty of classes, serve on doctoral committees, and generally stay immersed in academia without the pressures of “publish or perish” (though also without any of the job security or prestige associated with tenure-line work).

I mention all this as a backdrop to, and context for, the original topic of my post: rainforest minds in academia. Would one expect to find lots of rainforest minded-folks at the highest levels of study, or not – and why?

At first, the answer seems like an intuitive – yes, of course. Wouldn’t the world’s smartest, most curious people end up getting the most rigorous degrees possible and spending their lives surrounded by learning?

Well, yes and no. It’s likely that most people who’ve gotten doctorate degrees and landed jobs in academia were designated “gifted” as kids – meaning, they had “the capability to perform at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains.” 

But are they now rainforest minded adults? Not necessarily. Professors are not all “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive.”

Rather, many are single-mindedly focused on a specific area of inquiry, working long hours plugging away at incremental work that takes years of dedication. Conducting research, writing academic papers, submitting and resubmitting papers for publication, and seeking grant money can be grueling work that isn’t for the faint of heart – or for the fickle of interests.

Indeed, I’ve struggled over the years to stay sufficiently interested in any specific facet of my work (research-wise) for long enough to really make a dent in “the literature”, or make a name for myself. Each time I think I have an inkling of what I want to say, I find there’s more to explore and reflect on, and I’m off on another tangent. I just don’t quite have the type of relentless focus on singular projects required of highly productive academics.

However, there are some exceptions to the trope of what “highly productive” means in academia. The type of academics who can (and do) write articles and books for the broader public tend to take a more holistic approach to their work, looking not only deeply but broadly at any given problem. They make unusual connections, seek out new perspectives, and aren’t afraid to admit that their thinking has changed on a topic when provided with new evidence.

I believe these are rainforest minded academics.

Sadly, they’re all too rare. Most academics I’ve either known or know of tend to “stay in their lane” for the good of their own careers. There’s a fear of speaking with any semblance of authority (or even curiosity) about something one isn’t sufficiently grounded in with deep expertise as a scholar – which means oh-so-many potential “a ha” moments are lost in the noise of safety and specialization.

Speaking of safety, academia is a notoriously unsafe space to speak up about challenging topics. This is ironic, since you’d think scholars would be the first to throw out new and innovative ideas – but there’s an in-group tendency that can quite literally be stifling.

This primarily has to do with the peer-driven structure of academia, as colleagues rate your work and determine whether your contributions are sufficient to merit a promotion (and eventually tenure). It also has to do with what “counts” as useful contributions to one’s field. Community service at R1 institutions is lauded through lip service, but not given anything close to the same weight as publishing yet another paper in a peer-reviewed journal (which leads to plenty of “dead weight” recycling of similar ideas in slightly different guises).

It’s a tricky, sticky situation – one that’s ultimately led me to determine that academia isn’t really the ideal space for me. I’m far too interested in making a direct difference in the world, and speaking “the truth” as I know it. I don’t want to follow the “rules of the game” simply to get ahead. What would be the point of that?

So, I follow my conscience and my passions rather than a prescribed set of “guidelines for success”. While I managed to make it through the strictures of a doctoral degree and four years on the tenure line, apparently that was it for me.

And here I am with my rainforest mind, formally anchored to a specific field for the purposes of my job, but feeling like a permanent imposter (because if you don’t buckle down and focus in academia, you’re not really “the best”).

However, I’m not sure I have any other choice, given the way my brain works – and I’m also not sure I would necessarily be happier (or more content, or less questioning) if I were wired differently.

Life itself – huge, messy, complicated, untethered by institutional mandates –  continues to beckon to me as a much more intriguing option.

Coming Out as an RFM

Image from: https://pixabay.com/photos/turtle-landscape-nature-3340266/

Ever since starting this blog, I’ve wanted to talk about what it’s like to “come out” as a Rainforest Mind (a.k.a. “gifted adult”).

I’ve thought quite a bit (naturally – RFMs are “overthinkers”!) about using the term “coming out”, and it continues to feel like the right one to me.

My giftedness as a child was a source of isolation, frustration, and bullying. As an adult, my giftedness has been a source of – well, isolation, frustration, and social loneliness. It’s certainly not something I ever talk about openly with other adults, who tend to get uncomfortable at the mere mention of the G word, especially related to adults.

Hence: “coming out”. Attempting to normalize. Attempting to feel publicly okay about “being a certain way”. I’m on the road, but not there yet.

In previous years, as I sought out therapy for ongoing challenges and depression (ever-present, though thankfully managed well these days), my last two counselors both pointed out that being a “gifted adult” was something I might want to consider as an integral and exploration-worthy part of my identity. I pushed back by saying I wasn’t interested in joining Mensa (I have very little interest in IQ per se), and that I really wasn’t quite sure how this related to much of anything.

My first “formal” introduction (on my own) to the idea of giftedness in adulthood was stumbling upon Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s  (1999) Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. (If a book has been written about something, then surely it’s a “thing” – right?) I knew all about being designated “gifted” as a child and navigating those schooling waters – but what did it mean, exactly, to use this term later in life? As Streznewski writes in her Preface:

“If you think that gifted children are a misunderstood minority in American society, try looking up ‘gifted adult’ in a good library; but do so only if you enjoy watching librarians twirl” (p. v).

In discussing her motivation for writing this book (which involved first conducting in-depth interviews with 100 participants), she describes being a high school Advanced Placement English teacher seeing students who “needed special help”:

“Year after year, a significant number of them arrived in my class at the end of a long road fogged with what they called boredom. They complained of inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, feelings of failure, and were obviously wasting a great deal of talent” (p. vi).

I haven’t written yet about my experiences as a gifted teenager (that’s a whole other set of blog posts), but the brief story is – I didn’t cope well; I dropped out of middle school, then out of high school, then out of college (the first time around).

In other words, I am yet another example of Streznewski’s findings that “managing a high-powered brain/mind can create difficulties in school, work, and society, and can make finding friends and partners a challenge” – and that “the problems and pleasures of being gifted do not change, only the context in which they are experienced as one grows older” (p. viii).

Looking back at the notes I took while reading Streznewski’s book, I see so many sections underlined, circled, check-marked, and/or annotated with “me” in the margins. Here are just a few from various chapters:

Chapter 3 (In Hiding): “I’m careful so my girlfriends won’t think I’m showing off. I guess I just don’t want to make other people feel bad” … “I have to be careful about dates. The last person was angry with me for using big words” (p. 42).

Chapter 4 (The Gifted Family):“You get so tired of trying, looking, hoping, every party you go to, every new house you move into, that you will find someone who is compatible” (p. 60).

Chapter 6 (Young Adults: The Extra Mile): “I hate Tupperware parties! I’d rather stay home and read” (p. 117).

Chapter 7 (Bored, Bored, Bored: The Quest for Challenging Work): “What may be viewed by others as restlessness or discontent is the norm for a gifted person” (p. 135).

Chapter 8 (Finding the Others: Friends and Lovers): “I can create unusual responses to situations which are interesting and catch me by surprise. When I am emotionally threatened, I become hyper-intellectual” (p. 192).

Okay – all of this (and much, much more) really resonated with me. So, I would say that reading Streznewski’s book was part of my “coming out” – though once again, there weren’t many people I could converse with about it. I did try recommending it to one friend/colleague who never responded, then gave up.

The next time I intentionally brought up giftedness was when I joined a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) parent support group. I couldn’t help reading our parenting textbook through the lens of my own experiences, and continually said to my group of parent-peers: “It’s super-hard to separate the parenting of my own kids from what I went through myself as a gifted kid, not receiving adequate support. I think I need to process that first.” Indeed, parenting my own “designated-gifted” kids has given me permission to talk more openly about “the G word” – and to think more deeply about what it means.

Attending a SENG conference also brought me face-to-face with a fellow gifted-adult traveler, Aurora Remember Holtzman, who told me about her podcast, Embracing Intensity. Aurora was one of the first people I spoke with personally (albeit briefly) about accepting, exploring, and embracing adult giftedness – with all its intensities. (I will return to more ideas from her podcast interviews in future blog posts.) 

Meanwhile, Paula Prober’s more recent work around Rainforest Minds (a more palatable phrase than “gifted adult”) has also gained a bit of a following. With her books and blog, Prober seems to be intentionally cultivating a sense of community and “normalcy” around rainforest mindedness (a.k.a. adult giftedness).

I hope the stigma of giftedness will lessen with time. I really do believe that diversity of all types is critical to human flourishing (and indeed, that we can’t avoid it). Now we “just” need to overcome avoidance of discussions around intellectual diversity.

I hope that for me, “coming out” as gifted can eventually shift to “reaching out” to like-minded souls instead.

References: 

Streznewski, M.K. (1999). Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. John Wiley & Sons.