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: “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.

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.

Schooling Choices for Gifted Kids

Now that I’ve talked a bit about my own schooling experiences growing up as a gifted kid, I thought I would jump into a brief overview of where I’ve landed as a parent.

I’ll start by stating that despite knowing how much “being gifted” impacted my own experiences as a child in school, I was very happily in denial about needing to address this concern once I had kids of my own.

Giftedness is a complicated, messy, contentious topic to deal with – especially as someone who’s dedicated my professional career to promoting educational equity and inclusion in schools.

How could I reconcile the reality of giftedness as a designation with the fact that all kids need individualized attention and care? In my ideal world, every child would have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) outlining their strengths and areas for growth, with plenty of ongoing support. (In fact, as I’m writing this, I realize I need to write a separate post about “My Ideal Schooling World.” Coming soon, hopefully.) 

It was easy enough for me to avoid thinking about parenting gifted kids when mine were super-young. Early parenting literature doesn’t tend to use this term; there’s way too much else to focus on and learn. The biggest concerns I had (other than survival!) were tracking my kids’ developmental milestones; ensuring they felt loved and validated; and providing “good-enough” spaces for their growth and positive socialization. Thankfully, my kids got all that from their community of caregivers, which included parents, grandparents, nannies, daycare providers, and preschool teachers.

After a big move from one state to another, my older daughter C. and her younger two siblings all eventually ended up attending a nearby Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool that we were very happy to call a second home. My kids were well cared for by their fabulous teachers, given plenty of space for creativity and expression, and encouraged to explore reading and writing at their own pace. I was able to continue my own career path while knowing my kids were in good hands and making lifelong friends.

However, when C. started Kindergarten in 2013, the situation became a little trickier. We considered sending her to a private school that seemed like an awesome continuation of her hands-on preschool experience, but we decided against it for the following reasons: 1) the cost; 2) concern about C. attending school exclusively with kids from more privileged socio-economic spaces; 3) wanting to support our neighborhood public school, which I’ll refer to here as “NE” for “Neighborhood Elementary”.

Thankfully, C.’s Kindergarten experience at NE went fine. My primary concerns were with C.’s overall happiness and sense of well-being, rather than academics, and she seemed to be on a good path. At that time, testing for the “advanced placement” program (gifted services) in our school district occurred on a select Saturday in the fall, which you had to sign up for ahead of time and drive your own kid to (not exactly egalitarian). I was inclined to ignore it and not go, but my husband made the effort and took C.

From what I recall, she did well but not quite well-enough to make the cut for gifted services, which suited me just fine: one less decision to make. She happily stayed at NE, went through gifted testing once again in 1st grade (with the same results – she qualified in math, but not in reading), and was still there when my son D. started Kindergarten in 2015.

D.’s Kindergarten experience at NE was also – fine. He had a lovely and understanding teacher who tried her best to differentiate for all kids, balancing academics with plenty of socio-emotional support and play. D.’s best friend from preschool happened to be in his classroom, which made life even better.

By 1st grade, however, D. was struggling at NE. He had already mastered the basics (and beyond) of reading, science, and math, and was clearly bored. His well-meaning teacher didn’t seem to understand that he craved more advanced curriculum, and in addition to ongoing toileting accidents, he began taking out his frustration on kids who he perceived to be “not following the rules”. (This was before we had a clear understanding about his neurodiversity.) When he lashed out physically (actually hitting other kids), we knew things weren’t okay, and immediately found him a counselor – which was a helpful supplement, but not enough.

D.’s scores on the district’s gifted placement testing (by this point administered district-wide to all kids, during the school day) were really high but not quite high enough – once again allowing us to simply decide to stay at NE (where I was meanwhile getting more and more actively involved in PTA governance). C. still qualified for “single subject” gifted services in math – meant to be delivered in her regular classroom (though since there was no accountability around this actually happening, it didn’t most of the time).

We got word late in the summer of 2015 that D.’s gifted testing scores had been re-calibrated, and he was suddenly offered a spot in an advanced placement classroom for 2nd grade at a different (nearby) school. We had to say yes to this opportunity: D. needed something different, and this was the next logical thing to try.

So – despite the fact that I was continuing to serve as NE’s PTA Co-President for a second year, and C. was very happily starting 4th grade at NE with an amazing teacher who met her needs on every level – including finally differentiating with more advanced math – D. went off to OE (“Other Elementary”). With my youngest still in preschool, we had an interesting year of juggling three different schools (not totally uncommon, I know, but still – it’s a lot).

Thankfully, D. adjusted reasonably well to his new advanced placement classroom, and we knew we’d made the best decision for him. (I say “reasonably” because it turns out he was still struggling with the other challenges I’ve written about on this blog.)

However, even more changes were afoot. We decided to buy a house in a more rural part of town (though still in the same district), which meant our kids had to adjust to new schools yet again. C. had finally passed the reading/writing portion of the “gifted test” with sufficiently high scores to qualify for a spot in the advanced placement program, which meant all three of our kids – now in Kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 5th grade – could actually attend the same school – for one year.

And now, as I continue to explore and embrace what giftedness means for my kids, I wonder: how will being in classes designed specifically for kids who’ve qualified for more advanced math and reading (one grade level above) impact their experiences? Have they (and will they) feel less isolated than I was as a kid, when I was sent off (metaphorically) to work my own way through different textbooks?

And what does it mean for me – as an equity-minded educator, parent, RFM adult, former-gifted-kid, and citizen – that I’ve chosen to send my kids to “tracked” classrooms? This is far from ideal on so many levels (and I’ll continue to talk about this).

However, all of life is a series of trade-offs. While I haven’t fully come to terms with my choices in this sphere, for the time being I can say with confidence that having my kids in more academically challenging classrooms seems to have been a net-positive – and for that, as well as the opportunity simply to choose at all – I’m grateful.

Getting Real About Giftedness

Me with my stamp collection in 5th (?) grade

Talking about gifted kids – and giftedness more broadly – is challenging; I’ve already explored that tension a bit on this blog, and will continue to do so.

With that said, as much as I love Paula Prober’s alternative phrase rainforest mind to describe myself as an “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive adult,”  gifted remains a specific and useful diagnostic term for kids who need differentiated attention and instruction in order to be successful in school.

I’m actually a fan of placing giftedness within the sphere of “learning differences”, as addressed by Special Education mandates in schools – meaning, teachers need to understand that a designation of gifted doesn’t simply mean the child is capable of more advanced work, but rather has a unique set of needs, dispositions, and potential challenges to address and work with. And that’s not even factoring in twice-exceptionality (i.e., other confounding challenges, including neurodiversity, anxiety, ADHD, etc.).

In this post, I’ll be sharing a bit about my own journey as a gifted kid navigating through a public school system in the United States. Hopefully, the chronological progression I’ve chosen here will make it clear how, despite best efforts by many, formal schooling eventually grew less and less tolerable for me.

As a younger child, I attended a local community preschool a couple of days a week and otherwise explored learning on my own and with my three siblings, with daily support from “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. I don’t precisely recall learning to read, but it happened early and without effort. On the other hand, I DO remember the moment I knew I HAD to learn how to put my thoughts into writing: my mom was eager to get out the door to run an errand, but I wouldn’t stop bugging her with questions about how to spell various words. Eventually I learned how to navigate this on my own, and took off with emergent writing as well.

Kindergarten was basically a joy. I adored being in a bilingual (English-Spanish) classroom which emphasized play, music, art, friendship, and imagination. I don’t recall any sense of competition between kids at this point, other than an adult commenting once on how precisely I drew a tiny circle during an art project (without tracing). I got to practice the alphabet in both languages, and learn some basic terms in Spanish. (To this day, Spanish is my most fluent non-native language, despite never having lived in a Spanish-speaking country.)

First grade is when schooling challenges began to surface. Kids were suddenly expected to sit at their desks and listen quietly, and we were collectively punished for the misbehavior of a few naughty kids. Meanwhile, differences between our varying academic abilities were made stark: since I already knew how to read, write, and do basic math, I was given “next-grade-up” textbooks in each of these topics and asked to simply work on my own. Occasionally I was sent to other (older) classrooms to hang out for a while, but I mostly recall an increasing sense of isolation and separatism from my peers during core subject times. Thankfully, I had good friends in first grade and wasn’t socially anxious, so recess time allowed for plenty of connecting and play.

By second grade, I had tested into the district’s gifted program – but since this didn’t officially start until fourth grade, I distinctly recall teachers not being exactly sure what to do with me. I continued to be given separate textbooks and projects in core subjects, and was expected to simply learn and practice math, reading, and writing on my own, since I’d demonstrated proficiency using this “method” until then. On an emotional level, I unfortunately experienced relentless bullying that year, both from boys and from my supposed best girl-friends, and my anxiety skyrocketed. (Bullying of gifted kids merits its own post, so I’ll leave it at that for now.)

My parents met with my teacher to discuss having me skip third grade, but they collectively decided against it since they deemed me too “socially immature”. (One other child my age at my school was also offered the possibility of “grade promotion” – skipping third grade – which his parents said yes to. I can’t speak to J.’s emotional well-being, of course, but he’s a married professor with two kids at a prestigious university, so from outer appearances, things seem to have worked well for him.) 

In third grade I had a lovely teacher (more of a friend than a teacher) and an awesome best friend, and my “bully friends” were placed in a different class – so, life was good. My teacher assumed I would understand everything easily (which I did), so I was simply allowed to read books, have fun, and enjoy existence. Because life at school was so stress-free, I actually looked happy in my school photo that year. On the down side, I wasn’t challenged academically at all, and was continuing to internalize the notion that learning “should” simply be easy and natural for me, as the “smartest kid in the class”.

Fourth grade was when the “upper grades” started at my school – as well as the formal gifted-and-talented education (GATE) program. For one full day a week, the district’s GATE kids were bused over to my school (we had the most available classrooms) and we would rotate through a series of highly enjoyable, hands-on classes with committed teachers. I was no longer “the smartest kid in the room” and I LOVED this. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed and frustrated that not all kids were given the privilege of such a refreshing break from “school as usual”. However, at the time, I was simply happy about the opportunity for myself.

In terms of regular academics, I recall trying to get everything done in school (including homework) so I could have the afternoon and evening free – in other words, schoolwork was for “getting done”, not for actually learning from or engaging with meaningfully.

In fifth grade, I was placed in a combination 4th/5th bilingual classroom, with the result that everything about our class was differentiated, so I don’t recall feeling like a sore thumb – plus, I got to make good new friends who were in the 4th grade, and listen to my teacher repeat instructions in Spanish (yahoo!). A notable exception to not feeling “different” was during spelling bees, when I would ruin the experience for the entire class by never getting a word wrong.

Sixth grade, the final year at my elementary school, was when everything fell apart. My teacher – Mr. F., a notoriously strict taskmaster – required all the “GATE kids” to make up the work we’d missed during the day when we were “gone”. Meanwhile, acceleration for gifted kids in Mr. F.’s class meant doing boring research projects (not of our own choosing) and writing lengthy reports about what we’d learned. I was mercifully allowed to sit in one of the “corral” desks and simply read all day, unless Mr. F. was yelling at me for not paying attention. Mr. F.’s teaching fell squarely into inexcusable territory when he randomly assigned all girls and boys in the class a “romantic partner”, and started a “fat club” for all the “overweight” kids, who would receive free McDonald’s lunches from him once a week. Clearly, my sixth grade experience was a disaster on all counts.

This is when my true depression began, and eventually I descended into a challenging path that derailed me from “traditional school” for years. However, since this post is lengthy enough for now, I’ll end by noting the biggest takeaways I can glean from my own overview of what “worked”(or not) for me as a gifted kid:

  • Teachers obviously mattered – a lot.  Other than Mr. F., I had a range of teachers who helped me feel comfortable and welcome to varying degrees in class. Some were friendlier than others, but what the best ones all had in common was not making me feel awkward, “different”, or penalized because of my giftedness. Socially-speaking, I was simply a member of the class.
  • Friends also mattered, of course. Most of my best friends as a child weren’t designed “gifted”; rather, they were kind and fun girls who I bonded with and enjoyed spending time with.
  • Being asked to work ahead in next-grade textbooks in math, reading, and spelling was better than being forced to sit and listen to material I already knew – but it also reinforced two challenging “truths”: 1) I was expected to simply learn things on my own (from books), and 2) I was positioned as an outlier needing to be “dealt with”.
  • The weekly GATE program was an amazing life-saver for me personally – but ultimately a band-aid serving (mostly) privileged kids from more socio-economically advantaged homes; it almost certainly promoted many feelings of inequity and exclusion in the rest of the school.
  • Speaking of pull-out programs, being forced to make up work that you’ve “missed” while attending a gifted class is obviously cruel and pointless – as is requiring gifted kids to do boring research reports “just because they can”, without bothering to inquire about authentic interests.

I’ve only briefly touched on the socio-emotional aspects of growing up gifted, which I’ll turn to in another post – and of course there were so many other factors, both positive and negative, that played a part in my experiences. For now, this overview at least provides a historical glimpse of what schooling looked like for me as a gifted kid who eventually dropped out of school time and again, and rejected formal schooling for years on end.

Thankfully, I’ve emerged as a rainforest-minded adult with a rich life, and all’s well that ends well – but I can only image the possibilities if my first years of schooling had been better tailored to meet my needs.