Boost in the Arm: SENG Spring Mini-Conference Take-Aways (Part 1)

During this period of spring bloom, mass vaccinations, and glimmers of hope for a more healthful year ahead, it was refreshing to take time to attend five of SENG’s Spring Mini Conference sessions last weekend.

SENG always gathers an exciting and impressive roster of experts across diverse fields related to gifted and 2E learners. Here are the sessions I managed to watch live (I will catch up on and report on the others once recordings are available):

  1. “Culturally Responsive Teaching in Gifted Education: Building Cultural Competence and Serving Diverse Populations” (Matthew Fugate, Wendy Behrens, Joy Lawson Davis, and Cecilia Boswell)
  2. “Being Bright, Talented, and Black in Today’s Schools” (Joy Lawson Davis, Adrienne Paul, and Theresa Newsom)
  3. “Where Do I Belong? A Tale of Identity and Reality” (Alonso Kelly)
  4. “Perfectionism: How to Stop Moving the Goalpost” (Matt Zakreski)
  5. “Exhausted: Energy and Wellness for the Twice-Exceptional Learner” (Marlo Payne Thurman)

The first two sessions listed above relate to the pressing issue of ensuring that gifted programs and services are equitably serving students across diverse cultural populations. To that end, Dr. Fugate and his colleagues have edited a much-needed book on culturally responsive teaching for gifted students (with the same title as their presentation), to be published by Prufrock Press in June. I’ll be reading this and reporting back with a Book Reflection blog post once it’s released. 

Meanwhile, the gifted community has been fortunate to tap into the extensive expertise of Dr. Joy Lawson Davis, one of the leading names in research on gifted education for diverse student populations, and a recent (2019) recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from SENG. Davis is the author of Bright, Talented, & Black: A Guide for Families of African American Gifted Learners (2010) and Gifted Children of Color Around the World: Diverse Needs, Exemplary Practices and Directions for the Future (2016). At this spring’s mini-conference, Dr. Davis presented with her daughter Adrienne Paul (a K-12 educator) and colleague Dr.  Theresa Newsom on supporting students who are bright, talented, and Black (BTB).  Topics covered in their session included the following:

  • Systemic issues impacting BTB students’ success in school: Black students are under-represented in gifted programs, over-represented in Special Education, and disproportionately impacted by biased disciplinary practices and policies in school. They are still most likely to be taught by white females, thus perpetuating a “cultural mismatch”.
  • The unique psychosocial challenges of being BTB: BTB students often face numerous additional challenges in school, which include overcoming damaging stereotypes, having their abilities repeatedly underestimated, and being considered defiant for engaging in self-advocacy (which may include needing to find teachers who they can trust to nurture their gifts).
  • Meeting BTB students’ curriculum and instruction needs: In addition to considering elements of culturally responsive teaching more broadly, the panelists discussed A.W. Boykin’s (1992) 9 Dimensions of an Afro-Cultural ethos,  which all teachers of BTB students should be familiar with: spirituality, harmony, movement, verve, affect, communication, expressive individualism, oral traditions, and a social time perspective.
  • Nurturing the math talent of BTB students: Some specific strategies named in this section include ensuring teachers know and understand Black students’ previous experiences with and thoughts on math; using a problem-based curriculum; highlighting Black mathematicians (past and current); and allowing individual verbal sense-making for validation.
  • Improving relationships with BTB students: These ideas include engaging with extended family and community members; having students share their cultural autobiographies; and providing safe affinity discussion spaces for sensitive conversations.

Related to the topic of BTB, Alonso Kelly – a SENG Board Member and a Strategic Leadership Partner and Executive Coach – gave a presentation entitled “Where Do I Belong? A Tale of Identity and Reality” which offered a welcome dive into his life as a gifted Black male in America. Alonso gave audience members an opportunity to reflect on the following scenarios (among others), emphasizing our need to expand our empathy and understanding for where others are coming from:

  • How would it feel to play Monopoly hundreds of times and never earn money or be able to buy property – then be asked what you think of the game?
  • If a public park posts a sign saying that no trash cans are provided and all trash must be personally carried out, whose fault is it when/if the ground is littered with trash? Does your perspective shift if you reflect on families who don’t read English, and/or those who didn’t arrive at the park in a personal vehicle?

Alonso highlighted key components of nurturing a psychologically safe space for challenging conversations (through accountability, courage, humility, and empowerment) and talked about thriving at the intersection of lived experience, learned experience, formal education, and emotional intelligence. By repeatedly referring to the SENG community as his “family”, he reminded us that connecting with others who “get” our giftedness can be an essential grounding tool as we navigate our way through the often complicated and challenging landscape of finding our path in life.

Dr. Matt Zakreski – who discussed nurturing creativity at last fall’s SENG mini-conference – gave a presentation entitled “Perfectionism: How to Stop Moving the Goalpost,” about the pitfalls of perfectionism and how to manage this oft-present characteristic of gifted individuals.  He proposed a distinction (actually a continuum) between healthy perfectionism – in which individuals challenge themselves and learn from failure – and maladaptive perfectionism (in which individuals set unrealistic goals, become obsessed, and/or avoid activities altogether).

One of his key take-aways was that “people who avoid failure also avoid success” – so, we need to support gifted kids in learning that failing is inevitable, and that to F.A.I.L. is to engage in “frequent attempts in learning”. The remainder of Matt’s presentation focused on specific therapeutic strategies to help kids address their maladaptive perfectionism, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as specific things parents can do to support their kids, such as:

  • understanding that perfectionism isn’t rational and therefore is not easy to “just stop”;
  • being proactive and helping your kids plan ahead;
  • modeling emotion-focused language;
  • encouraging breaks;
  • encouraging empathy-based perspective taking;
  • not trying to “solve the problem” for your child; and
  • communicating with a child’s teacher and school.

[Speaking of perfectionism, at some point I will be sharing my thoughts on Lisa Van Gemert‘s book Perfectionism: A Practical Guide to Managing ‘Never Good Enough’ (2018), which offers additional invaluable guidance on this topic.]

Finally, Dr. Marlo Payne Thurman‘s presentation – entitled “Exhausted: Energy and Wellness for the Twice-Exceptional Learner” – was a no-brainer must-watch for me (and I didn’t think twice about the fact that I was starting to feel a little fatigued while watching it!). Marlo candidly discussed a traumatic brain injury she experienced years ago which kicked her own twice-exceptionality into gear, and made frequent connections between her own attempts to understand how her brain had changed to strategies we can use to help our kids “triage” their limited energy.

Marlo defined energy as finite slices of a pie, comprised of cognitive, emotional, and physical energy as well as a “reserve”, and pointed out that we can’t simply borrow from one source to fuel another. She reminded us that “the amount of cognitive capacity an individual has dictates the amount of sensory information that they can effectively take in,” and that “gifted individuals take in more sensory information and use more energy to process sensory input.” This simple equation was potent validation that there’s a reason (actually, many reasons) why gifted folks so often feel exhausted – including sheer sensory overwhelm (and/or under-aroused sensory seeking).

Marlo talked us through how fatigue can lead to “adrenal” activation – which leads to heightened sensory sensitivity, which leads to increased energy consumption and thus increased fatigue. BAM. There you have it. The vicious cycle of fatigue is real.

In her firehose of a presentation, Marlo presented much more information on her topic – including how to activate our reserve energy, the role our gut plays in health, and the downward spiral of stress leading from seemingly innocuous feelings like boredom and pessimism, to fear, depression, insecurity, and feelings of unworthiness and powerlessness.

The question is, what to do about all this? Marlo recommended getting a comprehensive assessment for our twice-exceptional kids – not just academically, but in terms of ocular and visual-motor skills, auditory processing, learning styles and strengths, language and communication skills, memory and sequencing, executive functioning, sensory preferences, and overall wellness, social skills, and behavior.

Whew! Listening to Marlo speak on these topics reminded me of my own first dive into the world of twice-exceptionality, when my to-do list for trying to understand the complexities of my three diverse kids (not to mention myself) felt endless.

Marlo ended her presentation with a series of “best tips” for parents:

  • Assess the level of stress
  • Teach breath control
  • Monitor and track sleep
  • Support nutritional needs
  • Find a bio-medical physician
  • Establish a sensory diet
  • Get a good assessment

Again, this is a lot – but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my journey into the vast world of giftedness and twice-exceptionality, it’s that patience is required.

As I’ve noted before, parenting is a marathon, not a sprint – so it’s critical for parents to honor that reality, pace ourselves, and celebrate small steps forward. However imperfect and incremental our interventions may be, we can gradually build individualized support systems for our kids that will allow them each to thrive in their own way. And yes, it’s fatiguing work – but well worth it.

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