Monday, September 18, 2017

Social-emotional learning and the gifted child

A panel of academic researchers recently released a statement (also summarized in an Education Week article) emphasizing the importance of social-emotional learning. Of interest, these researchers identified several essential components necessary for optimal learning:
"Students who have a sense of belonging and purpose, who can work well with classmates and peers to solve problems, who can plan and set goals, and who can persevere through challenges - in addition to being literate, numerate, and versed in scientific concepts and ideas - are more likely to maximize their opportunities and reach their potential."
Few would argue with these critical elements. Most parents, teachers and administrators would readily agree that students benefit from these conditions. While there is clearly more to social-emotional competency, such as frustration tolerance, executive functioning skills, and ability to read social cues, those are more specific to the individual student. The components listed above outline general policies and conditions that could - should - apply to all classroom settings.

So how does this relate to the gifted child?

As much as all children may benefit from an emphasis on the social-emotional learning components listed above, it is likely that without attention to gifted children's specific needs, gifted children will be left behind.

Let's look at the conditions listed in the above statement:

1.  A sense of belonging and purpose

Gifted children thrive when surrounded by like-minded peers, where they are challenged, can compete and collaborate with students of similar intellectual abilities, and where they do not feel compelled to mask their talents to fit in or, in some situations, to escape bullying. They are less likely to lapse into underachievement if they feel a meaningful connection to their school, and are best challenged when they can direct their efforts toward a goal that has meaning and a sense of purpose.

Unfortunately, most gifted children rarely encounter these opportunities in a typical heterogeneous classroom setting. Since ability grouping is viewed unfavorably by many school districts, gifted children rarely experience the sense of belonging and connection. Instead, many feel misunderstood, awkward, and isolated.

2. Work well with classmates and peers to solve problems

Gifted children may have difficulty working cooperatively with students in heterogeneously grouped classrooms. They often learn at a faster pace, and with more depth and intensity. Yet, many are expected to patiently work in groups or sit back and wait until others catch up. Not surprisingly, most will become frustrated, impatient, bored and apathetic. If they vocalize their frustration, they may be viewed as arrogant or insensitive; if they silence themselves, they learn that their academic needs must take a back seat to those of other students. They also may feel pressured to complete most of the group work for other students, who rely on their talents, but resent them for it. And they are deprived of learning to problem-solve with peers who can work with them on a similar intellectual level.

3. Plan and set goals

Many gifted students never learn self-regulation skills, such as goal-setting, planning, time management, and study skills. They coast through school, so skills-building seems unnecessary. As a result, they are deprived of important learning opportunities and remain unprepared for more challenging work in higher education or career. Baker and colleagues highlighted the problems gifted students encounter when they are denied an opportunity to learn these important life skills, and how this can lead to underachievement:
"From an academic skills perspective, later elementary and middle school may present specialized demands (such as time management, study skills, systematic problem solving rather than rote memorization, etc.) that are underdeveloped among students who have been unchallenged and have experienced seemingly effortless academic success in the early elementary grades."
Lack of self-regulation skills become noticeable when gifted students face an obstacle - typically when they finally confront challenging work in higher education or a career. Many feel overwhelmed, as they are blindsided by their lack of preparation.

4. Persevere through challenges 

Much has been written about the importance of grit, resilience, and learning from failure. When academics come easily and require little effort, gifted children are denied an opportunity to develop a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, the strength to cope with failure experiences, the ability to surmount obstacles, and the self-worth that comes from real accomplishments. Gifted children who are rarely challenged may become risk-averse, afraid to move beyond their comfort zone, and view themselves as "impostors" who are not deserving of their accomplishments. While there is some unnecessary debate about the grit-talent dichotomy, gifted children clearly deserve an education where they are challenged, encouraged to reach their potential, and held to a higher standard.

Some gifted children become underachievers and stop pushing themselves altogether. They may become "classic underachievers" who give up on school completely, "selective consumers" who only apply themselves when they enjoy the topic or like their teacher, or "gifted underachievers under-the-radar," who often achieve good grades, but coast through school and fail to reach their potential. These underachievers not only lose out on learning in school, but fail to develop the resiliency and drive to persevere that will help them in future endeavors.

Let's insist on accommodations for gifted children that enhance their social-emotional and academic learning

It is not surprising that many gifted students do not feel they can "breathe" until they leave for college, when they are finally challenged, are surrounded by like-minded peers, and where intellectual curiosity is appreciated. It is a waste of time and potential to let these children languish bored and frustrated for years in traditional classroom settings. They deserve the same social-emotional learning - and academic challenges - as all students. It is time to insist on ability grouping, clustering, and intensive, advanced, and accelerated instruction for all gifted students.