Thursday, February 27, 2014

Six tips for communicating with your gifted child's teacher

Okay, so you’re mad. You’ve had it. You want to just march into your child’s classroom and let the teacher know that you’re done with this nonsense. You cannot stand it one more instant – watching your gifted child languish unattended, bored, undereducated, unstimulated.

It’s not like you haven’t already tried. You’ve let the teacher know your child wanted more challenging work. You’ve sent carefully worded notes and e-mails. You’ve sat through parent-teacher conferences, nodding politely, tactfully offering a few suggestions. You’ve patiently waited and hoped for something to change.

But wait! If you barrel into the classroom, guns a-blazin' (metaphorically speaking), you risk alienating the very person you need most on your side. It’s just not good strategy to alienate your child’s teacher. Even if nothing has changed so far, you can still develop a plan, work collaboratively with the teacher, and chip away at the problem.

What are the steps you need to take?

1.  Gather information. Learn as much as you can about gifted children and gifted education. Sites like NAGC and Davidson are great places to start. The more you know, the more effectively you can advocate. The information you need also includes the laws and guidelines in your state and school district, your school's policies for providing gifted services, and the procedures involved. Sometimes these may be listed on your district's website, but other times you may have to ask questions and do some investigative work. You also need to understand the teacher's attitude and approach toward gifted education. (See this previous blog post for more.) The more clearly you appreciate the classroom dynamics, administrative pressures, professional limitations, and personal attitudes that influence the teacher's perspective about giftedness, the more effectively you can communicate your child's needs.

2.  Approach the teacher respectfully. You may be frustrated after months of witnessing your child's boredom. You may disagree with the teaching methods your child’s teacher uses. You may not even like the teacher. But this is his or her chosen profession, based on years of training and experience. Immediately challenging the teacher’s approach, offering too many suggestions, or criticizing will create hard feelings. Not only is this hurtful, it is not in the best interest of your child. Even if you don’t think you’re being critical, comments like, “Johnny is so bored,” or “Suzie needs so much more of a challenge than what she is getting,” can be perceived as criticism. No teacher wants to think that students are bored. No teacher wants parents to be upset and angry. And a teacher who feels unfairly criticized can become defensive and reluctant to hear your concerns.

This is the time to swallow your pride, control your anger and approach the teacher with a collaborative spirit. Consider wording your comments so that you convey respect for the teacher’s dedication, expertise, and competing demands. Think about how to express your concerns in a manner that respects the teacher's knowledge and experience. If your child's teacher feels that you appreciate the daily stress and many obligations he or she faces, you may be able to gain trust more easily. Let the teacher know that you are very aware that little Johnny is not the ONLY child in the classroom, that the teacher has many children who need support, and that potential solutions to the problem will take that reality into account. 

3. Explain your child to the teacher. Help the teacher understand more about your child, especially if your child’s abilities or learning needs are overlooked. Many gifted children who do not fit typical stereotypes (such as the highly verbal and high achieving student) may not be recognized as gifted, or their behaviors could be mistaken as indicative of a more serious problem, such as an emotional disturbance, or attentional problem. Since many teachers have little training or understanding of giftedness, it may be up to you to educate them. Portray your child in as clear and unbiased a manner as possible, flaws and all, but framed within a context of giftedness. “I’m aware that Johnny seems like a typical ‘asynchronous’ kid; sort of immature socially, so his ability to think deeply stays hidden.”  “I know that Susie talks a lot in class and gets distracted. I realize this can be a problem. I’ve found at home that when she is immersed in a project she likes, she gets much more focused, and she quiets down for a while!” 

4. Ask for feedback from the teacher. Respect the teacher’s knowledge. Appreciate that the teacher gets to view your child in a different context for seven hours a day, and may have some useful information to offer. Ask for ideas about what the teacher thinks would enhance your child’s educational experience. “What thoughts do you have about offering Johnny more intensive writing opportunities without it appearing like extra homework (which we know he would resist)?” “Given Susie’s math abilities, what course of action do you think would be the best for helping her continue to blossom in this area?” “What are your thoughts about having some of the gifted students work on projects together, so they can at least bounce ideas off of each other in a small group?” Requesting the teacher's input shows respect and your willingness to collaborate. You also will learn how well he or she truly knows your child, what solutions seem feasible, and how likely it is that actual change may occur (and whether you may need to increase your advocacy efforts or change direction). 

5. Acknowledge what is working. Let the teacher know what your child enjoys. Use this as a springboard for encouraging more of the same. “Susie was absolutely thrilled with the last science project. She loved getting to research the topic in such depth. Will there be more opportunities for this in the future?” "Johnny was so excited to go to the third grade math class. He really loved the challenge, and we're so glad that the school agreed to accelerate him." Inform the teacher about improvements you have seen in your child. Ask for the teacher’s input with respect to what he or she believes is working as well. 

6. Pick your battles. As much as you would love to demand that your child's teacher implement all of your requests, without administrative support, homogeneous classrooms, ability grouping, or a comprehensive gifted program, it is unlikely that your child will receive as much as you would like. Make a wish list and identify the most important goals for your child. If your child has not been tested yet, request a gifted evaluation. If your child already has been identified as gifted, and if there are safeguards in your state, such as Individualized Education Plans, ensure that the plan includes what you think is necessary and reasonable. Let the teacher know that you realize how constrained he or she must be in terms of competing demands, and suggest changes that would not only benefit your child, but also could make life less complicated for the teacher. For example, subject acceleration where the student leaves for another classroom in the same building requires a lot less effort than having the teacher administer an individualized program tailored to the student. 

You may not like these solutions. They may not seem fair. Gifted education should be a right, not a privilege. You should not have to walk on eggshells to advocate for what your child needs!

Valid points. But the reality is that forming a collaborative relationship with your child’s teacher may be the best option you have. It is also good role-modeling for your child. Children can benefit from witnessing their parents advocating for what is needed, but also working collaboratively and cooperatively with others. Yes, some parents homeschool their children, or seek our private schools, beneficial alternatives, but also with some drawbacks. Ultimtately, advocacy for all gifted children and widespread change in how gifted education is implemented is needed. But until then, you have the day to day dilemma of working with your child’s teacher. And the sooner you form a partnership, the more likely you will achieve productive results. 

(Note: Forming a partnership with your child's teacher is just one step in the process. There is much more to advocacy. See NAGC for more tips about advocacy. A future blog post will cover more about advocacy.) 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why some teachers just don't "get it" about gifted education

Most teachers care about their work. Most would like nothing better than to be able to meet each child’s educational needs, teach creatively and instill a love of learning in their students. Then why are gifted children so frequently overlooked, undereducated and unstimulated? Why do so many parents feel that their child’s teacher just doesn’t “get it” about gifted education?

At first glance, you might think that teaching a gifted child would be a pleasure. Who wouldn’t want to teach a curious, deep-thinking learner who absorbs information like a sponge? And while many teachers embrace all children, including their gifted students, some offer little support for the much-needed enrichment and acceleration these students require.

Why some teachers don't "get it"

1. Competing demands

Teachers are increasingly burdened with meeting administrative, state and federal standards. Meeting these requirements, teaching to the test, and ensuring that struggling students don’t fall behind are paramount. Many are faced with large, heterogeneous classrooms, and asked to “differentiate” instruction, an often impossible expectation. With time constraints and competing demands, it is understandable that “teaching to the middle” saves time and energy. It also makes sense that children with more significant learning needs get most of their attention. The 2011 Fordham Institute report affirms this; when teachers were asked where they would direct their energy if they had time available for individualized attention, 80% claimed that they would attend to their struggling students, whereas only 5% stated that their advanced learners would receive attention. In a hectic classroom with limited time and resources, gifted education is less likely to be a priority.                      

2. Inadequate training

Many teachers have little training in gifted education. The National Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development study of 3rd and 4th grade teachers found that 61% had not received any staff development or training in gifted education. Without adequate training, a teacher may try to find some “enrichment” to enhance a child’s learning, but the plan may be arbitrary and not necessarily tailored to the child’s academic needs. If the school district lacks a formalized gifted program, there may be even less structure or oversight available. Teachers often have little understanding of the social and emotional needs of the gifted, and may make assumptions based on stereotypes. For example, one study1 reported that teachers believed acceleration was a beneficial option for academic reasons. However, they assumed that it would have a negative emotional effect, so failed to consistently recommend it as an option for the gifted students. 

3. Low priority

Teachers may be responding to a socially accepted culture of widespread neglect toward gifted children. According to a 2012-2013 report from the NAGC about the state of gifted education, the educational needs of the gifted are still marginalized.  Large discrepancies exist between states with respect to whether gifted education is mandated or warrants funding. And there is little support or expectation for additional teacher training. For example, only three states require that general education teachers have some training in gifted education, and only 17 states require that teachers in gifted programs obtain some form of credentialing in gifted education. If educators, administrators, and governing bodies fail to endorse the importance of gifted education, it may be hard for teachers to appreciate it as well.

Furthermore, many teachers are concerned about equity and the appearance of elitism. They don't want to "favor” gifted children; after all, they are viewed as having already lucked out by merely possessing abilities that surpass their peers. Many worry about how parents in the community will react, and whether less talented children will feel criticized if gifted children receive different services. For example, Gallagher and colleagues1, found that while teachers acknowledged that ability grouping would be beneficial, they failed to recommend it because of concerns about how the community would react, how other children in the classroom might feel, and whether it would be viewed as elitist.
                 
4. Attitudes, stereotypes, and resentment

Just like anyone else, teachers possess their own subjective attitudes and opinions about gifted students. In light of the relative absence of training in gifted education, most are left to call upon their own personal experiences to formulate opinions about gifted education, gifted children and their families. In a review of the literature, McCoach and Siegel2 reported contradictory findings from studies of teachers’ attitudes toward gifted students, with some studies finding positive and others identifying negative attitudes toward gifted children. They also found widely discrepant attitudes among teachers in their own study, ranging from highly positive to extremely negative.

Teachers also may be as influenced by cultural stereotypes as the rest of us. Researchers Geake and Gross3 summarized the literature and theorized that widespread appreciation of sports and performing arts abilities in our culture is consistent with a view that developing these talents serves others, as it can potentially bring enjoyment to the community. However, the development of intellectual talent is perceived as selfish, leading to benefits solely for the individual. In addition, the authors pointed out that teachers may have negative perceptions of gifted students because of stereotypes that portray gifted people as arrogant, self-centered and overly confident. They suggest that these entrenched belief systems hamper progress in gifted education. Their study regarding the effects of training offered a hopeful note, however, as teachers who completed a professional development program in gifted education developed more positive perceptions of gifted students.

Some teachers may have their own conscious or unconscious reactions to gifted individuals that are then reenacted in the classroom. These may reflect feelings they have about their own abilities, personal experiences from childhood, or lingering resentment from prior confrontations with parents of gifted children. Teaching is a demanding job, and some teachers may be overwhelmed just trying to keep students in line, manage behavioral problems, and address struggling students who lag behind their peers. They may feel resentment in the face of these competing demands when parents expect them to challenge their gifted child. 

So why should you care?

Understanding your child’s teacher and how giftedness is perceived is invaluable. What, you say? Isn’t it this person's job to teach? Why should I have to worry about the teacher’s opinions and viewpoint? Well, there are good reasons to care. The more you understand the classroom dynamics, administrative demands, and the teacher's professional experience with gifted education, the more effectively you can collaborate and communicate about your child's needs. While you may never know the teacher's personal opinions, gaining knowledge about the school culture, administrative policies and classroom stressors can give you a clearer sense of direction and help you decide which battles to wage. You may not like it, but you are your child's best advocate, and your child is best served when you form a partnership with the teacher and school. Next blog post: how to communicate with your child's teacher.

Related blog posts on this topic: Myths and misunderstanding; Top ten ways to annoy a gifted child.

References
1Gallagher, S., Smith, S., & Merrotsy, P. (2007). Teachers perceptions of the socioemotional development of intellectually gifted primary aged students and their attitudes towards ability grouping and acceleration. Gifted and Talented International, 26, 11-24.
2McCoach, D., & Siegle, D. (2007). What predicts teachers’ attitudes toward the gifted? Gifted Child Quarterly, 51, 246-255.
3Geake, J. & Gross, M. (2008). Teachers’ negative affect toward
academically gifted students: An evolutionary psychological study. Gifted Child Quarterly, 52, 217-231.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tips for taming test anxiety (because even gifted kids get anxious)

test anxiety in childhoodEven gifted kids get anxious. Contrary to popular belief, giftedness does not necessarily endow children with the confidence to sail through exams without a worry. Many gifted children, adolescents and college students suffer from disabling test anxiety that affects performance, achievement and self-esteem. Test anxiety pops up at the most inopportune times, and can be completely unexpected, an occasional nuisance, or a chronic obstacle. Its origins may be simple or complex, and whether you are a sufferer or the parent of one, you can learn how to overcome this burden.

Identify behaviors that interfere

Determine whether the reason for test anxiety is as simple as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, or inadequate preparation. Many gifted children are so accustomed to exerting little effort in school that they may be shocked when they finally encounter an exam that is challenging or one where they are caught unprepared. Often they have never learned basic study skills, and may be reluctant to ask for help. Concepts such as setting aside structured time free from distraction, knowing the material completely (yes, actually reading the whole textbook), and confronting procrastination are new to them.

Identify physiological triggers

As gifted individuals are frequently oversensitive, their nervous system may be primed to recognize and overreact to minor sensations that others might easily ignore. A slightly increased heart rate, a tense stomach, or sweaty palms, all normal physiological signs of readiness for a new and somewhat stressful situation, might be misinterpreted by an overly reactive person as symptoms of panic and fear, resulting in an even greater escalation of symptoms. Instead, these signs need to be seen as evidence of readiness for a challenge, similar to the surge of adrenaline that occurs before a race.

Identify negative emotions and attitudes

Sometimes, test anxiety stems from worrying about performance, fear of failure, perfectionism, concerns about maintaining a particular status or GPA, or low self-esteem. Some gifted children can be driven to achieve, and may worry that their test performance may not reflect their passion and mastery of a topic. Others may fear disappointing parents or teachers if they receive a less than perfect grade. Some doubt themselves and question whether they can keep up with the other students, and assume that test scores will confirm or invalidate their abilities, and even define their sense of self-worth. Sometimes these fears can be addressed through "cognitive-behavioral" techniques that challenge faulty assumptions and distorted beliefs, such as developing positive self-statements that challenge negative thoughts, and learning relaxation and mindfulness techniques to stay focused and calm. Other times, counseling may be necessary to understand and overcome these difficulties.

So what can you do to improve your confidence and keep calm during tests?

Work on the basics (develop good study skills!)

  • Study thoroughly – know your material completely (no skimming or Spark notes)
  • Use good study skills – outlining, note cards, highlighting, writing summaries, etc.
  • Ask for help when you need it – get help with difficult material and with developing study skills
  • Set aside a structured time and place for homework that is quiet and free from distractions. Turn off the phone and message alerts on the computer.

Prepare for the test

  •  Get enough sleep and eat a good breakfast.
  •  Avoid conversations with other students about their worries about the test, since this can increase your anxiety.
  • Ask your teacher for a change in seating if your seat is in a very distracting location.
  • Practice stress management techniques. These can include meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness, yoga, and relaxation techniques. While sometimes these techniques can be learned through books, CDs or classes, meeting with a psychologist, yoga teacher or meditation teacher may be beneficial.
  • Practice a technique called imaginal rehearsal. Picture yourself at your desk in school feeling relaxed and confident, as you calmly take the test, free from anxiety.
  • Challenge negative beliefs and develop positive self-talk. Identify some of the negative thoughts that create self-doubt, such as assuming you will fail, or that you will become anxious during the test. Develop statements that can challenge these assumptions. These can include short statements to boost confidence, such as, "I know I can handle this," to challenges related to specific worries, such as "I don't have to get an A to win my family's approval." Some books listed below offer suggestions for this technique, but a psychologist may be helpful if you need more support with this.  

Strategies for test-taking

  • Do something relaxing or distracting right before the test.
  • Start working on the test immediately. Plan what you want to do first or just start writing, but don’t hesitate.
  • Skip questions that seem too difficult – you can return to them later. Plan to use the entire class period for the test. Outline your response for essay questions.
  • Don’t aim for perfection.
  • Use deep breathing techniques to calm yourself.
  • Use mindfulness techniques to “let go” of anxiety. Notice distracting thoughts, but don't “follow them.” Let them drift away and refocus on the test.
  • Take short breaks during the test to close your eyes, breathe deeply and relax.
  • Use a squeeze ball to release tension, or tense and relax your muscles.
  • Remind yourself that some tension is normal; use it as an ally like adrenaline in a race. A pounding heart means you are excited and eager to take on the test, not that you are afraid of it.
  • Repeat a calming “mantra” to yourself. Identify a calming phrase or word  that you can use to calm yourself and feel grounded.
  • Remind yourself that negative self-talk is unproductive and remember your positive self-statements.                                                

These steps listed above are suggestions that you or your child could try. Taking an inventory of problem behaviors that can be changed is an essential first step. Some books that offer guidance are listed below. Negative attitudes and low self-esteem are often the most difficult symptoms of test anxiety to address, though, since they are not easily remedied by simple behavioral tools. Gifted children and adolescents who are burdened with self-doubt, perfectionism and low self-esteem frequently benefit from the support and guidance of a therapist who can help them understand and overcome these perceptions, and stop the cycle of anxiety before it escalates and becomes a chronic problem.

If you have found other tools that have worked, please let us know in the comments section. Thanks!

Suggested readings:
Biegel, G. (2009). The stress reduction workbook for teens: Mindfulness skills to help you deal with stress. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Bourne, E. (2010). The anxiety and phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.    
Burns, D. (2008). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: Harper.      
Schab, L. (2009). The anxiety workbook for teens: Activities to help you deal with anxiety and worry. Oakland, CA: Harbinger Publications.