Saturday, February 28, 2015

Five tips gifted students need to consider when choosing a college

Will college be a repetition of high school?

Most gifted teens look to college as an escape from the boredom of high school. And finding one that provides the right mix of social fit, geographic proximity to home, and extra-curricular needs, to name a few, is critical to ensuring a student's comfort and well-being. But the strength of the school's academic climate is equally important.

Yet...debates about the uniformity of college academics persist in opinion articles and on college forums such as college confidential. Many claim that all schools are basically the same. Elite and ivy-level colleges are described as no better than state universities. Community colleges are often touted as not only a great financial choice, but as comparable to other elite schools. "You get what you put into it. Classes, especially in the sciences, are the same at every school. You can get a good education wherever you go." 

But is this really true?

Students and parents know from personal experience that the quality of education in elementary and high school varies. Teachers, peers, educational materials, and expectations can be vastly different from one class to another, and certainly from one school to another. Why would this differ for college?

When gifted teens go to mainstream colleges, they may feel adrift, fail to find a niche of like-minded peers, and never receive the education they need. It can seem like a repetition of high school.

Case example one:
Josh* completed all of the higher level math courses available in high school. He participated in "dual enrollment" and took a linear algebra class at a local private college. He was surprised by how easy the class was. It was a 400-level class, and included mostly juniors, seniors and even some grad students. He found that it took little effort to finish his homework assignments, which he completed during class. He was so bored that he completed extra-credit assignments just so he could stay after class to explore concepts in depth with the professor. And he was the only student who chose to do this. He got an easy A in the class.
After graduation, Josh went to an elite college. Since he was concerned that he did not learn enough at the local private college, he decided to take linear algebra again. This time, it was extremely challenging. It never occurred to him to ask for help from his TA or professor. He never needed help in the past, and had always breezed through his classes. He ended up with a B, his first ever. 
How could two classes be so different, especially in a structured subject such as math? What does this say about the value and quality of education at different schools?

What if Josh had chosen the local private college for his four-year education? If a 400-level class was so easy, would he have been able to find many classes that were challenging? Would he have found like-minded peers? And would he have learned to challenge himself and develop a work ethic, rather than assume he could coast through school?

Case example two:
Sara* was accepted into an honors program at a state university. Her family was thrilled since they would save money and she would benefit from an honors education. At first, Sara enjoyed being in a separate dorm with other honors students, who appeared more serious about their work. She took some freshman seminars that were more intimate and intensive. However, there were fewer options for honors classes after her first semester, especially in her major. She had to take general education requirements with students who seemed less motivated and engaged. She started to feel isolated in such a large school, especially with its emphasis on football. Although she carved out a small niche of friends, she never felt part of the school culture. It started to feel a lot like high school again.
While honors programs can sometimes compensate for a lethargic academic environment, gifted students need to appreciate that once again, they will be in the minority. Some gifted teens may long to shed the "trappings" of their high school reputations and embrace an exciting social climate at college, but others might feel frustrated if the serious student seems less welcome. Some honors programs provide a nurturing environment for these students, but many others do not.

With college decisions looming for many high school seniors, weighing the many academic, social, financial, and geographic decisions can be very stressful. Even though college may be vastly different from high school, it is critical that gifted students and their families consider the academic climate and determine whether or not it will be a good fit.

If you are a high school student trying to choose a college, here are some tips that may help with your decision:

1. Visit classes. Sitting in on at least two or three classes can give you a flavor of the pace, intensity and complexity of how information is taught. Yes, you might end up in a class where the professor is not particularly interesting. But you can still get a sense of the students. Do they seem interested in the material (or are they just looking at their phones)? Can you picture yourself interacting with students like these in the future?

2. Explore course descriptions. Even if you can't visit the college or attend classes, look at the courses, syllabi, and texts assigned for classes to see if they are rigorous enough for you. Do they seem interesting and challenging? How do they compare across the different colleges you are considering?

3. Look at requirements in the subject areas that interest you. While you may not have declared your major area of study, you probably know what interests you, and may want to explore what each college expects for graduation requirements. Will you be able to take a variety of classes that interest you, or will you be distracted by unrelated core curriculum requirements? Will you need to complete an honors thesis? Are there opportunities for research, co-ops, internships, or hands-on learning experiences?

4. Speak with students in honors programs (if you are considering one). The term "honors college" is a widely used, loosely defined phrase, and warrants further investigation. Try to meet with other students in the honors program to find out what really goes on. See if the program is what the admissions department portrays. Find out what the students like and do not like about it, what demands and perks are part of it, and how supportive and cohesive it is. Get a sense of how separate or integrated it is with the rest of the university.

5. Visit extra-curriculars that interest you. If participating in a sport, creative or performing arts activity, or other passionate interest is essential to you, the quality of these activities at different colleges can be a deal-breaker. Try to spend time visiting and getting a sense of whether the activity would offer the quality, intensity and commitment you need. Get a sense of the students who participate and whether you would enjoy spending time with them.

Best of luck with a great decision and with your future!

You may also like the following:

Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college

April 1st is no joke for some gifted high school seniors

Sending your gifted child to college: Providing support when fears arise

Five hurdles gifted college students must overcome

There is life after high school - even for gifted teens

Seven college planning pitfalls (and how to avoid them)

Choose wisely: Some truths about elite colleges for gifted students

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is shame holding back your musically talented child?

Why would musically talented children refuse to develop their potential?

Everyone loves music. Right? So you might think that musically talented children would embrace their abilities and immerse themselves in music study. You also might assume that these children would feel welcomed, appreciated and accepted. This may be true when that talent aligns with pop music culture. But it can be a vastly different experience for serious young musicians who don't fit these norms.

Sometimes shame holds them back.

There are many definitions of shame in the field of psychology, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a simple and basic description of shame: "a feeling of guilt, regret or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong; ability to feel guilt regret or embarrassment; dishonor or disgrace."

Talented young musicians know they are different from their peers, have an unusual and exceptional ability, and may feel pressured to live up to others' expectations. Even though they have done nothing wrong, they still may feel embarrassment and shame about who they are, what they do, and what they have not yet accomplished.

The following are some shame-based concerns that may arise for gifted young musicians:

1. I am ashamed of being so different

While their peers idolize popular icons in rock, hip hop or country music, talented classically trained students who excel in a medium outside of these realms may feel shunned and even bullied. Although recognized for their talents, they may be viewed with a mixture of curiosity, awe and suspicion. How did he get so good at something so difficult? Why would anyone want to play that kind of music? She must be really different from us.

Performing, studying, and actually enjoying classical music may be a source of shame and embarrassment, especially for gifted teens. Often they feel compelled to choose between continuing their studies or stopping so they can fit in with popular teen culture. What other extra-curricular activities must be routinely sacrificed in order to achieve popularity? Certainly not sports, art, dance (for girls), or martial arts, for example. While these may require effort, dedicated practice and extended time away from other activities, they don't carry the same negative stereotypes. It seems that formal music study carries an unyielding stigma, and many classical music students forfeit this creative outlet, their musical potential, and possibly a future career to avoid shame and isolation.

What to do: Find as many "normalizing" experiences as possible that provide an opportunity for acceptance and a sense of community. Musically talented children benefit from summer music camps and festivals, and local youth music ensembles, such as bands, musical theater, choirs or orchestras where they can meet like-minded peers. At these venues, they can find a refuge where others share similar musical interests. struggle with the same challenges, and truly understand what it means to feel so different. While cost may be prohibitive, many programs offer scholarships, and some programs in larger cities may be free of charge. If this is not an option, advocating for collaborative music events across school districts, or even communicating in online forums, might provide some opportunities for finding a sense of community.

2. I did nothing to earn this talent

Despite the recent growth mindset trend, some researchers still point out that exceptional talent springs from intrinsic ability. No amount of hard work and effort will propel an individual forward without innate talent. While the ease with which these children learn and master new repertoire can fuel further excitement and inspiration, it may remind them of their unique differences. No one has to tell them how talented they are; it becomes obvious when they compare themselves to their peers and see others' reactions to their abilities. They may feel guilt or shame because of how easily they progress despite exerting little effort. They may cringe when praised for their talents, and retreat from any attention focused directly on them.

What to do: Just as parents need to explain what it means to be gifted to their intellectually gifted child, you will need to help your child appreciate the opportunities, choices and responsibilities inherent in possessing musical talent. Help her appreciate that she is not responsible for, and has no need to apologize for her talents.Remind her that she didn't choose to have this ability; it doesn't make her better than anyone else, and may even delay learning the importance of hard work. But you can still share in her excitement over mastery and achievement, even while still reminding her that she is fortunate to have options unattainable for many other children.

3. I am a slacker

Many musically talented children slack off. They do this because they can. They get away with it, even though most know that without serious and consistent effort, they will eventually fail. Although the ease with which they achieve mastery can make performing a joy, they may start to feel like imposters, since they know they are functioning well below their potential. They face the same emotional struggles as intellectually gifted underachievers. When praised for a performance, they often feel ashamed and undeserving. They may lose faith in teachers or peers who appreciate their skills and don't "see through them." They may wonder when they will get caught.

What to do: Find out why your child is not working up to his potential. Is this a familiar pattern in other areas of study or behavior? Does he struggle with chronic procrastination, or thrive on meeting deadlines at the last minute? Is he bored, frustrated or afraid to take risks that might lead to failure? Is he in a class/music ensemble/course of study that is not challenging him? Once you find out what contributes to the problem, you can address it directly. If he needs a more challenging teacher or music ensemble, see if that can be arranged. If he would benefit from a music camp or festival, see if he can attend. If his problem is behavioral or emotional, you or his teacher could speak with him about his roadblocks and offer suggestions. And if it fails to resolve, sometimes working with a licensed mental health professional can be beneficial.

4. I feel ashamed when I fail

Some talented young musicians become their own worst critics. If they have low self-esteem or base their identity on being a "musician," any failure can strike a blow to their self-worth. Like other perfectionistic gifted children, some musically talented children place unreasonable demands on themselves and expect to control all possible outcomes. They may feel devastated if they are not accepted to a music festival, lose a competition, or even get a less than desired orchestra seating. In fact, their definition of failure is often distorted, as anything slightly less than perfect is seen as flawed. Some also feel pressure from family, schools and teachers and don't want to let them down. At its worst, unrelenting perfectionism can result in abandoning music altogether because of the shame that ensues when high expectations are not met.

What to do: Intervene as soon as possible to ensure that your child does not develop a chronic pattern of perfectionism, overachievement and self-blame. Ask her teacher to work with her and help her loosen the demands she places on herself. And, of course, if her teacher or music director uses shame or harsh criticism as a motivational tool, address these concerns directly, and if they are not resolved, find another music venue for her. If her self-criticism and fears are unrelated to external pressure and are primarily internally driven, she may benefit from meeting with a licensed mental health professional who can help lessen her unreasonable expectations.

A final note: Parents of musically talented children also feel shame.

Parents also experience a wealth of emotions in response to their child's musical talents, ranging from pride to anxiety. They may feel just as isolated as their child, and grapple with the same questions parents of intellectually gifted students face: how do I share my joy, fears, and concerns without sounding like I'm bragging? They may doubt that others truly understand the uncertainty they face, and are reluctant to share their concerns.

Feelings of shame may arise, for example, when parents question how their expressions of pride, worry or frustration are perceived by others; when they question or doubt their motives, efforts or ineffectiveness in helping their child progress; or when they harbor competitive feelings toward other children or families who seem more successful.

What to do: Parents benefit from conversations with others who understand the highs and lows of raising a musically gifted child. Finding opportunities to share these experiences with other parents of young musicians will normalize their feelings and provide much needed support. Forming contacts through band parent associations, volunteer activities through school, or even meetings with parents after recitals, for example, can be an essential step toward building a supportive community.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

How to explain IQ testing to your gifted child

Your child received IQ testing as part of a gifted identification evaluation through the school. How do you explain the results to your child?

1.  A few reminders about IQ testing 

  • Individualized IQ testing is administered one to one by a highly trained clinical or school psychologist. Don't confuse these tests with the group screening exams offered in classroom settings. While group tests may give some indication of a child's abilities, they are less accurate, and certainly do not provide the wealth of information individualized testing provides. (For more information about IQ testing, including understanding the GAI on the WISC-IV, see the articles listed below.)

  • Testing is a valuable source of information about how your child approaches learning. Although a specific cut-off score of 130 is typically used for gifted identification in most school districts, the actual IQ score is only one piece of information that is gathered from the evaluation. Individualized IQ tests, such as the WISC-IV and Stanford-Binet, are composed of subtests, each measuring different areas of cognitive abilities. The scores on each of the subtests are combined to generate the overall IQ score. However, the subtest scores often provide the most useful information with respect to your child's strengths and abilities.                                                        

  • Testing is a sample in time. Most psychologists know that IQ scores fall within a range of scores; there is not just one targeted score. Depending on your child's mood, attention span, physical comfort level (e.g., if hunger or fatigue interfere), and rapport with the psychologist, she could presumably attain a slightly different score on a different day. 

2.  Help your child before taking the test

  • While you might question whether to have your child tested, it is important to support the decision once it is made. If you are ambivalent or anxious, these feelings may be conveyed to your child, who may not perform well as a result. If your child believes that you think the testing is unimportant, he may not take it seriously and not perform at his best. If he senses that you are anxious or are placing too much importance on the evaluation, he might become anxious as well, which also can affect performance. So work through any misgivings you have about the testing, and hold your feelings in check.

  • Take care of the basics. Make sure your child gets enough rest, eats a good breakfast, and has some basic understanding of the evaluation. Speak with your child's teacher or the psychologist ahead of time to let him or her know if your child has difficulty with certain times of day. Does she get overly tired in the afternoons? Would he become distracted and upset if he had to miss recess for the evaluation? Does she become irritable right before lunch? All of these factors could affect the evaluation.

  • Explain to your child that she is being tested to see if the teachers can understand her more. The results will help the teachers find ways to make learning more interesting. The more they know about what she does best, the easier it will be for them to sort out how to make school the best it can be for her. 

  • Let your child know that the testing is different from exams in class that quiz what he has already learned. He will have to answer some questions, write some things, and even play with puzzles. Let him know there will be questions he cannot answer since the test is designed for children of all ages. He is not expected to know everything, but you would like him to try his best.

3.  You will have a reaction to results from the testing

  • Be prepared to feel validated...or be surprised. Yes, an IQ score will be included in the results. But you will also receive feedback about your child's cognitive strengths and learning style. How does she approach problem solving? Is she obsessive? Careless? Impulsive? Hesitant? How are her planning skills? How is her judgment? How your child approaches the test can provide almost as much information as her actual performance. Testing can identify any discrepancies in terms of strengths and weaknesses, uncover possible learning disabilities, and determine whether emotional reactions interfere with learning. All valuable information.

  • It may take time to adjust to learning that your child is gifted. Receiving confirmation of your child's gifted ablities may evoke a range of feelings, from excitement to anxiety. Try to share these reactions with your significant other, family or friends, but not convey too much excitement to your child. He didn't accomplish anything. He didn't win a prize. The testing provided additional validation about abilities he already possessed. If you express too much excitement about his performance, it could be confusing to him. He might think that he is valued primarily because of his abilities. Or that he is "better" than the other children at school. Or that he has to be perfect to "maintain" his gifted status. 

4.  How to explain the results to your child

  • Try to be as straightforward and relaxed as possible. Let your child know that results show that she might benefit from some more enriching and challenging school activities. This will make school more fun and interesting. She will still be with her friends, but may be pulled out of the class a few hours a week, meet in smaller groups to do interesting projects, or get some different assignments than some of the other children. If subject or full grade acceleration is an option, discuss the benefits and drawbacks in depth with your child (more on this in a future blog post). 

  • Don't tell your child his IQ score. Nothing good can come from this. Why? Most children are not developmentally capable of understanding what an actual IQ score means. It is just a number, and your child may misinterpret it to rigidly define his abilities or limit his potential over time. My IQ is higher than my friend's - I must be a lot smarter than him. I only have an IQ of 130 - maybe they made a mistake and I don't really belong in gifted classes. Since I'm not as gifted as my sister, I guess I can't expect much more from myself. Sharing your child's IQ score with him is not much different from telling an 8-year-old what your salary is; he cannot really comprehend the value of a dollar or what it costs to raise a family.

  • If your child learns that she is "gifted," help her understand what giftedness means. Explain that it is a term used to describe certain learning needs that differ from those of her peers. Help her to appreciate that it does not make her better than someone else or more special. Your child may have difficulty understanding why some other children behave the way they do, or cannot grasp what seems like easy material in class. Explain that everyone has uneven abilities. Even giftedness comes in all shapes and sizes; she might have an easier time with math, for example, than with writing stories. Encourage humility, tact, and consideration when relating to peers. 

  • Help your child with any ambivalence or confusion about being gifted. He may worry that this new label will create problems - isolation from friends, bullying, extra busy work at school. Since gifted children possess a strong sense of morality, he might think it is unfair that others lack the abilities that come so easily to him. On the other hand, he may feel superior to his peers, although confused and guilty about this pride. Expectations about achieving perfection may develop. He may start to think that being gifted is the only thing that is important about him, or that he could "lose" his giftedness, for example, if he does poorly in a class at school. He might even wonder if being gifted is why his family loves him.

  • Help your child realize that giftedness is not an excuse. Help him appreciate that hard work and effort is essential, regardless of the fact that some tasks come easily to him. Some researchers have suggested that praising a child for being smart creates an unhealthy reliance on encouragement and a reluctance to take on challenges. Children who attribute success or failure to stable, innate traits, rather than hard work, are less likely to develop resilience or willingly tackle obstacles in their paths. 

Although not without its flaws, IQ testing can provide valuable insight into your child's strengths, abilities, and areas that warrant further growth. It is up to you to determine how the information is conveyed to your child.

What was your experience when you told your child he or she was gifted? How did you explain the test results? Let us know what worked for you and your child!

Informative articles about IQ testing