Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What is most often overlooked when considering private school for your gifted child?

Does your gifted child need a private school education to succeed? Are the costs of private high school education worth it?  Do they provide more challenge, more stimulation and more creativity - all something gifted children need? Do they really open the door to admission at more prestigious colleges? What are the drawbacks? And what is frequently overlooked?

Most families cite numerous reasons for choosing private education, including the richness of the learning environment, smaller class size, individualized attention, presumed greater potential for success, values education (particularly in religious schools), and advantages in the college admission process. Nevertheless, even families who can afford the tuition often wonder whether the benefits outweigh the costs. A recent article questioned the presumed benefits and noted the shortcomings of private schools, particularly in relation to college admissions (see this article). It is a reminder that a private education certainly does not guarantee acceptance at top colleges, and challenges the assumption that enrollment is even necessary for achieving success. 

But one question is frequently overlooked: Is this school the best for my child’s emotional well-being?

Psychological factors need to be weighed as heavily as educational benefits. When deciding which educational setting is best, the child’s psychological well-being is as critical as the educational fit. All children, and especially gifted children, need a challenging, supportive, enriched learning environment. If this cannot be achieved and there are other options available, it is reasonable to consider a different school. Safety, self-confidence, respect, and engaging interactions with teachers and peers are all necessary for children to feel free to learn and grow intellectually. If they are preoccupied with anxiety related to social stresses, boredom, isolation, or too much academic pressure, they will not thrive. For a child who is bullied, feels alienated from peers, or fears for his or her physical safety, transfer to a different setting can be a lifesaver and provide much needed relief.

Some families proactively choose a private education to enhance their child’s opportunities, even when their child is already thriving socially and emotionally in public school, assuming that private school will be as socially and emotionally advantageous as it is academically. However, academic excellence or religious values do not necessarily mean that the school will provide the social/emotional environment your child needs.

What do you need to ask when deciding whether private school is good for your child’s 
emotional well-being?

1. Does the school provide specialized services, guidance, and close supervision that is unavailable in the public schools? Will my child feel more secure and nurtured in such an environment? Does he or she need the added attention, encouragement and accountability? Would these extra services help my child feel more confident in his or her academic abilities and would this contribute to an upward trend in school performance?

2.  Are more challenging classes available that would better meet the needs of my gifted child? Not all private schools screen during the admissions process, so it cannot be assumed that your child would necessarily find more similarly gifted peers than already enrolled in public school. Even if most classes seem to be engaging, are there additional classes that might be exceptionally challenging? Are there stimulating extra-curricular activities that will spark my child’s interest, or are fewer opportunities available, given the smaller number of students at the school? For example, certain clubs, athletic teams, or even a school orchestra might not be offered due to limited student interest.

3. Will my child benefit from a more homogeneous environment with students who are similar to one another? What if my child is different in terms of religious, racial or socioeconomic background from many of the students? Will this lack of diversity create a problem? Even if my child is demographically similar to the other students, will the lack of diversity affect his or her world view? If the school is populated by particularly wealthy families, will this contribute to a sense of entitlement or an unrealistic perspective about acquiring wealth or material possessions?

4. Will the more intensive emphasis on academics challenge my child to flourish and succeed, or will it create too much pressure? Could this contribute to excessive perfectionism in a child who is already too driven, or depression in a child already preoccupied with anxiety over possible failure? Will the environment create unrealistic expectations regarding college admissions, contributing to an assumption that entrance into an elite college is essential to success?

These questions are not easily answered, but need to be raised. It is essential to weigh the potential social and emotional consequences, both positive and negative, when considering a private school education.  Easily overlooked, it could be argued that emotional well-being is the key to your child’s academic success.

Next blog: Surviving public school!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Choosing the right college for gifted students: the fit factor

April is a mixed bag, full of contradictions. It brings gorgeous flowers…along with seasonal allergies. It also marks the end of the long decision-making process for many high school seniors deliberating over choosing the “right” college. A time of excitement and joy for some, disappointment and sober reflection for others, and chaos and confusion for many more, April can wreak havoc on students and families who must wrestle with this critical decision.

Identifying the “right” college for a gifted, high ability student carries an additional burden. Just when advocating for appropriate educational services might seem to be over, the weighty impact of choosing the best college looms large.

What is best for a gifted student? Is it a high-reach, tippy-top ivy league or liberal arts school? A small, non-traditional college where the student receives a lot of individual attention? A prestigious technology school? A large university with an honors college? Or is a moderately competitive school where the student feels less academic pressure and can stand out as a leader the best option? How much actual choice do students really even have, given the highly competitive admissions process, the sobering reality of cost (or financial aid availability), and the mitigating variables that impact every student's decision, such as location, weather, school size, proximity to home, and course of study?

The right fit may be the most important criteria for success. But what exactly is fit? And how does a gifted student determine what fit is right for him or her? Fit is that intangible, hard to describe feeling a person experiences when he or she feels comfortable, challenged and supported. It occurs in situations where there is sufficient safety, encouragement, respect, and social support, along with creative and intellectual challenge. Most gifted students have weathered enough academic and social experiences in high school to possess some sense of what they find intellectually stimulating or boring. They know where they feel comfortable socially and what types of individuals appeal to them.

The fit factors that gifted students need to consider along with other variables when selecting a college include the following:

    1. How important is my peer group to me? Is it critical for me to be with like-minded peers who are similar intellectually, or am I comfortable with a variety of interests, outlooks and abilities? Did I blend in easily with peers of all abilities in high school, or did I primarily gravitate toward the other gifted students? Was I uncomfortable with students who were different and sometimes feel like an outsider? Or did I enjoy being different, and appreciate standing out as a leader or being recognized for my strengths?

    2. Is a challenging intellectual environment critical? Would I feel bored if I had to sit through classes that were not stimulating? On the other hand, if I was able to “slide by” academically in high school, am I up to the challenge of a demanding workload?  Is it time to pick up the pace and actually challenge myself for the first time? If I was a perfectionist in high school, do I need to consider how I will feel in an environment where I do not always succeed at everything? Would competition with equally talented peers create too much stress?
    3. Does the school offer creative, challenging outlets for involvement beyond classroom assignments? Are the faculty readily accessible for consultation and willing to encourage research or creative involvement? Will I have opportunities for the extra-curricular activities I enjoy, can I pursue topics of interest in depth, and will I have the freedom to design a program that allows me to grow intellectually and creatively?

    4. Where do I think I will fit in the best? Where do I see myself feeling the most comfortable, respected, well-liked, supported, challenged, and inspired? Where can I have fun in a way that allows me to pursue my interests and be true to myself? Where can college be a catalyst toward personal and professional growth, rather than a distraction from accomplishing my goals? Identifying a list of personal needs regarding fit and prioritizing them can be invaluable.

While the above questions are relevant for any college-bound student, they are particularly important for gifted teens, since the stakes are so high. Gifted individuals can become impatient with slow-paced, rote learning and will lose interest in a program that is not appropriately challenging. If a gifted student is surrounded by peers who are bored and disinterested, or if the teaching is substandard, the student may lose respect and interest, and also disengage. If the student feels ostracized by peers, cannot find an accepting group of friends, or is unable to identify any activities of interest, he or she will be unfulfilled.

What is most important is to envision how it would feel to live, eat, sleep, learn and play at a particular school, and how this will facilitate your educational, personal and professional growth. What will be the right fit for you?