Sunday, May 26, 2013

The gifted child’s lament: How to adjust to an unjust world

But it’s not fair! That’s a familiar cry to most parents. What parent has not weathered the complaints, whines, and pleas from children bemoaning the hardships of bedtime, putting the toy back on the store’s shelf, or having to sit through their sister’s recital? What makes this common complaint different for gifted children, though, is their intensity and deep interest in what is fair and just. 

Even when they are quite young, gifted children often demonstrate a preoccupation with “fairness” and show sensitivity toward the plight of others. These are the preschoolers who empathize with a sad playmate, the young child who soothes his distressed sibling, or the kindergartner who is outraged when a storybook character is unfairly treated.

According to Silverman (1994), advanced moral sensitivity is an essential component of giftedness.  She noted that the more asynchronous their expression of this sensitivity, (i.e., when their intellectual strengths are far ahead of their social or physical development), the more vulnerable they will feel. The child may become overwhelmed with compassion, but lack the maturity to cope effectively with these emotions. Children who are more advanced in their perceptions of fairness and justice may find themselves out of sync with peers who lack similar perceptions, or may stand up to peers over moral infractions, and become ostracized as a result. If a gifted child witnesses bullying, for example, he may stand up for the victim, and then become bullied as well. These children benefit from adults who can help them understand that their observations are perceptive, accurate and compassionate, but they need to channel their reactions in a manner that their peers can understand.

As they mature, gifted children become more aware of injustice as it unfolds around them.  The catalyst could be the seemingly unfair reprimand a classmate receives for an infraction he didn’t commit, a rebuff from an unrequited love because of an imperfect body type, or the developing awareness of poverty, racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. They are keenly aware of the flaws and imperfections in their parents, teachers and political leaders.  They try to grasp the enormity of injustice, war, politics, natural disaster and existential mysteries, and may respond with sadness, anxiety, anger, or even indifference when the burden seems too overwhelming.

Sensitivity to fairness and justice also may foster a need to question rules and norms that seem unjust. This can alienate peers, if it involves challenging social norms and beliefs. It also can create conflict with adults and authority figures who may not appreciate the confrontation. As non-conformists, adult authority may hold little credibility for many gifted adolescents.

How can parents and teachers help gifted children navigate their quest for justice?

1. Validate their perceptions, since they may feel that others do not understand. Show compassion for their feelings. Help them recognize that although others may not see the world as they do, they still need to find their way. Help them develop a strategy for navigating within a system that may seem imperfect.

2. Help young children put their feelings into perspective. Reassure them when appropriate, and comfort them just as you would when they experience distress for other reasons. Their reactions to events may seem extreme, and this calls for even more support and encouragement; however, this does not mean focusing excessively on their fears. Put their worries in an age-appropriate context they can understand.

3. Offer opportunities to channel their energies into community service or volunteer activities, so they can feel that they are helping others or confronting injustice. Even small efforts, such as encouraging letter-writing to challenge an unfair ruling, can help them feel a sense of accomplishment.

4. Accept that they will challenge authority if rules are mandated without explanation. Just as gifted individuals abhor rote learning, they rebel against rules that seem pointless. Whenever possible, provide a rationale for rules and procedures. When this is not possible, gifted adolescents may need support to accept the reality that sometimes they have to tolerate situations that seem unfair
5. Encourage them to "give back." Help them recognize that  their “gift” includes the ability to perceive injustice when it exists, to identify creative alternatives, and to use their intellectual skills toward finding solutions. Many gifted adults feel enriched when they use their talents to shape a better world for others.

Silverman, L.K. (1994). The moral sensitivity of gifted children and the evolution of society. Roeper Review, 17, 110-116.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Public High School Survival Guide for gifted students

How can gifted adolescents get the most out of public high school? What does it take to create an inviting, supportive learning environment? Can a highly gifted student survive public school and feel confident, happy and socially engaged?

Most public schools scramble to meet the educational needs of gifted children (see link for an example of necessary educational goals). What also must be considered is the social milieu and if it will foster confident and well-adjusted students, or suppress and inhibit their drive to learn. Can a public high school offer the enrichment, variety of experiences, and enough like-minded peers to provide a safe haven for gifted adolescents? Will they be able to assert their differences, embrace their love of learning, and express their talents, or instead, feel misunderstood, isolated, belittled or bullied? Some gifted teens downplay their talents to fit in, feel guilty when they succeed without exerting much effort, and avoid situations where their accomplishments are recognized. Many strategically weigh the choice between academic enrichment and social success, and believe that one must be sacrificed to achieve the other.

Not all gifted adolescents have difficulty in public school, however. And private education is not always the answer, even when financially possible (see link). Public school can offer a variety of academic and extracurricular options sometimes unavailable at private schools. Here are some tips to help gifted teens improve their high school experience:

1. Take as many challenging classes and extra-curricular opportunities as possible. The more you challenge yourself, the more you will feel stimulated, interested in learning, and engaged with peers who share the same interests.
2  Find a peer group with similar values and interests. Look for like-minded peers who share the same passions. Gifted adolescents may be independent, but thrive when they feel connected to friends who accept and understand them. Extra-curricular activities can be a great place to find students with similar interests. Some examples include: film club, theatre, the debate team, chess club, robotics team, or volunteering for a meaningful political cause.

3.  Find a mentor. See if you can connect with a teacher, coach, or gifted education teacher who is supportive and someone you respect and trust. Often teachers may know of other students who have similar interests, can start a new club or activity, or provide guidance when social interactions go awry.

4.  Find a safe haven. Look for a club, activities room (e.g., art studio, computer lab), or a teacher’s classroom where you feel comfortable and accepted. It may be easier to face the rest of the day knowing that there is at least one place where you can relax and be yourself.

5.  Take risks. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, accelerate or take a college class if possible, try a difficult extra-curricular or sport, go to school social events, or start a charitable organization. Holding back may mean playing it safe, but often results in boredom, apathy, and hesitation to try new challenges in the future.

Despite its larger size and the inevitable rules and regulations, public schools can offer a wealth of resources, a vast array of extracurricular opportunities, and a niche where most gifted teens can find a home. It just may take some time to hit your stride. Take some risks, ask for support when needed, and get involved!