Thursday, June 19, 2014

Caught in the middle: How to help gifted children survive the middle school years

Caught in the middle.

Just when life seemed manageable, middle school-aged children face confusion and uncertainty. Social demands, hormonal changes, and a burgeoning sense of independence challenge the self that once was. New worlds unfold, and the old rules from elementary school don't work any more. Neither child nor adult, they must discover who they are and how to define themselves.

Giftedness complicates matters even further. Heightened sensitivity, introversion, asynchronous development, a preoccupation with fairness, and intensely focused interests can make the middle school years even more difficult to navigate.

What challenges of middle school do gifted children face?

Fitting in - All middle school children face pressure to conform; how much they choose to conform and how well they manage to fit in can determine whether they gain acceptance. Wearing the right clothes, affecting that certain attitude, and following the music, sports and pop culture icons of the moment are critical. Each middle school creates its own social hierarchy, and traits associated with giftedness are rarely valued. Intellectual interests, academic striving, emotional sensitivity, and concern about the meaning of life are not typical priorities for most middle school students. As a result, gifted children question whether to conform and disguise who they are, or find a small, select group of like-minded peers and remain an outlier from the larger group.

Bullying - A more serious threat is the risk of being bullied. The gifted child's intellectual differences, sensitivity, and talents can be targeted by other children. Due to their highly developed sense of fairness and justice, gifted children may be appalled by a social culture that perpetuates bullying, and feel unprepared to defend themselves. Those who lag behind in social skills may be particularly unprepared to navigate these challenges when bullying is part of the school environment. Repeated bullying can contribute to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, isolation from others and physical complaints, and can create lasting emotional scars.

Underachievement - Enthusiasm for learning, often embraced throughout elementary school, sometimes fades in middle school. A variety of factors may play a role with underachievement: social distractions, disappointment and boredom with classes, a decision to "dumb themselves down" to fit in, or role confusion. Gifted girls, in particular, may mask their intellectual skills to be more attractive to boys. And in schools where sports are highly valued, boys may assume that they cannot be athletic and pursue academic interests at the same time.

Identity formation - Middle school is a time when teens start to define themselves. Despite the pressure of conformity and a rigid school culture, most young gifted teens develop a distinct sense of who they are, with strong preferences, interests, and opinions. As they come to terms with their abilities, they must decide how this identity will form their sense of self. Will they hide their giftedness so that they can fit in with peers? Or will they embrace their identity as a "smart kid" or "nerd," regardless of the social consequences? Can they be smart and athletic? Can they be popular and achieve good grades?

A new awakening - Gifted middle school-aged teens open their eyes to the world around them with startling acuity. They start to question values and see the complexity and uncertainty inherent in what they once trusted. They may lose respect for authority figures, abandon family values and religious beliefs, and question the meaning and purpose of their existence. This painful existential awakening can eventually help them understand and define themselves more clearly. But, it may be confusing and difficult for a child to navigate. Some gifted children find a cause or activity that captivates their interests, while others may become anxious, depressed or disengaged.

Gifted middle school children need their parents' guidance as they navigate this difficult transition. Since middle school is considered a difficult time for most children, a gifted child's concerns could be easily dismissed as part of "normal" growing pains. Yet, their intensity, sensitivity, and the limited availability of true peers increases the likelihood of a rough road. Some manage without difficulty, but others continue to struggle throughout high school and beyond, battling underachievement, depression or feelings of alienation.

What can parents do to help them?

1. Tune in and listen. Pay attention to what they say and what they don't say. Notice changes in behavior, loss of interest in activities, refusal to spend time with friends. Other signs of concern include sleep problems, changes in appetite, apathy, a drop in grades, physical complaints (without a known medical cause), anxiety, or extreme irritability.

2. Ask them directly about their lives. What, are you kidding? OK, many teens are as closed as a vault, but with some timing and skill, you can find out more about what they are feeling. Sometimes teens are more receptive to communication when sharing an activity you both enjoy, riding in the car, or talking before bed. Parents know their children best and can usually find a good time to start the conversation.

3. Keep your emotions in check. Yes, it is upsetting and even infuriating to see your child struggle. But parents need to manage their own feelings without placing this added burden on their children. Middle school is a time when life feels out of control for many children. It's OK to show children that you feel angry about an injustice at school or empathize with how they feel. If your sadness or rage is excessive, though, they won't have the calm, stable foundation they need during this difficult time. If you need support, reach out to adult family members, friends, or a counselor. Even an online forum can help.

4. Withhold judgment. Quickly coming to conclusions, offering immediate advice, or taking charge will backfire. Children either rebel (through angry refusal or passive eye-rolling), or initially comply, but fail to develop the skills to negotiate difficult social situations. Your advice is valuable, but first help them sort through possible solutions to the problem. Ask what they think might work, help them brainstorm, and weigh the pros and cons of different outcomes.

5. Advocate, advocate. When schools offer little in terms of options for gifted children, parents need to strategically advocate for services their children deserve. The teacher, principal, administration and school board may need input regarding what your child and what all gifted children need. Get educated about the needs of gifted children.

6. Seek support. Most importantly, if the school is unable to help, or if your child is showing signs of emotional distress, it is critical to seek guidance or counseling. While services may be available through the school, you may need to find a therapist outside of school who can meet with you and your child. Your pediatrician or the school psychologist are often excellent resources for recommending referrals in your area.

What has helped your middle school-aged child? Let us know!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gifted children need the gift of play

"Mom, call the teacher and tell her there's not enough play time!" The gifted five-year-old wailed to his mother, distraught that kindergarten offered few of the creative, open-ended activities he enjoyed in pre-school. "I hardly get to build anything. We have to write all this stuff. It's no fun!"

It's hard to imagine that kindergarten could be stressful, especially for gifted children, but an environment so focused on academics and structured learning at such an early age can create stress for any child. In the rush to meet quotas and proficiency standards, many school districts are cutting back on recess, eliminating arts and physical education, and emphasizing academics over unstructured creative activities and time for play. For example, a 2006 University of Virginia study revealed how kindergarten teachers devoted as much time to reading as to math, science, social studies, music and art combined.

In an excellent article, Kenneth Ginsberg summarizes the importance of play, along with the "variety of factors that have reduced play, including a hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play." Joan Almon writes about the cognitive, emotional and health risks associated with the decline in free play in schools and at home. In "The Disturbing Transformation of Kindergarten," Diane Marie highlights the classroom changes that emphasize developmentally inappropriate performance-based goals rather than what children need. And these goals may not be effective. She cites two studies as examples that suggest the early emphasis on reading is unnecessary and fails to maintain long-term benefits:

"Both compared children who learned to read at 5 with those who learned at 7 and spent their early years in play-based activities. Those who read at 5 had no advantage. Those who learned to read later had better comprehension by age 11, because their early play experiences improved their language development.''

Play is fundamental to learning and development for all children. It contributes to their cognitive development, social skills, and emotional well-being. It is the foundation for children's earliest social relationships, enhances the parent-child bond, and lights the spark of creativity and passion. Children discover what they love, what brings them joy and intrigue, and what is meaningful.

Through play, children get to:
  • Explore, create, invent, and generate new ideas 
  • Develop a sense of mastery over their world
  • Learn to share and work cooperatively with peers
  • Develop strategic thinking and problem-solving abilities
  • Improve fine motor and gross motor skills
  • Try out adult roles through pretend play
  • Improve attention and memory abilities
  • "Work through" frustration and fears by acting them out
  • Relieve and discharge stress

Sometimes it is assumed that gifted children need less play than others. Their intensity, introversion, and focused interests can be misinterpreted as evidence that they don't need time for play. Stereotypical assumptions of perfectionism and overachievement can create an expectation that intellectual pursuits should take precedence. Yet, gifted children need the same unstructured play as other children. Arguably, even more so. Here's why:

1. Gifted children thrive when they can be creative, inventive, and use their minds productively. Play can incite their love for learning and discovery, without the pressure of performance, achievement standards, or conforming to others' rules. 

2. Gifted children benefit from learning to cooperate with peers. They grow from learning to adapt with friends who are not gifted, and by meeting the challenge when with gifted peers. They learn important lessons about social skills, managing anxiety, coping with competitive feelings, and what types of social interactions feel comfortable for them.

3. Gifted children develop a sense of mastery when they accomplish something challenging, and a demanding play situation may require more from them than an academic environment. Whether it is a computer game or a baseball field, gifted children develop humility and perspective when they fail, try again, and, perhaps, succeed.

4. Gifted children discharge stress through play and can "work through" some of their anxiety by acting out conflicts. If a child is bullied at school, she might use dolls to express her anger. If a child is feeling insecure, he might develop "superhero powers" in his play with friends. Gifted children are aware of their differences, and have difficulty finding like-minded peers. Play can be an outlet for their frustrations when they feel isolated or lonely.

A 2013 study conducted by Sally Rapp Beiser and colleagues reported how gifted fifth and sixth graders viewed play. They identified play as necessary for motivation, problem-solving abilities, attention, learning, and team-building. The authors urged parents of gifted children to decrease the structured activities many of these children pursue and ensure that they have time for unstructured play.

Given the social, emotional, and academic benefits of play, insisting that gifted children - all children - have plenty of opportunity for free, unstructured play time is essential. It seems that a reversal of No Child Left Behind quotas, overscheduled activities, and performance driven goals are in order. All children deserve the gift of play.

This blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted@Play. To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at