Friday, October 31, 2014

Stress management toolbox: Nine tips for parents of gifted children

Just like every other parent, gifted children's parents also need tools for managing stress. Despite beliefs that raising a gifted child is a breeze, most parents of gifted kids would readily claim that it's no picnic. Weathering challenges like overexcitabilities, isolation from peers, asynchronous development, and boredom with school are heartbreaking for parents to witness. Advocacy efforts with schools can seem daunting, and decisions about extra-curriculars, possibly transferring schools, or even homeschooling can be overwhelming. And it's often lonely, since many other parents either don't understand or frankly dismiss these concerns.

Parents need a toolbox of strategies for managing stress. Here are some tools to try:

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:* An old standard, these exercises take effort, but offer tremendous results. Set aside quiet time (at least 15 minutes) each day, find a comfortable chair or lie down, and tense and relax separate muscle groups starting with either your facial muscles or your feet, and progress throughout your body. Tense and relax each group of muscles twice for five seconds, with a five second pause. As you continue this practice, you will become more aware of where you hold tension, and what your body truly feels like when it is relaxed. With practice, you can train your body to "just relax" without having to go through the exercises. There are many examples online, but here is a simple one you could try.

2. Deep Breathing exercises: A quick, effective and easy technique, deep breathing involves taking slow, deep belly breaths from your diaphragm (not your throat), and attempting to slow the pace of your breathing. When you are tense, you are more likely to take fast, shallow breaths, which increases anxiety even more. The easiest way to slow it down is to count while you breathe.

You could start by slowly inhaling to the count of four, holding that breath to the count of four, exhaling to the count of four, and then holding that breath out to the count of four. Experiment with the number counts (use a count of six, eight, etc.), but it is important to breathe from your diaphragm with your mouth closed, and make sure you hold your breath between inhalations and exhalations. This is an easy technique to practice. Set aside some quiet time, but you can even practice while waiting at stoplights or sitting through a boring meeting at work!

3. Visual imagery:* What you picture in your mind's eye can affect your mood. Close your eyes and imagine a calm, relaxing, safe, beautiful place you have visited. Use all of your senses to heighten your awareness. Remind yourself of how calm and peaceful you feel in this safe, relaxing place.

4. Mindfulness meditation:*  Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows you to focus on the present and avoid competing distractions. It can reduce stress and boost immune function. For a simple description of how it works, see this instruction. There are also some free mindfulness exercises online that you can try.

5. Exercise: Research has repeatedly shown that even small amounts of exercise reduce stress, improve memory and concentration, reduce fatigue, improve sleep, and boost mood. Find time to make exercise a part of your daily life.

6. Cognitive Strategies: "I think, therefore I am." Whether we realize it or not, our thoughts dramatically influence our feelings and behaviors. We may harbor unconscious expectations, assumptions and long-held beliefs that influence how we respond to situations. Cognitive behavioral strategies help you challenge entrenched beliefs that may hold you back.

For example, if you get nervous meeting with your child's teacher, it's not the teacher who makes you feel anxious; your underlying negative thoughts fuel your anxiety. Thoughts such as: "She will think I'm stupid" or "I can never express myself clearly" or "I know it's pointless because nothing will ever change" can create anxiety or feelings of hopelessness.

Some common negative thinking patterns include catastrophizing (assuming the worst will happen), mind-reading (assuming you know what the other person is thinking), or fortune-telling (thinking you can predict the future). A complete list of "cognitive distortions" can be found here and is worth viewing.

Once you recognize which thought patterns or distortions are most familiar for you, then you can work on challenging them. Ask yourself questions, such as:
"what's the worst that could happen?" and "what's the likelihood of that happening?" Seek out the data. Imagine that you are a scientist, journalist or attorney and need to know the facts. Just because you feel a certain way does not make it a reality. The more you can challenge irrational beliefs, the easier it will be to tame your stress. Sometimes it may be helpful to enlist the aid of a therapist with this task.

7. Have fun: Raising kids is hard work. You need to find time for the things you enjoy, even if life seems too busy. In fact, research has shown that pleasurable activities can reduce anxiety responses in the brain. Obviously, overindulging in food, sex, drugs or alcohol is not the answer, but finding healthy, enjoyable activities is critical to enhancing your well-being.

8. Social supports: Close friends and family can be essential supports when you feel stressed. Learning to reach out when you need emotional comfort is a necessity, as isolation can fuel depression. Research has shown that women, in particular, "tend and befriend" during times of stress. They instinctively take care of others, but also benefit from the support and companionship of friends. Even if you are busy, make time to nurture the friendships in your life.

9. Lifestyle management: This involves the basics. Getting enough rest. Eating healthy meals. Avoiding indulging in junk food, but not engaging in restrictive dieting either. Getting plenty of exercise. Managing your time effectively. Pacing yourself and delegating work tasks and household chores when possible. Finding time for pleasure and fun. Spending time with friends and your significant other. Oh, and of course, having fun with your kids!

*The above strategies are offered as suggestions, and are not intended as therapeutic advice. If your stress seems overwhelming, it is critical that you seek help from a licensed mental health professional, who can guide you with more specific tools for understanding and resolving the stress. Note: if you have a trauma history, please seek advice from a mental health professional before attempting any of the relaxation or imagery exercises, since they can occasionally cause distress.

Suggested Readings:

Bourne, E. (2011) The anxiety and phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New     Harbinger Publications.
Burns, D. (2008). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: Harper.
Carlson, R. (1996). Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff: Simple ways to keep little things from taking over your life. New York: Hyperion.
Davis, M., Eshelman, R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Emmett, R. (2008). Manage your time to reduce our stress: A handbook for the overworked, overscheduled and overwhelmed. New York: Walker & Co.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment and your life. Louisville, CO: Sounds True.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living (Revised edition). New York: Bantam.
Leahy, R. (2006). The worry cure: Seven steps to stop worrying from stopping you. New York: Harmony.
Stahl, B. & Goldstein, E. (2010). A mindfulness-based stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Wehrenberg, M. (2008). The 10 best-ever anxiety management techniques. New York: Norton & Co.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Self-Care. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:

For the next blog in the Self-Care Blog Hop, click the following link:

Monday, October 20, 2014

It's all in the wiring: Gifted development that doesn't fit the norm

It's all in the wiring

A recent blog post poignantly described the asynchronous development commonly seen among many highly gifted children. Striking differences in abilities make it hard to grasp what is going on. How can children who are so bright struggle so much? Why would such perceptive children have so many emotional blind-spots? How can a child be gifted and developmentally delayed?

Gifted children have been labeled non-neurotypical or neuro-atypical. And put simply, their thinking is atypical. They don't fit the norm. There is still much we don't understood about how they process information, how they view the world, and why there are so many contradictions in their development. Their wiring just seems different.

An Example of Wiring Differences

Years ago, I read an innovative and controversial book, "Late-talking Children"* by economist Thomas Sowell, which described a unique group of children who developed speech and expressive language much later than expected, yet who eventually caught up and often demonstrated exceptional intellectual and/or musical abilities as adults. His very unscientific surveys would make most researchers cringe, but were nevertheless eye-opening, and highlighted several striking trends.

The late-talking children in Sowell's survey had several traits in common: 1) they frequently went on to develop successful careers in the STEM or music fields; 2) they often had genetic ties to family members (parents or grandparents) who were mathematicians, engineers, or musicians; and 3) approximately 80% were boys.

Sowell theorized that these children had highly developed spatial skills that occupied much of their time and attention. In fact, it was assumed that they were so preoccupied with spatial interests (e.g., Legos, building forts), that their developing brain needed time to "catch up" in the verbal arena. Speech and language development would just need to wait. Sowell also suggested that the reason for the much lower percentage of identified girls might be due to the greater fluidity of communication across hemispheres in the female brain. This would permit verbal and spatial abilities to develop at an equal rate, even among spatially talented young girls.

How does this relate to giftedness?

Although Sowell did not use terms such as twice-exceptional, asynchronous or neuro-atypical,  his theories are worth considering. We know famous examples of brilliant innovators (e.g., Einstein, Edison) who did not speak until a late age. We know that many gifted children do not follow the expected developmental path. Many lag in motor skills and suffer from dysgraphia. Some do not necessarily read at an early age, despite eventually becoming prolific readers. Many are socially immature, and have meltdowns because their overexcitabilities, oversensitivities and intensity get the best of them. They cannot regulate their highly excitable emotions and lack the maturity to control their behavior.

Why is this important?

Many theories of gifted development are, well... theories. Useful, informative, even brilliant, but theories nonetheless. Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration, for example, includes a framework for understanding the emotional overexcitabilities gifted children (and their parents) have to manage, and emphasizes that giftedness encompasses much more than exceptional intellectual abilities.

What we don't understand is the reason.

Why are these children more excitable? Why are they more reactive? Why is asynchronous development a part of the package? Why, in fact, would a brilliant child, a future mathematician or musician, struggle with speech and language long past when appropriate developmental milestones should have been reached?

Clearly more well-designed, statistically sound research into the brain development of gifted individuals is needed. One blog post summarized some interesting research, but there is not a lot out there. Let's encourage and support research efforts that will unravel these mysteries and help us understand the complexities of gifted thinking.

Did your gifted child show any delays in development? What wiring differences do you think exist among gifted children? Let us know your thoughts!

*Sowell, T. (1998). Late-talking children. New York: Basic Books.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Stop misrepresenting gifted education research

Yet another study of gifted education is being circulated that lends itself to misinterpretation and sweeping generalizations. Even worse, its conclusions can be adopted as justification for denying appropriate educational support for gifted children.

In "Does Gifted Education Work? For Which Students?" economists David Card and Laura Giuliano investigated whether selecting students for gifted programs should be based on cognitive abilities alone, or on a combination of both ability and achievement. This is certainly a reasonable question to ask.  My concern is with the conclusions drawn from the study, how they may be interpreted by the media and public, and how this may translate into educational policy.

A report of the study in Vox boasts this provocative headline: "What makes a student gifted? This study says we're getting it wrong," and boldly asserts that assumptions about giftedness need to change. While this makes for a compelling read, stating opinion as if it is fact, recommending sweeping policy changes based on one study, and generalizing from this particular school to other schools is misleading.

Researchers in gifted education and psychology, Makel and Wai, challenged the conclusions reached in this and other studies conducted by economists who have evaluated gifted programs. They highlighted the problem of drawing conclusions from one study and making sweeping generalizations: "it is difficult to see other researchers investigate one instance of an implementation - in this case, evaluate one school district's gifted program - and then make broad generalized conclusions about the entire field."

So, let's look at the basics of this study:
Card and Giuliano studied three groups of 4th graders in a large urban school district. This particular district offers a separate "gifted program" starting in 4th grade, but since there are so few students who meet the 130 IQ criteria for giftedness, they needed to determine how to fill the remaining seats in the classroom. How would they go about selecting other students who would also benefit from a gifted education? 
Students selected for the gifted program in this study either: 1) had an IQ of at least 130; 2) had an IQ of 116 or higher, but were selected from an underrepresented, low-income minority population; or 3) were from an underrepresented, low-income minority population, but had received the highest scores on state-wide achievement tests. Improvements in standardized test scores were evaluated at the end of 4th grade, as well as in 5th grade.
Results from standardized reading and math scores showed:
1. A significant increase for the high achieving, low income students 
2. No improvement for the low income students with IQ's of 116 or greater 
3. No improvement (and even some negative findings) for gifted students with IQ's of 130 or greater
These were Card and Giuliano's conclusions:
  • It is beneficial if gifted programs include both high achieving students along with students identified as gifted (based on IQ testing) 
  • A separate classroom environment (i.e., gifted program) is more effective for students who are chosen for it based on their history of high achievement than those selected just because of their IQ
  • The definition of giftedness needs to be expanded to include scores from standardized testing and not just IQ, since students with high standardized test scores benefit the most from gifted programs
Despite the researcher's conclusions, there are some unanswered questions and different interpretations that should be considered. Here are some other perspectives:

1. This was not a study of gifted education:

The "gifted classrooms" in this school district were not specifically geared toward educating gifted children. They appeared to offer advanced or enriched instruction where gifted and bright, high achieving children were grouped together for more challenging learning. While more homogeneous than a regular classroom, an enriched "track" does not necessarily imply that gifted students were receiving an education compatible with their abilities. The fact that none of the gifted students demonstrated any improvement over the course of the year would certainly suggest that this classroom was hardly challenging enough to meet their academic needs.

2. The study actually addressed two separate questions, unrelated to improving education for the gifted students:
  •  What will boost achievement among bright, low-income, minority students?
  • What is the most appropriate way to fill the seats in an advanced class with students who will benefit most from it? 
These are important questions to research in their own right, but results from this study should not be interpreted as relevant to educating gifted children. The study never asked what methods best enhance achievement among gifted children, or even how to ensure that we are not overlooking identification of low-income minority children who are gifted.

3. We really don't know what defines a "gifted program"

What is a gifted program? What defines it? Is gifted education a "program" or is it instruction specifically tailored to the unique needs of a gifted child? There were no clear parameters in this study. It is unclear how the curriculum differed from instruction in the regular classroom. And the authors noted that the gifted teachers had some training in gifted education, but were "only slightly more experienced than other teachers at their school." We can guess, though, that the "gifted program" in the study was similar to an enriched or advanced class, given the small percentage (approximately 20% or less) of gifted students in the class.

4. High achieving average and above average ability children benefit from enriched education.

Low income, minority high achievers, in particular, benefit from and clearly deserve an opportunity to be challenged. Given evidence that gifted minority children are often overlooked and underidentified as gifted, it is promising that programs are available that can offer enrichment to high achieving students. Hopefully, this research can be used to motivate schools to provide greater educational challenges for underserved and minority students in particular, along with an impetus to improve gifted identification.

5. We don't know why the gifted children did not improve

The study failed to provide an explanation for the gifted children's dismal standardized test results. The researchers noted that the children and their families claimed they were happy with the classes, and suggested that perhaps teachers focused on content unrelated to improving test scores. They also suggested that the gifted students may not have shown improvement because their test scores were already high to begin with. But if the tests were so easy for them, at least some minimal improvement would have been expected.

Some possible explanations that were not considered include the following:
  • The "gifted program" may have been modified to meet the needs of the average and above average ability students. As evident in many classrooms, teachers often "teach to the middle" to accommodate a wide range of learning abilities. It just may not have been challenging enough for the gifted children.
  • The gifted children may have started on a path toward underachievement, having accepted that they don't have to work to achieve minimal results. If the classwork seemed easy, and they were offered minimal challenge, they may have decided not to challenge themselves further.
  • The gifted students may have masked their abilities, despite placement in a class of presumably similar students. Gifted students learn to "dumb themselves down" so that they can fit in. Even in a "gifted classroom," highly gifted students often feel they have to downplay their abilities to gain peer acceptance.
In conclusion, this is what we do know:

We learned from this study that
high achieving, low-income minority students thrive when challenged, and benefit from an academically enriched environment. Perhaps that is the most useful information that can be taken from this study.

We learned that gifted children did not flourish in the mixed ability classrooms in this study, even when they were joined by other high achieving and above average students.

We must careful when describing "gifted programs," always cognizant of the widely varying definitions that change from one school to the next. Until there is a reliable definition, any program should be described in detail and differentiated from what is taught in a regular or any other advanced classroom.

We must recognize the emotional connotations of terms related to "giftedness" and take care when labeling any classroom as a "gifted" program. It may create an unintended rise in feelings of envy and anxiety as families pursue "gifted placement" for their child. "Achieving" placement in a gifted class should not be viewed as a measure of accomplishment, like making varsity in a sport. Gifted education, like all "special education" practices needs to involve a specific educational plan geared toward the unique needs of the child.

Extreme caution is needed before generalizing from this study to the entire field of gifted education. It is absurd to conclude that gifted children cannot benefit and flourish when offered appropriate gifted programming, just because gifted children in this particular study failed to improve. Hopefully, this study can be a springboard for further research into what actually helps gifted children rather than used to marginalize and dismantle what few gifted programs exist.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.