Monday, April 11, 2016

Choose wisely: Some truths about elite colleges for gifted students

In a recent article, "Our dangerous obsession with Harvard, Stanford and other elite universities," Jeffrey Selingo highlights the frantic quest toward admission to these coveted institutions. We hear stories of beleaguered students (and their families), exhausted in their pursuit of these colleges. Perfectionistic, strategic and driven, they place their future hopes and dreams on the crapshoot that is an often less than 9% acceptance rate.

And we see the fallout of rejected students, distraught, devastated, fearing that their future opportunities are lost without that golden diploma. With so many excellent options available, banking on a handful of almost unattainable colleges is a set-up for disappointment. And with increasing numbers of applications, an emphasis on "holistic admissions," the favoritism granted to legacy applicants, and the seemingly randomness of selection criteria, a "reach" school becomes...well, out of reach.

We also know that the media's portrayal of this obsession distorts the truth; only a very small percentage of students apply to these schools, or actually even care about them. As Ben Casselman notes: "just 4 percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly any - well under 1 percent - attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent."

The Selingo article correctly emphasizes that you can become whomever you want; you don't have to graduate from an elite college to pursue your dream. And it cites stats claiming that businesses are actually more likely to hire students from less esteemed institutions, such as Penn State or the University of Illinois. Career success bears little long-term association with your undergraduate degree.

But the Selingo article (and the topic itself) portray attainment of a high-status job as the primary draw; in essence, these schools are depicted as a pipeline to Wall Street. While elite schools may offer a financial edge for business majors, this still assumes that most students pursue elite colleges primarily as a ticket to a high-paying, prestigious job.

A similar article, "Elite colleges don't buy happiness" describes a retrospective survey of college grads who identified access to inspiring professors as the most significant factor influencing their current job satisfaction. Where they went to school didn't matter. Well...of course an elite college will not buy happiness - no college will do that. Despite the flashy title and the correlational and retrospective nature of the research, the survey does imply that access to meaningful engagement with talented professors is important.

What do gifted students need?

What is overlooked, and what is especially relevant to highly gifted and academically motivated students is that elite schools offer a wealth of resources that may be less available at other institutions. These students long for a challenging, meaningful education. After years of boredom in traditional schools, they desperately crave an environment where they can learn alongside like-minded peers and immerse themselves in their interests. And some highly gifted students who have performed well in high school, breezed through standardized tests and delved into an area of meaningful interest may meet admissions standards without the overachieving, test-prep-driven approach the media readily portrays as so commonplace.

Elite colleges typically offer gifted students the following:

  • Highly challenging, intellectually stimulating classes taught by world-class professors

  • Classrooms filled with like-minded peers, also invested in learning at a high level

The cynical among us may label students accepted to these elite institutions as money-hungry, career-driven robots. The media has certainly fostered this view. Yet, if this were true, wouldn't almost every student declare business or economics as their major? Wouldn't these colleges have already jettisoned programs such as philosophy, anthropology, music, art, and even education?

Let's give students and families some credit; not everyone is solely driven by pursuit of the dollar. 

Gifted and academically motivated students need to ensure that the college they choose is not a repeat of high school. It certainly doesn't need to be Harvard, but it should offer an enriching, stimulating and accepting environment, filled with like-minded peers, where students no longer have to hide their interests and abilities. Yes, gifted individuals might succeed wherever they go to school. However, finding the best college fit can make these four years more fulfilling and worthwhile.

For more information about the journey to college, please see the following:

Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college

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

There is life after high school - even for gifted teens

Five tips gifted students need to consider when choosing a college

Five hurdles gifted college students must overcome

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

*Photo courtesy of #Brown University, taken by kbrittels

Friday, April 1, 2016

Power in numbers: How gifted advocacy parent groups can help you and your kids

(or how I went from perplexed parent to empowered advocate)

As a Psychologist, I should have known least that's what I thought. I should have noticed the signs of giftedness sooner, knew how and when to intervene at school, and advocated effortlessly for my child.

But of course, it wasn't that easy.

Both of my kids - energetic, rambunctious boys - were not the quiet, composed early readers and meticulous students who "looked gifted." Their talents eventually emerged, but even advocating for testing was a challenge. And then a series of questions unfolded: when to request services, whether to intervene, what battles to pick, when to let things go. My children's needs were juxtaposed against the genuine constraints their well-meaning teachers faced: a classroom full of students presenting a wide range of needs, and district policy obstructing much in the way of gifted services.

This additional parental responsibility - advocating for a gifted child - was unexpected, isolating and unnerving. There was no roadmap, no clear path, and certainly not a lot of support from the school.

Then I stumbled upon a parent group that was starting. An affiliate of PAGE, Pennsylvania's state-based gifted advocacy organization, this local group formed to address problems within the district. Frustrated parents, discouraged after years of witnessing the schools' watered-down gifted programming, shared stories, concerns, and eventually, strategic plans for change.

The group offered support, information, validation, and shared energy, with the overriding goal of improving gifted services. We initially tackled existing policy and widespread inconsistencies in identification and service delivery across schools within the district. Through surveys, focus groups and workshops, we sought input from other district parents, school personnel, and experts in the field. Persistent, yet respectful of the district's fiscal constraints and the realistic demands facing teachers in the classroom, we gained access to gifted supervisors and administration, and were able to leverage some change in gifted education policy and procedures. We also offered workshops and guidance for other parents in the district.

What are the benefits of gifted advocacy parent groups?

  • Support - Parents receive the support, validation, understanding, and camaraderie they rarely find elsewhere. It is a relief to speak freely, without feeling pressured to downplay your child's abilities, or worry that your comments sound like bragging. These are people who get it about overexcitabilities, asynchronous development, others' misconceptions, and roadblocks in their child's education. 

  • Information - The more you communicate, the more you learn. Participation in a parent group provides a wealth of information - about what is going on in the schools, outside resources, how other parents are managing difficult situations, state and national trends, and even what teachers your child should avoid.

  • Creative flow of ideas - Great minds might sometimes think alike... but they also brainstorm well together. Group members from different backgrounds can provide a unique and innovative perspective. A collaborative, creative gathering of individuals will generate more ideas than one person in isolation. And those ideas may then serve as a springboard for planning, strategy and goal-setting.

  • Added authority when advocating - It's no picnic advocating alone. You may not be taken seriously; your message may be ignored. But when an advocacy group presents a cohesive set of ideas and plans, officials in charge are often more willing to take notice and listen. There is truly power in numbers.

  • Education of other parents - Once you learn more about gifted children, gifted education, and gifted services within your community, you can offer guidance to other families. This not only includes parents of currently identified gifted students and those embarking on the identification process, but also parents whose children are not gifted and hold misinformed and negative stereotypes. With your knowledge, you become an ambassador for gifted information, helping others understand how giftedness affects all areas of these children's lives.

  • Influence within the school system - Parent advocacy groups can have a surprisingly powerful influence on policy and service delivery - as long as administration is open to it. Gifted services are frequently underfunded and supervisors often fight for every inch. Parents can convey information to gifted supervisors about problems and behind-the-scenes interactions in the schools. They can support gifted supervisors by advocating with administration and school boards. In return, their ideas may be welcomed and included in planning. It's a win-win situation.

As a group psychotherapist (CGP), I was well aware of the power of group participation. But I never anticipated so many positive benefits from my involvement in a parent group. I am proud to have been a member and eventual co-chair of this group. I learned a lot, felt supported and understood, indirectly helped my kids, influenced school policy, and had fun with a great group of people. It also spurred further interest and study into the psychological aspects of giftedness, informing my work as a Psychologist.

Every parent of a gifted child can benefit from the support of like-minded parents. Finding them can be a challenge, though. You might advertise through your PTA or other school organizations, seek ideas from friends, contact your state-based advocacy associations (if one is available)*, or ask your child's gifted education teacher for a list of parents. With some effort, you may be able to enlist a group of motivated parents. The stream of creative ideas generated by the intelligent, dedicated parents in our district's gifted parents group, their collaborative spirit and shared goal of achieving improved gifted services, and the group's ability focus on the needs of all gifted children within the district (not just our own) fueled an atmosphere of support, hope and empowerment.

*You can check here for a list of state-based organizations that may offer affiliate connections.

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Groups. To see more blogs, click on the following link:

A portion of this article was republished in the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education October, 2017 Newsletter.