Thursday, June 16, 2016

Intelligence denied: When gifted children's abilities are ignored

Recently, Kevin Gover, Director for the National Museum of the American Indian, spoke at Brown University's commencement baccalaureate. Among other things, he noted that when he was a child, he knew that he was smart, but as part Native American, he struggled to reconcile this self-awareness with negative images portraying Indians as "dumb" in history books. He recalled, regretfully, how he attributed his intelligence to the fact that his mother was white, so completely had he internalized the powerful racist messages of that era.

What happens when gifted children know they are smart, but society or schools tell them they are wrong?  What happens when they sense they are different from their peers, but no one tells them why?

Whether their abilities are blatantly dismissed because of cultural, racial or gender stereotypes, or merely minimized due to ignorance on the part of the schools, gifted children historically have struggled to thrive under conditions that attempt to suppress them. Gifted children know they are different. They see how easily they grasp information, and learn more quickly than many of their peers. They sometimes become impatient with friends who don't get it. They often react to events with greater emotionality and sensitivity. They may not fit in, and feel lonely and estranged.

Without the proper nurturance and guidance, gifted children will flounder.
Unless identified early, offered a challenging education tailored to their needs, and allowed to flourish in a setting with like-minded peers, gifted children not only often fail to reach their potential, they may never understand the exceptional abilities they possess.

Who are typically overlooked?

The list is long and includes: children of color, the poor, ELL learners, gifted children with disabilities (twice-exceptional learners), girls lacking in confidence, rough-housing boys who just want to play, visual-spatial learners, children in schools lacking resources for gifted services, children in states where gifted services are not legally required. Essentially, any child can be overlooked. And in some situations, giftedness is minimized or ignored even when the schools recognize that a child is gifted.

When giftedness is denied, dismissed or ignored, negative outcomes, such as the following can occur:

1. They know they are different, but can't understand why.
Gifted children may feel confused about their differences. They recognize how easily they grasp ideas and information when compared with their peers, but don't have a context for understanding this. As a result, they are left to form their own conclusions about their giftedness. They may ascribe too much meaning to their abilities, or not give them any credibility. They may deny their giftedness, discount it, minimize it, distort it, exaggerate it, compartmentalize it, or feel guilty about it.

2. They may think there is something wrong with them. 
Gifted children (and adults) are often highly sensitive and emotionally reactive, and have a heightened sense of fairness and justice. They are sometimes prone to overthinking, perfectionism, and existential depression, as they ponder the meaning of life. Without someone to help them appreciate that these are common experiences among the gifted, they may assume that they are unstable. And since they don't see their peers struggling with these same concerns, they may view themselves as social misfits and outliers who are not entitled to "normal" friendships and relationships.

3. They become chronically bored in school and learn to disrespect the system.
Gifted students whose abilities are never identified or challenged become bored and may assume traditional learning environments are a waste of time. They may become disrespectful toward authority and teachers whom they perceive as inadequate and ineffective. While some may passively withdraw, others become vocal about their dissatisfaction and cause trouble for themselves and others at school. Ultimately, they may develop chronic distrust for persons in positions of authority, as they have been disappointed too many times.

4. They fail to reach their potential, having missed out on the training, stimulation or challenge at critical points in their development.
Gifted children who are never challenged and who coast through school do not have an opportunity to hone their skills through meaningful learning and practice. Many children are never even identified as gifted, as a result of ignorance about "what giftedness looks like," lack of universal screening, or racial/cultural/gender stereotypes, creating an excellence gap for minority students. Some schools also maintain policies that prevent acceleration, ability grouping or truly differentiated instruction. Gifted students are held back when forced to endure repetitive, rote assignments instead of challenging learning options that would encourage their growth and development. 

5. They assume that they never have to work hard.
Gifted students who are never challenged and who easily receive good grades often become complacent. They assume academics should come easily to them, and never develop study skills that are necessary for later success. Receiving a low grade may come as a shock, and they may steer clear of any difficult future tasks, rather than risk failure. Some become underachievers-under-the-radar, acquiring good grades and even awards, yet never pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone. Others may become selective underperformers, choosing to excel only in subjects that are meaningful, and give up trying in areas that do not interest them. 

Obviously not all unidentified or unchallenged gifted children develop problems. However, efforts to improve gifted identification and helping gifted children understand what it means to be gifted are essential. Identification not only informs an educational plan aimed at enhancing their development, but can clear up confusion and misunderstanding about traits these children recognize but can't quite name. And providing gifted services tailored to their academic needs is critical to their educational growth as well as the development of resilience in the face of challenging tasks. It also offers reassurance that the adults in charge truly understand, and are making every attempt to help them thrive.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths

Whether Americans like her, agree with her platform, or can't stand her, it is likely there will be a presidential candidate who is a woman. Whether Hilary Clinton has a chance of winning is unclear. Many don't like her. Some don't trust her. But few would doubt her drive or intelligence.

There have been only 31 women ever elected to the US Senate. While women make up 45% of the workforce, only 5% are CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, which is considered an all-time high. And women are typically underrepresented in all STEM fields, comprising only 18% of computer science and 12% of engineering graduates.

Social/cultural pressure and sexism notwithstanding, what is puzzling about this gender gap in positions of power and "traditional" success, is that girls typically surpass boys in their development:

  • Compared to boys, girls demonstrate more advanced verbal and fine-motor skills and a longer attention span. They develop organizational and attentional skills at an earlier age, and their reading and writing abilities surpass those of boys, on average, by 1 1/2 years.

  • Girls also typically exhibit better social skills, including greater relational skills, patience, cooperativeness, and empathy.

  • Girls excel throughout elementary school, often surpassing boys on most measures of academic success. Confident and curious, they approach learning with passion and drive.

Yet, pre-teen girls typically start to lose confidence in middle school, that confluence of drama, social pressure, and self-scrutiny. Peer influences, cultural messages demanding conformity, and interest in boys have a powerful effect on self-esteem. But hormonal and brain differences also play a role:

  • The effects of estrogen increase a desire for bonding and connection and discourage risk-taking, while testosterone (10 times higher in males) fuels risks. Given the hormonal roller-coaster that spikes in  early adolescence, different confidence levels between genders is not surprising.

  • The amygdala develops 18 months sooner in girls during early adolescence. Women's amygdalae are activated more easily in response to stressful situations, contributing to a tendency to worry and to react to negative events by forming strong emotional memories.

  • The anterior cingulate cortex is larger in women. This part of the brain is associated with weighing choices and options, scanning the environment for threats, and noticing errors. This may contribute to a tendency toward caution, indecisiveness or self-criticism.

  •  On a positive note, the corpus colllosum, the strip of neural tissue that links the hemispheres of the brain, is 25% larger in girls, contributing to greater connectivity between the hemispheres. This may promote a greater facility with handling different tasks and easily switching between tasks.

Regardless of social, cultural or school pressures, the neuro/bio/chemical influences listed above suggest that teen girls (on average*) tend toward self-doubt, hesitation and second-guessing their behaviors. Highly competent, socially mature, and capable of handling multiple tasks, they still hold themselves back. Gifted girls, in particular, who typically display heightened sensitivity, overexcitablities, and sometimes even perfectionistic tendencies, may be especially vulnerable to the self-criticism and anxiety that emerges - and which may last long past middle school. Given the powerful, immutable effect of these biological influences, what can girls and women do?

1. View these biological influences as strengths - not weaknesses. Caution, self-awareness and self-scrutiny, in their most positive form, can be aspects of conscientiousness - the variable most consistently associated with academic staying power. Highly focused, conscientious girls are more organized, diligent and determined, and get the job done.

2. Embrace the collaborative, cooperative nature of women's relational strengths. More and more businesses are recognizing that a collaborative, team approach gets faster results than an individual-centric one. Women excel at forming relationships, and this can help them in all aspects of academics and career.

3. Work to eliminate fears when they affect self-esteem and success. If chronic self-doubt or fear of taking risks interfere with progress or personal well-being, it is time to seek help to eliminate the problem. Self-scrutiny, worry and hesitation may be inherent tendencies, but not ones that cannot be changed.

Women's neuro/bio/chemical influences are a factor in who they are - but not necessarily a roadblock to success. They can be an asset if women view them positively and learn to harness their inherent strengths.

(*this information is based on averages - and not specific to any individual)

In addition to my work with gifted individuals, I have specialized in women's issues and eating disorders for over 30 years. This blog post is one in a series about gifted girls and women.

Other posts about gifted girls and women include:

What keeps women from STEM careers?
Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?
Why do smart women forego success?
Difficult passage: Gifted girls in middle school
Gifted women, gifted girls and mental health
Gifted or pretty: What do parents want for their daughters?
What stops girls from learning math?

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