Monday, May 29, 2017

How the media discredits successful students

Once again, an undercurrent of bitterness and envy toward high achieving students has surfaced in the media.

Several recent articles with splashy headlines depict high school valedictorians and salutatorians as the "losers" some already assume they are. Face it - many high school students (and their parents) view those students with a combination of awe, astonishment, envy and bitterness. They may question how these students became so successful, and scoff at their sacrifices. Unlike varsity athletes, top scholastic students are often seen as nerdy social misfits who cared way too much about school.

And just in time for high school graduations, several articles affirm the "loserishness" of these high achievers, each with catchy titles that grab our attention. The article, "This is why class valedictorians don't become millionaires" reminds us that these high achievers never snag the American dream. Another article, "Wondering what happened to your class valedictorian? Not much, research shows" reassures the rest of us that all that hard work was never really worth it.

But let's look at these claims. The articles are based on a recent book by Eric Barker, who cited a 1995 study from Karen Arnold, and uses her research to support his contention that valedictorians are not destined for true success. Arnold followed 81 high school valedictorians for 14 years after their graduation in 1981. She found that 95% had graduated from college with an average GPA of 3.6, and 60% had received a graduate degree. Almost 90% were in professional careers and 40% were in "the highest tier jobs." These individuals would be considered highly successful by most standards. Yet the media's provocative headlines proclaim otherwise - and raise the bar for success to an unreasonable height.

Before writing off these vals and sals, consider the following:

1. Arnold's study was published 22 years ago, using a relatively small sample from one geographic area. It may not be representative of what occurs in other schools in the U.S. or the world, and may not reflect current standards. High school graduates from the class of 2017 may have very different career aspirations than 1981 grads.

2. Study participants were followed until age 32. This is hardly an age cut-off for greatness. Although some "geniuses" show spark early on, in many careers, success takes time, and accumulating millions by age 32 (a criteria for success in the CNBC article) is unlikely. Let's not judge anyone's lifelong achievements by accomplishments at this relatively young age.

3. A somewhat higher proportion of Arnold's study participants were women. She found that many of the women started to doubt their abilities once they entered college (a common struggle for young women), and also chose more female-dominated careers. And at 32, many were focusing on building a family, diverting them from their work. Arnold noted that these women might further their careers at a later time.

4. These articles suggest that the hard-working student is not going to be the brilliant genius who makes great discoveries, starts new companies or showcases wildly creative innovations. Yet, the Bill Gates' and Steven Spielbergs of the world are rare. Most studies of success highlight the importance of conscientious, along with creativity, leadership, integrity and cooperation - traits you would expect to see among valedictorians and other high achieving individuals. 

5. The highly successful people sporting a history of underachievement cited in these articles may have "rebelled" due to boredom and disillusionment with an educational system that ignores gifted students' needs. It is possible that their rebellion did not stem from reckless creativity, but rather from disgust with classes that seemed pointless. If they had been challenged and could have engaged in academics, their investment in school might have been quite different.

6. Even highly creative, fiercely independent people eventually learn to collaborate and compromise - whether in the lab, the boardroom or on a film set. Conformity is more difficult during the throes of adolescence, and maturity develops at a different pace for everyone. Some teens have an easier time during high school and feel supported by family, friends and school. They may be more willing to cooperate with established norms, and focus on learning and achievement. Yet articles such as those above portray these well-adjusted, successful students as inadequate - hard working rule-followers who lack spark. Their tangible and significant accomplishments as teens and as adults are disparaged.

Let's not fall prey to the media's routinely harsh and inaccurate portrayal of gifted or high achieving students. These are children, after all, and they deserve our support and consideration - not our bitterness and scorn. Some valedictorians may be hard working, perfectionistic achievers who sacrifice their social lives for their goals; others may be high ability students who play by some of the rules, but are not fully challenging themselves. You don't have to be a val or sal to be highly successful, and many underachieving gifted and creative students go on to discover greatness. But especially as graduations approach, let's stop disparaging those hard working students who exhibit the effort and endurance to achieve.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A gifted person's guide to therapy

If you are gifted, what should you look for when searching for a therapist?

And when should you run the other way?

Once you have decided you would benefit from the help and support of a psychotherapist, the next step is finding someone you trust. Since misconceptions about therapy are widespread, gaining an overview of the basics might help. Most of the same guidelines apply whether you are gifted or not, with a few exceptions. Here are some tips:

1. First and foremost: Trust your gut

Your best friend, sister, minister, or yelp reviews rave about a therapist. But you meet the person and your stomach turns. Then that therapist is not the right one for you. Yes, it takes time to build trust, but if there is not a good fit, then go elsewhere.

2. You are part of the process

Don't expect your therapist to tell you what to do. You probably wouldn't like it anyway. Therapy requires your input, ideas and contributions. Therapists are not mind-readers and cannot magically solve your problem. You need to be honest, share your thoughts and feelings, and be willing to address concerns you might have avoided for a long time. On the other hand, therapy is interactive and not just a place to unload your stress; there needs to be room for your therapist to offer ideas and feedback. Therapists also comment on your interactions with them to help you improve your relationships outside of therapy.

3. Therapy is hard work

While therapy can be a tremendous support and even a lifesaver, it is also hard work. You will need to think about what you have discussed between sessions and try out new behaviors. You might even need to do a little digging into long-buried family issues to rid yourself of entrenched patterns that influence you now. You won't always walk out of a session feeling great - sometimes you'll feel sad or angry because of emotions that have been stirred up. But the awareness and understanding you have gained is worth it. So be prepared to roll up your sleeves and dig in.

4. Your therapist is not your friend

Don't expect your therapist to share how he might have recovered from addiction, lost weight, or weathered a rough patch in his marriage. Whatever worked for him will not necessarily work for you, and his presumed success might spur envy or comparisons that block your progress. Don't ask your therapist about her vacations, medical problems, or where she bought her new outfit. She cannot become your friend, even if she really likes you a lot. Your therapist's job is to help you understand yourself, change behaviors, and improve relationships. Learning too much about your therapist will interfere with that goal and can be confusing and overwhelming.

5. Therapy requires some flexibility

While most therapists adhere to a particular therapy perspective, it is beneficial for all when a therapist understands and can use a range of techniques and approaches when necessary. Most experienced therapists have a toolbox of ideas for how to treat various concerns, and will tailor what is offered to the individual's needs. They are collaborative, empathetic, and creative, can shift from an exploratory approach to problem-solving with ease, and will incorporate a variety of ideas or refer you to additional resources when these might help. Flexible therapists hold firm when it benefits your long-term success, but will change when it is needed.

6. Therapy takes time

Whether due to the cost, time commitment or emotions that get stirred up, many people want to rush through therapy. Or they place constraints on the process, such as insisting on meeting infrequently. This limits the effectiveness of therapy. You wouldn't take half of the medicine your physician prescribed or study part of a textbook and expect a successful outcome. Yet, many clients assume they can cut corners with therapy. If you have been in therapy for a while and think it's time to scale back, discuss this with your therapist. But if you are starting out and expect to improve, don't place restrictions on regular participation.

7. Google is not the best way to find a therapist

Finding a therapist is not like researching a good restaurant.
You are better off asking a trusted referral source. Check with your family physician, pediatrician, school counselor, school psychologist, or member of the clergy for referrals. Friends can be a resource, too, although what works for your friend may not be best suited to you. You could check with your state psychological or social work organizations, or national lists of therapists who specialize in giftedness, such as HoagiesGifted. Some online sites have information about therapists, but check through these carefully, since they typically only offer information the therapist provides. The most glossy websites don't necessarily reflect quality services, and many therapists don't even have an online presence. Referrals through your insurance company are not the best source either, since they usually provide a list of therapists with little regard to your needs or preferences.

8. Sometimes you get what you pay for

Many people assume their health insurance will come through. Sadly, it may provide little help. Sometimes therapy is (wrongly) viewed as a luxury, and some people feel guilty even paying a meager co-pay for each visit. Many therapists do not necessarily work with managed care contracts either. While some people are limited by their financial situations, others may have the means to pay for therapy but don't feel that it is a necessity. A supportive, transformative, and sometimes life-changing experience is certainly worth the cost, and it may be time to re-evaluate priorities and spending decisions. Not to sound harsh, but that's the reality.

9. Competence, credentials and ethics matter

Competent psychotherapists have received comprehensive training in psychotherapy techniques, psychological assessment, personality theory and ethics, and continue to update their training and skills Many therapists develop areas of specialization and expertise; however, breadth of training and experience is even more essential. Competent therapists also recognize their limitations, adhere to ethical codes of conduct and are clear about the limits of what they can offer in therapy.

Psychotherapists should be licensed in your state. Most are licensed as psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, or professional counselors. Be careful about therapists who list an alphabet soup of certifications after their names, or those who use the title of "dr" without a doctoral degree. When in doubt, check with your state licensing board to ensure that your therapist is licensed and in good standing. Be cautious about therapists who promote their expertise based on personal experiences, or claim a greater understanding of your concerns because or recovery from addictions/eating disorders/trauma/depression or any other problem. Yes, the "wounded healer" moniker is a well-known label and sometimes there is some merit to this. But having endured personal suffering has no correlation with skill or expertise, and the therapist's personal struggles and recovery have no place in your therapy. 

Ethical therapists adhere to a code of ethics, including maintaining confidentiality, boundaries and integrity. Therapists separate their own personal needs from yours in their attempts to help you. Unlike some portrayals in the media and film, therapists should never cross boundaries. This means that they cannot become your friend, have lunch with you, ask personal favors, and should not share a lot about their personal lives. In other words, the therapy is about you - not about them. They might share some information about themselves - but only to enhance the work you are doing in psychotherapy.

10. Try to find a therapist who "gets" giftedness

Most therapists do not have much training in giftedness. Those who specialize in giftedness typically have thorough training as psychotherapists, but also understand the social and emotional effects. If you find a therapist you like and respect who does not know a lot about giftedness, he or she may be willing to learn more through reading and workshops, particularly to offset any misunderstanding related to inaccurate diagnoses. What is most important is your rapport with the therapist and perception that he or she truly understands how your giftedness interacts with and affects who you are.

Some therapists specializing in gifted issues promote themselves because they have been identified as gifted. While they may have personal understanding of gifted issues, this does not mean they are experts in "treating" people, or in understanding your unique concerns. Some gifted people without credentials as psychotherapists or training as personal coaches also identify themselves as "gifted coaches." You might find some of them online. Being gifted does not justify promoting oneself as a credible coach or pseudo-therapist. Since there is no formal credentialing for personal coaching, anyone can claim authority as a coach. Be very careful about seeking advice from these sources.

Go get some therapy!

Psychotherapy is not a luxury, an indulgence or for those who are weak. Unfortunately, these stigmas and stereotypes have prevented people from seeking the support and guidance they need during times of stress. Psychotherapists are far from perfect, but they can help you gather the insight, understanding, motivation and self-compassion to move ahead on your chosen path.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Gifted overthinkers: What makes them tick?

Gifted people sure do think a lot.

Logic, reason, introspection. Thinking is one of their greatest strengths and a source of delight as they ponder the complexities of...well... just about anything. They love to problem-solve, find a creative solution, deconstruct an idea, let their imaginations soar, and debate and disagree.

But this remarkable asset and companion can be a torment when it goes awry.

What causes overthinking? (And what can you do about it?)

Take charge at all costs

Overthinking can stem from a need for control. Some overthinkers are the high achievers and perfectionists who stand out in a crowd. They grab the controls on any project, seem to have all the answers, and master every detail. They take pride in their knowledge and barely come up for air as they race to keep up with the latest information and theories.
I have to be on top of this
Others expect me to get it right 
If I spend enough time sorting through all the options, I'll figure it out

In an effort to stay in control, these gifted overthinkers seek fool-proof plans to ensure that problems will not arise...or that their presumed flaws will not be discovered...or that they will perform perfectly. This fuels perfectionism, repeated checking. and obsessing about what might go wrong. If they miscalculate, they berate themselves for both the outcome and their failure to devise a perfect plan. And while perfectionism is not exclusive to gifted individuals alone, overthinking can increase the likelihood that this pattern will develop.

When gifted overthinkers strive to be the best, and base their self-worth on accomplishments and praise from others, they not only abandon their intrinsic love of learning, but set themselves up for a lifetime of disappointment. Learning to accept failure experiences and using these as a springboard for future growth is essential for all of us. When overthinkers become entrenched in perfectionistic expectations and the rigid pursuit of external goals, they often end up with nothing more than anxiety.

Hijacked by shame

Some gifted children, teens and adults just can't leave an idea alone. They obsess, worry and overthink. They rework every potential glitch in their plans. They torture themselves with "what-ifs" and worst-case-scenarios.

Thinking - once a joy and refuge - becomes hijacked by shame.

Yes, shame - defined by Merriam-Webster as "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety" - takes hold. Shame is the culprit that fuels overthinking for some gifted people. Of course, genetics, biochemistry (in obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example) and external pressure all play a role. But in many instances, shame-based fears drive these thoughts.
What if they discover I'm not as smart as they thought? 
What if I don't succeed? 
Maybe I don't really belong in this advanced class. 
I don't deserve the award - it came too easily.
What is particularly distressing is that most often, their self-doubt and shame is completely unwarranted. Gifted overthinkers worry that their perceived flaws will be discovered, that they will not perform up to par, and that they are undeserving of their talents or recognition. Shame fuels obsessing and overthinking, which in turn, drives even more shame-based fears. They are deprived of relishing their accomplishments and even the activities they enjoy.

Sometimes shame-based fears develop in response to events unrelated to their giftedness (such as depression, traumatic events, or family problems). But all too often, gifted children become ambivalent and ashamed of their talents from an early age. Shame builds when they are chastised for "showing off"... or shamed for correcting a teacher... or teased about the occasional low test score... or when they realize that other children think they are weird.

Gifted children and teens learn to mask their abilities if they want to fit in, as exposing who they are - gifted, with flaws - seems too much for others to bear. These lessons are the building blocks of shame. Overcoming shame-based overthinking requires support and reassurance from caring adults (including teachers who understand and respect the needs of gifted students), finding a niche of like-minded peers who truly accept them for themselves, and sometimes counseling to address low self-esteem and negative thoughts and feelings.

Too many choices

With a mind that races from one fascinating idea to the next, gifted people can be distracted by their own imagination and creativity. It is easy to ignore the tedious task at hand when one's mind conjures up material that is so much more interesting. In fact, some gifted children are misdiagnosed as having ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) because of their high energy level and difficulty focusing on a task.

Gifted overthinkers may become overwhelmed by the choices they face on a given project. They freeze on tests when presented with too many options. They second-guess their answers. They also obsess over the many ideas they can generate when starting a paper, unable to make a clear choice. Rather than appreciate their ability to create so many ideas, or analyze information from different perspectives, they feel anxious and overwhelmed instead.

Too many choices also can create conflict for gifted people with multiple talents and abilities. Often labeled as possessing multipotentiality, they must choose from an array of possible career paths. Making any selection eliminates other options, and many struggle with the implications of letting go. Attempts to juggle and organize competing interests, and tackling more than one pursuit or career goal may contribute to overthinking and distractibility.
How do I combine my love of art with engineering? 
I just can't focus on math when I keep thinking about the screenplay ideas I want to write? 
How do I get started on this paper when I could choose SO many different ways to approach it?  
OK, if I fit in my homework for an hour after school, then I can go to tennis lessons, eat dinner while I write my newsletter article, send off an application for a summer internship, and then practice clarinet. And I'll try to text my friends and help them with their boyfriend drama at the same time. OK, yeah, I think I can fit this all in...
The busy minds and multiple interests of some gifted overthinkers can create an organizational bottleneck. Their greatest challenge is learning to pace themselves, slow down, and develop mindfulness skills to focus on one task at a time. Regardless of how well they think they can multi-task, keeping a distracted focus takes its toll, and learning to pay closer attention to one interest, task and person at a time is essential.

Taming this particular beast

Overthinking can become a stubbornly entrenched pattern that creates the illusion of safe harbor. It reassures the overthinker who assumes that by acquiring just enough knowledge, and reviewing every possible option, the right solution will appear. What eludes overthinkers is the realization that mistakes happen and they will survive with their self-esteem in tact.

In addition to counseling, techniques such as mindfulness, challenging negative beliefs (i.e., cognitive distortions), and values clarification can help. Overthinkers benefit from challenging shame-based messages (from self or others) and setting priorities for what is intrinsically meaningful and of greatest value.

When overthinking strikes, it may be helpful to ask yourself, or have your children or students ask themselves the following:
What is the worst that could happen?
What is the likelihood that the worst will happen?
Where is the data? If I were a scientist, what facts would support my beliefs?
Will this matter five years from now?
Is this consistent with what is important to me and to my values
How can I focus on what is happening right now in this moment, rather than on the past or what might occur in the future?

When gifted overthinkers unburden themselves from anxiety, shame and uncertainty, thinking can resume its role as a source of joy and creativity. If you or your child are tormented by overthinking, get the help you need. Reclaim thinking for what it once was before negative emotions took hold.

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

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Choices exclude: The existential burden of multipotentiality

What I would give to have your talents! It must be nice to be good at so many things!

Gifted children and adults are accustomed to hearing these comments. Many possess multiple and diverse talents and abilities. Math and music. Art and languages. Mechanical skills and writing. Often labeled as possessing multipotentiality, they have their choice of various educational and vocational paths. But is this a blessing or a curse?

Although gifted children delight in their many talents when they are young, they eventually confront the limits that time, money and energy impose. There are only so many activities or extracurriculars they can join (or their parents can afford). When faced with making choices, they learn how to let go, and often mourn what might have been.

While some research claims that multipotentiality is not especially common, many parents of gifted children would beg to differ. They see the decisions their children face - both small (what after school activity to select) and large (which career path to choose). Even when children have one overriding passion that drives their long-term goals, they still may harbor nagging doubts about the talents and skills they left behind.

An existential reality

Making choices can be a burden, and realizing how this limits which fork in the road they may take, is an existential reality the gifted learn at a young age. 

As existentialist and psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote:
"...'alternatives exclude' is an important key to understanding why decision is difficult. Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means 'slay,' as in homicide or suicide)."
And to many multi-talented gifted children, relinquishing a choice is, in a sense, killing off a dream -  accepting that a particular option or path will never come to fruition. This can result is confusion, guilt, anxiety and grief. While some may find creative solutions that combine what they love, others may not.

Searching for purpose and meaning

Gifted teens develop an acute awareness of existential issues and question the meaning and purpose of their lives. Many question their religious traditions, and view authoritarian teachings with skepticism. Some fall into an existential depression. As James Webb has noted:
"Existential depression arises from idealism, disillusionment, and feelings of alienation, emptiness, and aloneness, and it is more common among gifted individuals. The gifted become depressed particularly because their high intellect allows them to contemplate the cosmos and their very small place within it."

Choosing a path

It would follow that multipotentiality adds to this existential burden. With so many options available, gifted teens and young adults feel pressured to direct their talents toward a purposeful career, yet also question whether it will make any difference.  At the very least, they need the freedom to choose a direction that:
  1. encompasses at least one of their interests, 
  2. fits with their values, and 
  3. will engage their sense of meaning and purpose.
If they can identify a path that includes the three components listed above, they may feel less burdened by nagging doubts about "what might have been." Yes, choices exclude. But encouraging gifted teens to forge their own path will alleviate some of the existential pressure and guilt they already feel.

Values to consider when choosing a path

As gifted teens and young adults plan career goals and weigh their options, encourage them to consider the following:

  • What do they value most in life - and how does it apply to their goals? Is it creative expression? Investigative discovery? Helping the underserved? Advancing scientific knowledge? Finding solutions to difficult problems?

  • Which of their interests and abilities translate into work they would find engaging and meaningful? Some of their talents may not lead to a paying job that is compatible with their goals. An artist, for example, might not want to work for an ad agency or sell paintings in a gallery. Of all possible paths, which one would best provide an engaging, creative and purposeful existence? 

  • How might they spend their day? What, exactly, would they do at work? How will work enlist the intellectual/creative/behavioral capability(s) from which they derive the most meaning? Is creative expression essential? Scientific discovery? Leading a team to develop a new solution? Detailed problem-solving? Helping the underprivileged?

  • What abilities and skills do they long to express? Which skills do they envision using - for example, mathematical, writing, linguistic, scientific, musical, spatial, reasoning, creative design, interpersonal, empathetic, investigative, strategic planning - to accomplish said goals? It may not be the content of what they do, but how they work, who they will interact with, the freedom to express themselves, and how it will serve their goals and what they value most. 

  • Do they have an overriding passion that they must pursue? Some feel compelled to follow a career direction or "calling," and cannot imagine any other choice. Many artists, actors and musicians who choose a financially uncertain path claim that they had no other option. They could not envision a life without their art, despite the potential for hardship. Even for some with multiple talents, the choice can be clear.

  • Can they envision some compromise or means of accommodating their varied interests? While choosing a career and relegating a secondary interest to a hobby is commonly suggested, many with multiple talents devise more creative solutions. These might include sequential career changes, side jobs, or integrating their multiple talents into their chosen career field. For example, creative writing skills can be a plus in almost any career. Artists bring perspective-taking skills to problem-solving in business. Musicians find that their "sense of rhythm and flow" enhances both interactions with colleagues and the strength of their writing. Mathematicians bring precision, clarity and spatial ability to most tasks. 

Rather than a burden, many eventually come to view their multipotentiality as a bonus, and see how it enhances much of what they do. Even seemingly dissimilar strengths, such as math and art, share commonalities that can enliven and enrich their academic interests, career, and personal lives. Once they resolve their confusion and grief over roads not taken, most gifted individuals with multiple abilities appreciate their opportunities and find creative solutions that enlist and combine their talents. 

For other blogs/articles on multipotentiality, see the following:

Multipotentiality: When high ability leads to too many options

When I grow up: Multipotentiality and gifted youth

Are you a multipotentialite?

Multipotentialities and multipotentiality: Embracing your true path of paths

9 ways to explain your multipotentiality to non-multipotentialites

Good at too many things

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

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Your musically gifted child's road to college

How can you help your child decide about college when music is his passion?

What options are available, realistic, and financially sound?

Parents of musically talented children often panic when faced with college decisions. They question whether to support their child's passion, attempt to steer her off-course, or even firmly refuse to pay for a music education. Landing a self-supporting job in music performance is an unknown, and many parents worry about their adult child's future livelihood.

Information about how to pursue a music career is hard to find. Your child's high school guidance counselor often has little understanding about possible options other than performance or music education. Most information is usually obtained through music teachers or band/choir/orchestra directors, and beyond that, you and your child are left to flounder on your own.

What can a parent do?

1. Try to relax

Not so easy to do, of course.  But your child's entire future does not rest on her college or conservatory decision. College opens up a world of advanced music study, but much happens later in your child's development. You may hear that finding the "best" teacher or most prestigious conservatory is critical. But if circumstances do not work out, your child can change schools, directions, or even careers. Once she starts college or conservatory, she will get a clearer picture of what fits or is not working for her. Give it time.

2.  Get informed

Ask questions wherever you go - from fellow parents at recitals to college admissions officers. Read as much as you can. Scour the internet. Learn the difference between free-standing conservatories, college music departments, and conservatories within universities, along with how a BM and BA degree differ. Be honest with yourself about what you can afford, since financial aid may be limited at choice schools. Some programs provide a good perspective on college and conservatory choices, and books, online forums, and even a series about conservatory auditions can offer helpful tips.

3.  Visit different programs

Compare, evaluate, and pay attention to details. These questions are just a few to consider:

  • If your child plays a popular instrument (such as flute or violin), will he be able to select the teacher he would like, or have to wait several years into his college career? 
  • If she wants to double major in music and science, will orchestra practice conflict with lab schedules? 
  • If he wants to pursue jazz, will the school also expect participation in marching band? 
  • If the program lacks a performance track, are performance opportunities and individual lessons still available?
  • Is it possible to transfer in or out of a particular major?
Also, make sure your child gets to observe a rehearsal or concert, or at least listens to a recording to ensure that she feels satisfied with the caliber of the ensembles. Visit the practice rooms and see if your child can imagine spending hours there.

4.  Be realistic 

Stand back and realistically assess your child's chances for success. You adore your child, of course, but the music world can be cut-throat. If your child is not already top-notch compared to his peers, it is unlikely he will be accepted into a conservatory, or flourish in a demanding university music program. If you can't be objective, ask her teacher or band/choir/orchestra director for a truthful assessment of her chances. And while achievements aren't everything, if your child has not demonstrated some accomplishments (e.g., participation in district, regional or state music festivals, acceptance into a prestigious jazz band or regional choir, assignment to first stand in band or orchestra), he may not be competitive with those who have mastered this level of achievement. Finally, ask yourself and your child if she is willing to practice...a lot. Endurance and discipline is sometimes the breaking point for young musicians.

5. Consider the possibilities

We all know that music performance is not the only option. Your child needs to eventually decide if he must pursue a performance career - and cannot imagine any other choice. Otherwise, options to consider include teaching, composition, music therapy, sound engineering, an academic career in music history and theory, film scoring, music production and management, and a traditional music education program.

Once your child arrives at music school, the excitement begins. Of course, the questions and challenges continue, and your child will need to follow through on practice, performing, and focusing on career directions. Even though there may be rough patches ahead, you can feel some relief that your child has made a decision and is pursuing a meaningful and challenging career path.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ability grouping works - and is essential in middle school and beyond

Why is ability grouping off the menu in so many school districts? What is so wrong with letting children learn among peers who grasp concepts at the same pace and with the same degree of complexity?

One of the biggest limitations of ability grouping is that it is equated with tracking  - and tracking has become a dirty word in education circles.

Tracking, of course, is an antiquated system where, at its worst, students were placed in different ability level classes and prevented from transitioning out of them. And sometimes the least experienced, least skilled teachers were assigned to those students most in need.

The rigidity of this model was wrong. The absence of resources for at-risk students was wrong. The assumption about human potential was wrong.

Yet, rather than create more fluidity, flexibility and vertical movement within the system, rather than place brilliant teachers with the most at-risk students, rather than insist on regular assessment to ensure that children do not slip through the cracks, many districts have chosen to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As a result, ability grouping has been eliminated from many school districts, especially from their middle schools, where it may be needed most.

This one-size-fits-all trend has been hailed as an antidote to the evils of tracking, a salve to the achievement gap, and the best shot at equity for all children. Mixed ability classes are prescribed to offset any potential insecurity students might feel if placed in a less challenging class, and presumably to inspire them to attain the same level of achievement as their higher ability classmates. Some students, who were perhaps overlooked and unfairly placed in less advanced classes, have risen to this challenge and demonstrated improved grades in heterogeneous, mixed-ability classes. Success stories like these have led to a widespread dismantling of ability grouping, despite the absence of sound research* to support this trend.

Here's how it works:

School districts that promote mixed-ability classes typically offer the following rationale:
1. Less advanced students will benefit from and strive to improve in the presence of high ability students, who should serve as role models;
2. All students will "learn from each other." Interactions with an intellectually diverse group of students is just as important as the curriculum.
3. Gifted and high ability students will "do just fine," regardless of the curriculum, and "differentiation" should provide sufficient academic stimulation. 

Have these proponents spent much time with middle school children? 

Do they really think that academically struggling students view intellectually advanced learners as role models, and that placement in such a class won't breed resentment, apathy and the low self-esteem they claim it will reverse? 

Do they really believe that advanced or gifted students will truly "learn" from academically struggling peers, and won't feel frustrated with the class, and compelled to mask their abilities so they can fit in? 

If they are honest with themselves, do they truly believe that any teacher can adequately differentiate instruction on a daily or even weekly basis?

Why make middle school even more stressful?

Middle school students struggle enough already. The social demands are enormous, the challenges of puberty, hormonal changes, and pressure to conform are overwhelming. Why create an even more stressful environment, where academically at-risk students are confronted each day with a sense of inadequacy, and where gifted students are faced with the choice of either "dumbing themselves down" to fit in or standing out as a "nerd" and risking ridicule? Most schools eventually offer advanced opportunities at the secondary school level, in the form of honors, AP or IB classes, but the academic needs of highly able middle schoolers are often viewed as less important.

Heterogeneous grouping and de-tracking are a well-intentioned, but perhaps misguided attempt to support academically struggling students. In an attempt to eliminate a culture of low self-esteem and low expectations, the "cure" may create more emotional hardship and fewer academic benefits than expected. When faced with a classroom full of high ability peers who grasp academic material at a faster pace, at-risk students may be forced to confront their skills deficits and suffer feelings of shame, inadequacy, and even lower expectations - exactly what proponents had hoped to avoid. Sound research (using control groups), rather than speculation based on wishful thinking should inform policy decisions.

Gifted children's academic needs are sacrificed for "the good of the whole" when ability grouping is eliminated. While some may adapt, many gifted students experience frustration arising from chronic boredom, and may respond by masking their abilities, underachieving, and becoming apathetic about school. Gifted children have an opportunity to interact and learn alongside students of differing abilities all day long - through sports, in extracurricular or non-academic classes, and on the playground. But it is unrealistic to assume that they will benefit academically when expected to suppress their intellectual drive for the good of the whole in large heterogeneous classes. As Fiedler and colleagues aptly noted:
"Can it be that our school systems are actually giving tacit approval to create underachievement in one ability group so that the needs of the other ability groups can be served? This, indeed, is egalitarianism at its worst."

What needs to change 

It is time to institute ability grouping, particularly at the middle school level. This approach not only improves academic scores for children at all levels, according to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research studybut may offset some of the social and emotional turmoil these students experience. Recent studies, including meta-analyses, have supported the advantages of ability grouping in secondary schools, have attested to its social/emotional and self-esteem benefits, and have shown that de-tracking efforts do not always provide the desired outcomes educators seek.

Flexible ability grouping is effective, equitable, and based on what students truly need. As Olszewski-Kubilius has stated:
"When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving - either up or down - during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student's readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time."
Flexible ability grouping within a classroom, through compacting or clustering, can be a viable option in elementary schools. But separate classes may be necessary in middle school and beyond for academic subjects (e.g., math, reading/language arts, science) to ensure that students receive the education they need. Ability grouping is a cost-effective solution that supports students' academic and social/emotional needs, as long as all children are treated fairly, their progress is routinely assessed, they have equal access to exceptional teachers, and can transition to different groups and classes when indicated. Let's be realistic about the needs of all children - especially those on both ends of the continuum - and reinstate ability grouping.

What are your thoughts about ability grouping?

* Many studies on de-tracking are confounded, for example, by the following problems: 1. an absence of control groups comparing students in ability grouped classes with those in heterogeneous classes; 2. lack of clarity regarding criteria for entrance into different class levels; 3. lack of long-term follow-up; 4. assessing only a few variables; and 5. studies comparing at-risk students in "lower track" classes taught by less than adequate teaching staff, who then transitioned into classes with highly skilled staff.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education page blog hop on educational options. To see more blogs, click on the following link:

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What not to say to your gifted child

Who hasn't had regrets about what they have said to their child? Whether in a fit of anger, frustration and exhaustion, or in an attempt to get them off the sofa, we all have been there.

But choice words directed at gifted children can take on a different dimension. Parents of gifted children may feel unique levels of frustration when they witness their child "waste" his potential, or struggle with basic social interactions, or fail to perform in school. Overexcitabilities, asynchronous development, underachievement, conflicts with school administration, and an absence of other adults who "get it" all compound the problem.

Here is a partial list of what might easily slip out in a moment of frustration or carelessness - but, nevertheless, should not be expressed:

  • If you're so smart, why can't you act your age?

  • Why can't you just fit in with the other kids?

  • You should be ashamed of yourself for not getting all A's when you're so smart.

  • I wish you would just stop asking so many questions.

  • You had better not let those other kids get ahead of you in school - you should be top of your class.

  • Stop showing off - other people don't want to know that you have the answers all the time.

  • We just spent all that money on SAT prep - you had better do well on it.

  • (To girls) Boys don't like it when girls are smart - don't let them see how smart you are.

  • (To boys) You had better get involved in sports, since kids don't like boys who are nerds.

  • Why can't you just be more mature and act like the other kids in your class?

  • We are so amazed at how intelligent and talented you are.

  • You need to get into the best college out there - grades are everything and getting ahead and being successful is so important.

  • That teacher is just stupid for not knowing how to teach properly.

  • Why can't you get good grades like your sister (or brother or friend)?

  • You need to sit still and wait until the other kids in the class get their work done - it's selfish of you to think the teacher should spend extra time finding work for you.

  • I am going to tell you your IQ score so you know how smart you are - that should motivate you.

  • OK, smartypants, if you're so smart, then why don't you know how to ____?

  • Why can't you just be normal?

The problem with the above statements might seem obvious. And even if we haven't said them...we probably have thought some of them. Most parents of gifted children struggle with mixed feelings and guilt associated with their reactions when raising children with such unique needs.

What these statements remind us is that we need to ensure that our children accept and appreciate their differences without disparaging others or themselves. We need to avoid overinvesting in the significance of their abilities and potential, and check our disappointment about their struggles (particularly when it comes to peer relationships and social maturity). We must be alert to our own anger, frustration and dreams, and avoid shaming them or criticizing others when our expectations are not met. And we need to love and appreciate who they are, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. A tall order - but as parents, we are up to the task.

What would you add to the list?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When gifted kids get to exhale

Gifted students typically view school as easy. Much too easy.

And that's the problem.

While some kids might relish the idea of coasting though school, once classes become routine and simplistic, their school day becomes tedious, boring, and a waste of time. Complaining is pointless, and marks them as a whiner - or even worse - an overachiever. Many gifted kids give up, hold their breath, and wait until they might - eventually - find meaningful learning opportunities.

When gifted students finally experience a class that combines deeper exploration, creativity, an accelerated pace, and includes like-minded peers, they can breathe a sigh of relief.
One student's story:
Jonah* found that he could exhale once he started honors classes in 9th grade. In addition to the more intensive pace, he was finally grouped with like-minded peers, after years of placement in mixed ability classes.
"Finally, FINALLY, I can breathe again. It's like I've been asleep, waiting until I could learn, and the world opened up to me. I've been waiting so long and have been SO bored. And I've had to hold back in classes because the other kids - the kids who hate school - they would have laughed at me. So I kept quiet.
But now I'm in classes with other smart kids. And I can speak up. And we can talk back and forth with each other about interesting stuff, and no one is going to laugh at me if I say something that "sounds smart." And the teacher is amazing and lets us talk about interesting things. We don't just learn all the surface stuff - we go deep. School is finally fun again. It's like I've been holding my breath for the past few years... and I can finally exhale."

When there is neglect

Many schools have neglected the needs of gifted students by refusing to provide options such as ability grouping or acceleration. Sometimes this is based on assumptions about fairness, equity, and "what giftedness looks like," as well as misconceptions about the needs of gifted children. In contrast to these assumptions, a recent meta-analytic review from Steenbergen-Hu, Makel and Olszewski-Kubilius stresses that acceleration and ability grouping are effective educational tools for both higher and lower-achieving students.

Academic acceleration has been recommended for gifted and highly able children since publication of A Nation Deceived, and more recently in A Nation Empowered. It continues to be recognized (see NAGC) as a cost-effective tool that offers gifted students an opportunity to excel. Flexible ability grouping is even more critical, since it permits students to interact with like-minded peers, something acceleration does not always accomplish. According to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study, ability grouping improves academic scores for children at all levels. As Olszerski-Kubilius has noted:
"When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving - either up or down - during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student's readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time." 

When there is relief from boredom

While the start of ninth grade was a breakthrough for Jonah, that moment of relief might occur at a different point in time for others - during a particularly engaging and meaningful class, a challenging extra-curricular activity, or a camp for gifted students where they can explore their interests, unencumbered by pressure to mask their abilities. For some, though, their passion for learning is not unleashed until college or even later.

Another student's story:
Alyssa* easily coasted through high school. She took all of the advanced classes that were available at the small mid-western school she attended, along with a few additional classes online. Although valedictorian, and sporting exceptional SAT scores, she knew it was a long-shot to gain acceptance into an elite college, but her "geographic minority" status helped to boost her chances. She started college at her second choice school, and was thrilled to find that it was even more stimulating than expected.
"I never knew it could be this different. At first, I felt intimidated and worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up. But it was so incredible to be in classes with other students who were actually interested in learning - who weren't rolling their eyes or trying to get out of work. They also weren't trying to hide that they were smart and trying to fit in all the time. I was so used to doing what I had to do just to get the grade so I could get in to college, that what I was learning didn't matter. But now it does. I now get to study with amazing professors who like what they're doing and who expect us to care about what we are learning. Even though the work is hard, I am so relieved that I found a place like this."

The fallout from neglect

Neglecting gifted children by refusing to meet their educational needs - especially when there are cost-effective solutions - not only contributes to years of boredom, underachievement, and wasted potential, but can create social and emotional problems. Some gifted people develop nagging self-doubt, question their abilities, and view themselves as "impostors." Gifted children who coast through school may not acquire the resilience and perseverance that emerges after experiences with failureInman has also pointed out in "What a child doesn't learn" how children who are never challenged lack opportunities to develop a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and the capacity for sacrifice.

Gifted children should not have to wait, endure boredom, or hold their breath until they are challenged.  Just like every other child, they deserve the freedom to learn alongside like-minded peers in classrooms that will truly challenge them.

* Names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality

Friday, January 13, 2017

Making it safe to be smart

These are comments you probably will never hear:
"She is too athletic for her own good."
"Keep that beautiful singing voice to yourself - you don't want the other kids to feel jealous."
"Any child can become a talented gymnast - all it takes is practice and dedication."
"His mechanical skills are way too advanced for someone his age - he was probably overcoached by pushy parents."
But the following comments about intellectual abilities are overheard much too frequently:
"Smartypants. Absentminded professor. Book smart but lacking any street smarts. Gifted because she's a hot-housed rich kid. Too smart for his own good. And, of course, 'every child is gifted.'"

What is it about having intellectual smarts that is so threatening? Why is it so open to criticism? What contributes to this hostility and makes it unsafe, at times, to be gifted?

1. Unrealistic expectations

Most of us can get by without a great singing voice or gymnastic skills. But we want to be smart. And it can be hard to accept that some people are just more intellectually gifted than others. This might account for the popularity of Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule, misinterpreted by many to believe that with enough practice, we can achieve just about anything. In fact, while dedicated practice is essential to mastering any skill, talent and ability are necessary components as well. Few of us will become outstanding mathematicians, musicians, athletes, dancers, writers, or artists. We are fooling ourselves... and misleading our children to expect otherwise.

2. Misguided assumptions about fairness

It is difficult to accept our limitations. As a result, some people attempt to "normalize" the exceptionality of others. "I can't believe that gifted children are really that much smarter than the other kids. After all, every child deserves a chance, and maybe the other kids will catch up if they all get the same instruction."  Whether these arguments stem from bitterness and envy, or from a heartfelt desire for equity and fairness, they are misguided and potentially harmful. They often lead to policies that not only neglect the needs of gifted children, but create unreasonable expectations for those children who lack the same intellectual abilities as their gifted peers. Cost-effective strategies, such as academic acceleration or ability grouping, are ignored in favor of attempts at differentiated instruction.

3. Anti-intellectualism

Intellectuals have been fair game during brutal regimes throughout history (with Pol Pot and Mao Tsu Tung as just two examples), and some present-day extremist groups perpetuate censorship of anything that is counter to politicized religious doctrine. Although nothing occurring in the U.S. can even compare to the enormity of these scourges, recent commentary has highlighted current trends toward anti-intellectualism and anti-knowledge(Readers: please forgive any political undertone in the aforementioned links - they are still worth reading.) When the pursuit of knowledge, higher education, and intellectual curiosity are viewed with suspicion - even in a country that values free speech - children learn to hide their interests to fit in with an anti-intellectual culture. And although adults may be able to withstand others' contempt, children who openly pursue their academic interests and are bullied by peers suffer deep emotional wounds.

4. Portrayals in film

Media and film depictions of the gifted are often negative, providing support for anti-intellectual views. The Big Bang Theory, for example, portrays the male characters as socially inept and effeminate; the women as desperate or unappealing. The only "normal" female character is seen as street smart, but not especially intelligent. Other examples of highly intelligent characters, such as Sherlock, imply mental illness, Asperger's syndrome, or arroganceIn the media, in film, and in some segments of the population, intelligence, and the pursuit of knowledge are cause for humor, debate, or derision.

Making it safe to be smart

Ideally, "the adults in charge" will eventually accept that all of us are imperfect, that knowledge enhances rather than detracts, and that our differences are to be applauded rather than denied, envied or disparaged. Ultimately, we might hold more appreciation toward the unique talents we all possess. And gifted children and adults might no longer weather the projections of others' bitterness and insecurity.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Gifted advocacy: A call to action

Gifted advocacy is often under the same scrutiny that gifted children and gifted education endure - sometimes viewed as a non-essential and frivolous venture for hot-housed rich kids.

Those who understand and know giftedness recognize the fallacy (and absurdity) of these claims. Nevertheless, gifted advocacy can be perceived as a lightweight endeavor - championing rights for those who are innately more privileged. As a result, gifted advocates are required to repeatedly inform the public about the needs of gifted children, and also educate them about the legitimacy of their advocacy work. In fact, gifted advocates face the same roadblocks that other activists endure: misunderstanding, trivialization, lack of funding, taunts of elitism, isolation, and sometimes outright hostility.

And who among us hasn't sometimes questioned whether our energies should be directed instead toward something more important (world peace, hunger, the environment, politics, even other aspects of education). Not that we can't focus on more than one cause... But even gifted advocates can become lulled into believing that giftedness is not a particularly worthwhile endeavor.

Just like it is possible to overlook the well-fed child whose depression remains hidden, the verbally abused child without physical signs of bruising, the child whose dyslexia goes unrecognized because of passing grades, the athlete who "shakes off" a nagging injury until it becomes permanent, it is easy to ignore gifted children, who coast through school and don't seem to need as much as at-risk, struggling students. Balancing limited time and energy, even the most well-meaning teachers direct their attention toward those who struggle the most. And gifted children's "hidden" needs are overlooked.

So, as parents, teachers, counselors and researchers, let's put aside any ambivalence, guilt, distractions, and internal conflicts that might interfere, and continue advocating for gifted children this year. There are lots of important issues facing the world in 2017, and we can devote our energies to those causes that mean the most to us. But gifted children deserve our energy as much as anything else.

For advice on advocacy, start with NAGC's advocacy toolkit, view articles on Hoagiesgifted, and check with your state gifted education organization.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year!