Friday, June 23, 2017

Five reasons to consider an elite college (and they're not what you think)

With so much recent criticism and outright condemnation of highly competitive colleges, you might wonder why anyone would bother to apply. After all, with acceptance rates lower than 10%, and a brutal admissions process, why subject your child to the stress...and likely rejection?

Media commentary aptly warns about the highly competitive admissions standards, discourages students from placing so much value on any one school, and reminds us that a good education can be found just about anywhere. Elite colleges are sometimes the target of harsh criticism, though. Sometimes it seems that journalists highlight every possible drawback to reassure the rest of us that we're okay despite never having attended one of these colleges.

Unfortunately, some critique moves beyond the colleges and targets the applicants, themselves. Applying to these institutions is viewed with suspicion, and perceived as merely a stepping stone to Wall Street. Students are stereotyped as entitled, prep-school kids or anxious superachieversobsessed with the outward symbols of success.

Parents of student applicants are portrayed even more negatively. Labeled as pushy elitists preoccupied with their child's future earning potential, they are accused of turning their poor children into bleary-eyed overachievers, chained to the desk... or computer... or piano... or ballet barre. Rumors and accusations regarding how a child (possibly could have) gained admission become the subject of hushed speculation. Bitter, snarky comments suggest that it must have been a legacy admission, or that thousands were spent on SAT test prep, or the family must have donated to the school. The heightened competition can bring out the worst in families and communities.

Okay...yes, there are some parents who hover, indulge too many of their own personal hopes and dreams, and pressure their children. This behavior is not exclusive to gifted children, though; it happens everywhere. And yes, some gifted teens are overachievers who place added burdens on themselves and expect to always succeed. But overachievement, perfectionism and high expectations are not exclusive to giftedness either.

In reality, the majority of gifted teens are not overachievers in hot pursuit of perfection and awards. Most just want a good education.

A challenging education has eluded many gifted children due to rigid school policies that have marginalized their needs. So college looms large as that one last chance to grasp an enriching learning experience. Many believe that they finally might be able to rekindle that intrinsic love of learning lost long ago. And at the very least, they no longer have to hide their curiosity and academic interests to fit in.

Five reasons gifted teens pursue admission to elite colleges

It is time to dispel the speculation and myths about college choices. Here are five reasons gifted teens consider a highly challenging college (and they are not what most people assume).

1. Finally, they can learn

It is well-documented that gifted students are undereducated, often bored, and frequently coast through classes with little effort. Most schools focus on at-risk students and/or teach-to-the-middle, and the needs of the gifted are overlooked. Gifted students often breathe a sigh of relief when they arrive at an elite college, where the academics are intensive and fast-paced, and where class discussions include like-minded peers.

2. It's the money, honey

Elite colleges typically offer the most generous need-based financial aid. This is a critical and decisive factor for many low-income and middle class families, who find that these schools are sometimes more affordable than their state flagship university. Elite colleges are much maligned for their sticker price, which unfortunately shuts out upper middle class students from aid. Even then, the price is often no higher than costs at many other private institutions.

3. A place they can call their own

Many gifted students feel like outliers in high school. Although some mask their abilities to fit in, others never feel they belong. School seems built for other kids - the athletes, the popular kids, the students who appear to thrive with the education that is offered. College presents an opportunity to embrace a new setting and culture, a place where innovative ideas are encouraged, and a diverse environment where students hail from many regions. Gifted students might even feel pride about their school - for the first time.

4. Finding their niche

As outliers, gifted students often struggled to fit in during high school. If they found a niche, it may have included other "outliers" as well - for example, in theatre, robotics, chess, debate team, or band, But the niche expands and becomes normalized in a college environment filled with other highly talented, intellectually engaged students. It is no longer weird to display intellectual curiosity, passion for learning, intense drive, and a thirst for knowledge. And it is a comfort and a relief to find like-minded peers who feel the same way.

5. Testing their limits

Gifted students just might get to challenge themselves for the very first time at an elite college. As suggested in a previous blog post, there are disparities in the demands and intellectual challenge of classes at different colleges. When students coast through high school, they never gain perspective about what it means exert effort, build resilience, or learn from failure experiences. Some may hit a wall in college, where they find that a class or subject seems too difficult, and they must ask for help - often for the first time.

Of course, most students can find a way to meet their academic and social needs at any college of their choosing. Even those gifted students who might benefit from the intensity and challenges of an elite college may not be accepted or choose not to attend. It takes a particularly well-developed "resume" to gain admission at most elite colleges, the likelihood of acceptance is uncertain, and many families cannot afford the cost if they do not qualify for need-based aid. Success in life does not depend on attending a highly competitive college.

However, an elite college may offer the best fit for some gifted teens in search of a challenging education. They should not be discounted in response to media critique or disparagement. Some of the critics may not have had personal experience with these schools, may be responding to an encounter that went awry, and may be cherry-picking information to support their opinions. Before you completely dismiss elite colleges as an option, understand your financial needs, learn more about admissions requirements (and whether it is worth your child's energy to apply), and most importantly, determine if a particular college would be a good fit for your child.

Final note: I have no stake in the game with this commentary. I attended state universities for both of my undergrad and graduate degrees, so I have no personal "attachment" to elite colleges. I am commenting based on my observations as a psychologist who works with teens and college-aged adults, a parent, and an advocate for the gifted.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How to explain "giftedness" to your child

What should you tell your child about being gifted? 

Whether identified as gifted, referred for an evaluation, or placed in a “gifted and talented program," children quickly form their own impressions. They may wonder if this makes them different or smarter or weirder or better than the other kids. They may worry that they will become less popular or will be teased or bullied. They might even want to stop being gifted altogether.

Understanding giftedness is not easy

Understanding giftedness is complicated for adults; it is even more challenging for a six-, eight- or ten-year-old child. They are too young to fully grasp what giftedness means or place it in a context that makes sense. Gifted children already know they are different, They have probably heard both compliments and criticism about their quirks, talents, and precocious behaviors. The "gifted” label can provide some validation for what they already know to be true, but it also might evoke confusion and anxiety.

Your child needs your help

Children need their parents to provide a framework for understanding what being "gifted" means. The following are some possible explanations you might offer to your child:

1.  Gifted is just a word. 

It doesn’t mean that someone is better than anyone else. It was named a long time ago because people felt that it was a “gift” to be able to learn so easily. People might feel the same way about kids who run really fast or can slam dunk a basketball. You are so fortunate to be able to learn so quickly. But it doesn't make you a better person. People are special for all kinds of wonderful reasons. Being gifted does not make someone any more special than the next person.
2.  Gifted is a word given to kids who have different learning needs.

Everyone is different. Just like some people are taller or shorter than others, or more or less athletic, some people need a different approach in school to make learning more interesting. Everyone learns at a different pace, just like people grow taller at different rates. Some people need their teachers to teach a little more slowly, and others do best when they can move quickly through the topic. You seem to need teaching that lets you move quickly or spend a lot of time exploring a topic in depth.

3.  You were found to be “gifted” because of some tests you took.

We asked the school to give you these tests because you complained about being bored. We knew that if the testing labeled you as “gifted,” we could ask the school to give you more interesting work. We didn't care if you were gifted or not. We didn't care what score you got on the test. The only reason for taking it was so the school could give you more choices and make school more interesting. (Note: it is never a good idea to tell a young child his or her IQ score.) Now that the school knows your test results, they can find more interesting school work that is more suited to what you need. 

4.  Giftedness is something that is a part of you.

Giftedness is just like your eye color or height. It doesn't come from how hard you work in school, and will not go away if you slack off. It is always there and gives you some great choices to do some really creative/intensive/interesting/(you fill in the blanks) things. You can't turn it on and off like a light switch. Being gifted affects how you see the world and think - not just how you perform in school.  But if you work hard, you can achieve a lot. If you don’t, you will lose out on the opportunities your abilities have given you. Just like you can decide what clothes you wear or what haircut you get, only YOU can decide how to use your abilities.

5. You are a lot more than your giftedness. 

Even though being gifted is a part of who you are, it is not everything. There is so much more to who you are, and so much we love about you. Your intelligence and talents are just one small piece, and we wouldn't love you any less than if you had different color eyes or hair. You have so many great qualities and interests, and we are so happy that we get to know them. 

6.  Giftedness comes in all shapes and sizes.

Some kids are really gifted with math. Some are great writers. Some are born leaders. Others paint up a storm. Occasionally, a few gifted children are good at many things; most are not. You have subjects in school that come really easily to you, and interests that you love. We hope you continue to put a lot of energy into these things. But you still need to work hard in those areas that are not easy for you. 

7.  Gifted children sometimes feel they are different from other kids.

Even if you like how easy school is, it can be uncomfortable when you feel like you are different from a lot of the other kids in your class. It’s normal to feel this way. We can help you to figure out what to say if other kids make comments about your interests. We also can help you find things you do have in common with some of the other kids, or help you find outside activities that school does not offer. Being a kid can be hard for everyone - even for some of the other kids who look like they have it easy. Friendships may become easier to find when you get older - but we will help you get through whatever is hard for you right now.

8. Giftedness is not an excuse. 

Being gifted does not mean school should be easy. We know that some of your classes may be too basic for you, which is why we are trying to find opportunities inside and outside of school that will challenge you. We don't expect you to be perfect, but want you to try hard and put in your best effort. Success at anything takes hard work and and practiceNot everything you are going to do at school - or later in a job - is going to be interesting, so you have to learn to do the hard work even if you don't like it. 

9. We love you no matter what

You don't have to be gifted or smart or talented or do well in school for us to love you. We love you for who you are and always will. You don't have to be perfect or prove anything or live up to your giftedness. You just need to figure out what interests you and let yourself delve into it. Of course, we would like you to put in effort in school - even when you don't like your classes. That's just life - sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do, like chores at home. But we don't love you any more or less just because you are gifted. We love you because you are you!

These ideas are just a few suggestions for starting a conversation with your gifted child. You will need to modify them to suit your child’s and your family's beliefs and values. What is most important, though, is conveying that you will help your child navigate this journey through giftedness, and that ability and achievements play no role in your love and appreciation for your child.

What have you told your child about being gifted? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.