Monday, September 18, 2017

Social-emotional learning and the gifted child

A panel of academic researchers recently released a statement (also summarized in an Education Week article) emphasizing the importance of social-emotional learning. Of interest, these researchers identified several essential components necessary for optimal learning:
"Students who have a sense of belonging and purpose, who can work well with classmates and peers to solve problems, who can plan and set goals, and who can persevere through challenges - in addition to being literate, numerate, and versed in scientific concepts and ideas - are more likely to maximize their opportunities and reach their potential."
Few would argue with these critical elements. Most parents, teachers and administrators would readily agree that students benefit from these conditions. While there is clearly more to social-emotional competency, such as frustration tolerance, executive functioning skills, and ability to read social cues, those are more specific to the individual student. The components listed above outline general policies and conditions that could - should - apply to all classroom settings.

So how does this relate to the gifted child?


As much as all children may benefit from an emphasis on the social-emotional learning components listed above, it is likely that without attention to gifted children's specific needs, gifted children will be left behind.


Let's look at the conditions listed in the above statement:



1.  A sense of belonging and purpose


Gifted children thrive when surrounded by like-minded peers, where they are challenged, can compete and collaborate with students of similar intellectual abilities, and where they do not feel compelled to mask their talents to fit in or, in some situations, to escape bullying. They are less likely to lapse into underachievement if they feel a meaningful connection to their school, and are best challenged when they can direct their efforts toward a goal that has meaning and a sense of purpose.

Unfortunately, most gifted children rarely encounter these opportunities in a typical heterogeneous classroom setting. Since ability grouping is viewed unfavorably by many school districts, gifted children rarely experience the sense of belonging and connection. Instead, many feel misunderstood, awkward, and isolated.


2. Work well with classmates and peers to solve problems


Gifted children may have difficulty working cooperatively with students in heterogeneously grouped classrooms. They often learn at a faster pace, and with more depth and intensity. Yet, many are expected to patiently work in groups or sit back and wait until others catch up. Not surprisingly, most will become frustrated, impatient, bored and apathetic. If they vocalize their frustration, they may be viewed as arrogant or insensitive; if they silence themselves, they learn that their academic needs must take a back seat to those of other students. They also may feel pressured to complete most of the group work for other students, who rely on their talents, but resent them for it. And they are deprived of learning to problem-solve with peers who can work with them on a similar intellectual level.


3. Plan and set goals


Many gifted students never learn self-regulation skills, such as goal-setting, planning, time management, and study skills. They coast through school, so skills-building seems unnecessary. As a result, they are deprived of important learning opportunities and remain unprepared for more challenging work in higher education or career. Baker and colleagues highlighted the problems gifted students encounter when they are denied an opportunity to learn these important life skills, and how this can lead to underachievement:
"From an academic skills perspective, later elementary and middle school may present specialized demands (such as time management, study skills, systematic problem solving rather than rote memorization, etc.) that are underdeveloped among students who have been unchallenged and have experienced seemingly effortless academic success in the early elementary grades."
Lack of self-regulation skills become noticeable when gifted students face an obstacle - typically when they finally confront challenging work in higher education or a career. Many feel overwhelmed, as they are blindsided by their lack of preparation.


4. Persevere through challenges 


Much has been written about the importance of grit, resilience, and learning from failure. When academics come easily and require little effort, gifted children are denied an opportunity to develop a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, the strength to cope with failure experiences, the ability to surmount obstacles, and the self-worth that comes from real accomplishments. Gifted children who are rarely challenged may become risk-averse, afraid to move beyond their comfort zone, and view themselves as "impostors" who are not deserving of their accomplishments. While there is some unnecessary debate about the grit-talent dichotomy, gifted children clearly deserve an education where they are challenged, encouraged to reach their potential, and held to a higher standard.

Some gifted children become underachievers and stop pushing themselves altogether. They may become "classic underachievers" who give up on school completely, "selective consumers" who only apply themselves when they enjoy the topic or like their teacher, or "gifted underachievers under-the-radar," who often achieve good grades, but coast through school and fail to reach their potential. These underachievers not only lose out on learning in school, but fail to develop the resiliency and drive to persevere that will help them in future endeavors.


Let's insist on accommodations for gifted children that enhance their social-emotional and academic learning


It is not surprising that many gifted students do not feel they can "breathe" until they leave for college, when they are finally challenged, are surrounded by like-minded peers, and where intellectual curiosity is appreciated. It is a waste of time and potential to let these children languish bored and frustrated for years in traditional classroom settings. They deserve the same social-emotional learning - and academic challenges - as all students. It is time to insist on ability grouping, clustering, and intensive, advanced, and accelerated instruction for all gifted students. 


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Are you too much of a critic?

Gifted people can be amazingly sharp. They see alternate solutions, diverging paths, and multiple options in any situation. They understand the big picture, and can parse through an array of mind-numbing details.


Many gifted people view their critical analytic skills as an asset. And these skills can be exceptionally useful at times. Critical analysis and detailed focus come in handy in everything from editing to computer coding to party planning to woodworking. A knowledge of arcane historical facts and niche interests can be entertaining as well as surprisingly useful. And many a career was forged on an employee's depth of knowledge and mastery of facts.

Then what are the drawbacks?


Critical analysis requires complexity, creativity and flexibility. Understanding grows exponentially. This differs from overthinking, overanalyzing, and endless critiquing. Sometimes an intensive focus on details and finding flaws can obscure the big picture, rendering it meaningless. Minor problems loom large. Chronic dissatisfaction and perfectionism wreak havoc.

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • Unable to enjoy a feel-good, uplifting film because of critiquing the cinematography/editing/dialogue, etc.

  • Obsessing about perceived personal inadequacies

  • Late handing in work, papers or projects because of needing to perfect them

  • Irritated by minor flaws in any new situation - a new apartment, a vacation rental, a restaurant, a classroom

  • Unable to enjoy artistic events - art show, concerts, dance, theatre - without scrutinizing the flaws in presentation or performance

  • Engage in "friendly" debate with friends and family, sparring about facts related to current events, politics or any area of accumulated knowledge

  • Set high standards for friendships and relationships, often having difficulty finding friends you can respect and trust

  • Annoying others by correcting their grammar or facts mid-sentence

  • Accused of being stubborn, opinionated, competitive by those who know you well

  • Define some of your self-worth on your critical analytic skills and accomplishments


If any of the above seem familiar, you may recognize the drawbacks that accompany too much critiquing. It not only interferes with relationships (since most people don't really appreciate your criticism), but also creates inner turmoil, causes restlessness and dissatisfaction, thwarts pleasure, and perpetuates a never-ending scrutiny of perceived personal flaws.


What causes this critical sensitivity? 



1. Gifted people have active minds. They size up most situations quickly and with remarkable depth, complexity and detail. This often leads to seeing both the endless possibilities and every flaw in any project, situation, place, person and endeavor. It is easy to be critical because it comes naturally. Gifted people derive pleasure and a sense of accomplishment from this depth of analysis and detailed focus. They thrive when they get to immerse themselves in a beloved interest. Finding solutions, glitches, errors, and obscure facts is satisfying. The challenge for the gifted involves placing their critical analytic ability into perspective, and not allowing every flaw to obscure the big picture.


2. Gifted children and teens are often praised for their accomplishments, detailed focus and encyclopedic knowledge. As a result, their sense of self may become tied to their abilities and success. It becomes part of their identity. Even as adults, the capacity to scrutinize, criticize and acquire knowledge may remain a source of pride and recognition. If they loosen the reigns and are less thorough or critical, it may feel as if they are giving up an important aspect of themselves. Gifted people need to appreciate that their self-worth is not based on their accomplishments, and that they can relinquish or censor their tendency to criticize when it is unnecessary or creates a problem.


3. Some gifted people have perfectionistic traits. They feel driven to always succeed and reach the top. Their self-esteem is tied to their accomplishments, recognition from others, and the ability to prove their worth through performance, projects, tests, and even winning points in day-to-day discussions. They may feel compelled to become experts in whatever area they are studying or pursuing. This can range from a mastery of political minutia to authority in a niche topic to acquiring the best chocolate chip cookie recipes. They push themselves relentlessly to keep up with information, feel despair when they don't achieve their goals, and may alienate others with their competitive drive and need to prove their self-worth. There is a clear difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism. When perfectionism takes hold, counseling with a licensed mental health professional may be necessary.


4. Despite their talents and abilities, some gifted children have a rough time. They feel insecure, have difficulty finding peers who "get them," and sometimes are bullied. Those with asynchronous development may lack the social maturity to keep up with their same-aged peers, and may suffer from social anxiety. As a result, some may retreat from social activities unless assured of acceptance. They may become cynical, critical of others, and bitter about how they have been treated. While their anger and hurt may be justified, developing a critical stance toward the world only fuels further bitterness and isolation. Defensive behaviors such as frequently criticizing others for minor flaws or overly scrutinizing their own work or performance will only increase their distress. In these circumstances, it is especially helpful to seek guidance from a licensed mental health professional to address the long-standing anger and suffering that has led to self-defeating behaviors.


What can you do?



1. Recognize the difference between a healthy capacity to scrutinize and acquire knowledge, and when critiquing is defensive in nature. Pay attention to whether such a critical focus brings you closer to others and enhances your life, or if it alienates you, creates tension in relationships, or causes problems in school or work.


2. Pay attention to whether your critical analytic focus is truly based on a love of in-depth analysis and scrutiny, or results from internal pressure to achieve certain standards. Is it something that you enjoy and benefit from, or an automatic reaction that you just cannot shake? Is your identity entangled in your role as "the critic/sleuth/perfectionist/analyst?" Do you wonder what it would be like to enjoy a film, vacation, dinner party, or even a quick visit with a friend without finding flaws? 


3. Notice how being a critic enhances or hurts your self-esteem. Is it a positive part of your identity, or does it make you feel worse about yourself? Are you constantly scrutinizing perceived personal flaws and obsessively reviewing interactions where you worry that you said the wrong thing? Do you obsess about what to wear, what to say, and what others think about you? The popularized term "inner critic" characterizes the torment many feel when they continually berate themselves.


4. Have you received feedback that you are too critical, competitive or focused on winning? Does proving a point or surpassing your friend in a challenge mean more than the quality of your relationship? It is not essential to win every game, always get the last word, or come out on top in every situation. And unless you want to completely alienate a friend, you don't need to point out their faulty thinking, poor grammar, or incorrect grasp of facts. It is helpful to keep in mind the following questions before you make a comment: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?


5. Recognize that your quick mind and capacity to think deeply provide many opportunities for enhanced learning and a rich mental life. While it can be tremendously fulfilling and enhance your academic and work endeavors, pay attention to when it crosses the line and becomes hurtful to you or others. If you struggle with perfectionism, obsessive worrying, low self-esteem, bitterness, defensiveness, or cynicism; if you have alienated others; if you have difficulty finding satisfaction in work, love, and leisure; it may be time to find help through the guidance from a licensed mental health professional.


It is never too late to stop being so critical of yourself...or others.