Monday, December 17, 2018

Top 10 Gifted Education articles of 2018

This has been a tough year... and I don't just mean the political climate!

Articles and commentary related to gifted education have posed more questions than solutions. But the questions they raise are revealing and necessary- and should hopefully lead to much-needed changes.

Some of the best articles of 2018, in my opinion, have highlighted how much change is still needed. They call for revisions in how gifted education is taught. They challenge misconceptions about equity and excellence, and how best to meet the needs of underserved populations. They suggest a deeper, more complex understanding of how children learn, rather than adherence to well-worn concepts that miss the mark. They stress how children's mental health and emotional well-being is always essential.

The following Top 10 articles and commentary that I have selected represent summaries, critique and some recommendations for existing concerns affecting gifted children and gifted education:

Serving students with exceptional promise

"...some children are capable of or have a greater passion for understanding concepts on a deeper, more complex, faster and/or more creative level. Refraining from offering suitable curricuar challenges to students who are ready for them, whether called gifted, talented, exceptionally promising, advanced, or something else because other students are not ready for or do not have an interest in them is not ethically justifiable."

Is there a mindset misconception with giftedness?

"...when you hear arguments against gifted programming because being named 'gifted' causes gifted students to avoid difficult tasks and believe their innate intelligence is set in stone, then know that our findings suggest that gifted students are not as fragile or vulnerable to this belief as we might think. Such arguments about their fixed mindset vulnerabilities are likely based on assumptions and biases and are being erroneously used to shape policy."

Anti-excellence dog-whistles in the education media

"...equity and excellence are not competing concepts. But 'feel-good equity' and excellence are diametrically opposed, competing concepts. Perversely, pursuing equity by removing differentiated learning opportunities reflects a lack of belief in underserved students' ability to do advanced work - even though this educational philosophy masquerades as believing the exact opposite."

We're teaching grit the wrong way

"...trying to teach 'noncognitive' skills like self-control and grit via inherently cognitive mechanisms can set up  vicious cycle of increasing stress, failure, and social isolaton."

America's gifted programming may be a facade

"...there is no standard - or even worthwhile definition - for what constitutes a 'gifted program.' The primary problem with this approach is that, even among practitioners and advocates, 'gifted programming' is a massive umbrella under which fall myriad sorts of services of widely varying degrees of intensity and quality."

Schools shouldn't wait for red flags to address student mental health needs

"One out of every 4 or 5. That's how many students will display a significant mental health problem over the course of their lifetime. Such students can be identified early with considerable accuracy if educators are given the right training and tools."

Addressing the 'gifted gap': Three strategies

"A recent study reported that across the nation, Black and Hispanic students continue to be under-served in gifted programs at an alarming rate... In the report, several practices are noted that appear to have some impact on addressing the 'Gifted Gap' in schools"

Perfectionism is increasing, and that's not good news

"Increasingly, young people hold irrational ideals for themselves, ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for academic and professional achievement, how they should look, and what they should own."

No place for social-emotional learning in schools? Are you sure?

"Students who suffer from trauma, and those with mental health issues are not throw away kids that we toss to the side. They are children who have the potential to do great things in life. That is not a political argument... it is a reality."

All students deserve to be challenged

"One recent study found a range of more than eleven grade levels in reading fluency and comprehension among fourth graders in a small group of diverse elementary schools. This is extraordinary variation, implying that a fourth grade teacher may have students reading at a kindergarten level and at a ninth grade level in the same classroom. Whatever the merits of 'differentiating instruction,' a teacher cannot realistically teach sonnet analysis, spelling basics, and the wide spectrum of skills in between to the same set of students."

I did not include the most broad, pressing topics from the past year - gun violence in the schools, the psychological effects of lock-down drills, how paddling is still legally permitted as a form of punishment within some school districts, environmental crises (e.g., hurricanes, fires) that have devastated communities and their schools, and the divisive nature of our political climate. These issues affect all children, but covering them was not within the scope of this review. Please keep in mind, though, that they likely have an impact on your child's well-being.

What articles related to gifted education and gifted children made a difference for you this year? Let us know in the comments section below. Thanks.

Monday, December 3, 2018

How not to shame a gifted child

Why would a child feel ashamed of being gifted?

Some people think being gifted is, well... a gift. You are smart, talented, advantaged. Things come easily. School is a breeze. College entrance should be a piece of cake.

Parents of gifted children, and gifted adults, of course, know otherwise. They know about envy and bullying. They know about ostracism and preconceived notions and media stereotypes. They know that even successful gifted people are criticized. They know that their abilities are at once admired and disparaged, with false claims that no one is truly gifted, and that it only takes grit and practice to achieve.

Given the highly charged emotions projected upon them, gifted children are often confused, troubled, and sometimes ashamed of their talents. They know they are no more responsible for possessing these abilities than for the color of their eyes. Yet, like the tall girl who slouches to mask her height, or the overweight teen who refuses to wear shorts in the scorching heat, gifted children often feel they must hide their true nature. They "dumb themselves down" to mask their gifts, fearful that their differences will provoke taunting and ultimately, isolation.

What is shame and how is it different from guilt?

Guilt typically develops in response to a behavior we have engaged in that conflicts with our values. For example, you might feel a little guilty after a harsh encounter with a sales clerk, or if you avoid a family gathering because you felt too exhausted after work. Shame, on the other hand, reflects feelings about our sense of self. It is more personal than guilt; it encompasses a broader, deeply negative view of who we are. According to Brene Brown, shame is "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." 

Gifted children have done nothing wrong; yet, many feel shame just for being themselves. This burden of shame not only torments gifted children and teens; it can last a lifetime. Many gifted adults feel ashamed of their abilities, and fearful of repercussions if they shine too brightly. Gifted women, in particular, may worry that their talents will be threatening to potential romantic partners, or will evoke envy and competition at work. Some gifted adults set unrealistically high expectations for themselves, and then feel like impostors or see themselves as failures if they have not achieved their goals.

How can we - as parents, teachers, and as a society - stop the cycle of shame that affects our gifted children?

1. Create a shame-free environment

Although you cannot control what happens outside your home, you can set ground rules for what is acceptable within your family. Some tools for a shame-free environment include the following:

  • Create a haven where quirks, differences, failures, offbeat ideas, creative ventures, norm-breaking, and brainstorming, for example, are welcome. Accept and embrace differences.

  • Tears, sadness and anxiety should never evoke criticism. It won't help the situation, and your child can interpret it as shaming. Sometimes telling your child to "toughen up" or "shake it off" may increase their anxiety. Instead, help them approach any symptoms of anxiety or heightened sensitivity by treating these emotions as understandable reactions that can be managed - not as something shameful.

  • Help your child appreciate that they may be different from the norm, and that is fine with you. Your child may notice your frustration with the school, your efforts to find extra-curriculars and attempts to encourage social interactions. Let them know along the way that you love who they are - differences and all - and your efforts are directed toward finding what will suit their needs.

  • Manage and work through feelings of disappointment about your child's behaviors, so you don't project these feelings onto them. You might feel disappointed when your asynchronous child acts younger than their actual age, or fails to perform well in school due to anxiety. Find the support you need so that your child is not affected by your anxiety, frustration, sadness, or disappointment.

2. Be the person you want your child to be

This is not easy for most of us. But recognize that children model our behaviors and not necessarily our words. Show your child that you can laugh at your mistakes, bounce back from failure, consider new and different perspectives, and that you never mock another's vulnerabilities. Demonstrate how you challenge yourself to approach fears or areas of vulnerability, whether this involves public speaking, wearing that daring bikini, or zip-lining. Show compassion for others, manage your own feelings of envy and longing, and challenge any lingering biases. While none of the above behaviors are specific to giftedness, they will help your child feel safe and confident in their ability to be themselves - differences, quirks, vulnerabilities and all.

3. Address gifted-shaming on a macro level

Finally, keep in mind that advocacy is essential. You didn't sign up for this, but if you want to reduce gifted-shaming, you need to be an "ambassador for the gifted" wherever you go. Educate everyone you know about the facts, help them understand what it means to be gifted, and challenge widespread misunderstanding. Address misconceptions in the schools and among policy-makers. Lend your voice through writing, speaking up, and showing up when legislators, school administrators or the media indirectly shame and minimize the needs of the gifted and high achieving students. Help them "get real" about gifted kids.

4. Don't forget to address your own shame and self-blame

Many parents of gifted children harbor "guilty thoughts" and shame about their worries or feelings of inadequacy. They sometimes doubt their parenting skills, compare their child to others, wish their child could be "normal" like the other kids, and worry about the future. They feel isolated and unable to share their burdens - and joys - with other parents who do not have gifted children. Many downplay their child's accomplishments by pointing out flaws, to offset any appearance of bragging (yes, he won the chess tournament, but you should see his room!). Raising a gifted child can be full of surprises, joy, excitement, and also confusion, disappointment, envy, and frustration. These are commonplace, normal reactions, and feeling ashamed or guilty only makes them worse.

Stop the shaming!

As parents, we can instill good values, caring and respect for others, and motivation to succeed without shaming. We don't have to let our children spiral into shame, self-blame and self-doubt. We can correct their mistakes without criticizing their efforts or basic nature. This is all part of the tough task of parenting. Some of the shame gifted children experience, though, stems from others' misconceptions. As parents, educators, counselors, and legislators, we need to end these misconceptions, false assumptions, and the marginalization of gifted education - all of which can contribute to a false sense of self, confusion and shame. With some effort, gifted children eventually may stop feeling blamed and criticized just for being themselves.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Your child is gifted! Now what?

Your child recently was identified as gifted

While this may come as no surprise, you still might feel overwhelmed - and left with a flood of questions and churning emotions. You hope your child will excel and reach her potential, but won't have to sacrifice her creative spark or love of learning. You wonder how to best help her navigate a world that both idealizes and devalues intellectual talent. And you most likely face a school climate where gifted education is a low priority.

What is your next step?

1. Get educated  

After you take that deep breath and digest the reality that your child really, really is gifted, the next step involves learning all that you can about giftedness. Websites, such as NAGCSENG, GHF, Hoagie's GiftedDavidson's and state- or province- based gifted organizations provide a wealth of information. If your child is identified as twice-exceptional (gifted with an additional disability), 2eNews and TECA offer helpful information. There also are great books about giftedness available through Great Potential Press, Prufrock Press, and Free Spirit Publishers.

2. Learn about your local resources

Every community is different. Find out everything you can about your local school district, any local gifted advocacy groups (or consider starting one if none exist!), your state- or province- based gifted organization, and laws regarding gifted education. Learn what the public schools provide, and their policies about gifted education, acceleration, ability grouping, honors classes, and channels for communication. Even if you choose to homeschool, cyberschool, or place your child in private school, gifted education services still may be accessible. Learn about extra-curricular and summer activities as well. Some extra-curriculars are free or low cost, and you might be able to start some on your own, such as a chess club or reading group.

3. Your child may need a lot from you

Many people think that raising a gifted child is, well... a gift. In reality, though, gifted children are not the easy, compliant, academic superstars that many incorrectly expect them to personify. Your gifted child may be highly sensitive and emotionally intense, pepper you with endless questions, debate you like a law student, and require an array of stimulating activities often unavailable in the schools. You may be reluctantly drawn into the advocate role at your child's school, and spend your free time searching for afterschool and weekend activities that will challenge his intellectual curiosity. You won't be able to just sit back, attend a few parent-teacher conferences, and bake cookies for the PTO; your child needs so much more than the school typically provides, and it will be up to you to navigate these uncharted waters.

4. Recognize your own emotions

Accept that a cascade of sometimes surprising emotions will arise at unexpected times. You might feel sad because you suspect your friends will never quite understand your child's struggles - or might resent his accomplishments. You may feel envy toward other children, whose social skills and popularity seem light years beyond those of your asynchronous child. You spend sleepless nights worrying that you have not advocated enough, or have not encouraged your child to succeed, or perhaps, pushed him too much. You resent the extra time you must spend advocating for your child's academic needs. Recognizing, understanding, and coping with these emotions is another responsibility you never signed up for - but nevertheless, must learn to manage.

5. Prepare for the unexpected 

Your gifted child may surprise you with her talents, accomplishments and awards. But just as likely, you may be walloped with unexpected stress and drama. It might be heartbreak when she cannot find a like-minded friend in her new class, and feels isolated and alone. It could be boredom, school refusal and underachievement, as your child - once eager to learn - has lost all interest in school. It can be emotional melt-downs, as her sensitivity leads her to ponder the meaning of existence and feel empathy for those less fortunate. Expect your gifted child to at least occasionally experience some emotional turmoil and distress. 

6. You must forge your own path

There is no clear roadmap for families of gifted children. Traditional paths through school and college frequently backfire. Many gifted students become bored with routine classwork, and attempts at differentiation often fail. Too often, parents must fight for acceleration, ability grouping, or non-traditional models of education that will address their child's basic learning needs. This unfolds in a culture that frequently misunderstands giftedness, and frames concerned parents as pushy or overinvolved. Parents also must help their children navigate college choices, whether this includes dual enrollment, early college entrance, or merely finding the right school for a gifted college student.

Get ready!

Despite these challenges, parenting a gifted child is a whirlwind of quirky surprises, hilarious interactions, and heartwarming discovery. It will warm your soul - and try every ounce of your patience! But it is never boring or routine. You might even learn as much about yourself as you learn about your child. Enjoy and relish your child's journey, and the many discoveries that emerge along the way. 

What have you discovered in your experience as parent of a gifted child? Let us know in the comments section below.

Monday, November 12, 2018

What's so controversial about testing for gifted services?

Most schools require IQ testing when students are referred for gifted education. They typically must achieve a cut-off score (usually 130 or higher) and meet other criteria defined by the district to qualify for gifted services. Sounds straightforward... right? 

So why, then, is IQ testing so controversial?

Intellectual, or cognitive testing is a considerable undertaking. It can seem like a perilous choice - as if an evaluation, an IQ score, a potential diagnosis could define and somehow change your child. You know your child - you have lived with his strengths, weaknesses, quirks, struggles and amazing moments of brilliance. Yet, could results from this snapshot in time diminish who he is - and what you know to be true?

Some parents worry that testing will be conducted incorrectly or that their child will be misdiagnosed or mislabeled. Others plead with their schools to administer testing, waiting patiently for their child to qualify for gifted services. Parents who homeschool or whose children attend private schools question whether testing would provide any benefit. Many are uncertain about what tests are appropriate, when an evaluation should take place, and whether they should agree to testing at all. 

The following are some of the most common concerns and questions associated with evaluations for gifted identification:

1. How is formal IQ testing different from classroom achievement tests? 

Individualized IQ testing is administered by a highly trained clinical or school psychologist on a one-to-one basis with your child. The standardized tests used are the Wechsler or sometimes the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. Despite some inherent cultural biases, these are validated and reliable tests that measure a range of abilities. They differ from the paper-and-pencil (or computerized) group screening tests administered in class that typically assess math and language arts skills, and which tend to measure achievement rather than aptitude. Psychologists rarely provide individualized IQ testing without obtaining detailed information about a child's developmental, family, social, behavioral, and academic history. 

Most schools provide testing with a school psychologist available within the district. When this service is not an option, some parents seek an evaluation from a licensed psychologist outside of school. Ideally, psychologists should have experience evaluating children who are gifted and who also may have learning disabilities, as twice exceptionalities can complicate test interpretation. Referrals can be found by checking with your child's school counselor or gifted education department, your child's pediatrician, or graduate programs at local universities that provide training in gifted education, or school, educational or clinical psychology. 

2. What purpose does testing serve other than identifying an IQ score?

Individualized IQ tests provide a wealth of information about a child's skills, strengths, weaknesses, and approach to a demanding situation. IQ tests are comprised of subtests, each measuring different cognitive abilities. The scores on these subtests are combined to generate the overall IQ score. However, the subtest scores often provide the most useful information regarding your child's relative strengths, weaknesses, and behaviors. Psychologists who specialize in testing gifted or twice exceptional children also may approach the test administration and interpretation differently than they would with a child who has an average IQ. (For an excellent overview, see Lovecky's recent article.)

Many psychologists use scores from the General Ability Index (GAI) on the recent Wechsler Scales when evaluating a gifted child. This index combines the scores from the Verbal Comprehension and Perceptual Reasoning subtests. It does not include scores from tests involving working memory and processing speed, which appear unrelated to gifted and higher level thinking. For many gifted children, the GAI is a more accurate reflection of intellectual depth, reasoning skills, and academic needs than the Full Scale IQ Score.

A psychologist learns a lot from how your child approaches the test.  An evaluation yields so much more than an IQ score - it provides valuable information about how your child approaches a new and challenging situation. Some behavioral questions that are considered during the evaluation include the following:

Is she conscientious and diligent? 

Does he become frustrated and give up easily? 

Is she cooperative and engaging, or timid and withdrawn? 

Is he quick to act, or does he think before responding? 

Is she haphazard and distractible? 

How are his planning and organizational skills?

Is her behavior age-appropriate?

Is he detail-oriented and obsessive? 

Does she seem confident, or is she reluctant to respond?

Parents and teachers often view these behavioral observations as the most insightful and informative aspect of the evaluation. Psychologists evaluate how your child responds to the testing situation, and these observations can affect how test results are interpreted and influence overall recommendations. For example, an anxious, highly cautious child may lose "time" on a subtest involving speed; as a result, the score on this subtest may not be an accurate reflection of this child's actual cognitive abilities and potential. This information would be included in the final report, and an interpretation of that particular subtest score would be tempered by effects of the child's behavior.

3. When is the best time to request an evaluation?

Most experts recommend testing between six and nine years of age. Although giftedness sometimes is identified in a very young child, clear signs of gifted abilities may not be evident due to a child's immaturity, asynchrony, or a reluctance to cooperate with the testing. On the other hand, some school districts discourage parents from requesting testing prior to second or third grade, and claim that children identified as gifted in kindergarten may "outgrow" their giftedness and "level out" later on. However, giftedness does not go away! High achievers may excel on group-based achievement tests; however, children who are identified with an IQ of 130 or higher do not stop being gifted. They may lose interest in school and stop achieving, but their abilities have not diminished.

4. Can the process actually harm your child?

A skilled psychologist will help your child feel comfortable and even have fun during the evaluation. Most of the tests are hands-on activities, and each subtest is stopped after several failed attempts, so your child should not feel overwhelmed or discouraged. Gifted children often enjoy the challenge of varied and sometimes demanding tasks that are quite different from routine classroom activities.

Since your child may be aware that she is being tested to qualify for gifted services, you will need to prepare her ahead of time by explaining the reasons for testing in a calm, relaxed manner, and then helping her to later understand what it means to gifted. How you and the psychologist communicate the results to your child is critical to helping her make sense of her abilities, strengths, areas that need attention, and how she differs from others.

5. What if we are disappointed in the results?

Typically, IQ scores fall within a range of possible scores. Depending on your child's mood, attention span, physical comfort level (e.g., if hungry or fatigued), and rapport with the psychologist, he could presumably obtain a slightly different score on another day.

There is always the possibility, though, that your child will not qualify for gifted services, will not achieve an IQ of 130 or above, will show evidence of some learning problems, or that the test will be invalid. If your child was unable to cooperate due to feeling ill or was too distracted (e.g., he was missing out on a class party) to offer his best performance, the results may not be an accurate reflection of his abilities. Testing can be offered again within a year, though (testing sooner than a year would be unreliable), and hopefully your child's teacher will provide some accommodations to address his learning needs - even without the gifted label.

Testing provides useful information

It is time to demystify cognitive testing. While it provides a snapshot in time, it also offers a fairly accurate measure of a range of abilities, skills, behaviors, strengths, and areas of struggle. That's it. There is nothing magical, overly complicated, or intentionally biased about it. Testing provides useful, detailed information that can offer guidance for both you and those educating your child.

Test results are best interpreted and communicated to you and to educators by a psychologist experienced with evaluating gifted children. Ideally, results and recommendations are utilized by educators in a flexible, open-minded, and creative manner, with a willingness to consider options such as acceleration, clustering and flexible ability grouping. Even if you homeschool or cyberschool your child, testing can provide a wealth of information. And greater understanding of your child's learning needs leads to more useful, informed decisions.

For more information about cognitive testing, please see the articles below:

What do IQ tests test?

The best-kept secret in gifted education: Above-level testing

Tests and assessments

This blog is part of the GHF Blog Hop on Tips, Advice and Help when having your Gifted Child Tested. To see more blogs, click on the following link.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Abandoning perfectionism

Perfection is a powerful word

It evokes awe, fear, obedience and rebellion. It causes anguish and sleepless nights and insecurity and impostor syndrome. It results in debate about its relative utility and whether it is good or bad.

We use the word "perfection" to denote our ultimate approval. "You look perfect." "That meal was absolute perfection." "Your audition went perfectly." We watch the Olympics and wait expectantly for that perfect 10. Our sports heroes, musicians, actors, and dancers are expected to consistently give 100%, or the critics swiftly broadcast their disapproval.

This word, perfection - and, of course, the meaning it conveys - results in suffering for those who strive to achieve and believe that they fall short. 

Perfection is not the same as perfectionism, even though these concepts are often used interchangeably. Perfectionism describes the traits, thoughts, feelings and behaviors that arise when self-worth hinges on accomplishments. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the "medical definition" of perfectionism is the following:

"a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable especially: the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness." 

This definition emphasizes the role of one's disposition, the setting of unrealistically high standards, and an attribution of worthlessness if goals are not achieved. These emotional/psychological characteristics differ from the more descriptive, behavioral terms used to define perfection, such as: "freedom from fault or defect; flawlessness; an unsurpassable degree of accuracy or excellence."

Clearly, there is a difference between the act of perfecting, and a perfectionistic disposition. Yet, there is ongoing debate and confusion about how perfectionism is labeled, and whether it sometimes can be considered "healthy" or "adaptive."

What about "adaptive" perfectionism?

Claims regarding the presumed benefits of adaptive or healthy perfectionism suggest that a little bit of perfectionism harnesses motivation and drive. But how can we label a trait that contributes to obsessive worrying, low self-esteem, and sometimes paralyzing anxiety as healthy and ultimately beneficial?

It would seem that some of the debate arises from the conflation of these terms. Definitions of perfection and perfectionism are merged together as if they are one concept. There appears to be little distinction between the positive act of striving for perfection and the negative effects of perfectionism. In an article claiming that "healthy perfectionism" is an oxymoron, Greenspon aptly notes the following:

" a body of literature asserts that some perfectionism is healthy, even though a critical review of this literature finds no factual or theoretical basis for such a claim. The commonly asserted belief in a dichotomy between healthy and dysfunctional perfectionism is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of perfectionism, in part, confusing the concept with striving for excellence."

In another article, Etienne Bensen provides an overview of research on perfectionism. She cites researcher Paul Hewitt, who criticizes claims that perfectionism is adaptive. He points out that the drive to excel and the drive to be perfect are conflated, and this overlooks the serious negative consequences associated with perfectionism. In this article, he states:

"I don't think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive... people have said that self-oriented perfectionism is adaptive. People make that claim, and they'll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it's a vulnerability factor for...depression, anorexia and suicide."

Can we abandon perfectionism, yet strive for perfection when it is needed? Is there a way to achieve, excel, and aim for success without falling into the grips of perfectionism?

When precision matters

There are some professions where precision, drive, accuracy, and conscientiousness are essential. We all want our auto mechanic, surgeon, tailor, and airline pilot to be careful and precise. But must they be perfectionists? Or is their conscientiousness and precision just part of their job description - all in a day's work?

How, then, do we distinguish a drive for excellence, precision, and yes, sometimes even perfection, from the negative influence of perfectionism? 

The lure of perfectionistic thinking is ever-present when precision, accuracy or a final performance are necessary components of an accomplishment or job. Not everyone who strives for excellence becomes perfectionistic, though. Risk factors for perfectionism include the following:

  • A culture (school influences, family dynamics, peer pressure) that stresses excellence at all costs; where failure and imperfection are not acceptable; where harsh criticism and shaming are tactically applied to improve performance. For an extreme example, see this story of pianist Lang Lang's experience.

  • Family dynamics where expectations run high regarding accomplishments; when parents, siblings, or other family members are highly accomplished role models; where there are overt or unspoken messages that a child's success will bolster a parent's self-esteem or personal needs.

  • An innate tendency toward anxiety, worry, and self-criticism, priming an individual to form high expectations and base self-worth on accomplishments. Research suggests that there may be some genetic influence on the development of perfectionism.

  • A response to past traumatic experiences, where achieving perfection conveys a feeling of safety, comfort, and control. This may seem to help an individual manage emotions related to traumatic past events, but results in the pressure to always achieve, be the best, remain vigilant, excel at all costs - and does not address the actual effects of the trauma.

The pain of perfectionism

Perfectionists have difficulty rebounding from a perceived failure experience, others' critiques of their accomplishments, or situations where their performance is compared to that of their peers. They feel overwhelmed when standards seem vague or unfair, when their success is based on a one-time event, such as an audition, concert, or sports competition, or when the "rules" change mid-stream. They feel shame when they fail to live up to their own or others' expectations - even if failure is viewed as a slightly imperfect test score. Perfectionism may be common among high achievers; however gifted and talented individuals are no more likely to struggle with perfectionistic traits than anyone else.

Perfectionism is devastating. It causes worry, shame, and fear. It backfires when procrastination, avoidance and "stage fright" inevitably emerge. Gifted underachievers, students who flee from college after their first semester, and talented musicians who abandon music after years of dedicated practice exemplify the ravages of perfectionism gone awry. And yet many perfectionists quietly persist, pushing themselves to achieve their best, suffering silently, despite their nagging fears. Anxiety, social anxietyeating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and even suicide have been associated with perfectionism.

How to help our children - and ourselves

Effort, integrity, compassion, endurance, drive, resilience, caring - these are the traits that matter, and spur people toward achieving their goals. These are the traits most parents want to instill in their children. Perfectionism ultimately backfires, as it fuels anxiety, burn-out, self-blame, insecurity, procrastination, avoidance, unhappiness, and ironically, can result in mistakes, as hesitation, uncertainty and emotional paralysis interfere at the worst possible times.

Confronting perfectionism can be complicated, and typically involves a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and sometimes more intensive psychotherapeutic approaches. Articles and books that offer CBT guidelines for challenging negative views can be found online. However, since perfectionism can vary for each individual, it is preferable to seek out a licensed mental health professional who can tailor an intervention to address an individual's specific needs.

Let's stop speaking about good and bad perfectionism. Let's recognize that perfectionism serves no good purpose. Let's help our children - and ourselves - to strive to be the best at what matters, but to abandon the belief that our character and self-worth are based on what we achieve.

Further reading on perfectionism

The many faces of perfectionism

What causes perfectionism?

The search for imperfection: Strategies for coping with the need to be perfect

8 signs you're a perfectionist (and why it's toxic to your mental health)

Perfectionism is increasing, and that's not good news

The alarming new research on perfectionism

Pursuing excellence is excellent...Perfectionism is a pain!

Is there an antidote to perfectionism?

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Perfectionism. To read more blogs, click on this link.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

How addressing recent hate crimes is relevant to gifted education

Recent hate crimes and shootings over the past week - including pipe bombs sent to politically liberal leaders, two African-Americans killed while grocery shopping in Kentucky, and the murder of eleven Jews at their place of worship in Pittsburgh - have left the country aghast. Gun violence and terrorism anywhere is repugnant; when people are specifically targeted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology, it is especially abhorrent.

Statistics regarding the rise of hate crimes over the past few years foreshadow these recent events. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there was a 57% increase in hate crimes directed toward Jews and a 94% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools between 2016 and 2017. The Southern Poverty Law Center also saw an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigration incidents during that time, with an overall increase in the number of white Nationalist, Neo-Nazi, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration groups. And according to FBI statistics, black Americans are victims of hate crimes more than any other racial, ethnic or religious group.

Some have argued that recent political rhetoric from politicians and some news media commentators, and anger among disenfranchised citizens stoke this rise in hate and bigotry. And while there is obviously a clear difference between verbal expressions of prejudice and committing murder, there should be no place for hate in any form within our country.

There certainly should be no place for hate within our schools. A recent article highlighted how schools are struggling to address the increase in hate crimes without appearing to take political sides. Children and teens struggle every day to fit in, gain popularity, and avoid bullying. Some express racial, ethnic and homophobic slurs in an attempt to gain acceptance with their peers. Many have little or no exposure to some ethnic or religious groups, and develop misconceptions about them through film, the media, and online slander. Teachers face a monumental task as they wade through this morass of peer and media influence. It is also a challenge to help children understand and cope with the aftermath of hate crimes or displays of bigotry, such as the rally in Charlottesville last year.

So, how does this relate to gifted education?

Of course, hate crimes affect ALL children. However, there are several additional reasons that addressing the impact of these recent hate crimes is relevant to gifted education:

1. Gifted children are highly sensitive.

Gifted children and teens often are overthinkers, and respond to distressing situations with increased empathy and sensitivity. Some struggle with existential depression as they ponder the meaning of existence. They may become emotionally distraught as they experience profound sadness and empathy for the victims of violence and the suffering their families endure. Gifted children may need added support as they weather these difficult situations. Young children, in particular, need reassurance that you will keep them safe. If symptoms of anxiety or depression persist, counseling with a licensed mental health professional may be indicated.

2. Gifted children possess a strong sense of fairness and justice.

Gifted children question what is just, and become outraged when they believe others are not treated fairly. Younger gifted children may have difficulty grasping the reasons that bigotry and hate crimes even exist; adolescents may be enraged and activated to fight for change. Gifted teens and older gifted children may benefit from channeling their frustration into charitable causes that help victims of violence, or by donating their time to organizations focused on change.

3. Gifted children represent our future.

Gifted children are our future thinkers and theorists and policy-makers. The foundations and values we help to instill will serve as a framework for them as adults. There is a pressing need for bright, motivated young adults to channel their energies into social science, social services, public policy, urban policy, and economics. Even those in STEM careers can tailor their skills toward the good of society. Gifted young adults can harness their creative, strategic, out-of-the-box thinking to hopefully envision some solutions to the problems we face.

Let's help our gifted children - all children - weather these recent national crises. Let's help them feel safe, and allow them to learn from history, understand the meaning of these current events, and encourage them to direct their skills toward finding a solution - now and in the future.

For those affected by loss from these recent events, I want to express my deepest condolences. I cannot find the words to offer the comfort you need, but please know that I am so deeply sorry for this tragedy and for your suffering.    - Gail

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Help your gifted child make sense of the recent news

It has been a rough few weeks

The Kavanaugh hearings. Priest abuse. More celebrities accused of harassment. Cosby.

It has been tough for us grown-ups. Angry debates. Politicians behaving badly. Celebrities we once adored betraying our admiration. And heck, if you can't trust priests, who can you trust?

Regardless of your political views (and this is not meant as a political post), the endless news about Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford has evoked long-buried memories of abuse and assault for many women (and also some men). It also reminded some of threatening situations where they escaped unscathed, but were left with that bitter taste of fear entrenched in their psyche. They never told anyone, but their world view and ability to trust were forever changed.

Even if you think Ford was lying, her description of the alleged assault, and the fear, shame, and worry that one would not be believed, is a classic example of what typically occurs during and after an assault. As a psychologist, I have seen this countless times - acute, clear memories of faces, sounds, voices, smells, certain images in the room, but no memories of details such as an address or times of day.

And as tough as these few weeks have been for us adults, as much as the news may have evoked our own memories, stoked arguments among family, or created worries about our country's future, this reality may be even more distressing for our children. A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about helping children cope with a distressing national event. And now, we face another one.

All children old enough to have some awareness of the news may be affected by it - but gifted children, with their often heightened sensitivity, tendency toward overthinking, concerns with fairness and justice, and ability to appreciate life's complexities - may be particularly troubled. Our children need our help.

How can we help our children understand the many issues raised by the news? The range can seem daunting, as it includes all of those uncomfortable-to-talk-about topics like sexuality, power, politics, gender roles, sexual assault, and trust. It might be easier to hope your child is oblivious and just ignore the whole thing! Easier, maybe, but not helpful in the long run. Here are a few tips for navigating this process:

1. Consider your child's developmental and emotional level. A young, elementary school-aged child requires a different explanation than an adolescent. Younger children need simple, reassuring explanations. "Some people who run the country got into an argument, and a lot of people are upset, but they will work it out." "There are some people who made a movie and were mean to some of the actors. They were fired for being mean and hurting them." Acknowledge that something is going on out there, but their world is safe.

On the other hand, gifted teens, in particular, will resent any sugar-coating or downplaying what they observe. They often welcome a frank, open-ended discussion where their opinions are valued. Provide an open, safe, and non-judgmental environment where they can express their concerns, fears, anger, and questions. Offer your opinions, values and advice when appropriate, and don't criticize their differing views (as long as such views are not harmful to them or others).

2. Find out what your child already knows. Gathering information allows you to understand your child's perspective, gives you a base to start from, and lets you clarify any misunderstandings. You might ask, "What is your opinion about the Kavanaugh hearings?" or "What are your thoughts about the celebrities charged with harassment?" His comments will give you an idea of the depth and complexity of his impressions, interest in the topics, and any emotional reactions.

3. Get a sense of how your child is feeling. Try to evaluate how distressed your child might feel about the news. She might hide her reactions with a snarky bravado or outright dismissal of any concerns. But with some gentle questioning, you might learn a little more. Don't push too much, but you could always let her know of your availability and concern. "Have you been upset about what is going on in the news? A lot of people are bothered by it, and if it gets to you now - or later - please let me know. We always can talk about it." If she seems upset, angry, confused or anxious, or is displaying symptoms of distress, such as difficulty sleeping or a loss of appetite, use this conversation as an opportunity to explore her feelings and let her know you are concerned about her.

4. Help your teen make sense of the news. This might seem difficult, but gifted adolescents, in particular, usually grasp ambiguity and complexity. If your teen is furious about an opposing political party, try to help him understand that those he opposes are real people who also love their families and mean well - even if you strongly disagree with their views. If you agree with Trump about economic policy, for example, but are angry about comments such as "grabbing women by the p...y," you might note that sometimes even powerful adults make statements they shouldn't, that you hope your child will learn from this, treat others respectfully, and use common sense before he speaks. If he asks why priests would abuse children, you may have to again, invoke your gifted child's ability to appreciate the complexity of human nature, and point out that although people can be quite learned and devout, they also can be emotionally disturbed and engage in terrible behavior.

5. Use this as a teaching moment. This painful time in our nation's history can be used as an opportunity and a teaching moment. Use this as a chance to repeat lessons you have already taught your children, whether it is "good touch, bad touch" or "no means no" or even just about trusting their instincts when a situation seems unsafe. Remind them about the importance of respecting their body, their boundaries, their right to say no, their preferences, and the option to always reach out to you if they need help. It is also a time to remind them to respect the boundaries of others as well, which includes withstanding any peer pressure that might result in harm to others, such as bullying or hazing.

6. Help your child feel safe. Remind your child that you will do whatever is possible to keep her safe. While internet debates compare "free-range" and "helicopter" parenting, there is a middle ground that involves a healthy appreciation for your child's age and capabilities, the community where you live, and what comprises a reasonable level of parental involvement. Protect her from age-inappropriate situations, people whom you think are not safe (e.g, that relative whom you never fully trusted, the babysitter who seems a bit too immature), and role-play how to handle difficult communications, so she has the words to defend herself. This includes your caring (and sometimes "annoying") lessons about safety, boundaries, and how to handle herself at parties, events, concerts, friends' homes and even walking home from school. She may complain and roll her eyes, but she will hear you. Let her know she can come to you with any question or concern, and that you will try to help her sort out what is best.

As we recover from the past few weeks - personally, as families and as a country - hopefully, we can learn from this, and raise our children to be compassionate, caring, and respectful adults. And if you or your child are struggling with memories of abuse, please seek counseling with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in trauma.

Here are some helpful overview articles:

Talking to your child

How can I protect my child from sexual assault?

What parents can do to help keep their children safe from assault

Why children don't tell

Teen sexual assault: Information for parents

Trauma and treatment of child sexual abuse

How reliable are the memories of sexual assault victims?

Seven ways to help a teen survivor of sexual assault

A similar version of this article was published on Medium.

Monday, October 1, 2018

How to help your underachieving gifted child

Any child who struggles in school is a challenge and a heartbreak for parents. But when gifted children veer off course, it can be especially troubling. We know what they are capable of, yet watch helplessly as they squander their talents and potential.

Understand why your child is underachieving

Underachievement springs from a variety of sources. You can't solve the problem without understanding its cause. Assuming there is no clearcut explanation, such as a learning disability or serious psychological problem, reasons for underachievement can be varied. And while personal traits, family dynamics, peer pressure, and social/cultural/gender factors* can affect performance, the first influence to consider is the school.

In other words, what role does the school play in either unwittingly encouraging - or hopefully correcting - the problem of underachievement among gifted students?

If you want to explore how to address - or prevent - school-based underachievement, consider the following:

1. Identify the type of underachievement your child displays

Gifted underachievement can be overt or masked. Is your child what Delisle and Galbraith (2002) labeled a "selective consumer," showing interest in only a select few subjects? Is she struggling with boredom and disinterest in school, losing respect for teachers and the school itself? Is he failing completely and at risk for dropping out? Is she underachieving only when certain demands arise, such as exams or essays that evoke anxiety, avoidance and procrastination? Is your child a gifted underachiever-under-the-radar - overlooked by teachers because above average grades mask the reality that he is merely coasting through school?

Recognizing how your child's underachievement is manifest within the school is a first step toward identifying where to address the problem. Clearly, a child who is capable of passionately engaging in subjects she loves, but eschews topics she dislikes, is quite different from one at risk of dropping out from school altogether. Understanding how gifted underachievement is expressed will help you and the school tailor an intervention to help your child develop greater investment in learning.

2. Understand how the school environment affects your child's attitude 

The school milieu imposes certain demands that influence each child's reaction to learning. When the school environment is challenging, respectful, and engaging, when learning is exciting, and when a student feels appreciated and accepted, he will most likely feel some "connection" with the school and invest energy into the learning process. When these factors are absent, disengagement may occur.

Many gifted children quickly realize that they can coast through school. They become accustomed to waiting while their peers catch up, and feel angry and bored. They lose respect for their teachers and the school, and conclude that the school has little concern for their specific needs. When they receive easy A's and awards, they may assume that their efforts are "good enough," and lack initiative to reach their potential. Their academic choices also may be influenced more by their peers' opinions than by the school's recommendations.

Siegle and McCoach (2005) have highlighted factors necessary for engagement with school. They found differences between gifted "achievers" and underachievers. Among other things, gifted achievers believed in their ability to perform, trusted the school environment, viewed school as a place where they could succeed, believed that school was meaningful, and held positive attitudes toward teachers and the school. Gifted underachievers felt less trusting toward school and found less meaning and value in their efforts.

Gifted students need to view the school's goals favorably, must perceive the school environment as supportive, and find meaning in academic tasks. Unless these factors are present, they are unlikely to feel motivated to achieve. Helping students find meaning and a positive connection to the school seems essential, especially for gifted underachievers. This, of course, requires a collaborative effort with the school, and must address how your child can find more of a connection to the school and a reason to value it.

3. Assess whether the school's limitations contribute to the problem

While most teachers and schools want the best for their students, sometimes school policy, misconceptions about giftedness, a lack of funding, and philosophical views about best classroom practices (such as solely relying on differentiated instruction) can derail learning for gifted children. It is devastating for parents to watch their child's love of learning wither under these conditions.

Gifted children often respond to these roadblocks with apathy and suspicion toward authority. They note how the school welcomes their accomplishments - proudly broadcasting names of the latest science fair winner or National Merit Finalist - but refuses to address their academic needs. Students watch as their parents advocate for even the most cost-effective solutions, such as subject acceleration, as if this basic, simple request were an egregious demand.

It is difficult to rebound from so much distrust and apathy. Parents need to validate their child's school experience, but also put it in perspective. Even while you continue with your own advocacy efforts, it is still important to help your child develop a positive attitude toward her education. Remind her that everyone makes mistakes; even teachers and administrators. And not everyone is going to agree with what she wants. Encourage her to find some areas of interest, connect with a caring teacher, learn how to respectfully self-advocate, find some school activities that are meaningful and enjoyable, and come up with a strategy for how she will make the most of her education - even though it is not ideal.

4. Identify any emotional effects of the underachievement

Most gifted students who have coasted through school eventually face an unexpected academic challenge. The awareness that innate abilities are not sufficient can be a harsh jolt of reality. While some gifted children rise to the challenge, others become anxious and insecure, doubt their abilities completely, and might feel like "impostors." They may compare themselves to other exceptional students, and assume the worst about themselves. Confronting a roadblock or failure experience can be a devastating blow to a student with a distorted view of her abilities and little understanding of the effort necessary to achieve. Some give up trying altogether, and with it, sacrifice their sense of wonder, curiosity and desire to learn. It would seem that anxiety, low self-esteem, apathy and underachievement revolve in a vicious spiral.

Many gifted underachievers also may never develop the "character-building" skills imparted to students who regularly receive a challenging education. Inman (2016) described what gifted children don't learn when they have not been challenged. They are deprived of opportunities for developing a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, the capacity for sacrifice, and the self-worth derived from accomplishments. They never receive the "education" that comes from hard work, perseverance, "paying your dues," and overcoming obstacles. The absence of these necessary skills and experiences can fuel underachievement.

Try to gather information about how underachievement is affecting your child. Is he upset about his performance, or does he claim that it is a reasonable response to boredom in the classroom? Does she worry about how she appears to others, both in terms of grades, as well as social status? Is underachieving a means of masking his abilities and gaining popularity? Is she depressed, anxious, angry, bored, or struggling with existential concerns? Does he feel insecure about his academic struggles and doubt his abilities?

Gifted children and teens underachieve for a variety of reasons and exhibit a range of emotional reactions. The psychological toll that results from underachievement can be masked by rebellion, obscured by a fierce bravado, or manifest as chronic depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Your child's reactions and behavior  need to inform and influence your response. Clearly, an anxious and depressed child requires a more supportive, "therapeutic" intervention than a child who claims he is underperforming in a particular class because he is bored and disinterested in the topic.

Unless it is addressed, underachievement can persist into adulthood, informing college or career decisions, affecting motivation and study/work ethic, and limiting creativity and productivity. Gifted children need to appreciate and accept their giftedness and the importance of hard work and practice. A collaborative effort with the school is critical so that your child can assume challenging work, and navigate the challenges of imperfection and failure. Working with mentors, supportive teachers and coaches, and finding meaningful extra-curricular activities can be helpful. Counseling with a licensed mental health professional also may be needed.

5. Identify whether underachievement is masking a skills deficit

Gifted children sometimes lack adequate self-regulation skills, which involve the ability to set goals, use organizational strategies and evaluate one's progress. Zimmerman (2010) has described self-regulated learners as those who participate actively in learning. They see themselves as capable and seek out meaning in their education. They use strategies such as self-monitoring, self-evaluation, strategic planning, time management, goal-setting, and techniques to combat procrastination, distactibility and task avoidance.

When gifted children coast through school and exert little effort, they rarely develop these necessary skills, and struggle when eventually faced with more challenging academic demands. In addition, many gifted children fail to develop executive functioning skills as readily as others, since their minds are more focused on their interests, passions, and creative pursuits. They need specific guidance with self-regulation and study skills. Learning to take notes, review them, study effectively, self-monitor and evaluate their progress, and set goals are essential. Self-regulation also requires self-discipline and awareness of when and why they are avoiding a task. However, teaching these skills without providing truly difficult and challenging work will seem pointless to gifted students, who may doubt that these lessons apply to them.

6. Help your child find a reason to be motivated

Gifted underachievers often lose lost interest in awards and other extrinsic motivators. They require convincing evidence that engaging in activities they find boring or routine is worth their effort. In his overview of verbally gifted children, Redding (1989) has suggested helping students understand the benefits and rationale for sticking with boring, detail-oriented tasks, and appreciating the association between their efforts and outcomes. In other words, there is value in learning multiplication tables - even if it seems tedious.

In a case study review, Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) identified five characteristics that can alleviate some of the disengagement and boredom common among gifted underachievers. According to these researchers, students must experience control, choice, challenge, complexity and caring teachers. It would seem that these five characteristics are necessary motivational ingredients for all children; however, they may be especially critical for gifted students, who have grown wary of the limitations and watered-down instruction in many of their classes.

McCoach and Siegle (2003) have noted that students lose motivation if they believe that their academic goals have little value. In addition to the importance of engaging in challenging academic work and developing self-regulation skills, McCoach and Siegle (2003) have recommended that gifted students:
  • Recognize and appreciate their success and growth in specific areas of learning, to help boost confidence if it is lacking;
  • Have the opportunity to revise and improve upon their work, and use a portfolio to display and track their progress;
  • Learn how they can "master" the system at school - by appreciating their role within the system and understanding how they can fit in and feel valued;
  • Ensure that their academic goals are personally motivating and are goals that they value.

Recent research (Gottlieb, Hyde, Immordino-Yang, & Kaufman, 2016) has suggested that engagement could be encouraged through enlisting gifted students' social-emotional imagination, creativity, sense of purpose and empathy for others. They need to see a connection between what they are learning and a larger purpose. Many gifted children and teens have a passion for social justice and struggle with existential issues. It seems clear that they must find a reason for learning beyond the acquisition of grades of awards.

What can you do?

As a parent, you have a unique perspective, since you know your child best. Yet, you need to enlist the aid of the school in assessing your child's performance and developing a strategy for addressing the underachievement. Understanding why your child is not reaching his potential, losing interest in school, and exhibiting a discrepancy between ability and performance is essential. Start by asking your child to describe the problem. Get input from all of his teachers. Consider additional testing. And pursue counseling with a licensed mental health professional to help you and your child address coping strategies and manage the emotional toll resulting from the underachievement.

Nurturing a gifted child's abilities might seem like traversing a maze filled with roadblocks ready to steer you off course. These highly sensitive, reactive children flourish under the right conditions, but their sharp intellect and tendency to question everything will quickly lead them to give up on an education that is a disappointment. As parents, we need to help them navigate this educational maze, keep their intrinsic love of learning alive, and prevent underachievement that robs them of their potential.

What have you found that helps your child with underachievement?

* More to come - future blog posts will address some of the other influences that contribute to gifted underachievement.

This blog post is part of a series on gifted underachievement. Other posts include:

Who is the gifted underachiever? Four types of underachievement in gifted children

What causes gifted underachievement?

Underachievers under-the-radar: How seemingly successful gifted students fall short of their potential

Why do smart women forego success?


Delisle, J. & Galbraith, J. (2002). When gifted kids don't have all the answers. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Gottleib, R., Hyde, E., Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Kaufman, S. B. (2016). Cultivating the social-emotional imagination in gifted education: Insights from educational neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1-10.

Inman, T. F. (2016). What a child doesn't learn. Parenting for high potential, 6, 15-17.

Kanevsky, L. & Keighley, T (2003). To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and honor in underachievement. Roeper Review, 26, 20-28.

McCoach, D. B. & Siegle, D. (2003). Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high-achieving gifted students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 47, 144-154.

Redding, R. (1989). Underachievement in the verbally gifted: Implications for pedagogy. Psychology in the Schools, 3, 275-291.

Siegle, D. & McCoach, D. B. (2005). Motivating gifted students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2010). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41, 64-70.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Underachievers. To read more blogs, click on

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