Saturday, September 1, 2018

When gifted students feel disconnected from school

There is a widespread assumption that gifted children love going to school - a place for indulging their intellect and where their talents can shine. But far too many become disengaged, frustrated and bored, as they endure watered-down instruction, and wait while their classmates learn information they already know. They often mask their abilities to gain acceptance from peers, and count the days until graduation.

In other words, many gifted students feel disconnected from school.

Of course, they don't start out like this. Most gifted children burst onto the scene with enthusiasm to spare. Eager to learn, explore, create and engage in meaningful dialogue, their intensity may be too much for teachers or other students to tolerate. They receive both straightforward and covert messages to quell their excitement, slow their pace, and conform to their peer group. Inherent in this is the painful awareness that the school culture does not fully accept them.

Parents sometimes intervene when their child's motivation lags. They attempt to advocate within the schools, pleading for some enriched or accelerated learning options, or supplement on their own with extra-curricular activities. While this might rekindle some of the spark, it cannot fully repair the trust already breached by the school.

Gifted students who believe they have been marginalized and ignored, who realize that they can coast through school and remain "under-the-radar," and who lose respect for teachers and administration, often become cynical and angry. When students feel disparagingly toward their school, they may lose all motivation to achieve.

Engagement with school is essential

Siegel and McCoach (2005) highlighted this dilemma among underachieving gifted students. Their Achievement Orientation Model outlined several factors necessary for success, and included: 1) a "positive valuation" of the school's goals; 2) viewing the school environment as supportive; and 3) finding academic tasks meaningful. According to this model, unless these factors are present, students are unlikely to feel motivated to achieve. Landis and Reschly (2013) also identified the importance of student engagement in the prevention of gifted underachievement and dropping out from school. It would follow, then, that finding a means for engagement with school, and some connection with teachers and the school community is essential for gifted students.

How can gifted children develop a sense of connection to their school?

With some changes in how they are treated, disengaged gifted students may start to feel more connected and involved. Matthews and McBee (2007), for example, noted that gifted underachievement is "relatively malleable and may change rapidly following a suitable modification to the academic and social environment (p. 176). Some options for increasing engagement with school might include the following:

1. Allow gifted students to work and play together

Gifted students benefit both academically and socially from ability grouping, or at least clustering with gifted and high ability peers. Vogl and Preckel (2014), for example, found that gifted students who attended gifted classes had better relationships with their teachers and more interest in school than those placed in regular classes. Ability grouping lets gifted students engage in like-minded dialogue and creative exchange, without the fear of criticism for being "too smart."  Even though they still may view themselves as different from most of the school population, they can identify with and relate to a niche of peers who understand and accept them. And they can invest their energy into challenging academic work.

2. Engage their need for meaningful learning

While all students deserve an opportunity to discover their passions and interests, gifted students, in particular, will quickly resist the meaninglessness of rote learning. Siegle and McCoach (2005) have emphasized the importance of helping gifted students find what motivates and interests them. McCoach and Siegle (2003) found that students had little motivation to exert effort if they could not find any value in the identified academic goals. Gifted students are too "smart" to buy into learning that seems pointless; they need to believe that it has some value, purpose and greater meaning. When rote learning or a routine task is necessary, though, they will cooperate if they understand its value. Gifted students will readily work on memorizing multiplication tables, for example, if they appreciate that it serves a greater purpose.

3. Appeal to their commitment to social justice

With their strong sense of social justice, gifted students long for a meaningful expression of their caring nature. Help them identify a cause, interest, concern or volunteer activity at school where they can invest their energies. This will not only help them feel pride in their efforts and their school's commitment to change, but mitigate any lingering disengagement from the majority population of the school. For example, while most students are attending a pep rally for the big game, your child might feel more engaged working on the school newspaper or planning a fundraiser for an environmental issue.

4. Encourage their social-emotional imagination

Gottlieb, Hyde, Immordino-Yang, and Kaufman (2016) have combined psychology, neuroscience and education research to propose a model emphasizing the importance of social-emotional imagination as an educational tool. They point out that:
"students' social-emotional imaginations - their capacity to consider multiple cognitive and affective perspectives, courses of action, and outcomes for themselves and others - are an essential, yet regularly omitted, component of identifying and educating gifted students" (p. 2).
 According to Gottlieb and colleagues, students become more intrinsically motivated when they feel personally engaged with their learning, are able to imagine their futures, see themselves within a social context and can empathize with others. When they see an association between what they are learning and a larger purpose, they will feel more excited and engaged. The authors emphasize a "shift from knowledge transmission and regimented evaluation to creative exploration, intentional reflectiveness, and mindful switching between task focus and imagining" (p. 1). In other words, gifted students thrive when schools tap into their creativity, imagination, empathy and social awareness.

5. Ensure that the Five "Cs" of learning are present

In a case study review, Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) identified five factors that are necessary to alleviate the disengagement underachieving gifted students experience: control, choice, challenge, complexity, and caring teachers. It makes sense that these five factors would benefit all students, but they are particularly relevant for gifted students. If your child is struggling, try to identify which of these five factors might be missing. Does he feel that he has little control over his social interactions? Are there few class choices available? Does she feel that her teachers don't care much about her? Are classes lacking sufficient challenge and complexity?

What gifted students need

It seems clear that gifted students need to find a reason for learning beyond the acquisition of grades or awards. They want to feel engaged and proud of their school - but they often don't have any reason to care. As I commented in a book chapter about gifted underachievers:
"Gifted students learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, passionate, challenged, inspired, curious, and believe that what they are studying is meaningful and useful... If they feel truly 'seen' and understood, believe the school is investing its energy into their education as much as it does for other students, and wants them to excel, it will garner their respect" (Post, 2017).

What have you found that helps increase engagement with school?


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.

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

Landis, R. & Reschly, A. (2013). Reexamining gifted underachievement and dropout through the lens of student engagement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 36, 220-249.

Matthews, M. S. & McBee, M. T. (2007). School factors and the underachievement of gifted students in a talent search summer program. Gifted Child Quarterly, 51, 167-181.

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

Post, G. (2017). Gifted underachievers under-the-radar. In R. Klingner (ed.), Gifted Underachiever. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.  

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

Vogl, K. & Preckel, F. (2014). Full-time ability grouping of gifted students: Impacts on social self-concept and school-related attitudes. Gifted Child Quarterly, 58, 51-68.

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

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Three essential tips for teachers of gifted children

Teachers mean well and strive to instill a love of learning in their students. But many find it difficult to work effectively with gifted children, whose educational needs fall outside the norm. The depth, intensity and exceptional thirst for learning among gifted students place unexpected demands on teachers, often ill-equipped to manage these children's needs. With little training in giftedness, lack of administrative support, and competing demands in a heterogeneous learning environment, many teachers face an uphill battle.

These difficulties are heightened in many school districts where support for overtly struggling students takes precedence, and where blatant resistance against gifted education endures among administration and within the community. And lingering personal stereotypes about gifted children, or a negative encounter with a "pushy" parent, may instill unconscious barriers or even biases.

What can teachers do to remedy this situation?*

1. Expect the unexpected

Gifted children will surprise you. Yes, your classroom might have a few highly verbal, high-achieving students who excel in every field. But many gifted children, for example, are asynchronous, have disparities in their social, emotional and academic strengths, or might struggle with learning disabilities. Their interests, personalities, and quirks are as wide-ranging as those found among neurotypical kids. So toss aside any assumptions about what can be expected from a "typical" gifted child.

Similarly, don't trust your gut when attempting to identify gifted kids. Sure, sometimes it's obvious. That verbally expressive, inquisitive, early reader may be a stand-out. But there are many "hidden" gifted children whose advanced abilities are harder to recognize. Gifted kids who might not be easily identified include rambunctious boys, disadvantaged students from impoverished backgrounds, quiet introvertsculturally "different" students, children who are anxious or depressed, ESL students, underachieversvisual-spatial learners who eschew books, very shy kids who rarely speak up in class, twice-exceptional gifted children with learning disabilities, and those who just want to fit in and hide how much they know - or how bored they are in class.

Don't assume that you can rely on your assumptions when referring a child for a gifted evaluation. Insist that your school implement universal pre-screening; it relieves you of the guesswork, but more importantly, identifies those gifted kids who are frequently overlooked. If it is not being used in your school, enlist other teachers, parents, counselors, and parent advocates to insist on starting this practice.

2. Reflect on your personal assumptions and expectations

We all hold biases, stereotypes and assumptions about people who are different from us. Even when we try to be open-minded, it is difficult to grasp someone else's lived experience. 
Widespread biases toward the gifted pervade our culture through film, literature, social interactions, and the language we use; they are difficult to avoid, and can make the world a threatening place for those who are gifted. Although you may love your work and your students, it is important to consider any lingering, sometimes unconscious stereotypes you might harbor toward gifted children and their families. 

Personal biases and stereotypes may stem from negative childhood experiences, media portrayals of the gifted, conflicts with a few difficult parents, or just how your own thinking style differs from those of your students. Keep in mind that gifted students are not trying to make your life miserable with their endless questions, nor are they lobbing personal criticism at you when they claim to be bored. Many become disengaged, chronically frustrated, and apathetic about school and achievements. Many also struggle socially and emotionally, and suffer in classrooms where peers cannot tolerate their differences. 

While you may have weathered your share of "pushy" parents, most parents of gifted children dread falling into that stereotypical role. Many feel desperate to help their child find an appropriate education, but often restrain themselves and limit their requests, fearful of alienating you and fostering possible retaliation in the classroom. Yes, I know... you would not consider taking it out on your students, but some teachers have done this in the past. So parents worry, contain their emotions, and pick their battles (at least initially... until they reach a point where administration, school boards, or legal action might be considered).

So, what can you do to address any lingering stereotypes?

  • First, recognoize that it takes courage and humility to acknowledge that you might harbor stereotypes and biases. Just admitting this to yourself is an essential first step. Most teachers work to challenge their own implicit biases about underserved populations. But biases also persist toward gifted children - and especially toward those within underrepresented groups.

  • Consider when your opinions or decisions were wrong about a gifted child or his/her parent. Think about when a child's education did not work out as planned. Pay attention to any regrets over how you handled a situation or when you did not advocate. Also, don't forget to acknowledge when you handled things well, and when you overcame odds to advocate for and educate your gifted students!

  • Think about where certain biases or stereotypes developed, and how you plan to challenge them. Learning more, attending workshops, and reading about gifted children's social/emotional needs, asynchronous development, twice-exceptional issues, best practice in gifted education, the excellence gap, acceleration, ability grouping, gifted underachievement, and gender/cultural/racial issues are a great start. 

3. Advocate for yourself

You might be used to advocating for your students. But if you want to help your gifted students - in fact, all of your students - you first need to appreciate your own needs, limitations, and "growing edge" as a teacher. Working successfully with gifted children requires resources, team work, time, and administrative support. You know your situation best, but you might consider the following:

  • Advocate with district administration to make your job easier. Challenge the expectation that you can easily differentiate instruction with children who exhibit widely diverse academic needs within one classroom. The elimination of ability grouping - no matter how well-intended - sets you up for exhaustion and failure. Few children are well served in these situations, and gifted children typically suffer the most. Policies that restrict subject or full-grade acceleration also create problems. Don't let administrators think you are invincible. Advocate for classroom conditions that make life easier for you - and benefit all of your students.

  • Insist that you receive training in gifted education. This could include in-services, continuing education, or workshops that address teaching strategies, identification, differentiation when indicated, and social and emotional issues among the gifted. Even if there is a gifted support teacher on site, you still have to teach your gifted students most of the time and need to feel confident with your instruction.

    • Ask for help. Don't assume you have to manage this alone. It takes a village... and this village just might be your fellow teachers, school psychologists, parent advocacy groups, or state gifted organizations. Enlist these partners for developing strategies for advocating for improved services. The more people who articulate the problem, cite research, and point out fallacies in reasoning, the greater the likelihood that changes will occur.

    Moving forward

    Teaching is a tough job, especially when schools face a lack of funding and resources. Teachers' jobs are frequently undervalued, scapegoated and under attack. I
    f you want to make your job more manageable, and certainly if you want to excel in your work with gifted children, finding the support you need is critical.

    Enlist the support of others (teachers, parents, administration, school boards, advocates, state gifted organizations) to insist that the schools set up classroom structures and universal pre-screening so that gifted children receive the fair and appropriate education they deserve. Pay attention to any false assumptions you might harbor about gifted children, and get as educated as possible about their needs. And take care yourself along the way.

    *(A final word: As a psychologist, I am offering ideas about gifted children's needs, along with the struggles I have seen many teachers experience in their efforts to work with these students within a complex educational climate. I think that teaching is an incredibly difficult and challenging job, and would never suggest HOW to teach. I hope that you, as a teacher, can work toward achieving the self-understanding and support that will enhance your very meaningful work.)

    Monday, July 16, 2018

    Welcome to gifted parenting: A checklist of emotions

    Surprise! Your child is gifted.

    Or maybe it wasn't such a surprise. Perhaps you saw the signs from an early age - the precocity, the early language acquisition, the endless questioning, the obsession with everything LEGO. Regardless of whether there was any warning, it is a shock, a joy,
    and a bundle of anxiety all wrapped in a bow.

    Welcome to gifted parenting!

    As you grapple with decisions about schools and advocacy, as you search for books/classes/activities that engage your child's passions, you might notice that your own emotions surge at unexpected times. They nag at you when your child seems bored at school. They erupt in anger when she is misunderstood or her intentions disparaged. They swell with anxiety as you lie awake worrying about his future. Fear, envy, pride, resentment, disappointment, anger, bitterness - these are no strangers to gifted parents.

    So many emotions

    The first step toward coping with the emotions that catch most gifted parents by surprise is to identify them.

    Which of the following seem familiar to you?

    ___ I worry about my child's ability to fit in with other kids

    ___ I resent the amount of extra energy I have to expend to engage my child's academic needs

    ___ I am angry that the school offers few (or any) gifted services

    ___ I feel embarrassed when my gifted child is so immature; sometimes she acts like she's five years younger than her actual age

    ___ I am tired of being treated like a pushy parent just because I ask for more challenging work for my child

    ___ I envy other families whose kids seem so "normal"

    ___ I am frustrated that my child exerts little effort and is coasting through school; he seems to be wasting his potential and the school overlooks this

    ___ I wish I could show my enthusiasm and pride over my child's accomplishments and not worry that others might think I'm bragging

    ___ I resent it when others think my child's abilities result from me pushing and prepping her

    ___ I worry that my child will never reach his potential because of the schooling we have chosen for him

    ___ I resent that I have to do all of the work sorting out college options - and the school offers little guidance

    ___ I feel angry toward relatives who don't get it and minimize her abilities and my concerns about her

    ___ I feel guilty that I don't want to do all of this advocacy work in the schools.

    ___ I feel in awe of my child sometimes; I can't believe he can accomplish some of the amazing things he does.

    ___ I worry that I am not doing enough to push her to succeed

    ___ I also worry that I am pushing her too much and it will backfire

    ___ I feel heartbroken when my child is excluded from social events because he is so "different" from his peers

    ___ I wish I could just relax and trust the schools to do their job

    ___ I worry that she never will be happy - that she always will feel so different from others and have trouble finding friends, a spouse or partner, and a job that is truly meaningful

    Do some of these sound familiar? Okay... most of them? 

    Parents of gifted children often struggle in silence with emotions that evoke guilt and shame. This is heightened when others imply that they should feel grateful about their child's abilities. After all, high IQ should be a ticket to happiness, Harvard and any job he wants. Right? Well, not exactly! Such myths and stereotypes only compound the stress involved with raising a gifted child.

    Parenting an intense, curious, and reactive child, who may be asynchronous, highly sensitive, and out of sync with peers, is not easy. Constantly advocating for academic needs is demanding and overwhelming. And although intelligence certainly offers many advantages, it is no guarantee of success, joy, or even college admission.

    What you can do

    Parents of gifted children benefit from accepting the challenges of the road ahead; their attention to their child's needs is critical, and can be exhausting. You're in it for the long haul, so get the support you need. The following may help:

    1. Read as much as you can about gifted children, gifted education and parenting. The more you know, the more you will understand about what you and your child are experiencing. It will normalize, validate and provide much needed information. A few of the well-known publishers of books about giftedness include Prufrock Press, Great Potential Press, GHF Press, and Free Spirit. A few of the great online information sites include NAGC, SENG, Hoagie's Gifted, and Davidson's. Get informed!

    2. Find or start your own gifted parenting support group. These provide support, mutual understanding, and validation rarely found elsewhere. They provide a venue for shared information about what works and what doesn't within the schools, and a powerful tool for advocacy. If this is not possible, at least consider joining an online parent forum, such as Davidson's, where you can find support.

    3. Take care of yourself. This goes for every parent, of course, but don't forget to find time for enjoyable activities, relaxation, and fun and silliness with your child. Learn stress management techniques for when you need them, and make time for friends, your partner or spouse, and enriching, meaningful activities. Your child also will benefit from you as a calm, happy parent.

    4. If you haven't already realized it, please know that EVERY emotion listed on the above checklist is normal, understandable, and widespread among parents of gifted children. It is understandable to feel angry, alone, resentful and sad about these challenges. Accepting this reality may help with the guilt and sense of isolation that accompanies some of these feelings. Get the support you need from those friends and family who truly "get it," other parents of gifted children, and gifted parent support groups. Don't allow these emotions to overwhelm and interfere with the joy you might otherwise experience with your child.

    What were some of your surprise emotions as a parent? Let us know in the comments section below.

    Sunday, July 1, 2018

    Where can I find a friend? How asynchronous development affects relationships

    Gifted children, teens, and even adults often possess social and emotional traits - both gifts and encumbrances - that sometimes interfere with establishing and maintaining friendships and relationships.

    And the most formidable trait just might be asynchronous development.

    While asynchronous development is best defined as a discrepancy in skills or development among gifted children, it is most apparent when a child's advanced intellectual abilities contrast with an emotional or social (im)maturity reflective of a much younger child. A child who tries to converse about chemistry on the playground, for example, and then melts down into tears when rebuffed, is not going to fare well socially. This predictable pattern is frustrating and heartbreaking for both child and parent.

    Asynchronous development may continue through adolescence and young adulthood. These individuals often struggle to find peers who "get them." Socially delayed, awkward and insecure, they may delve further into their studies as an escape, or become angry and disgusted with the prevailing social culture. Some retreat and become isolated, socializing with only a few select friends. Dating and sexual experimentation may start later for some of these teens and young adults, further delaying their maturation.

    Self-doubt and insecurity is fueled by an excruciating awareness of their differences, and sometimes painful experiences with ostracism and bullying. Nevertheless, most gifted children and teens long for friends who will understand and accept them. Even those who are introverted still crave friendships and relationships that might offer meaningful connection, and allow them to relax and be themselves.

    Sometimes gifted teens don't get to "exhale" until college, although even then, finding friends who understand them may be difficult. Their intellect and social differences may be tolerated - and even appreciated - within a university setting, but some asynchronous students still don't fit in. While their peers are out partying and surveying the frat scene, gifted young adults instead might prefer an intense dialogue about existential issues with a few close friends, or an evening spent alone reading, or playing online chess.

    Even though many achieve academic or career success, some gifted adults bear the burdens of their childhood scars. The years of outlier status and difficulty relating to peers take a toll. Many still feel like misfits - shy, insecure, and afraid to assert themselves socially or on the dating scene. Some feel like impostors in their careers, especially when advancement comes easily, and self-doubts can extend even further into their relationships.

    These scars can make adaptation to adult life more difficult. Add to that the common residual traits of heightened sensitivities and overthinking, and gifted adults may have a tough road ahead. Those who are perfectionistic can be highly critical of any mistakes in school or on the job, and cringe if they commit any perceived social error. A minor miscommunication or a joke that falls flat can seem devastating. Perfectionistic gifted people expect as much from themselves socially as they do in every other endeavor.

    How can you help your gifted child?

    1. Help your child understand what it means to be gifted. Help him appreciate that giftedness is just one aspect of who he is - and that it does not make him any better or worse than anyone else. You will need to tailor your language to your child's age and capacity to understand, and also explain how asynchronous development may complicate friendships. For ideas on how to talk to your child, you might consider some of the suggestions listed here.

    2. Seek out opportunities where your child can interact with like-minded peers, regardless of their age. If ability grouping or challenging extracurriculars are not available at school, investigate what options might be available after school, at local colleges, and during the summer. Sometimes low-cost, free or scholarship opportunities are available. And while the activity should be challenging and engaging, it is just as critical that it serves as a place for making friends. That experience of true connection gifted children long for may not occur until they find such an extracurricular activity or class, and their enthusiasm, relief and sense of wonder when this occurs is palpable.

    3. Help your child with social skills and emotions. An advanced intellect and/or social immaturity are no excuse for neglecting to learn social manners, patience, and empathy for others. If your child struggles to contain her feelings, exhibiting rage or melt-downs, help her learn to control and more appropriately express these emotions. In contrast, some gifted children are empathetic to a fault, and overthink every interaction. If your child is shy and socially anxious, or your teen is socially isolated, offer advice about how to proceed, and even ideas about what she might say in social situations. Some ideas for addressing these concerns can be found herehere, here and here. However, when support and guidance from family and friends is not enough, counseling with a licensed mental health professional is recommended.

    Gifted children, teens and adults thrive when they understand the social, emotional and cultural impact of their giftedness, when they feel understood and accepted, when surrounded by like-minded peers, and when they are not criticized for any delays in their social-developmental trajectory. As parents, we must help them navigate the path to adulthood, seek out activities where they can develop healthy social relationships, and encourage them to accept, work with, and appreciate their unique differences.

    More blog posts about asynchronous development can be found hereherehere, here, and here. Let us know about your experience with your asynchronous child in the comments section below.

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

    Tuesday, June 19, 2018

    When children are torn from their families: A brief note

    I am on vacation now, and had not considered writing. But despite my retreat from all things hectic, I can't ignore the current immigration policy where children are being torn from their families.

    So this brief post is not related to giftedness. It is about humanity and kindness and support and advocacy for children regardless of their background.

    Some might say that those who fled their countries and "trespass" on U.S. soil should know better, and should not bring their children with them. They should "know" that the no-tolerance policy will result in separation. This argument ignores the trauma inflicted upon these children, and the shameful actions of those who allow this to occur.

    A local psychologist started a petition directed at local, state and national leaders to remind them of the long-term psychological impact of forced separation. At this point, thousands of psychologists, social workers, and laypersons have signed this petition. I urge you to read it. And please consider signing it if you agree: Stop border separation of children from parents.

    Thank you for listening.


    Friday, June 1, 2018

    What most parents of gifted children wish they had known about college planning

    Raising a gifted child is full of surprises. Emotional intensity, asynchronous development, and advocating within the schools, to name a few, become routine challenges most parents face. But just when you think you've got it figured out and life gets a little more predictable, college looms on the horizon.

    But why should this be a challenge? After all, getting into college should be a piece of cake for your child. Right? She's smart, talented, gets amazing grades, and probably will ace her SAT's. Most colleges should be thrilled to accept a child like her.

    You swore you wouldn't be obsessive and enroll your child in "strategic" extra-curriculars starting in the first grade. You promised you would let her take the lead when the time came - after all, it is her future. And despite the school's dismal track record with her education, you somehow trusted that they had the wisdom to counsel her about college admissions.

    So can you just sit back and let the school guidance counselor guide away?

    Not so fast.

    The nagging reality of college admissions

    Many parents of gifted children are blindsided by the competitive nature of college admissions. While your child may shine in his school or community, there are more valedictorians, national merit finalists, varsity sports stand-outs, and science fair winners than openings at prestigious colleges. And despite the media's critique of elite colleges, these schools often provide the best fit for gifted students - where their intellectual abilities are appreciated and classrooms are (finally!) filled with like-minded peers.

    In my work as a psychologist and parenting coach, I have spoken with frustrated, bewildered and sometimes heartbroken teens and families who felt betrayed and misled by their high school and the hype about colleges. Parents may have assumed that their highly ranked child would automatically gain admission to the school of his choice, and are stunned to find that he was rejected -  along with thousands of other equally accomplished applicants. They regret relying upon guidance counselors, and wish they had received practical information, and had started planning years prior to sending in those applications.

    How students' college dreams get sidelined

    Many families learn much too late that the school offers little guidance - especially for gifted children.
    Overworked guidance counselors may provide information relevant to the majority of students, but offer little direction for gifted students. And some parents - who might have micromanaged every birthday party and who monitor their teen's activities - suddenly abandon all responsibility when it comes to college planning. It's her life; her choice. 

    Yet, expecting your child to assume full responsibility for such a critical decision (at an age when many teens understandably lack that level of maturity) can be a recipe for disaster. How many teens have chosen a college because of its reputation as a party school, or because their friends like it, or because they visited their cousin there and love the dorms, or because they think going there will boost their self-esteem? How many 17-year-olds truly understand the financial issues involved, including what you can really afford, what loan repayment entails, and whether a particular college is really worth the cost? How many teens can assess all of these variables without your input?

    I also wish I had known what I know now - before my children started high school. Fortunately, I woke up to the reality that I had to educate myself about the process. The school offered no roadmap and little guidance. Online tips about college planning and information from colleges didn't necessarily apply to gifted children's needs. While my children ultimately made their own decisions, it fell upon us as parents to "suggest" what classes, tests, and activities seemed advantageous, and what colleges might provide the right fit for their academic, social, and financial needs.

    Gifted teens thrive in a college environment that pushes them to stretch themselves, instills a work ethic (which may have been lacking for some gifted underachievers), and encourages inquiry and creative expression. Many finally feel they can "breathe" when given the freedom to excel without fear of social repercussions. Finding a college with the right "fit" that fosters this growth and development is essential for all teens, but is especially critical for gifted students.

    How can you help your child plan for college - and find several colleges that offer the right fit?

    1. Educate yourself 

    As outlined in Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college, it will be up to you to learn the ropes about college planning.  In a sense, you will need to become a bit of an expert on what colleges want, what particular colleges have to offer, and how this relates to your child's unique needs. Develop an understanding of the relative importance of the PSAT's, AP or IB classes, extra-curriculars, and study guides for the SAT's or ACT's, along with the benefits or drawbacks of early action or early decision applications. Learn which aspects of college visits you can overlook (the tour guide's demeanor), and what is important (how your child can show "demonstrated interest"). Start early (ideally before high school begins) and read as much as possible - from college websites to online college reviews.

    Encourage your child to take the most challenging classes available in high school, as long as they are appropriate and not too stressful, and help him identify extra-curricular, volunteer, and academic choices that may enhance his application. Colleges are alert to "filler" activities, though, which some students use to pad their applications, such as joining a variety of random clubs that seem to have little connection to their interests. On the other hand, dual enrollment at a local college, internships, and meaningful volunteer work are examples of activities that should be enriching experiences, and make sense to college admissions officers as well.

    2. Learn the hidden meaning behind admissions departments' words

    Most colleges market themselves with the intention of boosting the number of applicants to improve their statistics. They also have a profile of the type of student they would like to enroll. While they may list strict admissions criteria, there is some subjectivity, which makes decisions hard to predict. Admissions departments from highly selective colleges often speak of "holistic" admissions, or choosing students to complete a well-rounded class. When GPA or SAT score ranges are listed, be advised that unless your child fits what some describe as "hooked" status (recruited athlete; legacy status; ethnic, racial or geographic minority), his grades and scores should correspond with numbers in the top percentile for him to be considered.

    If your child plans to apply to a highly selective college, great grades and SAT scores are not enough. He will have to distinguish himself from the rest of the pack in some manner. This might mean one exceptional accomplishment, or a combination of achievements (such as National Merit Finalist, captain of the tennis team, lead role in the musical, and volunteering during the summer in a university chemistry lab). The more you know about what colleges realistically expect and how it corresponds with your child's specific accomplishments, the more easily you and your child can hammer out a list of prospective colleges.

    3. Evaluate online, word-of-mouth, and college website information within the context of giftedness

    Information about college planning, admissions and the college itself are geared toward any student who might apply, and it may not be particularly relevant to your gifted child's unique needs. Selling points that many colleges promote - sports teams, beautiful new dorms, a new performing arts building, an appealing study abroad program - will be attractive to most students, but can distract from what is critical when determining if the college can meet your child's academic and social/emotional needs.

    If possible, visit the colleges your child is most interested in, ask her to get permission to sit in on a few classes, and suggest that she visit or sit in on the extra-curricular activities she plans to join once she is there. If club sports, marching band or dance are critical to her well-being, encourage her to view these events or practices to see if they spark her interest. Find out as many details about academic requirements as possible, and ask your child to envision day-to-day life. Red flags might include a long list of general education requirements; a weak honors program; few opportunities for collaborative research with faculty; large, "stadium-seating" classes; or a majority of classes taught by teaching assistants. Some colleges also make it difficult for students with multiple talents and interests to double major in certain fields. For example, music ensemble or theater rehearsal may conflict with schedules for science labs, making it almost impossible to double major in these areas.

    4. Understand your child's needs and the importance of "fit"

    Help your gifted teen sort out his preferences to optimize chances for finding the right fit. This includes a place where he will thrive intellectually, but also feel comfortable socially and emotionally. For example, many teens hold strong opinions regarding urban vs. rural, the relative importance of school spirit and sports, the presence or absence of Greek life, the local weather, and the size of the school. If your child was grade accelerated and is younger than his peers, finding a college where he will feel socially at ease is particularly important.

    Ultimately, though, access to the academic interests that appeal to your child, meaningful extra-curriculars, and other details (e.g., accommodations for twice-exceptional needs, few general education requirements, the option to "skip" a semester by using AP credits, a great job placement program) are essential elements in making this decision.

    5. Take your financial status into account

    Unfortunately, sometimes students are accepted into their dream school, and then are devastated to find that their parents cannot afford the tuition. Wishful thinking may lead families to assume that their child will receive a merit scholarship sufficient to cover most of their costs, or that financial aid numbers on the website estimators are wrong. It is critical to take a sober assessment of what is affordable and inform your child before he sets his sights on a particular school. While elite colleges typically provide the most generous need-based financial aid, this may not help some middle- and upper middle-class families. And take note of the difference between need-blind and need-aware colleges, as this can influence admissions decisions.

    If you cannot afford (or oppose the idea of paying) the high cost of tuition at a private college that does not offer financial support, consider an honors program at your state university, or a college that will welcome your child with significant merit aid. And keep in mind that some colleges offer a "free ride" of full tuition and room and board to certain applicants, particularly those who are National Merit Finalists (which is another reason to encourage your child to perform her best on the PSAT's in 11th grade, since this test serves as the foundation for achieving NMF status).

    6. Be the voice of reality

    In other words, be the adult in the room. You adore your child and know she has tremendous potential. But colleges have criteria and quotas, and admissions officers don't really care about what you know in your heart to be true. You might hope that your child's dream school will overlook that C in biology, or her less than stellar Math SAT score. But she will be competing against thousands of equally qualified students, and she may be shut out.

    A recent survey of applicants' experiences highlighted the highs and lows of college admissions. One poignant story described a student's despair after rejection from his reach schools on "ivy day," when selective schools send out their decisions:

    "Ivy day. March, 2018. This day is marked by memories of crying so long in a vacant parking lot that someone called the police to make sure I was okay. I never thought I would be more embarrassed until I had to explain to two officers why I was alone sobbing while they tried to console me."

    Too many students apply to all of their "reach" schools, fail to consider schools that are more likely to be "matches," and end up attending the one "safety" school they reluctantly applied to in haste. There are many wonderful colleges out there, and you can encourage your child to apply to those that are likely to admit her and will provide a meaningful and challenging education. Even if they are not her dream schools.

    Help your child make this happen

    Both of my kids were fortunate to emerge relatively unscathed from the college application process. They encountered a few bumps along the way, but also some surprises and amazing opportunities, and enrolled in colleges that were well-suited to their different needs. My kids put in the effort; but I doubt they would have succeeded without the necessary information about these schools and the application process.

    Unless your child's high school has an exceptionally astute guidance department, unhurried and unburdened by an enormous caseload of students, and with an understanding of gifted student's needs, I urge you, as parents, to become informed and involved. Start the conversation early. Remaining educated, offering your own wise counsel, and staying involved is not helicoptering and hovering - as long as you are attuned to your child and respect his (realistic) wishes. Your child will appreciate it when he eventually enrolls in a college that offers the best possible academic and social fit for his needs.

    Additional Gifted Challenges blog posts about college

    Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college
    Five tips gifted students need to consider when choosing a college
    How the media discredits successful students
    Your musically gifted child's road to college
    Choose wisely: Some truths about elite colleges for gifted students
    April 1st is no joke for some gifted high school seniors
    Five hurdles gifted college students must overcome
    Sending your gifted child to college: Providing support when fears arise
    There is life after high school - even for gifted teens
    When gifted kids get to exhale
    Choosing the right college for gifted students: The fit factor

    This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Things I wish I knew back then. To read more blogs, click on:

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    Monday, May 14, 2018

    Giftedness and mental health

    While gifted children and adults are not necessarily more prone to mental health problems, they still experience emotional and interpersonal challenges as a result of their heightened sensitivities, overactive minds, and differences from many of their peers. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am including some blog posts that I have written about mental health related topics and giftedness.

    Stress, conflicts, quirks, and differences: Some difficulties gifted children, teens and adults face

    Gifted overthinkers: What makes them tick?

    Is your gifted teen socially isolated?

    Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?

    Are gifted individuals really perfectionists?

    Gifted women, gifted girls, and mental health

    Choices exclude: The existential burden of multipotentiality

    When is it more than giftedness? A psychologist's perspective

    Gifted adults and relationships: Ten sources of conflict

    When school has an impact

    How parents can understand and offer support to their gifted child

    Supporting your emotionally excitable gifted child

    Tips for helping your socially isolated gifted teen

    How to discipline your gifted child

    Tips for taming test anxiety (because even gifted kids get anxious)

    Tune in to your gifted child's needs

    Get your gifted boy through middle school

    Sending your gifted child to college: Providing support when fears arise

    When you or your child need therapy

    A gifted person's guide to therapy

    Gifted children and adults: When is therapy helpful?

    Five misconceptions about therapists

    When does therapy benefit gifted adolescents?

    Everyone experiences rough times, mood swings, and stress. Most of the time we can muddle through with the support of family and friends. However, mental health issues need to be taken seriously. Any changes in mood, appetite or sleeping patterns; complaints about depression, sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, apathy, loss of interest in typically enjoyable activities; an increase in angry outbursts or irritability; impulsive behaviors or alcohol or substance abuse; and any evidence of self-harm or suicidal thoughts should be addressed through acknowledgement, support and evaluation with a licensed mental health professional.

    Monday, May 7, 2018

    When is it more than giftedness? A psychologist's perspective

    Sometimes it's not about giftedness.

    Let me explain...

    Many of you reading this are already aware of the misdiagnosis initiative, and know that many gifted children - and adults - are misdiagnosed as a result of their gifted traits. Asynchrony, hyperfocus, overthinking, social awkwardness, to name a few, may lead those lacking an understanding of giftedness to overpathologize and frame these traits as diagnostic of a mental health, developmental or behavioral problem. ADHD, OCD, and "on the spectrum" are some of the labels these children receive, when in fact, their behaviors may be manifestations of their giftedness.

    But what about when the diagnoses are valid?

    As a clinical psychologist, I have encountered situations where teens or adults have been misdiagnosed, and when problem behaviors resulted from social/emotional traits associated with giftedness, or the social ramifications of being gifted. I have also seen individuals who are gifted, but have co-occurring mental health concerns.

    These diagnostic questions also arise in my work as a coach, where I consult with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. Although coaching is quite different from psychotherapy, my perspective as a psychologist remains an integral part of what I do. I still think like a clinician and take a history and listen through the "ears" of a psychologist.

    Over the years, I have noticed a trend where some gifted adults or parents of gifted children, well-versed in the gifted literature, assume that their troubles are exclusively due to giftedness. And while gifted intelligence and social/emotional issues can provoke their own set of unique troubles, sometimes... sometimes... the issue is a mental health problem.

    Yet, some gifted adults and families understandably hope that giftedness is the culprit. They dismiss others' warnings and comments - or their own nagging doubts. Perhaps, they needed psychotherapy years ago, or their child is more distressed than they had imagined. It's just Dabrowski's overexcitabilities - not depression - right? He just overthinks everything - he'll get over the anxiety eventually - won't he? They had hoped the problems were less serious. After all, who wouldn't want this to be true?

    Remaining attuned to your child's intellectual abilities, emotional and social functioning, and interpersonal needs is much easier said than done, of course. Children have different needs depending on their developmental phase, interests, abilities, family dynamics, and unique personality. As parents, we often are vulnerable to the opinions of others - family, friends, social media, self-help authors, pediatricians, teachers, spiritual leaders. You or your child may be mislabeled, misdiagnosed, or not appropriately identified as gifted. Your child's or your own giftedness may be pathologized, or conversely, used to explain away more serious levels of distress that warrant treatment.

    Take it seriously

    We need to remind ourselves that children's and adult's emotional struggles must be taken seriously. We don't want to "overpathologize" and ignore how giftedness contributes to social and emotional functioning, but symptoms of distress should not be dismissed as "just a part of being gifted" or "a phase" that will pass. Unlike what you may read in online forums or hear from well-meaning acquaintances, not every ADHD diagnosis springs from corrupt physicians in bed with "big pharma." Not every diagnosis of social anxiety disorder ignores the role of giftedness in your child's heightened sensitivities. Depression needs to be treated and not just dismissed as the existential angst so many gifted teens experience.

    Get help when it's needed

    Trust your instincts. Listen to your gut. If that nagging voice inside tells you that something more is going on, that you or your child are more distressed, or that additional support will help you navigate a difficult period in time, get some help. Gifted social/emotional traits may shape your child's or your own interests, sensitivities, passions, and quirks, but when these cross the line into distress and psychological symptoms, please seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2018

    Gifted adults: Embracing complexity

    Gifted adults may be surprised to realize that they have not outrun their childhood difficulties. In some ways, we all carry our middle schools selves around with us. But gifted adults often assume they have jettisoned that frustration and grief-filled childhood baggage along with way.

    Not so fast.

    Gifted adults often face the same challenges in their social, emotional and work lives that created stress during childhood. However, as adults, they possess the resources, maturity and wisdom to manage and overcome these difficulties. They even can learn to embrace and enjoy their complexity! Here are a few examples:


    Just like when they were children, gifted adults are prone to boredom. They crave intellectual/creative/emotionally fulfilling and meaningful engagement with the world. Performing rote tasks, or languishing in a dreary job can feel like torture. While it is not always possible to avoid boring situations, learning to manage your reactions, entertaining yourself while bored, and developing more patience and endurance will help. Creating a boredom-avoidance plan is useful. Through this, you identify ahead of time what situations/interactions/tasks evoke the strongest reactions, and strive to avoid them or at least plan for how to endure them.


    Gifted people can be impatient when others fail to grasp information as quickly or with as much depth and complexity. While most adults have learned to curb the outbursts of frustration that were directed toward childhood friends and siblings, they still may feel annoyed and respond with impatience, especially in family or work situations. Even if you have developed the skills to hide your frustration with others, developing greater compassion, tolerance and acceptance of others' differences will not only help in those adult relationships, but reduce that nagging irritation that you are working so hard to suppress.

    Social isolation 

    It is difficult for gifted children to find like-minded peers. Many question whether to remain true to their inquisitive, intellectual nature, or dumb themselves down to fit in. Gifted adults often struggle with similar concerns. Heightened sensitivities, introversion, off-beat interests, and a desire for in-depth conversation are not the makings of a party animal. Insecurity, low self-esteem and emotional scars also may be residue from outlier status or possible bullying during childhood. These scars can interfere with finding and maintaining relationshipsGifted adults need to appreciate that their unique, creative, quirky and complex nature is attractive and intriguing, and their challenge is not to hide these qualities, but to allow themselves to shine. Ultimately, finding friends and a partner with compatible interests and a similar approach to life will provide greater fulfillment and validation. 


    Gifted people tend to overthink, obsess, and dissect the fine points of their interactions with others. While an attention to detail, striving for excellence, and critical thinking are all worthwhile goals, gifted overthinkers can take it to extremes. As a result, obsessive worrying, anxiety, perfectionism, and heightened criticism of self and others can become problems. As a gifted adult, you need not repeat these childhood struggles. Instead, you can embrace the positive qualities inherent in your complex mind, and learn to let go of the obsessive torment. This can be accomplished through the use of calming strategies, mindfulness, challenging irrational thinking, confronting your fears, and psychotherapy.

    Heightened sensitivity

    Gifted children and adults are often not only sensitive to their own emotions, but to the injustice in the world at large. Labeled as having emotional overexcitabilities, now sometimes referred to as "openness to experience," gifted children and adults are not only sensitive to emotions, but to sensory input, intellectual ideas, and their imagination. While feeling for others is commendable, it can be emotionally exhausting unless you learn to pace yourself and limit your exposure to others' traumatic experiences. Gifted adults may need to retreat and recharge since all of that absorbing and feeling can be too much.


    Many gifted adults have multiple talents and interests. While multipotentiality may seem like a blessing in young children, who can careen from one endeavor to the next, it may feel like a curse to adults who struggle with choosing only one career path that ultimately excludes their other interests and talents. Rather than bemoaning these choices, gifted adults need to discover how to remain involved with their many interests, by either including them into their career, or pursuing them outside of work.

    Gifted adults may have masked their intensity and complexity as children so they would feel accepted by peers. Finally relieved of these pressures, they are now free to fully embrace their creativity, curiosity, depth and complexity, and allow their intellect and emotions free range. In fact, most eventually learn to appreciate their differences and adapt to adult life. For example, in a longitudinal study that followed mathematically precocious youths into adulthood, Benbow and Lubinski found that most gifted adults described themselves as both happy and successful. As a gifted adult, it is time to let yourself fully appreciate your abilities, accept your unique interests, and allow yourself to shine.

    This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page blog hop on Gifted Adults. To read more blogs, click on:

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