Monday, April 23, 2018

How to discipline your gifted child

Gifted children can present quite a challenge when it comes to discipline. Whether throwing a tantrum mid-aisle at the grocery store, or questioning your rules with legalistic flair, your gifted child is no stranger to intensity... or conflict... or pushing the limits.

Parenting and disciplining a gifted child requires some different strategies than might be needed with other children. The following include some of the differences that just might apply to your child:

1. They will debate you

Be prepared for questions, debates, and endless dialogue about your rationale. This does not mean, of course, that you must debate every decision. Distinguish between reasonable requests for an explanation (why we can't get a puppy) and a manipulation to change your mind ("you let my sister stay up later three years ago, so I should be able to now"). Offer a clear, understandable reason and move on.

2. They expect fairness, logic and honesty

All kids do... but gifted kids, in particular, will rebel if they believe they are deceived or if decisions seem illogical. You don't have to share personal information (dad and I are stressed, so we need a weekend out of town), but outright deception (taking her to the dentist when you told her you were going out to get ice cream) will build distrust.

3. Their immaturity will surprise you

Despite their astonishing intellect, gifted children can display a surprising level of immaturity at times. They may melt down at the most inopportune moment, embarrass you with their lack of social skills (often due to asynchronous development), and refuse to use that logic you know they possess. Their immature behavior is more noticeable because of how much it contrasts with their heightened intellectual abilities.

4. They may abandon logic, and respond with emotionality, sensitivity, and rigidity

Although logical to a fault, gifted children are often highly sensitive, and may respond to a variety of situations with intensely emotional reactions. These can include emotional outbursts, oversensitivity, and rigidity (such as refusing to wear anything resembling the school color because of anger about homework). Emotional reactivity is more common among toddlers and teens, although can be a factor for some children throughout their childhood.

5. They may lack motivation if they disagree with what is expected

If the task seems unfair, unnecessary, too difficult, too easy, poorly conceived, wasteful, or affronts their values, they will resist. It may be difficult to coax a gifted child to comply when he holds onto the belief that a task is just plain wrong. Under these circumstances, you need to determine whether to insist that we sometimes do things we don't like (such as attend a cousin's wedding), or explain the rationale and long-term benefits behind a given task (why he must "show his work" in math class, even though he calculates most of it now in his head).

6. Sometimes misbehavior is driven by internal conflicts related to giftedness

Some behaviors that create problems may be fueled by conflicts associated with giftedness. Perfectionistic children might procrastinate, have melt-downs, and refuse to complete a task until it meets their standards. Those who grasp information more quickly than their peers - or siblings - may seem bossy and intolerant of others' relatively slow pace. Gifted children who are highly sensitive might struggle with family norms, such as spending holiday time with extended family, and respond with tantrums, or through acting out when they are older. Recognizing these conflicts will offer some understanding that your child is not purposely trying to be difficult, but merely responding to internal struggles that seem overwhelming.

What can parents do?

First of all, stick with the basics of child-raising and discipline

Child-raising basics ideally include providing love, limits, consistency, age-appropriate expectations, a stable home environment, empathy, open communication, healthy conflict resolution, and discipline that never, ever, involves physical punishment. Obviously, we all slip up. But trying to achieve these basic groundrules is essential.

Avoid punishment by planning ahead

Preventing the need for punishment is ideal. Some children respond best to incentives, where they work to achieve a goal or reward for accomplishing a task. Examples might include an extra hour of screen time for a week of not fighting with siblings, or extra allowance for getting ready for school in the morning without an argument. Since these goals are planned in advance, they differ from bribes, and can be reviewed and revised over time as your child progresses.

Acknowledge good behavior

When life is going well, it is easy to forget that all children appreciate acknowledgement when they are behaving well, complete their expected tasks, and demonstrate mature, considerate, or helpful behaviors. The expression, "catch them being good," still holds. The amount of praise or reward needs to fit the scope of the behavior. But even comments like, "hey, thanks for helping with the dishes," or "it was great to see you and your brother playing quietly at your grandparent's house" can have an impact. Excessive praise for the most minor task is unnecessary; just remember to let your child know how much you appreciate his kindness, cooperation, patience and responsible behavior.

Work with their logic

Gifted children appreciate logic, even if they don't agree with the outcome. Enlist the strength of their logical thinking to help them understand the rationale behind decisions. Of course, this does not mean debating for hours; instead, point out your reasoning, let them respond, and then insist that they move on.

Use discipline that seems fair

Most gifted children will understand that a "time-out" or loss of a favorite toy is warranted in response to unacceptable behavior - even if they don't like it. If the punishment seems out of proportion to the transgression, though, they will resent it. Similarly, offer incentives and goals that will encourage your child to stop engaging in problem behaviors.

Include them in decision-making 

As gifted children get older, you might consider including them in a conversation about what they think is appropriate punishment for certain behaviors, as well as generating incentives and goals. If you agree with your child's suggestions, you could incorporate them into a plan for handling the next transgression. This level of participation gives your child a sense of control and involvement in the process.

Consider consequences that involve taking action

Rather than just using time-outs or removing a favorite object, you could require "community service" at home. The task might be as simple as expecting your child to clean the bathroom or rake the lawn. Sending your child to his room may not seem like much of a burden, whereas expecting some form of action to compensate for a transgression may have more of an impact.

Insist that they make amends

If the transgression involved destruction of property or hurting someone's feelings, insist that your child come up with a plan for making amends. A quick, empty apology is not enough. Ask your child to come up with a more heartfelt expression of regret for her behavior in words or action, such as repairing the damaged item, saving up to purchase the toy that was broken, or expressing a verbal apology that is more than just "I'm sorry." As much as your child won't like any of this, it will appeal to her logic and sense of fairness. It also may help the "victim" of the transgression feel more resolution.

Help predict and prevent situations that may lead to problems 

Your gifted child may become easily overstimulated... or become bored and act up to amuse himself... or overthink and worry about a new situation, resulting in a balky refusal to participate. Help him with these difficult challenges through support, skills building, perspective-taking and role playing. Try to anticipate and steer clear of avoidable situations that create conflict. Develop a sense of when to push and when to let go of your own expectations. Of course, sometimes problems persist due to a range of difficulties - family crises, stressful life transitions, mental health problems, social stressors, etc. Under these circumstances, counseling with a licensed mental health professional can be helpful.

The best form of punishment is one that never needs to be used. Through a better understanding of what triggers your child's reactions, along with a fair and reasoned approach to discipline, your gifted child will recognize that certain problem behaviors won't achieve what she wants. Over time, these behaviors should improve or abate, and life should get easier for all involved.

This blog is part of the GHF blog hop on "discipline and the gifted child."

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Giftedness and the growth mindset: Lessons from music and sports

What can we learn about the growth mindset from music and sports? 

And how does this affect our understanding of giftedness?

The growth mindset concept, which attributes academic success to perseverance and effort, and assumes that we all can improve our intellectual abilities, has become a popular buzzword in education. There are certainly many benefits to encouraging persistence, drive and confidence in one's potential. The theory emphasizes the role of effort, process and perseverance, and reminds us that it is never a good idea to praise children for their innate talents. So, then, what is the problem?

The problems with mindsets

Like other popular concepts, such as grit and resilience, the growth mindset attracts followers who sometimes misunderstand, distort or exaggerate its original meaning. It has been oversimplified, used to categorize students into dichotomies (having either a fixed or growth mindset), and conceptualized as a character trait rather than a situation-specific approach to problem-solving. Carol Dweck, who launched the concept, has even gone so far as to coin the term "false growth mindset," in response to common misconceptions, such as confusing growth mindset with a positive outlook, or equating it only with praise for effort.

 In addition, some research findings challenge its impact. In fact, a recent meta-analytic study pointed to its relative ineffectiveness. Attempts to replicate Dweck's original results have been unsuccessful. One commentator even asserted that the mindset "'revolution' is mostly a mirage"

Giftedness as a target 

As growth mindset has gathered steam, gifted children have become a target. Despite a lack of sound research, there have been claims that the gifted label is harmful to children's sense of self. Awareness of one's giftedness is cited as cause for developing a fixed mindset; when a gifted child avoids taking academic risks, adherents of this model assume a fixed mindset is driving the child's need to preserve a gifted self-image. A recent study, however, found that gifted students, in fact, were not more likely to develop a fixed mindset.

As Dweck and others have noted, it is never a good idea to praise a child for being smart. However, gifted children already know they are different. Providing a clear, age-appropriate explanation that helps them understand giftedness, and does not treat them as special, is essential and validates what they know to be true. Yet, rather than addressing underachievement or fears that arise among some gifted students, some growth mindset advocates recommend that we keep these kids in the dark, eliminate the gifted label altogether, and try to hide the truth about their abilities from them. Let's just pretend they're not gifted and they'll never know! 

Dweck has gone so far as to claim that what we view as talent or giftedness is merely the product of exceptional effort and drive, and that ability plays no role. In a commentary on talent, Dweck noted the following:

"They tell us that many well-known geniuses - Edison, Darwin, even Einstein - were ordinary bright children who became obsessed with something and because of that obsession ended up making enormous contributions...Mozart, whom we think of as composing in early childhood, did not produce original and noteworthy works until after more than ten years of non-stop composing..." 

Of course, hard work, dedication, and drive are critical to success. But, it is quite a stretch to label Einstein or Mozart as ordinary, or to downplay Mozart's prodigious childhood talent because his greatest works were not composed at a very early age.

Lessons learned from music and sports

The public often responds quite differently to talented musicians, creative artists and athletes than to the intellectually gifted. Talent is recognized as an essential component in their success. Most now realize the false expectations that Gladwell's "10,000 hours of practice" have engendered. We can train all we want, but at some point, we hit the limits of our abilities and potential. Physiology, talent, and wiring play a significant role.

Every talented athlete, musician, dancer, performer, and other creative artist also knows that innate ability is just the start. It takes passion, endurance, and dedicated practice to achieve success. They recognize that perseverance and passion - the ingredients in growth mindset - are essential. An awareness of their talent does not instill a fixed mindset; it is a starting point and provides information about their capabilities and work yet to be accomplished. A realistic appraisal of their talents and limitations informs choices and fuels success.

How this applies to schools

Joshua Raymond has highlighted the flaws in how schools apply the growth/fixed mindset concept, and has suggested adopting a "flexible mindset," where both abilities and effort are acknowledged.

"What is needed is the flexible mindset, incorporating both differences in ability and growth through effort. The flexible mindset recognizes that students should know what their gifts and disabilities are and learn skills to expand their intellectual capacity."

This model is standard procedure in sports, music and the creative arts. Talent, ability and potential are identified and nurtured. Effort, practice, and training are the norm. There are no easy A's - at least if you want to play for an elite team, win a concerto competition, or perform with a respected dance company. Less talented students are still nurtured and trained, but are steered toward groups that best support their unique abilities, such as junior varsity, or the chorus.

Unfortunately, schools often ignore this basic, common sense approach. In "What if Michael Phelps trained in a kiddie pool," the absurdity of withholding opportunities from both talented athletes and gifted students is aptly described. In most school districts, heterogeneous classrooms based on age are still the norm. Students are led to believe that their abilities are equal, even though everyone knows who struggles and who is the smartest kid in the room - just like they can spot the best athlete and who cannot run a mile. Children who struggle in school are told they can achieve anything, even when they sense this is not quite true. Gifted children are expected to suppress their burning desire to learn - until that fire is almost extinguished.

Where does growth mindset fit in?

First, attaining a growth mindset has been suggested as a remedy for gifted students who seem mired in fear and rigidity. They are told they have a fixed mindset, view their abilities as stable, and need to appreciate that challenging themselves will spur growth and achievement. Although this advice is well-intended, simplistic labels will not work with gifted students. Older students will roll their eyes and once again feel misunderstood. Most gifted students view themselves as fairly complex individuals, and will reject the view that perceptions of self and of their motivation are "fixed." Even worse, some gifted students, especially those with perfectionistic tendencies, might assume they did something wrong and blame themselves. I don't even have the right mindset; I guess I am a failure.

Secondly, blaming gifted identification as cause for a fixed mindset and subsequent underachievement or fear of taking academic risks is misguided. A "fixed mindset" alone cannot explain the myriad reasons for gifted students' underachievement, apathy and self-doubt. The possible causes are far too complex to conform to such a one-dimensional concept. An array of factors - peer influences, sociocultural pressures, developmental issues, mental health concerns, family dynamics, and most importantly, an inadequate and lackluster education - are some of the many influences that contribute to these reactions. There should be no room in education - of all places - for the oversimplification and reductionistic view of complex factors associated with learning and human behavior.

Rather than denying their giftedness, or labeling them as having a fixed mindset, perhaps educators could use a more complex, comprehensive approach to understand the causes of underachievement, rigidity or fears when they occur. Combined input from the student, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, coaches, extra-curricular teachers, and all other knowledgeable persons, could provide insight into why the student is struggling. Devising a specific plan with measurable, meaningful goals that address specific fears and motivational roadblocks is a start. And, of course, schools would be expected to provide optimal instruction that facilitates each child's motivation, challenge and drive - before underachievement and apathy arise.

Let's take a lesson from music and sports, and recognize that both ability and perseverance are necessary for success. Let's encourage students to feel confident and strive to reach their potential, but also insist that schools offer a challenging education tailored to each child's unique learning needs.