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.


When
students
value
the
goals
of
school,
they
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expend
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school-
work,
and
do
better
academically
(Pintrich
&
DeGro
When
students
value
the
goals
of
school,
they
are
more
likely
to
engage
in
academics,
expend
more
effort
on
their
school-
work,
and
do
better
academically
(Pintrich
&
DeGro
When
students
value
the
goals
of
school,
they
are
more
likely
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engage
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expend
more
effort
on
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school-
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and
do
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(Pintrich
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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 underachivement.


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?



References:

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  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_under_achievers.htm.

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