Monday, November 19, 2018

Your child is gifted! Now what?

Your child recently was identified as gifted

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

What is your next step?

1. Get educated  

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

2. Learn about your local resources

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

3. Your child may need a lot from you

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

4. Recognize your own emotions

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

5. Prepare for the unexpected 

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

6. You must forge your own path

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

Get ready!

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

What's so controversial about testing for gifted services?

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

So why, then, is IQ testing so controversial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she conscientious and diligent? 

Does he become frustrated and give up easily? 

Is she cooperative and engaging, or timid and withdrawn? 

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

Is she haphazard and distractible? 

How are his planning and organizational skills?

Is her behavior age-appropriate?

Is he detail-oriented and obsessive? 

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

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

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

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

4. Can the process actually harm your child?

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

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

5. What if we are disappointed in the results?

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

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

Testing provides useful information

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

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

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

What do IQ tests test?

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

Tests and assessments

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

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Abandoning perfectionism

Perfection is a powerful word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about "adaptive" perfectionism?

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

It would seem that some of the debate arises from the conflation of these terms. Definitions of perfection and perfectionism are merged together as if they are one concept. There appears to be little distinction between the positive act of striving for perfection and the negative effects of perfectionism. 

In an article claiming that "healthy perfectionism" is an oxymoron, Greenspon aptly notes the following:

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

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

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

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

When precision matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pain of perfectionism

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

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

How to help our children - and ourselves

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

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

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

Further reading on perfectionism

The many faces of perfectionism

What causes perfectionism?

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

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

Perfectionism is increasing, and that's not good news

The alarming new research on perfectionism

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

Is there an antidote to perfectionism?

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

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