Tuesday, August 22, 2017

One of the greatest barriers to gifted education

What is one of the greatest barriers to understanding, accepting and educating gifted children?


Gifted children and adults are the target of misconceptions, unrealistic expectations, and gross distortions about their basic nature. Stereotyping leads to sweeping generalizations and assumptions based on limited facts, and is fueled by suspicion, envy, and bitterness. Stereotyping also creates a false sense of certainty about what one knows as "truth" and understands as the "facts."

Here are a few common stereotypes and false beliefs about gifted people and gifted education:

  • Giftedness is the product of coaching, "hot-housing," and excessive intervention from anxious parents.

  • Gifted people are nerdy social misfits, as commonly portrayed in film and the media.

  • Gifted education is elitist, is not equitable, and hurts at-risk children who are more deserving of resources.

  • Gifted children are expected to do just fine even if they don't receive an appropriate education. After all, they are smart enough to succeed on their own.

Like any stereotype, those aimed at gifted people are borne of unfamiliarity, misunderstanding, and sometimes fear and envy. Gifted children are sometimes perceived as having received "too many intellectual gifts," so need to be "taken down a notch." They are mocked and bullied for their differences, high intellect, or academic success. Their opportunities at school are often limited in an attempt to compensate others without said "gifts."

The term "gifted" itself evokes longing and bitterness among some whose children are not identified. While most people recognize that giftedness is associated with unique and exceptional abilities that are not the norm, some even deny this by claiming that "every child is gifted." Some teachers and administrators who lack training in gifted education may subscribe to this belief, and assume that any child can achieve to the same extent as a gifted child if the same opportunities are provided.

When gifted students are successful, they are scrutinized for fallibility and imperfections. Higher expectations often are placed upon them, despite an absence of sufficient guidance. Those who excel are seen as magically achieving their goals without effort. If they fail to achieve stellar accomplishments, they are disparaged for either not achieving noteworthy markers of success, or somehow lacking "grit."

Some gifted children's social and emotional traits are misdiagnosed and mistaken for various problems, such as Aspergers, ADHD, or OCD. Learning disabilities are frequently overlooked, given widely held beliefs that learning difficulties are absent among gifted children. These twice exceptional children often struggle "twice as much" to acquire the academic services they need.

If stereotyping of the gifted remained only a personal set of beliefs, it would be bad enough. But unfortunately, stereotyping informs school policy and educational funding decisions. When all children are seen as gifted, or when the gifted are viewed as less deserving of educational resources, or when gifted education is perceived as elitist, gifted children suffer.

There is much work to be done. Parents, teachers, leaders in education need to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions and advocate for the needs of gifted students. The more accurate the information that is shared, the more we can help these frequently underserved children.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Helping your gifted child in the aftermath of Charlottesville

Most gifted children and teens have a heightened sensitivity and an acute awareness of what seems fair and socially just. As a result, distressing events such as those that occurred recently in Charlottesville may hit them particularly hard. As a parent, it is essential to offer the appropriate age-based support and remain attuned to what your child needs.

Here are some tips:

1. Young children may not fully grasp the full scope of events, but still may react to what they overhear. They may see snippets of fighting on TV, notice their family's distress, or overhear other adults talking about what occurred. They may formulate their own (often inaccurate) assessment of events. Will the Nazis come and get us? Will there be riots near my school?  

You need to provide simple, reassuring statements to calm any lurking anxiety - even if your child is not overtly expressing it. Look to see if he seems more withdrawn, if his play seems more "aggressive," if he has trouble sleeping. Let him know that there was some protesting against some angry people (with beliefs that your family does not agree with), but that it is over now, and that no one is coming to your town or your house. If your child asks about the beliefs, you can simply say that these include believing that some people are not OK just because of their skin color or religion - and that you don't agree with that.

2. Older children and teens may be much more aware of the events and able to express their anger or anxiety. Again, try to reassure your child that you will keep her safe, and that it is not likely that such an event will happen in your town. If your teen wants to participate in a vigil or anti-hate march, you can assess the potential safety of the event, and decide to accompany her as a family effort. You might also suggest other ways your child or teen can express frustration, such as letter-writing, contacting government representatives, or getting involved in volunteer work.

Many inquisitive gifted teens want to understand the reasons for certain behaviors. They may pursue theories about the causes of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry. Depending on their age and maturity, they may benefit from articles ranging from historical reviews of slavery and the Holocaust to the social psychology of racism to current trends in the rise of hate groups. While this research may quell their thirst for knowledge, it may create further anxiety and distress.

3. Model appropriate reactions. Even if you are distressed, try not to overreact in front of your child. State your opinions, but also your plan of action. You might mention that you plan to write letters, participate in a vigil, or increase your volunteer work. This demonstrates to your child that even when there are distressing national or world events, no one has to remain passive. We each can take charge - even in a small way. This may help your child feel less powerless, address any existential angst that may be developing, and provide an outlet for his fears.

4. Help your child find healthy distractions. Continue life as usual, and remind your child that it is OK to continue to work, study and play as always. If your child wants to get involved, help her investigate volunteer activities at school or in the community that might spark an interest.

You cannot shield your child from the distressing events in the news. But as a loving parent, you can provide a buffer, a resource, and a guide to help your child manage the confusing, overwhelming emotions that follow.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Six reasons to stop treating gifted kids as "special"

What's wrong with telling gifted kids that they are special?

After all, they hear frequent messages that point out how they are different...unique...and yes, special.

They overhear adults rave about their talents.

Their peers don't quite "get" them, and are sometimes a bit jealous.

Teachers occasionally provide extra attention - explaining different projects or homework assignments that the other kids don't receive.

They witness some parents clamoring to have their children evaluated for gifted programs, and sometimes hear kids brag when they are accepted.

They surmise that being gifted must be a big deal.

Whether they like it or not, gifted children are sometimes treated as special because they are different.  False assumptions and labels, unrealistic expectations, misconceptions, and envy complicate the picture. The term "gifted" evokes longing and bitterness among those whose children are not identified. All children are gifts to their families and should be special to them. But sometimes when families notice another child "labeled" as gifted, and don't understand the context for said label, sparks can fly.

What does "special" really mean?

In an odd twist to this quandary, use of the term "special" within education circles has different connotations, and is often associated with learning difficulties. Most parents don't want this label for their children. "Special services," (typically offered to address developmental or learning delays) do not evoke the same bitterness and envy as gifted services.

Putting aside the official terminology used to define "special services" in schools, most people recognize that giftedness is associated with unique and exceptional abilities that are not the norm. Some may try to deny this by claiming that "every child is gifted." But such statements ignore the facts. As noted in a recent commentary:
"by definition, it is not possible for 'all students' to be 2 or 3 standard deviations above their age equivalent peers. To say so demonstrates either exceptionally poor understanding of mathematics or exceptionally poor understanding of the reality of intellectual giftedness." 
Others may boast that all they want is an average child, or they won't call their child gifted - as if giftedness is a choice or will disappear if ignored.

You don't get to choose your child's intellect - it can be enhanced or thwarted depending on environmental and educational circumstances, but your child's abilities are not yours to choose.

Problems with the "special" label

All of this controversy can lead to the assumption that gifted children are "special" as opposed to merely different or neuroatypical. It is essential that all children know that they are special to their parents just because they are loved. But when children believe that they are "special" to family, friends, or teachers specifically because they are gifted, several problems can arise:

1. Love seems conditional 

Children need to feel special and loved by their parents regardless of their innate abilities. Love should not be contingent upon talents, performance or accomplishments. This is a set-up for approval-based achievement, perfectionism, insecurity, and long-standing resentment. If children assume that they are only loved when they perform - and perform well - they will become anxious, insecure and resentful. Ultimately, this can damage their relationship with their parents as well as affect their self-concept and overall mental health.

2. It just feels wrong

Recognition of a child's abilities can backfire, especially when associated with an innate talent unrelated to effort and hard work. Praise for a talent or an easily accomplished task can evoke feelings of guilt and shame. With their heightened sense of fairness and justice, gifted children know that it's just wrong to receive acknowledgment for something they had no more control over than the color of their eyes. It is confusing and leaves little room for distinguishing talent from a legitimate, hard-fought achievement.

3. It destroys peer relationships

Children also sense when they are treated differently and inappropriately singled out at school. Some may feel undeserving, and fear that peers will resent them. This is particularly damaging when teachers ask gifted students to tutor struggling students or co-teach the class. No one likes a teacher's pet, and singling out gifted students is bound to hamper their chances of fitting in. Due to the elimination of ability grouping in many districts, gifted instruction is often delivered separately, away from the rest of the class. Gifted students receive small chunks of "pull-out" instruction or individualized, "special" attention from the teacher, and may feel embarrassed that they warrant this additional time. Other students also may resent it as well.

4. It creates inflated expectations

Some gifted children develop highly inflated and unrealistic expectations for themselves. They might expect to matriculate at the most prestigious college, land the best possible job, and receive numerous awards along the way. Any divergence from this path is perceived as a disappointment and failure. An average grade, a rough patch in school, and less than stellar SAT scores are viewed as shameful and an assault to their sense of self. There is no margin for error. While some eventually develop resiliency and humility, others may struggle for years with anxiety, shame, depression, bitterness, and anger.

5. It skews their perspective

When gifted children assume that functioning at such a high level is the norm, they may come to expect this from others as well. They may become impatient, demanding and frustrated when their peers do not grasp information at the same pace, cannot delve into projects with the same intensity, and have less intrinsic interest in learning. Just like a talented athlete loses patience with a struggling teammate, gifted children can become frustrated in interactions with neurotypical children. Appreciating that there is nothing "special" about their abilities may help them tolerate this frustration and feel more accepting of their peers' differences in these situations.

6. It perpetuates stereotypes about giftedness

Some of the reluctance to provide gifted education, the backlash against ability grouping, and the widespread neglect of gifted children's needs is fueled by the public's emotional response to the concept of giftedness. When a group of highly able individuals are viewed as "special," envy, bitterness and irrationality may follow. Otherwise well-meaning teachers, administrators and families block attempts to provide gifted services. They claim that gifted children are not deserving of "special" treatment, that it is elitist, that it is not equitable, that gifted children are privileged, or that other children would feel wounded if they believed that they were not as smart. These notions are often excuses for implementing policies based on emotional reactivity about giftedness and "special" treatment rather than sound research or clarity about what gifted children need.

Not treating gifted children as "special" does not mean ignoring their needs

Gifted children have unique educational needs due to their intellectual differences and require academic services tailored to these needs. Not treating them as "special" does not mean neglecting their education or failing to provide services they require. In fact, receiving appropriate services should be the "norm" for them, and not viewed as special treatment. It is ironic that gifted services are often housed within special education departments, as this is often the only means of assuring any funding at all. If giftedness were viewed as just another learning difference that required a different educational approach - rather than a trait to be envied - teachers could get on with educating their students.

What can you do?

Show your child love and acceptance, provide structure, and discipline appropriately as needed - what you would do for any child. Treat giftedness as just another aspect of who your child is - not as overly important, but as a trait that needs attention and care. Praise your child's efforts, offer support and acceptance when he or she fails, and encourage healthy risk-taking. Teach self-compassion, gratitude and tolerance for others' differences. Educate family, friends, acquaintances, teachers, administrators, legislators, and any others you encounter who are misinformed about giftedness. And continue to advocate to ensure that your child receives an appropriate and enriching education.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Help your gifted child find work-play balance

Organizational consultants emphasize "work-life balance" for employees drowning in stress. Find your pace. Be mindful. Don't check e-mail after work. And so on.

Gifted children sometimes need to find their "work-life" balance as well. They crave intellectual challenge and stimulation, but too much activity can result in burn-out. How can parents recognize that fine line between engagement and too much pressure?

Finding Work-Play Balance

1. Remain attuned to your child

Your child will let you know. He might not voice specific complaints, but his behavior speaks for itself. Symptoms can include anxiety, irritability, lethargy, depression, mood swings or sadness, an increase in arguments with you or his siblings, and a lowered frustration tolerance. Other signs are sleep disturbance (sleeping more, waking more often, or frequent nightmares), loss of appetite, or physical complaints, such as stomachaches or headaches. These symptoms may not necessarily stem from a work-play imbalance, but sometimes that can be part of the problem.

2. Read between the lines

If your child is able to express her concerns, listen to her. Gifted children, in particular, are highly sensitive and aware of their feelings. If she tells you she feels overwhelmed, or claims a particular class is too stressful, believe her. Her distress may be revealed through obsessive worrying, perfectionism, late-night melt-downs before an exam, or chronic procrastination. She also may express her distress indirectly. She might be annoyed by her teacher's voice, or the color of the classroom, or the lay-out of the robotics studio, or some other seemingly obscure complaint. It may be too difficult for her to admit to you (or herself) that she feels overwhelmed and overworked. Listen and pay attention to what she really might be saying.

3. Find out what is causing the problem

If a class or extra-curricular activity is too demanding, find out why. Understanding what is upsetting your child shows that you care and are open to learning more. It demonstrates your interest in assessing the situation and taking action, if necessary. Learning more about the problem, however, does not mean you must intervene, pull your child out of a class, or stop an activity altogether. Additional options include limiting his involvement, reducing expectations, speaking with his teacher, or helping him improve his social skills, time management or coping strategies. If he continues to struggle, and you are unable to help, it may be beneficial to consult with a licensed mental health professional.

4. Understand your child's drive

For many gifted children (and adults), work and play are inescapably intertwined. Play is the best learning tool for young children, and researchers have recommended making provisions for even more play time during the school day. Gifted kids use both play and challenging academic opportunities to delve into a task or project, and find intrinsic joy through learning, curiosity, creative expression, and accomplishing a meaningful goal. When schools eliminate the option for challenging learning, the result is lukewarm, rote educational instruction. This creates its own form of stress and misery for gifted children, contributing to boredom, apathy, and disillusionment. As a parent, it may fall on you to provide opportunities for free time, play, and creative expression at home, and to advocate when necessary within your child's school.

5. Encourage what works

You know your child best. When she is engaged, excited, immersed in a task she loves, and shares her enthusiasm with you, it's a clear sign that she's on the right track. When she throws herself into learning, is eager to embrace a new challenge, and is confident, you know that she has found that work-play balance. Help your child remain on the path that fosters challenge, curiosity, engagement, and a willingness to risk failure without fear. These opportunities will support continued growth, help to prevent burn-out, and encourage an ongoing passion for learning.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Balancing Boredom and Burn-out. To see more blogs, click on the following link: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_balancing_boredom_burnout.htm

Friday, June 23, 2017

Five reasons to consider an elite college (and they're not what you think)

With so much recent criticism and outright condemnation of highly competitive colleges, you might wonder why anyone would bother to apply. After all, with acceptance rates lower than 10%, and a brutal admissions process, why subject your child to the stress...and likely rejection?

Media commentary aptly warns about the highly competitive admissions standards, discourages students from placing so much value on any one school, and reminds us that a good education can be found just about anywhere. Elite colleges are sometimes the target of harsh criticism, though. Sometimes it seems that journalists highlight every possible drawback to reassure the rest of us that we're okay despite never having attended one of these colleges.

Unfortunately, some critique moves beyond the colleges and targets the applicants, themselves. Applying to these institutions is viewed with suspicion, and perceived as merely a stepping stone to Wall Street. Students are stereotyped as entitled, prep-school kids or anxious superachieversobsessed with the outward symbols of success.

Parents of student applicants are portrayed even more negatively. Labeled as pushy elitists preoccupied with their child's future earning potential, they are accused of turning their poor children into bleary-eyed overachievers, chained to the desk... or computer... or piano... or ballet barre. Rumors and accusations regarding how a child (possibly could have) gained admission become the subject of hushed speculation. Bitter, snarky comments suggest that it must have been a legacy admission, or that thousands were spent on SAT test prep, or the family must have donated to the school. The heightened competition can bring out the worst in families and communities.

Okay...yes, there are some parents who hover, indulge too many of their own personal hopes and dreams, and pressure their children. This behavior is not exclusive to gifted children, though; it happens everywhere. And yes, some gifted teens are overachievers who place added burdens on themselves and expect to always succeed. But overachievement, perfectionism and high expectations are not exclusive to giftedness either.

In reality, the majority of gifted teens are not overachievers in hot pursuit of perfection and awards. Most just want a good education.

A challenging education has eluded many gifted children due to rigid school policies that have marginalized their needs. So college looms large as that one last chance to grasp an enriching learning experience. Many believe that they finally might be able to rekindle that intrinsic love of learning lost long ago. And at the very least, they no longer have to hide their curiosity and academic interests to fit in.

Five reasons gifted teens pursue admission to elite colleges

It is time to dispel the speculation and myths about college choices. Here are five reasons gifted teens consider a highly challenging college (and they are not what most people assume).

1. Finally, they can learn

It is well-documented that gifted students are undereducated, often bored, and frequently coast through classes with little effort. Most schools focus on at-risk students and/or teach-to-the-middle, and the needs of the gifted are overlooked. Gifted students often breathe a sigh of relief when they arrive at an elite college, where the academics are intensive and fast-paced, and where class discussions include like-minded peers.

2. It's the money, honey

Elite colleges typically offer the most generous need-based financial aid. This is a critical and decisive factor for many low-income and middle class families, who find that these schools are sometimes more affordable than their state flagship university. Elite colleges are much maligned for their sticker price, which unfortunately shuts out upper middle class students from aid. Even then, the price is often no higher than costs at many other private institutions.

3. A place they can call their own

Many gifted students feel like outliers in high school. Although some mask their abilities to fit in, others never feel they belong. School seems built for other kids - the athletes, the popular kids, the students who appear to thrive with the education that is offered. College presents an opportunity to embrace a new setting and culture, a place where innovative ideas are encouraged, and a diverse environment where students hail from many regions. Gifted students might even feel pride about their school - for the first time.

4. Finding their niche

As outliers, gifted students often struggled to fit in during high school. If they found a niche, it may have included other "outliers" as well - for example, in theatre, robotics, chess, debate team, or band, But the niche expands and becomes normalized in a college environment filled with other highly talented, intellectually engaged students. It is no longer weird to display intellectual curiosity, passion for learning, intense drive, and a thirst for knowledge. And it is a comfort and a relief to find like-minded peers who feel the same way.

5. Testing their limits

Gifted students just might get to challenge themselves for the very first time at an elite college. As suggested in a previous blog post, there are disparities in the demands and intellectual challenge of classes at different colleges. When students coast through high school, they never gain perspective about what it means exert effort, build resilience, or learn from failure experiences. Some may hit a wall in college, where they find that a class or subject seems too difficult, and they must ask for help - often for the first time.

Of course, most students can find a way to meet their academic and social needs at any college of their choosing. Even those gifted students who might benefit from the intensity and challenges of an elite college may not be accepted or choose not to attend. It takes a particularly well-developed "resume" to gain admission at most elite colleges, the likelihood of acceptance is uncertain, and many families cannot afford the cost if they do not qualify for need-based aid. Success in life does not depend on attending a highly competitive college.

However, an elite college may offer the best fit for some gifted teens in search of a challenging education. They should not be discounted in response to media critique or disparagement. Some of the critics may not have had personal experience with these schools, may be responding to an encounter that went awry, and may be cherry-picking information to support their opinions. Before you completely dismiss elite colleges as an option, understand your financial needs, learn more about admissions requirements (and whether it is worth your child's energy to apply), and most importantly, determine if a particular college would be a good fit for your child.

Final note: I have no stake in the game with this commentary. I attended state universities for both of my undergrad and graduate degrees, so I have no personal "attachment" to elite colleges. I am commenting based on my observations as a psychologist who works with teens and college-aged adults, a parent, and an advocate for the gifted.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How to explain "giftedness" to your child

What should you tell your child about being gifted? 

Whether identified as gifted, referred for an evaluation, or placed in a “gifted and talented program," children quickly form their own impressions. They may wonder if this makes them different or smarter or weirder or better than the other kids. They may worry that they will become less popular or will be teased or bullied. They might even want to stop being gifted altogether.

Understanding giftedness is not easy

Understanding giftedness is complicated for adults; it is even more challenging for a six-, eight- or ten-year-old child. They are too young to fully grasp what giftedness means or place it in a context that makes sense. Gifted children already know they are different, They have probably heard both compliments and criticism about their quirks, talents, and precocious behaviors. The "gifted” label can provide some validation for what they already know to be true, but it also might evoke confusion and anxiety.

Your child needs your help

Children need their parents to provide a framework for understanding what being "gifted" means. The following are some possible explanations you might offer to your child:

1.  Gifted is just a word. 

It doesn’t mean that someone is better than anyone else. It was named a long time ago because people felt that it was a “gift” to be able to learn so easily. People might feel the same way about kids who run really fast or can slam dunk a basketball. You are so fortunate to be able to learn so quickly. But it doesn't make you a better person. People are special for all kinds of wonderful reasons. Being gifted does not make someone any more special than the next person.
2.  Gifted is a word given to kids who have different learning needs.

Everyone is different. Just like some people are taller or shorter than others, or more or less athletic, some people need a different approach in school to make learning more interesting. Everyone learns at a different pace, just like people grow taller at different rates. Some people need their teachers to teach a little more slowly, and others do best when they can move quickly through the topic. You seem to need teaching that lets you move quickly or spend a lot of time exploring a topic in depth.

3.  You were found to be “gifted” because of some tests you took.

We asked the school to give you these tests because you complained about being bored. We knew that if the testing labeled you as “gifted,” we could ask the school to give you more interesting work. We didn't care if you were gifted or not. We didn't care what score you got on the test. The only reason for taking it was so the school could give you more choices and make school more interesting. (Note: it is never a good idea to tell a young child his or her IQ score.) Now that the school knows your test results, they can find more interesting school work that is more suited to what you need. 

4.  Giftedness is something that is a part of you.

Giftedness is just like your eye color or height. It doesn't come from how hard you work in school, and will not go away if you slack off. It is always there and gives you some great choices to do some really creative/intensive/interesting/(you fill in the blanks) things. You can't turn it on and off like a light switch. Being gifted affects how you see the world and think - not just how you perform in school.  But if you work hard, you can achieve a lot. If you don’t, you will lose out on the opportunities your abilities have given you. Just like you can decide what clothes you wear or what haircut you get, only YOU can decide how to use your abilities.

5. You are a lot more than your giftedness. 

Even though being gifted is a part of who you are, it is not everything. There is so much more to who you are, and so much we love about you. Your intelligence and talents are just one small piece, and we wouldn't love you any less than if you had different color eyes or hair. You have so many great qualities and interests, and we are so happy that we get to know them. 

6.  Giftedness comes in all shapes and sizes.

Some kids are really gifted with math. Some are great writers. Some are born leaders. Others paint up a storm. Occasionally, a few gifted children are good at many things; most are not. You have subjects in school that come really easily to you, and interests that you love. We hope you continue to put a lot of energy into these things. But you still need to work hard in those areas that are not easy for you. 

7.  Gifted children sometimes feel they are different from other kids.

Even if you like how easy school is, it can be uncomfortable when you feel like you are different from a lot of the other kids in your class. It’s normal to feel this way. We can help you to figure out what to say if other kids make comments about your interests. We also can help you find things you do have in common with some of the other kids, or help you find outside activities that school does not offer. Being a kid can be hard for everyone - even for some of the other kids who look like they have it easy. Friendships may become easier to find when you get older - but we will help you get through whatever is hard for you right now.

8. Giftedness is not an excuse. 

Being gifted does not mean school should be easy. We know that some of your classes may be too basic for you, which is why we are trying to find opportunities inside and outside of school that will challenge you. We don't expect you to be perfect, but want you to try hard and put in your best effort. Success at anything takes hard work and and practiceNot everything you are going to do at school - or later in a job - is going to be interesting, so you have to learn to do the hard work even if you don't like it. 

9. We love you no matter what

You don't have to be gifted or smart or talented or do well in school for us to love you. We love you for who you are and always will. You don't have to be perfect or prove anything or live up to your giftedness. You just need to figure out what interests you and let yourself delve into it. Of course, we would like you to put in effort in school - even when you don't like your classes. That's just life - sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do, like chores at home. But we don't love you any more or less just because you are gifted. We love you because you are you!

These ideas are just a few suggestions for starting a conversation with your gifted child. You will need to modify them to suit your child’s and your family's beliefs and values. What is most important, though, is conveying that you will help your child navigate this journey through giftedness, and that ability and achievements play no role in your love and appreciation for your child.

What have you told your child about being gifted? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Monday, May 29, 2017

How the media discredits successful students

Once again, an undercurrent of bitterness and envy toward high achieving students has surfaced in the media.

Several recent articles with splashy headlines depict high school valedictorians and salutatorians as the "losers" some already assume they are. Face it - many high school students (and their parents) view those students with a combination of awe, astonishment, envy and bitterness. They may question how these students became so successful, and scoff at their sacrifices. Unlike varsity athletes, top scholastic students are often seen as nerdy social misfits who cared way too much about school.

And just in time for high school graduations, several articles affirm the "loserishness" of these high achievers, each with catchy titles that grab our attention. The article, "This is why class valedictorians don't become millionaires" reminds us that these high achievers never snag the American dream. Another article, "Wondering what happened to your class valedictorian? Not much, research shows" reassures the rest of us that all that hard work was never really worth it.

But let's look at these claims. The articles are based on a recent book by Eric Barker, who cited a 1995 study from Karen Arnold, and uses her research to support his contention that valedictorians are not destined for true success. Arnold followed 81 high school valedictorians for 14 years after their graduation in 1981. She found that 95% had graduated from college with an average GPA of 3.6, and 60% had received a graduate degree. Almost 90% were in professional careers and 40% were in "the highest tier jobs." These individuals would be considered highly successful by most standards. Yet the media's provocative headlines proclaim otherwise - and raise the bar for success to an unreasonable height.

Before writing off these vals and sals, consider the following:

1. Arnold's study was published 22 years ago, using a relatively small sample from one geographic area. It may not be representative of what occurs in other schools in the U.S. or the world, and may not reflect current standards. High school graduates from the class of 2017 may have very different career aspirations than 1981 grads.

2. Study participants were followed until age 32. This is hardly an age cut-off for greatness. Although some "geniuses" show spark early on, in many careers, success takes time, and accumulating millions by age 32 (a criteria for success in the CNBC article) is unlikely. Let's not judge anyone's lifelong achievements by accomplishments at this relatively young age.

3. A somewhat higher proportion of Arnold's study participants were women. She found that many of the women started to doubt their abilities once they entered college (a common struggle for young women), and also chose more female-dominated careers. And at 32, many were focusing on building a family, diverting them from their work. Arnold noted that these women might further their careers at a later time.

4. These articles suggest that the hard-working student is not going to be the brilliant genius who makes great discoveries, starts new companies or showcases wildly creative innovations. Yet, the Bill Gates' and Steven Spielbergs of the world are rare. Most studies of success highlight the importance of conscientious, along with creativity, leadership, integrity and cooperation - traits you would expect to see among valedictorians and other high achieving individuals. 

5. The highly successful people sporting a history of underachievement cited in these articles may have "rebelled" due to boredom and disillusionment with an educational system that ignores gifted students' needs. It is possible that their rebellion did not stem from reckless creativity, but rather from disgust with classes that seemed pointless. If they had been challenged and could have engaged in academics, their investment in school might have been quite different.

6. Even highly creative, fiercely independent people eventually learn to collaborate and compromise - whether in the lab, the boardroom or on a film set. Conformity is more difficult during the throes of adolescence, and maturity develops at a different pace for everyone. Some teens have an easier time during high school and feel supported by family, friends and school. They may be more willing to cooperate with established norms, and focus on learning and achievement. Yet articles such as those above portray these well-adjusted, successful students as inadequate - hard working rule-followers who lack spark. Their tangible and significant accomplishments as teens and as adults are disparaged.

Let's not fall prey to the media's routinely harsh and inaccurate portrayal of gifted or high achieving students. These are children, after all, and they deserve our support and consideration - not our bitterness and scorn. Some valedictorians may be hard working, perfectionistic achievers who sacrifice their social lives for their goals; others may be high ability students who play by some of the rules, but are not fully challenging themselves. You don't have to be a val or sal to be highly successful, and many underachieving gifted and creative students go on to discover greatness. But especially as graduations approach, let's stop disparaging those hard working students who exhibit the effort and endurance to achieve.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A gifted person's guide to therapy

If you are gifted, what should you look for when searching for a therapist?

And when should you run the other way?

Once you have decided you would benefit from the help and support of a psychotherapist, the next step is finding someone you trust. Since misconceptions about therapy are widespread, gaining an overview of the basics might help. Most of the same guidelines apply whether you are gifted or not, with a few exceptions. Here are some tips:

1. First and foremost: Trust your gut

Your best friend, sister, minister, or yelp reviews rave about a therapist. But you meet the person and your stomach turns. Then that therapist is not the right one for you. Yes, it takes time to build trust, but if there is not a good fit, then go elsewhere.

2. You are part of the process

Don't expect your therapist to tell you what to do. You probably wouldn't like it anyway. Therapy requires your input, ideas and contributions. Therapists are not mind-readers and cannot magically solve your problem. You need to be honest, share your thoughts and feelings, and be willing to address concerns you might have avoided for a long time. On the other hand, therapy is interactive and not just a place to unload your stress; there needs to be room for your therapist to offer ideas and feedback. Therapists also comment on your interactions with them to help you improve your relationships outside of therapy.

3. Therapy is hard work

While therapy can be a tremendous support and even a lifesaver, it is also hard work. You will need to think about what you have discussed between sessions and try out new behaviors. You might even need to do a little digging into long-buried family issues to rid yourself of entrenched patterns that influence you now. You won't always walk out of a session feeling great - sometimes you'll feel sad or angry because of emotions that have been stirred up. But the awareness and understanding you have gained is worth it. So be prepared to roll up your sleeves and dig in.

4. Your therapist is not your friend

Don't expect your therapist to share how he might have recovered from addiction, lost weight, or weathered a rough patch in his marriage. Whatever worked for him will not necessarily work for you, and his presumed success might spur envy or comparisons that block your progress. Don't ask your therapist about her vacations, medical problems, or where she bought her new outfit. She cannot become your friend, even if she really likes you a lot. Your therapist's job is to help you understand yourself, change behaviors, and improve relationships. Learning too much about your therapist will interfere with that goal and can be confusing and overwhelming.

5. Therapy requires some flexibility

While most therapists adhere to a particular therapy perspective, it is beneficial for all when a therapist understands and can use a range of techniques and approaches when necessary. Most experienced therapists have a toolbox of ideas for how to treat various concerns, and will tailor what is offered to the individual's needs. They are collaborative, empathetic, and creative, can shift from an exploratory approach to problem-solving with ease, and will incorporate a variety of ideas or refer you to additional resources when these might help. Flexible therapists hold firm when it benefits your long-term success, but will change when it is needed.

6. Therapy takes time

Whether due to the cost, time commitment or emotions that get stirred up, many people want to rush through therapy. Or they place constraints on the process, such as insisting on meeting infrequently. This limits the effectiveness of therapy. You wouldn't take half of the medicine your physician prescribed or study part of a textbook and expect a successful outcome. Yet, many clients assume they can cut corners with therapy. If you have been in therapy for a while and think it's time to scale back, discuss this with your therapist. But if you are starting out and expect to improve, don't place restrictions on regular participation.

7. Google is not the best way to find a therapist

Finding a therapist is not like researching a good restaurant.
You are better off asking a trusted referral source. Check with your family physician, pediatrician, school counselor, school psychologist, or member of the clergy for referrals. Friends can be a resource, too, although what works for your friend may not be best suited to you. You could check with your state psychological or social work organizations, or national lists of therapists who specialize in giftedness, such as HoagiesGifted. Some online sites have information about therapists, but check through these carefully, since they typically only offer information the therapist provides. The most glossy websites don't necessarily reflect quality services, and many therapists don't even have an online presence. Referrals through your insurance company are not the best source either, since they usually provide a list of therapists with little regard to your needs or preferences.

8. Sometimes you get what you pay for

Many people assume their health insurance will come through. Sadly, it may provide little help. Sometimes therapy is (wrongly) viewed as a luxury, and some people feel guilty even paying a meager co-pay for each visit. Many therapists do not necessarily work with managed care contracts either. While some people are limited by their financial situations, others may have the means to pay for therapy but don't feel that it is a necessity. A supportive, transformative, and sometimes life-changing experience is certainly worth the cost, and it may be time to re-evaluate priorities and spending decisions. Not to sound harsh, but that's the reality.

9. Competence, credentials and ethics matter

Competent psychotherapists have received comprehensive training in psychotherapy techniques, psychological assessment, personality theory and ethics, and continue to update their training and skills Many therapists develop areas of specialization and expertise; however, breadth of training and experience is even more essential. Competent therapists also recognize their limitations, adhere to ethical codes of conduct and are clear about the limits of what they can offer in therapy.

Psychotherapists should be licensed in your state. Most are licensed as psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, or professional counselors. Be careful about therapists who list an alphabet soup of certifications after their names, or those who use the title of "dr" without a doctoral degree. When in doubt, check with your state licensing board to ensure that your therapist is licensed and in good standing. Be cautious about therapists who promote their expertise based on personal experiences, or claim a greater understanding of your concerns because or recovery from addictions/eating disorders/trauma/depression or any other problem. Yes, the "wounded healer" moniker is a well-known label and sometimes there is some merit to this. But having endured personal suffering has no correlation with skill or expertise, and the therapist's personal struggles and recovery have no place in your therapy. 

Ethical therapists adhere to a code of ethics, including maintaining confidentiality, boundaries and integrity. Therapists separate their own personal needs from yours in their attempts to help you. Unlike some portrayals in the media and film, therapists should never cross boundaries. This means that they cannot become your friend, have lunch with you, ask personal favors, and should not share a lot about their personal lives. In other words, the therapy is about you - not about them. They might share some information about themselves - but only to enhance the work you are doing in psychotherapy.

10. Try to find a therapist who "gets" giftedness

Most therapists do not have much training in giftedness. Those who specialize in giftedness typically have thorough training as psychotherapists, but also understand the social and emotional effects. If you find a therapist you like and respect who does not know a lot about giftedness, he or she may be willing to learn more through reading and workshops, particularly to offset any misunderstanding related to inaccurate diagnoses. What is most important is your rapport with the therapist and perception that he or she truly understands how your giftedness interacts with and affects who you are.

Some therapists specializing in gifted issues promote themselves because they have been identified as gifted. While they may have personal understanding of gifted issues, this does not mean they are experts in "treating" people, or in understanding your unique concerns. Some gifted people without credentials as psychotherapists or training as personal coaches also identify themselves as "gifted coaches." You might find some of them online. Being gifted does not justify promoting oneself as a credible coach or pseudo-therapist. Since there is no formal credentialing for personal coaching, anyone can claim authority as a coach. Be very careful about seeking advice from these sources.

Go get some therapy!

Psychotherapy is not a luxury, an indulgence or for those who are weak. Unfortunately, these stigmas and stereotypes have prevented people from seeking the support and guidance they need during times of stress. Psychotherapists are far from perfect, but they can help you gather the insight, understanding, motivation and self-compassion to move ahead on your chosen path.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Gifted overthinkers: What makes them tick?

Gifted people sure do think a lot.

Logic, reason, introspection. Thinking is one of their greatest strengths and a source of delight as they ponder the complexities of...well... just about anything. They love to problem-solve, find a creative solution, deconstruct an idea, let their imaginations soar, and debate and disagree.

But this remarkable asset and companion can be a torment when it goes awry.

What causes overthinking? (And what can you do about it?)

Take charge at all costs

Overthinking can stem from a need for control. Some overthinkers are the high achievers and perfectionists who stand out in a crowd. They grab the controls on any project, seem to have all the answers, and master every detail. They take pride in their knowledge and barely come up for air as they race to keep up with the latest information and theories.
I have to be on top of this
Others expect me to get it right 
If I spend enough time sorting through all the options, I'll figure it out

In an effort to stay in control, these gifted overthinkers seek fool-proof plans to ensure that problems will not arise...or that their presumed flaws will not be discovered...or that they will perform perfectly. This fuels perfectionism, repeated checking. and obsessing about what might go wrong. If they miscalculate, they berate themselves for both the outcome and their failure to devise a perfect plan. And while perfectionism is not exclusive to gifted individuals alone, overthinking can increase the likelihood that this pattern will develop.

When gifted overthinkers strive to be the best, and base their self-worth on accomplishments and praise from others, they not only abandon their intrinsic love of learning, but set themselves up for a lifetime of disappointment. Learning to accept failure experiences and using these as a springboard for future growth is essential for all of us. When overthinkers become entrenched in perfectionistic expectations and the rigid pursuit of external goals, they often end up with nothing more than anxiety.

Hijacked by shame

Some gifted children, teens and adults just can't leave an idea alone. They obsess, worry and overthink. They rework every potential glitch in their plans. They torture themselves with "what-ifs" and worst-case-scenarios.

Thinking - once a joy and refuge - becomes hijacked by shame.

Yes, shame - defined by Merriam-Webster as "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety" - takes hold. Shame is the culprit that fuels overthinking for some gifted people. Of course, genetics, biochemistry (in obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example) and external pressure all play a role. But in many instances, shame-based fears drive these thoughts.
What if they discover I'm not as smart as they thought? 
What if I don't succeed? 
Maybe I don't really belong in this advanced class. 
I don't deserve the award - it came too easily.
What is particularly distressing is that most often, their self-doubt and shame is completely unwarranted. Gifted overthinkers worry that their perceived flaws will be discovered, that they will not perform up to par, and that they are undeserving of their talents or recognition. Shame fuels obsessing and overthinking, which in turn, drives even more shame-based fears. They are deprived of relishing their accomplishments and even the activities they enjoy.

Sometimes shame-based fears develop in response to events unrelated to their giftedness (such as depression, traumatic events, or family problems). But all too often, gifted children become ambivalent and ashamed of their talents from an early age. Shame builds when they are chastised for "showing off"... or shamed for correcting a teacher... or teased about the occasional low test score... or when they realize that other children think they are weird.

Gifted children and teens learn to mask their abilities if they want to fit in, as exposing who they are - gifted, with flaws - seems too much for others to bear. These lessons are the building blocks of shame. Overcoming shame-based overthinking requires support and reassurance from caring adults (including teachers who understand and respect the needs of gifted students), finding a niche of like-minded peers who truly accept them for themselves, and sometimes counseling to address low self-esteem and negative thoughts and feelings.

Too many choices

With a mind that races from one fascinating idea to the next, gifted people can be distracted by their own imagination and creativity. It is easy to ignore the tedious task at hand when one's mind conjures up material that is so much more interesting. In fact, some gifted children are misdiagnosed as having ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) because of their high energy level and difficulty focusing on a task.

Gifted overthinkers may become overwhelmed by the choices they face on a given project. They freeze on tests when presented with too many options. They second-guess their answers. They also obsess over the many ideas they can generate when starting a paper, unable to make a clear choice. Rather than appreciate their ability to create so many ideas, or analyze information from different perspectives, they feel anxious and overwhelmed instead.

Too many choices also can create conflict for gifted people with multiple talents and abilities. Often labeled as possessing multipotentiality, they must choose from an array of possible career paths. Making any selection eliminates other options, and many struggle with the implications of letting go. Attempts to juggle and organize competing interests, and tackling more than one pursuit or career goal may contribute to overthinking and distractibility.
How do I combine my love of art with engineering? 
I just can't focus on math when I keep thinking about the screenplay ideas I want to write? 
How do I get started on this paper when I could choose SO many different ways to approach it?  
OK, if I fit in my homework for an hour after school, then I can go to tennis lessons, eat dinner while I write my newsletter article, send off an application for a summer internship, and then practice clarinet. And I'll try to text my friends and help them with their boyfriend drama at the same time. OK, yeah, I think I can fit this all in...
The busy minds and multiple interests of some gifted overthinkers can create an organizational bottleneck. Their greatest challenge is learning to pace themselves, slow down, and develop mindfulness skills to focus on one task at a time. Regardless of how well they think they can multi-task, keeping a distracted focus takes its toll, and learning to pay closer attention to one interest, task and person at a time is essential.

Taming this particular beast

Overthinking can become a stubbornly entrenched pattern that creates the illusion of safe harbor. It reassures the overthinker who assumes that by acquiring just enough knowledge, and reviewing every possible option, the right solution will appear. What eludes overthinkers is the realization that mistakes happen and they will survive with their self-esteem in tact.

In addition to counseling, techniques such as mindfulness, challenging negative beliefs (i.e., cognitive distortions), and values clarification can help. Overthinkers benefit from challenging shame-based messages (from self or others) and setting priorities for what is intrinsically meaningful and of greatest value.

When overthinking strikes, it may be helpful to ask yourself, or have your children or students ask themselves the following:
What is the worst that could happen?
What is the likelihood that the worst will happen?
Where is the data? If I were a scientist, what facts would support my beliefs?
Will this matter five years from now?
Is this consistent with what is important to me and to my values
How can I focus on what is happening right now in this moment, rather than on the past or what might occur in the future?

When gifted overthinkers unburden themselves from anxiety, shame and uncertainty, thinking can resume its role as a source of joy and creativity. If you or your child are tormented by overthinking, get the help you need. Reclaim thinking for what it once was before negative emotions took hold.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overthinking. To see more blogs, click on the following link:  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_overthinking.htm

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Choices exclude: The existential burden of multipotentiality

What I would give to have your talents! It must be nice to be good at so many things!

Gifted children and adults are accustomed to hearing these comments. Many possess multiple and diverse talents and abilities. Math and music. Art and languages. Mechanical skills and writing. Often labeled as possessing multipotentiality, they have their choice of various educational and vocational paths. But is this a blessing or a curse?

Although gifted children delight in their many talents when they are young, they eventually confront the limits that time, money and energy impose. There are only so many activities or extracurriculars they can join (or their parents can afford). When faced with making choices, they learn how to let go, and often mourn what might have been.

While some research claims that multipotentiality is not especially common, many parents of gifted children would beg to differ. They see the decisions their children face - both small (what after school activity to select) and large (which career path to choose). Even when children have one overriding passion that drives their long-term goals, they still may harbor nagging doubts about the talents and skills they left behind.

An existential reality

Making choices can be a burden, and realizing how this limits which fork in the road they may take, is an existential reality the gifted learn at a young age. 

As existentialist and psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote:
"...'alternatives exclude' is an important key to understanding why decision is difficult. Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means 'slay,' as in homicide or suicide)."
And to many multi-talented gifted children, relinquishing a choice is, in a sense, killing off a dream -  accepting that a particular option or path will never come to fruition. This can result is confusion, guilt, anxiety and grief. While some may find creative solutions that combine what they love, others may not.

Searching for purpose and meaning

Gifted teens develop an acute awareness of existential issues and question the meaning and purpose of their lives. Many question their religious traditions, and view authoritarian teachings with skepticism. Some fall into an existential depression. As James Webb has noted:
"Existential depression arises from idealism, disillusionment, and feelings of alienation, emptiness, and aloneness, and it is more common among gifted individuals. The gifted become depressed particularly because their high intellect allows them to contemplate the cosmos and their very small place within it."

Choosing a path

It would follow that multipotentiality adds to this existential burden. With so many options available, gifted teens and young adults feel pressured to direct their talents toward a purposeful career, yet also question whether it will make any difference.  At the very least, they need the freedom to choose a direction that:
  1. encompasses at least one of their interests, 
  2. fits with their values, and 
  3. will engage their sense of meaning and purpose.
If they can identify a path that includes the three components listed above, they may feel less burdened by nagging doubts about "what might have been." Yes, choices exclude. But encouraging gifted teens to forge their own path will alleviate some of the existential pressure and guilt they already feel.

Values to consider when choosing a path

As gifted teens and young adults plan career goals and weigh their options, encourage them to consider the following:

  • What do they value most in life - and how does it apply to their goals? Is it creative expression? Investigative discovery? Helping the underserved? Advancing scientific knowledge? Finding solutions to difficult problems?

  • Which of their interests and abilities translate into work they would find engaging and meaningful? Some of their talents may not lead to a paying job that is compatible with their goals. An artist, for example, might not want to work for an ad agency or sell paintings in a gallery. Of all possible paths, which one would best provide an engaging, creative and purposeful existence? 

  • How might they spend their day? What, exactly, would they do at work? How will work enlist the intellectual/creative/behavioral capability(s) from which they derive the most meaning? Is creative expression essential? Scientific discovery? Leading a team to develop a new solution? Detailed problem-solving? Helping the underprivileged?

  • What abilities and skills do they long to express? Which skills do they envision using - for example, mathematical, writing, linguistic, scientific, musical, spatial, reasoning, creative design, interpersonal, empathetic, investigative, strategic planning - to accomplish said goals? It may not be the content of what they do, but how they work, who they will interact with, the freedom to express themselves, and how it will serve their goals and what they value most. 

  • Do they have an overriding passion that they must pursue? Some feel compelled to follow a career direction or "calling," and cannot imagine any other choice. Many artists, actors and musicians who choose a financially uncertain path claim that they had no other option. They could not envision a life without their art, despite the potential for hardship. Even for some with multiple talents, the choice can be clear.

  • Can they envision some compromise or means of accommodating their varied interests? While choosing a career and relegating a secondary interest to a hobby is commonly suggested, many with multiple talents devise more creative solutions. These might include sequential career changes, side jobs, or integrating their multiple talents into their chosen career field. For example, creative writing skills can be a plus in almost any career. Artists bring perspective-taking skills to problem-solving in business. Musicians find that their "sense of rhythm and flow" enhances both interactions with colleagues and the strength of their writing. Mathematicians bring precision, clarity and spatial ability to most tasks. 

Rather than a burden, many eventually come to view their multipotentiality as a bonus, and see how it enhances much of what they do. Even seemingly dissimilar strengths, such as math and art, share commonalities that can enliven and enrich their academic interests, career, and personal lives. Once they resolve their confusion and grief over roads not taken, most gifted individuals with multiple abilities appreciate their opportunities and find creative solutions that enlist and combine their talents. 

For other blogs/articles on multipotentiality, see the following:

Multipotentiality: When high ability leads to too many options

When I grow up: Multipotentiality and gifted youth

Are you a multipotentialite?

Multipotentialities and multipotentiality: Embracing your true path of paths

9 ways to explain your multipotentiality to non-multipotentialites

Good at too many things

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Multipotentiality. To see more blogs, click on the following link:  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_multipotentiality.htm

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Your musically gifted child's road to college

How can you help your child decide about college when music is his passion?

What options are available, realistic, and financially sound?

Parents of musically talented children often panic when faced with college decisions. They question whether to support their child's passion, attempt to steer her off-course, or even firmly refuse to pay for a music education. Landing a self-supporting job in music performance is an unknown, and many parents worry about their adult child's future livelihood.

Information about how to pursue a music career is hard to find. Your child's high school guidance counselor often has little understanding about possible options other than performance or music education. Most information is usually obtained through music teachers or band/choir/orchestra directors, and beyond that, you and your child are left to flounder on your own.

What can a parent do?

1. Try to relax

Not so easy to do, of course.  But your child's entire future does not rest on her college or conservatory decision. College opens up a world of advanced music study, but much happens later in your child's development. You may hear that finding the "best" teacher or most prestigious conservatory is critical. But if circumstances do not work out, your child can change schools, directions, or even careers. Once she starts college or conservatory, she will get a clearer picture of what fits or is not working for her. Give it time.

2.  Get informed

Ask questions wherever you go - from fellow parents at recitals to college admissions officers. Read as much as you can. Scour the internet. Learn the difference between free-standing conservatories, college music departments, and conservatories within universities, along with how a BM and BA degree differ. Be honest with yourself about what you can afford, since financial aid may be limited at choice schools. Some programs provide a good perspective on college and conservatory choices, and books, online forums, and even a series about conservatory auditions can offer helpful tips.

3.  Visit different programs

Compare, evaluate, and pay attention to details. These questions are just a few to consider:

  • If your child plays a popular instrument (such as flute or violin), will he be able to select the teacher he would like, or have to wait several years into his college career? 
  • If she wants to double major in music and science, will orchestra practice conflict with lab schedules? 
  • If he wants to pursue jazz, will the school also expect participation in marching band? 
  • If the program lacks a performance track, are performance opportunities and individual lessons still available?
  • Is it possible to transfer in or out of a particular major?
Also, make sure your child gets to observe a rehearsal or concert, or at least listens to a recording to ensure that she feels satisfied with the caliber of the ensembles. Visit the practice rooms and see if your child can imagine spending hours there.

4.  Be realistic 

Stand back and realistically assess your child's chances for success. You adore your child, of course, but the music world can be cut-throat. If your child is not already top-notch compared to his peers, it is unlikely he will be accepted into a conservatory, or flourish in a demanding university music program. If you can't be objective, ask her teacher or band/choir/orchestra director for a truthful assessment of her chances. And while achievements aren't everything, if your child has not demonstrated some accomplishments (e.g., participation in district, regional or state music festivals, acceptance into a prestigious jazz band or regional choir, assignment to first stand in band or orchestra), he may not be competitive with those who have mastered this level of achievement. Finally, ask yourself and your child if she is willing to practice...a lot. Endurance and discipline is sometimes the breaking point for young musicians.

5. Consider the possibilities

We all know that music performance is not the only option. Your child needs to eventually decide if he must pursue a performance career - and cannot imagine any other choice. Otherwise, options to consider include teaching, composition, music therapy, sound engineering, an academic career in music history and theory, film scoring, music production and management, and a traditional music education program.

Once your child arrives at music school, the excitement begins. Of course, the questions and challenges continue, and your child will need to follow through on practice, performing, and focusing on career directions. Even though there may be rough patches ahead, you can feel some relief that your child has made a decision and is pursuing a meaningful and challenging career path.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ability grouping works - and is essential in middle school and beyond

Why is ability grouping off the menu in so many school districts? What is so wrong with letting children learn among peers who grasp concepts at the same pace and with the same degree of complexity?

One of the biggest limitations of ability grouping is that it is equated with tracking  - and tracking has become a dirty word in education circles.

Tracking, of course, is an antiquated system where, at its worst, students were placed in different ability level classes and prevented from transitioning out of them. And sometimes the least experienced, least skilled teachers were assigned to those students most in need.

The rigidity of this model was wrong. The absence of resources for at-risk students was wrong. The assumption about human potential was wrong.

Yet, rather than create more fluidity, flexibility and vertical movement within the system, rather than place brilliant teachers with the most at-risk students, rather than insist on regular assessment to ensure that children do not slip through the cracks, many districts have chosen to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As a result, ability grouping has been eliminated from many school districts, especially from their middle schools, where it may be needed most.

This one-size-fits-all trend has been hailed as an antidote to the evils of tracking, a salve to the achievement gap, and the best shot at equity for all children. Mixed ability classes are prescribed to offset any potential insecurity students might feel if placed in a less challenging class, and presumably to inspire them to attain the same level of achievement as their higher ability classmates. Some students, who were perhaps overlooked and unfairly placed in less advanced classes, have risen to this challenge and demonstrated improved grades in heterogeneous, mixed-ability classes. Success stories like these have led to a widespread dismantling of ability grouping, despite the absence of sound research* to support this trend.

Here's how it works:

School districts that promote mixed-ability classes typically offer the following rationale:
1. Less advanced students will benefit from and strive to improve in the presence of high ability students, who should serve as role models;
2. All students will "learn from each other." Interactions with an intellectually diverse group of students is just as important as the curriculum.
3. Gifted and high ability students will "do just fine," regardless of the curriculum, and "differentiation" should provide sufficient academic stimulation. 

Have these proponents spent much time with middle school children? 

Do they really think that academically struggling students view intellectually advanced learners as role models, and that placement in such a class won't breed resentment, apathy and the low self-esteem they claim it will reverse? 

Do they really believe that advanced or gifted students will truly "learn" from academically struggling peers, and won't feel frustrated with the class, and compelled to mask their abilities so they can fit in? 

If they are honest with themselves, do they truly believe that any teacher can adequately differentiate instruction on a daily or even weekly basis?

Why make middle school even more stressful?

Middle school students struggle enough already. The social demands are enormous, the challenges of puberty, hormonal changes, and pressure to conform are overwhelming. Why create an even more stressful environment, where academically at-risk students are confronted each day with a sense of inadequacy, and where gifted students are faced with the choice of either "dumbing themselves down" to fit in or standing out as a "nerd" and risking ridicule? Most schools eventually offer advanced opportunities at the secondary school level, in the form of honors, AP or IB classes, but the academic needs of highly able middle schoolers are often viewed as less important.

Heterogeneous grouping and de-tracking are a well-intentioned, but perhaps misguided attempt to support academically struggling students. In an attempt to eliminate a culture of low self-esteem and low expectations, the "cure" may create more emotional hardship and fewer academic benefits than expected. When faced with a classroom full of high ability peers who grasp academic material at a faster pace, at-risk students may be forced to confront their skills deficits and suffer feelings of shame, inadequacy, and even lower expectations - exactly what proponents had hoped to avoid. Sound research (using control groups), rather than speculation based on wishful thinking should inform policy decisions.

Gifted children's academic needs are sacrificed for "the good of the whole" when ability grouping is eliminated. While some may adapt, many gifted students experience frustration arising from chronic boredom, and may respond by masking their abilities, underachieving, and becoming apathetic about school. Gifted children have an opportunity to interact and learn alongside students of differing abilities all day long - through sports, in extracurricular or non-academic classes, and on the playground. But it is unrealistic to assume that they will benefit academically when expected to suppress their intellectual drive for the good of the whole in large heterogeneous classes. As Fiedler and colleagues aptly noted:
"Can it be that our school systems are actually giving tacit approval to create underachievement in one ability group so that the needs of the other ability groups can be served? This, indeed, is egalitarianism at its worst."

What needs to change 

It is time to institute ability grouping, particularly at the middle school level. This approach not only improves academic scores for children at all levels, according to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research studybut may offset some of the social and emotional turmoil these students experience. Recent studies, including meta-analyses, have supported the advantages of ability grouping in secondary schools, have attested to its social/emotional and self-esteem benefits, and have shown that de-tracking efforts do not always provide the desired outcomes educators seek.

Flexible ability grouping is effective, equitable, and based on what students truly need. As Olszewski-Kubilius has stated:
"When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving - either up or down - during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student's readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time."
Flexible ability grouping within a classroom, through compacting or clustering, can be a viable option in elementary schools. But separate classes may be necessary in middle school and beyond for academic subjects (e.g., math, reading/language arts, science) to ensure that students receive the education they need. Ability grouping is a cost-effective solution that supports students' academic and social/emotional needs, as long as all children are treated fairly, their progress is routinely assessed, they have equal access to exceptional teachers, and can transition to different groups and classes when indicated. Let's be realistic about the needs of all children - especially those on both ends of the continuum - and reinstate ability grouping.

What are your thoughts about ability grouping?

* Many studies on de-tracking are confounded, for example, by the following problems: 1. an absence of control groups comparing students in ability grouped classes with those in heterogeneous classes; 2. lack of clarity regarding criteria for entrance into different class levels; 3. lack of long-term follow-up; 4. assessing only a few variables; and 5. studies comparing at-risk students in "lower track" classes taught by less than adequate teaching staff, who then transitioned into classes with highly skilled staff.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education page blog hop on educational options. To see more blogs, click on the following link:  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_education_options.htm

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