The following are excerpts from my article just published in psychotherapy.net, an online journal for psychotherapists, on ways to help gifted children and their parents navigate the school system. For the full article click here.
Jimmy is seven. He started reading on his own when he was 4 and is now devouring the Harry Potter books. He asks his parents questions about death they cannot answer. He knows the states and their capitals and the differences between dinosaurs. He loves numbers. In second grade they are teaching addition and subtraction and he is already multiplying and dividing. Jimmy loves learning but is disappointed in schooling. He was so excited to start school but now he comes home angry and defeated. Jimmy is longing for friends but the other boys are not interested in his love of words. He is very sensitive, empathetic, emotional, and lonely. He is showing signs of anxiety and having meltdowns after school.
Jimmy is gifted. His teachers do not know what to do with him. His concerned parents are anxious and do not know where to turn.
They come to you. What do you tell them?
The Case of Jimmy–Background
There is so much pressure on teachers these days and so many needy children in the schools. So, how can we both understand the stresses teachers experience while also finding ways to provide an appropriate education for our gifted students? As you can imagine, these kids are often sitting in their classes being taught material they already know. In many cases, this is true day after day and year after year. The expectation is often, these children will be fine on their own because they are “so smart,” but inappropriate schooling experiences can have long-lasting serious consequences.
Jimmy’s mother, Joan, contacted me because her son had been identified as gifted in first grade and she was noticing some issues with increasing anxiety, emotional regulation, self-esteem, and difficulty making friends. She was wanting to find solutions and also learn how to approach his teacher because Jimmy would come home from school agitated and complaining of boredom and loneliness. His frustrations would often be expressed in emotional outbursts at home.
Jimmy was already reading in first grade and, in second grade, enjoyed chapter books. His math abilities were also quite advanced. They were teaching addition and subtraction while he was excited by division and fractions. Like many educators, his teacher was not trained in differentiating instruction for gifted children and so Jimmy was made to complete the same assignments as his classmates. In the beginning, he was compliant and completed the required work but the tension he felt in school would explode at home.
Jimmy also had trouble finding friends who had similar interests. No one else in his class was reading the books he loved or had the interests in astronomy, mathematics, and so much more. Luckily, he did have some athletic ability so he was able to find other boys to play with at recess and he could experience the joys of teamwork on an after school soccer team. But his anxiety and emotions were getting harder to handle and his sense of being inadequate and an outcast were growing.
What Can His Parents Do?
~ Look for the teachers who are more sensitive, flexible, and creative. Ideally, they have some training in gifted education. But even if they don’t, some will teach in ways that work better for these kids. Some will like this type of child more. Methods that work better? Project-based learning. Independent reading programs. Interdisciplinary approaches. Open-ended assignments. Acceleration. Flexible deadlines. An enthusiastic teacher can make an enormous difference. Parents need to get involved at the school and find those educators. Tell administrators it will cost them nothing to put your child in that classroom.
~ Other appropriate cost-free ways to meet their needs: Cluster grouping–Putting all of the gifted children together with the more sensitive, creative teacher so the kids can work with each other. It makes planning easier for teachers and serves the social-emotional needs of the children. Curriculum compacting–Eliminating assignments that the child already knows and replacing the tasks with work that is challenging and appropriate for the child’s level and rate of learning. This should be obvious but usually isn’t.
~ Use active listening to validate his feelings. Reflect what you hear so he feels understood. This will reduce the intensity of a meltdown. Once he is calm, problem solve with him. Brainstorm solutions together. His frustration in school is real. It makes sense he will feel angry some of the time. Let him know you are working on solutions. Thank him for his patience. It will help if you explain what it means to be gifted so he does not misinterpret his frustrations in school and his trouble relating to the other kids. This will not make him arrogant; it will help him feel more comfortable in his own skin.
~ Parents need to take time for themselves and their relationship. Of course, this is good advice for all parents. The difference is, most parents do not need to intervene in their children’s schooling, year after year. The assumption is that these children will be fine on their own and do not need special attention so parents are often having to convince school personnel and others that their kids also need support, guidance, and an appropriate education.
Parenting gifted children brings a particular set of challenges that are often misunderstood or overlooked by educators, therapists, and the general public. If therapists understand the complexities that come with giftedness and provide guidance for these parents and families, it can make a big difference, not only for your clients, but, really, for us all. The complete article has a list of resources. One additional resource is: The Gifted Parenting Journey by Gail Post.
To my bloggEEs: There is more in the full article here. Let us know your experiences as parents and also as gifted children in the schools. And thank you, as always, for being here. Much love to you. And, just a friendly reminder, my books make great holiday gifts for yourself, your teachers, and your therapists!