Giftedness and the Impact of Trauma

If you’re a news hound, it’s been a summer of scary news stories from all parts of the globe. My iPhone has made it really easy to find these stories as they emerge…just one swipe to the right and there it is…a deadly accident, acts of terrorism, an environmental disaster and wait…”First shot, new target, led the assault…” No worries. Just a metaphor for a story on pipeline negotiations but it got my attention.

If I’m not careful I can start to have a view of the world that not only frightens me but raises my anxiety levels as I wonder about the future for my children and the children that I work with. Friends tell me that there is a simple solution. Stop swiping to the right. Turn off the news when it pops up on the radio. Scroll over the headlines on FaceBook. And then go into your garden, hang out with your friends, go fishing and you will see that the amazing world we live in is still there. You can stop the trauma.

But even if I can turn away from it, should I?  I live and work in a world that demands I be present for a variety of reasons. For example, we know that gifted students can be traumatized by world events. For some, their sensitivities and tendencies toward deep thought and active imaginations can lead to vicarious traumatization. We need to be sensitive to this and look for ways to support them. (SENGifted.org has some great resources including these Tips for Helping Gifted, Highly Sensitive Teens and Children Cope with Trauma. )

But even more troubling this past year has been the number of children who have come across my radar who are dealing with first hand trauma and exhibiting signs of giftedness. Here’s what makes it especially difficult. Often the trauma is not fully disclosed or acknowledged by the parent so there is no therapeutic intervention as well as behaviours that come with no “explanation.” Another confounding problem is that in the classroom, these flight or fight responses may be interpreted as a behaviour issue and be addressed in behaviour plans that do not incorporate support for trauma. And finally the testing of children who are in a state of hyper-arousal is unreliable and therefore they may not be identified and given access to gifted support which can add yet another level of frustration.

In this article by Dr. Bruce Perry, Violence and Childhood, he writes that it is important to help traumatized children understand their traumatic responses to triggers as they may not feel in control and as a result create an negative internal dialogue: stupid, sick, irrational, bad… He also notes that it is important to offer them hope, which includes an image of a better future and a better world as well as the first hand knowledge that not all adults are unpredictable, inattentive, abusive or violent. Interactions matter and responding with respect, humour and flexibility can start the process of feeling valued. But that isn’t always easy. There is truth to the saying that the children who are the most difficult to love are the ones who need it the most.

The world is full of trauma whether we experience it directly or vicariously. Turning away can be another act of violence…we need to be there for the traumatized who are in our lives as well as those who need us to be aware of what is happening elsewhere in the world so we can make political, social and economic choices responsibly. There is a virtue that can help us with this and it is called detachment. It allows us to experience our feelings without allowing them to control us as well as let go of the things we cannot change. At the same time it gives us the wisdom and grace to be in the world and choose how we will act as opposed to react. You can learn more about the virtues here.

For more blogs about gifted social issues follow this link or click on the icon below.

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The Science of Summer

In my heart, I am still a farm kid. As a result, science in the summer is as much about family traditions as it is about learning and knowing the important science behind feeding your family. Much of my early scientific learning didn’t feel like science at all, it was about daily life-like eating and getting your chores done. There was a lot of “science” that happened in the summer without conscious intention that has become part of my family’s summer learning (fun).

  1. Gardening: from preparing the ground, seeding to weeding and then finally eating, there is no end to the learning in even the smallest of gardens. My garden teaches me new things every year from knowing when to plant even though spring came very early, to which plants require more “food” if you want them to produce. My family has developed a very sophisticated palate with respect to fresh food!
  2. Berry Picking: while we love having food right in our garden, finding a berry patch out in the forest is the ultimate treasure hunt. We have foraged for wild strawberries, blueberries, saskatoons, cranberries and rosehips. For some reason, these treasures taste far better than anything we can find in our garden. Recognizing leaf patterns and ideal growing conditions has made this search a little easier over the years. It doesn’t hurt to know a few “old timers”!
  3. Food Preservation: even in the city, our yard produces an amazing amount of food: raspberries, apples, saskatoons, chokecherries, tomatoes, basil, rhubarb and numerous other crops. From jamming, canning, juicing to freezing, there is so much to learn about keeping food safe and fresh tasting as you process it for future use.
  4. Farm visits: if you’re lucky like we are, grandma still lives on the farm. If not, there are many farms that you can visit. One of our favorite things to do in the summer to find and visit farm friends…especially gardeners. Each summer we find out who is growing and selling food in our region and we make a point of visiting at key times to add to the treasure chest of food in our freezer and storage room. These excursions have become family traditions!
  5. Fishing: from figuring out where to go, what kind of fish to catch, to the best time of day to fish, to what kind of lure to use, to how to cast your rod and if you’re really lucky, filleting and cooking your fish, this activity is full of all kinds of science learning. It is also a sobering look at the impact of industrialization on our lake and river ecosystems when you discover how many fish you could/should eat. If you thought the fish game at the carnival was fun, catching a fish is so much better.
  6. Canoeing: everyone needs to schedule some time to just play! Whether you are in the back or the front of the canoe, on a lake or a river, trying to get the canoe going where you want it to is a great lesson in Newton’s third law of motion.

In some ways these explorations are as much about history as it is about science: food security is and continues to be the single most influential factor in how our civilization has and will continue to evolve over time. Having parents and grandparents who experienced the war and depression and lack of access to food, knowing how to “procure” food, was impressed upon me from an early age and it is something that I continue to share with my children despite the abundance of food that is available. It has become the perfect mix of learning, fun, tradition and preparing them for the future!

For more blogs about all things science, go to Hoagies Blog Hop or click on the icon below:

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Who Is Gifted: The Mysteries Surrounding Identification

How do I know it is springtime? I am in the middle of the gifted screening process where we look for the students who will benefit from being included in gifted programming as they enter into the fourth grade. As a team, we meet and review  the information that has been gathered and from that make our determinations. Our information package includes report cards, checklists and relevant work submitted by teachers. Parents have also completed checklists and included their observations. At the top of the pile are the off-level cognitive testing results. All that is left is to sift through the information gathered, then based on the needs identified and the resources available, make our recommendations. At first blush it feels overwhelming, and with good reason.

“It is inevitable that different values and priorities influence the ways we conceptualize giftedness and define the mission of gifted education.” David Yun Dai and Fei Chen in Three Paradigms of Gifted Education: In Search of Conceptual Clarity in Research and Practice, Gifted Child Quarterly, Summer 2013

It is no secret that within the gifted community there is a lack of agreement on what it means to be gifted. From a cognitive psychology perspective there are gifted individuals with FSIQ scores ranging from superior to profound alongside  prodigies who may only be gifted in a specific domain. The talent driven perspective contends that giftedness not necessarily identified by a test, but should include “other talents” that when paired with motivation and/or the ability to be “school smart” demonstrate excellence and achievement that may not indicative of a particular IQ score. There are our creatives, whose unique perspectives and uncanny ability to make connections take us by surprise, but who may not fit well in a typical classroom setting. But let us not forget our twice exceptional students who may have extraordinary strengths that may not be visible due to a learning disability, ADHD, ASD or physical impairment and whose strengths may be additionally masked by their ability to compensate for weaknesses or invoke behaviors to hide their weaknesses. And for the most part we don’t even consider how giftedness might be defined (or not) in different cultures. It is no surprise that many might find the process behind who is determined to be gifted in different jurisdictions mysterious.

Despite the lack of agreement within the gifted community, each year individuals around the world get a new way of understanding what makes them unique: in some cases a code for their cumulative file- gifted. The responsibility our assessment team is given is tremendous but before we begin, we always go back to the research and review our understanding of giftedness in light of the programming we are able to offer and the needs of the students who have been referred to us. Each year we “tweak” the program to adjust for emerging needs that may not be currently met or research we have gathered to support how we look at the information being provided. There are some referrals that don’t get decided on until we gather more information, some that are very straight forward and still others that involve a lot of rich discussion. While a part of me wishes that I had a Hogwart’s Sorting Hat, I learn so much from these conversations that by the time we are done, I am feeling confident about our decisions and looking forward to having meaningful conversations with parents and colleagues.

So does this mean there is no real mystery? Absolutely not. We do the best we can with the tools and information that we are given but truth be told, tests and portfolios only tell us so much. We know that every year some students get missed for many reasons: not identified at all or identified for referral but poor results on assessments and it is this knowledge that keeps us vigilant…is there something we missed? Something we should do differently? And so we do our best to remain open to feedback from teachers and parents once the process is complete. But the fact that our tools and methods are imprecise is as much a blessing as a problem. Children should be mysterious. They should be unpredictable. They should be full of possibilities and potentials that we cannot even begin to imagine because the secret to the universe is that within each of us is something that could never have been anticipated that will emerge when the time is right. Being able to measure or predict something like that would not only be a bad thing, but would rob us of possibilities that we cannot even begin to imagine.

For more blogs on the mysteries of giftedness, click on the box below:

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Profiling the Gifted in Popular Culture

One of my favorite tools in helping parents and teachers understand giftedness are the six profiles outlined by Betts and Neihart as they go a long way in describing how differently giftedness can manifest itself in individuals. While there are times that reading through the profiles and discussing our observations can result in an “aha” moment there are just as many where we will note how the child we are speaking of doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. Despite the moniker, “giftedness” does not show up in a neatly wrapped package that is easily identifiable or predictable, but having the profiles is a great starting point for conversations about behaviors, needs and supports both at home and at school.   Interestingly enough, characters and individuals from popular culture often become part of our conversations as well, but to what extent to they help or hinder in educating us about giftedness?

From Sheldon to Rachel, Matilda to Ender, we are enthralled with gifted characters. We are fascinated by the complexity of their thoughts, their unique and amazing abilities, their unusual reactions to situations, their character flaws and how they overcome difficulties. Do they serve us well as we seek to understand more and educate about giftedness? As with any caricature as characters often tend to be, storylines can highlight some qualities of the gifted experience but ultimately fail in capturing the unique qualities of many of the gifted students that I work with everyday. Thinking Sheldon (who is by far and away the gifted “character”  who is referenced most often when people are looking for examples of gifted behavior),  as representative of giftedness would leave one with a very limited understanding.

We are no less fascinated by gifted individuals whose lives in the spotlight have given us yet another glimpse into giftedness. From Elon Musk to Oprah Winfrey, Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson we are not without our iconic examples of giftedness. That their giftedness is tied to astronomical levels achievement carries no small burden for many gifted students whose talents and abilities can sometimes become the focus of who they are. But having said that, there is a benefit to reading biographies of gifted individuals and gaining some insight into their journey. As a songwriter myself, Joni Mitchell’s biography In Her Own Words  by Malka Marom is a favorite. I have learned so much from her struggles, not only with how she saw herself as an artist in contrast to the expectations of the musical community, but also to what she was trying to achieve with her lyrics and music. All this on a landscape of considerable social change helped me to understand the inner world contributing to the music that I love.

But despite some of the drawbacks  to how gifted individuals are represented and/or celebrated in popular culture, I will admit to being very drawn in by how one of my favorite literary characters is being served up in a very modern rendition of a popular mystery series. Benedict Cumberbatch as the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes rates as my favorite series with the major drawback of not airing often enough. If you haven’t seen in yet, watch this short clip Sherlock and John’s First Meeting. A very different portrayal of the gifted detective, I really enjoy the pace with all the twists and turns in the plot. Cumberbatch is a no slouch either!

For more perspectives on giftedness is popular culture, follow the link below:

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Dear Gifted Parent: A Letter From An Educator

Dear Gifted Parent:

Today I want to dedicate my post to you. I can’t tell you what a privilege it has been to work with you and your child for the majority of my teaching career. The uniqueness of your child has often meant that we have had to learn together about the many facets of giftedness and through that process we’ve made a difference for the gifted students I have yet to meet. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, but there are many things that I’ve appreciated as we’ve traveled together and I feel it is time to honour you for those things.

First I want to acknowledge your commitment. I see the schedules that you keep and the opportunities that you provide for your child to explore their areas of passion. You make sure that they get to all the programming options that I provide for them, often practicing tremendous flexibility to make things work. When I need help, you are generous with your time and support. I recognize your commitment.

Next I want to acknowledge your honesty. When things aren’t going well for your child you tell me and give me the opportunity to try to figure out how to make things better. When things don’t make sense, you ask excellent questions that force me to take another look and see how things could be improved. Though there have been times when you have been incredibly frustrated, you have been kind in sharing those frustrations and patient as we explore solutions. I appreciate your honesty.

I  appreciate your idealism as in it I recognize your desire to make the world (schools in particular) a better place. As you “re-enter” school through the experience and eyes of your child and the struggles they have, you dream about the way schools “could be” and share your thoughts with me. I know that idealism is what pushes us to ask the question “could it be otherwise?” and keeps us from getting stuck. I am grateful for you idealism.

In closing, I am most grateful for your trust. The programming that I plan involves helping your child learn flexibility, resilience, perseverance and collaboration. These lessons don’t always come easy and I know there must be days when your child comes home frustrated. Thank-you for trusting the process and giving me the opportunity to work though this with them.

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This month’s blog hop is around forming parent groups and I felt it was important to share how the parents of my students have supported gifted programming in my district. For more insights from other bloggers, click on the link below:

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Math and the Gifted Learner

It might be the nature of the discipline or the way it is taught, but math is one of those subjects where if a student is really good at it, it generally gets noticed. So now what? In my years of coordinating gifted programming, this is the area that has called for the most intervention and while the answer can appear simplistic, that is not always the case. There are several questions that we ask in our program to guide us through the process.

Is math actually an area of strength? On more than one occasion I have had requests to accelerate students who in fact were not good candidates. (A gifted code does not guarantee giftedness in all disciplines.) How do we determine this? In our district we use math specific achievement tests. It is important to complete this before any accelerated programming takes place. In several cases where a student had been informally accelerated by their teacher, we found that while the achievement test showed us excellence at the current grade level, they were not working above their grade level and the acceleration was not successful. When accelerating a student into a higher level of math they must continue to achieve excellence at the higher level. To move them from a level of high achievement into one where they perform poorly is not recommended.

Is this an area of passion? There are many students who excel at math but it is not an area of passion. They are able to grasp concepts easily and finish work quickly, but the last thing they want is more math. In cases such as these, the approach has been to compact the curriculum to free up time to work in an area of passion. For some this has meant in depth research while others have gravitated towards science projects or even learning another language.

What is the nature of the passion? Even when math is the area of passion acceleration is not always the route favored by students. Some like to “play” with the concepts in larger math projects in some broader contexts. Numeracy tasks, like the ones available at Peter Liljedahl’s website have provided enrichment for many students in our district. There are also some fantastic math competitions that students enjoy preparing for which include: Kangaroo Math (available internationally), CEMC Competitions, Virtual Mathematical Marathon as well as the International Mathematical Olympiad. These are just a few.

Should we accelerate?  What do we do when all of our questions and assessments point to math as a strength as well as a passion area? There are a number of things to consider. Is the student going to be working alone or is it possible for them to attend math with another grade? While it is possible to work alone and be successful, many students need the conversations that push their thinking ahead as well as the companionship and  motivation to challenge difficult tasks that comes from working with others. Sitting in with another grade has worked very well in our district, but it means a yearly juggle with scheduling to make sure that the student can continue in this way and there will be years where there is no higher grade to go to if you are in the highest grade offered at your school. Driving between schools demands another level of commitment from everyone, not to mention the additional juggling that takes place. While it is possible and can be worth the effort, it is important to consider these factors before you begin!

The beauty of math is that there are so many resources available online to support math learning and math passions…it’s just a matter to taking the time to explore. For more perspectives on gifted math learning click on the link below!

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Giftedness and the Myth of Meritocracy

“I have a notebook in the back of my closet with my life plan written in it,” she tells me.  At fourteen the path is clear: which courses she will need in high school, the university she will attend, the research she plans on completing as well as the place she will eventually live. She knows the grades she will need and she is not afraid to share the anxiety she has when contemplating the next step in her plan.  For a moment I am reminded of a conversation I had a few weeks earlier with a thirty year old gifted adult male who told me, “I think I was in elementary school when I realized that the meritocracy I was being ‘sold’ didn’t really exist,” and wonder if it is important to share this perspective?

You see, I live and work in a system purports that “good grades” will get you into “good schools” which in turn will get you the “good jobs” and if you learn this early, the world is yours. Most believe for a gifted student, this should be a piece of cake and for many it is.  The problem with propagating this myth is that there are no guarantees and what happens when the curveballs or dead ends come? What happens when an individual fails to see the myth and instead believes that the failing is in themselves?  Do we have a responsibility to debunk myths? But wait… Where would we be without that myth? Is it something we can only discover on our own? Does believing in the myth help make it a reality? What is the impact of this myth on the psyche of our society? This topic has been well explored. You can check out some of the articles at Psychology Today to see the “gift” of failure.

I hit adulthood with a back up plan-it was the gift from pragmatic parents who didn’t want me to become a starving artist. Some days I wonder if I hadn’t had a back up plan, if I would have given myself whole-heartedly to the dream but most days I am fairly certain that the back-up plan had more appeal for reasons that go well beyond what I wanted to “do” versus how I wanted to “live”. But still it took me a a few “failures” before I came to that realization and if the truth be told, I can still get sideswiped when things don’t go as I hope. But it was a lucky encounter early in my career with Norm Goble, the then President of the Canadian Teachers Federation that has given me tremendous perspective. He had just delivered a keynote address entitled “If not you, who? If not now, when?” at an ATA Summer Conference that left me weak in the knees. At the reception afterwards he was standing alone and I went over and asked him how best to proceed as a teacher. I have carried his response with me ever since.

“I am an ambitionless man. I have simply followed the opportunities that were presented to me.” Now I know that the opportunities that present themselves will vary significantly from individual to individual and the opportunities available to a someone of a certain ethnic or socio-economic background will not be the same. But in his response to me I saw life and the path we take as an act of courage and not simply merit. It is courage that will allow us to see the opportunities that abound, while merit will try to steer us in a certain direction. Sometimes they work together magnificently, and other times, they do not. My path may not have provided me with the meteoric ascension that the myth of meritocracy promises, but on most days, I can see a world full of opportunities. And luckily, on most days, I can muster up the courage to explore one or two which on many days take me to unexpected and wonderful places.

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2016: Using the Virtues Project in meeting the Social/Emotional needs of Gifted Students

Over the past number of years I have been committed to learning and embedding the language of the virtues (The Virtues Project) into my professional and  personal life. At first it seemed like a simple enough task, after all, it isn’t as if I don’t already know the words. But it started out feeling very awkward to say the words “I see your determination,” or “Thank-you for your courtesy,” or “I need your self-discipline.”  I had become comfortable with short cuts like “Great job!” “Thanks!” and “Pay attention!” and to deviate from the auto-responses in an effort to really “see” the person, be present in the moment,  and most importantly to understand and acknowledge what I was seeing and needing meant that I had to change what I was looking for and who I needed to be to speak with authenticity.

But when you start looking for the virtues in the people around you, it really is like putting on a different set of “glasses” or lenses with which to see the world. Perfectionism can be redefined as idealism that requires an understanding of moderation and humility to fully blossom. Emotional over-sensitivities can be understood as empathy and compassion which may require an understanding of detachment to balance out how incredibly overwhelming they can feel. A temper tantrum can be transformed into learning how to balance commitment and determination with flexibility. In my mind, the value of using the virtues as part of a social/emotional curriculum for gifted learners cannot be understated. But it is not the kind of curriculum where each week you choose a virtue to study and learn. It is a daily search and acknowledgement for the virtues that are already there that need acknowledgement and/or cultivation.

This recent Ted Talk by my mentor in the Virtues Project, Christine Ayling, is a great place to get an introduction to what the project is all about as well as the five strategies in working with the virtues. In 2016 it is my goal to continue learning how to further develop the five strategies she talks about in my own life and practice as well as share some of those insights here. All the best to all of you in 2016!

Let the Season be the Gift

Last year in my December blog post ‘Tis the Season to be…Anxious? I wrote: “I have learned to…submit myself to the comfort and joy of the traditions and make a firm budget to govern all forms of giving.”  As the holiday season approaches I can honestly say that I am looking forward to it because I know what is coming. From decorating to baking, family gatherings to which Christmas movies we’ll watch, there is a certain order to it all that is familiar yet flexible. Keeping it all within a reasonable budget (time and money) alleviates the stress which allows me to be reflective about what the season means to me as well as consider what is coming in the year ahead.

And there are so many things to consider. The new challenges that adolescent children bring and face. A community that is feeling the pressures of an economic downturn. The political, environmental, and economic state of the world. And in just a few short sentences I can feel some of the anxiety slip back. But I know what to do because I believe that on some level all the music, food, fellowship and Christmas “messages” are part of the preparation we will need to face whatever is coming. And with that I would like to share an original Christmas song that has been playing in my heart for many years. It’s for my children, your children and the child within us all.

For more links on how to Surviving the Holidays with a Houseful o’ Gifted click on the icon below:

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The (Gifted) Journey: Two Recurring Phases

This past October I had the chance to attend a Global Mentorship Retreat for the Virtues Project International Association in Calgary, Alberta. I was very excited to attend as I have been gradually growing my understanding of how to infuse the virtues into my personal and professional life for the past 10 years. The mentorship provided me with an unbelievable opportunity to connect with others from around the world who have been using The Virtues Project in so many different ways to address issues as diverse as the suicide epidemic in Japan to working through the trauma unleashed by the Truth and Reconciliation hearings here in Canada to Virtue Schools in Finland where children learn from a very early age that they are born in potential with all the virtues in them and they are encouraged to not forget that they possess these as they begin encountering the challenges the world is going to put before them.

I had the chance to sit and chat briefly with one of the founders of the project, Dr. Dan Popov during one of our breaks. I took this opportunity to share a bit about my work with gifted students as well as my interest in Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration and how I was using the Virtues Project as a means of introducing students to the idea of understanding that they have the power to define their character through consciously cultivating the virtues that they value. After my very quick description of TPD, Dr. Popov wondered whether the theory could be reduced to two phases, a question that has had me pondering ever since. The first phase is the one where everything is right with the world and we go forth with confidence feeling that all things are as they should be. The second phase? When things are not right with the world and we are tasked with adjusting our worldview in order to restore “rightness”.

While reductionism often fails to capture the nuances and details that can give us comfort as we stumble through uncertainty, this simplification also resists the idea that once we get through this stage or this phase or to this level, things will be as they should be. A complex and changing world is going to continue to throw us curveballs. Pendulums will continue to swing. What we once took as gospel truth may be shown to have been incomplete as research uncovers new ideas and concepts. Add to this complexity the certainty that most of the people and organizations around us will be making “adjustments” as they work to integrate new things into their worldview. And so many individuals to varying degrees who do not fit neatly into existing “systems” to start with, may well be tasked with a constant search for and creation of sometimes fleeting moments of “rightness” with the world and with who they are in this world.

In his article “Keep Radiantly Well” David Jardine (2015), recently retired from his position in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, reflects in another way on this “rightness” when he asks how we can maintain the “beauty” in places made ugly by “panic, defeat, feat, retraction, entrenchment, reification and hostility.” In it he also reminded me of a quote by political theorist Hannah Arendt who spoke of how the world “must be constantly set right anew” and that we must “educate in such a way that setting right remains possible.” (1969) For those of us in the system this can feel like a monumental and fruitless task. But Jardine tells us not to retreat, but go into those places where beauty is being compromised and be of service. Dr. Dan Popov’s keynote address echoed this sentiment when he asked us all three questions: What use will I make of my gifts? Who will I serve? How will I serve them? The third question leads us back to the virtues because how we serve, be it with love, steadfastness, patience, integrity is what will truly make the difference and allow us to keep the beauty in sight as we work through the struggle.

In one of my favorite Christmas movies “While You Were Sleeping” there is a scene where the father speaks to one of his sons where he says something to the effect “Every once in a while you get one of those moments where everything is alright and everyone is okay,” and his son replies “This is not one of those moments.” They talk it out, their world shifts a little and the movie continues on through some bumps to the inevitable romcom happy ending. (I am a sucker for a happy ending!) But isn’t that what all great stories are about? We start with the status quo, something shifts, and suddenly the protagonists are required to adjust and somehow set things right again, even though nothing will never be the same. Those who are able to persevere through the trials over the course of a lifetime grow in resilience and character and at different times and in different ways find their moments of “rightness”.

For other perspectives on the ages and stages of of giftedness, follow the link below:

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