Category Archives: Dabrowski

Finding Your Community

There have been many times in my life when I really struggled to find community, longing for a place where I could feel like I “fit in”. Growing up on a farm close to a small rural hamlet I  experienced community as a double edged sword: everybody knew you and your family making it easy to find things to talk about and participate in a variety of activities with people you knew and there was a certain comfort in that. But it was also really difficult at to find people who had some of the unique interests and perspectives that I had which, despite the familiarity, could still feel lonely. So as quickly as I could, I left home to find “my” community. And here is what I learned on that journey:

  1.  One community may not meet all of your needs. I have heard many people express a feeling of being “let down” by a certain group because they thought because they shared one commonality, that somehow all their needs for acceptance and understanding would be met there. We are complex and evolving beings and we may be drawn to different communities for a variety of reasons. You may need to reach out to different communities to find who you are looking for.
  2. Communities can evolve and change. Sometimes a change in leadership,  direction, demographics or even a change in you can change the “fit” of a community. Sometimes it is a change that feels good but just as often it might be a change that feels wrong. Sometimes you stay because you are a part of this change and sometimes you leave because you are not: both can be equally difficult.
  3. Sometimes it will be up to you to create community. One of the most daring things you can ever do is to say “I see there is a need…is anyone with me?” It can make  you feel vulnerable and it may start off as a community of one until it builds to a community of two or three or more.
  4. Community need not be restricted to a specific place. With the advent of social media, online communities offer unique opportunities for connection. For example, coming from the northerly community that I do, most of my access to the gifted community (outside of the time I spend with my gifted students) is online or at the various conferences like the NAGC that I am able to attend.
  5. Don’t underestimate your de facto communities. Whether it is the neighbourhood you live in, where you work or the places you spend your free time, you may be surprised who and what you find when  you linger where the people gather. Wendell Berry writes: Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time. When there is a fire or a flood or some kind of crisis or even just a BBQ, this  community is the one that may well surprise you the most.

We know that community is important, but finding it or creating it can be a challenge. Perhaps that is why this quote  by  Stendhal resonates so much with me: “One can acquire everything in solitude except character.”  We need communities not only for belonging, but also to challenge us to discover who we are and who we want to be. According to Dabrowski, this can be the source of much anxiety, but is also a very positive thing!

This blog is part of a blog hop community that will share many other perspectives on community if you follow this link or click on the graphic below!


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:


Understanding Overexcitabilities: The Basics

Overexcitability is part of the larger Theory of Positive Disintegration. (TPD) developed by Kazmierz Dabrowski. TPD is an important theory offering insight into personality development and the role anxiety and psychoneuroses play in reaching one’s developmental potential. Looking at the overexcitabilities independent of TPD is problematic as they drive developmental potential and need to be understood and supported in that context.

WHO experiences TPD? At the 2014 International Dabrowski Congress there seemed to be some controversy over the use overexcitability scales particularly as a predictor of giftedness. This makes sense as Dabrowski believed that the percentage of the population that experience positive disintegration is somewhere around 30-35% while giftedness is considered to occur in 2% of the population. While research indicates that the overexcitabilities occur to a larger degree within the gifted population, they are not exclusive to gifted individuals.

WHAT is “overexcitability”? “Overexcitability is a characteristic of the nervous system involving higher than average sensitivity to stimuli (a lower threshold to stimuli) and a higher than average response to stimuli.  Dabrowski described five main types of overexcitability: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional, and emphasized that the latter three are critical to development and in particular, that emotional overexcitability drives and guides higher development.” (Taken from

WHEN is it an overexcitability vs “something else”?  The key element here is focus. A child with an intellectual overexcitability may exhibit ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) behaviors until they are given a task that they find intellectually stimulating at which time they are able to focus. Sometimes this incredible focus can look like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). There are also times when an emotional excitability can look like a trauma response. And there are also times when there can be a dual diagnosis where an individual has been diagnosed with ADHD and be gifted as well. Webb et al. have done a great job of working through Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of the Gifted which you can find here. This article does a great job of describing how the intensities and sensitivities can manifest themselves in gifted children.

WHERE can you find strategies to cope? Again, as I work through understanding Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration it is very important to note that the overexcitabilities are not distributed in equal measure and the various dynamisms do not contribute to developmental potential in the same way. Every child is unique so there is no cookie cutter fix. That said, this article at SENGifted is a great place to start to put together something that may work for you and your child. There are also some specific strategies relevant to specific overexcitabilities here.

WHY does it help to have an understanding of Dabrowski’s theory? In my experience of working with individuals who experience emotional and intellectual overexcitabilities, the danger of seeing this independent of personality development through positive disintegration is that there can be a tendency to pathologize it into a behavior problem rather than work to understand and acknowledge the transformative work that is taking place.  The approach we use in supporting children with overexcitabilities is the difference between them seeing their sensitivities as “bad” “immature” or  “overreactions” and developing a self-understanding to how they experience the world as part of a quest to become their best person. For parents and teachers here is the gift/burden: “The richer the developmental potential, the greater number and variety of conflicting and mutually opposing elements are brought into play, and the more disequilibrium is produced.” (p. 64. Theory of Levels of Emotional Development, 1977.)

HOW we handle overexcitabilities can make all the difference. The first and most important step is to manage our own reactions. How we respond to that “intense response to stimuli” will go a long way to nurturing the safety and trust required to build a relationship where the adult can empower the child through finding strategies that will help regulate responses but not inhibit developmental potential.

For more information/perspectives on overexcitabilities you can follow Hoagies Blog Hop at the link below.


Anxiety: From Gordon Neufeld to Kazimierz Dabrowski and beyond

If you consider anxiety from the standpoint of the role it has played in the survival of our species it is more hero than villain. The flight or fight response in an ancient ecosystem is not much different than the knee jerk reaction that steers us away from situations that appear risky. Without it, we would not only be incredibly vulnerable to the “predators” in our environment but our ability to assess other danger would be impaired. As a diagnosable disorder it becomes less heroic as it can inhibit us from fully participating in the experience of living. It can also present itself in a wide array of circumstances with varying degrees intensities which can often make it difficult to discern or impossible to miss. So what is important to know when you are working with or parenting an anxious child?

Where I like to begin with understanding and addressing anxiety is the work of Gordon Neufeld whose book Hold On To Your Kids addresses it from the perspective of parental attachment. His work revolves around the idea that children have an “orienting instinct” which compels them to find their direction from a source of authority and comfort. This “attachment bond” in their early life is with their parent and can be a powerful ally in keeping children safe from influences that may not have their best interests at heart. Parents also play a powerful role in signalling to their children who may be trusted when they are in new situations. The communication between the parents and other adults involved with the child can indicate the sharing of this attachment bond. This is why the relationship between the teacher and parent is so crucial. It signals to the child that their parent trusts this other adult to be the child’s source of authority and comfort (safety) when the parent is absent. Something as simple as meeting and greeting the other adult in the child’s life with warmth and respect can go a long way in alleviating anxiety. As parent or “other” adult in a child’s life, we have a huge responsibility in maintaining that authority and comfort (safety).

My second “go to” theory for understanding and addressing anxiety is the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski. Anxiety plays a pivotal role in his theory of positive disintegration which can be described as the process by which one becomes actively involved in crafting/cultivating one’s personality and engaging in the work of moving to a “higher” level. While this in itself may sound as simple as maturation, the intensity of the experience will vary and for some individuals this becoming one’s own person through “separation” from the perceived expectations the world can be fraught with anxiety as they wrestle over “fitting in” and potentially the sacrificing the “self” or not fitting in favour of claiming their “selfhood” risking loneliness. This can once again be exacerbated by gifted characteristics that make it difficult to “fit in” given intellectual abilities, learning disabilities, areas of passion, intensities and sensitivities. Once again the responsibility of the adult is creating the safety for this anxious self discovery to occur, with the added understanding of the child’s need now to challenge that authority to find and set new boundaries as they do this important work.

Seeing anxiety as natural and helpful can often go a long way in helping anxious children understand that there is nothing wrong with them for feeling this way. But when the anxiety becomes so strong that it interferes with quality of life, having support in overcoming them is necessary. From learning breathing exercises to setting up a step by step program, there are many tools available to work through anxiety. I like the website where they have strategies and resources directed at youth, adults and parents when honouring the need for attachment and disintegration is not enough.


John Hattie and Gifted Education

If there are rock stars in the field of educational research, John Hattie is definitely one. His seminal work “Visible Learning” which was published in 2009 has been called “the Holy Grail” for teachers. If you want to know what will make an impact in the classroom, he’s gathered together the effect sizes from more than 800 meta analyses (more than 16 000 studies) into a list that is both affirming and at times surprising. You can view his list here. (Note where acceleration appears.) Make sure you read the preamble regarding what Hattie would consider a significant effect size.

I had the chance to attend a PD day with John Hattie at the beginning of this school year where he spoke to his work to give us some direction as we continue to meet our goals of engaging students to become ethical citizens with an entreprenuerial spirit…Alberta Learning’s triple E agenda. I think the message I found most surprising was his assertion that 90% of teaching was based on surface learning and as he looked through the research, most studies reflected this focus. I couldn’t help but wonder about how surface learning impacts our gifted students…from the ones who actively work to know all that is possible to be known to those whose need to question can create considerable psychological tension.  Given that I had just returned from the Dabrowski Congress as well as subsequent PD from Lynn Miller on anxiety where she indicated those with high IQ tending to suffer more from anxiety…I kept wondering if all of these things be linked somehow.

While I mused for some time over whether asking good questions and digging into curriculum could avert anxiety, I was cautioned against finding a “Dabrowskian curriculum” as going past a uni-level and perhaps even a surface understanding of the world, tends to be a personal journey. I began reading Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates and this past week I got to the chapter where they address feedback, which Hattie has placed near the top of his list alongside formative assessment for having impact on student learning. The chapter not only addresses how we can support our students on this “personal journey” but differentiates clearly the type of feedback required for students of varying ability.

While teachers may have a different conception of what constitutes good feedback, Hattie and Yates tell us that students want feedback to focus on their goals and giving them what they need to get where they want to go: “how to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be.” (p.70) While novice learners require corrective feedback and proficient learners require process feedback, highly competent learners require sincere efforts to extend and apply knowledge even further. (p. 66)  In providing this kind of feedback, the teacher must have some understanding of where this child wants to go and a good understanding about what could come next and not succumb strictly to praise.  In citing Carol Dweck’s work on praise Hattie and Yates reiterate that praising students at this point for their ability can paradoxically raise self-doubt. (p. 69) But don’t imagine that all gifted students want to be rocket scientists either. In a final word in the chapter they write, “The feedback you offer your students provides the tools they need to be able to perceive the immediate path ahead, and so decide that it is really worth the effort. Since effort is a limited commodity, it cannot be squandered on things doomed to fail, or chasms too wide to bridge.” (p.70)