The Bright Child vs The Gifted Learner

Can you be smart but not gifted? Absolutely. Giftedness is much more than intelligence alone. Take a look at this comparison to see some key differences:

The bright child…
*Knows the answers
*Is interested
*Is attentive
*Has good ideas
*Works hard
*Answers the questions
*Top group
*Listens with interest
*Learns with ease
*6-8 repetitions for mastery
*Understands ideas
*Enjoys peers
*Grasps the meaning
*Completes assignments
*Is receptive
*Copies accurately
*Enjoys school
*Absorbs information
*Technician
*Good memorizer
*Prefers straightforward tasks
*Is alert
*Is pleased with own learning
The gifted learner…
*Asks the questions
*Is highly curious
*Is mentally and physically involved
*Has wild, silly ideas
*Plays around, yet tests well
*Discusses in detail; elaborates
*Beyond the group
*Shows strong feelings and opinions
*Already knows1-2 repetitions for mastery
*Constructs abstractions
*Prefers adults
*Draws inferences
*Initiates projects
*Is intense
*Creates new designs
*Enjoys learning
*Manipulates information
*Inventor
*Good guesser
*Thrives on complexity
*Is keenly observant
*Is highly self-critical


http://www.tag-tenn.org/comparison.html

Holiday Stress

The holidays are usually a stressful time for most people, gifted kids included.

Visiting family members, multiple breaks from school, gifts, large meals – all of these can cause stress and anxiety but combined can create a perfect storm. Let’s break this down:

  • Visiting Family Members: During the holidays it’s normal to have visitors in and out of the house, or perhaps you are the ones traveling to other’s houses. Either way, it can be exhausting for introverted gifted kids to find their normal spaces and routines interrupted. They might become destructive, rude or refuse to participate in activities. This response often gives them exactly what they need: a time out. Gifted kids (and adults!) often need time to ‘recharge’ their batteries by reading, drawing, being outside. Make sure that they know they are able to take breaks and if at someone else’s house show them a quiet area they can be alone in. Even if they’re excited to be surrounded by friends and family, it’s important that they know it’s ok to take breaks. Also set boundaries with visiting kids so you can avoid small hands smashing a newly constructed Lego city or ruin an on-going science experiment.
  • Breaks from school: Most gifted kids thrive on routine. As much as they cheer about a snow day or holiday, the reality of having no schedule quickly sets in. Gifted kids have a constant need to do but often struggle with the infinite possibilities of what to do. Before the break, have them make a list of things they’d like to learn about or do with all their free time. A stash of new books for down time and a few emergency lego kits/projects can be life savers too.  For easing transitions, write the schedule for the breaks as specifically as you can so they know what to expect. Try getting a large desk calendar so they can easily see upcoming events (including visitors!). It can take longer than you expect to recover from a long unstructured break, so be patient when getting back into the school routine in January.
  • Gifts: Everyone likes gifts, but the pressure of ‘performing’ can make the process less fun for the whole family. Gifted kids often have a heightened sense of empathy and can read expressions and body language at an early age. They can sense when they haven’t given the ‘right’ reaction to opening a gift and spend a lot of emotional energy on pleasing the givers. If possible, let them open presents when it’s just immediate family instead of a large audience, and reassure them that they don’t have to like every gift they’re given.
  • Large Meals: We all remember having to sit through large family meals with endless courses and the dreaded after-dinner coffee. For gifted kids, these meals are extra difficult. Picky eating is a common characteristic of giftedness, so chances are there are very few foods that they will want to eat. Parental pressure will mean heaping their plate full (and the foods will touch! gasp!) and grandparents who will be ‘disappointed’ if they don’t try their famous green bean casserole. Before a meal, discuss with your child what is expected of them. If you know they only eat brown things, encourage them to try one new thing from the table that isn’t brown. Even if they leave it on their plate, for some kids this is a huge accomplishment. If you know you’ll all be sitting around the table for long periods of time, let them know it’s ok to take breaks by asking to be excused for a few minutes. Also try to include them in conversation with topics that interest them!

With a little preparation and compromise hopefully the holiday season can be fun and relaxing. Be aware of their needs, be clear with your expectations, and choose your battles! 

Common Characteristics of Gifted Children (that are not commonly known)

When most people hear the word gifted they think smart, good at school, successful. Of course a main component of being gifted is intelligence, but that’s just one slice of the pie. Below is a list of common characteristics of giftedness that aren’t commonly known; no one has all of them (thankfully) but there are usually groupings of like-characteristics (such as advanced vocabulary with reading at an early age, along with heightened curiosity).

How many do you/your child have?

  • Walked OR talked at an early age
  • Has an advanced vocabulary
  • Read at an early age
  • Demonstrates a great appetite for books and reading
  • Entertains self for large blocks of time
  • Has good recall
  • Consistently organizes, sorts, classifies, and groups things, and names them
  • Heightened curiosity (asks “Why” often)
  • Fantasizes often
  • Shows sensitivity to other people’s feelings and empathy in response to their troubles
  • Demonstrates leadership abilities
  • Exhibits perfectionism
  • Resists change
  • Likes to discuss abstract concepts (such as love, justice, etc.)
  • Has a high energy, need less sleep than age-mates
  • Learns new material rapidly
  • Often prefers to work or play alone
  • Loves puzzles, mazes, building blocks, and toys that challenge
  • Has an advanced sense of humor
  • Prefers the company of older children or adults
  • Is highly creative, imaginative
  • Is a keen observer
  • Expresses unusual sensitivity to what they see, hear, touch, smell, or feel
  • Expresses concern for the world’s problems

 

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Sleep – What’s That?

 

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Sleep – or lack thereof – can be the first indicator that you have a gifted child on your hands. While your friends’ babies are sleeping through the night at 6 months and taking long naps several times a day, your baby is wide awake and ready to play. By a year they might be sleeping through the night, but are up at 5am to start the day. You read all the books, tried crying it out, co-sleeping, white noise, sleep sacks, aromatherapy. You put them to bed at 6pm because someone said they’re overtired and need to go to bed early. You keep them up later because someone said they’re not tired enough. And naps? You’ll spend an hour trying to get them to sleep only for them to wake up after 30 minutes.

My oldest daughter has been home for a solid week with mono. The only thing she’s supposed to be doing is resting and sleeping. Sounds easy enough right? She’s exhausted, bored, and her bed is a cozy oasis. Sleeping should be a no-brainer. But for her it isn’t.  

This week has me remembering her days as a non-sleeping baby and toddler (a time I had tried to forget). As a newborn she was awake every two hours like clockwork, and incredibly alert. She never wanted to be tucked into a wrap or carrier but was happy in the bouncy seat watching everything happen. I had the sense that she was worried she’d miss out on something if she closed her eyes. When she napped it was in 20 minute bites. As she got older she would wake early, nap for 45 minutes (if I was lucky), and stay up much later than the books said she should. By 18 months, she had given up the nap completely. I spent months trying to get her to sleep like my friend’s toddlers did: luxurious 2-3 hour naps, asleep by 7:30pm. Pediatricians told me I had to ‘make her nap’, other moms looked at me with a mixture of pity and concern. It took me a while to realize that she just didn’t need to sleep as much as her peers. I stopped fighting it and went with her schedule, resulting in less stress on everyone.

Kids Health (https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/naps.html) says that most 3-5 year olds should be sleeping 11-12 hours at night with a 2 hour nap during the day, but goes on to add a helpful list of signs that your child isn’t sleeping enough. We’re often made to feel like bad parents because our kids don’t sleep like other kids, but are they cranky, hard to wake up, inattentive, aggressive, unfocused? For the most part, nope. They’re alert and ready to go. The simple fact is that gifted kids need less sleep than their age mates. It took me a while to realize this and stop fighting the nap battle, and when I gave up we were all much happier and less stressed. She enjoyed sitting in her room with her books which was enough of a break for both of us.

As my daughter got older, there were many expectations we had to shift: she stopped napping at 18 months, was a ‘night owl’ who liked to stay up late but would also sleep in, she needed a fair amount of alone time to settle in to sleep. It also started getting harder to get her to sleep. She would want to have long, meaningful conversations about things like global warming, animal extinction, and homelessness. She would stay awake for hours saying she ‘couldn’t turn off her brain’.

This is a common complaint among gifted kids, and even gifted adults. Their brains are going all day and can be hard to turn off. Their anxieties and worries can creep in during this time, leading to a spiral of hard conversations and blurry eyes. 

Getting into a healthy sleep routine means different things for each child, especially for gifted children. It can be a frustrating and long process to figure out what works for your family, but eventually everyone sleeps through the night!

Here are some ideas for helping gifted kids fall asleep. Post in the comments if you have any ideas that have worked for your family!

For younger kids:

For older kids:

  • Listen to soothing music, an audiobook, or a podcast. For some kids this is too much stimulation, but it helps take their minds off of issues which are upsetting.
  • Keep a notebook by their bed to write in. Part of the stress and anxiety of big global issues for kids is that they feel powerless to do anything. Have them write down issues they’re worried about and some tangible items they can do to make a difference. Help them follow through with their ideas and record their successes!
  • Change the temperature. To reduce anxiety, apply ice packs to the wrists or back of neck at bedtime to calm the system, or drink ice cold water. On the other side, try a warm bath with calming scents to get ready to sleep.
  • Write some ‘dream starters’ on slips of paper and keep in a jar near their bed. They can choose a starter and close their eyes, playing the ‘movie’ of their paper in their minds while falling asleep.
  • A tent over their bed can block out the stimulation of their room and help them get to sleep sooner! https://www.privacypop.com/shop/tent/privacy-pop-bed-tent/
  • A soft light with aromatherapy can help them associate a smell with bedtime. https://www.muji.us/store/ultrasonic-aroma-diffuser.html
  • Weighted blankets can be very calming. (https://www.mosaicweightedblankets.com/benefits/)

 

 

Creative Writing Chaos

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Gifted kids have a tricky relationship with creative writing. They have big ideas and grand plans but have difficulty getting those ideas onto paper.

For some, the trouble begins as soon as they pick up the pencil. Fine motor skills are often delayed in gifted children, which means their handwriting skills are lacking. They hold the pencil awkwardly, push down too hard, don’t form letters correctly. For perfectionist kids, the writing doesn’t look the way they think it should and that’s enough to halt the creative process. In addition, some kids hate the way the pencil feels on the paper; I had one student who described the feeling as ‘a scratchiness that travels up my arm into my brain’. They have the ideas, but not the ability to physically write them down.

For most gifted kids, their ideas are so involved that they have difficulty translating them onto the page – their hands can’t keep up with their brains. A student recently described starting a story as ‘paddling up stream’. Beginning a story can seem impossible; if told to just ‘write about anything’ they have trouble picking one idea and sticking to it. “What if I pick the wrong idea? What if my idea is stupid?” Negative thoughts like these can paralyze them before they even start.

Recently at our program, we did ‘musical chairs creative writing’. The kids were all given the same story starter, then had two minutes to begin a story. When the music started they had to stop writing, stand up and walk around the circle until the music stopped. Then they’d pick up the story in front of them, read it, then continue writing it. The point of the project was to address the issues discussed previously. By providing the story starter, we took away the difficulty of picking an idea. By giving them only two minutes to write initially, they didn’t have enough time to worry about spelling and handwriting. If they didn’t like pencils, we had erasable pens to use instead.

As you can imagine, this project was met with mixed emotions. One child flat out refused to do it. Several were nervous about other people writing on their stories, and some were worried about not spelling things correctly. They were all mildly uncomfortable with the idea. However, we talked through it and got started with nearly all of the students (one still decided not to participate). After a few speed bumps and tears, the kids started getting into the spirit of it and laughing at the ridiculous stories that were being constructed. When we had finished, they were all eager to read what had happened in ‘their’ stories and share with the group. Several of them even chose to continue the activity after time was up by illustrating their stories or acting them out together.

They were uncomfortable with many aspects of this activity, but in the end they realized that writing can be silly, messy, collaborative, and fun.

Creative Writing Tips

For kids who have trouble forming letters:

  • To practice handwriting, have kids write letters with their fingers or chopsticks in sand or shaving cream.
  • Check out Dragon Software (https://www.nuance.com/dragon.html) – kids can tell their stories and the program writes it!
  • Teach them to type as soon as possible – it’s less frustrating and quicker for most kids once they get the hang of it.

For kids who sit in front a blank page for hours:

  • Have a bunch of ‘story starters’ on slips of paper and have the kids pull one out to get an idea going.
  • Set a timer and tell them to write for x number of minutes. For some kids, the pressure of the timer will help them get started.
  • Encourage collaborative writing. As a family each member can contribute a line or paragraph. For older kids, they can share a google doc with their friends and all write together.

For kids who get lost in the details:

  • Let them tell you their story orally and take notes for them. When they’re ready to write, they’ll have the framework all set.
  • Have them draw their story before writing it – sketch out the main scenes then fill in the details with words.
  • Think outside the box: creative writing can be more than just paragraphs of writing. Comic strips, advertisements, plays – these are all ways the kids can express themselves and practice writing.

For kids who are sensory averse:

  • Have erasable pens (https://www.amazon.com/Paper-Mate-3930158-EraserMate-Erasable/dp/B001E695C8) available instead of pencils. They’re smoother to write with and more fun!
  • Cursive is a great tool for gifted minds: it is faster and more fluid, similar to how their brains are working. The smooth style is sometimes more comfortable than the start-and-stop of printing. Unfortunately most schools don’t teach it anymore, but you can teach them at home!

 

Homework – The Struggle Is Real

Let’s face it, no one likes doing homework. But for gifted children, the struggle is much deeper than a simple dislike of doing more work.

Imagine this: You hate your job. You spend 8 hours a day doing mindless, repetitive, rote work. You have few friends, the environment is bright and loud, and you spend the whole day holding your emotions in check so you don’t get in trouble with your boss. You go home and can finally relax, except that you have MORE of that same work to do. How do you feel about that?

That scenario is what our gifted children are experiencing daily. For most of them, they spend the day bored and lonely. They expend so much energy holding it together that they are exhausted and cranky when they get home. And then we tell them to sit down and do their homework. They stall, complain, cry, get frustrated, get distracted, and what should be a ten minute assignment ends up as an hour long battle.

As many of you know, I run an after school program that provides a place for gifted children to interact with their peers, pursue their interests, work on the challenges they face, and get their homework done. One child I worked with for years fought our homework time every single day. He would say things like, “This is my safe space – it’s not fair that I have to do homework here”. When pressed on this, he explained that doing homework at our program made him feel like he was back at school, which wasn’t a good feeling. He was also very sensory-averse, and the feeling of pencil on paper was like nails on a chalkboard. He started using erasable pens which helped, but the fact that the homework was just more of the same was the real issue.

So what can we do about it? The kids will always have homework, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Learning how to manage their time and being responsible for the work are key executive function skills that are difficult to learn without things like homework. It doesn’t need to be a nightly fight – here are a few things that might help:

  • Be consistent from the beginning. Gifted kids love structure, predictability, and routine. If there are no negotiations about homework from the onset, there will be less drama later on. If that ship has sailed, talk with your child about how, when, where they want to do their work. Perhaps they like to get it over with as soon as they get home. Maybe they need a break first. Do they need total quiet, or are more productive in the middle of things? Let them take ownership over the plan and then stick to it.
  • Set a timer and be done when it’s done. Most teachers will start the school year saying that homework shouldn’t take more than x minutes a day. The National Education Association (http://www.nea.org/tools/16938.htm) recommends that students be given 10-20 minutes of homework a night, adding 10 minutes to each grade (so a 1st grader should have 10-20 minutes, 2nd grader 20-30 minutes etc.). When your child starts homework, start a timer and explain that when it goes off, homework time is over. If they don’t finish it during that time, put a sticky note on the homework explaining to the teacher that they spent the full x minutes on the work and could not complete it in that time. If it happens often, it would be a good idea to ask the teacher’s advice on what they would like you do to. Most teachers don’t want children struggling and getting upset over homework and will be reasonable if you give them a head’s up.
  • Find consequences that matter to them. At our program, if the child doesn’t want to do his homework, he doesn’t have to. However, he can’t do anything else until it’s done or gets picked up. They watch the other kids finishing and playing games, and see that there is a benefit to getting the work done. At home, if the issue is that they won’t do their homework at all, you can have them stay in their homework area until they have a decent amount of work done (then you can start the timer). If they aren’t allowed to do anything else, at some point they will start. You may also want to talk with the teacher about in-school consequences. The teacher may suggest coming to school early to do it in the classroom, giving up free time during the day to finish it, or initiating a reward system for turning in completed work.
  • Choose the hardest problems from the homework and only do those. When I train teachers on differentiation, one of the easiest tools I offer is the Most Difficult First. Basically, the teacher picks the 5 hardest problems from the upcoming homework and the students can do them in class. If they get them correct, they don’t need to do the rest of the homework. The reasoning is that if they can do the hardest problems, why sit through the easier ones? You, as a parent, can apply this same logic to homework. If the struggle is because the homework is repetitive and rote, choose several ‘hard’ items and have them do those first. If they complete them easily, write a note and stick it to the homework explaining that your child did the hardest problems which should demonstrate mastery/understanding of the topic being covered. Again, most teachers should be reasonable about this especially if you give them a head’s up about it.
  • Form a study group. Part of our program is a designated homework time. All the kids who have homework have to work on it then. As soon as they’ve finished, they can go back to playing games, working on their projects, etc. New students always – ALWAYS – resist doing their homework with us. Initially they may refuse, and then end up sitting there while their peers finish and head back to the more interesting activities. The other kids know the drill and get it done quickly and head back to games. By the second or third week, they’re all getting their work out as soon as it’s time. Having that group mentality of ‘let’s just get it done’ can be really helpful in the homework struggle. You might try getting a group of kids together a few times a week at the library, or rotating houses. If they’re older, you can even set up ‘virtual study groups’ where they FaceTime each other while doing their work. It may take longer, but with less struggle and a more positive connotation to it.
  • Think outside the box. For many households, the rule is to get the homework done as soon as they get home. Before any screen time, sports, etc. but not all kids do their best work then. Some may be late nighters and do it after dinner once the house has quieted down. Or early birds and like doing homework first thing in the morning before school. Some may get a surge of energy after sports and find they are most productive then. Listen to your children’s complaints; showing them that you are listening and trying to work WITH them can be invaluable. Try things out and see what works best. Then stick with it!

At the end of the day, homework is just homework. It’s not worth ruining relationships over, and most of the time teachers will be more receptive to alternative ideas than you may think. Give some of these a try and let me know how they work for you. If you have things that have worked that I didn’t include, let me know about those too!

And invest in sticky notes – you’ll be needing them.

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Think Zebras Not Horses

 

Why this blog?

The word gifted often comes with verbal quotation marks; people hedge and dance around the term and the meaning behind it. Teachers are skeptical when you explain the needs of your gifted child, and friends roll their eyes when you explain how difficult it is to have a ‘smart kid’. It is so often misunderstood and in reality few people really know the meaning of the term.

But the truth is this: having a gifted child is HARD. It’s hard when your friends can’t relate to your family’s struggles. It’s hard when your child is paralyzed by perfectionism. It’s hard when school is so boring that your child acts out and becomes ‘that kid’. It’s hard when you realize your child’s only friend is the 75 year old neighbor with whom they play chess. It’s hard when they become so consumed with issues like global warming and homelessness that they can’t sleep at night.

When most people see a gifted child they see the immaturity, the sensitivity, the ‘quirks’. They think horses, not zebras. They wonder if the child is on the spectrum, if they have anxiety, if they’re oversensitive. They think horses, not zebras. They wonder aloud why your gifted child seems to have so many problems in school, why they need to go to occupational therapy for fine motor skills, and why they melt down at soccer practice. They think horses, not zebras.

My goal is to help people think zebras, not horses. For the last 15 years I’ve worked with gifted children and their families and have seen the same issues time and time again. On this blog, I’ll be discussing those ‘quirks’, how they can manifest, and some practical suggestions. Let’s remove those quotation marks and raise our voices to support these amazing kids.

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Up next: Homework – The Struggle Is Real

Reach out and let me know if there are topics you’d like to discuss, or have questions or comments about the post!