Just Say No….to soccer

Peewee soccer is a rite of passage for most kids. The little uniforms, running around in packs after the ball, orange slices afterward. But for gifted kids – as with most things – it’s more complicated than just playing a game.

Giftedness begins at birth: the intensity, emotion, sensitivities all start at the beginning. Some are described as colicky or just plain hard. Gifted boys in particular have boundless energy as soon as they start moving. So it makes sense that parents look for any outlet to spend that energy, and soccer is a popular choice (although not the only one – similar complications can arise from basically any team sport that involves a ball). The trouble often begins at the first ‘practice’. Let’s take a walk through what that might look like:

The kids and parents arrive at a presumably new location. Most kids are running around, playing with new friends. The issue: Gifted kids have difficulty with the unknown. A new location with new people will often cause anxiety and stress, even before the practice begins. They may begin to withdraw and be reluctant to join in when it’s time to start.

The kids begin to learn new skills like kicking the ball. The issue: Fine and gross motor skills are often delayed in gifted kids. Catching, throwing, kicking balls are all skills that come much later than their age peers. In addition, they exhibit perfectionism at a very early age and will be frustrated quickly when they realize that they can’t do it the way they’ve seen other kids, professionals on tv, etc. This can lead to a meltdown of tears, stating it’s impossible, giving up, and storming off.

Teams are chosen and a scrimmage begins. The issue: Gifted kids typically have a heightened sense of fairness. They are rule followers and are often more interested in reading/creating rules than actually playing any game. Because of this, as soon as the mass of children run after the ball, they will stop and shout at their teammates that they’re not doing it right, it’s not fair! Combined with the above mentioned lack of motor skills, the frustration and stress will be too much at this point, and they’ll simply sit down right where they are, or head off to find a parent on the sidelines.

Of course some kids excel at team sports and soccer in particular, it’s important to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses, even at the tender age of 2 or 3. Physical activity and learning new sports is an important part of childhood that should be fun, not stressful (for them and for you!). Listen to their interests and gauge some basic skills before signing up for the t-ball team or soccer lesson, and check out some individual sport options too, like swimming, track, rock climbing, martial arts, dance, and gymnastics!

Shameless picture of my daughter climbing! Ball sports are not her thing.

The Importance of Failure

No one likes to fail. Everywhere we look there are aphorisms that encourage us to keep trying! You’re not learning if you’re not failing! It’s not failure but a lesson! No matter how often our kids hear this message, it doesn’t make it any easier. For gifted kids, it is particularly difficult: things come easily to them, they’re perfectionists, they’re intense. They fail less and have less practice failing than other kids their age. Experiencing failure and persevering through it, however, is essential to helping gifted kids succeed in the long run.

I tell parents who are interested in signing up for the class that my goal is for their child to fail every day. Failure is a common struggle with gifted kids: things come easily to them for years and when they are finally challenged they have no idea how to tackle it. I’ve spoken with many gifted adults who say they didn’t have to study or even try until college, and then had no idea how to.

This week at FWD we took a look at the American codebreaking duo William and Elizebeth Friedman. We talked about their role in WWI and WWII, and specifically about Elizebeth’s system of decoding (if this interests you, check out the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone: https://www.amazon.com/Woman-Who-Smashed-Codes-Outwitted/dp/0062430483). The kids loved learning about the spies and intrigue, and were excited to start cracking some codes.

The first one – a basic transposition cipher – was easy enough. The second cipher caused a bit more angst – a Caesar Shift cipher – but wasn’t too hard. The last code was where the trouble began. We had learned about frequency analysis and the kids were to use this to figure out a cryptogram. Guess and check is an important part, and I had talked about how it would take Elizebeth weeks or months or solve some codes, and she failed many, many times throughout. Most of the kids were reluctant to guess which letter was which – they wanted to know if they were right or not (I’ll discuss perfectionism in another blog soon!).

A Croton class hard at work!

One boy stared at it for a few minutes, then declared that he was bored and didn’t want to do it anymore. Another boy was so frustrated and angry that he snapped a pencil in two and had to take a break to calm down. Two girls burst into tears and declared that it was IMPOSSIBLE. Another girl ripped her paper into pieces. Sound familiar? These are common reactions – especially in our class full of zebras. It’s hard to put kids in situations where you know they will be upset and frustrated, but they need the chance to learn what failure feels like and how to push through it.

In the end, most of the kids managed to solve the codes and were so excited to go home and see if their parents could do it too. They wanted to write their own codes and asked if we could learn more types of ciphers next week. They had failed, been uncomfortable, then persevered to achieve their goal. My co-teacher and I had spent most of the hour talking them down and helping them work through the emotional labor of failure, and in the end they learned that the reward of conquering the problem was greater than the discomfort of failure.

The sooner and more often gifted kids are exposed to failure, the sooner they will be more comfortable with it. They’ll never like it, never embrace it, but hopefully they’ll learn how to work through it.

Some tips for helping gifted kids with failure:

  • Be aware of the environment when encouraging failure. You don’t want them to be embarrassed or the only one who is struggling. A small group of peers or close family members is preferable.
  • If you think they may struggle with a project or activity, give them a head’s up. Tell them the activity is going to be a challenge and they may not get it right away, which is totally fine. Also give them an out: tell them they can take breaks or try it again later if they feel overwhelmed.
  • Model failure. If you are struggling with something – work, house project, new skill – talk to your child about it! Bring it up at the dinner table and describe how you felt, how you handled the situation, and the outcome. Put yourself out there!
  • Find a peer group. Most gifted kids spend their days with neurotypical kids. The school work is easy and they don’t have much in common as far as interests. Finding another zebra will let them challenge each other as well as seeing another kid who thinks like they do fail in similar ways.
  • Teach relaxation techniques. Help them recognize signs that they are getting frustrated and losing control, and to be advocates for themselves. Deep breaths, taking breaks, cold air or water, counting backwards – whatever works for them.

Have a gifted kid who struggles with failure? What techniques have work for him/her? Let me know!

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
*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
*Good guesser
*Thrives on complexity
*Is keenly observant
*Is highly self-critical


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





Sleep – What’s That?



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

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.


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.


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!