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We are our Environment: The Eco-System of Gifted Development

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

By Kate Bachtel.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Combs

Karen Kliethermes began her talk, Messages from the Earth, with a passionate plea to better listen to the natural world (2018). As a highly gifted young adult launching a career as an artist, Reiki practitioner and educator; she is also equal parts vegan eco-activist and scientist. Like many others with advanced cognition, Karen is vividly aware of the interdependent relationship among not only humans, but also animals, plants, the land and water. As she shared about the impact human behavior has had on coral (coral is an animal, not a plant), I was reminded of the critical role eco-literacy plays in the overall development of gifted individuals.

Eco-literacy describes the strength of an individual’s relationship with the natural world (Goleman, Bennett & Barlow, 2012). Molecular biologist turned expert counselor to the gifted and Dabrowski scholar, Michael Piechowski, believes a strong relationship with nature is essential for well-being (2014). Furthermore, emotional and sensual overexcitabilities[1] can result in gifted students being more in tune with the natural world, and intellectual overexcitability may lead to advanced understanding of long and short term consequences of human behavior on the environment (Piechowski, 2014). Karen exemplifies advanced eco-literacy development. She explained in detail how climate change has been the greatest contributing factor to the death of coral; a slight two-degree rise in water temperature has had a devastating impact. Coral cover less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet are home to approximately 25 percent of marine life (Kliethermes, 2018). The cumulative effect of humans consuming in excess is imbalance.

Like the coral reefs, many gifted youth in traditional school models are in crisis. Each among us has responsibility to work to remedy the damage done to our environment and students independent of shame or blame. Karen feels the weight of this work deeply and is an inspired, conscious consumer. Sustainability practices and care for the environment are crucial to human health. Given the degree to which environmental conditions influence growth, developing eco-literacy is relevant to all of education, but particularly to highly sensitive gifted individuals (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009; Gatto-Walden, 2016). In exploring the practices of an exemplary gifted program, facilitating environmental connections emerged as a theme and recommendation for other educators aspiring to empower diverse gifted learners (Bachtel, 2017).

Environmental connections are defined as a student’s relationship with the natural world, their sensory experience in the learning habitat and the impact of the cultural climate.

Ecological Awareness.

It is time to prioritize ecological education. What if children were able to communicate the impact of their choices on the environment? Organizations like Charity: Water are leading the way in aligning resources with unmet needs and transparency in reporting. Imagine how the environment and human health might evolve if all companies were required to publish social and environmental impact statements in additional to financial reports. Hold this dream of the ideal close. What does living in harmony with the seasons and creatures among us feel like? In a karmic cycle of giving and receiving, disciplined shifts in our consumptive habits are nature’s fuel and ours in return. If we take too much, nature will take back and she is much stronger than we are.

How do we hear earth’s messages? We begin by getting closer. The eco-therapy movement is contributing to the body of literature outlining the health benefits of proximity to nature including lower stress levels and improved immune system functioning (Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Website, 2018). Physician and scholar Dr. Joseph Mercola’s research found walking barefoot and connecting with the earth supports organ and cellular function throughout the body (2017). Mercola states wearing sneakers, insulating ourselves from the ground, has likely been the greatest contributor to inflammation related health disorders (2017). There is zero financial expense to touching the earth and subsequently no logical excuse for denying students this well-being practice. Eco-conscious educators across the globe are: designing and planting gardens, introducing recycling and composing programs, educating on energy consumption, engaging in design challenges related to climate change and more. All of these practices develop eco-literacy and generate hope that youth will be prepared to light the way.

Learning Habitat.

How does the physical space of the education environment impact the nervous system and learning? How does the room feel? Is it warm and welcoming? Physically or emotionally cold? Is the energy calming or overwhelming? If the conditions are harsh like at the North Pole, do students have access to noise canceling headphones, alternative seating, natural lighting and other tools to increase comfort? Who designed the space? Does the community co-create the learning habitat or does the teacher design it on their own? Displaying a wide range of student work grows relationships among community members. Seeing diverse student strengths celebrated communicates inclusivity and encourages diverse modes of expression. Last and most relevant, is the natural outside world present within? This can be as simple as having students create posters or other communications to inspire changes in behavior, planting a seed in a paper cup or even going on an imaginary hike in the forest or swim in a lake.

Cultural Climate.

Few teacher preparation programs prepare educators to recognize and resist oppression (Kumashiro, 2015). Do students suffer because of gender, cultural, linguistic, developmental and / or other differences? An example would be withholding recess from students with ADHD. Forcing educators to adhere to policies or practices that limit student growth or worse, cause harm, is oppressive. Schools and educators acculturate children to society through their behaviors, otherwise referred to as the implicit, or hidden, curriculum (Eisner, 2017).

Do resources align with needs or are they inequitably distributed? Distributed leadership practices model for students the sharing of power and collaboration that is expected from them in order to work in the direction of a more just and peaceful society. There are varying definitions of distributed leadership, and the literature is emergent. The primary tenants are: inspiring collective responsibility, emphasizing collaboration and distributing power among individuals (Ritchie & Woods, 2007). Leadership is independent of role or title which challenges many traditional organizational structures. Additionally, distributed leadership emphasizes reciprocal interdependency; community members are supported in sharing and replicating each other’s best practices. The concept is explained in terms of not only actual structures, but also culture, social attitudes and practices (Ritchie & Woods, 2007). Engaging leadership practices that promote cultural pluralism[2] increases the strength, diversity and well-being of our communities. Sitting beside each other, rather than standing over one another, grows a balanced cultural eco-system.

In Sum

Can you hear the earth weeping? The flowers singing? The animals crying out? Nurturing our eco-system is a moral imperative that gifted individuals are uniquely prepared for given their powerful sensitivities and capacity for navigating complexity. What type of emotional and physical weather conditions are we creating in our homes, neighborhoods, schools and places of work? Our children’s development is stunted when conditions become severe and the cost of that far outweighs any perceived inconvenience of becoming more disciplined. Nature is calling and will persist until we learn to change our ways.

[1] For more on overexcitabilities, please see (Lind, 2001).

[2] Cultural pluralism is defined as proactively cultivating a multiethnic and multilingual society (Paris, 2012).


Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. (2018). Brief introduction to the science of Forest Therapy: A curated collection of journalism and research. [Website]. Retrieved from:

Bachtel, K. (2017). Seeing the Unseen: An Educational Criticism of a Gifted School. Dissertation. Retrieved from:

Daniels, S. & Piechowski, M. (2009). Living with Intensity. Scottsdale: Great Potential Press, Inc.

Eisner, E. (2017). The Enlightened Eye: Qualitative Inquiry and the Enhancement of Educational Practice. (2nd Ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gatto-Walden, P. (2016). Embracing the Whole Gifted Self. Unionville: Royal Fireworks Press.

Goleman, D.; Bennett, L. and Barlow, Z. (2012). EcoLiterate. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Kliethermes, K. (2018). Messages from the Earth. Lecture presented in March 2018 in Denver, CO.

Kumashiro, K. (2015). Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning Toward Social Justice (3rd Ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lind, S. (2001). Overexcitability and the Gifted. The SENGVine Newsletter. Retrieved from:

Lovecky, D. (2011). Can you Hear the Flowers Sing? The SENGVine Newsletter. Retrieved from:

Mendaglio, S. (2012). Overexcitabilities and Giftedness Research: A Call for a Paradigm Shift. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 35(3), 207-219.

Mercola, J. (2017). Down to Earth. Retrieved from:

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.

Piechowski, M. (2014). “Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could. Intensities and Sensitivities of The Young and Bright. (2nd ed.) Unionville: Royal Fireworks Press.


Dr. Kate Bachtel is the founder of SoulSpark Learning, a Colorado based nonprofit dedicated to optimizing the development and well-being of youth and the educators who care for them. Prior to launching SoulSpark Learning, she co-led the opening of Mackintosh Academy's Boulder campus, a K-8 school for gifted learners. She holds a doctorate in education with an emphasis in gifted from University of Denver and a master's in education with an emphasis in equity and cultural diversity from University of Colorado at Boulder. She also serves as a director at Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) and was president for the 2016-17 term.

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