Voices from the Village: A Teaching Community
By Vanessa Ewing, Gail Stine, and Stacey Pendleton.
Without emotional health and well-being, all the brilliance and academic prowess that gifted children and adults may possess really doesn’t matter. Unless these needs are met, individuals will be unable to achieve optimal wellness levels.
The typical classroom environment may pose special challenges for these learners. Gifted children may not feel a sense of kinship or belonging in their classes as they may feel with same age children but not intellectual peers. Gifted children often possess advanced interests in many academic subjects, appreciate advanced humor, and show intense and focused interests in comparison to others their age. At the same time, they may have some areas of comparative weakness or immaturity in areas such as in social/emotional skills. Having some choice over topics to study or learn about may be even more important to these children-- desiring to go in depth in an area of particular passion or interest--yet often in traditional classrooms very few choices may be given. Allowing choice in working independently or in freely chosen groups often also increases motivation and productivity.
Although all children may be prone to both anxiety and depression, gifted learners may show these traits in differing ways. They are more likely to show traits of perfectionism leading to performance anxiety and/or underachievement. Their grades may still be strong, but with debilitating perfectionism they are far from thriving. If students are not adequately challenged and are thus used to sailing by without effort, perfectionism (and sometimes anxiety, disengagement, or under achievement) may follow.
Gifted learners are also more likely to think deeply on topics such as the meaning of life, what is fair and just, and how the world is verses how it ‘should’ be rather than accepting the world as it is. These traits are a part of who they are. This is why it is important to take the time to listen and try to understand how they are feeling. Socratic seminars are a great way to allow students to express values and feelings. Within the context of these open ended class discussions, students have the opportunity to learn from others, think critically about their positions, and articulate their own thoughts.
With these particular challenges, the large question becomes how we can remove or adapt to the barriers that arise? As adults who support gifted children, we should work to develop a home, work, and school environment where we actively develop a sense of acceptance, love and belonging. Offering students choice and the power of decision-making can help develop a strong classroom community, motivate and inspire, and allow students freedom and some control. Problem solving together as a family or classroom additionally builds community and motivation. Although all children have gifts, not all children are gifted in the legal and academic sense of the term. Gifted students require accommodations and modifications to their educational experience in order to thrive. When gifted children do not understand what giftedness means, they are more likely to feel isolation, shame, or a lack of pride when they notice they think and learn differently from others in their classes. Basic conversations and books on what giftedness means (and does not mean) can help immensely with this common struggle.
We can help children develop strategies that are supportive of their personal growth and general well-being. By recognizing triggers for anxiety, depression, or general dissatisfaction, we can work to implement tools that help them through those challenges. Helping gifted children may be something as simple as creating a specific homework schedule to stave off last minute “cram sessions” that were anxiety producing, or it may be something as advanced as utilizing specific meditation strategies to calm anxious feelings. When times get tough, as they do for most every individual, we can also use tools to step back into health.
Some suggested tactics to build resiliency with gifted learners to maximize mental health include:
Find a mentor: Mentors can help build passions and provide gateways for students to engage in their interests with a like-minded individual. Mentorship relationships can often lead to long-term support for students.
Encourage students to join school clubs or interest groups: For instance, if they like chess, encourage them to join a chess club. They will be able to bond with other children around a shared interest.
Encourage children to speak in “I” statements (e.g. “I don’t like it when…”): This allows them to process and identify their feelings and engage with others in a meaningful way.
If there are perfectionism struggles, have them work on low-stakes projects where failure is likely to happen: Allow them to “fail” but have them focus on the positive things that they learned or the fun they had along the way. Focus on the idea of FAIL as, “First Attempt In Learning.”
Communicate: Keep the lines of communication open with your student’s family/guardian(s), counselors, and other teachers. Teachers are used to check-ins about how a child is doing academically, but it may be useful to have check-ins about a student’s mental well-being during the school day.