The Complex Simplicity of Gifted Well-Being

By Kate Bachtel.

Dear SENG Friend,

Imagine a community where everyone is a voracious learner. Educators are prepared to support various aspects of the emerging gifted student self. Instruction is designed so each is challenged and nurtured. Students question injustices and are provided opportunities to innovate. Certainly these circumstances would lead to each student and teacher thriving, right? I once naively held this belief and was confidently wrong. What does gifted well-being look like? Should it be measured at school? If so, how? What is the relationship between well-being and trauma? Let’s start with where I fell short.

A Gifted Failure. Rewind a dozen years. The social and emotional learning (SEL) movement was gaining momentum. SENG had become a nonprofit in 2001 as society was learning more about how gifted individuals experience the world - the increased awareness was a salve, a virtual hug. Still, too many gifted youth were suffering. I thought if a school program addressed each aspect of development outlined in the SENG mission (social, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual), each would flourish. This focus does help, often dramatically, but is not a guarantee of gifted well-being. And, there is more to supporting each developmental domain than many realize. Take physical development as an example. The definition of a healthy diet can vary dramatically; one person eats nuts as a primary protein source and another is deathly allergic.

I initially experienced wonder and connection working in the gifted program. On the surface, the environment appeared blissful. Over time I grew perplexed by the broad spectrum of behaviors; in one building I witnessed altruism and cruelty. Sometimes from the same person! My head spun. Why would the parent of a student who was joyful and challenged at school send harassing emails to the child’s teachers? Why was the profoundly gifted teacher most disapproving of the student in her class seemingly most like her? Later I learned these behavioral patterns are not uncommon when individuals experience oppression, abuse and/or neglect. The oppressed is at risk of becoming the oppressor, often unaware they are caught in the cycle. Invisible wounds can cause extreme behaviors.

In reflecting, the majority of families and educators had shared about traumatic experiences, many connected to school. I wish I had known that when a person grows accustomed to suffering, thriving can feel unfamiliar. In this event, it is not uncommon to subconsciously introduce discord to maintain the energetic status quo. Additional distress can occur when emotional pain is pathologized. Recalibrating a nervous system from hypervigilance to tranquility is not something most teachers are taught how to do. Furthermore, caregivers to individuals experiencing trauma are vulnerable to Secondary Traumatic Stress.[1] Knowledge gaps left me under prepared. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned communities fail to recognize these dynamics. Worse, when they do, they lack the courage to examine and address toxic policies and practices that contribute to unseen pain spreading like the flu.

Gifted well-being is an exquisitely complex and simple paradox.

Thank you for forgiving ignorant hope.

The Complexity. Given individual and environmental intricacies, predicting well-being can be as challenging as forecasting the weather. Integrated whole person development is a different recipe for each person that requires both disciplined practice and flexibility to achieve. What dimensions of development should be supported in order for gifted individuals to thrive? Emotional, creative, sociopolitical, physical, eco-literacy, intellectual, physical, multicultural and spiritual each impact the other and have a significant impact on life outcomes (SoulSpark Learning, 2017). In addition, understanding physiological differences among gifted individuals can help prevent mistreatment (Gifted Research and Outreach, 2019). To add to the complexity, peace can look different for cognitive outliers. Sometimes one person’s comfort makes another feel irritated.

"When Calm Moves Swiftly" Sometimes peace steps slowly, Other times it sprints. Varied speeds, Different perspectives, Exploring. The rate of Clarity Is individuated. With hope society Can hold The tension in Disparate velocities, And that those whose Serenity Is found at a swift pace Be liberated To move as they are Called.

Each thread of our being is nuanced. Consider the emotional heart center,

They (emotions) are composed of many different processes that are interconnected with each other. They do not occur in isolation but rather are created either as a result of an event or combination of events in the external environment or the mind. They are also dependent on a subject’s history and personality. In addition, it is very unlikely that one emotion occurs by itself (Laycraft & Gierus, 2019, p.3).

Plutchik’s psycho-evolutionary theory of emotions outlines how various emotions combine to form emotional patterns that increase a person’s ability to navigate complicated situations. Frequent emotional patterns can contribute to disposition (as cited by Laycraft and Gierus, 2019). Then consider that emotional literacy is only one of countless pieces to the emotional development puzzle. According to Six Seconds, there are seven other skills included within the construct (2019). Emotional intelligence (EQ) assessments support in identifying skills gaps, but few educators are taught how to effectively teach EQ competencies. Still, emotional development is only one of many multidimensional elements influencing the experience of well-being.

Gifted well-being is layers of stunning chaos.

Thank you for exercising compassion.

The Simplicity. Gifted well-being can be pursued in a straightforward cycle: listen, validate, challenge, create, repeat. No explanation necessary. We experience well-being in our bodies as a vibration; we intuitively recognize it when we feel it. More formally, the World Health Organisation assesses well-being with the WHO-5 index exploring feelings of joy, calm, purpose and vitality (2019). How might schools evolve if th