Updated: May 19
A Mental Health Analysis of An Animal School: A Tale of Gifts Film
By Andrea Brucella Finnegan.
What do the beloved characters Gharial, Sugar Glider Possum, Margay, Okapi, Peacock Mantis Shrimp, and Bumblebee all have in common? They are all bright, neurodivergent students who are, unfortunately, not thriving at the Animal School. Some of them are suffering silently without anyone knowing. Why?
Peek into their worlds in this short metaphorical story, An Animal School: A Tale of Gifts, written by Lin Lim and Adam Laningham. Created for all educators and parents of 2e, neurodiverse, and gifted children, its message illustrates the struggles of being an outlier, a neurodivergent learner, and a trailblazing student. It sparks conversation around the need for neurodiversity awareness, new educational practice, and the assurance of support for the well-being of children who walk in these shoes. Watch this 11-minute, exotic, animal-filled film and then read about how the mental health of students ties into the story. View the film: https://youtu.be/r4etWS0emb0
Gharial’s School Experience (Video 1:02 - 2:02)
Gharial is an example of what can happen when a strong focus on subject remediation takes precedence over a focus on a talent in another subject that a twice exceptional student has. Unfortunately, the Animal School was more concerned about focusing on the area of deficits (climbing) than on the area that Gharial was able to do very well (swimming). What happened emotionally to Gharial with this approach? The time taken from Gharial’s love of swimming stripped away much of Gharial’s happiness. As a result of experiences like Gharial’s, a recipe for negative repercussions in a student's mental health and confidence may arise.
Moving away from a focus on a student’s natural strengths compromises a student’s motivation, academic self-efficacy, self-esteem, and thereby inhibits growth and chances for success (Baum, Schader & Owen, 2017). As a result, a deficit-based school approach in twice exceptional students usually leads to poor self-esteem and anxiety. Students’ self-talk can sound like these statements:
“I must be broken.”
“I will never be good enough.”
“My talents aren’t as important.”
These are the messages that students pick up about themselves when they are constantly reminded to spend more time working on subjects that plummet their confidence, as opposed to the ones that build their confidence and let their innate gifts shine. Every individual has their weaknesses and their strengths, but should not be expected to master everything they were not wired to do in life. A 2021 study found that negative self-esteem, anxiety, and behavioral issues were found to be more prevalent in dyslexic students of whom many were solely focused on interventions, compared to their neurotypical peers (Zuppardo, Serrano & Rodriguez-Fuentes, 2021). The behaviors are simply a cry for help in these bright students.
Parents of twice exceptional children should advocate for a strength-based approach when there isn’t one in place. Parents can also help by showing authentic excitement for their child’s subject area of strength. This kind of parental support makes a child feel good about themselves (Baum, Schader, & Owen, 2017). Additionally, enrichment activities that support a child’s talents outside of the school setting will do more good than an abundance of only remedial interventions. Remediation is necessary, but it shouldn’t take precedence or eat up the positive self-efficacy of a child.
Sugar Glider Possum’s School Experience (Video 2:04 - 3:02)
Sugar Glider Possum had a different approach to flying and it came naturally. Often, bright, creative students can find different ways of getting to a task’s finish line. Neurodiversity shows us that students shouldn’t be expected to think, learn, or complete tasks in the same way. The school’s lack of acceptance for neurodiversity is why Sugar Glider Possum ended up being labeled a failure, instead of being seen as a wonderfully valuable neurodivergent student who could fly well in his own unique way.
A school environment that encourages students’ cognitive differences fosters greater creativity and problem solving. Everyone benefits. Some children simply have their own way of doing things that will get them to the same finish line as their peers. Neurodiversity gives default wiring for a certain way of navigating the world. No way is incorrect if the desired outcome is the same.
One example of this is a student who is excellent at math, who may be able to arrive at the correct answers but not able to show the steps of thinking on paper. A gifted student who has an intuitive understanding of mathematical function and processes may skip over steps the teacher wants to see. These students may be unable to explain how they arrived at their correct answer to a problem (Rotigel & Fello, 2021). Mental math and intuitive problem solving skills are different for each student. Dona Matthews, Ph.D, states that, “...there is no single approach that works well for all children” (Matthews, 2021).
When twice exceptional students experience a school situation similar to Sugar Glider Possum’s, many develop low self-concept (King, 2005) and low self-esteem. Both can be expressed in these student phrases:
“I can’t do anything right.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“No one likes me.”
A 2019 study showed that “low self-esteem may contribute to anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm among adolescents” (Kolonko, 2022).
In order to prevent these negative effects on students, educators and parents should accept and support alternative ways of thinking, problem-solving, communication methods, and “simply being” as all correct.
Margay’s School Experience (Video 3:03 -4:10)
Margay looked like his peers on the outside, but on the inside, his brain was wired differently to take in information much quicker than his peers. Margay had gifted intelligence, but it was not detected because his unwanted behaviors took precedence in the mind of his teacher. Margay earned good grades at the end of the school year, but what emotions were cultivating on the inside of Margay as a result of being a highly intelligent, bored, and misunderstood student?
Gifted children with ADHD “may experience unmet needs for engagement in their education and begin searching for stimulating material in their environment” (Tetreault, 2021, p. 210). In addition, children who have high intellect may become disengaged and disruptive in school because the subject material comes too easily for them, causing boredom and stimulus-seeking behaviors. Oftentimes, many of these students are misunderstood and viewed as “trouble-makers” in school settings instead of as the bright-minded, inquisitive students that they truly are. In gifted and 2e students (gifted with ADHD), the motor cortex of the brain has been found to have less inhibition, which results in greater physical movement, activity, and ADHD hyperactivity (p. 212). The challenge of coping with rapid attentional shifts, greater physical motor input and output, while being bored from a lack of stimulating and challenging work, would be hard for anyone to deal with sitting at a desk.
When a student is constantly corrected or shamed for behaviors that come from a disengaged brain that is simply a result of an environment that does not meet its needs, it sends a message to students that it is not ok to be themselves. This shame can “affect [a student’s] self-esteem in ways that can become ingrained and permanent” says Claire McCarthy, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (McCarthy, 2020).
One remedy to keep an highly active, inquisitive minds happy is to provide what it craves. Challenging projects and activities that feed the need for novelty and knowledge and that also allows students to move around frequently with breaks may be a game changer. Look to students’ interests and strengths that they can use to be proud of to prevent a crash in self-esteem.
Okapi’s School Experience (Video 4:11-5:00)
Okapi’s peers at school could see characteristics of Okapi as ones that were familiar to them, but there were also characteristics that seemed odd and unfamiliar. As a result, Okapi’s peers felt that they couldn’t relate to Okapi and weren’t aware of how to accept differences. If only the animals took the time to get to know Okapi, they would see how amazing Okapi truly was.
Okapi’s school experience can be metaphorical to many twice exceptional autistic students, gifted LGTBQ+ students, and to neurodiverse students in general. On the outside, these bright students may blend in with their neurotypical peers, but their different ways of navigating the world set them apart and can create misunderstanding among their peers. When other students don’t understand and respect those differences, bullying can happen, and it can create a lasting, detrimental impact.
Neurodiversity and diversity is a topic that all schools should be teaching to students from a young age (as well as to their educators) to build self-esteem and acceptance for all kinds of minds and ways of being. Gifted LGBTQ+ children and teens “have reported feeling isolated and stigmatized during their middle and high school experiences” (Hutcheson & Tieso, 2014). In addition, researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that the bullying of LGBTQ+ students was a substantial factor leading to suicide, more than their non-LGBTQ+ peers (Greenwood, 2020). Autistic, twice exceptional students may struggle with feeling socially isolated due to difficulty connecting with their peers. They may also behave and communicate differently, which can become a target for bullying and can lead to suicidal thoughts (Maïano, 2015) . A study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, uncovered that autistic children were twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts than their neurotypical peers” (Rybczynski, 2022). Some students may look ok on the outside, but may be struggling on the inside with poor self-esteem, anxiety, and depression because they don’t fit in.
Parents and educators can make sure that students are equipped to self-advocate for their differences and their needs. Neurodiverse and gifted students should understand that their “quirks” are part of what makes them great at things. Opportunities to engage with other like-minded peers is helpful for building friendships and self-esteem. All students should be taught to understand the differences of others. It helps everyone grow to learn the unique ways that others navigate the world and can prevent bullying and stigma. It can also save lives.
Peacock Mantis Shrimp’s School Experience (Video 5:04-6:12)
Peacock Mantis Shrimp was an outlier student who had a special interest that the school did not support. Peacock Mantis Shrimp was destined to have feelings of lackluster and a sense of being out of place. Built to thrive in the water instead on most of the dry land environment of the school was rough. This feeling of being a “fish out of water” often adds to difficulty with social skills and can create anxiety for students. Outlier children, like Peacock Mantis Shrimp, are faced with extreme challenges to fit within a school system built for only the center majority.
Profoundly gifted, profoundly gifted/2e, and profoundly gifted minority children may fit the metaphorical profile of Peacock Mantis Shrimp. For example, many, if not most, 2e autistic children have a special interest that is incredibly self-motivating for them. One could spend hours in a state of “flow”. When given the time and support to take these deep dives into their areas of interest, these students can excel to high levels of expertise, even seen at knowledge levels of a Ph.D. However, these children will thrive only if they are educated with the right “niche construction”, or environment that supports their intellectual and sensory needs (Armstrong, 2017).
Neuroscience studies have given evidence that to truly thrive, children need to be challenged at their elevated intellectual level (Tetreault, 2022). Oftentimes, parents look for alternative ways to educate a profoundly gifted child, resorting to homeschooling or special school programs. An outside-of-the-box child needs an outside-of-the-box environment. It was only after leaving the Animal School, to study with mentors and family who made the time to cultivate that interest/talent in Peacock Mantis Shrimp, that Peacock Mantis Shrimp excelled and found joy.
A fitting environment can change a complex child’s world for the better.
Bumblebee’s School Experience (Video 5:05-7:14)
No one at the Animal School knew how to navigate Bumblebee’s unique, asynchronous development. “Asynchrony is a term used for the uneven developmental rates of a child’s intellectual, emotional, social, and motor skills (Baum, Schader & Owen, 2017). Bumblebee’s advanced intellectual abilities were years ahead of other students, but social skills and motor skills were years behind. As a 2e student, Bumblebee needed extra time to learn and complete tasks, such as flying, but it didn’t mean that Bumblebee wasn’t capable of doing great work. Bumble was on a different, unique developmental timeline.
Students that fit Bumblebee’s profile may need extra time to take tests, complete work, or be provided accommodations to succeed. Behaviors may still be immature, yet the child may speak and think at the level of an adult. This can create expectations that are too high for the emotional age level. Asynchrony affects these students across their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical domains and should be considered when schools are measuring performance (p. 143).
Tolerance, patience, more time, positive teacher relationships, a psychologically safe school environment, and a strength-based approach to learning will support twice exceptional students (p. 60-62) to prevent their self-esteem from plummeting. Children pick up on the way their teachers and peers view them.
Every child’s natural way of navigating the world is unique and beautiful in their own way. Just like the animals in the story, each child has something to offer the world if they are given the right environment, proper support, and plenty of encouragement. When teachers and parents put their children’s talents and abilities first, and then provide support for the things that don’t come as easy, children will have a greater ability to find happiness to thrive. A friend and colleague of mine, Bryan Mischler, has always said, “Start with the heart.”
Andrea Brucella Finnegan, M.S. Ed is a passionate advocate for neurodiversity and gifted/ twice-exceptional students. She serves as co-director for Operation House Call at the Yale School of Nursing, a program that teaches confidence and sensitivity towards individuals with intellectual and/or developmental differences. Andrea is a SENG parent support facilitator and a national and international speaker of neurodiversity among children and professional educators. Andrea is currently completing her doctorate in the field of cognitive diversity in education at the Bridges Graduate School. Andrea is a mom to three wonderful children who inspire her field of work each day.
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