NJAGC: Gifted Teens Empowering Gifted Teens
What it was:
The last two days, Friday and Saturday, four of our teammates traveled to Somerset, Bridgewater, to present on student stress and how that affects performance in school, especially for gifted learners. We spoke at a conference for NJAGC, the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children. It is an annual conference for students, their parents, and educators concerned with fostering gifted learners and helping them grow in the classroom. At the NJAGC Convention, we led a “round table discussion” with adults and students on student stress - including our work making a difference in our own school.
What did we learn?
While leading the discussion, we encountered many helpful and interesting perspectives on stress in gifted kids, including what the most acute stressors in their classrooms are (and how they differ from the stress most kids experience day-to-day) methods that other teachers and educators have used in their classrooms, and how stress impacts everyone - and gifted learners may be hit hardest of all. The results were eye-opening, to say the least.
Point 1: Everyone Feels Stress, But Some Feel it in Different Ways
Many middle and high school students attended the discussion, and they vocalized concerns that our NüYü group has been addressing: Lack of voice in the classroom, disconnect between teachers and students, overly rigorous course loads and too much homework, and feeling like they cannot ask for help in the classroom when they needed it. However, there were some answers that we didn’t hear before- and they helped shine a light on new issues. For example, many of the attendees vocalized their struggles with perfectionism that, while expressed somewhat in our surveys and interviews with the school, were not fully explored yet in our program.
This can lead to resentment of group work - students may try to take control of a project out of fear that others will “mess it up”, and thus the student receives a low grade for the mistakes of someone else. Students may become hung up on controlling every aspect of a project, even at the detriment of their own well-being when they bite off more than they can chew.
In addition, every subject is expected to come easily for gifted learners, when for almost all that’s just not true. Students can be gifted in many different ways; some might be good with numbers and calculations, while others are more “word-smart.” Some gifted children are exceptionally good at connecting with other people and have great leadership skills, while there are many others who excel at music and the arts. However, the bottom line is that many gifted children are forced into subjects that they have little to no interest in, or are not even particularly gifted in, and who does that help? No one. The students suffer because they are expected to be good at the subject, because of the precariously shaky concept of “smartness” that is expected to extend to every subject equally. Even worse, being forced into AP Psychology when you’re really more of a chemistry person has far deeper effects: students will no longer have time to focus on the subjects they really enjoy and care about, because they are too busy keeping up with the rigorous course load for their other classes.
This isn’t to say that a child should stop coming to Math class because they’d rather be in English It’s to say that they shouldn’t focus on completing polynomial equations at six years old if all they really want to be doing is reading a new book.
Point 2: Social Skills Suffer When You’re the “Smart” One
Everyone knows the stereotype of a “nerd,” a dorky, clumsy, unathletic kid in glasses, who says things at the wrong time and always has their nose in a book, and has few or no friends. While this stereotype is far from true - gifted children can come in all shapes and sizes - it is true that advanced children can struggle with social skills, especially when it feels like you’re so far ahead of the curve that it would be easier to just not bother.
One example brought up at our discussion that seemed to particularly resonate with the group was the struggles they have to make meaningful connections with people who have the same interests as they do, to put it in other words, to “find their tribe.” Gifted children with non-mainstream interests can find that potential friends are few and far between. Additionally, another barrier to meaningful friendships is the stigma surrounding being the “smart” one. Gifted children are often seen as a resource rather than a friend, with their classmates coming to them more because they need help on a tricky homework problem than because the person seems like an interesting person to talk to.
For some children, the feeling of being a square peg can be so severe that they will try to hide the fact that they are gifted altogether. One of the people we met with, Dr. Gentry, brought up a particularly compelling - and heartbreaking - example of a five year old she worked with who could read on the level of a ninth grader, yet had convinced the other members of her kindergarten class, including her teacher, that she could not even recognize the letters of the alphabet.
“I can’t let them know,” the young girl had protested. “It would confound my life.”
Indeed, many gifted children pass up precious opportunities to be challenged in the classroom because they do not want to be ostracized by their peers.
Point 3: Mindfulness and What it Means for Gifted Children
During our discussion, we pointed out an overall strategy - that can be applied in many ways - which is mindfulness. We taught this in our sessions in school, and shared this with the students and experts at the discussion.
Mindfulness is important for gifted children especially, because it can be a way to go beyond coping at school and actually thrive. They can realize their own needs and what they need to do to take care of themselves, and then find what steps need to be taken to foster a healthy environment at school and home.
Point 4: Coping Strategies and Self Advocacy - How Can You Take Care of You?
Coping strategies - or the lack of them - is the underlying problem that we identified while researching our topic. Even though there has been much controversy over the amount of workload students are given (between parents, teachers, and students), we do not think this is the most prominent problem that is causing stress. Administration have tried to implement no homework days as well as removing midterms and finals, but we feel as if this is only the beginning.
Earlier in the year, while we were researching, we came across a social-emotional chart of five core competencies that are essential to students’ - and really, everyone’s - well-being. They are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. We based our lessons off of these, and brainstormed coping skills for each section. However, we cannot guarantee that students will use these. That is why you need to take the initiative and use the coping strategies that best fit you. We can only do so much. As the oft-repeated saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”
Self advocacy. This is perhaps the most unused strategy by students. Much of the stress that is hitting students is because of the lack of connection and contact between students, parents and teachers. Students, because of a general feeling that they are “smarter” than others, feel that they are expected to be better than others, and thus expected not to ask questions or for help. They are afraid of what their fellow peers and teachers would think.