The Guilt of Parenting Gifted Children - Kate Burton
As well-being is the theme of Gifted Awareness Week 2020, it seemed prudent to not only focus on gifted children but also the parents of these curious and often intense little people! As a friend said to me many years ago, when I felt overwhelmed with the challenges that lay ahead in relation to navigating the psychosocial and academic needs of my own children, “Don’t forget to put your own oxygen mask on first.” Sage advice indeed.
But what do we do when we feel like if we focus on ourselves, our children’s well-being will slip further out of sight? What if we feel overcome with guilt whenever we think we may get this parenting gig wrong? What if we break our child? What if other parents think we’re elitist or pushy? What if, what if, what if??
Many of the parents I work with are swept away by a tidal wave of guilt. This guilt may be associated with wishing they’d tested their child earlier, they’d advocated or pushed for interventions sooner, or even with feeling like a failure as a parent if their response to their little human’s epic meltdown was not imbued with calmness and rooted in empathy. Queue many late nights, trawling the internet to establish how to best meet the needs of your child, and desperately trying to learn how to better respond during the times that you too are at the end of your rope!
But what if we view this guilt as generative? As having the potential to act as a catalyst for change? Like anger, guilt is a feeling. How we choose to respond to it is up to us. When we learn to deconstruct our guilt and lean into its uncomfortableness, we may have to face some confronting truths, but oh how we grow! A commitment to working through our own ‘stuff’ allows us to forge closer connections with others, both at an individual and community level, and this is essential to enable us to support our children.
R.D. Laing reminds us how “True guilt is guilt at the obligation one owes to oneself to be oneself. False guilt is guilt felt at not being what other people feel one ought to be or assume that one is.” What Laing highlights is our tendency towards trying to please others, to aspire to what they want us to be, instead of staying focused on our own needs. This dualistic thinking model is one that often causes difficulties when we need to act in the best interest of our children. Giftedness isn’t an easy subject to be open about: the label itself drives parents the world over to hastily explain its many misconceptions, and that’s if they feel comfortable enough to discuss the subject at all. Similarly, this duality is reminiscent of the dilemma gifted young people feel in relation to their academic performance and identity development. Should they mask their abilities in order to fit in? If their passions are quirky, should they also mask these in order be accepted by others?
Values are at the core of our well-being, and many of the gifted individuals I work with strive towards self-actualisation. However, if our actions are not in alignment with our values then unhappiness, anxiety and even depression generally ensue. When we need to advocate for our child and risk upsetting the educational applecart, outlining our values can help clarify the best path forward without getting caught up in the swirling ‘what ifs’. We may not be able to change the past but we can use our guilt to forge a groundswell movement to better identify our core values. These values then provide a baseline for every action thereafter. We can advocate with diplomacy and humility, for example, softening the fear of causing conflict. We can identify composure as an aspirational value, and simultaneously develop the value of persistence as we work towards maintaining a sense of calmness.
By committing to working towards living in alignment with our own values we develop protective factors to support our well-being. And, of course, the natural consequence of this is if we share this journey with our children, they too learn to act from a place of self-awareness and authenticity. The well-being of our children is tightly interwoven with the well-being of ourselves. So, take the time to identify what you need and demonstrate self-compassion as you navigate your own journey and fears. Children are unable to learn what they cannot see, so model how and why living in alignment with your values is so important. And then hold your child’s hand as you help guide them through developing their own values-based framework. A framework that will enable them to flourish and grow into their true selves.
noun – wellbeing the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy
Today, my son made eye contact with another mum and initiated a good morning conversation. The text message from the mum, a family friend for years, brought tears to my eyes and melted my heart. She knew I needed to hear it. My well-being needed it.
I have focused on my children’s well-being for the past 10 years and this year, I am focusing on my own. I’m not saying that in a selfish way, but in a self-care way and hopefully in a way that models to my children how their self-care will lead to lifelong wellness.
My children are both in schools where they feel comfortable and safe. This wasn’t an easy journey, and like a roller coaster, the spirals down left us all feeling ill in the stomach, but when you hit the highs, you can see so much of the view and what is possible. By no means, was this journey done alone. The number of supporters we have had along our journey has been incredible, from medical professionals, family members, friends with kids who have similar profiles and friends who don’t understand my journey but understand my need to cry at random and different milestones and who nod and listen and give me a hug.
So, this year I am trying to become more comfortable, healthy and happy. Google dictionary, I am taking your OR and raising you to AND!
Comfortable. I am going to be more comfortable talking about my kids’ neuro diversity and asynchronous development. Yes, he can be gifted and have rubbish handwriting! I’m not going to shy away from my family’s normal in all it gory intricacies. I am going to model this to my children. I want them to see that I am comfortable with who they are and they should be comfortable too.
Healthy. I am going to go to the gym (for classes and not just the coffee shop). I am going to make sure I look at my diet as carefully as I look at my kids’. I am going to watch myself talk, treat my foibles with humour and love and cut myself some slack when perfection doesn’t quite happen. I am going to model this to my children. I want them to see that I am healthy in body and mind and that is something they can strive for and control too.
Happy. I am going to embrace our journey. I’m going to surround myself with the love and happiness of my tribe. I’m going to share their joys, be it a kid making eye contact for the first time, or a 6-year-old triple grade skipping or laughing about how your kid might be better at doing your taxes than your accountant. I also know that you can’t to be happy all the time, but by developing a love of contentment and revelling in the golden happiness of those key moments, I hope to build my resilience for the hard times. I’m going to model this to my kids. I want them to see that am content and happy and can share in the joys of others. I want them to see that I am resilient, even when those moments of happiness seem to be too far apart but be secure in the knowledge that another happy moment will come along.
I don’t know how much I’ll stick to, but it’s good to have a plan, so here’s to 2020 and my goals for well-being.
The intersection between challenge and wellbeing at school - Kylie Bice
“I thought the work would get harder when I started high school. That’s what I’ve been waiting for, for years. But it’s just the same stuff all over again.”
“I’ve been in Kindy for ages, when will I learn how to write?”
“The girls in my class are friendly, but I can’t talk about quarks and antiquarks with them because I want to fit in, and they just want to talk about boys and singers. I haven’t found anyone yet who I think will want to talk to me about quarks, maybe I never will.”
“I’m in the top group for spelling, but I’m not very good at it. I got two words wrong on my last test but I only started crying when I got home and sat on the trampoline. The trampoline is where I sit when I’m sad because I didn’t get 100%.”
“I didn’t learn anything at high school and the teachers all hated me because I disrupted all the classes, but still averaged 95% on all my tests. I would just read the textbook at the beginning of the unit and then I’d learned it all, so I didn’t need the teachers. I’m a cardiologist now, but still get angry when I think about my high school experience. It was all such a waste of time.”
These are actual quotes from gifted adults, children and adolescents, and all of them point to the connection between being challenged at school and wellbeing. All too often, gifted students are unhappy and experience school as place where:
– nothing new is learned, – they are asked to revise and practice knowledge and skills they have long mastered, – they have no intellectual peers, – no-one is interested in their area of passion, or – where failure is terrifying because they have never been challenged and so never experienced it.
These are the students at risk of questioning their own identity, underachieving, and seeing school as a place of boredom, frustration and a sense that they are nothing more than a number in a relentless system.
In order to maintain engagement and see the value in their education, on a daily basis, we must:
• Pre and formatively assess students to determine prior knowledge and avoid students practicing and repeating skills, knowledge and understandings they have already mastered.
• Make sure students are not asked to complete ‘core’ work before they can access the work that is genuinely at their level and will offer challenge. Gifted students often experience years of being ‘rewarded’ for completing their work by being given more, and over time they become demoralised or learn to avoid the extra work by finding ways to waste time.
• Avoid asking the strongest students to mentor, coach or teach other students. Teachers often do this with the rationale that this helps both students. In reality, neither the weak nor the strong student benefit from this arrangement. It is important to remember that our brightest students deserve to be learning new material rather than being a substitute teacher, just as other students expect to do every day.
• Avoid asking students to catch-up on missed work if they are out of the classroom to access extension work. This is especially true if the missed work includes unnecessary practice and repetition!
• Design learning tasks that have genuine challenge based on what is known about a student’s prior knowledge. Challenge can come from posing abstract and complex questions rather than low-order repetition or retell. Challenge can also come by giving students the work they are ready for including accelerative options.
In my role as an Education Consultant I see many teachers and schools who are doing a wonderful job of ensuring their gifted students are challenged, including those who may be underachieving or twice-exceptional. Nevertheless, we need to improve our consistent practice across Australian schools and sectors to ensure that our brightest minds see the value of school, that their time spent at school genuinely does have value for them, and that as a result of their school experience they are confident, self-aware, resilient learners and problem-solvers.
In fact, when I was studying my dual undergraduate education and music degrees in NSW in the early 2000’s, subjects surrounding this field weren’t available at my university. Whilst I was repeatedly taught the importance of nurturing the academic and socioemotional wellbeing of students with a disability or learning disorder, gifted learners were never discussed.
Upon entering the teaching profession, my understanding of giftedness was, mistakenly, founded purely on the stereotypes that society had presented me throughout my young life. That all changed in my second year of teaching, however, when I was fortunate to teach Anna (name changed), a seemingly happy and well-adjusted 11-year-old girl. Anna’s IQ exceeded 153, she was a virtuosic musician on two orchestral instruments, had previously been year level accelerated, had a great group of friends and a loving family, and also, told me she self-harming.
Anna was the first time a gifted student had broken the ‘life is easy for gifted students’ adage that I had, until that moment, held dear, and I nor any of her other teachers at the time, ever saw it coming. Anna epitomised the stereotypical gifted profile that many educators continue to resonate with. She was incredibly high achieving, excelling far above year level despite her acceleration, attentive, well-mannered, softly spoken, meticulous and responsible. In the days, weeks and months which followed, we, her teachers, pondered how Anna’s wellbeing had been overlooked to the point whereby she sought release through self-harm? How had we been so blind to the pain she was experiencing? What could we have done, or could do in the future, to support Anna’s wellbeing further? Accordingly, Anna unknowingly set me on a path of deep personal and professional reflection, resulting in the creation of a relentless motivation to advocate for the needs and wellbeing of gifted learners within the school environment.
Fast forward 13 years and I have since completed my Masters in Gifted Education and have worked almost exclusively in this field for the past 6 years. Thanks to Anna I am uncompromisingly driven to help teachers and schools provide for, and nurture, gifted students’ wellbeing. Like anything in education, it is not an easy job. Through my eyes it appears that some schools prefer their G&T Coordinator to be seen and not heard (aside from after events such as the Da Vinci Decathlon, GERRIC programs, Math Olympiad, and ICAS testing.) I continue to have teachers tell me that they don’t understand why student X is feeling frustrated in class, as they are providing extra worksheets at year level for the student to do. Additionally, I also hear ‘student Y can’t be gifted, he’s only getting a C in (insert subject name here)’, thus exemplifying the role gifted stereotypes continue to play within today’s education system.
Other schools, thankfully, are further along on their gifted education journey. These schools are more receptive to the needs of gifted students by way of their gifted education programming, differentiation programmes and views toward acceleration practices. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, their willingness to educate teaching staff as to the needs of this heterogeneous population. One such school instigated a monthly Gifted Girls morning tea, whereby the gifted high school students had a regular unstructured social get together, thus greatly improving the students’ sense of belonging. One parent described these meetings as the single biggest highlight in her daughter’s 10 years of schooling. Another school recently began including aspects of gifted education into their regular staff meeting schedules across Prep-Year 12, as a way of not only upskilling staff, but also having gifted students viewed as priority learners within the school.
What about Anna, you ask? I, together with her team of teachers, worked diligently to modify our teaching practices, curriculum planning and pastoral programs to better cater for her and other gifted students’ academic and socioemotional needs. She also received extensive external support. Unfortunately, thing got worse before they got better, but with the right support, Anna has since grown to become a happy, healthy, highly educated and successful young lady. Little does she realise, but she also changed my life.