Home > advocacy, psychology, social-emotional, surviving school > let’s get off the seesaw (false dichotomies)

let’s get off the seesaw (false dichotomies)

I find myself hearing certain talking points frequently in the world of advocacy, and I think I have some pretty reasonable responses.  Since I can’t be in every single one of your meetings or discussions, perhaps it would help if I shared.  Let’s try one…

The issue is a legitimate one, which is the importance of serving gifted kids’ “social-emotional” (which is what educators use instead of “psychological”) needs.

This applies to adults, too, by the way.  There is a lot of kerfuffle in the world about whether gifted adults exist (we do!) and whether we also might have psychological needs (yep!).  So please don’t assume I’m only talking about kids.  It’s just that in advocacy situations, it typically is a bunch of grownups arguing about how to deal with kids, and it’s easier for me to use that language.

I’m very sensitive to implied frames (if you want to read more about that, try the writings of George Lakoff or Drew Westen), and this one is important.  The metaphor is that of a seesaw — academic-intellectual needs are on one side, social-emotional needs are on the other.  But a seesaw is a zero-sum game: the more you serve one type of need, the less you serve the other.  That is, we cannot meet a kid’s academic-intellectual needs without sacrificing their social-emotional needs, and we cannot meet a kid’s social-emotional needs without sacrificing their academic-intellectual needs.

If you accept this metaphor, you will always lose.  Face it, you’ve accepted being in the position of saying, essentially, “I don’t care about my kid’s psychological well-being.  I just want him to win a Nobel Prize.”  You are playing right into the image of the crazed Kumon parent (anyone besides me notice that the kid face in their logo looks distinctly miserable?).  You are convincing the educators that they are right, that they need to save your vulnerable child from your demanding, and perhaps abusive, parenting.  Even if you acknowledge that some academic needs might need to be sacrificed so that the kid doesn’t commit suicide before proving the Goldbach Conjecture or curing cancer, you’re still accepting the frame that the one of these can exist only at the expense of the other.

Side note: while I would be the first to agree that some parents do take things way too far and do push their kids too hard, the overwhelming majority of the time when I’m sitting with parents and educators considering this problem, folks are actually going too far in the other direction in their attempts to avoid it.

By becoming aware of our implicit frames, we can step outside of them.  I don’t agree with the seesaw.  Except at the extremes, social-emotional needs and academic-intellectual needs are not a zero-sum game.  They are tied together.  We meet them at the same time, by doing the same things.

One of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to experience and overcome meaningful challenge.  Every human.  Gifted humans included.  It’s just that school often does not provide meaningful challenge for gifted kids the way it routinely does for kids closer to the middle of the curve.  Wouldn’t you agree that an appropriate curriculum would be one that would enable a kid to develop self-efficacy, which is the fundamental building block of self-esteem?  You wouldn’t want to deny a kid the opportunity to develop self-esteem, would you?  I sure wouldn’t.  Glad we can agree on that.

Another one of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to connect with real peers, people who can get your jokes, who can understand what it’s like to be you, who share similar experiences, who can support you and you can support them.  Gifted kids are just like everyone else in that regard, too.  For typical kids, though, if you randomly pick a bunch of other kids with a similar manufacture date (thanks to Ken Robinson for that phrase), you’ll stand a pretty good chance of finding similarity of experience and interest.  Go outside the realm of the typical in any way, and manufacture date is no longer your best bet for finding real peers.  We take it as given that people who have a particular disease, or who are in a particular cultural minority, or who have a particular gender or sexual identity, might want to flock with other birds of a feather without being accused of looking down on everyone else.  We tell heartwarming stories about those connections (particularly when they’re things like summer camps for kids with disabilities).  No one is rejecting the notion that it’s good to interact with a wide variety of people.  Of course it is.  But it’s not normal to give kids access to only one or two other likely friends (usually of the cootie-bearing gender, as gifted kids are spread around most thinly and “fairly” in most schools).  We normally give typical kids in school a lot of possible friends.  Why wouldn’t we do that for gifted kids, too?

Let’s think about what experiences friends in school often share.  Um… the experience of being in school?  Doing that work, having that teacher, you name it.  But if twenty-nine kids experience, “sweet teacher who gives tricky work that I can work hard on and do it pretty well,” and one kid experiences, “teacher who doesn’t know that much about genetics and has never heard of Doctor Who and whose work is trivially easy and who thinks everything I do is awesome even when I know for a fact that it’s terrible,” (more on that and the development of pathological narcissism in another post) that’s not a shared experience.  Does that kid ever call a friend to work on the homework together (one of the major bonding experiences of school-bound people)?  No, they just get called when someone needs them to act in loco educatoris (more on that and social isolation in another post, too).

So get off the seesaw.  One of the most important social-emotional needs for gifted children is, just like everyone else, to have real peers with whom they share real serious academic-intellectual challenge.  Now that we all agree, let’s talk about how to meet that need.

  1. May 21, 2012 at 11:22 am

    You need to write more often! This is spot on!

    • May 21, 2012 at 7:38 pm

      Thanks! So much “real life” has been getting in the way, but I do plan at this point to write more often. I have a lot of mostly-fleshed-out ideas in the queue.

  2. gfmama
    May 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Great article Aimee and I wish I had the answer to this issue of a peer group ..it’s like an elusive butterfly.We did it all: ft gt programs, conferences, gifted camps and this is a tough one.

    My daughter was lucky to have one BFF during 1st-4th grade, from the full time gifted classroom, but after this child moved back to England it was a good 7 years and at college before she enjoyed a quasi-BF relationship like that. Because we were a large district and the kids were spread all over ,relationships outside of school were almost impossible ,which is why these 2 ended up together to begin with- more options available outside of class for play dates . Two of my daughter’s long term “friends” were a function of opportunity :1 online at a MOO and one from a gt camp. As a young adult her current career has *finally* provided her with that great peer group experience –it took a long time but it happened.

    College was actually a bit of a disappointment *for me* and I was surprised thinking that with the much larger pool of kids surely this peer group would exist within the Honors college and small classes! But with the clarity of hindsight , I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Most of the Early College kids lived at home and while mine was in the dorm the overwhelming majority were STEM and had that camaraderie of shared classes and study sessions. There was only one other student in my daughter’s major from the Honors College itself and I think in 3 years they had one class together and discovered each other when they both presented their Honors Thesis on the same night…and it was a “hi”/ “goodbye” moment.

    I’ll be curious to hear what other folks have to hear the insights others offer for this problematic area.I personally felt I left no stone un-turned and still…

    • May 21, 2012 at 7:56 pm

      Yes, finding the real peer group is often quite challenging when schools aren’t set up to do it. If you read Miraca Gross’s classic article Play Partner or Sure Shelter, you’ll see another complicating factor, that gifted kids are often at a different stage from typical kids in terms of what they are looking for in a friend — they’re looking for a BFF when everyone else just wants someone to hang out with, and it can be really confusing when those friendships evaporate. I had a very similar experience myself in terms of finding very few BFFs in school through the K-8 years, and it was as if the bright moments only made the lonely ones worse. Sigh. For me, the solution turned out to be a giant public high school in a terrific district. There were multiple tracks, so that “honors” classes really were honors, and with 700 kids per grade, there were enough kids to have multiple sections of the honors classes filled with kids who actually wanted to be there. Similarly, a massively difficult college experience (MIT) meant that I was finally totally boringly normal, and my truly extraverted nature came out in force.

      For younger kids, it can be really difficult to find access to peers. Since you’re kinda stuck in terms of whether formal GT programming is available, it’s often better to look for informal opportunities — find the clubs and activities and such where bright, curious, passionate kids tend to hang out. Think about looking for what my Nueva students dubbed “quasi-cousins,” too — as parents, break your own isolation, and chances are good the people you like to spend time with are likely to have kids who are good prospects for your own kids.

      I agree that very-early college entry isn’t always the greatest idea, specifically because of the living-at-home problem. College is such a crucial time in terms of identity exploration and formation, and the focus is so heavily on the peer group, that I really do want kids to be old enough to be able to blend in, live in the dorms and just be “one of the crowd.” And yes, it’s important to get a sense of whether a program is going to have lots of other kids who are in the same general “headspace,” so that the experience can be shared.

  3. May 22, 2012 at 1:52 am

    I think finding a peer group for adult GTs can also be a problem, especially if, for whatever reason, finding them through work is not possible. Hobbies can sometimes be a source of friends, but sometimes that doesn’t work either. I know a lot of adult GTs who would say that they have no close friends.

    • May 22, 2012 at 2:43 am

      I agree. A lot of people of any intelligence level (myself included) tend to stick with the friends they became close to in college. The shared intense experience (some might say trauma (grin)) of college is often pretty good glue. Once you’re out of that milieu (or other similarly intense milieus, like the military), it’s harder to go looking for friends in an un-self-conscious way. But the same advice holds — find things that you love doing that one does in the company of other people and go do them with verve and passion. Don’t look at every person and wonder if they’re the One. I am not big on GT-specific social groups like Mensa — not against them, but there is a level of self-consciousness that seems a lot like the self-consciousness inherent in dating

  4. May 27, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Aimee wrote:”Don’t look at every person and wonder if they’re the One.” I couldn’t agree more. I have 5 friends and everyone else I classify as acquaintances though if distance wasn’t an issue, a few could/would be friends in real life. One of my friends is from college ( the lifetime friend) , 2 from the on-line community and 1 a purely by-chance meeting of the minds.The mothers of friends from the gt-program and I had absolutely nothing in common..very nice people though quite a bit younger and very different philosophies.

    For my daughter, in a full time gifted program, there was one friend. I often think the friendship concept is romanticized a bit and Hollywood doesn’t help. Throw in common issues like social anxiety and low risk takers only further compounds the issues. I often felt that the gifted community as a whole was not ideal as a pool either. So many kids at young ages seem to be very focused especially in math or music . If those were not interesting to you it was very slim pickings.I guess that is why I valued Satori Camp so much as the class offerings were not your typical gifted camp classes of writing,math or science.(Yes I am generalizing). For the multi-potential kid it is really hard to find that soul-mate when the typical places that bright and nerdy kids hang out holds no interest for you.

    I asked my daughter to look at the friend groups she knew and to look at their activities . I asked her to be really honest with herself and ask the question ” would I really want to do the activities that binds that cohort?” Usually the answer was no and therein was the real problem. She had to own her responsibility in the lack of friends too.

    • May 29, 2012 at 2:30 am

      Yes, definitely. Just like any cultural group, the gifted population is tremendously diverse, and there are lots of different subgroups and ways to be that are less “typical of the group” but are still essentially “you as an individual.” I tell people to look for activities they enjoy as ways of finding similar people, not because shared activity is necessarily what inherently creates friendships, but because it’s hard to find people if you just walk around asking folks to jump to the “soulmate” position without auditioning them first. And realize that we don’t need to get all black-and-white about the soulmates — having a gaggle of friends, even if none of them are deep trusting connections, can be better than being completely isolated, and the soulmate relationships tend to evolve from shared intense experiences that crop up over time when you thought you were just hanging out.

  5. T
    October 16, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Thank you Aimee. You have the ability to speak for many of us. Please keep writing.

    • October 16, 2012 at 1:11 am

      Thank you! I am trying to get ahead on my report-writing so I have time to work more on the blog.

  6. April 4, 2013 at 1:02 am

    Excellent! I was woefully unchallenged in school… all the way through my master’s program (ok, some of that was interesting, even if not precisely challenging).

    I think there’s one thing that should be seriously addressed to help this, and that’s the “gifted program” (or whatever phrase is popular). My experience is that the “top so many” get put in them. Maybe it’s in specific subjects, maybe in a full-time special class. But this is a HORRIBLE setup for gifted kids. For one, there are many levels of gifted. There are kids who are smart, and genuinely should be separated from kids who develop academically a bit slower. But, to put those kids in with the very gifted is a disservice for the reasons you have mentioned.

    A common situation in my experience is there are so-many classrooms for a grade. The “top kids” be it by test-score, grades, aptitude, teacher recommendation, or whatnot go into the “advanced” or “GT” class. So, if there are 90ish kids and 3 classes, the “top 30” or so will be in the gifted class. This is the top-end academic equivalent of putting the bottom third of kids in social skills in the autism classroom!

    I was in pullout classes, advanced classes, honors classes, AP classes, you name it. I had almost no friends. I could be better friends with kids in the remedial classes because we shared a frustrating school experience! This was in a very well-regarded school district.

    I’m not living in another area in another very well-regarded school district. They screen for GT. The cutoff criteria for the screening changes every year “so the pool stays about the same size.” I nearly screamed when I was told that – as it is the antithesis of what “gifted” is. It is NOT the top so-many percent. It is above a certain (FIXED) place, just like being tall is defined by inches or centimeters, not by standing in a room full of 8-year-olds and suddenly being tallest.

    My son is 6. He is a very young first grader. He’s reading at the end-of-2nd-grade level at school, and about a year more advanced at home. He loves science and was correcting the folks from the science center on Family Science Night. There are other kids who are smart in his class, but only a few of them have his level of inquisitiveness, passion, and sheer academic will (and if you’ve never had to explain the difference between literal and figurative language to a 4-year-old, you know what I’m talking about!).

    • April 4, 2013 at 6:15 am

      Yes. I think, frankly (and I know this does not make me popular in some circles) that the separate-class model in the K-8 years is not actually a very good model, because it cannot be implemented well. No one seems to question the separate-class model in high school and tends to create enough seats in the classes to meet demand without a whole lot of fanfare.

      But in the K-8 years, it’s all about testing and quotas of varying forms and placing human beings in all of their diversity on a linear scale, typically without even checking to make sure that the linear scale matches what we care about in the program. And the program is typically only for a short period of time per week (they’re not gifted the rest of the time), until the budget gets cut. I strongly oppose the use of cognitive tests to do things that they are actually *not* very good at doing, which is making fine-grained distinctions among kids near the tail of the bell curve. At that level, one point here or there can make a big difference in percentile rank, and that’s pretty silly to be making high-stakes individual decisions with. Most of the time, the folks who are using tests in these ways haven’t even heard of the idea of a confidence interval.

      As far as the number-of-seats problem, it’s again kind of silly. If 100 kids are testing in the GT range, then there is no reason to say, “Oh, let’s only choose the top 20 because we only have space for 20 of them.” Sounds like you need to make more space. Or you need to change your service delivery model so that *all* of the kids have access to what they need — perhaps even (gasp) have all of the teachers doing things all of the time that all of the kids can benefit from without the need to prove that some kids “is” and some kids “ain’t” anything in particular.

      • April 5, 2013 at 9:39 am

        Interestingly, I found it was BETTER in K-8 than 9-12 for me. In elementary school, the teachers had discretion on challenging students further in class. Math pullout started in 2nd grade, and you had to test in to the top level – so it was done by performance. Reading wasn’t as good, because that was just the standard “split the class” into roughly equal parts. However, since it was only math & reading that were “leveled” we got to socialize with a greater percentage of the kids – which allowed for the opportunity to find more friends. You’d have about a third of your class in your main classroom, and then some subset in math, and another subset in reading (with some correlation).

        By contrast, in high school, pretty much everything was leveled to some degree, and the math we had all tested into (it split again in 7th grade with ANOTHER test), merged with older kids. That helped in not being age-segregated as much, but only having math with folks won’t ever let you get to know them! In high school, the girls got very catty, so the ones in the top x percent who were in honors/AP/etc could be miserable company for the gifted girls. The honors programs were full of smart kids, don’t get me wrong, but they were STILL boring as hell. There was no more “gifted” program – it was assumed that you could just do the higher levels with older kids and that was just what you needed (no extra depth or challenge, no super inquisitiveness, just older kids). I found it much worse! There was one kid who did very well in school – straight As all of 8th grade, who ran up to me in 9th grade bio lab insisting that I needed to check his fruit flies to make sure he sexed them properly. Yeah, that wasn’t gonna happen!

        This is, of course, my experience, but I’ve gotten a similar vibe off my neighboring 18-year-old, who the schools wanted to skip a grade. She’s VERY bright, and some of school is clearly joke-worthy to her.

        I think the “making room” is more that they don’t insist on like-aged groups in a class, which does allow for a lot of flexibility, but it is to the detriment of the highly gifted. I mean, if a “plain Joe” senior is taking a class, and super-gifted freshman is in it, well, it’s not going to be at super-gifted depth or pace, is it? It’ll work okay for a bit, but by senior year, these kids have no place to go (and some AP courses are a joke). I found these classes just had lots of busy work. They kept me busy, but I didn’t lift a single brain cell to do it most days.

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