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"Designing Defensible Classroom Programs for Gifted Secondary School Learners" by Sonia White on Ganxy

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

8. Why Gifted Teens should be Sponges not Spongers

10 ways Parents of Gifted Teens can support them in high school (continued)

My grandmother used to tell me that whenever I was feeling sorry for myself I should go and help someone worse off than myself.  “Be a sponge," she’d add.

A sponge will absorb water until it is saturated.  Because of gravity, water then gushes from the sponge, feeding water to living things around it. By doing so, the sponge itself thrives.  The sponge and its community are mutually beneficial.  A ‘sponger’ on the other hand, simply absorbs. Synonyms for sponger are “freeloader”, “scrounger” and “bludger”. 

Gifted teens are natural sponges, and high school is a time when there are many opportunities for them to both absorb and pour back the bounties that life offers.   Spending time putting back into the community in some way is not a whimsical “do-gooder” suggestion: it is actually as necessary for the gifted psyche as feeding the intellect; gifted teens must learn how to feed their souls as well as their intellects.

These teens often have a deep sense of social concern and social responsibility.  They are more profoundly aware of the ills of the world than their peers, and can become disillusioned and despairing of global and local problems. Their sensitivity combined with intense critical thinking and analysis can make them cynical and depressed by problems they may see as overwhelming. 

As parents we can help our teens ‘soak up’ being gifted, and celebrate the joy and satisfaction of sharing their gifts, thereby feeding their spirit or soul.  

Soaking up being gifted

 “Know thyself: Then to thine own self be true” - Socrates

Learning about being gifted is something that gifted teens complain they know little about[1].  Understanding their social-emotional sides is a really important part of knowing and accepting themselves.  One of the best ways I know of doing this is through reading.  Curling up with a book that describes many of your own personal characteristics allows you to reflect in privacy, draw your own conclusions, and make sense of your world through a fresh lens. What a gift a book is!

There are some excellent books available for gifted teens written by experts.  You will find them interesting as well, though I’d suggest you don’t force conversations about them – let conversation arise naturally.  Some topics are fairly innocuous and non-threatening, but others may feel deeply personal to your gifted teen.  Accept that there will be topics your teen prefers not to discuss with you.  This is a natural part of their growing independence in their transition to adulthood, not an attack upon your relationship!

  • Judy Galbraith's and Jim Delisle’s  “TheGifted Kids Survival Guide: A Teen Handbook”, This book describe what giftedness is all about, has comments and questions from gifted teens themselves, and deals with many other issues gifted face such as perfectionism, and the concerns of multi-potentiality (the scariness of being good at lots of things, and not knowing which area to pursue as a career).
Encourage your teen to read biographies on top achievers in fields they are interested in, or historical figures that inspire them.  This helps them learn that high-level success is hard won, after a lot of time and effort.  Join your local library – explore the biography section together. There is an almost infinite, rich selection to choose from. Have discussions with them about the heroes who inspired you through your youth and as an adult, and why you found them inspirational. 

 A wonderful source of good reading material for gifted is to be found in Judith Wynn Halsted’s “Some of my Best Friends are books”.  Encourage an eclectic range of reading and try not to be bothered by the ‘trash’ they may also read.  
Halsted observes:

By ninth grade, boys read more science fiction, fantasy, sports, war and spy stories than girls, but both girls and boys read crime and detective stories – such escapist reading may help them deal with the angst of this time in their lives.  Senior high students prefer protagonists who are making the same transition as they face from adolescence to adulthood. They are not interested in books with middle aged characters, but they do enjoy stories about the elderly, who face some of the problems they do – a changing peer group and adjustment to physical and mental changes.”[2]  

Feeding the Soul

Feeding the soul as well as the intellect becomes an important life balance issue through the teen years. If the focus is purely upon intellectual development these teens are often left asking themselves what it’s all for, because pondering these sorts of existential questions is a part of who they are.  On the other hand, when they are actively involved in helping others, not only do they become aware of the power of many to effect positive change, they experience a ‘feel good’ buzz that can give a real sense of purpose and achievement.  They realise that although they themselves cannot solve the big problems, joining with others builds collective strength. For many, a highly tuned sense of moral outrage and social injustice and ethical issues can fuel an intense passion and the need to make a difference. Volunteer groups, both local and international, can make a real difference.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed by life’s issues our teens find that participation in activities that make a difference to society fosters within them a sense of hope and optimism.   My grandmother wasn’t wrong! 

We do not learn the deep satisfaction that comes from helping others from a text book.  These are students who need to be actively involved in putting back into their community.  High schools generally provide plenty of opportunity for them to do so either as an individual or as part of a larger group.

For example:

Peer mentoring: in-school, or beyond (mentoring a younger gifted student with a similar interest / area of passion)
Reading to students in primary school: a “Big Buddy” system
Coaching younger students in e.g. Maths, Science, Sport.
Restorative Justice / mediation: a system where students are constructively involved mediators for other students

Groups that may exist within the school that work for a cause, e.g.

CanTeen A Youth Organisation in New Zealand and Australia which supports teens with cancer and their families. Students hold major fundraising events to donate to this organisation. Most countries have similar agencies that students may choose to actively support.
Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) A student led education program on drug and alcohol abuse. Information and resources available from  
World Vision - 40 Hour Famine The 40 Hour famine is an event held in 21 countries to raise money for countries suffering from famine.  
Amnesty International An international human rights group that raises awareness of individuals suffering in countries abusing human rights and offers practical, peaceful ways of taking action.  

If there are no such activities or groups within the school, perhaps your teen could initiate one with their friends. What a wonderful opportunity for your teen to develop leadership skills!

As an alternative, you could encourage your teen to spend time out-of school (even as a volunteer) helping out in areas that interest them, with  Community Volunteer groups, such as rest homes, disabled children’s groups such as “Riding for the Disabled”, and church volunteer groups.

You may be concerned that the time your gifted teen spends upon community activities such as these will take away time away from study and academics.  I would argue that participating in positive social action to make a difference will bring a far healthier, more buoyant, and more resilient teen to their work desk. Your teen needs you to support these important areas of personal growth.

[1] Galbraith & Delisle
[2] Halsted, J.W., (2009). Some of my best friends are books: guiding gifted readers. 3rd edition. AZ: Great Potential Press,p.89.

© Sonia White, (M.Gifted Ed).  Author, Teacher, Teacher Educator, Gifted Education Consultant (2012),  

This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years.
To read preceding articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted:  2. Does your teen know you love them 'warts and all'?

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking

Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
To receive links for future articles on this topic, you can subscribe to Sonia's blog by email, RSS feed, or as a member of Blogspot, follow Sonia on Twitter: @SoniaWhite_  or Facebook:   


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

7. Assertive or Arrogant? Why gifted teens sometimes get a bad rap.

10 ways Parents of Gifted Teens can support them in high school (continued)
“She’s so rude! She doesn’t even pause to consider how his words affect others...”
“He can be so high-handed and dismissive of other people’s points of view...”
“My teen can out-sneer and out-roll-the-eyes of experts in those fields!”
...“I tell it like it is – if they can’t take it why should that be my problem?”

There is no doubt about it: a quick wit is part and parcel of the gifted intellect, and some gifted teens use this as a defence mechanism or misuse it as a control mechanism.  Lots of gifted teens have excellent social skills and can moderate their behavior to fit the social situation.  But some gifted teens are quite capable of alienating those around them with their ascerbic observations and repartee. Some don’t or won't tolerate 'fools' – unfortunately those on the receiving end of the cutting edge of their wit are often those who are in a position of influence (teachers, bosses, parents).  Or if they are not, they may well be one day (fellow students and co-workers).
Ivory tower arrogance could
lead to a lonely existence
If you feel that these comments are ones that apply to your gifted teen, the chances are you feel the brunt as well. As an adult you can understand the value of building friendships and social networks, but your teen may seem hell-bent on destroying theirs!  What can you do about it?

Arrogance versus self-confidence self-advocacy and assertiveness

Arrogance:   To the observer, arrogance says more about the person being arrogant than the person they are disrespecting. It makes them uncomfortable, and they wonder when it will be their turn to be on the receiving end of such rudeness. Teach your teen that arrogance is one step too far, and while it is important to build self-confidence, they are doing themselves a disservice when they respond arrogantly to others.

Help your gifted teen understand that giftedness in itself is not something to be proud of. It does not make them a better human being. Nor is being gifted any defense or excuse for treating others badly.  However, the way in which they use their gifts and talents may be something of which they can be proud.  They have no more right to feel proud of their gifts than they have of being born with blue or brown eyes. By accident of birth they have these ‘attributes’ or gifts and talents’ and the opportunities to develop them (nature and nurture).  Our gifted teens need to learn tolerance and humility. 
Easier said than done, perhaps? Not necessarily.  There are other things to consider here:  self-confidence self advocacy and assertiveness, and building friendships.

Self-confidence, self-advocacy and assertiveness:
Gifted teens do need to be assertive self-advocates.  They need the courage and the skills to approach their teachers and other adults and express themselves in a manner that is respectful but clearly conveys their concerns or needs.  Although they are gifted, unfortunately they don’t come with an in-built manual on how to do this! While some are more naturally skilful in this, most will benefit from learning and developing these skills, and some (such as the twice exceptional gifted with Aspergers Syndrome) will require some very specific ongoing guidance on social interaction strategies.

When your teen comes home from school complaining about a frustration or conflict with a teacher, welcome this as a learning opportunity for them. While it may be your natural instinct as a parent to leap to their defence and to try to solve the issue for them, this is a life skill that they need to practice. Don't rob them of the opportunity to learn to address issues themselves by trying to solve it for them. Rather ask what options they think they have and help them gain the confidence to consider and act.

Here’s a few things to consider during the discussion:
  • Whether they like the teacher or not, really doesn’t matter in the long term.  While it is a bonus, life does not always deal us personalities that we enjoy working with. The big question for your teen is “what can I learn from this person?” and “do I need to like them to learn it?” Beware of assuming that the teacher is “useless”!  I have been quietly astounded to have just as many gifted learners claiming that teacher X was the best teacher they’d ever had as those claiming the opposite.  That knowledge taught me  some humility, and not to make assumptions! Not every personality and teaching style is going to suit everyone.
  • If the complaint is that the work is too easy / not challenging enough / or boring ask them to consider what they would rather have instead.  Ask them when they learn best, and what that teacher does in those instances that helps them learn best. (Get them to really think this one through – all teachers have their strengths).  It may be that they prefer ‘hands on’ learning (kinaesthetic learning style), or have a more visual learning style, or simply that they want to dive into more challenging aspects of the topic.
  • Build Bridges. The key word here is ‘self-advocacy’.  Ask them how they think they can build a bridge between themselves and that teacher. (If there is more than one teacher, have them choose one to start with.  Baby steps.)  Get them to visualize how they might approach that teacher, and what they might say that can change things for them.  If they want to, let them practice on you! Tell them you will be listening for their tone and any negative ‘sub-text’ and will wince everytime you hear something that could upset you.
Things they should remember:
  • Teachers want their students to do well, even if they don’t always seem to!  Any approach by a student which is prefaced with ‘I’m wanting to do really well in your subject and I’d like a bit of advice’ is a really good start. 
  • Don’t approach a teacher at the very end of a lesson; they have another class to prepare for and will be rushed, and most likely stressed if you hold them up, and their answer may unintentionally be dismissive.
  • Do tell them you have a couple of questions about your work, and ask what time might suit them for you to come and discuss it with them.   SMILE! Be friendly, not surly.  Resist the urge to elaborate too much at that point.
  • Think about what the real issue is, and talk facts not emotions or negative comments, such asI’m bored’ or ‘the work is too easy’.

  • Go with solutions, not problems, e.g.  

"I learn really well when I can (dive deeper / explore unusal perspectives / use a visual or  kinaesthetic learning style.)"
"I was thinking about this topic and I’d like to know if I could..."
"Do you have any suggestions about where I could get more information about..."
"Is there any extension work around this topic, and if so, would you mind if I tried it?"

  • Be aware that the teacher may be concerned (probably wrongly) that if they allow you to skip the easy stuff to do something more challenging, that you will not have ‘learned the basics’.  Be prepared for this response if you are asking to skip some of the easier exercises, and promise that you will ace the end-of-unit test if they will allow you to do other extension work or present your assignment in a different way. 
  • Build trust and help the teacher to understand how well you can do.  High school teachers teach a new group of students every hour.  It takes them a lot longer to get to know individual student ability. Once that knowledge of your ability exists and trust is built, ask the teacher about the availability of advanced courses or classes. Talk to the teacher as though you believe in them.  (Even if you don’t initially!)  Teachers are human too! Most will probably surprise you.  They aren’t in teaching for the money, but because they want to help students learn. Show them you could be the student for whom they make a difference.
  • It goes without saying (but must be said!) that you don’t reward a teacher for giving you their time and individual attention by subsequently acting up in class! remember not to take their support for granted, and thank them when they help you.
  • Consider your ongoing negotiations with the teacher as a rehearsal for when you are out in the workforce.  This is a skill – if it doesn’t always work, think around ways you could better approach it next time.

Building friendships: 
Arrogance and intolerance of others is a sure-fire way to keep people away from getting close to you.  
Some gifted teens can find it difficult to relate to others, and while they desperately want to be liked, and to have friends, they may hide their lack of confidence with the one weapon they have readily at their disposal: a quick tongue.  Intolerance of others & a ‘too-smart’ mouth leads to loss of friends.  Her peers may avoid her, or they may follow her lead, but they won’t like her because she is using her ability in a destructive way. Either way, she is intelligent enough to know that her behaviour is self-destructive, but can be unsure or lack the tools to change.  Self-confidence takes another dive, even when it is masked by an arrogant ‘don’t care’ attitude. 

Healthy friendships are respectful of others’ feelings.  However, rather than preach about it, look for opportunities to have discussions with your teen about the qualities they admire or expect in a friend.  

Avoid referring the topic back to their own friendships or lack thereof.  Gifted teens don’t need to have the finger pointed back at them – they are their own harshest critics, and make these links really quickly. They are also masters at mirroring behaviour if they so choose. Abstract discussions around qualities and real or even fictional people can provide a rich source of examples without raising hackles.
Some examples:
  • Philosophical conversations around questions like “what is loyality?” or “what makes a good friend?” or “Do you think humour is important in a friendship?”  Perhaps there are opportunities for discussions about a character in a film or novel, or a personal family friend, or a public figure they admire.  Comments such as “one thing I really admire about [x person] is the way they...  – what do you think?”
  • Consider positive as well as negative qualities in others, so they begin to understand why people behave the way they do. But be sure you counter the negative with valued positive qualities – everyone has them!  You are trying to decrease the arrogance, and increase humanity, remember!
And a final word to the wise:

Encourage friendships across the ability spectrum: it teaches humility. 

There is nothing so humbling as getting close to the learning disabled or the physically disabled.  They have so much to teach all of us about humanity.  Encourage your teen to make friends with all levels of student ability through community service involvement.  Maybe they can volunteer to tutor less able students or younger students and put a little bit of themselves back into enriching the worlds of others.  

Gifted is as gifted does: it is what we put back into our world that gives us pride, not what we bring to it.  

© Sonia White, (M.Gifted Ed).  Author, Teacher, Gifted Education Consultant (2012),  
This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years.

To read preceding articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted:  2. Does your teen know you love them 'warts and all'?

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking

Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
To receive links for future articles on this topic, you can subscribe to Sonia's blog by email, RSS feed, or as a member of Blogspot, follow Sonia on Twitter: @SoniaWhite_  or Facebook:   

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