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Great Expectations

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A couple of weeks ago, I had some group discussions with my fourth graders about the “Gifted Children’s Bill of Rights.” We sat around the poster in a semi-circle and I asked them to say which items, if any, struck a chord with them and why. (For anyone who hasn’t previously read the insightful list created by Del Siegle, you can read it and learn more in my previous post on the topic.)

It’s amazing what comes pouring out of these kids when given a safe zone to open up about their myriad of hidden struggles that almost no one ever notices. Although I frequently hold group discussions with the kids about many various topics (perfectionism, how to make friends who matter, self-advocacy, etc.), I never cease to be amazed by the insight, reflection, and level of struggle that they reveal in our discussions. A few of the kids expressed a desire to “put it in writing” for all of you, my readers here, so that a kid’s perspective in a kid’s own words might lend some additional angles of understanding. If/when they get it written, I’ll post it here for you (always with pseudonyms).

In the meantime, though, one segment of our conversations (their response to something I said) surprised even me (and I’ve pretty much heard it all after thirteen years).

Many of the kids said that #6 (“You have a right to make mistakes”) and #10 (“You have a right to not be gifted at everything”) really hit home with them. They talked about how they feel like everyone expects them to be perfect at everything, *all* the time. They gave examples that illustrated the reactions from others (classmates, parents, teachers) when they missed a word or two on their spelling tests. They talked about how it seems to them that everyone else just assumes they’ll know the answer to any question. They commiserated with one another over how frustrating it was to know internally that they weren’t perfect at everything, yet still feel like they had to live up to everyone else’s (perceived?) expectations of their perceived perfection. "I feel like any little thing I get wrong is seen by them as a giant black spot on my soul," one boy even said.

[A-Rod provides a timely example. He claims he juiced up because he felt he had to be THE best in order to live up to everyone's high expectations of him. Not that what he did was okay - it wasn't - but it illustrates the lengths some of these kids will go to if they think they are not up to the task of fulfilling whatever high expectations they perceive others hold of them.]

What also came through in the discussion was a point that, in my experience, has typically held true for gifted kids: They have far higher expectations of themselves than anyone else could ever have of them. Most of these kids are very internally driven. "Dad doesn't NEED to put this much pressure on me," one girl said. "I want to do well already, for me. His unreasonable expectations just stress me out and I probably end up doing worse than I would otherwise."

Not every student expressed a sense that their parents had unnecessarily high expectations of them. Others felt that it came from their teachers, and many said they sensed it from their classmates ("What do you mean you only got a 95% on the test? I got a 100%. Maybe I should be in GT and not you.")

While it was cathartic for them to let it all out in our discussion, I also sensed that their anxiety level regarding the topic was a bit inflamed. In an effort to ease that for them, I offered them a soothing insight, something I was certain they already knew but that they simply might appreciate being reminded of...

"Ya know, I'd like to just take a moment and say to all of you that I hope you know that while I realize you all have many things you're good at, I never expect for you to be perfect at anything. You are each simply human - you have strengths and weaknesses like anyone else. Sure, you might have some unusually exceptional abilities in one or more areas, but I don't think that should ever mean that you have to be 'perfect' in that or any other area. My 'expectations' of you are rather simple: That you learn how to work hard, that you put forth your reasonable best effort at learning and at challenges, and that you maintain a healthy perspective on what you can and cannot do in life. And I want you to know that I know being a gifted kid isn't exactly a charmed life all the time. I know there may be some struggles or issues that come with it. It's okay to mention those things to me. You may feel like you're the first smart kid ever in the whole world to struggle with making friends or to struggle with being different or to struggle with being sensitive, but I can assure you you're not. Anything you could bring up, I've probably heard before. And there are lots of kids just like you out there experiencing the same things. You're not alone, and I'm okay with you not being perfect."

Miley's response? "THANK YOU... SO... much... You are my hero for saying that. A huge load has just lifted up off my shoulders." Yes, that's what she said: "You are my hero for saying that." And others chimed in with similar sentiments.

I hadn’t realized how much they needed to hear it from ME, even...

Real or not, they perceive others' great expectations of them. I know all of their teachers and most of their parents, and I know that the adults in their lives (for the most part) don't have unreasonably high expectations of them (most of the time). And yet the kids still perceive it seemingly all of the time.

In part I was surprised by their response to my statement because I have always told my students that I don't expect them to get everything right in my classroom, especially not the first or second or tenth or twentieth time they try it. When we do analogies pages, for example, and they cringe or gasp when they get one-fourth of the problems on a page wrong, I tell them, "That's okay! It's supposed to be challenging here. It's a good sign. It means you're in the process of LEARNING something. If you got everything correct here on the first try, then I wouldn't be doing my job right. Getting some wrong means you're being stretched, it means you're in your Learning Zone, not in your Piece of Cake Zone." That's the kind of philosophy that I express to them in all that we do. And yet they still apparently develop a sense that my expectations of them are pretty high.

By telling them this, by utilizing this philosophy in my work with my students, it is not a matter of lowering my expectations of them. I’m simply letting them know that I have REALISTIC expectations of them. There's a difference, a very healthy difference...

Take a moment this week to tell a gifted child in your life that you don't expect him to be perfect. Take a moment this week to tell a gifted child in your life that you know being a gifted kid isn't the cakewalk others seem to think it is. Take a moment this week to tell a gifted child in your life that her intellectual growth and hard work ethic are far more important than perfect marks, even if it means a B in a challenging class. What we assume that others know about our views of them can be out-of-sync with reality. Tell them you know they're only human. You very well could be someone's hero for saying it.

14 Comments

#6 *still* hits home with me...

Thank you for saying all the right things to gifted kids.I found myself in tears reading this blog.It is so comforting to know there are people,like you, out there who really care about our gifted kids!Great advice!

Sherryl Campbell
Canada

A very important and insightful essay, Tamara. The problem for me, as parent, is that the kids assume that we as parents have super high expectations of them even when we don't. I try to make clear for them when I expect them to hunt down the rabbits and when I've already killed them (to use Stephanie Tolan's cheetah analogy).

Still, at least one of them has his own perfectionism completely ingrained and it (the perfectionist reflex) apparently has his father's voice. How do you work against that? When we tell him we don't expect him to be perfect, he thinks we mean we're disappointed in him. What to do?

Tamara, thanks so much for your wise, insightful blogs. I share your posts with my district's GATE teachers all the time.

It's hard for many adults, much less kids to understand that learning is about the process MUCH more than the goal. We concentrate WAY too hard on outcome, and it's reflected in our kids.

You've heard the saying "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well." I heard, but don't remember where, that "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly." The idea is that no one is expert at topics or skills they've only started considering. The first step of almost any effort is going to be pathetic. The trick is to keep up the effort. That is why we sometimes over inflate the value of what we see. Students that don't feel at least a little success often stop. The problem comes when they think they've mastered something that they haven't...or that they should master everything on their first try.

I love idea of discussing the Rights and will do it with my students soon. I loved even more the Piece of Cake Zone!!! We've already discussed the definition of “Zone of Proximal Development” This is an important next step.

What a shot in the arm your blog has been. Keep it up!

Marti (from Edufest)

Your blog has been an oasis for me, as a gifted mom of gifted kids in schools which don't have a clue (both private and public--folks, please don't think elite private schools uniformly do a better job on gifted education! Knowing this would have saved us a lot of money. We can be just as frustrated for the same price in our public schools.)

As I realize that my job (in addition to my career and family) is going to now have to be becoming an informed and effective advocate, not just an emotionally overwrought One of Those GT Moms who gets frustrated and strident.

Some questions arise after reading your latest post:

1. Can my kids and I come join your class? We'll try to be really quiet. or
2. Can we clone you? or short of that,
3. Can your bosses please shoot the bosses in school districts across this great land with magic arrows of understanding and commitment, so that they will build environments where more people like you will be able to thrive?
4. Can you please post more often? You have a poet's soul and are a pleasure to read.

You may not know how much your ideas matter, and provide great comfort to us gifted parents. Talking with other parents about your frustrations with how the school is supporting your child's education can be like talking about head lice at a grade school birthday party--many parents have had the experience, but prefer to keep it quiet and struggle through it alone, until they hear that your kid had head lice, I mean is gifted, too. Then you can all talk about it and support each other, as long as there aren't any 'regular' parents around to overhear your subversive chatter. But no one wants to be the first to mention problems in the Land of My Child is GT, so most do not.

I had no idea that having a kid who is an extremely talented reader would put ME at risk of being a pariah among the other moms at pick-up time. What a world. Thanks for restoring hope.

Thank you! As budgets are cut due to the economic situation, we must be diligent in letting others know that gifted kids NEED trained and caring teachers to help them while they grow and learn to understand themselves. Del's Gifted Kids' Bill of Rights is a great reminder for others. Thank you for clearly stating what to some of us is obvious, but, sadly, for too many others it is a novel idea!

I find your actions to be valiant and am very grateful you shared this.

Having a nephew labeled gifted and then seeing the poor child struggle was heart wrenching. It really put a head trip on him (if not his family) at an early age, I believe this set him up for self defeat in later school years.

We have all sort of modifications of terms in the name of political correctness...why can we not use a better word than 'gifted.' Or better yet use systems that allow individual learning paths that avoid labels, of any kind?

Marching a child through a golden door with the word GIFTED in jeweled splendor above it doesn't feel right at a number of levels. Should we rethink accelerated learning? Wouldn't every child benefit from the lessons you conveyed here?

Thanks for the terrific insight!

Thanks for verbalizing the problems faced by gifted children. I am 63 years old and still remember the stigma of being singled out as smart. The gifted children were treated differently by their peers as well as the teachers. We were still just children. It is better to point out similarities than emphasize differences. Even the smartest child wants to be accepted for things other than intelligence.

As a practicing teacher with a masters in gifted education and the parent of a gifted daughter, I am concerned about the modern trend to label a child "gifted". It automatically puts them into a niche. The above posts attribute to my point.

I purposely did not let my child become labeled. But I also had the advantage of making sure she was challenged. She was a high intensity, dynamic creature and sucked the life out of me! So, I can't fault the system for setting up labeling programs that help address the needs.

But as food for thought, I think it would be more mentally healthy for our "gifted" kids to develop as individuals and not as a group. That means we need to address their needs in a system that recognizes the needs of high ability learners. Let's just let them be "smart and capable" without the stigma of being labeled "gifted."

For those who are younger, the school systems have educated the gifted for years without labels and many have done an outstanding job. That is something you don't hear about. The Catholic schools do a good job of this by advancing a student when they exhibit exceptional abilities.

It is terribly sad that gifted students feel the need to be "perfect" in all things as it will ultimately lead them to forgo risk-taking for the fear of looking less than perfect. Teachers and parents need to cultivate a "growth mindset" in their students as a way to encourage life-long learning.
I found a new way to approach this issue by reading Carol S. Dweck's book, Mindset. All teachers and parents should read this book or her more scholarly book, Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development.

I just don't understand how calling children "smart and capable" is any different from calling a child gifted. What parent doesn't want a smart and capable child, much less a gifted one? It seems to me that is not the label but the teaching approach used to keep my child engaged and invested in his education. The bigger problem is when parents do not want their children educated with "riff-raff" (NOT MY WORDS!) and choose to over-ride the teacher's recommendation to put their child in my child's honors level class in middle school, where they can't keep up but also where the teacher then faces the challenge of "teaching to the middle." Who loses out? I didn't find my child eligible for "gifted" services, my school district did. Thank you to the blogger who made the comment that "private schools" don't mean "better schools" for our children. You probably saved me some money.

Tamarah rah, that was a beautiful message to your students and you have inspired me to share a similar one this week. For several years, I have invited the counselor in our school to sit down with my gifted kids in a dialogue.... it is always insightful as I sit back and the kids pour their hearts out... it also opens the door for kids to visit her with their "issues" of being a gifted kid as a follow up .... it changes the relationship and it has spurred our counselors to invest in more support materials for our kids.... love your blog my friend

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