Growing Up Locked Down – What are the psychological effects of school drills?

When I was a kid, I wondered about what it would have been like to grow up in the 1950s and endure “Duck and Cover” drills in school. How did it feel to know you were practicing what to do in the event of a nuclear attack? How did it feel to know the adults in your world thought there was a strong enough chance of a nuclear war that all school children were required to be prepared?

When I was a kid, we had fire drills in school but that was it. Except for the loud siren noise, I enjoyed the fire drills. They were a nice break in the day where we were able to go outside and chat with our friends until the all clear was sounded. We all knew that fire could be dangerous but that if we exited the building quickly and orderly, we would be okay. Our safety was in our hands.

Today I visited my children’s school and it just happened to be a Lock Down drill day. Especially after Newtown, these happen on a regular basis. The purpose of a Lock Down drill is to make the classroom look as empty as possible. Lights and monitors are turned off, doors are locked, and the students and teachers hide as still and as silent as possible — under desks and tables, away from windows and doors. After Newtown, we all know the importance of Lock Down drills. There is a very good chance that lives were saved at Newton because the teachers and students worked together to quietly hide.

I am not questioning the value of Lock Down drills. I am wondering if anyone is taking a good, hard look at what possible damage the drills are doing to our kids. Sitting in the dark, silent room this morning I wondered what the kids, especially the more sensitive ones were thinking. We were all hiding because the adults in their world had decided that the chance of a mad gunman entering their school and trying to kill them was a real possibility. Unlike in a fire drill, in a Lock Down drill the power is not with the students. They know in the event of a real massacre, they will essentially be sitting ducks, hoping he passes them by and goes to the next classroom. They have no control over the situation and they know it.

I worry that we are teaching kids that their world, even at school, is not a safe place. That no matter what they do in their lives, they must always be ready to hide in the dark from the boogie man. Statistically any given school has a very small chance of being shot up but kids generally don’t figure the odds. Note, I don’t think arming the teachers or janitors and having a Rambo-like battle over their heads is a better option. I just think we need to start acknowledging that even Lock Down drills and the message they send, may be causing long-term harm to some of our students. We should study the effects of these types of drills and how teachers and administrators can best help students transition back to the regular school day after the drill. If you’ve been just been forced to contemplate your own fragile mortality, focusing on that next algebra problem may seem a bit pointless.


Getting Out of College

Most parents and teachers of gifted students and indeed, most gifted students themselves, assume they will go to college. They may even spend a great deal of time and effort, especially as they approach high school graduation, analyzing colleges and campuses. Students analyze which schools have the best programs and which dorms and amenities are the nicest.  Students want to find the institute of higher education that best fits their personality and interests.

Getting into the right college is important. Getting out of the right college with a degree and little or no debt is even more important. Our institutes of higher education are far better at admitting students than graduating them. Even upper middle-class students with above average test scores only have a 50% probability of successfully graduating from college. Lower income, above-average students fair even worse with the poorest having only a 26% probability of graduating.

Individuals and our entire nation benefits when we have a higher percentage of college graduates. College graduates enjoy significantly higher earnings throughout their lifetimes and are less likely to experience unemployment or dependency on social welfare programs. This is not true of students that have taken college courses but have not successfully graduated. College graduates generally also have jobs with insurance benefits, are less likely to divorce, and are less likely to be victims of violent crimes or commit crimes themselves. They are also happier and more civically engaged. Increasing the number of college graduates will make our country stronger. This is especially true when considering the woefully low number of lower income, above average and gifted students who, under our current system, are not graduating.

Today two reports came out specifically addressing the need for higher college graduation percentages. The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group composed of representatives from most major colleges and universities in the US, release An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: College Completion Must Be Our Priority. Separately as part of an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and endorsed by college presidents, business leaders, civil rights leaders, and policymakers, The American Dream 2.0 came out with a special emphasis on addressing financial aid issues to improve college access, affordability, and completion.

State and federal support for higher education has been steadily decreasing. State support for higher education declined by 7.6% in 2012 and sank in real terms by 25% since 2008. This decrease in state support correlates with an unprecedented increase in student debt. Total annual student borrowing skyrocketed between 2002 and 2012 and is now $113 billion. Lenders are generally happy to accommodate the increased financial needs of students because college loans are some of the very few types of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Large college loans, especially ones incurred in pursuit of a degree that was never obtained, can burden a student for life — affecting their future job flexibility and long-term financial security.

The American Dream 2.0 has three overarching recommendations addressing financial aid issues and improve graduation rates:

  • Make aid simpler and more transparent
  • Spur innovations in higher education that can lower costs and meet the needs of today’s students
  • Ask institutions, states, and students to share responsibility for producing more graduates without compromising access and affordability

The College Completion letter offers concrete suggestions to colleges and universities for improving their graduation rates above and beyond better financial aid policies and packages. High school freshmen and seniors can use the report’s list (below) to evaluate whether institutions they are considering are actively working to increase graduation rates.

  • Change campus culture to boost student success
    • Unambiguously assign ownership and responsibility for enhanced student retention and graduation
    • Implement initiatives campus-wide
    • Study past mistakes
    • Create a student-centered culture to enhance student engagement and retention
    • Improve the academic experience, especially for those students that may need extra support
    • Give credit for previous learning
    • Provide support services for nontraditional students
    • Teach the teachers to improve their teaching and communication skills
  • Improve cost-effectiveness and quality
    • Offer flexibility to working adults
    • Ease credit transfers
    • Encourage competency-based learning
    • Deliver courses more efficiently
    • Narrow student choice to promote completion
    • Improve remedial services
    • Optimize non-core services
  • Make better use of data to boost success
    • Pinpoint weaknesses in preparation
    • Harness information technology to identify students at risk
    • Communicate with students about progress to graduation

We need better data on graduation rates so that students can compare schools on the one item that really matters — what is their chance of successfully graduating with a degree and little debt. High school students should know the percentage of students that graduate in 4 years, 5 years, and 6 years from the colleges they are considering and how much debt the students had when they left the school. It is time for students to worry about getting out of college when they are first deciding on colleges to try to get in.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Collaboration

A few days ago Carolyn K of the amazing Hoagies Gifted Education Page tweeted out a link to an Edutopia article by Robin Newton for educators on how to work with students who have a hard time collaborating. Collaborative classroom learning is hot now, it is even part of new core standards. The article focuses on three reasons students may have difficulty working together on collaborative tasks:

  • Cultural Differences
    Under cultural differences she includes both culturally influenced learning styles, which may make students more comfortable with solo work and students, who due to cultural reasons, may be uncomfortable working with students of the opposite sex or another ethnicity.
  • Confusion
    Students who have trouble collaborating because they don’t fully understand the assignment.
  • Shy and/or Introversion
    Shy kids may be too self-conscience to fully participate in groups and introverted kids might find that the noise and chaos of a group is just too overstimulating.

The article has good suggestions for helping students work through all of the above issues. What was not addressed, and judging from the comments, an item that really hit home with some readers, is the frustration the gifted student feels when forced to collaborate with classmates that are not at their level. The average elementary school classroom of 28 students has 6-8 Level One gifted students and 1 or 2 Level Two gifted students. An elementary school of 100 students will only have 1 or 2 Level Three gifted students in the entire school and there is only a single Level Four gifted student per 200 school children, on average. This means that most Level Two gifted students and essentially all Level Three and Four gifted students have no intellectual peers if they are in regular classrooms.

Having a highly or profoundly gifted student collaborate with their age peers in a regular classroom is like making a 6th grader collaborate with a group of 1st graders — except no one recognizes or supports the more advanced intellectual capabilities of the 6th grader. Collaboration rules, both explicit and implied state that everyone’s ideas are equally valid, everyone should contribute equally, and everyone will get equal credit. Frequently this creates a situation where the end product is either inferior to what the gifted student could have done if he or she were working alone or the gifted student secretly or not so secretly ends up doing all the work, but never gets additional credit for their additional effort. These issues are exacerbated when the gifted student has traits that are common in the gifted population such as asynchronous development, heightened intensity, extra sensitive emotions, a keen concern for fairness, and perfectionism.

The take away lesson for many gifted students is that others are inferior and working in groups is detrimental. This is probably the exact opposite of the lesson the educators and the standards are trying to teach.

Interestingly enough, gifted students are natural collaborators, when they have intellectual peers available. While I and my husband hated being forced to work in groups during our school years, our kids have no such issues. They go to a school for gifted kids and enjoy both structured collaborative activities (such as mandatory participation in state contests) and spontaneous collaborations. They easily and seamlessly form mixed-age groups to create and test computer games and to write fiction books. They form clubs and organize fund raisers and other activities with little adult guidance. Of course they passionately argue for their ideas and can get upset about other’s positions. They are learning the give and take of well functioning groups where all members can make equally valid contributions and the group has to figure out which path to follow. They love working together so much that we have had to counsel them on the importance of doing things solo as well as with their schoolmates. As I have blogged about before, even smoothly working groups can have some unintended, negative effects.

So next time you are lamenting the fact that your gifted student is not performing well in collaborative school activities, take a good look at the group they are working with and see if too wide a range of abilities could be the cause.



The importance of friendships

Some time ago when chatting with an expert on gifted kids, I asked how I would know if my children were in the correct academic environment. How would I know if their classes were challenging enough or whether I should switch them to a more rigorous school. She answered by asking whether they were happy — whether they had good friends with whom they could be their true selves.

So much of the time when raising highly and profoundly gifted kids, we focus on academics. Are they in a school with enough advanced classes? What summer enrichment programs should they enroll in to make sure they get the academic resume edge that will take them to the next level? We want to make sure they aren’t wasting their potential.

Frequently the social aspects of their schooling are a secondary consideration. One we only pay real attention to when things are bad. We notice if they have zero friends or are bullied. We don’t necessarily notice when they have friends, but not ones they can completely relax with and just be themselves.

Watching the 2013 Golden Globes last night I was struck by the fact that two of the most creative and brightest women receiving awards, Lena Dunham and Jodie Foster, both mentioned loneliness. Everyone feels alone at times, it isn’t just a burden for gifted kids. However, it is something that we as parents of sometimes quirky gifted kids need to keep on our radar. Forming friendships is tricky, especially for introverted, analytical young people who see the world differently than most of their peers. Highly and profoundly gifted girls are particularly at risk of feeling alone. This is due to a variety of factors. First, there are fewer profoundly gifted girls than boys and they are less likely to be identified because they “blend” better.  Gifted girls tend to hide their intellectual abilities and instead pour their energy into social relationships. As they reach their teen years, they are valued more for their appearance and sociability than their intelligence. Gifted girls in middle school frequently face a not so subtle choice between high achievement or social acceptance by their peer group. Many girls decide to suppress their innate abilities, others who continue to aim high and succeed at rigorous coursework, may end up depressed and with lower self-esteem than boys with equivalent GPAs.

Many lonely gifted kids eventually find good friends and soul mates at college and beyond but the harm done by feeling and being alone for much of elementary school, middle school, and high school can leave lasting damage. The suffering could manifest itself in great works of art yet it can just as easily create an adult who never really finds their place in the world. While it is sad for the individual, society can also pay the price. Although there is a tendency to describe mass shooters as loners, they are generally more likely to be individuals that struggled to connect with their peers and form meaningful friendships.

While we can’t create friendships for our gifted kids, there are things we can do to make it more likely that they will form their own. Generally it is easier to make friends with people who are like us. Take a good look at your child’s school and extra curricular activities. Do they seem to be populated by kids that are similar to your child? If your kid likes Dr. Who and National Geographic are you making sure he or she has a chance to hang out with kids who like to discuss rain forests and David Tennant vs. Matt Smith? Take your child to festivals, chat nights, and seminars that interest them and help them keep an eye out for kids they can talk to. Hanging out isn’t just in person. The Internet has been used since its beginning as a way for ubergeeks to connect. Help your kid find other kids they can relate to and then encourage them to use phone calls, email, and Skype to stay connected. Be ready to drive outside your neighborhood to help your kids meet up with their new friends. Facilitate outings and sleepovers to help the friendships grow. Teach your children that good friends are worth the extra effort.