10 Things Ender’s Game Teaches Us About Kids & Education

We went to Ender’s Game over the weekend and during the movie I couldn’t help thinking about how Ender’s Battle School compares to public education in the US. Examinations of morality aside, governments in Ender’s Game made a strategic decision that the survival of the human race depended on gifted children with a superior and specific education. They then heavily invested in a school and a program designed to find and maximize the potential of these children.

Here are 10 lessons about kids and education we can learn from Ender’s Game:

  1. Don’t get bogged down in trying to fully acknowledge that all students are gifted in their own way. Instead, make some hard calls as to what skills and talents will be needed most in the future and pour resources into those areas and those students. Our lack of funding better math and science programs, especially in elementary school and middle school, is appalling.
  2. Start young. Young minds can absorb a great deal of information and we should be giving young kids complex information about all subjects, not dumbing things down to what we think they can handle.
  3. Let kids work at their own pace and accelerate them as they show ability and potential.
  4. Allow kids to fail, to feel the disappointment, and to learn from those failures.
  5. Kids are resilient yet still need someone to confide in, support them, and push them in order for them to fully reach their potential.
  6. Do not underestimate the importance of hardships, including negative social interactions, in shaping determination and character. However, as kids are left alone to work things out themselves, adults should watch from a distance and be ready to step in to prevent irreparable harm.
  7. Book learning isn’t enough. Students must be able to create, build, and interact with things in real life in order to fully internalize and cement learning. We need to increase funding for hands-on classes in science, programming, design, and industrial arts.
  8. Interactive computer games are a powerful tool that cannot be ignored. Advice to limit students’ screen time is antiquated. We should be far more concerned with positive and negative modes of thinking and brain pathways that are reinforced through these games. Instead of merely entertaining, games should be designed to strengthen growing brains in positive ways.
  9. Students that challenge the authority of teachers should not be automatically punished. The defiant student may be an innovative genius in the rough.
  10. If we want superior schools, we need to make a serious investment in them. Educational spending needs to be increased.

Forget Potential, Nurture Passions

Today as Twitter goes public, it seems right to take a step back and reflect on how a company like Twitter reaches this level. Despite their lack of profits, they are the most anticipated IPO since Facebook began trading last year.

Many companies have great potential, yet only a few become common household names with worldwide recognition. While luck and timing undoubtably play a role, perhaps a more important factor is passion. Having a vision, believing in your ideas, and feeling strongly enough about your goal that you are willing to put in the time and effort to work through setbacks and adversity, is a necessary component for achieving great success.

Too often in business we focus on the bottom line and the day-to-day. While mission statements try to define a purpose, they cannot by themselves create a zealousness for putting in the extra effort needed to take a company to the next level. That type of energy bordering on fanaticism must come from within. People put time and energy into their passions in a way that is unsustainable in an ordinary job. Frequently this enthusiastic effort doesn’t even feel like work.

Our country and our economy needs passionate entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators. We need our best and our brightest to discover what fascinates them and run with it. Too often though our educational system does just the opposite. In gifted education and literature we focus on making sure students are meeting their potential. We design gifted services to provide identified students a chance to work at a higher level in adult-defined academic subjects. We expect our gifted students to excel in math, reading, and science and we teach them and test them to ensure they are living up to their potential.

Yet, ability and potential does not automatically equate to success in the business world. Yes, being smart can help you pick up on new concepts, but gumption, knowledge, and experience are far more important over the long haul. Instead of merely worrying about whether students’ grades and test scores properly reflect their IQ tests, we should support their unique interests. Instead of just signing them up for yet another enrichment class, we should take the time to listen to what is important to them and find opportunities for them to pour energy and effort into what moves them.

If we want to create enthusiastic innovators, we need to stop worrying so much about whether gifted students are working to their potential and instead help them discover and nurture passions.

 

Critical Chain Project Management for Gifted Education

I’ve been reading up on formal project management methodologies and I’m starting to view many things through the project management lens. This has led me to wonder if perhaps some of the problems we see in public education could be addressed by using a different method of managing the project of education.

Like all projects, cost, resources, time, quality, risk, and scope constrain public education.

As we have added more and more educational requirements and standards to the teaching load, we have increased the scope Project Constraintsof public education.This scope increase has occurred during a time of budget cuts so the cost and resources available have gone down and the time spent in school has stayed the same. Predictably, this has decreased public education quality while increasing the risk that our student are unable to compete globally. Because public polices and checks on education have focused exclusively at the risk to students below average, the gifted students have suffered the most. If we define a successful education as one where students learn at their maximum ability level, our highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, and profoundly gifted students have a very high risk of not being successfully educated.

While obvious solutions include increasing funding and lengthen the school year, political constraints make those ideas virtually impossible to implement. Besides, by themselves they won’t solve the problems with public education. Instead we need to look at how we are managing the project of public education. To the extent that we are managing it at all, we seem to use a traditional critical path management method.

In public education, students begin in kindergarten and steadily learn their education tasks in a rigidly defined sequential order until high school graduation. In critical path project management methodology, if a task in the critical path is delayed, the entire project is delayed by the same amount of time. Unfortunately in our public education system, we do not have a good way of delaying the entire educational project. When a student fails to complete an educational task in the allotted time, they end up with permanent gaps in their education, become discouraged, graduate with a GPA that is below their innate potential, or even fail to graduate at all.

The problems with critical path management for the project of public education include:

  1. Grade level educational requirements are based on projected average “optimal” learning and fail to account for resource availability. By setting a learning schedule and then trying to fit all students into that schedule from the beginning, we fail to account for the vast differences in resource availability between the students. These resources can vary with each student throughout their education and include family support, financial stability, educational support, emotional/social security, existing subject knowledge, innate learning ability (giftedness), and available study time.
  2. Student Syndrome. Teachers and students know they have a set period of time to teach specific subjects and concepts.  If the actual learning task will take 5 days of study for the student but the teacher has allocated 10 days, the student will slack off for the first 5 days and only put in effort for the second 5 days. This creates two issues. First, many of our students, especially our gifted students, waste a significant amount of their potential learning time because they are unable to work at their natural pace. Second, if the student guessed wrong and it will actually take them a bit longer to learn a concept, they fall behind.
  3. Bad Multitasking. In critical path management students and teachers work on several ideas and subjects in short periods of time. Teachers must constantly show all students making progress across a wide spectrum of knowledge areas. This leads to the school day being split into multiple, short chunks of subject time which negatively impacts deep learning  — especially during the elementary school years. It can also lead to time being wasted on non-critical learning tasks.
  4. Parkinson’s Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Regardless of the time it may actually take for a class to learn a concept or body of knowledge, the class will work on the subject matter for the length of time the teacher or the school district have blocked out for it on the schedule.

As opposed to critical path, critical chain project management directly addresses many of the above issues. It takes into account that fact that some tasks will take longer than anticipated and others will go faster. It allows any unused “buffer” time to accumulate. The fast tasks balance out the slow tasks enabling the project of educating our students to a certain level to finish on time or early. Switching to critical chain project management for gifted education will allow our top students to excel and if we implement it across the board it has the potential to improve outcomes for all students, without increasing costs or lengthening the school year.

Critical chain public education will enable students to work at their own pace, move ahead when they personally are ready, and focusing in detail on one subject at a time. This will virtually eliminate student syndrome, bad multitasking, and Parkinson’s Law. It also may push us to flip our classrooms. Many computerized educational programs from Aleks to the Khan Academy already are using a critical chain approach to education. In these, students work at their own pace on one educational task at a time until mastery, without regard to a set calendar learning schedule or the mastery level of other students in their class.

We should change how we write educational standards. Instead of stating when students will learn a specific topic, the standards should define the critical chain order of subject mastery. We need to become comfortable with the idea that not all kids learn at the same pace and that there will be wide differences in knowledge. In reality, these wide differences already exist but they are hidden from us in most public schools. We rarely explore the depths of individual student knowledge, we only focus on the specific bits of information in the standards. Critical path education will allow all students, gifted and average, to dive deeply into subjects and even indulge their passions. Within a classroom, one student may spend a year immersed in American history and fulfill multiple “years” worth of requirements in just one year while their classmate may spend the same year focused on math. Similar to college undergraduate degrees, students will know what they must learn for each say, 4-year chunk of education. They will need to show progress each year through standardized testing, papers, and presentations. However, what they learn at any given time and how fast they learn it, is in their control. They can slow down for subjects that are personally confusing and speed up for topics that come to them naturally.

Yes, our gifted students may finish standard materials early, perhaps even years early than other students. This isn’t a negative. Our schools should maximize the potential of all students, not just educate everyone to the same, generic level each school year. By defining a critical chain of educational requirements, letting students know what those requirements are, and letting students work at their own pace through those requirements, we will improve educational outcomes for all our students.

 

 

The Perfectionist Shuffle

We have some young, high-strung perfectionists in our house. I don’t want to get into any judgement call about whether nature or nurture is to blame. They are our biological children and one way or another we are probably the culprits.

This tendency to always want to be right and to always perform at a superior level can make it difficult to learn and do new things. True learning involves failure. Initial attempts are usually messy and ugly. Admitting that something is confusing and knowing that merely following directions will not, in and of itself, create a beautiful essay, an elegant art project, or a masterfully played piano piece, creates issues.

Like many highly gifted students, early learning of the basics wasn’t much of a challenge. They are still developing the mental and emotional muscles they will need throughout their lives to persevere in the face of difficulty and unexpected setbacks. Gumption and tenacity are increasingly important in the work world as well as in life. When they head out into the job market they will enter an economy that is ever shifting. An economy where jobs and companies are constantly changing and their individual success will depend on their ability to welcome new challenges with positive energy and hard work.

They aren’t quite there yet.

Right now, many new and seemingly difficult homework assignments and tasks are greeted with what I’ve taken to thinking of as the perfectionist shuffle. First, there is the avoidance prelude. During this time, they try to pretend the assignment doesn’t exist. They hide in the world of books or waste time on the Internet, without having even read through the assignment.

When they can avoid no longer, usually due to parental intervention, they then start the excuse sidestep. Offered reasons for failing to begin the assignment will range from, not having enough time, to not having the correct materials, to being too hungry to think, to needing “a break” before they get down to work. Once they exhaust their list and it slowly dawns on them that they have to start working on the new, seemingly impossible task, we begin the exciting part of the perfectionist shuffle, the angst whirl. At its peak, if the project seems particularly daunting to them, the next couple hours include Insecurity, arguing, crying and carrying on about how they can’t do it, don’t know how to do it, shouldn’t have to do it, etc. It is exhausting. Amazingly enough, once they have tried all alternative routes, are emotionally spent, and there is no other path save forward, they usually settle down, dig into the task, and do a decent job.

Although it serves an emotional purpose, perhaps helping the kids cope with uncertainty, the perfectionist shuffle is not going to help them in the long run and is not fun for anyone within hearing distance in the short run. Being able to intellectually understand the difference between high quality work and mediocre work has its downside. It can make trying something new seem pointless. The fact that all the world’s experts were beginners at one point is easy to understand but difficult to internalize emotionally. We are trying to help them understand that lack of success after a solid attempt is not the worst outcome. That confronting every new challenge with an emotional firestorm is far worse than just learning to put in a good effort and see what happens. That if they can develop and maintain a positive resilience, success will find them.

Lean In for Gifted Girls

I just finished reading Lean In, the much talked about book by Sheryl Sandberg. In it she makes the point that women need to put more into their careers. That while women are outpacing men in educational achievements and taking more of the entry-level jobs, men still run the world. The book is heavy on statistics that are all carefully footnoted. While women earn 60% of the masters degrees in the United States, these highly educated women steadily drop out of the workforce in the years after graduation. This is especially true of highly educated women with children. Permanently dropping out of the work force hurts women’s long-term economic stability. It curtails their independence and may even be a contributing factor in lower self-esteem and depression. While the book was directed at women, the information is perhaps more valuable for those of us raising gifted girls. How can we set them up for fuller, more fulfilling lives? Should we put more emphasis on giving them the skills they will need for life after school, rather than just focusing on their academic careers?

Girls are different from boys. They are, on average, more concerned with following rules, pleasing people, and not hurting other’s feelings. They generally mature earlier and act more responsible at a younger age than boys. This tendency to compliantly follow adult directions makes girls easier to live with (most of the time) at home and creates a more studious, “teachable” student body in our educational institutions. Throughout their education, we reward girls for their hard work and positive, conforming attitudes. However, once they enter into the work world, different criteria govern who gets promotions and power. Businesses reward innovation, ambition, and results. Aggressively pursuing opportunities leads to rewards. However, women and girls generally do not want to appear ruthlessly ambitious. They fear (consciously or subconsciously) that if they really put themselves out there, promoting themselves, networking, and striving, they will be viewed less positively and this likeability hit will hurt their careers. Research shows they are correct. Our society wants men to be decisive, driven providers and women to be communal, sensitive caregivers. Women who “act like men” are less liked and this negatively affects their career trajectory.

So what do we tell our hard-working, ambitious daughters? How do we raise them to succeed not only in school but in the work world?

I am beginning to believe we as parents and teachers must start by giving up some of the benefits we get from having nice, compliant girls. My own personal experience is that my daughter tries hard to follow both spoken and unspoken rules. She frequently makes the extra effort to please teachers, yet is very reluctant to call attention to her achievements. My sons on the other hand are naturals at self-promotion. They also take the edict that it is far better to ask for forgiveness than permission one step further by adding in the caveat that neither is necessary if you avoid getting caught or can put the proper spin on your transgression. These different approaches often have my daughter complaining that “it” isn’t fair. That the boys get to do more without getting in trouble and that they don’t put in as much work at school or at home. She has a point and we do try to monitor the boys to make sure they are putting in the same effort to get the same rewards as our daughter. After reading “Lean In” though, I’m starting to wonder if this approach will actually help her in the long run.

Yes, the boys need more monitoring and it is our job to encourage them to be more thoughtful, diligent, and hardworking. On the other hand, our daughter may need a different message. Perhaps we should stop giving girls the idea that the way to get their efforts appreciated is to level the playing field and make things more fair by complaining to the local authorities. Title IX only applies to educational institutions, not the business world. Career opportunities are not automatically equal for men and women. Absent overt discrimination, positions are open to everyone, male or female but men end up in the executive suite far more often than women. Males generally approach the world differently and this can lead to more success for them in the work world. Our daughters need to know that being good workers and nice people will not automatically give them the careers they want. In addition they need to build their self-confidence, knowledge, and social work skills. We need to raise daughters that are a bit more of a pain. Ones that follow their own passions instead of our suggestions. Ones that are more interested in being themselves than in being liked by everyone. Ones that are willing to take chances and break some rules because they understand that their worth does not depend on always being good. Ones that are comfortable taking a seat at the table because they know they have a great deal to contribute. We need to become much more accepting and tolerant of noisy girls that speak even when they are not spoken to and shout out answers without raising their hands.

Well-behaved women seldom make history — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

We must encourage our girls to follow their own interests even when it means ignoring our suggestions. We should go beyond tolerating their arguing and teach them how to become more effective in advocating their positions.

In general, girls have less professional ambition than boys. While some of this may be due to innate biological differences between boys and girls, even in our enlightened times we are still raising them differently with different messages. Boys get the message that when they grow up they will be full-time, ambitious providers. Girls get the message that while they should do well in school and start a career, it is at least equally important for them to be supportive of their boyfriends, husbands, and children. That if they are too career oriented, their family may suffer. While society sometimes questions whether a mother who takes a big promotion may be hurting her family, the same is virtually never true of fathers.

Ambitious girls are labeled as bossy instead of what they actually are, naturally driven leaders. We need to do a better job of helping our girls develop these emerging managerial skills. Instead of telling our girls to “be nice” we should teach them how to lead so that others will want to follow.

Knowledge is power and our girls need to know:

  • That on average men apply for jobs if they feel they meet 60% of the requirements while women only apply if they think they meet 100% of the requirements. Our girls need to understand that this desire to cross the T’s and dot the I’s is a false strategy designed to avoid rejection and holds women back. We should encourage our girls to put themselves out there and teach them that rejection is not the same as failure. And failure isn’t that bad anyways.
  • Effective ways for girls and women to negotiate. While women who tout their own achievements take a likeability hit compared to men who do the same, there are techniques to get around this. If women are negotiating for a higher starting salary, a raise, or other benefits, they can minimize negative blowback by “thinking personally and acting communally.” Men who fail to negotiate are viewed as weak, pushovers yet women need to provide a legitimate explanation for their negotiations. That explanation is frequently received more positively if it ties into positive societal stereotypes of women. For example, if women start negotiations by explaining that they know women often get paid less than men, in part, because men are more likely to reject initial offers and that this knowledge is why they are negotiating, the women position themselves as more communal and less selfish. Requests from women are also viewed more favorably if they say a senior person encouraged them to negotiate or that their negotiations are inspired by objective, industry standards. Until and unless society changes and starts to view aggressive women as positively as it views aggressive men, our daughters need the inside information on how effectively propel their careers forward while still appearing “appropriately” female.
  • How and why to work together. Frequently girls, especially in the middle school years, setup a social hierarchy where girls actively put other girls down to build themselves up. They are too concerned about popularity and boys and they view the social scene as a zero-sum game. This attitude too often stays with them as they enter the work world. Yet one of the most effective ways for women to advance their careers is to have their achievements and skills endorsed by others. Girls need to get in the habit of banding together and speaking positively about each other. We should coach them on how to call attention to each other’s ideas and achievements. By becoming effective promoters for each other they can learn at an early age how to make sure their accomplishments are known without appearing unseemingly “cocky” for a female.
  • That they should approach their education, networking, and initial jobs as if they will have a full and fulfilling life-long career. They should not question whether their work and career choices will fit with a later decision to have a family. When women doubt their ability to combine work and family before they even have a baby, they avoid advancements and assignments that will give them more money, power, and flexibility — items that can make a huge difference when they later need to combine work and family.
  • That there is currently a false “competition” between stay-at-home moms and career moms. The reality is that more and more women, and a few men, move back and forth between work and home, spending more time with their families when that need is greater and spending more hours on their career when it is best for them and their families. Our daughters can succeed where adult women have failed. They should grow up expecting to work together and stay connected no matter whether they are going through a period of full-time office work, full-time at-home work, or something in-between. Guilt over not being with the kids enough or not being at work enough need to stop influencing how mothers view each others’ choices. Families and careers go through phases and one or the other will, at times, demand more attention. Girls should learn the importance of supporting and helping each other, especially during transitions into or out of the work force.

Those of you who are raising boys aren’t off the hook either. Even if your home follows the statistical pattern of mom spending more hours on cleaning and childcare than dad, explain to your son that the world is changing. Teach him how to clean and cook tell him that as an adult, he will be just as responsible for the household chores as his wife. We should talk with our boys about work/life balance. “How do you plan to juggle it all?” should not just be something for girls to ponder. In fact, we can start changing the conversation today. Start ask the men you work with who have young children, “How to you do it all?”

The Grown-Up Gifted Child

Recently I have been re-reading one of my favorite books on living with and raising gifted children, the award-winning, A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children. Early in the book there is a table that lists, “Problems Associated with the Characteristic Strengths in Gifted Children.” As I was reading this list again I realized, I know these people. The funny thing is, they aren’t kids anymore.

When gifted kids grow up they don’t usually age-out of their gifted passions, strengths, intensities, and quirks. They may learn to act in a more socially acceptable manner and they, hopefully, gain a measure of perspective and self-discipline that they lacked as children. However, the essence of who they are and how they are different stays intact. One of the big arguments in favor of programs exclusively for gifted students is that they aren’t just bright. Their brains are wired differently and while, yes, they can complete typical school work at an accelerated pace, that isn’t what defines them. They are more passionate, sensitive, and intense. Merely completing the lesson plan isn’t enough. They want to go beyond the lesson plan, or alternatively, question its basic worth. They are more driven by deeper meanings and philosophical questions than other students their age. This can make them an under-achieving, dejected, argumentative, moody pain in the wrong classroom environment or the engaged, high-performing, thoughtful student in the right classroom environment.

The same is true once they grow up. Just look at the a few of the strengths and associated issues they can create as detailed in the book.

Strength Possible Problem
Acquires and retains information quickly Impatient with slowness of others; dislikes routine and drill; may resist mastering foundation skills; may make concepts unduly complex
Ability to conceptualize, abstract, synthesize; enjoys problem-solving and intellectual activity Rejects or omits details; resists practice or drill; questions teaching procedures
Enjoys organizing things and people into structure and order, seeks to systematize Constructs complicated rules or systems; may be seen as bossy, rude, or domineering
Thinks critically; has high expectations; is self-critical and evaluates others Critical or intolerant toward others; may become discouraged or depresses; perfectionistic
Creative and innovative; likes new ways of doing things May disrupt plans or reject what is already known; seen by others as different and out-of-step
Intense concentration; long attention span in areas of interest; goal-directed behavior; persistent Resists interruption; neglects duties or people during periods of focused interest; seen as stubborn
Sensitivity, empathy for others; desire to be accepted by others Sensitivity to criticism or peer rejection; expects others to have similar values; need for success and recognition; may feel different and alienated
High energy, alertness, eagerness, periods of intense efforts Frustrated with inactivity; eagerness may disrupt others’ schedules; needs continual stimulation; may be seen as hyperactive
Diverse interests and abilities; versatile May appear scattered and disorganized; becomes frustrated over lack of time; others may expect continual competence

In the work environment these possible problems can limit opportunities, cause issues with HR, and possibly lead to terminations. Perhaps this is why many gifted individuals become entrepreneurs. As their own boss they can find the best way to work with their strengths.

In relationships, when the innate characteristics of gifted boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses go unrecognized, unrealistic expectations from both parties can poison the partnership.

Gifted individuals need to understand themselves and how they may differ from others at home and in the workplace. Self-knowledge of natural strengths and how they can become liabilities is essential to long-term happiness and fulfillment. This information guides the grown-up gifted child in working through misunderstandings and frustrations with their significant others, at home. At work, it enables them to increase their productivity, improve relationships, and perhaps even realize when their current work place is just a bad fit and it is time to move on.

Developing self-awareness in gifted students is one of the primary goals of quality programs for the gifted. It is also one that is virtually impossible to reach when gifted “programs” consist primarily of accelerated, in-classroom, differentiation. The farther away from the mean a student is, the more likely it is that her strengths will cause her issues at some point in her life. Gifted educators need to mentor their students on how to live in and thrive in the regular world as a highly, profoundly, or exceptionally gifted individuals.

Is it really ADHD? Coursera ADHD Class Week 8 – Assessment

More and more kids in the US have ADHD. This has led many to feel that we are over-diagnosing kids that have other issues, or are just a bit slower to mature, with a psychiatric disorder where none exists. Others argue that we are diagnosing and then medicating students whose only “disorder” is being anti-authority. It reminds me a bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In his ADHD Coursera course, Dr. Rostain makes a strong point that the diagnosis criteria are solid and if applied correctly, will not over-diagnose ADHD. A complete evaluation for a child that shows signs of ADHD involves many steps, checks, and a full case history. Unfortunately, in most cases, this complete workup is not done because it is too time-consuming and expensive. Instead, a couple quick surveys filled out by frustrated parents and teachers and your child too can get a prescription for ADHD “study” drugs.

A complete ADHD assessment includes interviewing both the parents and the child and looking at:

  • Identifying key symptoms
  • Tracking the developmental course of those symptoms and the corresponding concerns
  • Conducting clinic-based psychological tests
  • Complete review of prior school and medical records
  • Complete physical and possibly neurodevelopment screening to rule out other causes of disruptive/distracted behavior
  • Vision, hearing, and formal speech and language assessments
  • Individually administered IQ tests, educational achievement tests, and screening for learning disabilities
  • Differentiating ADHD from other disorders
  • Clarifying the developmental “inappropriateness” of those symptoms and concerns
  • Look for other causes of the symptoms including changes or stressful situations at school and/or home
  • Checking on sleep patterns. Lack of sleep mimics ADHD.
  • Evaluating co-morbid conditions
  • Determining the degree of impairment
  • Assessing the family situation and how they are adjusting and accommodating the child’s behavior
  • Identifying strengths and resources of the child and the family
  • Eliciting priorities for change
  • Identifying community resources

Most of the time all of the above is not done. Having gone through the diagnosis process in our family, I know it was much more straightforward. I just noted that I thought ADHD might be an issue, filled out a couple of surveys that were highly subjective, and presto, we had Ritalin. Since then we have let the prescription lapse. It seems that being in a better educational environment is more effective than drugs for producing happy, productive kids. There are many reasons why a child has high-energy and is easily distracted. If a highly gifted student is in a classroom that is moving too slowly, of course she may be distracted and not paying attention. If a profoundly gifted boy has a third grade teacher that is only covering science at the third grade level and he “corrects” her by pointing out inaccuracies in her explanations, is that a psychiatric disorder?

One of the most used surveys to assess ADHD impairment is the Vanderbilt Assessment Scale. Almost all the questions from the teacher survey can be answered positively when a child is highly or profoundly gifted and is in an inappropriate school environment, but does not have ADHD. If independent IQ testing isn’t part of the screening process, a child could be incorrectly diagnosed and medicated when all he or she needs is a more challenging class. Yes, the teacher survey does include questions about whether the child is above average or not in reading, math, and writing but again, if the gifted, bored child isn’t doing the classroom work, the teacher will probably not rank his “academic performance” as above average. This is one of the reasons SENG has started to heavily publicize the issue of misdiagnosis of gifted kids. Two of the top misdiagnoses of gifted and talented children are ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). ODD is frequently co-morbid with ADHD and these misdiagnosis are due to a basic level of ignorance among health professionals and teachers about normal social and emotional characteristics of gifted kids. The medical profession pathologizes that which is uncommon, even if it is just a different normal.

Peer Pressure Rules

Peer pressure has gotten a bad rap. When we think about peer pressure, we focus almost exclusively on the detrimental effects of negative peer pressure. We have forgotten that peer pressure is also one of the strongest shapers of positive social and academic behavior. As adults we use it to push ourselves to the next level. From workout buddies to peer-reviewed academic journals, peer pressure is a powerful motivating tool.

Over the weekend my sons were playing Minecraft with some friends and one child decided to destroy structures built by the others. The peer pressure correction was swift. The other kids worked together first to disable his character by “killing” him then, when that didn’t work, they banned him from the server for a week. The peer pressure and consequences for his anti-social behavior were swift, effective, and temporary. His friends even comforted him after the banning. They reminded him it was for a short period of time and let him know that although they understood how much fun it is to blow things up in Minecraft, he needed to restrain himself if he wanted to play with them.

Navigating peer group rules develops executive function. it also teaches children how to behave in society in a way that is difficult for adults to mimic. As children get older, their view of themselves and their place in the world is increasingly defined by how they see themselves in their peer groups. Are they the clown, the smart one, the loner, or are they lucky enough to have a peer group that allows them to be a multidimensional, complete person?

While we cannot choose their friends, we can stack the deck in favor of more positive peer interactions by getting our children into academic and extracurricular programs that emphasize acceptance, hard work, respect, and kindness. One of the huge benefits of getting your child into “the good” school is not the staff or facilities. It is the other students. Surround your child with high achievers that value academics and your child will study more to fit in.

Finding a positive peer group is especially important for highly and exceptionally gifted children. These children are capable of academic achievements above and beyond average kids their age and it is their intellectual peers that will pull them to excel. Of course, it is important to help your child find their true peers. If your 15-year-old is working on cancer research, then his intellectual peers are not regular 8th and 9th graders. Yet it isn’t all about academics. Gifted children’s sometimes volatile passion and asynchronous development can make it difficult for them to feel fully comfortable in a regular, age-mate peer group. By giving them opportunities to develop friendships with gifted children of various ages, they are more fully understood and accepted.

Here are some rules for evaluating positive peer pressure.

  1. The pressure is focused on modifying behavior, not changing the person. In other words, the uniqueness of each individual in the group is valued and accepted.
  2. The group applies pressure consistently and even-handedly to all members of the peer group without one child being relentlessly singled out.
  3. The consequences for failing the peer group’s expectations are temporary and not emotionally or physically scarring.
  4. The pressure and resulting consequences are not acted out publicly. There is no record of it on Facebook, YouTube, other social media, or the Internet in general.
  5. The peer group moves on and past mistakes are forgiven and forgotten.
  6. You, as a parent, agree with the values and goals the peer group emphases.

The right kind of peer pressure encourages all of us to push ourselves harder than we would otherwise and helps us reach new goals. One of the most important jobs for parents of gifted kids is making sure they are surrounded by helpful peer groups. Then we can sit back and let the positive pressure do its magic.

Improper regulation of neurotransmitters in ADHD – Coursera ADHD – Week 5

This week’s class gave us a more detailed look at the neurochemistry of ADHD. Much of it focused on monoamines, catecholamine synthesis, chemical structures, and neurobiology of the brain. I’ll attempt to distill the information down to what I, as a parent, find most helpful.

The neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are deficient or dysregulated in ADHD. On the molecular genetic level, research shows that the genes most likely linked to ADHD also affect dopamine and norepinephrine.

The entire mechanism of motivation and attention is complex and involves multiple brain areas and neurochemicals. Although it was not covered in detail, the transmitter serotonin is also thought to modulate brain function and affect the symptoms of ADHD. Because the system is so complex, researchers feel that the issue with ADHD might be more a dysregulation of the neurotransmitter system where the release of chemicals is out of sync than a systematic deficiency of dopamine or norepinephrine. That being said, most ADHD drugs work by increasing their production and/or slowing their re-uptake to extend their effect.

One of the lecture slides was a great venn diagram showing serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine functionality. The diagram here, from the World of Caffeine website, is a more complex version of the one used in class. It shows how the three monoamines balance to create optimal attention, motivation, mood, and cognitive function.

World of Caffeine also has a nice summary of how caffeine affects the neurotransmitters. Caffeine is frequently the ADHD stimulant medication of choice for adults with ADHD symptoms.

Outside of the formal lecture, responses to the office hours questions were also posted this week. Amid general course and detailed brain anatomy information, were a few answers about kids and ADHD that stood out:

  • ADHD diagnoses decrease with age due most likely to several factors including the disorder naturally improving with age in some individuals.
  • The current definition of ADHD and system of diagnosis will not over identify children if clinicians are careful in their assessments and look for other explanations for problems with impulse control and attention regulation other than ADHD. However, too often our healthcare system doesn’t allow adequate time for evaluations. This can also lead to missed diagnosis.
  • Exercise and diet cannot prevent the onset of ADHD but they can help improve the symptoms. Dr. Rostain recommends the book Spark by Dr. John J. Ratey for anyone interesting in learning more about using exercise to improve ADHD.
  • ADHD is linked to poor sleep. It is possible the same brain difficulties that lead to ADHD symptoms also interfere with sleep regulation.
  • Although autism and ADHD  are entirely different entities, the same genes are involved.
  • Psychosocial stress increases ADHD risk and insufficient sleep diminishes focusing and productivity for everyone.
  • Brain training can build focus, attention, and cognitive processing but there is limited data on which programs are most effective because the field is very new.
  • There is no correlation between ADHD and IQ other than as a group, children with ADHD have a slightly lower average IQ of 95 rather than the 100 of the general population. This little fact, to me, says that if a child who is highly or exceptionally gifted has symptoms that look like ADHD, extra care should be taken in trying to determine what is actually going on. It might be ADHD but it might just as easily be normal behavior for a stressed, high-energy, gifted child.

In a few of the office hours answers students were referred to Judith Warner’s recent article on ADHD in Time. The gist of the article seems is that ADHD is a true medical condition and if we get too worried about over diagnosis we run the risk of having insurance companies or congress deny effective treatment options to vulnerable kids. She states that it is a developmental disorder not a symptom of social pathology.

Yes, ADHD is a real problem and is classified as a developmental disorder. Yet, carefully treating kids negative affected by it does not preclude an in-depth discussion on modern childhood. It is a disorder triggered or amplified by certain environmental conditions. This makes it all the more important to closely examine what has happened to childhood over the last 20 years to see how we may have turned on the ADHD genes.

Giving Gifted Kids a Kinder Mirror

The latest ad in the Dove Real Beauty campaign is getting a fair amount of press. In it, a police forensic artist draws a picture of a woman based on the woman’s description of herself (he cannot see her). Then the artist draws the same woman based on a stranger’s description of her after having met and chatted with her briefly. The images clearly show that women can be their own worse critics and that strangers can sometimes see beauty in us that we miss.

The same is true for gifted children. The wrong environment can destroy a positive self-image. Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children are especially at risk. If their teachers don’t understand their intensity and asynchronous development they may not be respected or valued in class. They may get in trouble more, feel misunderstood, and start to incorporate the negative view their teacher has of them into their self concept. While their external appearance hasn’t changed, internally they may start to feel less engaged and uglier. If they have the misfortune of being in an educational environment where their teacher is giving them neutral to negative feedback and none of their classmates get their jokes, share their interests, or even just accept them, this can lead to a downward spiral.

Giftedness is a risk factor for depression, drug use, and suicide. Gifted children can feel alone and closed off from the world when they never get a chance to be with kids like them. In most of the sketches from the Dove campaign, the women’s faces and eyes are more open and interactive in the pictures created based on the stranger’s description. Perhaps this is in part because the women faces were actually different when they were chatting with the stranger. A friendly conversation, with smiles, laughter, and eye contact can animate and positively transform anyone’s face. Perhaps this isn’t just about women’s or gifted children’s less than optimal view of themselves. Perhaps the women saw themselves as they are when they are alone, staring into a mirror and not connecting with anyone. The strangers saw them as they are when a friendly person takes the time to chat with them, engage them, and value them. Gifted children need to feel treasured in this way too.

Especially in elementary and middle school, gifted students need gifted programs not just to help them excel academically. They need gifted programs to help them form a positive self-image. Too often giftedness is narrowly defined by academic achievement or potential. The emotional piece, which can make gifted children feel more passionate than the average kid their age and hyper-aware of not quite fitting in socially, is as important. It is easier for a gifted learner to fill in missing academic pieces than to change the story they tell themselves about their place in the world, who values them, and why. If we just focus on academics, we may accidentally give gifted children the impressing that they are their achievements and nothing more. This is one of the reasons we need special programs for the highly gifted. Good programs aren’t just about academics or enrichments that could benefit any top student. Quality programs for highly gifted students take into account the whole person. They can transform a child who feels unattractive and out-of-place into a child that radiates confidence and self-acceptance.