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.



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.

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.


Stimulants for ADHD don’t improve long-term outcomes – Coursera – ADHD – Week 4

I am now 1/3 of the way through the class and overall I’ve really enjoyed it. The course description estimated the workload at 2-4 hours per week and that has been correct. The TA’s have done a good job responding to questions about the weekly quizzes and making changes when there is a consensus that a question had confusing wording. This week they are adding another unique feature for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) — office hours!  We can submit questions to the professor and Friday he will answer as many as he can.

This week we explored the neuro-imaging of ADHD. Although there are differences seen in PET and fMRI scans in adults with ADHD versus adults without ADHD, neuro-imaging cannot be used to diagnose ADHD. Looking at ADHD from a parenting or educator lens, here is the information I found most relevant.

First, while maximum brain volume is typically reached by age 16 for all children, those diagnosed with ADHD show about a 3-year lag in brain development. This is most likely one of the reasons they seem less mature than their classmates. Once their brains are fully developed at about age 16, people who have ADHD still show smaller and less active orbital-prefrontal cortexes, basal ganglias, and cerebellums. The size difference of these regions compared to a more typical brain is directly correlated with how sever the ADHD symptoms are in a given person. Individuals diagnosed with ADHD also show lower levels of dopamine transporters in the brain’s reward center. Although the lecture didn’t cover it, I suspect that an impaired reward system is one of the reasons some ADHD individuals are susceptible to drug abuse and addition.

One area of brain anatomy and function covered in-depth for the first time this week is the role of the anterior cingulate cortex. Individuals with ADHD have less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex than more neuro-typical people and this can significantly impair their performance. The anterior cingulate cortex is an essential part of the cognitive and emotional executive attention system and has a role in emotion, motivation, timing, focused attention, willed motor control, working memory, pain, error detection, reward, monitoring, and feedback-mediated decision-making. One of these, working memory, is explicitly tested for in IQ tests such as the Stanford-Binet and some researchers feel that working memory is more important than IQ when predicting overall achievement. A child may be highly gifted but not perform as expected if their working memory (and attention for that matter) is less than ideal. Although some high-energy gifted kids are incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD, there is most likely another group of gifted kids that are not recognized as being gifted or having ADHD because their performance is average and their behavior isn’t annoying enough for the adults to suspect ADHD.

So what effect do drugs, especially methylphenidate, have on brain function and anatomy as viewed with neuro-imaging? They definitely increase brain activity while they are in the system, however, they do not change brain structure. The medications can help a child improve their classroom behavior, performance, and teacher and peer interactions in the short-term. Yet psychostimulants do not seem to create long-term changes in outcomes for peer relationships, social skills, academic skills, or school achievement. This little tidbit, buried at the top of page 146 of the 1999 Surgeon General’s report on ADHD, assigned for our week 5 reading, sent me on a search for more studies and more information.

If ADHD medicine is only a short-term fix, why are we drugging our kids’s developing brains? Aren’t there other ways to change their behavior?  And if their symptoms are so bad, why is it common to just prescribe drugs without also helping them with behavioral techniques? The combined treatment of drugs plus behavior modification has better results than just treatment with drugs alone. The drugs may make a child more attentive, less impulsive, and less disruptive but they have no effect on academic achievement. Just because a child is sitting still, better at completing homework, and easier to handle in class, does not mean that child is actually learning more. The lack of long-term improvement with the use of stimulant medication, combined with study results that indicate that they may increase depression in some children and have negative long-term cardiovascular implications, makes me question why they are prescribed so freely in the US. This in-depth, long-term view is beyond the scope of the Coursera class which is more focused on the basics of how ADHD is viewed, diagnosed, and treated by doctors today.

People with ADHD can have a more difficult time completing tasks and attending to directions, especially if they are not interested in or are bored by the subject matter. Our current view has classified ADHD as a disorder because of this impairment. What if evolutionarily speaking, this isn’t the case? What if ADHD tendencies are a different way for a perfectly normal brain to function and the ADHD brain is optimized in some other way that isn’t compatible with our current education system?

The most interesting part of the lecture this week, for me, was something I noticed on a brain scan that wasn’t directly addressed. The brain scan from a study on anterior cingulate cortex dysfunction in ADHD, left me with a strong desire for more research. In it we see differences in brain activity during a counting stroop task for individuals with “normal” brains vs individuals with diagnosed ADHD. The “normal” brain on the left shows the anterior cingulate (green rectangle) lit up with bright yellow and red activity while the ADHD brain on the right shows nothing going on in the anterior cingulated cortex but lots of activity in the frontal stratal, insular and thalamic network. The lecture highlighted the fact that ADHD individuals had to work harder and were slower at solving the task than were other individuals because they were solving the task with a less than ideal brain region. This begs the question, what are the ADHD individuals thinking about and what connections are they making? Clearly there is a lot of something going on in their brains, by colored area alone there is actually more activity than in the “normal” brain. Just because they can’t perform as well on the counting stroop task does not mean that this activity should be deemed suboptimal. See the images yourself on page 1547 of the study.

We know that studies of scans of men’s and women’s brains clearly show that men and women process information differently and use different areas of their brains to solve the same problems. We also know that men’s brains are, on average, larger than women’s brains. This does not mean that men are smarter or that one sex uses the more correct areas of their brains. Perhaps the same is true in people with ADHD. Individuals whose brains are more wired with ADHD tendencies may struggle with tasks that are easier for people with more typically wired brains but does this really mean that ADHD is a disorder?

Coming up the course will explore the neuroplasticity of the brain and interventions shown through neuro-imaging to improve brain functions in individuals with ADHD. Given the lack of proven long-term positive outcomes with drug therapy, I am looking forward to good data on behavioral interventions.




I am tired and crabby

and have low frustration tolerance.

Anyone who lives with highly, exceptionally, or profoundly gifted children has at least a passing familiarity with Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities. Regardless of whether they have ever heard of Dabrowski, they know that their children are frequently more intense, more sensitive, and more prone to meltdowns than other kids.

There are five documented forms of overexcitabilities in gifted children: psychomotor, sensory, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional. Various books from Living with Intensity to A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children have covered these intensities in detail. Not all children will have all of these but the more gifted a child is, the more likely it is that she or he will have energy, sensations, thoughts, and emotions that are just more than the average child. The intensities of the gifted child are part of his or her natural wiring. It is not something they grow out of as they grow older. We probably shouldn’t even call them overexcitabilities because that implies that gifted children are more excitable than they should be. Extra-excitability even superior-excitability would be a less derogatory way of labeling these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Gifted children need to learn to manage and thrive with their intensities. As parents and educators we need to help them on this journey.

Even when gifted children reach an age where they have the self-control to avoid a public scene, they still have the internal stress of their high energy, strong passions, and intense emotions. Add in some perfectionism, sibling annoyances, and lack of sleep and this stress can bubble over in the safety of home, creating crying fits, screaming matches, and hurt feelings. Because young gifted children do not realize that they are naturally more sensitive and more intense, they may have a tendency to blame others for their distress. If they are not blaming others, they may turn the negativity inward which can be even more destructive.

We need to help gifted children recognize their intensities. Unless they are reading up on raising gifted kids, behind our backs, they probably do not realize that they may be experiencing more than their friends and classmates. They also may not know that being tired, hungry, or emotionally exhausted makes their usual intensities more challenging. By understanding what it feels like when they are almost overwhelmed, they can learn to proactively engage in self care. While the world may not rearrange itself to cater to their sensitivities, gifted children can, on their own, take actions before things spiral out of control. They may need more sleep, better quality and more frequent snacks, and more regular exercise than the average child. They may also need to have quiet downtime when they can relax and reflect on their worlds. When adults recognize and validate this, gifted children can address their needs in a positive manner. Knowing that you are tired and crabby and can do something about it, is empowering.


Crime, Punishment, and the Gifted Child

One aspect of gifted parenting that I’m sure we are getting wrong as much as we are getting right is disciple and consequences. Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children operate at levels high above what is typical for their age in both their performance, and their ability to analyze situations. They also can be exceptionally volatile, extremely sensitive (especially if they are low on fuel or sleep), and typically they have asynchronous development.

From a parenting perspective this means that an older elementary school child may expect to be treated as an adult (or at least like the much older students who are his or her intellectual peers), may feel the deep moral injustices of the world (especially his or her world), may be able to negotiate and argue on the level of an average adult, and yet still throws temper tantrums that would put the average two-year-old to shame.

One of our chief jobs as parents is to prepare our children emotionally, intellectually, and morally to thrive in the world as adults. We need to guide them in learning good habits and help them understand that negative behaviors have unpleasant consequences. We also need them to realize that these consequences aren’t the end of the world. That throughout life, they will, at times, screw up and they will have to face the music. They need to learn to bounce back. Resilience and maintaining a positive attitude, despite things not working out the way you had hoped, are important for both career success and overall happiness.

Children who never have to deal with consequences for their actions, miss out on learning how to move forward after a setback. This is one of the tragedies of helicopter parenting. When we swoop in to save our kids, we cheat them out of learning how to survive and thrive in a world which is not always supportive and forgiving.

On the other end of the spectrum, if they feel a punishment is too severe, they can enter into an over-stressed catastrophizing mode where not only do they not learn the behavioral lesson you are trying to teach, they may fight more, shut down, or become depressed.

The tricky part from the parenting perspective is how to gauge what is an appropriate consequence for a highly sensitive child who is misbehaving. Especially if that child has intellectual ability and emotional control with a multi-year developmental difference. Do you punish them as you would a 3-year-old who exhibits the same behavior or like the 22-year-old who can understand the societal and moral reasons why their behavior is inappropriate?

As parents we rarely get it right. We vacillate from consequences that are so minor the kids fail to learn and change their future behavior to consequences that unexpectedly cause an over-the-top, crippling, emotional reaction. When either one of these happen we, as parents, have to learn and adjust. Consequences that were too weak are increased on the next infraction. Consequences that were too sever demand that we spend extra time working with our children — talking with them, one-on-one to help them put the consequences in context and develop resilience so they can move on. We sometimes need to help them understand that although their superior debating abilities will not make their parents change their minds (at least not most of the time), tomorrow is another day.