Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Facets of Gifted Education: Jim Delisle

This week, we're starting a new series on various facets of gifted education on Gifted Exchange. This series will feature interviews with people involved in gifted education in all its forms.

I'm pleased to announce that we're starting with Jim Delisle, author of Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Happy and Successful Children, and many other books. Delisle is now retired from being a professor of special education at Kent State University, and speaks and writes frequently on topics in gifted education.

GE: How does parenting gifted kids differ from parenting other kids (or does it?)

DELISLE: Parenting gifted kids is both the same AND different from parenting any child. The similarities are many: all kids need (and, even though they are loathe to admit it, appreciate) consistency, routine, specific guidance rather than general advice, and parents who present a united front to them, even if mom and dad disagree with each other.

Where the differentness comes in is related specifically to the gifted child's advanced development. Many parents of gifted kids find their child to have questions or concerns far earlier than other kids. For example, while your gifted child may seem oblivious to the TV news you are watching, you find as you tuck him in hours later that he wants to know why Israel and Palestine are always fighting. Or, if your child comes home from school with a sad expression, it might not be because someone was mean to her, but someone was mean to another child--and that hurt *your* child.

Annemarie Roeper, our field's most eminent and practical expert, from my perspective, defines giftedness thusly: "Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences." When you read this conception of giftedness closely, you can understand why parenting gifted kids usually has its own set of unique aspects that Dr. Spock never envisioned.

GE: How can parents help children deal with perfectionism?

DELISLE: A treasured colleague of mine, Joanne Whitmore, worked with severely underachieving gifted children in grades 1-3 for several years. Her classic book on this subject, "Giftedness, Conflict and Underachievement", selects two qualities that were pervasive in these children: supersensitivity (see above response) and perfectionism. How ironic, huh? The severely underperforming kids were also the most perfectionistic.

When you think about it, though, this makes (excuse the pun . . .) "perfect" sense. From a very young age, gifted children typically do things very well; often, these are things that other, nongifted children cannot yet do--read, make connections between disparate ideas, understand number systems and symbols readily. Thus, gifted kids are often praised not for who they are as people, but for what they can DO that astounds adults around them. Human doings instead of human beings, so to speak. Over time, gifted children internalize this adult response to praise and, thus, will do anything at all to avoid what they perceive as failure, as that might mean that they are less valued, in the eyes of adults. When they perceive failure to be anything less than perfection, it's easy to understand how an "A-" can be considered a bad grade.

Some useful things that parents can do to avoid this perfectionism quagmire are these: first, analyze the accolades you give to your children--what is it exactly that you are praising, their attempts or their results? Especially with young gifted children, it is important to put them is situations where they don't always come out on top. Also, parents need to show their children that they, too, are not perfect, yet they still get along OK (e.g. Dad plays basketball with his kids even though he admits he's lousy at it. It's the time together that counts.)

Second, as your kids get older, you need to explain to them the dynamics of perfectionism that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. If not, it may affect their academic decisions, choosing to do projects and take classes that are relatively easy to get through without effort.

Third, when you child's work is assessed by others (i.e. a report card), instead of looking at the grades, do this before you even open the envelope: ask your child what s/he is most proud of and why on the enclosed report. It might be a lower grade in a tough subject, not the "Easy A" that you were about to applaud. If essence, you want to ask your child, "What did you LEARN?" instead of "What did you EARN?"

GE: What's the biggest potential pitfall in transitioning from "gifted kid" to productive, happy adult?

DELISLE: I doubt that there is one best route to get from gifted kid to happy, productive adult, given the individual idiosyncrasies that make each of us tick. One key, though, is a piece of advice I gave to our son after a goal he had held for several years--to attend the University of Colorado--got washed away. It wasn't that Matt didn't get into CU, he did. But after being there for less than one semester, he realized that the Brigadoon he imagined it to be actually turned out to be his own personal purgatory. My advice to him then, and still today as the adult he is, is this: "Write your dreams in pencil" (Actually, that's a chapter title in my book, "Parenting Gifted Kids"). If you write your dreams and goals in indelible ink, literally or metaphorically, then you will always see the remnants of this "failure", even as you set new ambitions. A pencil eraser, though, rubs away completely this residual dream, making clean room for others to take its

In a related way, parents must be cautious to make sure that their child's hopes and dreams are not narrowed by their own adult perceptions of success. When our son informed us that his college major was going to be creative writing, our knee-jerk response might have been: "How are you ever going to earn a living at that! Pick something practical!" Instead, we swallowed hard and asked, "Matt, how can we help you do that?" He DID graduate with a creative writing degree (one of five majors he entertained in four years), and even though he is making his career in another creative field (special effects) he can still write a story or letter that'll make you weep. Matt succeeded on his terms, not ours. That's a key; a big one.

GE: You taught middle school for years -- what reform would you like to see implemented broadly for the middle grades?

DELISLE: Even though my primary job for 25 years was as a professor of education at Kent State University, I also taught middle school on a part-time basis for 17 of those years. Why? Credibility for one, as I wanted my college students to realize I was as close to a classroom as one week's distance--not 20 years. The second reason I taught gifted 7th-8th graders for so long is that they simply helped keep things in perspective for me, for they cared little about my credentials or my writing awards; instead, they judged me from two different criteria: was I boring, and did I assign a lot of homework. I'm now reaping the benefits of those years in middle school--attending weddings and writing letters for graduate school admission to kids I taught when they were young. So cool.

To me, the biggest reform we need for gifted students in the middle school is attitudinal. Teachers and administrators need to understand that these kids crave being around others like themselves--kids who think as broadly, feel as deeply, and smash the middle school stereotype as a bunch of hormones on parade into a million pieces. Thus, we have to give up on the wrong-headed notion that kids of all abilities should occupy the same classrooms all day. This inclusive idea has done so much harm, in my opinion, to kids at both the high and the low ends of the learning curve. Since all three of my academic degrees are in special education (mental retardation, emotional disturbances, and gifted education), I think I can speak with some authority on the absurdity of the "one classroom fits all" ideas proposed by many middle school educators.

Too, middle school kids--all of them--need to see the connections between and among content areas, something seldom done when kids spend 45 minutes in math and then move on to 45 more in social studies, where neither they nor their teachers try to form links between these seemingly disparate areas. Connections are vital to middle school kids, both socially and academically. A well-run middle school takes this into account and acts upon it with interdisciplinary instruction and homework.


DanF said...

I find that gifted underachievement is hard to root out even in adulthood. Internalized from an early age, it becomes a habit not only in refraining from trying but in passive-aggressive rebellion. I would suggest that peer support could be extremely helpful as children get older; because as hard as parents try, sometimes the only one who can show a perfectionist that it is okay not to be perfect is another perfectionist risking just as much.

Anonymous said...

nothing like a disability to throw a monkey wrench into the life of a young prefectionist gt child...coupled with a school system that says average is not enough to earn support for said disabilities. Fortunately he is recognized as gt, even in areas highly impacted by his disabilities and we're getting a little bit back on track. As a fourth grader our son's goal---to be funny. Now as a fifth grader it's--get a math scholarship or a sports scholarship.

dgm said...

My two favorite take-aways from this interview: 1) write your dreams in pencil; and 2) parents, don't impose your dreams for your child on your child. Instead, help them discover what their dreams are.

Michelle said...

I agree completely dgm. I like those two recommendations, and will start writing my own hopes and dreams in pencil as an expample to my kids.

The part that I am not so sure about is the characterization of gifted children as being sensitive and perfectionistic. My impression has been that gifted kids come in all kinds of character - am I mistaken?

redryder said...

Dr. Delisle would be the first to say that gifted kids come in many flavors. But, he will also tell you that there are some traits that can be often found as a commonality in GT individuals. Many exhibit sensitivity, intensity and perfectionism--all of different types or levels that can push a GT person to the n'th degree or stop him in his tracks if not addressed in a meaningful way.

My oldest son is a good example of this combination of traits. In some ways his intensity and sensitivity has served him well, but his perfectionism was keeping his dreams locked in a mind afraid to mis-step...."Write your dreams in pencil" was the best advice he ever received. He is now doing well in a college that is perfectly suited for his learning style and his need to delve deep and connect with other learners.
Life is good.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with Dr. Delisle's recommendation for ability groupin in middle schools. We have had to take our middle schooler out of his GT program for two years for a foreign assignment, and the lack of a peer group in his current school has been a huge detriment to his emotional health. He simply doesn't have much in common with most of the other kids and, in my opinion, is losing his edge due to the lack of interaction with kids who would enrich and challenge him, and provide validation of his interests and abilities.

Joan said...

I would agree with DeLisle's comments about perfectionism and redryder's remark that the trait "comes in many flavors." I have 3 gifted children, 2 boys and a girl in the middle, and they all have the perfectionistic trait, but all 3 manifest it differently.
Sometimes it makes it challenging to be their parent because something that would bother one child doesn't even faze another.
I also like the suggestion of putting your dreams in pencil, along with watching whether or not you're imposing your own adult expectations.
In retrospect, I suspect my parents, expecially my mom, did a lot of imposing of their definitions of what they felt was successful on I and my siblings. I think my brother was the most successful at ignoring their expectations. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out for me if I had been less willing to please their expectations. Not that they aren't pretty good; trust me, they're very good! Some days, I just wonder what different trails I might have taken.
Consequently, with my own children I've tried to leave my expectations out of it and encourage them to follow their passions. I've also tried to encourage my husband to do the same, even though it's a lot harder for him to do so. This is especially the case with our oldest who's a bit of a free spirit like DeLisle's son. While I know deep down that he'll be more than fine, if not great, it's encouraging to hear another parent say,'Hey, mine turned out fine.'