I have been writing this post in my head for weeks, with my initial thoughts clustered around giftedness and anxiety. It was fueled by some recent interactions, and anecdotally backed by years of experience with gifted children, including my own two daughters. In the course of my research, I stumbled upon a video about Alexandra Valoras, a gifted teen who died by suicide—it sent shockwaves through me, as there were no warning signs signaling her emotional state. Not until the discovery of her journal writing that ran completely counter to the girl everyone knew, but it was too late. And then Ben Kimble, a local teen, died by suicide. Locally, he was the second THIS WEEK from the same high school. As parents, as teachers, as humans, we watch and read and we feel sadness, and we mourn the losses through our empathy and shared fears and stories and then…Life goes on—because life is relentless like that. We can say, “never forget”—but we do forget, because otherwise we’d be crippled by the loss of so many and crumble under the weight of the sadness.
Before we move on to the constant whirring of our every day, let us pause and ask ourselves an either/or: how do we contribute to the perpetuation or to the cessation of mental health problems among our young people? The “we” I refer to here are the parents and educators of gifted children—-this is not meant to be exclusive, insinuating that all children are not dealing with mental health issues (they are!); but only because my most recent educational experience is largely with the gifted population. I only feel as qualified as my experiences—as a parent and educator—allow me to be. Know that there is no blame in my heart as I write this—not in the slightest. None of us can control a person’s mental health—or their choices, for that matter. However, we can control the pieces we can, so that we are able to provide genuine acceptance, a sense of belonging, and connection for every person we encounter. I challenge you, in the spirit of being the best we can be for our children, to ask yourself some hard questions.
As parents, it is our job to get clear about our own “stuff”. When you have an introverted child and you are forcing play dates: who is that really for, you or the child? Were you left out in school, and working through your child to re-make your childhood? How are your issues with anxiety playing out for your child? Did you fail to meet what you feel should be your potential, and are working through your children to recapture it? Do your children hear you express your fears and concerns about the teacher, the school, extended family, the neighbors? Do you have a genuine network or person you can rely to share your thoughts with, or are you relying on your children because they have an advanced verbal ability that leads you to believe it’s appropriate to do so? Are you truly willing to take your kids to therapy? Do you think mental health issues are for someone else’s kids, but yours can tough their way out of any obstacles they face? Are you a safe place for you children to go if they need to talk? When a teacher approaches you with concerns, what’s your reaction? Is your child really over-scheduled because of her interests and desire—or because you are worried she won’t find her “thing” by the time she is ten? Do you authentically advocate for him or do you run interference for him, so he has no true sense of failure or authentic accomplishment?
As general education teachers, we need to get clear about our feelings about smart kids. Do they get on your nerves when they correct you in class? Are you frustrated when they finish before everyone else, and you are caught with nothing to do for them? Do you consider them “know-it-alls”, “bossy”, “suck-ups”? Do you think they need to be well-rounded and stop with the books so much? Are you resentful that you have to deal with them, on top of everything else you have to do? Do you resent intelligence, in general, because you had to work so hard in school yourself? Do you subscribe to the myth that because they are smart, they’ll be okay? Have you read anything at all on gifted children? Do you think you are genuinely differentiating, or do you know you’re not but don’t’ really care? Are you open to new learning in professional development opportunities on reaching high ability learners and/or mental health issues—or do you work on your grading and text your colleagues about what a waste of time it is? Do you know they can be extraordinarily sensitive and might actually be picking up on all of your non-verbal messages—or on the vibe you are sending out, despite your neatly packaged words?
As gifted instructional specialists, we need to get clear about our fears. Are you doing everything you can to advocate for the kids you teach? Is your classroom a haven that children feel emotionally safe and accepted, and know they can be fully who they are? Do you go to bat for your program, your kids, your parents when it might be politically incorrect to do so? Do you provide a balance of the academic rigor your kids need, coupled with the social-emotional components they don’t know they need, but often hunger for? Are you fully realizing the impact of your position as the first person in their educational lives who might “get” them for who they are? Are you working to educate the parents, who are often grown-up versions of the children we teach? Are you working to educate teachers and administrators to overcome the myths and stereotypes that stymie our children and our programming made for them?
As school administrators, we need to get clear about our integrity. When you say you are considering “every child” in your decisions, do you really mean “every”? When you say you have to look at the needs of the whole, rather than individuals, is that really a cop out for policies that are palatable to the majority? Is the demographic of your school represented in the make-up of your gifted programming? Have you looked at data regarding your building’s discipline and subgroups (gender, race, etc.,)—what do the numbers tell you? Do you have any background in gifted education, or do you assume you know enough to make decisions in areas of education about which you know little to nothing? Is there anyone on staff adequately trained to deal with kids who are gifted? What’s going on with your Twice Exceptional kiddos—how are they treated in your building? Have you looked at a bell curve and thought about the amount of personnel you have dedicated to the far left side over the far right side? When a mental health issue rears up in your building, do you get proactive about awareness and education or do you brush it under the rug? Are you proactive or reactive regarding mental health, or do you wait for a tragedy to address it? Does your school or district celebrate academic wins and trophies to the extent it celebrates athletic victories? Are there systems in place for introverts and those who find joy in reading over dodge ball?
These questions are not meant to be accusatory in the slightest, but to inspire thinking and reflection. They are motivated by my heart, experiences, and interactions—believe me, I have often fallen short in my own answers to some of these very questions. They are meant to be an inventory, a wake-up call, a call to action, a challenge to our collective status quo. Because kids are dying, and they see dying by suicide as an option for escaping the pain they are facing on a daily or regular basis. We are immersed in the lives of our and others’ children every day. Each one of us is a potential ear, heart, hug, safe place, and we need to honor our place in their world by doing the painstaking internal work that comes with it. We have to do better.
Gifted kids are different. Not really because they are smarter, but because they are wired differently and react to the world differently. Who they are and what they do are not the same—they can blur that sometimes, so we can’t. If you are unfamiliar with Dabrowski’s Overexcitablities (OEs), read up on them—understanding OEs gives insight into some behaviors that may seem over the top to you, and may allow you to deal with gifted “quirks” more compassionately. When it comes to mental health and gifted kids, sensitivity and intensity can definitely factor into the mix. It’s our job to know about them and how they can play out in our children (ours, others’, it’s all really the same). Most of the gifted kids (and adults) I have worked with feel things at a level and depth that is beyond the limitation of words. They can often see through us with the x-ray vision into the versions of ourselves we try to hide. Sometimes they are accurate; sometimes they cloud their perception with their asynchrony and come up with an unforeseen or unintended twist. But they can’t come to us if we are talking all the time, looking at our phones, or have all the answers already predetermined. We need to do our homework—read up and get real. We need to listen. We need to calm the hell down, put our personal issues and biases aside, and let them be who they are.