Recently, I met a six-year-old boy who told me everything I'd ever need to know about carnivorous plants. His eyes sparkled with curiosity and intensity as he excitedly shared his knowledge with dramatic flourishes and scientifically accurate vocabulary. Immediately, I knew this was a gifted child. I also sensed he was an intuitive child, as well. He positively sparkled with energy. What a delight!
Apparently, his school (in the Portland Public School District) doesn't see him quite the same way.
This bright boy's mother is tethered to her cell phone, waiting to answer the frequent calls from the school informing her that her son has been a nuisance and must be taken home. Sometimes it's for the rest of the day. Sometimes they just want her to show her face in the classroom door, which seems to help. Twice, it has meant suspension.
Was he fighting? Streaking? Packing a concealed weapon?
No. It was nothing like that.
The first suspension came after he got very frustrated with some work that wasn't perfect (which is typical for gifted kids) and had a huge meltdown. The teacher decided to handle it by calling in the school principal and counselor and taking the rest of the kids out to the playground. At that point, he lost control and threw paper and crayons off the table, knocked over some chairs, and threw pencils at the principal. Suspension.
Of course he blew up. If he's so afraid of failure that he'll throw a fit over not knowing how to write a word, then he's going to feel completely raw and exposed if he's singled out in that manner, with the counselor and the principal coming in and the class being taken outside to the playground. It's a natural stress response - fight or flight. His pattern is to fight. This was high, high stress for him: embarrassment, frustration, humiliation, ostracism, self-loathing, anger ... all of that and more. That's a lot for a little six-year-old to handle. He retreated to the reptilian part of his brain and protected himself in the only way he knew how. The teacher obviously did not possess the skills to diffuse the situation before it escalated and he got stuck in that stress response.
This was not the boy's fault. He's only six. He's gifted, bored, misunderstood by his teacher and principal, and very energetic, to top it all off. This environment wasn't working for him and no one was attempting to change the environment. They were just trying to change the boy. They were completely reactive. If they'd even made a sincere attempt to proactively respect his needs, he would have responded more positively, and the situation would have been averted.
The second suspension followed an overheard conversation with another boy who wanted to do something that the teacher had disallowed. This gifted boy posited that if their teacher died, then they could do whatever they wanted. He wasn't threatening to kill the teacher, and while this line of thinking might be somewhat morbid, it was simply an imaginative child exploring the ideas of freedom and power. The teacher sent him immediately to the office, and the principal, interpreting the story to mean that he was threatening the teacher, issued a TWO DAY suspension.
After picking him up from school and discussing the matter with him, his mother determined this suspension to be unreasonable. After all, he had recently explored the same line of thinking at home, imagining he could eat candy and watch movies all day if she died, and they had not given it a second thought. When his mother called and made her case to the school, the teacher admitted that she'd just had a really trying day and had no patience left, and the principal admitted to not having accurate information. They shortened it to a one day suspension.
What kind of message is this school sending to both this boy and his mother? The family is seeking counseling, assuming there is something terribly wrong with their child and their parenting. This gifted child is learning to see himself in a certain negative light that will influence all future school experiences. It's not okay for schools to do this to our children and families.
Why is he so frustrated at school? Well, for starters, he's bored out of his gourd. He's academically ready to tackle things far more complex than what is being offered, even though he seems to give up easily on some of the simpler tasks. This is typical of gifted children. If they can't do it perfectly the first time, there is huge frustration unless they have an understanding and patient person helping them learn to value their effort rather than the result. Gifted children (and intuitive children, for that matter) abhor repetitive and meaningless busy work. If it doesn't have depth and relevance for them, they will find other ways of entertaining themselves.
My suggestion: Training in gifted educationWith so many intuitive and gifted children in our schools nowadays, it is crucial to have teachers trained in gifted education. And this is NOT so they can learn how to do fun projects with the GATE kids in a separate room. It is so they can identify and understand gifted children and how their brains process information. So much talent and potential is being wasted because their frustrations are being mistaken as learning disabilities, attention problems, or behavior issues. When their needs are understood and met, in most cases these problems disappear.
Why does he feel so disempowered? An otherwise sweet and loving child who is fantasizing about the freedom he'd have if all of the authority figures in his life were to die is not psychotic. He is simply feeling disempowered. Intuitive children have enormous personal power, and if not given appropriate outlets to express that power, it can burst out in the form of behaviors that adults generally don't like. For an intuitive kindergartener, being made to sit still and quiet for long periods of time is just asking for some sort of inappropriate energetic burst. So is being expected to start or stop a particular kind of work at a particular time that feels arbitrary to the child, or doing work that seems irrelevant - in other words, most of the day in the life of a kindergartener these days.
My suggestion: More freedom, choice, and physical activityThis energy and power needs expression in positive ways, like more time to run and play freely and more choice in how they spend their time at school. Most public schools are not set up to meet those needs. Recesses are shorter and fewer. PE has been reduced or cut. Most of the children's work requires sitting. Days are chunked into small parcels of time so all of the required subjects can be crammed into each day, and those parcels are all determined by the teacher, or in some cases, the administration. Rarely are they decided by the students.
Outside of school, some positive outlets would be plenty of time for daydreaming and imaginative play, and lots of self-directed physical activity. Over-scheduling with sports and extracurricular activities will backfire because the scheduling will feel constrictive. One outside activity of their own choosing would be plenty, as long as it doesn't hog all their free time. Television should be avoided. This topic is a whole other post, but for now, just trust me on this. Brain imaging technology has proven that it really does, literally, rot the brain. Think of it this way: for a power-hungry child, how is passively sitting and watching a screen going to satisfy their need to express their power? Video games should also be avoided, but for the opposite reason. They give kids a false sense of too much power, which is very addictive for intuitive kids. Both modes of screen time are simply wasting an opportunity for them to be masters of their own world.
What is the alternative?Luckily, there are many alternative schools cropping up that beautifully meet the needs of intuitive and gifted kids. Any school that describes itself as a Reggio Emilia, constructivist, or Waldorf school is a great place for these kiddos! Waldorf schools are amazing and magical places of deep, well-rounded learning, but can be rather pricey. Many charter schools (which are free and part of the public school system) are incorporating the Reggio and constructivist philosophies into their charters. I won't go into the details of these school models in this post, but I strongly suggest you Google them to learn more. You'll fall in love! Of course, homeschooling is another great option offering plenty of freedom, self-direction, and empowerment if you're able to make that work in your family.
[Update July 1, 2010: I forgot to mention Montessori as another great alternative! (Thanks, Lisa!) The Montessori classroom is rich with engaging manipulatives that allow children to construct their own learning at their own pace and by their own choice. Again: empowerment, choice, individualization. Great stuff!]