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(This topic has been moved ahead of the queue by popular demand)

What is an essential oil? Let’s start with what an essential oil is. An essential oil is an extract taken from the leaves, roots, stems or blossoms of a plant that is distilled into a concentrated form and sold in health food stores and by homeopaths, chiropractors, aromatherapists, wellness advocates, and others. The word “essential” refers to the extract being highly condensed. They are meant to be inhaled through a diffuser or applied to the skin. Often they are mixed into blends, such as doTerra’s product InTune Focus, which is marketed for “difficulty paying attention and staying on task.”

The two largest companies selling essential oils are Young Living and doTerra, and together they have over a billion dollars a year in annual sales. It’s big business. The essential oils market has boomed in the last 20 years as “wellness” and “natural” living have trended simultaneously with self-care through online sources and reduced trust in “traditional” medicine and governmental institutions. Young Living introduces a new product each year, with last year’s blend of pepper, spruce, and frankincense called: Fulfill Your Destiny. According to the company, it “encompasses the complex and beautiful journey that leads to achieving your goals and highest potential.” There’s a fascinating article in The New Yorker (October 9, 2017) called “Something in the Air”  about the big business of essential oils if you’re interested.

Surveys suggest that more than 50% of families of children with ADHD try some form of alternative medicine. Part of the appeal to parents of essential oils is that the products are supposedly “natural,” “safe,” and have been used for centuries.

Essential oils recommended for ADHD include: vetevier (an Indian grass), lavender oil, cedarwood, coconut oil, Roman chamomile, mandarin, ylang-ylang, rhodiola, helichrysum, rosemary, valerian, peppermint, and frankincense. It’s a long list, and the matching of any individual oil to a specific symptom it’s supposed to treat varies quite a bit by source.

Do they help? It’s hard to say, as there is very little research into whether, or how much, they may help. Many of the theories on mechanisms of action involve vague statements that would be extremely difficult if not impossible to test such as “balances the nervous system” and “stabilizes the energy field.” In some cases this is deliberate as the companies marketing the products try to avoid claims that could get them into trouble with the FDA.

Evidence from randomized clinical trials examining the efficacy of such oils in treating ADHD is sparse, to say the least. The few studies that do exist, whether yielding positive or negative results, tend to suffer from inadequate trial design (e.g. small sample size, short duration), incomplete reporting, and/or lack of an appropriate control group.(1) This doesn’t mean the oils don’t work – it just means we don’t have much scientific evidence either way.

Most of the “evidence” in support of essential oils for ADHD is anecdotal and comes from testimonials. “Testimonials” are personal accounts of someone’s experience. They are generally subjective: “My child was less hyperactive,” “He was calmer,” and so on. Testimonials are inherently selective. People are more likely to talk about an “amazing cure” than about something that didn’t work. Companies selling products are certainly more likely to quote positive testimonials. And for many people stories are more powerful and convincing than statistics published in hard-to-read and hard-to-find scientific journals.

Are the stories true? In all honesty, I don’t know. Maybe your child’s symptoms really were improved by inhaling vetevier. Or maybe you or your child thought they were.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in both traditional and alternative medicine. A person’s expectations when they ingest a medicine can have an influence on its real effectiveness. A study published in the Journal of Essential Oil Therapy in 2007 with Spanish sage oil separated participants for a memory task into a group told that the oil would impair their memory and a group told it would have a positive influence. The positive expectancy group did better and the negative expectancy group did worse than a control group who ingested the oil but were told nothing of its potential impact. We want things to work, so sometimes they do. As long as they work, though, that’s great – right? I’d say yes – if they’re not harmful in any way.

Are they safe? Maybe. Maybe not. Similar to prescription drugs, essential oils and blends contain biologically active compounds that can elicit pharmokinetic and pharmodynamic responses. There’s real medicine in there! Once consumed such substances are absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and eliminated by the body, often inhibiting or inducing metabolic enzymes or transporters. While composed of natural substances like leaves or roots, “natural” does not equate to “safe.” Approximately 50% of the drugs used in mainstream medicine were originally developed from “natural” substances. Remember the discovery of penicillin from mold?

Because essential oils are not regulated for quality control, the chemistry, potency, purity, and safety of any given oil is largely unknown and can vary from one product to the next. Differences in plant chemistry caused by weather or pesticides, as well as harvesting, storage, manufacturing and formulation processes introduce variability. Variability can influence responses and health.

From the government’s perspective, if a product is intended for a therapeutic use, such as treating or preventing disease, it’s considered a drug. The fact that an essential oil comes from a plant doesn’t keep it from being regulated as a drug. Under the law, drugs must meet requirements such as FDA approval for safety and effectiveness before they go on the market. The FDA determines a product’s intended use based on factors such as claims made in the labeling, on websites, and in advertising, as well as what consumers expect it to do. So, when the marketing of an essential oil for ADHD steps over a line and makes drug-like claims, the FDA may step in. In 2014 they warned an online company selling valerian for ADHD that it was in violation of interstate commerce laws for selling products that “in light of their toxicity or other potentiality for harmful effect, the method of their use, or the collateral measures necessary to their use, are not safe for use except under the supervision of a practitioner licensed by law to administer them.”(2) The same year they scolded doTerra and Young Living for their claims about treating ADHD. So the companies changed their marketing literature to downplay promises made.

Why aren’t there more studies? Most plants and raw botanicals can’t be patented, so why should a company spend money proving they’re effective? Any negative results could harm future sales. The big companies involved in this booming market are making a lot of money as things stand. Why rock the boat?

What about scientists doing research in the academic realm? Research with essential oils is hard to do because patients can’t be blinded to the odors. But probably the main reason there hasn’t been more scientific research is that obtaining funding for research from governmental agencies for “alternative medicines” is a challenge. I wish this were different.

What should a parent do? Proceed cautiously. There’s very little scientific support for positive effects of essential oils in the treatment of ADHD. Evidence of the safety of essential oils with children is also scarce. Essential oils contain potentially powerful substances that may help, but they may hurt. We just don’t have enough information to know.

(1) Complementary and Alternative Medicine use in Pediatric Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Reviewing the Safety and efficacy of Herbal Medicines by Hajrah Mazhar, Emrson Harkin, Brian Foster, Cory Harris in Curr Dev Disorders Rep (2016) 3:15-24.

(2) https://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/2014/ucm418714.htm.

 

I was asked to write an article for the December, 2017 issue of the 2e Twice Exceptional Newsletter, a bi-monthly subscription ($35/year) online newsletter for “those who raise, educate, and counsel high-ability (gifted) children who also have learning challenges.” It’s a wonderful publication and one I recommend for everyone who lives and breathes 2e. As the focus of the December issue was on relationships, they asked me to write about the importance of the student/teacher relationship, and what might be done to try to facilitate the development of positive ones. My article, in full, can be found here: 2E Newsletter Student Teacher Relationship Article.

But let me summarize a few key points as we head into a new semester.

Positive student-teacher relationships are important to virtually all students. But they are especially important for students who are “at risk.” And twice exceptional learners are at risk for underachievement, boredom, bullying, anxiety, depression, social disconnectedness, being misunderstood, and are prone to daily frustration. A good school year can be “made” by a relationship with a teacher who appears to like and bond with the student. A bad year can be “made” by a teacher who doesn’t. Strong student-teacher relationships can increase student motivation, grades, social outcomes, and emotional well-being at every stage in the student’s development, from early elementary school through college and graduate school. Clearly, they’re important.

Here are some things parents and students can each do to try to facilitate them.

Steps Parents can Take:

• Teach your child to be his or her own advocate. For obvious reasons (power differential, age difference) parents often need to take on the role of advocate for their child in school. However to the extent that the student can advocate for his or herself, it can be particularly effective. Teachers tend to be more open to requests and concerns expressed by students (and can be somewhat wary or skeptical of what they perceive as “helicopter” parenting).

• Teach your child social skills helpful in developing sound relationships with all people, including teachers (e.g., listening, turn-taking, conversational give-and-take, respect, complimenting others).

• Ask for a meeting to provide a “heads up” about your child. Explain their strengths and weaknesses, susceptibilities and personality. Ask for help addressing both exceptionalities – your child’s strengths and areas of weakness.

• Check in on a regular (but not excessive) basis to see how things are going and ask what you can do on your end to  help. Perhaps you can reinforce desired behaviors at home (e.g., waiting before blurting out an answer).

• Be a squeaky wheel – but a polite one. The squeaky wheel often does “get the grease.” Don’t hesitate to be direct about asking the teacher to meet your child’s needs. Stay on top of what’s going on in the classroom. But try to be polite and collaborative. A teacher may make more of an effort for a family they like.

• If things go wrong – your child comes home in tears or the teacher sends home behavioral warnings on a daily basis – it’s time to take action. Ask for a meeting with the teacher first. Go with an open mind. Listen, take notes. Patiently explain what you think may be happening from your child’s perspective. Try not to be too defensive. Suggest strategies that may be effective. If things don’t improve, then enlist the help of the principal, school psychologist, or an outside consultant.

Steps Students can Take:

• The more mature student can work deliberately on personal and advocacy skills conducive to developing good student-teacher relations, but even young children can learn helpful strategies.

• Make efforts to establish a personal relationship with your teacher. Ask if you can meet one-on-one so you can get to know each another. Talk about your needs. Stay after class to chat for a few minutes. Go to office hours. Share your interests and successes outside of school with your teacher. The better your teacher knows you and understands the person you are and the person you want to be, the more likely and better able he or she will be to help you toward your goals.

• Show appreciation by thanking your teacher for a lesson you enjoyed, for their feedback on a paper you wrote, or for the way they made a topic come alive for you. Positive feedback makes people feel warmly toward the person giving it.

• Show respect. Be polite. Try to listen and not talk to peers when the teacher is talking. Say “please” and “thank you.” If you feel that instruction is pointless or boring, explain this privately to the teacher rather than as an aside to your classmates.

• Ask for and accept help. Let your teacher know when you don’t understand something. Or when you already know the material and need something different or more advanced.

• Try to be patient, but also (politely) persistent in asking for the additional help, clarification or any accommodation you may need.

A good relationship with even one caring teacher can literally change a student’s life. We shouldn’t rely on chance and hope that such a relationship will develop spontaneously, but rather can try to set the stage and take proactive steps to try to help it happen.

There’s a big gap between how ADHD should be diagnosed and treated and what too often happens in the real world. Far better outcomes would occur if we avoided these pitfalls and did it right. Here’s what I see as the five mistakes that are often made:

1. Cursory evaluation. While it’s tempting to just examine whether the child has ADHD, often there are complicating factors arguing in favor of a comprehensive evaluation. The child might be inattentive because he or she is gifted, has dyslexia, is depressed, has a growth disorder, or a multitude of other factors. If these alternatives remain unexamined we may never know if the child actually does have ADHD, or whether another problem is the real cause of their symptoms. Even if the child does have ADHD a failure to identify commonly accompanying conditions leaves those challenges unaddressed. Comorbidity is the coexistence of physical or psychological challenges. ADHD and dyslexia are comorbid in 25 to 40% of cases, ADHD and depression in 20% to 30%, and ADHD and anxiety in more than 25% of cases. For autism, comorbidity rates with ADHD range from 37% to 85%. So I’m a big advocate of comprehensive evaluation.

Even when an evaluation focuses solely on whether the child has ADHD, it is often too limited in scope. I see this most often when a general pediatrician who has not received much training in ADHD bases a diagnosis entirely on two 10-minute forms: one filled out by a parent and one by a teacher. A lot of children are put on ADHD medications based on just this sort of brief evaluation. A proper ADHD evaluation should include at least: a thorough developmental history; parallel behavior rating scales filled out by multiple reporters at home, school, and self-report; neuropsychological tests of attention performed in an office; observations of parent-child interaction and child behavior; and – optimally – classroom observations.

2. Willing the results to go one way or another. Since a good chunk of the information contributing to an ADHD diagnosis comes from parent and teacher reports of behaviors they feel they observe, bias and perspective can come into play. Often I see teacher reports weighing strongly in favor of a diagnosis and parent reports suggesting there is no problem whatsoever. Or the opposite. Or a father who sees no symptoms and a mother who sees many. As beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is ADHD. A highly structured teacher who values control and compliance may be more likely to see a child’s behaviors as indicative of ADHD than a permissive, creative teacher who values spontaneity. Sometimes parents or teachers are eager for a “quick fix” in the form of a “magic pill.” Sometimes teens or young adults want an ADHD diagnosis to get their hands on a pill they feel may give them a leg up in the competition for good grades and college admissions. Sometimes parents are reluctant to have their child given a potentially stigmatizing diagnosis. A good evaluator needs to see beyond these motivations.

3. Pursuing treatments that have no (or very little) scientific evidence to support their effectiveness. I can’t begin to tell you how often well-meaning parents are drawn to alternative, untested therapies that have little or no scientific evidence of effectiveness. These include neurofeedback, CogMed, acupuncture, special diets, fish oil, and the like. I understand why parents do this. They are hoping for a solution that avoids medication. But the majority of these approaches are not evidence-based (there is no scientific evidence to suggest that they actually do any good). Most will do no harm, but a lot of time and money can be wasted. The “evidence” that does exist supporting many of these approaches is purely anecdotal and there may be a placebo effect at play. I don’t work for the pharmacology industry and I have no vested interest in reporting that the scientific evidence, over 75 years of research, indicates that stimulant medication is effective at improving concentration and reducing impulsivity and lack of control in 80% of individuals with ADHD.

4. Not taking the time to carefully trial type and dosage of medication. When a family decides to try medication, too often the prescribing doctor doesn’t take the time to carefully trial the different types of medication available and find the best dosage for that particular child. It’s not a “one size fits all” science, and there is no way to predict in advance which medication and what dosage will work best. Sometimes a 160 pound teenager needs less than a 6-year old. Sometimes an amphetamine like Adderall is better than a methylphenidate like Ritalin. Sometimes short-acting formulations are better than long-lasting. What should happen is a careful trial of several different dosage levels and different medications with feedback from parents, teachers, and the child on effectiveness. Far too many clinicians fail to take the time to do this. Even when an optimal medication is found, it’s important to continue with regular, ongoing evaluations of its effects and monitor changes over time.

5. Failing to also implement behavioral interventions. While medication certainly can help it can’t solve everything. A child with ADHD usually doesn’t have the same kinds of intrinsic motivation for task completion and performance as others. Regular, consistently delivered rewards (and punishments) may be needed in the classroom and at home to optimize performance. Clinically-administered behavioral therapy and/or social skills training may be needed. For older children cognitive behavioral therapy can have real benefits. Parent training can be very helpful for learning how best to manage the child’s behavior.

I urge my clients to take the time to do it right. Get a good evaluation, try to be impartial about the results, be scientific about the treatments you pursue, and realize that a pill can’t fix everything.

And in the midst of all this please don’t forget to focus on your child’s strengths (see my blog titled  Top 10 ADHD Superpowers).

The nature/nurture debate has been going on for centuries. Is it our genes (nature) that predict success? Or is it the environment (nurture)? In the past 20 years this topic has evolved into the innate ability/natural talent vs. practice/effort debate. One side argues that success is all about innate ability and natural talent, while the other argues that it’s all about how hard one is willing to work. In the early and mid-1900’s as researchers studied intelligence and developed tests to measure it, it was generally believed that one’s “natural endowments” predicted success. In the 1950’s and ’60’s the cold war space race was a boon for gifted education, as national polices were implemented in an effort to identify and educate the “best and the brightest.”

The pendulum swung hard from ability toward practice and effort in the 1980’s and 90’s. In a politically correct world, the practice/effort argument was appealing because it posits that anyone can achieve success if they are willing to work hard (and the right environmental factors are supplied). In 1993 Dr. Anders Ericsson published a paper arguing that training and deliberate practice could explain performance differences that had been previously ascribed to innate talent. Studying expert performance in sports, music, mathematics, and other areas he found that so-called innate ability was unnecessary to predict who would become most successful. The single greatest predictor of success was hours devoted to the activity. The more someone practiced, the better they were. It’s a provocative argument, and one that Ericsson still espouses over two decades later. If it’s true, anyone with any ability profile can follow their dreams and, with enough effort, reach them. Ericson did add one caveat: when it comes to athletics, height and body size do make a difference. Along the same line, in the book Talent is Overrated (2008), George Colvin argued that investing the right type of practice on a focused pursuit is far more important than natural ability in predicting performance. In 2011 Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000 hour rule” in Outliers, attributing the success of the Beatles and Bill Gates almost entirely to intensive practice. 10,000 hours of practice was identified as the threshold level required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.

If this is true – that success is all about practice and effort, and that anyone can achieve anything they set their heart to – does giftedness as a construct even matter?

Recently, the pendulum has swung the other way – toward innate ability. In a 2014 meta-analysis, a study analyzing the results of 90 other studies carried out across disciplines ranging from sports to the arts to academia, authors Hambrick, et. al. reported: “More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.” In  2017 authors Wai & Rindermann studied what factors contributed to high educational and occupational achievement by examining a sample of 11,745 high achievers across disciplines. They found that about 50% of these super successful individuals were in the top 1% in terms intellectual ability (in other words, they were gifted).

I agree that innate ability is important, and I don’t think all the practice in the world can take someone who has poor native ability to a level of super high achievement in most areas. But I also feel that innate ability alone is rarely enough.

What does it take to turn giftedness into success – for gifted children to become high achievers?  Giftedness is a raw ability. In his “Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent” Robert M. Gagné made an important distinction between natural abilities or giftedness and talents. He defined giftedness as: “the possession and use of untrained and spontaneously expressed natural abilities in at least one ability domain, to a degree placing that student in the top 10% of age peers.” Talent, on the other hand, implies “the superior mastery of systematically developed abilities (or expert skills) and knowledge in at least one field of human activity to a degree that places a student in the top 10% of peers in that field.” This is an important distinction because the terms “gifted” and “talented” are often used synonymously. Gagné differentiates between giftedness as raw capacity and talent as a developed ability. Talents progressively emerge from the transformation of high aptitudes into the well-trained and systematically developed skills characteristic of a particular field of human activity or performance.

Thus, a young child might be described as gifted to highlight that they have exceptional abilities and, when they have favorably developed these abilities may be described as gifted and talented. While such a child will always (barring exceptional mishap) remain gifted, only when a high level of performance has been attained can they also be described as talented. This alludes to the common phenomenon of gifted underachievement, and points us in the direction of beginning to understand and therefore remedy this.

Gagné’s model  illustrates the process and factors influencing whether a child’s giftedness will develop into a talent. Chance is a significant factor, but so are the environment and intrapersonal catalysts. Environmental influences include culture and family, teachers, peers, and the provision of programs and services. Intrapersonal catalysts include health, motivation, concentration, and temperament. Efforts can be made to facilitate the development of gifts into talents through a developmental process encompassing informal and formal learning and practice, enriched curriculum and training, a goal of challenging excellence, systemic and regular practice, regular and objective assessment of progress, and personalized accelerated pacing. Sounds like a great gifted education program to me!

So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this blog: giftedness does matter. I feel that in many domains, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition to predict high achievement. The development of gifts into talents is a process impacted by environmental, intrapersonal, and chance factors.

Let me add a caveat of my own that the discussion above focuses solely on the outcomes of “success,” “high achievement” and  “talent.” I believe it is quite possible for a gifted person to eschew such outward measures of achievement, and perhaps not contribute their talents to society at large in any measurable way, but to still be a happy and fulfilled person in part because of their giftedness. Giftedness can provide the individual with a rich inner life entirely separate from societal measures of success.

Ever since my mind-blowing trip to the Galapagos last January I’ve been thinking about evolution, the environment, and organism-environment interaction. Each island in the Galapagos has a slightly different environment, and the islands as a whole are very different from the Ecuadorean mainland. The animals who ended up flourishing on the islands adapted to their environment. Or they moved on.

I’m a psychologist, not an ecologist. The world I concern myself with is that of children and their development. But it occurs to me that we often don’t spend enough time thinking about that from an ecological perspective. An organism is an individual living animal, plant, or single-celled life form. A child is an “organism.” An environment is the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal or plant lives or operates. School is an “environment.” The child and their school are part of an ecosystem, and they have important impacts on one another.

When something is not working well in the child-school ecosystem we often focus on what’s “wrong” with the child and why they don’t “fit in.” We sometimes pathologize the child’s behavior and diagnose ADHD, a learning disability, autism, or a behavioral disorder. The diagnosis may fit, but I often wonder whether the same child would be diagnosed with the same disability if they were in an environment better suited to them as an individual. Would the twice exceptional student who blurts out answers and won’t do what the teacher tells him to do be diagnosed with ADHD in a school where he could control his own pace of learning? Perhaps a move to a different environment would allow that particular organism – that child – to flourish.

I know that we often feel stuck with the school our child attends. We may have moved to a public school district specifically for the highly ranked schools. We may have gone through an onerous private school admission process to get a spot for our child at what we thought would be the best possible school. But sometimes it just isn’t working out and attention should be paid to not just the child and what might be “wrong” with him or her, but also to the environment and what might be “wrong” with it – for that child. The school your child attends may be perfectly fine for some children and even optimal for others. But it may not be the best fit for your child.

Many of us may have had the experience (I know I have) of spending our political capital in the principal’s office requesting a specific teacher because we heard from other parents how wonderful he or she was, only to discover that the teacher we begged for wasn’t so great for our child. Or discovering that although our daughter thrived at XYZ school, our son doesn’t. I don’t think one can always generalize and describe a school as a “good school” or a “bad school,” or a teacher as a “good teacher” or a “bad teacher.” Good for who? Bad for who?

Our children – the gifted, twice-exceptional, learning disabled, differently wired – are unique. They are organisms that need specific kinds of nutrients and environments in which to thrive. If your child isn’t developing optimally, it might be time to consider a change of environment. Optimal development happens when the organism/environment interaction promotes growth.

I realize that changing schools may not be convenient and can involve risks. But it might be among the best things you ever do for your child. I know parents who have made the sacrifice of moving to another state so their child could attend a better-fit school. And heroes who take on homeschooling. These parents have made bold decisions to try to find or create the best environment for their child to thrive.

When my son was 11 he begged me to not send him back to the school he had been attending. This was after spending the summer at two Johns Hopkins CTY camps (let this be a warning: it can be dangerous to let your child experience the joy of an optimal learning environment). We took him seriously, lost our deposit at his old school, and had to scramble to find a new school for him to attend. We ended up finding a small, funky, ‘”unschool” for gifted kids where I’m not sure he learned much, but he was happy. We call this his “first gap year.” He went on to do well at a wonderful middle school, high school, and the college of his choice. To this day he credits the finding of his academic and social “sea legs” to the “gap year” he had in the 6th grade. And he thanks us for listening to him.

I feel badly he had to ask.

Plato employed the maxim “know thyself” (“gnôthi sauton,“ translated as “come to know thyself” or “learn to know thyself”) in his dialogues at The Academy. He taught that knowing one’s self is a necessary first step in the pursuit of happiness. He believed that only when we truly know who and what we are can we pursue our true nature to happiness and fulfillment.

I’ve coined the term “Plato Parenting” based on this maxim. The idea is that parents can help their children discover, explore, and develop their true interests and nature to discover who they are.

But would this be helicopter parenting? Parents considering an active role in helping their children develop their interests may wonder whether this would constitute “pushing” (like a tiger mother) or “hovering” (like a helicopter parent). They may not know where they should fall on the spectrum from being more involved in the management of their children’s lives to less involved. It’s clear from an examination of the research literature that the most effective parents are those who are involved and responsive to their child and are authoritative and have high expectations. Parents who are disengaged and uninvolved are less effective. Parents who have low expectations and are permissive and indulgent are less effective. We’ve all seen this in action at the grocery store when a toddler throws a tantrum over candy, and a parent immediately gives in. And having low expectations tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most effective parents, when the goal is producing a happy, productive adult, are nurturing and responsive, yet they are also authoritative and have high expectations.

What do I mean by “authoritative” and “high expectations?” Some people confuse the terms authoritative and authoritarian. Authoritarian parents demand a sort of blind obedience from their children. That’s not good. Authoritative parents take a more moderate approach that emphasizes setting high standards and expectations, being nurturing and responsive, and showing respect for their children as independent, rational beings. High standards and expectations include instilling a strong work ethic, encouraging the productive use of time, and encouraging dedication to doing one’s best. Not all children are born with strong motivation, work ethic, and the knowledge of how to use their time productively to accomplish goals. Many if not most need to be taught these habits. Not only are children who are taught these skills more likely to be successful, but they’re also happier. Children, like adults, are happiest when they’re engaged in something they find interesting that provides opportunities for growth. In other words, when they’re pursuing their interests. They’re not happiest when they’re “hanging out” or wiling away the hours playing a video game because they can’t think of anything better to do. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that pursuing one’s genuine interests toward a goal is highly correlated with happiness, as well as other positive traits such as increased concentration, self-esteem, and performance.

Don’t push your own interests on your child. When embarking on a program of helping your child identify and pursue his or her true interests, be careful not to fall into a trap of trying to influence your child to pursue what you are interested in. Carl Jung said: “Nothing has a stronger influence … on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” Often, when parents try to “craft” the perfect life for their child it bears an uncanny resemblance to the one they wish they’d had. We need to accept our child for who he or she is. If we don’t, and instead try to mold them into what we think they should be, one of two things will happen. Either they will accept our dreams and fail to develop their own, or they will rebel. Neither allows them to develop into their own true self, since one path involves blind acceptance and the other a rejection of the parent’s point of view. A psychiatrist I know in Palo Alto has a practice dominated by high-achieving Stanford grads who did everything they thought their parents wanted them to, realizing their parent’s dreams. But now – in their late 20’s and 30’s –  they’re unhappy and confused about what they want out of life.

So, how do you go about helping your child pursue his or her genuine interests? First, you need to identify them. Some children are “born” with strong interests, while others don’t seem to have any especially strong ones. I advise parents of young children to expose them to a wide variety of things – art, music, sports, theater, games, and academic disciplines. This should be done deliberately and methodically. Rather than taking your child on the same kinds of outings over and over, plan “field trips” to varied destinations. These can include museums, concerts, farms, zoos, animal rescue centers, hikes, bike rides, birding, the beach, Chinatown, Little Italy, historical sites, factory tours, a stock exchange, art galleries, a courtroom, science fairs, a geography bee, and fruit-picking. Read  books about a variety of topics. Talk about current events. Travel. Watch documentaries. Expand their horizons.

Observe your child’s reactions and reflect on them. Make note when your child seems intrigued by something. Think about why they are drawn to it, and consider what that might mean. If your child loves Legos, perhaps architecture or engineering would interest them. If your child loves playing outdoors, consider environmental studies. Try to keep an open mind and not be judgmental. Even activities that may seem unproductive can provide clues to worthwhile passions and future careers. The child who seems bossy and unyielding when playing with friends may crave leadership opportunities. The child who is on the phone chatting with friends about their problems all day may be drawn to psychology or counseling. When my daughter was young she loved to tell stories. As a teen she loved social media. Of course that worried me a bit. But now she’s an online news journalist. After exposing your child to a wide variety of things, as they near middle and high school, try to guide them toward selecting 2-4 interests to pursue more intensively to avoid the “jack of all trades, master of none” phenomenon.

Get involved and be proactive. Once you’ve identified your child’s interests the next step is to facilitate their pursuit. This is where being an involved parent comes into play. And having high expectations. Dedicate yourself to taking your child’s goals seriously and facilitating his or her achievements by bringing their goals within reach. Don’t just buy your child a trumpet. Find the best music instructors you can afford, structure time in the day for practice, sit with your child when they practice, and take them to concerts. It’s ok to actively help your child find opportunities. I know a parent who helped her marine biology obsessed child find a volunteer research internship at age 12 which led to her being co-author on a scientific paper at age 16.

What if my child doesn’t find a career out of this? It doesn’t matter. The young marine biologist who published at 16 went into an entirely different field. But she learned some very important things along the way. She learned how fulfilling it is to delve deeply into an interest, that one needs to work hard to accomplish something significant, that she could do practically anything she put her mind to, and that she didn’t actually want to be a research scientist!

By adopting “Plato Parenting” as a philosophy you can help your children develop into the happy, productive young adults they are meant to be. What better gift can you give your child than that?

Brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

As adults we respect and admire the accomplishments of renegades and creative minds like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Nikolai Tesla, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Vincent van Gogh, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg, and Robin Williams. They’re the inventors, imaginers, healers, explorers, creators, and inspirers who change the world. Without minds like theirs society would not move forward. We need them more than ever today.

But these very same individuals, as children, were the kinds of student teachers found most difficult, parents worried about and lost sleep over, and whose peers scorned or bullied them. Why? For the very same qualities that made them so successful as adults. Being different, rebelling against the status quo, refusing (or being constitutionally unable) to fit in, breaking or questioning the rules.

Most parents want their children to be happy, make friends, and do well in school and extracurricular activities like sports and music. Down the road they want them to get into a good college and launch a career that supports them and provides job satisfaction. Get married, have a family. Maybe they will even make a meaningful contribution to society.

But what many parents don’t realize or lose sight of in the trenches of elementary, middle, and high school is that for some children – especially twice-exceptional and gifted children – being “successful” in traditional ways as a child is not necessarily a good predictor of being successful as an adult.

I was guilty of this kind of myopic thinking as a parent myself, before an encounter made me rethink my values. My children were happy and had friends before formal schooling began, but once they started Kindergarten things began to go downhill. Teachers sent home notices about their behavior (inattentive, questioned authority, lacking focus, failed to complete assignments, etc.). Grades were spotty. Playdate invitations were less frequent than they would have liked. Uninterested in and not very good at organized sports, they were basically off the grid in terms of the kinds of extracurricular interests their peers were engaging in. The things they did like to do – building and taking things apart for my son and imagination and telling stories for my daughter – weren’t easily shared with peers and certainly didn’t give them any attention in the community. They were diagnosed with giftedness, learning disabilities, and ADHD, and I spent countless nights lying awake in bed worrying about their futures.

My “awakening” happened after an elementary school band concert when my then 4th grade daughter was called to the stage to play a clarinet solo she’d practiced for weeks in front of about 200 people. She stood there for a full minute rifling through her music and then said: “I’m afraid I forgot my sheet music for the piece I was supposed to play. So I think it’s appropriate under the circumstances to play “If I Only Had a Brain” by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.” I’m embarrassed to say now that I was mortified. I had hoped she’d play her piece brilliantly, reflecting glory on me as her proud parent. After the concert a man in front of me turned around and complimented her performance. I said, “Thank you – you’re too kind. It would have been nice if she had done the piece she practiced.” He responded: “You should be proud to have a daughter who can think on her feet, improvise, and deal creatively and with humor with the cards she’s been dealt. That’s much more important in the long run.” His words brought me up short.

I thought about it a lot. I realized I had wanted my child to excel in ways others in our community would judge to be impressive. How shallow of me! I had also been trying to shape her into some image in my mind of the “perfect” child. Top student, accomplished musician, popular, athletic. My own (questionable) values had gotten in the way of my appreciating my daughter for who she was and seeing the unique strengths she did possess. Inventive. Confident. Creative. Funny. Smart.

This was about the same time I went back to school for a PhD, so I was able to study motivation and achievement from a developmental perspective. I learned that the many of the attributes it takes to be a “successful” young student (compliance, diligence, eagerness to please, ability to memorize) are quite different from those required to be a successful older student and adult (challenging the status quo, intrinsic motivation, pursuit of one’s own interests, open-mindedness, a questioning mind). I also learned that individuals who pursue their genuine interests – and don’t let themselves be influenced by what everyone else is doing – are more successful as adults. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on the joy of experiencing “flow” and how flow is also associated with achievement were particularly inspiring. I learned that popularity through high school is negatively correlated with achievement in most fields for girls. And, as students move through school the demands shift from more lower-level tasks like memorization of math facts and tidy handwriting to higher-level tasks like reading complex text and understanding it. Thomas West’s ground-breaking book In the Mind’s Eye (1997) about creativity in visual thinkers was the first to get me thinking about the possibility that even having a “disability” could confer certain advantages. Now I’m a firm believer that being wired differently can enable certain “superpowers” that most people can’t tap into in the same way.

Children who are “different” have enormous potential. As parents, we should try to keep the long-view in sight. Applaud and develop our children’s individuality. Encourage their pursuit of unusual interests and passions. Let them know we value them the way they are, and don’t want them to try to be like everyone else. It may take courage, but the results are worth it. Our misfits, rebels, trouble-makers, and square pegs in round holes may be the ones who change the world.

Does your bright child, despite all she has going for her, seem anxious or depressed or both? Do you lay awake at night worrying about her? Is she acting up or turning inward? What happened to the happy childhood you dreamed of for your child?

Being twice-exceptional often carries a strong emotional burden – for both child and parent.

Chloe was a happy, creative, outgoing, fun, little girl as a toddler and through preschool. She was fascinated by nature and science, highly verbal, organized gangs of children to play parts in elaborate role-playing games she created, and was so well-liked that every child thought she was their best friend. True – she was highly sensitive, a bit too energetic, and demanded a lot of attention. But, a phrase her parents chose to describe Chloe at age five was: “a child who sees the glass as neither half-full nor full, but rather as brimming over.” A true optimist with a rosy outlook on life.

Things began to change in first grade. Her teachers noticed she wasn’t learning to read as fast as the other children. She had trouble sitting still in class. Math facts went in one ear and out the other. Because she was so sensitive, Chloe grew hyperaware of these deficiencies. By the time her parents took her for a neuropsych assessment at age 7 she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in addition to dyslexia, ADHD, and giftedness. She was placed in special ed. She grew withdrawn and depressed.

Eventually, as Chloe’s challenges were addressed and her strengths reinforced in ways appropriate for a twice-exceptional learner, there were times when she could be described as happy. Especially over the summers when she could pursue her interests at gifted and other summer programs. But so many forces worked against her during the school year that she ended up in therapy and ultimately on antidepressant and anti-anxiety meds by high school.

An interesting question to ask is how much of this anxiety and depression was caused by her twice-exceptionality, and how much would have existed anyway. She might have had a genetic predisposition that would have pushed her that direction regardless of her struggles. But one thing we do know about genetic predispositions is that they must interact with factors or triggers in the environment to be expressed. Being just gifted or just having ADHD or just having dyslexia might have been enough to trigger the expression of a genetic predisposition. However being twice exceptional adds an extra burden that may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for Chloe. Students who are twice exceptional often hold themselves to high performance expectations, fear failing to meet them, and develop low self-esteem (SENG article).

What are 5 things parents can do to support their anxious or depressed twice-exceptional child?

  1. Understand what your child is dealing with in all areas of exceptionality – the gifted/strengths side and the disability/weaknesses side. This may necessitate a neuropsych assessment. Share understanding with your child in age-appropriate terms. Let your child know they are really smart, they just have a few areas of challenge that need to be worked with. Knowing when your child can’t do something as opposed to won’t may help you to be more supportive at homework and report card time.
  2. Address areas of challenge. Try to fix what you can (the brain can be rewired to a certain extent), remediate learning challenges, let your child learn the way he/she learns best (e.g. viewing videos or listening to read-alouds), find tutors, seek support at school, consider homeschooling, find work-arounds to problems as they crop up (e.g. sitting on a bouncing ball if fidgety while doing homework). Ignoring challenges in the hope they will go away is rarely an effective strategy.
  3. Reinforce strengths and interests. This should probably be listed as the number one most important step to take, and is too often overlooked. Chloe wasn’t anxious when she could pursue what she was interested in and was good at. It was only constantly being required to do things she wasn’t good at in school that created stress and self-doubt. Encourage your twice exceptional child in the pursuit of his or her genuine interests and they will develop a protective core of self-confidence.
  4. Learn about anxiety and depression, especially in twice-exceptional learners. There are many excellent articles about anxiety and depression in twice-exceptional and gifted students on the Hoagies, Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) and Association for the Education of Gifted Underachieving Students (AEGUS) websites.
  5. Take care of yourself. Parenting a twice-exceptional child is exhausting, frustrating, and can feel like a full-time job. Take breaks, take vacations, get therapy for yourself, do some marriage counseling if you and your spouse are not on the same page, meditate, exercise, take a class in something you enjoy. If you feel guilty doing things for yourself, know that a depressed and anxious parent is a risk factor contributing further to anxiety and depression in the children they parent.

And remember that the biggest predictor of success in a child with an exceptionality like Chloe is a parent who believes in them – who stands by them and picks them up when they fall. That’s really what parenting is all about anyway, isn’t it?

Back in the last century and through the early 1900’s researchers operated under the assumption that intelligence was a uni-dimensional construct. You were either smart, or you weren’t. And how smart you were could be measured with one test resulting in one number: IQ.

In the 1970’s a shift began away from the IQ construct. Gardener argued in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences that there were up to ten kinds of ability: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and moral. Sternberg proposed practical, creative, and analytical intelligences. Daniel Goleman popularized the notion of emotional intelligence, or EQ. While these theories add considerably to our understanding of broader abilities and what it takes to be a happy and successful person, I’d like to focus in this blog on the kinds of mental abilities required to reason, solve problems, think abstractly, and comprehend complex ideas. What I’d call “intellectual abilities.”

Research has advanced to the point where we probably know more about the underlying cognitive and brain processes involved in mental abilities and intelligence than any other complex psychological construct. Click here for more information on this concept. The consensus is that the most useful and descriptive model of intelligences is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) Model. This model has become so prevalent that nearly all modern IQ tests have been changed to incorporate the theory as their foundation.

I find the CHC model to be a very useful framework for understanding individual student’s ability profiles and how they impact learning –how they are intelligent.

The CHC model identifies over 80 different cognitive abilities. About 30-40 of these are important in school learning and achievement. The others, like “musical discrimination and judgment,” aren’t as directly related to academic achievement.

It is a fact that most of us have uneven profiles of strengths and weaknesses across these 30-40 abilities. Let me illustrate the concept. But instead of showing all 30-40 school-related abilities, I’ll illustrate the point with 11 of the more important ones (e.g. verbal reasoning, listening ability, inductive and deductive reasoning, aspects of memory,  processing speed).

The stereotype of a highly intelligent, gifted child is that they are good at everything. If they were, one would expect to see a profile like the graph below – all abilities would be in the highest ranges.

I rarely see a uniform profile like this, even among highly and profoundly gifted learners. Most gifted students are not equally gifted at everything. They may have some abilities in the average range and even some in the well below-average ranges.

The flip side of the gifted stereotype is the learning disabled stereotype. This stereotype holds that students with learning disabilities are bad at everything academic/intellectual. A student who is weak in all of the cognitive ability areas contributing to academic learning would be expected to have a flat profile with low scores in all areas.

I have never seen a student with learning disabilities with a flat profile like this. Students with learning disabilities, by definition, have areas of cognitive strength. They are not bad at everything. But when I ask students who are having difficulty at school what they think their profile looks like, many think it looks like the graph above. They’ve lost sight of their strengths (if they ever knew they had them). They tend to think they’re “bad at school” and maybe even “not too smart.”

In reality, very few people are good at everything or bad at everything. Most of us have uneven profiles with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others – more like the chart below. Terms like “gifted” and “learning disabled” are too vague to describe these variations. Gifted at what ability? How gifted in that specific ability area? Learning disabled at what? How learning disabled in that specific ability area?

From a practical standpoint what’s important is to understand where the student’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how to work with them. How they’re intelligent.

Recently I worked with a boy whose parents and teachers felt he was not achieving his potential in school, and wondered if he might have ADHD or a learning disability. Zack was a hard-working and motivated student who was engaged in class, diligently turned in his homework, and studied hard for tests. He tended to get great marks during the semester but couldn’t seem to break a “C” on tests and exams. My assessment ascertained that he didn’t have ADHD or a learning disability, and he had a nice solid IQ at the 90th percentile. But he had a surprising weakness in long-term auditory memory. This explained his underperformance – he wasn’t consolidating learning efficiently into long-term memory so he couldn’t efficiently retrieve what he had learned for tests and exams. The good news for Zack and his family was that this is quite fixable. One can get better at memorizing and storing information. We came up with a tutoring plan to build his ability utilizing his stronger visual memory and fluid reasoning.

An understanding of how the student is intelligent can be helpful to any child (like Zack, who it turned out was neither learning disabled nor gifted, but had an area of weakness that needed to be addressed). But it is especially important for twice-exceptional learners. The discrepancies between the twice-exceptional student’s strengths and weaknesses are more extreme than they are for most people. This unevenness of abilities causes considerable frustration. A 2E student may have very strong vocabulary and verbal reasoning, and excellent listening ability and fluid reasoning (inductive and deductive thinking), but their weaknesses in ability areas like phonetic coding and naming speed may severely inhibit their ability to read and demonstrate what they know in writing. In other words, they may be dyslexic. Or they may have extremely high quantitative reasoning and visual spatial ability yet be unable to reliably process information quickly and efficiently due to slow processing speed. An in-depth assessment of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is a very important step in figuring out how to help such students achieve their considerable potential.