Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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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.