Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

Bullying and the Gifted: Welcome Back to School?

Why the gifted may be more likely to be bullied--and what you can do about it.

By now, most of us have packed our kids off to school for the start of the new academic year. The tedium of political and medical ads on television are bookended by those encouraging us to spend our back-to-school money at the nearest big chain office supply store. You’ve purchased notebooks, folders, pencils, boxes of tissues, composition (a.k.a. “cow”) books, glue sticks, markers,… all the common objects that make up the teacher’s list of essentials. For my own sake, I feel lucky: my son is one of those who likes school. Well, I should say he likes the concept of it—that is, until the first day hits and his Spanish teacher hands out a multi-page homework review packet to complete in three days. Then he realizes (and we do, too) that his initial flush of school supply shopping giddiness won’t carry him quite far enough. No matter which fresh pencil you choose to sharpen, in the end, work is still work. Still, I count myself lucky.

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For many gifted students, there is a more severe and serious issue that threatens them the first days and weeks of school. They know it’s there because they have encountered it before. Many of the students I see in my position have described it this way: they don’t really “belong”; that they are merely “floating along” as the year progresses, not a “real part of the class”, an “add-on.” It’s demoralizing enough that many of our gifted students may feel this way, but it is made so much worse when others in the room pick up on these feelings and actually turn on the gifted student. We’re talking here about bullying.

It’s a perverse notion perhaps but, in many ways, the very qualities that help make a student gifted are the precise ones that may cause him/her to be bullied by his peers. They are ahead of their classmates academically and more advanced cognitively; they are more emotionally sensitive about rights and wrongs, at the local scale but also globally; a gifted person’s sense of humor may be above the heads of their peers, so the jokes they make seem to backfire and then he looks foolish and odd. Gifted students are often perfectionists and may be quick to critically judge their peers. The list goes on….

Now consider this: most teachers use cooperative learning, small group, activities during the first week of school as their way of having the students get to know each other. In this situation, one might imagine, those traits just mentioned could very well be a cocktail for disaster. Classmates become confused when Johnny uses difficult and advanced vocabulary as he interviews his tablemates. They become irritated when he suggests that the best way to make the poster is to use markers on the matte side of the board, not colored pencils on the glossy side. By the time he has corrected the spelling of the group members for the fourth time in five minutes—or insisted that they vote on who gets to do the writing—Johnny has effectively singled himself out. And once that first impression is made, it can be very hard to shrug it off. Classmates make cruel “geeky” comments, mock his attention to quality, and Johnny leaves school that day dreading the next.

So what to do? My answer may surprise you here because, contrary to others’ advice, I would suggest the solution might best begin first at home, and then at the school. You—as a parent, mentor, guardian—are an invaluable asset to your child. It is you who needs to be involved from the start. Begin by:

  • ·Listening carefully. If your child comes home upset about what has happened at school with his peers, ask him to tell you about it from start to finish. Make time, sit down, and listen to the story. Ask questions, get the details, take notes if you need. These will be essential to the next few steps, which begin with…
  • Educating. It is true, without equivocation, that gifted people have distinct affective and cognitive traits that set them apart. (Here and here are two links to previous articles that explore these in depth.) Your child needs to know these! He needs to understand that he is very different from his peers in these ways. He needs to understand that his peers, literally, do not necessarily feel or think the same way he does about what happens in the classroom. He needs to understand that his different perceptions and feelings and even abilities may be the very traits that are causing him to be singled out. That alone will not be enough, though. You’ll also need to…
  • Be explicit. Go back and review the story that your child has told you about the day. Look over your notes. Compare the story and the place(s) where the day took a turn for the worse and see if you can relate it to those traits that your gifted child possesses. “I wonder, Johnny, do you think maybe your classmates got frustrated when you kept telling them to fix the spelling of ‘your’?” “Do you think that the others in the group realized that the markers would smear if they used them on the glossy side of the poster? Or did you just assume they knew this?” Keep going, and be sure to…
  • Relate. No, it’s not fair that your child insisted on high quality work and was rebuffed for it. But you have experienced similar unfair situations in your own life. What was it like when you were frustrated with others at your office? What did you do? Perhaps you reminded yourself to breathe deep. You counted to ten. You figured out another way to address your concerns by stating them differently. You explained the reasons why your opinions might be important—rather than just blurting them out. Maybe, on a good day, you even looked at the problem from their point of view. Children will value your own experiences because it shows them that they are not alone. Next, you’ll have to…
  • Coach and model. Brainstorm ways that you can help your child with specific problems before they arise next time. When the teacher announces that the whole class will be denied ten minutes of recess because a just few people “messed it up for everyone else,” help him figure out ways he can effectively convey his opinion about this injustice to the teacher without passive aggressively mumbling aloud under his breath about it—so loud that the teacher can hear it. Help him create alternatives responses to taunts that kids may offer in order to defuse them. Help him recognize the occasions or the conditions at school that tend to “create the drama.” Anticipate them and model ways that you yourself might approach those circumstances. In short, your goal is to arm your child with a toolbox of thoughts and actions that he can use on his own at school. And keep in mind that you must…
  • Be patient! All of this takes time. We all know that old habits die hard, even more so if those behaviors are intrinsically a part of who you are. New problems will arise, or different iterations of old ones will rear their heads. Be patient and stick with it. Listen, educate, review, relate, and reattack. Rinse, repeat. And if nothing seems to stick, finally, it’s essential that you…

Be protective. No child “deserves” to be unhappy or miserable. Bullying is not to be tolerated. You can do all the modeling, coaching, and empathy building in the world and it may not be enough. You must enlist the help of the teacher, the school, and the school’s resources. Do not ever be afraid to demand satisfaction on this point. If you see no improvement, take your notes to school and insist on a conference with the teacher and the school’s administrator. Explain your concerns with specific examples, demand a plan of action, expect results. Be the squeaky wheel for your child and your child’s future.

As the year gets rolling, it’s important to relish and revel in the good times. Revisiting the successes of school are just as important as reviewing the trying ones. Remind yourself and your child of this on those days when things get rough. It’s my hope that the latter are relatively few but, if they arise, take charge proactively. You’ve got this.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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