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.
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:
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.