September Back-To-School Suggestions
By Wenda Sheard
SENG’s vision is a world where gifted, talented, and creative individuals are supported to build gratifying, meaningful lives and contribute to the well-being of others.
How can parents best support their gifted, talented, and creative children at the beginning of the school year? I offer three suggestions.
Teach Children Philosophies of Education
I suggest that parents discuss with their children the purpose of education. Exposing young children to what great philosophers have thought about education not only teaches children history, philosophy, and education, but also helps them to create their own educational goals—goals that may differ significantly from the goals of other children.
When exploring what great philosophers have thought about education, children might notice three main purposes of education:
- Education serves the purpose of preparing children for adult life, including preparing them to support themselves as adults. Accordingly, the United States Department of Education’s stated mission is: “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”
- Some philosophers emphasize that education should prepare children for good citizenship. Plato (circa 400 B.C.) and John Locke (1632-1704) advocated virtue and good citizenship as the aims of education. Plato wrote: “And we must remember further that we are speaking of the education, not of a trainer, or of the captain of a ship, but of a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and how to obey.” Locke wrote: “Learning must be had, but in the second place, as subservient only to greater qualities.”
- Education also serves the purpose of providing children with an enjoyable childhood worth living and remembering fondly. John Dewey (1859-1952) felt strongly that education should respect childhood: “[The best teachers] give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.” Maria Montessori (1870-1952) similarly advocated happy childhoods: “Education is not something which the teacher does … it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.”
Once children understand the purposes of education, they have tools to articulate whether, and how, their own educations meet those purposes or might be tweaked to meet those purposes. Sometimes the only tweaking necessary is a change of perspective—perhaps a child will understand that even if school currently is not sufficiently rigorous in the “heading to adult life” sense. Perhaps the child can find ways to enjoy childhood until rigor appears or reappears. Or, better yet, perhaps the child can find ways to introduce rigor into his or her own education. Child-introduced rigor might include education that will lead to employment and/or good citizenship in future years. Some children spend time excelling in computer programming, gaining marketable skills at a young age. Other children spend time volunteering in ways that make a difference in the world, foster virtue in the child, and later impress college admissions officers and employers.
Explain the Necessity of Knowledge, Communion, and Expression
Another way that parents might support their gifted, talented, and creative children at the beginning of the school year is by reading P. Susan Jackson’s article “Bright Star – Black Sky: A Phenomenological Study of Depression as a Window into the Psyche of the Gifted Adolescent (see the end of this column for the online link). I recommend that parents read the article first before deciding whether, when, and how to share the article’s excellent insights with their children.
In the article, Jackson explains that gifted teens have an absolute need for knowledge of themselves and of physical and spiritual phenomena, for strong emotional or spiritual communion with others, and for expression of their emotions and feelings. Reading the article at the beginning of each school year might help parents and children (if sufficiently mature) to understand that beginning a school year is not a simple matter; each school year presents new opportunities and challenges for finding the knowledge, communion, and expression that Jackson found critical to the lives of gifted teens.
During the first weeks of the school year, parents and children can consider how the school year will affect all aspects of each child’s life. Will the child have sufficient opportunities for knowledge and for self-knowledge? Will the child have time at school or elsewhere to interact with true peers, not just age-mates? Will the child have time and methods to express emotions and feelings? Parents and children should consider finding non-school times to fill whatever gaps might exist in a given child’s school hours.
Offer Social and Emotional Hints
Most parents understand that the acquisition of knowledge is a small part of any school experience. Most teachers are keenly aware that the school day involves not just knowledge, but also social times and emotional events. In this last section, I offer three hints that parents might offer their gifted, talented, and creative children at the beginning of a new school year.
The first hint comes from Benjamin Franklin, who realized that by asking someone a favor, you endear yourself to that person. Counterintuitive, yes, but it works! I suggest that you and your child research what’s known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect. Your child might then decide to try out Franklin’s idea at school as a way to build friendship and respect.
Another friendship-building hint that I have shared over the years with new students is to look around the room and find students who look lonely. Then, with a smile on your face, go up to each of those children, ask them about themselves, and listen well. Smiling is a fantastic way to gain friends. Helping others who look lonely is an excellent way to exhibit and to build a generous spirit. Asking people about themselves and listening carefully to their answers is a social skill that even many adults could improve.
Sometimes a gifted, talented, and creative child will spend a school year without true peers in school. When this happens, parents can share yet another hint—encourage the child to approach the school year with the lens of an anthropologist.
Yes, that’s right—teach the child about the field of anthropology and engage the child in studying the culture of the school. Learning about anthropology and applying an anthropological lens, at the child’s level of understanding, to the school experience will help the gifted child learn about and reflect a great deal on people, social structures, and child development. Parents who spend the time necessary to guide their budding anthropologist will benefit from increased and honest communication that might lead to better understanding of the child’s school experience.
For more hints and suggestions, I recommend the book A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (Great Potential Press, 2007). That book, which is the core of the SENG Model Parenting Groups, well explains the nature and nurture of gifted, talented, and creative children.
If there is a SENG Model Parenting Group starting in your area, I highly recommend that you join the group. If no groups are currently available in your area, I recommend you consider being trained as a SENG facilitator. The next SENG Model Parenting Group Facilitator Training will be October 7-8, 2011, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Jackson, P. Susan, “Bright star — black sky: A phenomenological study of depression as a window into the psyche of the gifted adolescent,” Roeper Review. 1998 Feb 20(3) 215-221, available online a at http://sengifted.org/articles_counseling/Jackson_BrightStarBlackSky.shtml
Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D. is an emeritus board member and past president of SENG. She currently teaches near London, England, and serves as a trustee on the Council of Management of the UK’s National Association for Gifted Children.