Spontaneous Expression and Twice Exceptional Children

Spontaneous Expression and Twice Exceptional Children

I’m delighted to share with you a guest post written by Sunnyside Micro-School’s documentation specialist and art teacher, Melissa Stepien. Melissa is an educator with a strong creative/visual arts background and extensive experience integrating pedagogical philosophies that support progressive learning modalities. She views the art of teaching as a journey based on reflection, reciprocity, and relationship and values her role as a protagonist with students engaged in meaningful inquiry. Thank you for such a soulful and inspiring post, Melissa! 

“Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing
there is a field
I’ll meet you there.”

The stage is set: large sheets of blank paper, varied complementing and contrasting materials of color and texture, paints and scissors. Every Thursday afternoon at Sunnyside MicroSchool, visual art opportunities are designed and offered as a means for self-exploration and understanding.

Creativity in traditional art endeavors is generally equated with its results. A process based approach throws away the map, there is no direction or goal; specific expectations and rules are replaced with a sense of adventure. I invite my students to inhabit and explore their present states of reality with playful spontaneity.

Of course, it can be challenging for asynchronous children to navigate such an open-ended proposition. Perfectionism and self-doubt can be formidable obstacles for our resident artists, and yet I’ve found that the strength of resistance or aversion usually indicates something waiting to emerge. It is at these times that I might offer an idea prompt or scaffold an existing thought process in a way that lends encouragement without it being an obvious teacher directive. Then again, sometimes a simple “try to keep going” can be enough to get them past a wall.

I am delighted when I see my students engage with the process, exploring emotions or taking risks they may not generally allow themselves to take. Recently we had a table full of laughter and fun as each child made an expressive choice that revealed an aspect of a shining self.

Want to learn more about the culture we’re building at Sunnyside Micro-School? Sign up to learn more here.

Is a Mid-Year School Change Right for Your Family?

Is a Mid-Year School Change Right for Your Family?

The choice to change schools mid-year is neither light nor easy. No matter how positive the possible outcome might be, transitions are hard. Particularly for a sensitive and quirky gifted or twice-exceptional child.  

Why, then, do some families pursue mid-year school changes?

You may want to change your child’s school for many reasons. You may have shifting academic needs, health reasons, or a general mismatch in family-school values, to name a few.

There may also be some clear signs from your child that something isn’t right. Does your child hate school? Do you know they are capable of higher achievement, yet they continue to struggle? Does your child hide their abilities?  If so, your child’s unique educational needs aren’t being met.

This is much more than an issue of academic needs; we’re looking at social and emotional-educational needs as well. If your child struggles to connect to their studies, as well as to the other students and professionals in their learning environment, it’s a problem that will have repercussions far beyond the classroom.

Here are some concrete examples of what it might look like if your child’s educational environment isn’t right for them.

  • They express anguish and upset more often than not when it’s time to leave for school.
  • They are constantly being reprimanded for off-task behavior or interrupting.
  • They have no one to play with at recess and/or complain of bullying at recess or at other times.
  • They complete very few assignments and tend to fib over how much work they do or don’t have.
  • They come home from school regularly and explode over seemingly little things.
  • They are not receiving agreed upon accommodations for learning and social differences.

Overall, most children’s issues with school are linked to a lack of connection to the academic material and school population. It’s not unusual for a child to experience issues with a learning environment at least once in their lives. This fairly common experience can grow into a large problem, though. When your child’s issue has been identified and the adults in charge do very little—or even nothing—to enact actual change or get to the bottom of what’s going on, this is a significant warning sign.  

Let’s take one of the examples from above: “They are not receiving agreed upon accommodations for learning and social differences.” This one should be straightforward! If your child is not receiving their accommodations and it’s brought to the attention of those in charge, you would hope that the response would be something like, “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, we have __________________ ideas about how to increase accountability around this issue.” That’s positive! Those sound like people who are trying. They want to keep taking action in the hopes of meeting your child’s needs.

The four most important components for change—the conversation, the effort, the capacity, and the care— are all there.

If you don’t have faith that these four necessary conditions exist in your child’s current education environment, and you’re attempting to problem solve on an issue with your school, it stands to reason that your child’s educational and social needs aren’t going to be met.

Of course, there is no perfect school. Schools are run by humans and humans, as we know, are fallible. In addition, understanding what it means to educate in a manner that respects cognitive differences is only now coming to be, and it’s a steep learning curve! The question to ask isn’t, “Is my child’s school perfect?” Instead, try these questions: Does the school have the willingness to take responsibility for its fallibility? Are they willing to adapt, learn, and become better? Does the school have the capacity, (meaning the knowledge and the tools and staff) to properly serve your child? When you find a school that can honestly answer “Yes” to those difficult questions, you have found the kinds of people you want to work with.

And if it’s not the case, it’s time to look for an alternative with professionals who are willing to try, and who have the resources to do so.

Even though a mid-year transition can be daunting, it is often worth all the challenges. If your child is currently struggling against the same unchanging conditions that you know aren’t serving them, doesn’t it make sense to undergo a bit of a struggle to get to conditions that will?

The image of someone dog paddling comes to mind: using all of your energy to stay in the same placeor maybe even be swept backwards by the current. This is how a lot of students and their families feel. What if someone could help your child swim? It would be a tough transition to do something different, but your child could finally start getting where they want and need to be.

Do you live in the Bay Area? If you think a mid-year school change might be right for you, check out Sunnyside Micro-School for gifted and twice-exceptional learners. We launched September of 2017. We have a couple spots left for this year and are taking applications for next. Reach out today

Laying the Foundation for Gifted and 2e Project-Based Learning

Laying the Foundation for Gifted and 2e Project-Based Learning

After working with gifted and twice-exceptional children for over ten years, I’ve become firmly convinced that project-based learning provides incredibly fruitful results.

Project-based learning environments support students with a range of abilities and interests; the self-directed nature scaffolds each student as they connect with their intrinsic motivation and positive self-image.

The challenge, though, is that project-based learners are rarely born, they’re made.

When I say “made” I mean that the self-management skills required to become truly self-aware while connecting to our sense of purpose develop over time, and only for those of us who are lucky enough to be given the space for it.

In a previous post, I shared with you some of the thought and planning that went into the design of the Sunnyside Micro-School, a micro-school I founded for gifted and twice-exceptional families in Oakland, CA. Now I want to give you a deeper look into how we have structured project-based learning specifically for gifted and twice-exceptional children.

At Sunnyside Micro-School, we provide the necessary space for learners to develop a strong sense of purpose. In addition, we include the modeling, accountability, and guidance necessary for gifted and twice-exceptional children to thrive as self-directed learners. Our commitment to this ideal is the backbone of our group work periods.

Upon enrollment, Sunnyside students begin to lay the foundation for project-based learning via a series of Design Thinking challenges.

Each student is presented with a sequential series of design challenges and projects created to deepen their understanding of electricity, sound, structures, and more. These first projects build the groundwork and give each student a taste of what it means to think like an engineer or designer.

Of course, students come to us with varying skill levels and experiences, and as such, our projects are deeply differentiated to accommodate a range of learners. This is how we accommodate asynchronous learning in a group setting.

I was introduced to Design Thinking at an education conference in 2008 and loved how the framework enabled the designer to blow by perfectionism, while encouraging resilience and developing critical thinking skills. This creates a natural and often overlooked opportunity for social-emotional learning in the classroom, all the while engaging learners in tangible problems they’re eager to solve.

Humans, at their best, are all trying to solve problems and to improve conditions for ourselves and others. As I created the Sunnyside Micro-School, I sought to tap into that universal truth to design a meaningful learning environment for quirky, sensitive, and wonderful gifted and twice-exceptional kids. An environment where learners could stretch and grow while also being fascinated and delighted.

I’m happy to say that each school day, I see my students rise to meet new challenges. I see them solve problems, both in our curriculum, and in their own learning. They are not only becoming more adept at the material we study; they are becoming more aware of who they are as learners.

If you feel your g/2e learner would benefit from the space to discover their unique learning style, or if you’re curious what problem-based learning looks like in action, schedule a visit today. Use this form to contact us directly

You can also connect with us online. Sign up for our mailing list to learn more about our program, special events, and community classes. 

Introducing Sunnyside Micro-School!

Introducing Sunnyside Micro-School!

What I’m about to describe to you has  been in the making for a few years.

I’m proud and ecstatic (along with a bunch of other big emotions!) to announce, The Sunnyside Micro-School opened its doors in September of 2017.

Many of you know that for eight years, I led micro-schools in the Bay Area for gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children. Along the way, I learned a lot. After the hard but rewarding work of publishing a book about my educational philosophies and practices regarding micro-schools, I took a break for a couple of years to get married, travel, and put down some serious roots in Oakland, CA.

I also started offering private consulting for others as they built micro-schools for their communities. During this time, I tutored gifted and twice-exceptional (g/2e) students on a regular basis and began to see how the one-on-one relationship and committed structured time allowed them to experience success that they had not found in other learning settings.

During part of this time I also worked with g/2e students in a completely different setting and witnessed equally positive results. Teaching inquiry-based, Maker-style pop-up group classes that combined math, science, and art, I watched my g/2e students thrive. I tested a hunch that these kids could experience the joy of learning and progress academically when their inclination to be independent was honored in project-based explorations. After one year, the results were astounding.  My own experience and parents’ feedback bore out my hunch almost 100 percent.

My Big Insight

My g/2e students seemed to exist in a realm of extremes; maybe their learning environment needed to reflect that. On one hand, they needed structured and direct one-on-one instruction tailored to their specific needs without the distraction of others. On the other hand, they required the freedom to explore new ideas in the context of a community.  

I wondered what would happen if gifted and twice-exceptional students had a learning environment that was able to simultaneously meet their need for freedom and creativity, while also offering direct, one-on-one education in math and language arts from highly trained and experienced professionals.

Filling a Need

As this model started to develop, I polled 150 parents of gifted and twice-exceptional children all over the country, and of the 63 percent who were homeschooling, 62 percent wished they had an alternative like a micro-school to supplement or replace their current educational strategies. Moreover, the majority of parents held freedom and choice in equal esteem with targeted and direct one-on-one educational coaching.

Based on this experience and research, I designed the Sunnyside Micro-School.

The Sunnyside Model

Every day, Sunnyside students engage in inquiry-based Maker projects that highlight each student’s divergent abilities, and they have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a skilled, compassionate professional to develop their math and language arts skills — the two academic areas where gifted and twice-exceptional children seem to struggle most. They benefit from the relatedness and community of group learning, along with the specific support they need to achieve their potential.

Over the past four months as Sunnyside has been in session, I’ve had the chance to once again enjoy the thrill of seeing g/2e students thrive in a setting that respects their needs while providing appropriate challenge and learning enjoyment.

Plus, I’m having the satisfaction of seeing that opportunity opened up to even more learners. One of my goals with Sunnyside was to make it available as a valuable supplement for families regardless of their learning plans. That’s why our microschool offers flexible enrollment, and it’s also why we offer community classes!

Community classes provide engaging learning opportunities to the general public. Students have had a blast letting their STEM learning soar through hands-on creative projects in a small group setting. We’re not done yet! Click here to learn more about our newest community class, “Geometric Art: An Exploration of Math and Creativity.”

If you are in search of a fun and rewarding learning environment for your child, enroll in one of our community classes or schedule a visit today! You can contact me to learn more here.


On a related/unrelated note, I’m hosting a live webinar this Friday, January 5th for families who want to discuss making a mid-year school change. Interested? You can learn more and register here.

Three of the Most Powerful Words an Adult Can Say to a Child

Three of the Most Powerful Words an Adult Can Say to a Child

Some of you already know I spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate with children. I love to think about the economy of language, how many words to say… or not say! Hint: across the board, I find fewer words are better.

I like to think of effective communication as a puzzle. I ponder questions like, which words can I choose that will have the most impact? How can I express myself while giving respect to my needs as well as those of the child? How can I talk about a challenge without making anyone wrong? These are just a few of the questions that drive my work and writing.

Some of the most important words an adult can say to a child are,

“I don’t know.”

Followed up with,

“I wonder how we can find out?”

Beginning with “I don’t know” is powerful for all involved. Firstly, it sure does take the pressure off of you! I’ve encountered adults that seem to think they are failing their children if they aren’t the expert in all things. Doesn’t that sound exhausting… not to mention impossible? Secondly, if we’re trying to combat perfectionism and anxiety in gifted and twice-exceptional children, why don’t we start by combatting those tendencies in ourselves and model what it looks like to be a humble, authentic, and fallible human?

There’s already a lot written about empathy and how vital it is to maintaining meaningful relationships. But how do we impart empathy? I can think of a few ways, and they all lead back to the same need — authenticity (also known as deep honesty). I believe that being authentic is how we best show empathy.

Ending the conversation with “I wonder how we find out” isn’t an ending at all; it leaves room for wonder. Find the joy in wonder and pass it down to the children in your life. This is how we can make meaning of learning and instill it as a value in our children… and, ultimately, our shared human culture.

P.S. This is different than telling a child to “Google it.” While Google may be where you end up, heading straight there without any heart-opening communication or exploration can sap the fun and wonder out of those moments.

Cumulative Capacity in G/2e Children: It’s not one thing, it’s a hundred

Cumulative Capacity in G/2e Children: It’s not one thing, it’s a hundred

This month I’m honored to share with you a guest post by my good friend and colleague Shanna Philipson. Shanna is the mother of a 2e child and the author of Meet the Beaker Kids, a fun and informative comic book for anyone trying to understand their sensory systems or the sensory systems of their children and students. Purchase the comic and the corresponding manual here.  

It was not one thing, it was a hundred little things. It was a war that was lost through minute attrition — countless small provocations and challenges that never amounted to a full-scale crisis but cumulatively killed me every day, five days a week.

I’m not talking about parenting my 2e kid. I’m talking about teaching.

Why couldn’t I thrive in a job that came so naturally, so passionately from my mind and heart? I taught some of the brightest students in the district but felt utterly empty at the end of each day. How could a person love their work and yet be so unhappy in their work at that same time?

When I walked away from my high school classroom for the last time, I knew it wasn’t because I had failed my students or because I fell out of love with teaching. I walked away because the cumulative sensory, social, and emotional burden of my dynamic, loud, highly regimented work environment was crushing me. Hidden behind all my success was another me desperately trying to escape my environment.

The year after I quit teaching my seven year old daughter began to pull her hair out at school and suffer from migraines. It was then that I began to reflect on the cost of cumulative stimulus on students, too. Like my own challenges in the classroom, it wasn’t ONE thing that was wrong for her; it was a hundred. She couldn’t hold all she was expected to carry all day.

How could I explain this? For those of us who have children with a dual (or triple!) diagnosis, it’s especially easy to get swamped with the jargon of our child’s needs when we try to explain their experience to teachers and family.

What we need is an acknowledgment and a language to describe our — and their — cumulative stimulus experience. We need this because “problem” behavior is rarely the result of a single influence. We all have limits to our tolerance and need for stimulus, and the language of clinical diagnoses, therapies, or interventions just won’t cut it with grandma. Neither will subjective labels like “sensitive” or “emotional” or “intense”. After all, one person’s minute “intense” is another person’s week-long “whoopie!”.

Cumulative capacity is the hidden experience, the secret menu to your neurology. Because it’s never just one thing — it’s usually hundreds of little moments that define your tolerance for Life.

I think of cumulative capacity as an internal beaker. In this visual metaphor, our beakers are all different. The size of the beaker tells me a lot about how much input/stimulus (even the good stuff!) you can handle before you’re full. Are you full in 30 minutes — or a week? The shape of your beaker tells me how you prefer or tolerate your input. If you’re a slim test tube shape, you fill up quickly no matter your size. Or perhaps you’re an Erlenmeyer type! Your enthusiasm can quickly turn into intolerance if you fill too fast. (That’s me!) You may feel like one type of beaker at home, but another in the grocery store.

The point of this is not to offer you more jargon, but to invite you to play with a mental schema that assumes that we can describe our experiences in life — even the good ones, like my joy in teaching — without judging our tolerance for Life. In the context of cumulative capacity, you don’t have to hunt down each offending moment and analyze it. You can recognize when your beaker is telling you “enough”. And you can choose how, when, and with what you wish to fill it.