Gifted children are known for their overexcitabilities. These overexcitabilities are highly sensitive, innate responses to environmental stimuli and are a primary characteristic of giftedness. A scratchy shirt, a bad dream or the misplacement of a favorite toy can be enough to totally ruin a day of instruction for some of my students. Normal life tragedies like a pet dying and fallings-out between friends can take weeks of intense processing, throwing off entire education and home life routines. Don’t even get me started on transitions to and from holiday breaks. You’ll often see me giving parents reassuring hugs and knowing smiles that say, “Yes! We’re gonna raise these kids! It’s gonna be alright!”
I have an endless well of compassion for the families with whom I work. Giftedness is not always a gift and comes with an array of complexities. Adding to this complexity, gifted children are often raised by unidentified gifted parents; raising a gifted child often inspires a parent to understand and appreciate themselves in ways they never have before. The good news is there’s always something interesting to talk about at the dinner table. And there is a flipside — parenting a gifted child is intense and exhausting. What would normally seem like small hiccups in the daily flow of life can lead to emotional maelstroms that last weeks.
I coach the families I work with to manage their children’s sensitivities every day. I have created a flexible, empathetic, cozy learning environment where my students can feel safe and comfortable. Despite all the careful accommodation, every day something comes up for at least one of my students. Over and over again we ask ourselves “How do I respect and accommodate my child’s sensitivities without over-indulging them? How do I challenge this child to develop the self-regulation strategies she’s going to need to survive in this world without traumatizing her and potentially making things worse?” Sadly, there is no easy, straightforward answer to these questions. I can only share what seems to work for me, at least most of the time.
When managing overexcitabilities, I have a two-pronged attack: anticipate and empathize. Anticipate sensitivity-inducing triggers by keeping things simple, straightforward, and sensible. This is way easier said than done in our overstimulated and over-scheduled world. I am constantly walking a tightrope between wanting to provide what I know they need as gifted children and wanting to hold them to high standards of self-responsibility. In the classroom, when I work with five or six of these kids at the same time, I cannot always accommodate every specific preference. Some children prefer learning math on a computer, others using pencil and paper, both of which are fine. Some want to pace and sing the alphabet in a goofy voice while they do their math. This won’t work, for obvious reasons.
I look for teachable moments to give social-emotional instruction on managing disappointment or collaborating with classmates. I might say to the same student who wants to pace and sing, “Maybe you could imagine doing that in your head while you do your math?” If a student does not respond to my instructions and continues to pace and sing I might ask them to move to another room. I make this request rather than become offended that they will not (and possibly cannot) follow my instructions to the letter. I ask myself “What’s most necessary for everyone’s safety and growth?” Then I only do those things. To come down on that child and insist that he/she do as I say simply because I said it will lead to a power struggle and breach of trust.
Power and trust are two difficult to navigate needs in any gifted classroom.
Next, when your child’s sensitivities are triggered, try taking these steps to connect with what’s important for your child. First, ask your child what they are feeling. I have a variety of kid-friendly resources that my students use to identify their feelings. Then reflect back to them what you hear is important to them. Ask them questions to help them clarify. When my students are expressing themselves in this way, I tend to stay away from offering strategies that provide a quick fix to whatever my student is dealing with. Often, what my students need most is to be heard.
Any more than this often feels like I’m doing too much, like I’m getting in the way of my students’ discovery of their own process of regulating their intensities. What I’ve written here is a simple introduction and breakdown of possibly the most challenging aspect of educating and raising gifted children.
Here are a couple of links to resources I have found indispensable in understanding and managing my students’ over-excitabilities. The people at Communicate for Life, a company that creates and distributes nonviolent communication tools, have created this deck of feelings and needs cards. I have students use the cards to connect with whatever emotion is important to them in that moment. As for your own understanding of your gifted child’s or student’s over-excitabilities I recommend the book Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults.