No matter where we look these days, we’re inundated with news about the sky falling, at least if we accept the prevailing belief that the economy is our universe. Can I ask you to suspend that worry for just a few minutes? I’m asking this favor because at this very moment, extraordinary minds are incubating, preparing to accomplish exceptional things for a future beyond our current economic crisis – a universe that will thrive on the brilliance of an array of new stars.
Although we can believe that new forms of intelligence and talent will be required in the generations to come, what will these minds look like? How will they intersect with the changing needs of a society we can only anticipate? To appreciate these forms of excellence we need a new lens – a new scope of focus. Otherwise, we will look for the extraordinary only where we have found it before.
As important – how should we encourage and nurture those minds? What can families, schools, and communities practically do to identify excellence and propel its momentum? How can we develop these gifts and “genius” in all children?
Who Are These Kids?
The cost of using old models of assessment is staggering. Imagine if we limited our search for the next great investment to only well established stocks; if we chose important new artists on how closely their work resembles those in art history books; or in any way decided to gamble the future on what had worked well in the past.
Simply stated, human excellence is precious capital that should not be wasted because of a failure to connect the dots – to connect the evolution of human capability with the evolution of human needs.
Recipes for these types of exceptionality cannot be found in books on giftedness, because only the tiniest percentage of tomorrow’s “stars” are thought of as gifted today. Consequently, “gifted” is an idea that is increasingly out-of-sync with the achievements that matter most to the greatest number of people.
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A World that Thrives on Energy, Momentum, and Connection – at Least as Much as Invention and Discovery
The most useful perspective of excellence is one that resonates with the tangible needs of our lives. After all, if talent is not in some form useful, both to an individual and a society, it holds no value. Yet when we look at those who have the most to offer others, we may notice a conundrum: being traditionally gifted– “high IQ,” “athletic,” “artistic,” etc.-does not guarantee the translation of those gifts into tangible and positive contributions.
What if we were to consider the possibility that parents and teachers who struggle to define more amorphous gifts in children may be intuiting something very real? And what if we could distinguish those gifts that were exceptionally valuable, and provide a roadmap for developing them in all kinds of kids? When I talk about executive function and capability in my workshops, I’m trying to move you toward this idea. Having great executive skills should be about more than improved study skills. Those skills may well be the key to unlocking the kinds of gifts I want to talk to you about.
Virtually all previous attempts to discuss exceptionality have opted to view the significant achievements of young people with a decidedly academic lens. Certainly, these gifts deserve acknowledgement – just not all the acknowledgement.
The twentieth century celebrated a very hierarchical idea of cognitive/creative excellence, encapsulated by the near idolatry of popular figures like Einstein, Freud, and Picasso. Overall, “genius” was considered to be masculine, white, hierarchical, and measurable. Today, excellence swims much closer to its beneficiaries. In fact, this proximity may unintentionally obscure important contributions – to take for granted those young minds we interact with daily that bind achievement to pressing human needs.
Seven Faces of Excellence
This newsletter is Part I of a two-part overview of new forms of excellence – kids I often refer to as Rising Stars – because the value of their “gifts” is on the rise. It’s not so much that their gifts have never been recognized, but in most cases they are not the kids we have traditionally thought of as gifted. I believe that concept should be anchored by tangible contribution rather than one’s IQ. And as in other areas, I have a strong bias toward social relevance.
The names I have assigned to these seven groups of kids:Navigators · Magicians · Sparkplugs · Translators · Locomotives · Rangers · Conductors
This edition of Family Matters will describe the first three of the seven categories. For the sake of clarity, each category describes a type of person, although some readers may see the children of interest in their lives as an amalgam of multiple types. Each category of excellence is powerful in distinct ways – most notably with respect to how some people rise to serve the common good of others. To help you relate these categories to the children or students you work with, I’ve tried to include a brief psychological profile of each group, including some indications about how they think, react and problem-solve.
Navigators have the fortitude to know what they believe, and stick to it – despite adversity. These are the young “Atticus Finches.” When a teenager doesn’t refrain from explaining, loudly, exactly why she or he is a vegetarian at the family cookout, it’s a strong sign of a budding Navigator – perhaps the next Rosa Parks. While all kids may have some degree of moral compass, Navigators use more integrative strategies to determine their beliefs. They have exceptional reasoning skills, which have the effect of lifting their sense of purpose to a height where it can be seen and appreciated by others. We may agree or disagree with these young people, but we will almost always be impressed by the strength of their moral convictions. They have a persuasive effect on the thinking of others.
Psychological and Cognitive Traits:
Self-confidence · High tolerance for peer pressure · Determination · Well developed moral sense · Driven to make a difference · Persuasive · Like to lead by example · Typically energetic · Profoundly attuned to the meaning of events, actions, and words · Inspire strong feelings and reactions in others · Compelled to communicate (in many forms) in an effort to engage and influence others · Highly responsible in areas of interest, but unwilling to exert him/herself in matters s/he considers trivial · Good radar for falsehood, pretense, and affectation · Typically quite mature for their age · Often thought of as “born leaders” · Their sense of what’s “right” often includes an aesthetic component · Usually a firstborn
A Navigator: Says: “It’s not right!”
Believes: Life should be fair, right, and meaningful. Standing up for the truth (as the Navigator sees it) is life at its fullest.
Perceives: A clear difference between right and wrong, good and bad, and is naturally inclined to observe and make such distinctions.
Wishes: That people would either join the cause or get out of the way, because “we have a world to change for the better!”
Understands: That big issues are full of meaning and challenge. Accepts difficulties and responsibilities with grace.
Leads by: Example ( and in some cases by exceptional communication skills)
Better than others at: Knowing her or his mind. Following personal convictions even when they are unpopular with others. Enduring personal hardship for the sake of a cause or desirable outcome.
Parenting a Navigator requires: Consistency, courage of one’s own convictions, and trust. The Navigator child tends to align with adults – and is often a confident, favored firstborn. Navigator children tend to be involved in social and community organizations and attract mentors. Parents need to help steer their Navigators toward good alignments with positive role models. Teaching moderation and how to appreciate multiple perspectives of a particular issue is also helpful. Navigators like to live closely aligned with their ideals and really benefit from thoughtful intrafamily communication. Giving them too much space leads to a loss of balance and, ultimately, a loss in personal efficacy.
Teaching a Navigator requires: Reaching out to his or her heart and mind. Navigators are wonderful students because they ask thoughtful questions and listen intently to abstract ideas. At the same time, they expect to be taken seriously, and will sometimes want their teachers to slip into the student role. These kids tend to be analytical – they get the “moral of the story,” see the problem before it occurs, and build consensus. Navigators also have a tendency to want to run the show and can be strong-willed. However, when shown signs of collegiality and mutual respect, these young people will go to great lengths to contribute and help others.
Potential pitfalls: Navigators may feel empty or lost when they don’t have a higher cause or sense of purpose. Can lack tact – may shoot themselves in the foot because “diplomacy” seems like “lying.” Get upset when a deeply held belief is convincingly challenged, or an ideal (or idealized person) proves to be a disappointment.
Promises: Navigators tend to be highly courageous leaders who lead others by example. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi are prototypical adult Navigators, but some Navigators work diligently at cultivating personal lives of moral conscientiousness – think “Brangelina” for their efforts in New Orleans and Africa.
Magicians bring magic and creativity to their perspective of problems and situations. They perceive things differently, sometimes turning a potential deficit (such as a learning difference) into a tangible strength. Magicians expand our ideas of the possible because they ask the questions others don’t think to ask. Very often, the genius of Magicians does not reveal its value to us until a critical moment of insight. We may write these kids off as quirky, weird, or out-of- sync – not recognizing the mental operations going on behind their puzzling expressions. Although most children think like Magicians from time to time, a few exceptional kids retain the ability to look at the world like a visiting alien, and inform us of ourselves in the process. Cognitively, Magicians like very difficult puzzles and problems, as long as they are given wide latitude in how to solve them. Part of the gift of being a Magician is realizing that great solutions are derived from asking oneself the right kinds of questions. Although these kids aren’t overtly invested in being rebels, their approach to life is often unique.
Psychological and Cognitive Traits:
Highly creative · Unconventional thinkers · May have high IQ, but may also have a learning difference that fuels their perspectives and problem- solving style · Value to others becomes more apparent over time · Nonjudgmental · Prefer process over outcome · May resist, but benefit from, boundaries and structure · Comfortable with ambiguity · See technology more as a tool than entertainment · View thinking problems as a form of play · Specialize in novel thinking · Work independently very well · Generally have low requirements for praise · Are less inclined to think in terms of “right and wrong” or “good and bad,” and more inclined to think “that’s interesting” · May be self- satisfied with personal quirky humor · Are often oblivious to food and sleep
Says: “What if we tried it this way?” or “That’s an interesting idea!”
Believes: There are hidden clues in every situation – and they can be found if one thinks hard enough
Perceives: Unconventional layers of information from which great ideas can be materialized
Wishes: Other kids could appreciate them without always commenting on how “different” they are
Understands: Patterns, truths, and possibilities that others don’t see
Leads by: Creating, and the “element of surprise”
Better than others at: Enjoying wrestling with a problem, even when there’s no solution in sight. These kids can see “something” where others see “nothing.”
Parenting a Magician requires: Parents who can appreciate their child’s differences, but also help harness their child’s idiosyncratic thinking into productive and socially constructive expression. Magicians also need parents who can introduce skills which are complementary to the Magician’s strengths. Some of these skills include time management, organization, and setting priorities. Learning how to provide boundaries and support without extinguishing the creativity of a Magician can be a balancing act. Protecting the magician from bullies and finding suitable peers is a key part of the job description of this child’s parents. Parents of Magicians have to beware of over-celebrating a Magician’s talents and slipping into stage-parenting.
Teaching a Magician requires: Giving these students the benefit of the doubt when you can’t tell if they are going in the right direction. These kids may become irritable or simply shut down when required to conform. They like autonomy, but they also like to know that someone is paying attention to their efforts. This student thrives on a sense of belief and trust from a teacher. The Magician needs a teacher who can reach out and appreciate the Magician’s world, while actively engaging the Magician in practical learning and skill development. And when given the right tools to use, these kids may thank their teachers at the Oscars, Grammys, or Nobel awards one day.
Potential pitfalls: Magicians can find their internal world so fascinating that they are at risk of being socially delayed. A high degree of self- awareness and self-attunement can lead to feelings of “specialness” and narcissism. (This is also a common defense of those who are attacked as different.) Some find the process of imagination much more rewarding than the more mundane process of actually following through on an idea.
Promises: Magicians tend to lead interesting lives, and attract dynamic and creative people to them. They can invent new ways of living, working, and playing that change the patterns and forms of everyday life. Despite their tendency toward an internalizing cognitive style, these people can be remarkably generous with their ingenuity and compassion for others.
Sparkplugs are initiators; the kids who are exceptionally good at beginning new things, and inspiring the interest of others. They quickly sense possibilities, and are the first to say “let’s do it!” They are able to combine excitement with a knack for sequencing the steps necessary to get a task going. The consistent fusion of motivation and planning is a key attribute of Sparkplugs, and therefore they tend to be very productive in their accomplishments. Sparkplugs like having lots to do, but their favorite situation is one in which they can generate momentum toward a destination of their own choosing, rather than using their considerable energy to react to requirements put upon them. Although these kids exude charismatic energy externally, they are also capable of focusing deeply. Cognitively, they have the flexibility needed to shift between action and reflection as circumstance warrants. However, Sparkplugs operate with the assumption that actions speak louder than thoughts. Without Sparkplugs, life would be stuck in committee.
Psychological and Cognitive Traits:
Quickly see opportunities for action · Can efficiently sequence the steps required to get a job done · Become energized by work · Avert pitfalls by thinking ahead while others are still reacting · Highly curious · Collect knowledge and expertise in areas of personal interest · Generally good sense of timing · Observant of others and situations · Comfortable with risk- taking · Tends to be passionate, argumentative, persuasive, and verbal · Good at analyzing/perceiving what’s new, exciting, or different · Can be more idea- driven than relational, or get irritated at those who don’t quickly get energized by an idea or the task at hand.
Says: “This is the best thing ever – can’t you see the potential…!”
Believes: Opportunity is knocking everywhere
Perceives: What’s new, important, and different – and how to respond
Wishes: S/he had a megaphone that could reach the world
Understands: When to take action and spur others
Leads by: Motivation, charisma, unrestrained enthusiasm, and a willingness to work hard
Better than others at: Capitalizing on personal enthusiasm and transforming motivation into a viable plan of action
Parenting a Sparkplug requires: High energy, but also the ability to remain centered as a port of calm in an ongoing storm. These persuasive, quicksilver children like to cast themselves as the center of a whirlwind of activity – perhaps organizing friends and relatives in a variety of schemes and dreams. (These kids are comfortable playing percentages – not every initiative will yield big results, but “you can’t win if you don’t play” and they have plenty of energy to try different things.) It’s important to help Sparkplugs anticipate consequences and consider the feelings and concerns of others. A Sparkplug needs help learning to respect signs of reluctance in others. If the daily report often includes a remark “you can’t believe what s/he got into today,” you may have a Sparkplug on your hands.
Teaching a Sparkplug: Is a thrilling event if you can get him or her to stop talking in class. Multidisciplinary learning is a strong hook for Sparkplugs. These students prefer to be a part of the creative process and help with planning, rather than just “following the program” of others. Teachers who give Sparkplugs a sense of ownership in classroom projects and priorities will be amply rewarded with dedication and advocacy. Sparkplugs are particularly prone to personality conflicts with their teachers, and will challenge the authority of teachers who are overly directive or who don’t express signals of enthusiasm for a Sparkplug’s ideas. A Sparkplug who feels unheard or constricted can ignite a classroom rebellion in a minute.
Potential pitfalls: Young Sparkplugs haven’t always had enough experience to know when their plans and ideas might go awry. Although highly talented at thinking fast and talking their way out of jams, Sparkplugs tend to think big, and consequently may get involved in low-return situations. The intense enthusiasm of Sparkplugs sometimes causes them to think of themselves as the “smartest person in the room.” They can become opportunists, and sometimes their will to persuade causes them to distort the facts.
Promises: Almost all endeavors benefit from Sparkplugs, whose energy and sense of possibility infuses others with courage and motivation. Because they are first to see opportunities and act on them, their talents intersect well with business. Because of their powers of persuasion and personal charm, they are a magnet to others. In fact, Sparkplugs measure their self-worth in how well they can jumpstart action and affiliation in others.
Intersections of Human Capability
Appreciating emerging forms of excellence is a little like learning to cook a new cuisine. In some cases, the recipes rely on unfamiliar ingredients, and in many cases, the finished product will have combined those ingredients in novel ways. Human excellence also follows recipes, and the Rising Stars I’ve described involve the intersection of cognitive abilities, character, and temperament. The intensity of this intersection in any human life constitutes a person’s essence. But in some cases, this intersection gives rise to exceptionality, and remarkable contributions flow from streams of human capability that may seem less remarkable in isolation from each other.
Although the last fifty years of writing on giftedness has occasionally acknowledged gifts that are not strictly intellectual, almost nothing has been written on how to practically identify and nurture those gifts in kids. Why? Because, sadly, most of the writing on giftedness has focused on highlighting “specialness” rather than the prospective achievement that might flow from various “gifts.”
Hopefully, your interest has been piqued enough to stay tuned for the second installment of this newsletter. There, I will discussTranslators, Locomotives, Rangers and Conductors. For now, the snow has begun to fall here on a cold New England evening. Outside my office, the mill pond has frozen, though the ducks, otters, and occasional coyote don’t seem to mind. Watching the snow stream down, it does indeed seem like the sky is falling. Still, it’s hard to suppress excitement about the world we will build to replace the one that has faded. Perhaps one small brick in that enterprise can be the recognition of precious, untapped assets. Where will we find such assets? Easy, you just tucked them into bed.
First Grade Academics Predict Pre-teen Depression
A new study completed at the University of Missouri finds that there is a substantial link between a weak academic performance in the first grade, and a child’s emotional wellbeing in the sixth and seventh grade. Keith Herman, Professor of Education, writes in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, “We found that students in the first grade who struggled academically with core subjects, including reading and math, later displayed negative self-perceptions and symptoms of depression in sixth and seventh grade, respectively. Often, children with poor academic skills believe they have less influence on important outcomes in their life. Poor academic skills can influence how children view themselves as students and as social beings.”Researchers examined the behaviors of 474 boys and girls in the first grade and re-examined the students when they entered middle school. They found that students who struggled academically with core subjects, such as reading and math, in the first grade later showed risk factors for negative self- beliefs and depressive symptoms as they entered sixth and seventh grade. In response to their finding, the research team suggests, “Along with reading and math, teachers and parents should honor skills in other areas, such as interpersonal skills, non-core academic areas, athletics and music.” The researchers also found the effect of academic proficiency on self-perceptions was significantly stronger for girls. Girls who did not advance academically believed that they had less control of important outcomes, a risk factor for symptoms of depression.
Ask Dr. Cox
Q. I first heard you on ABC radio national and was very impressed by your enthusiastic approach to communicating with boys and their education. Your comments led me to think more about my son who is struggling with organization, learning and taking responsibility as well as engaging with teachers and their subjects at his school. My question is how much should a parent be involved in their child’s learning process? My son’s school seems to place a lot of pressure on me as a parent to keep an eye on him and wants me to put pressure on him to complete assignments. He regularly gets detentions for not completing work. They call me at home to inform me that he hasn’t completed an assignment and to remind him. At interviews they emphasize that he can “do it if he tried” and proceed to give him a lecture! The result is a very stressed mum that is hyper vigilant at organizing every detail of his schooling down to asking him to clean out his locker so he can find “such and such a book”. I feel I have to support their system but I really feel that it is bringing us all down at the same time. I am aware that this all creates a negative association with schooling and is eroding my relationship with him as he sees me as a “nagger” and worrier! I am struggling to find what role I play in his development and how far I go in supervising his life when he has just turned 14 and is beginning to resist the directing. Am I too late?
Kerrie B, VIC Australia
I can really feel your stress. So much of what you are asking about has to do with what is called “executive function.” Your son, like many 14 year- old boys, will need a structured system of support to succeed at school. Although your school has the right to expect you to be an active part of that system – the answer does not lie in being more strict or controlling. In essence, the issue is neurodevelopmental – and until your son’s brain has had a chance to mature, he will need to rely on some type of external support. As I have often said, one of the great mistakes is when we moralize about a child’s behavior, rather than searching for pragmatic solutions. Most boys who do not complete their work are less affected by a moral problem, than one of remembering and being organized. There is so very much to say about these issues, that I’ll have to ask you to read some of my other newsletters and especially, No Mind Left Behind.
Are you too late? Never! Accept that it is natural for a 14 year-old to resist direction. Enlist the help of a therapist or executive skills coach who your son relates to well – and attack one thing at a time. Forget about fixing ALL the problems for the time being. Choose the problem whose resolution would most improve your son’s academic situation, and then go about devising some solutions. Ask your son to be a part of the process, but keep it all very “matter of fact,” and be very clear about what a successful outcome will look like.
Q. I just read your book Boys of Few Words. We are having issues with our oldest about writing down assignments, completing the assignments and actually turning them in. He is continually telling us that he does it and the teacher lost the assignment. We are able to check assignments (when they are posted) on the computer and see if they are missing. We have repeatedly told him that these do not go away just because he doesn’t want to do them. Usually these are essay type of assignments. Our son is in the 8th grade. He is one of the youngest in the grade. Our son is in two advance courses Math and English. He was identified as gifted. He has been to counseling. We were in a “gifted camp” this summer that we thought would help with this. We have talked to him. We took things away and he has had to earn them back. Now I am finding out if he really likes the assignment then he works harder to get it in. We have stressed to him that we don’t like to do certain daily jobs but that we have to complete them or there will be consequences. Help!
Lois C., Cleveland, OH
So much of what I’ve said above applies to your situation as well. The key is to find out what aspects of these essay assignments your son does not like. Try not to make the situation a “war of wills.” Rather, help him to understand his feelings and resistance, asking if there are certain things that might make the completion of these assignments easier. Eighth grade boys are somewhat infamous for writer’s block. They do a much better job of expressive writing when they have clear reference materials to write about. Also, it may help to “chunk” these assignments and do interval check-ins to assess his progress. What won’t work is to say “you’re not coming out of that room until the work is done.” Your son’s problem is not a character failing, it’s a processing issue that needs a thorough diagnosis. Check with local private school about a psychologist in your area that specializes in helping middle school students. And remember this: he’s going to be fine. Any boy with the assets you indicate will certainly find his way, even if it takes a year or two to do so.
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