The Mythology of Learning, Part 4

Academic and Emotional Readiness: Understanding the Connection for Twice-Exceptional Students

By Lesli Preuss, Ph.D., Susan Baum, Ph.D.,  and
Carl Sabatino, Head of School

July, 2009

Nelson is a 13-year-old boy who is striking in many ways. He stands at least a head above his peers and can communicate about electronics in a sophisticated way. He’s also a master at building and architecture, and he has planned an ecologically friendly city that he hopes to get approved for construction one day. He has a heart of gold and can often be found volunteering at Habitat for Humanity or the ASPCA. Yet, Nelson has recently been asked to leave his school for fighting and “extreme anxiety.” He vomits daily when he arrives at school and is incapable of getting along with his classmates. He argues or physically fights with them on a regular basis. Despite these emotional issues, when his parents attended a school conference to discuss Nelson’s difficulties, they persisted in talking about Nelson’s academic work and his need to be challenged. That theme dominated the meeting at school rather than why he was emotionally upset in an arena that should play to his natural gifts.

 Maggie is a young girl of ten, scheduled to begin the fifth grade this fall. Maggie tests at the 99.9th percentile on all standardized intelligence and achievement tests, with commensurate grades in school. Over the past year, however, she has begun to refuse to attend school and cries every Sunday night because she can’t face the thought of going to school for another week. Her teachers have noticed a precipitous decline in her participation in class and report that Maggie is heading to the school nurse’s office about three to four times per day. She has been missing assignments and her grades are dropping in spite of her clear intellectual prowess. Her parents are puzzled. There have been no obvious social issues – Maggie doesn’t report being teased or bullied – yet it’s clear that she’s very unhappy at school.

 Exposing a Myth

It’s a common myth that academic success is independent of social and emotional well-being. Believing that social/emotional issues can be separated from academic concerns is problematic and can lead to faulty solutions. Nelson’s and Maggie’s scenarios represent some of the challenges facing twice-exceptional students every day. These students present us with a dual challenge – to help them achieve academic success and to help alleviate their apparent social/emotional pain.

However, many well-meaning parents ask schools to focus on the academics without understanding the role that emotional well being plays. Some parents, sometimes parents of twice-exceptional children dealing with persistent social/emotional issues, want to set aside those concerns for later discussion. They believe that focusing on the academic concern – either greater challenge or perhaps remediation – will improve performance. Still other parents grasp the connection between academic success and social/emotional concerns but believe that more challenging work will mitigate their child’s social/emotional problems.

What’s needed is a deeper, and ultimately more useful, understanding of the relationship among these variables: academic success, social/emotional state, and more challenging work. Looking at the unique intersection of two theories from the fields of psychology and education can shed some light on the relationship among the three variables. In the rest of this article we’ll look at the significance to 2e education of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and of Talent Development Theory.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

maslow hierarchy

One of the most common grievances of the students at Bridges Academy is that they feel they did not “fit in” at their previous schools. Children’s sense of being understood and feeling accepted is an integral part of their success in an environment of higher-level learning. A careful examination of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs diagram, shown on the next page, effectively demonstrates the importance of meeting certain emotional needs so that a child will be “available to learn.” 

The idea that a sense of belonging forms the foundation of self-esteem, achievement, and higher-level thinking is not novel. Maslow posited his theory of five hierarchical levels of human needs nearly four decades ago (Maslow, 1970). Notice in the diagram that there are five levels of needs. Moving from the bottom of the pyramid to the top, each grouping of needs must be met before a person can progress to the next higher level. According to Maslow, our physiological needs must be met before we can develop a sense of love and belonging, which requires a sense of trust in others. The higher needs on the pyramid will never be reached if an individual has not developed a sense of belonging and trust in others. Therefore, we cannot expect a child who lacks a sense of confidence, self-worth, and self-actualization to demonstrate problem-solving abilities, creativity, and academic achievement.

When it comes to meeting the needs of underachieving students, many educational settings have ignored the middle levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Concerns about a child’s fitting into an environment and feeling like a valued member of the learning community are rarely considered in seeking solutions to academic difficulties, especially for gifted and 2e students. However, this kind of environment is essential in order for a child to learn.

Talent Development Theory

Now, let’s see what role Talent Development Theory plays in meeting the needs of twice-exceptional students. This theory recognizes the importance of aligning curriculum and instruction to students’ strengths, interests, readiness levels, and talents.

Subtle and not-so-subtle factors can influence feelings of belonging. For instance, a curriculum that fails to consider student strengths, interests, readiness levels, and talents can make students feel invisible and undervalued, without an invitation to learn. When Bridges Academy applies Talent Development Theory to 2e students, we look at a student’s need to belong by assessing the classroom to see if the child’s social/emotional distress stems from an academic origin. Specifically, the factors we look at are the amount of stimulation, appropriateness of the instructional strategies, and grade level. Sometimes, altering the environment to address these elements of learning may be all that’s needed. The changes have a positive psychological impact, and we see students become excited about the material, feel comfortable with their performance, and see themselves as accepted and respected by their peers for their academic ability. The academic changes fulfill fundamental needs in Maslow’s pyramid.

Nevertheless, when a child performs poorly and/or has a bad day at school, it’s more often than not due to peer conflict and/or isolation rather than whether or not the right educational material was presented. The 2e child is particularly affected because of asynchrony (uneven development across cognitive and psychological domains). In many schools, a typical day for a 2e student includes moving between grade levels and classrooms so that he or she does not belong to any particular group. Many of these students have experienced a painful and frustrating journey in their search for a good match. Some have attended multiple schools by the time they reach high school. They don’t experience the consistency and sense of belonging that most neuro-typical students enjoy. In fact, they often feel alienated by their differences. Such feelings of isolation negatively influence self-esteem and positive identity formation.

By virtue of their classification, 2e students have no place in most school systems. They do not fit comfortably in either the gifted program or the special education program. These students may obtain services from multiple school departments throughout the day. The traditional educational system creates a dilemma for 2e students like Nelson or Maggie, introduced earlier in this article. They never master the essential stage of belonging, which creates enormous emotional distress and prevents them from performing at their expected levels.

How to Develop a Sense of Belonging

The student body at Bridges Academy, more than 110 and growing, is comprised of gifted students with AD/HD, dyslexia, nonverbal learning disabilities, and other learning disabilities. It is well documented that the brains of these students work differently than neuro-typical brains. Many of these students have extraordinary social skills, while others do not. How do we help our students feel as if they have found a place to belong? There are several key characteristics of the program that promote the development of this feeling:

  • The entire student population is 2e. Students are socializing with others like themselves, often for the first time.
  • Every student is bright and has an awareness and understanding of his or her own disabilities and the disabilities of other students. The program is geared toward assisting children with multiple exceptionalities.
  • The talent-development model that the program employs makes use of differentiated instruction, which has been found to lead to less isolation and feelings of being different than an accommodation model (Tomlinson, 1999). The faculty enriches the content, creates alternative processes and products, and carefully controls the learning environment. Several accommodations are built into the structure of the classroom.                 

In addition, the attitude of the administration, faculty, and students toward cognitive and emotional diversity also encourages a student’s sense of belonging. While there are many diversity programs implemented in schools across the country, few focus on cognitive, psychological, and emotional exceptionalities. At Bridges Academy, these exceptionalities form a critical element of the curriculum. On any given day, a student may say or do something that arises out of this form of diversity. It’s not uncommon to hear a child say something like “I’m sorry, I just had a ‘Bridges moment.’” This assertion is not an excuse for behavior, but rather a statement of that child’s awareness of his or her neurological difference that helps the other students understand an awkward social moment. There is a school-wide acceptance of individual differences, which leads to understanding and compassion. In this kind of environment, a student is more likely to feel acceptance, love, and belonging.

Bridges’ philosophy in regard to 2e students is not like other schools’. Many programs are based on a deficit model, and teachers strive for students to learn and function in a more neuro-typical way. For example, if a student is struggling with writing and/or note taking, the traditional program helps the student find a process that leads to greater production. At Bridges, skills are taught with an emphasis on helping the student to identify his or her preferred learning style and mode of expression. A student who communicates well using video essays or PowerPoint presentations will learn to hone these skills while also learning the basics of writing. We recognize that our students are not “typical”; they are unique. There is no blueprint for success that they can follow. Each will find his or her own path to success guided by personal interests and talent development. The faculty facilitates this process by guiding emerging talent and providing opportunities for it to flourish.

Example Students

Let’s get back to Nelson and Maggie. How would Bridges Academy help these students?

The faculty support team would conduct a careful observation and analysis of Nelson’s academic/social/emotional environment. Most of his talent development occurs outside of school. He uses the SIMS game at home to create sophisticated city infrastructures, and he takes part in multiple community organizations. A thoughtful strategy for helping Nelson would use his interests to mend his difficulty with his peers and build relationships with them. If Nelson forms the Bridges Academy Architecture Club, for example, or if he conducts fund-raisers at school for the prevention of animal cruelty, then he will find other students who share these interests and he will develop the sense of belonging he craves. The school psychologist will work closely with Nelson’s parents to help them understand and accept the idea that a focus on their son’s emotional well-being in the short run will lead to greater academic successes in the long run. It also will strengthen the parent/school partnership every 2e student needs for success. If Maslow’s theory holds true, Nelson’s academic performance will also improve.

Maggie’s story presents a slightly different scenario. There is no sense of peer rejection, nor is there peer acceptance. Her asynchronous development has created a sense of isolation. Maggie attends a fifth-grade English class and sixth-grade math and science classes, and she participates in a Homework Support class that pulls her out of an advisory period. Maggie would thrive in a class that mixed fifth and sixth graders who participated at their own academic level, while remaining within the same group of students throughout the day. The differentiated model used at Bridges Academy allows this to happen, ensuring that the enrichment and support Maggie requires to succeed are available in the same classroom. This model also allows Maggie to complete assignments in a variety of equally valued formats. Viewing Maggie’s situation through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, her sense of belonging would increase, her self-esteem would be enhanced, and she would develop a general sense of well-being. With these needs met, Maggie could quickly return to her outstanding academic performance.

Conclusion

In Bridges Academy’s inclusive, strength-based educational model, students are at the center of the program; and they are given a place to belong. Students are on a path to achievement, self-esteem, and creative production. It’s essential for parents and professionals to understand and accept that the ideal 2e educational environment strongly emphasizes meeting the social/emotional needs of students so that they are available for learning and able to focus their attention on developing their gifts. Bridges Academy offers a working model of this approach, which it adapts and refines to meet the complex needs of its students.

All of the authors of this article work at Bridges Academy in the following capacities: Lesli Preuss is the School Psychologist; Susan Baum is Director of Professional Development, and Carl Sabatino is Head of School.

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