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The 2e Center is located on the campus of Bridges Academy in Studio City, California. In this column, we share what’s happening at our center and report research findings, teaching ideas, and parenting suggestions we have found to be successful in helping 2e kids thrive.
We continue to highlight the findings of a research study facilitated by the 2e Center and featured in Tom Ropelewski’s documentary film “2e: Twice Exceptional.” The study provided helpful insights into the academic, social, and emotional development of young people with twice-exceptionalities. The research uncovered six factors influential in establishing a strong foundation for success:
1. Tolerance for asynchrony
2. Positive relationships
3. A psychologically safe environment
4. Respect for time
5. Talent development
6. Strength-based strategies.
While these factors are important for all children, they are particularly critical for students with exceptionalities. In previous issues we’ve looked at the first two factors: tolerance for asynchrony and positive relationships. This column examines the third factor, the importance of establishing a psychologically safe environment for twice-exceptional students.
By Thomas P. Hébert, Ph.D.
What does a psychologically safe environment look like for a child? One way to describe it is: “a space where a child feels respected, valued, and comfortable, free to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally” (Hébert, 2011). Another definition is:
“an environment in which a child is encouraged both to ask and to answer complex questions…an environment in which individual differences are honored, and no one is ostracized…an environment in which the child can expect to learn new things every day — and to enjoy learning” (Kennedy, 1995).
For teachers, working successfully with twice-exceptional students means understanding how to establish a psychologically safe classroom. Tomlinson (2008) calls attention to the educator’s role and explains, “A great teacher continues to ask the question, ‘What can I do to make certain that each student in this classroom feels safe, valued, accepted, and challenged’?”
In a paper, Willian Purkey described Invitational Education, the educational theory of practice he co-founded with Betty Siegel, this way:
Invitational education is a theory of practice designed to create a total school environment that intentionally summons people in schools to realize their relatively boundless potential. It addresses the global nature of schools, the entire gestalt. Its purpose is to make schooling a more exciting, satisfying and enriching experience for everyone involved in the educative process. Its method is to offer a guiding theory, a common language of improvement, and a practical means to accomplish its stated purpose….Invitational education is finding its way into health care facilities, management work places, and parenting. Wherever it goes, it carries a basic message that human potential, not always evident, is always there, waiting to be discovered and invited forth. Equally important, invitational education offers a concrete, practical, and successful way to accomplish its purposes.
— Purkey, W. W. (1991). What Is Invitational Education and How Does It Work?
The work of William Purkey provides the theoretical basis for designing a psychologically safe classroom environment. He proposed that good teaching involves the process of inviting young people to see themselves as able, valuable, and self-directing and then encouraging them to act according to their self-perceptions. Purkey believed that a teacher’s most important role is to view students in positive ways and to invite them to take responsibility for their lives and to make appropriate decisions regarding their learning. This approach, referred to as Invitational Learning, is centered on four assumptions regarding the nature of people and their potential:
Unfortunately, twice-exceptional students rarely experience Purkey’s assumptions and frequently feel that they are less than valued members of a learning community. More often, they are noticed by what they cannot do and how they don’t fit. Humiliated by their failure to achieve and hampered by their asynchronous development (as described in the two previous columns), 2e youngsters may find it difficult to make friends and fit in socially. Many report being bullied and ostracized by peers. Maslow (1943) argues that learning can only happen when students feel safe, harbor a sense of belonging, and feel respected by those in their environment. In short, a prerequisite to academic success is learning in a psychologically safe environment.
Collectively teachers, administrators, and staff at Bridges Academy work together to consistently maintain a psychologically safe school environment. One faculty member highlighted the importance of creating a welcoming environment where students can find self-acceptance:
Children come here with baggage and you need to give them the opportunity to look at their issues. At Bridges we find out what the students need and then deliver it. It’s about consistency and making sure the students know that we want them here (Baum, Schader & Hébert, 2014, p. 320).
A primary goal at Bridges Academy, then, is to establish an environment where twice-exceptional students feel safe. One student, Andrew, described Bridges as “a friendly place to socialize and grow with other people. It lets you blossom into what you can be” (Baum, Schader & Hébert, 2014).
One of the ways Bridges creates this environment is to take time to assess students’ strengths, interests, and talents. Each school year begins with “Getting to Know You” days, where students explore a diversity of activities and complete assessments such as these:
The students and advisors debrief their experiences and discuss assessment results as a means to helping the students develop personal talent plans and setting goals related to their strengths, interests, and talents. During these first days of school, the faculty and staff do all they can to ensure that Bridges students feel valued for what they can do and ask them to identify ways their personal strengths, interests, and talents can contribute to the Bridges Learning Community.
Not only at Bridges do teachers take time to get to know their students. Many teachers find that the time and effort expended on implementing activities that help them learn about their students help them to establish a psychologically safe environment for their students. Following are three strategies that you might like to try.*
Introductions through Poetry
On the first day of school, teachers pair students and provide them the time to get to know each other in quiet conversation. Once the pair has spent time gathering information about each other’s lives beyond the classroom, they are asked to write a poem describing their new classmate. Each line of the poem is limited to two words. The students introduce their new partner to the class and share their poems, such as:
By Roderick Johnson (Hébert, 2011)
To accompany the poems, students also proudly display artwork or personal snapshots in the classroom.
Another strategy designed to have students come to know each other and their teacher is conducting interest inventories. These serve to help teachers provide twice-exceptional students with meaningful educational experiences that develop interests, nurture strengths, and challenge learning potential. Educators enjoy getting together and brainstorming questions to include in the interest inventories that will uncover the authentic interests of their students. Examples of the types of questions posed are:
Teachers find it helpful to incorporate activities that highlight the importance of friendships forming amongst students. A good basis for these activities is children’s literature that revolves around friendships. A teacher shares a children’s picture book with students and then facilitates an artistic activity related to the book. Teachers have also found that group discussion of the book is another valuable activity that promotes a culture of respect among students and appreciation for one another.
We encourage teachers of twice-exceptional students to consider the approaches presented here and to experiment with them in their classrooms. Moreover, teachers may want to apply their own personal creativity and design their own.
Thomas P. Hébert, Ph.D., is a member of the Executive Board of the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development and is a Professor of Gifted and Talented Education in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina. He has more than a decade of K-12 classroom experience working with gifted students and over 20 years in higher education, training graduate students and educators in gifted education. In addition, he has conducted research for the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.