Thursday, May 6, 2021

Social Development of the Gifted*

Parents know that the development of social skills is crucial for their children. Kids need to know how to make friends, get along with all kinds of people, and act as respectful and responsible citizens if they are going to be successful in school and as adults. Parents also want their children to develop self-confidence, a sense of self-worth, and the ability to advocate for their needs because these are also crucial for success and happiness. 

Many gifted children struggle to feel a sense of belonging at school or get frustrated and feel alone when the other kids their age don’t seem to get them. They may notice that other kids aren’t asking the questions they are asking or doing the kinds of work they can do, so they hold back and hide their true selves. 
As a former student once said, “There are more people who get me and who I can be myself with in my class of 10 at Seabury than there were in the 90 kids in my grade level at my previous school.” The things gifted kids need to support their social growth can be counterintuitive, leading well-meaning parents and educators to put gifted kids in situations that hinder their growth rather than supporting it.

In the article below, Dr. Linda Silverman, founder of the Gifted Development Center and expert in how gifted children grow and develop, reviews what we know about what gifted kids need to develop their social skills and a positive sense of themselves. At Seabury, key to our mission is providing bright children an environment where they can learn socialization skills with peers and caring adults who understand them. We've found over the years that our students leave Seabury feeling good about themselves, well on their way to becoming the healthy, compassionate global citizens that Dr. Silverman speaks to in her article. 

Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D.
Gifted Development Center

Abstract

Socialization means adapting to the needs of the group, whereas social development indicates positive self-concept and concern for the welfare of others. The former may result in alienation from one’s inner self, while the latter leads to self-actualization. Gifted children have positive social development when they are respected in their families; when their parents value the inherent worth of all human beings; when they find true peers of similar ability at an early age; and when they interact with the mainstream after they have developed a strong sense of their own acceptability.


Social Development vs. Socialization

There has been a remarkable prioritization in American education on the process of socialization. This emphasis has intensified in the last two decades at the expense of learning, particularly in middle school philosophy. Students who love learning the most, and who are capable of learning the fastest, are the ones who have paid the highest price for this agenda.

It is generally assumed that unless the gifted are grouped with students of diverse abilities, they will “never learn to get along with others.” Therefore, all provisions for gifted students—ability grouping, acceleration, pull-out programs, full day programs, special schools, homeschooling – are held suspect on the grounds that they will “seriously interfere with social adjustment.” Contrary to popular beliefs, an immense amount of research accumulated over the last century indicates that gifted children tend to enjoy greater popularity, greater social competence, more mature social relations, earlier psychological maturity, and fewer indications of psychological problems than their less gifted peers (Silverman, 1993, 2013). Almost all of this research was conducted with students involved with special provisions, such as acceleration or special classes. Clearly, socialization does not suffer when special provisions are made for these students’ learning needs. There is no evidence that regular classroom placement enhances the socialization of gifted students to a greater degree than grouping them for instruction with others of similar abilities, level of mastery, and readiness to learn advanced content. 

Terms such as socialization and social development are used interchangeably in the gifted education literature, but these actually are very different concepts. Socialization is defined as adapting to the common needs of the social group (Webster, 1979, p. 1723) or acquiring “the beliefs, behaviors, and values deemed significant and appropriate by other members of society” (Shaffer, 1988, p. 2). Gifted youth do have the inclination to adapt to the group, but at what price? If one works very hard at fitting in with others, especially when one feels very different from others, self-alienation can result. In their desperation to belong, many “well-adjusted” gifted youth and adults have given up or lost touch with vital parts of themselves.

Social development is a much broader concept than socialization; it may be thought of as awareness of socially acceptable behavior, enjoyment of other people, concern for humanity and the development of mutually rewarding relationships with at least a few kindred spirits. Lasting friendships are based on mutual interests and values, not on age. Self-acceptance is a related goal, as people who like themselves are more capable of liking others. When framed in this way, social development becomes a precursor to self-actualization, whereas socialization is merely the desire to conform, which may inhibit self-actualization. If the aim for gifted young people is social development rather than socialization, they need to be provided with true peers who are their intellectual equals, a program of humanitarian studies to enhance their awareness of global interdependence, and counseling for greater understanding, acceptance and appreciation of themselves as well as of others.

The Foundation of Social Development

A parent who had just learned that her son was exceptionally gifted remarked fearfully, “But I want my child to be a good neighbor!” She was worried that if her son was placed in a school or self-contained program for the gifted, he would not be able to get along with anyone except other gifted children. His IQ score was beyond the norms in the manual, estimated in excess of 170. His parents were not prepared for their son to be this bright; his mother wanted more than anything for him to lead a “normal life.”

For this child’s parents, as for so many other children’s, “being normal” means having the ability to get along with people from all walks of life. This is an important value for most people, particularly parents of the gifted. How does a gifted child learn to do this? There appear to be four key factors involved in gifted children’s social development:

  •   a responsive home environment in which the child is respected;
  •   parental respect for individuals of all backgrounds and socio-economic status;
  •   opportunities to relate to other gifted children—particularly during the early years, when self-concept is being formed;
  •   opportunities to relate to the mainstream during adolescence.

Children are sponges, absorbing all that their environments have to offer—language patterns, attitudes, values, impressions of themselves. They usually begin life trusting, affectionate, exhilarated with each new discovery. If children are cherished by their parents, they come to cherish themselves and feel secure. A child whose ideas and needs are respected at home is likely to respect the needs of other children. Children also imitate the way their parents talk about and act toward others. When parents genuinely appreciate people of all backgrounds and abilities, their children usually do the same. 

Due to their expert ability to pick up social cues, girls are better than boys at imitation.
Therefore, it is important for them to be in an environment where imitation is conducive to growth. If they live in a home filled with kindness, they learn to be kind. If they live next door to children who call each other names, they learn how to swear. And if a girl who is mentally 8 years old is placed in a kindergarten with only 5 year olds, she will imitate the behavior of 5 year olds.

Many gifted children receive a good foundation for self-esteem within their families. Then something happens: they meet other children. By the age of 5 or 6, openness and confidence are frequently replaced with self-doubt and layers of protective defenses. Being different is a problem in childhood. Young children – even gifted ones – do not have the capacity to comprehend differences. They have difficulty understanding why other children do not talk like them or respond to their friendship in a predictable manner. They equate differentness with being “strange” or unacceptable, and this becomes the basis of their self-concept. It’s difficult for a child who has been wounded continuously by peers to feel generosity toward others. It takes positive experiences with children like themselves to build the self-confidence needed for healthy peer relations. Later, when their self-concepts are fully formed, they are better equipped to understand differences, to put negative feedback of age peers in perspective, and to gain appreciation of the diversity of their classmates. But acceptance precedes positive social values. 

Children only learn to love others when they have achieved self-love. The process usually involves the following stages: 

  1. self-awareness; 
  2. finding kindred spirits; 
  3. feeling understood and accepted by others; 
  4. self-acceptance; 
  5. recognition of the differences in others; and, eventually, 
  6. the development of understanding, acceptance and appreciation of others.

Self-awareness includes being aware of how one is like others and how one is different from others. Gifted children are, in fact, different from their age-mates in many ways. They tend to be ashamed of these differences and try to hide them unless they find kindred spirits early in life. These kindred spirits help normalize their experiences and provide the safety for them to be who they really are. They provide the acceptance, understanding, and give and take on an equal basis that is required for true, lasting friendships to develop. When children find friends who accept them they become able to accept themselves. From this strong foundation, they can see how others are different from themselves without needing to imitate the norm. 

When a solid base of self-esteem is developed in early childhood, gifted students are better equipped to branch out and make friends with others who are unlike themselves. Adolescence is developmentally the most appropriate stage for these widening horizons of social interaction. Gifted adolescents select their closest friends from among their mental peers, but they can also participate in team sports, band, extra-curricular clubs, church and community activities, and social events in which they have opportunities to interact with students who have a wide range of abilities. With a support system of gifted friends and classmates, they can join in other groups without fear of rejection, and they are more likely to gain respect and assume leadership positions. 

Stages of Friendship

Early childhood educators generally hold the belief that children are only capable of socializing with others close to their age. They receive no training about the advanced development of gifted children or the fact that they play best with older children. As the concept of mental age has been abandoned in psychology, there is little awareness that gifted children’s friendship patterns and social conceptions are more related to their mental age than their chronological age (Gross, 2009).

Miraca Gross (2009) proposed a model of age-related stages in the development of expectations about friendship; at each stage, the degree of conceptual complexity increases:

  Stage 1. “Play Partner”: A friend is a playmate who shares toys. 

  Stage 2. “People to chat to”: Shared interests take the place of shared activities. 

  Stage 3. “Help and encouragement”: A friend is someone who offers assistance and support, but the child does not see the need to reciprocate. 

  Stage 4. “Intimacy/empathy”: True reciprocity develops, along with affection, bonding, emotional sharing and intimacy. 

  Stage 5. “The sure shelter”: Faithful friends develop deep and lasting relationships involving trust and unconditional acceptance. (pp. 343-344) 

Gross conducted studies of the conceptions of friendship held by average, moderately gifted, exceptionally gifted and profoundly gifted children. She found strong correlations between intellectual development (mental age) and conceptions of friendship. Differences between gifted and average samples were much greater in the preschool and primary years than in the later years of elementary school. Significant differences were even observed between exceptionally and profoundly gifted children. 

Some profoundly gifted children in the early years of school had expectations of friendship that normally do not appear until the years of early adolescence. These children face almost insurmountable difficulties in their search for friendship, at an age when most children view a friend as a companion for casual play. 

This study suggests that it is in the lower, rather than the upper, grades that placement with chronological peers, without regard to intellectual ability or emotional maturity, is more likely to result in the gifted child experiencing loneliness or social isolation. (Gross, 2009, p. 344).

Opportunities to relate to gifted peers in the early, formative years lay the foundation for positive social development. 

Mental Age

Though no longer popular, mental age puts in perspective the advanced development of gifted children and helps parents and teachers understand their needs. Mental age predicts:

  •   the sophistication of the child’s play, 
  •   the age of true peers, 
  •   maturity of the child’s sense of humor, 
  •   ethical judgment, 
  •   awareness of the world. 

A 5-year-old boy who thinks like an 8 year old will be more interested in chess, Monopoly, and more sophisticated games than activities that are of interest to children his age. Young gifted boys appear to have greater difficulty than girls relating to children who are not at their own developmental level. They think the games of average children are “silly,” “babyish.” 

Average 5 year olds are not yet ready to grasp the concept of rules. They exclaim, “I win!” after each game. That’s the whole point of playing for them. A gifted 5 year old with a mental age of 8 comprehends rules, and is probably rule bound, which is typical for 8 year olds. The average child and the gifted child are at two different stages of intellectual development. When the average child squeals, “I win!” the gifted child retorts, “He cheats! I’m not playing with him anymore.” Gifted preschool and primary children relate much more easily to children who are similarly advanced or to older children who are close to their mental age. 

Gender Differences in Socialization

Young gifted children may shut down emotionally if they cannot connect with the others in their class. By the age of 5 or 6, once-confident gifted children may be filled with self-doubt and have acquired cumulative layers of protective defenses. They may try to imitate others their age, hiding their true selves, or they may withdraw. They notice how different they are from others their age and they begin to feel “strange” and unacceptable. Parents report that their buoyant, confident, exuberant toddler gradually becomes subdued and uncertain during the preschool and primary years. One parent wrote:

Alice is doing all she can to blend in and not stand out as different. She does not ask all the questions she used to. Alice is not the same person she was before she started going to school. Before she started kindergarten she had an insatiable quest for more knowledge. We are concerned because we think she is a bright child who is turning off.

Profoundly gifted preschoolers are bewildered by the mismatch between their interests and those of their classmates. Antoine’s teacher discouraged him from bringing his favorite video, the ballet of “The Nutcracker Suite,” to share with the other 3 year olds. When he was 4, he made a model of Mars for Show and Tell, and the following week he discussed black holes, implosion and explosion. He couldn’t understand why his classmates weren’t interested.

Alice and Antoine exemplify the gender differences observed in social responses of young gifted girls and boys. Alice sought to blend in with other children her age. Her need for affiliation triumphed over her intellectual curiosity. She readily stopped asking questions and slowed down her natural learning trajectory in order to have friends. Antoine pursued his desire for knowledge at the expense of social connection. Undaunted by his classmates’ indifference to the two moons of Mars, Antoine followed up with a dissertation on black holes. Staying true to himself, Antoine chose his need to learn over his need for friends, and eventually insisted that his mother homeschool him.

Because they refuse to sacrifice who they are for the good of the group, gifted boys are considered poorly socialized. By way of contrast, gifted girls are socially adapted at the expense of their giftedness (Kerr, 1994). Gifted girls are chameleons. They have enhanced ability to perceive social cues, making it easier for them to modify their behavior to fit into a group. They frequently don the mental attire of the other girls in their class, and soon become imperceptible from them. They receive daily practice in sliding by without stretching themselves, hiding who they are to make everyone else comfortable, and being less than they are capable of being. Eventually, they trade their dreams for simpler, less demanding goals.

The antidote is early contact with others like themselves. Girls who have a gifted peer group in a context that supports diversity do not hide their abilities (Eddles-Hirsch, Vialle, McCormick & K. Rogers, 2012). Gifted peers normalize boys’ and girls’ experience and they do not come to see themselves as “weird.” They make friends easily with others with similar interests, values, vocabularies, and levels of development. Interaction with true peers who are mental equals facilitates social development and prevents social isolation. 

It is particularly critical for gifted girls to associate with mental peers early in life. Without the encouragement of the social group to develop their talents, much of their ability may be permanently lost. The amount of waste of talent from atrophy and lack of development is incalculable. Since life goals and attitudes toward achievement are often formed before school-age, the earlier positive intervention occurs, the more likely that girls will be able to value and develop their intellectual capabilities without loss of social status.

Children who have early contact with others like themselves do not come to see themselves as different or “weird.” They are able to make friends easily with others who think and feel like they do, who communicate on their level and share their interests. Association with true peers prevents alienation. “The word peer refers to individuals who can interact on an equal plane around issues of common interest” (Roedell, 1989, p. 25). Wendy Roedell, a developmental psychologist who studied the social development of young gifted children, found that getting along with those who are different depends on opportunities to interact with true peers. She suggested that a major function of programs for gifted children is to help them discover their true peers at an early age. “While adaptation is important, gifted young children also need the give-and-take of interactions with others of equal ability, where they can find acceptance and understanding, the keys to the development of successful social skills and positive self-concept” (Roedell, 1989, p. 26). 

Similarly, Miraca Gross and her colleagues in Australia note that gifted children who do not have access to others like themselves face a “forced choice” between their intellectual needs and their desire for acceptance by less-advanced classmates (J. Jung, McCormick, & Gross, 2012, p. 15). Gifted preschoolers and kindergarten-aged children define themselves through their first social interactions, and if the gap between their development and that of their playmates is too great, they have difficulty adjusting.

Roedell (1988) reminds us of the essential link between cognitive, social and emotional development:

When parents and teachers understand the implications of the differentness inherent in being gifted, they can create conditions that will support the child’s positive social and emotional growth. The first step is to realize the inextricable link between social and cognitive development ... If the child also makes the discovery that communication with classmates is difficult, and that others do not share his/her vocabulary, skills, or interests, peer interactions may prove limited and unsatisfactory. We cannot ignore the gifted child’s need for intellectual stimulation and expect social development to flourish. (pp. 10-11)

Elitism

There is a pervasive myth that if gifted children are told they are gifted, they will gain “swelled heads” and hold everyone else in disdain. In fact, the opposite is true. Children who are never told about their giftedness often think that they are average, and if they understand something, everyone else should understand it just as well. When gifted children are given the opportunity to discuss as a group what it means to be gifted, they understand themselves better and have greater compassion for others. Gifted children from various parts of the world have shared in such groups that they believe everyone has equal worth, regardless of ability. Giftedness does not mean “better than”; instead, it means “different from.” When these specific differences are talked about, instead of hidden, children develop healthy attitudes about themselves and about others. Many gifted children want to help, want to be of service, and are eager to support others. They do not adopt elitist attitudes unless these are modeled by adults. Being placed in classes with other gifted children curbs arrogance, rather than fostering it. Perhaps for the first time, the child realizes that someone else is more advanced in mathematics, is reading harder books, and knows more about dinosaurs or space. It can be a very humbling experience to a child who thrives on being the “best” in the class.


Conclusion

Gifted children need acceptance and respect from their families. They need parents who truly believe that everyone on the planet is of equal value and worthy of respect. Parents with humanitarian values, who work for the common good, who are involved in community service, will teach through example how to use one’s gifts for the good of all. Gifted children need to find other children like themselves as early as possible so that they feel accepted and understood. This will form the basis of lasting friendships and true social development. They need teachers to look for and develop their strengths, rather than to focus on their weaknesses or equalize their abilities. And they need experience with the mainstream when they have formed a strong enough self-concept so that they are not dependent on acceptance from agemates who might not understand them. Only then will they grow to be healthy, compassionate global citizens.

References

Gross, M.U.M. (2009). Highly gifted young people: Development from childhood to adulthood. In L. V. Shavinina (Ed.), International handbook on giftedness: Part 1 (pp. 337-351). Amsterdam: Springer Science.

Eddles-Hirsch, K., Vialle, W., McCormick, J., & Rogers, K. (2012). Insiders or outsiders: The role of social context in the peer relations of gifted students. Roeper Review, 34, 53-62.

Jung, J. Y., McCormick, J., & Gross, M.U.M. (2012). The forced choice dilemma: A model incorporating idiocentric/allocentric cultural orientation. Gifted Child Quarterly, 56, 15-24.

Kerr, B. A. (1994). Smart girls two. Dayton, OH: Ohio Psychology.

Roedell, W. C. (1988). "I just want my child to be happy": Social development and young gifted children. Understanding Our Gifted, 1(1), 1, 7, 10-11.

Roedell, W. C. (1989). Early development of gifted children. In J. VanTassel-Baska & P. Olszewski-Kubilius (Eds.), Patterns of influence on gifted learners: The home, the self, and the school (pp. 13-28). New York: Teachers College Press.

Shaffer, D. R. (1988). Social and personality development (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Silverman, L. K. (1993). Social development, leadership and gender. In L. K. Silverman (Ed.), Counseling the gifted and talented (pp. 291-327). Denver: Love.

Silverman, L. K. (2013). Giftedness 101. New York: Springer.

Webster, N. (1979). Webster's deluxe unabridged dictionary (2nd ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.


*This article was adapted from Silverman, L. K. (2000, Winter). Social development in the gifted. MENSA Journal, pp. 31-38, and Silverman, L. K. (2013). Giftedness 101. New York: Springer.


Monday, November 9, 2020

The COVID crisis and the gifted child


We know for a fact that the COVID-19 crisis is impacting the lives of the world’s children and their education in ways we can’t yet begin to quantify. And, the “unparalleled educational disruption is far from over,” the United Nations warned in an August 2020 policy brief.

At Seabury School, our favorite definition of intellectual giftedness comes from Annemarie Roeper, founder of the internationally renowned school that bears her name. 

Giftedness is “a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and to transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences." 

So, it should be no surprise that gifted kids experience the COVID pandemic differently in many ways than typically developing kids their age. 

Gifted children experience the world with an added intensity. They develop asynchronously, meaning their intellectual, social, emotional and physical development happen at different rates. As a result, they often intellectually understand things they are not emotionally ready to process. During COVID-19, along with everything else that has happened in 2020, that adds to their potential worry and uncertainty. 

In the best of times, gifted children are often in school programs that are not designed to meet their needs. Because teachers typically do not have training or expertise in the unique needs of gifted students, they often don’t recognize the challenges or know how to best support their gifted students. During COVID, this may be compounded by the shift to distance learning where the focus in many schools has been on minimizing learning deficits for all students rather than providing new challenges for the most capable and where gifted students may find themselves more isolated than ever from intellectual peers who provide support and connection.

We contacted Linda Silverman, founder of the Gifted Development Center in Colorado and expert in the field of gifted education, to get her perspective on what highly capable students need during this crisis. 

“Gifted children need each other. They need to interact with others who share their sensitivity, asynchrony, questioning of the way things are,” she said. “They thrive in special schools and programs with teachers who are trained and experienced in working with the unique needs of the gifted population.”

Since its founding in 1989, Seabury has taken a child-centered approach to meeting the needs of our gifted students, from pre-k through eighth grade. We understand them and have built our program to support them. From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was clear that we would need to apply what we know about our students to our COVID response plans and to be prepared for our students to experience this crisis with the same intensity they bring to most everything else. From the development of our distance learning program to our safety protocols on campus, our plans had to take into account the unique needs and perspectives of our students.  

As we enter our eighth month living with the pandemic, we have learned a great deal. We continue to adjust as we see the impacts on our students. Here are some things to consider:

  • Gifted children often have physical sensitivities. At our school, it is common for kids to need the tags cut out of their clothes, be picky eaters, and be sensitive to certain textures. As we began to think about mask protocols, we realized it would be important for students to bring their own masks. There was no way one kind of mask would work for everyone. By allowing families to work with children to find the style, fabric and fit that works best, we are having success with students wearing masks at school. 
  • Being a gifted child can be lonely. It can be hard to relate peers with different interests, different worries and different kinds of thoughts. As we planned for distance learning, we knew it would be important to provide opportunities for our students to be able to interact with peers who ask the same kinds of questions and experience the same kinds of concerns. It was important for teachers and aides to check in to help kids feel safe, understood and appreciated. We found that check-in routines, small group sharing, advisory groups and time to socialize during virtual meetings help students feel connected, better understood, and less isolated. 
  • Gifted children love to learn. Our program is built on hands-on, inquiry-based explorations where questions from students drive the direction of study and inspire deep dives. As we quickly shifted to distance learning last spring, we knew that our distance-learning program needed to maintain this focus. Students needed opportunities to explore ideas but also to build models and do hands-on science experiments. Building a distance-learning program that relied on one-size-fits-all packets wouldn’t be a good fit for our kids. As a result, distance learning has evolved to include monthly distance-learning boxes with supplies for art projects, science experiments, novel studies and more. Distance-learning projects have been developed with the same kinds of open-ended opportunities for creative exploration and expression that are at the core of in-person school at Seabury.
  • Gifted children need the support of people who understand them, from kids who share their endless questions and sophisticated humor, to adults who recognize that they are smart worriers who need support, encouragement and places where they feel safe. Our school is one of those places for our students. For many, it is the first school environment they’ve been able to truly be themselves. Check-in time with adults and peers, whether on campus or in distance learning, has been vital during this time. We published a Distance Learning Support Tree specific to each class, with contact information for staff members.
  • Gifted children can be prone to worry and existential depression. Teachers need to balance their students’ drive to know and understand with their readiness to emotionally cope with reality. We are not only in a pandemic, but also in a time of unrest in many parts of the world. Our students, even the youngest, feel the tension. We work to balance time for questions with opportunities to process big feelings. Mindfulness practices, community service projects, and time to decompress and have fun help kids manage the oversized emotions that can come with being gifted.
  • Executive function skills include organization, time management, breaking down tasks into smaller parts and managing materials. Those can come later for highly capable students than for typical kids their age. We spend a lot of time in our classrooms, and especially in our virtual classrooms, helping students develop executive function skills so they can turn their incredible insights and unique ideas into finished work. During distance learning, teachers have needed to be innovative to provide the support required for students to navigate virtual meetings, manage their time, learn new platforms and make school at home doable.
  • Passion projects are opportunities for students to learn about things that inspire them. This has been one positive about the pandemic for many gifted students. There’s been time at home to go down rabbit holes, whether it be to learn the origins of black holes, attempt to memorize all the countries on the globe, explore the chemistry of yeast in bread baking, or discover the fertilizer that makes the garden grow best. Time for exploration that sparks imaginations and inspires independent learning is critical for bright kids. Passion projects have long been part of our regular curriculum, but as we developed our distance-learning program, we built in even more time for passion projects. Teachers have shared that it’s been fun during distance learning to see where kids’ interests have taken them.

Growing up gifted can be hard. Growing up gifted during COVID is harder. Thankfully, our kids are resilient, and they are finding ways to thrive in spite of the challenges. Understanding giftedness, providing support and connection, and encouraging self-advocacy and independence can make a huge difference for our students as they navigate these strange and uncertain times. 

Seabury School can provide resources whether your child is an enrolled #seaburykid or one in another situation, who we still fondly think of as a #seaburykid. Please check out www.seabury.org for more information.

– Head of School Sandi Wollum

Thursday, September 24, 2020

In-person learning rolls out at Seabury School

Our pre-k kids (covered under childcare regulations) have been at school in person all year. They're doing great.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Distance Learning at Seabury: Personalized, active – and fun!

With the most recent mandate from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department instructing schools to open the year in distance learning for K-8 students, distance learning will be part of the landscape for all schools in the upcoming school year. So what will distance learning look like this year at Seabury?

We have spent the summer preparing a distance learning program designed specifically for Seabury’s gifted students that reflects both our successes and challenges from last spring. Seabury’s teachers know how gifted kids learn and grow. They know how to tailor programs that stretch kids’ thinking, develop their skills, and support both their academic and social-emotional growth. Distance learning at Seabury is not a series of one-size-fits-all, pre-designed packets or dry lessons that keep a student staring at a screen all day. It is personalized, active, and as often as possible, FUN! We have also worked to make it easier for students and families to navigate.



Seabury focuses on the development of the whole child, so in distance learning, just like when we are at school, we will address our kids’ unique social, emotional and developmental needs. We know that gifted kids often need additional help with executive function skills, such as organizing their time and materials and breaking larger assignments into smaller parts. They are often highly sensitive and can be anxious during challenging times when they can intellectually understand more than they are emotionally ready to handle. They need opportunities to connect with other students so they can have deep conversations with intellectual peers, share their concerns and fears, and engage in the joy of asking the weird and wacky questions they so love to wrestle with. And they love to learn, especially those things that are of interest to them. They need opportunities to explore areas of interest and get creative with projects. They need teachers who support them when they come up with a unique way of doing an assignment or a different approach to a project.



These are just a few of the many considerations that have gone into planning for distance learning. Here are just some of the features you can expect from Distance Learning – Seabury Style 2.0.

  • Daily morning meetings will allow teachers to check in with students, review plans for the day, help students plan and prioritize their day’s work plan, and share successes and questions.
  • A stable schedule will allow for a seamless transition to/from in-person and online learning.
  • Simplified and streamlined daily/weekly schedules, classes, links to virtual meetings and assignments will be given through a fun and easy to navigate virtual classroom.
  • There will be explicit teaching of mindfulness, self-regulation, executive function and other social-emotional skills that sensitive gifted learners need most to succeed (both academically and personally) in these turbulent times.
  • Synchronous math instruction using engaging low-floor, high-ceiling” rich mathematical tasks will encourage perseverance and deeper levels of mathematical thinking and understanding.
  • Direct small and large group instruction in literacy and other course subjects will be mixed with learning tools that enhance and support instruction. Tools such as NearPod and FlipGrid will help teachers provide engaging instruction and offer students opportunities to share their learning with each other.
  • Specialists and instructional assistants will provide opportunities for students to connect for fun and enrichment as well as for instruction. Even when we are at school in person, a number of our specialists will be providing their programs remotely so that kids can interact with others in different classes and have the chance to explore more choices for projects such as art.
  • Teachers will check in regularly with individual students and with families to make sure that learning targets are being achieved, students are doing well, and issues are addressed before they become problems.
  • The school and teachers will provide training for parents before the start of school so that they are familiar with how the schedule will work, what distance learning tools will be be used, and how students will get help.
  • During the first weeks of school, the focus will be on working with kids individually and in a developmentally appropriate manner to teach how to participate independently in distance learning. Our goal is for parents as much as possible to be cheerleaders rather than teachers for distance learning for their children.
  • Project-based, integrated curriculum focused around a universal concept will continue to be at the heart of the program because it allows gifted kids to dive deep, interact with complex ideas, and develop high level thinking skills.
  • Personal passion projects will allow students to explore areas of personal interest.
  • Students will have unique opportunities for engagement through clubs and enrichment opportunities both during and outside of traditional school hours.

You may have read about distance learning plans that revolve around live streaming class for all or part of the day. In those programs, kids at home will spend the bulk of their days at their computers, listening to their teachers and working on the same assignments at the same time. While Zoom meetings, synchronous instruction, and teacher directed lessons will definitely be part of our program at Seabury, we will not live stream class all day every day. First and foremost, this kind of teaching and learning is not what we do at Seabury. Learning is not a passive, sit at your desk, everybody does the same thing at the same time experience. If we’re going to meet individual needs in a class where one child might be on grade level in reading and four grade levels ahead in math, while the student sitting next to her is reading at a high school level but on grade level in math, we need teachers to be able to work with small groups and individuals at the level that’s appropriate for each child. Teachers need to be able to provide different assignments to different kids when that makes sense or to adjust the expectations on a common assignment to meet the needs of each individual child. And for kids to do the inquiry based, complex, high level, creative and critical thinking that will stretch them intellectually, they need to be able to step away from the computer to think and create and explore.

 

This year, when students are able to be back on campus, our kids at school will be in cohort groups that will not mix with other classes. We will use virtual tools to connect kids in different classrooms, offer interest-based clubs and activities, and provide opportunities for multiage gatherings. This will be a critical part of our program all year long.

 

As we prepare to return to school in the midst of a global pandemic, it is easy to become overwhelmed with what we can’t do. But as we think about the year ahead, it is also important to remember the joy with which our children embrace learning and that light we see in their eyes when they make a new connection or acquire a new skill. Whether we are at home or at school, we plan to continue to make learning a joyful experience of discovery and creativity for our kids; to make time to laugh together, debate with one another, and embrace all our quirky, interesting, unique ways of seeing the world. That’s why families seek out a Seabury education.

 

Please join us for our next Town Hall on Thursday, Aug. 20 at 4 p.m. (ZOOM link) We will have more to share about the start of school, distance-learning and parent and student orientations. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Seabury’s Safe Start Plan


You might have seen the recent headlines. Several private schools in Pierce County plan to open for in-person instruction fall, despite a continued increase in COVID cases. “Is that the right call?” asked The News Tribune headline.
 
Seabury School was not included in those stories. With Sept. 2, our first day of school, still about a month away and with guidance on safe reopening still emerging and developing, we have not yet decided to make the “call” to either open our campuses for in-person learning or to start with distance learning. What we have done is worked exhaustively to be ready to open safely. That is what our students and staff deserve and what many families want.
 
We keep constantly up to date on all guidance from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, the Washington Department of Health, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, the Center for Disease Control, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS) and the Washington Federation of Independent Schools (WFIS).  We expect further guidance in the coming days or weeks that will provide us with more specific criteria we can use to determine when it is safe for us to re-open for in person learning.
Seabury’s small classes and unique classroom spaces allow us potentially different choices than are available to larger, public schools. Each of our spacious classrooms has a separate entrance to the outside (no hallways!) and each has its own bathroom, making it easy for us to keep kids and adults in small, cohort groups and minimize exposure during the day. Our maximum class size is 15. Six-foot distancing is not a problem. All staff will wear masks, so will students, from pre-k through eighth grade. Everyone will have daily health checks.
 
We are also setting up our teachers to be able to easily take class outside. We will have two new outdoor classroom spaces at the lower school. And we have the whole city just outside at the middle school, particularly Broadway Plaza which is just across the street. Each teacher and student will be provided with a portable seat and an outdoor learning kit. The learning kits for our second graders, for example, include a Coleman portable chair, weatherproof pencil box, dry erase pen, mini whiteboard, and clipboard among other items that can be carried in the pocket of their chair.
 
If we are at home, our teachers are ready to provide a dynamic and engaging distance-learning program. Weare taking lessons we learned in the spring and are planning parent and student trainings that will allow students to operate more independently and adults at home to feel more comfortable supporting students. We're adding morning meetings and daily math and literacy lessons. A combination of virtual classes and digital tools will ensure students get the support they need, including the instruction tailored to gifted learners our teachers are experts at providing. So no matter how we start this fall, students will experience the joy of Seabury learning at school and at home. 
 
As we plan for the fall, the biggest difference between Seabury and most other schools is that our small size will allow us to pivot quickly between being at school and being at home. If we open, and suddenly need to close, we are equipped to make the switch seamlessly – and vice versa. By being prepared for both in-person and distance learning, we still have time to wait for the best science available before we make a decision about the start of school. And our ability to pivot quickly now and throughout the school year, will allow us to maximize every possible minute for learning this year.
 
Seabury is a small independent school without expansive grounds or a large endowment. We serve students whose families often find us because their needs aren’t being met elsewhere, and they often sacrifice to pay tuition. Our general population doesn’t have deep pockets.  But we have invested every dollar we can to make our facility even safer, to ensure distance learning fully meets the needs of Seabury kids and families, and to provide additional financial aid to families that need support during these difficult times. 
 
Our plans for fall are to be ready for learning in the safest way possible and to ensure that Seabury‘s kids engage in the joy of discovery and that they are challenged every day whether we are at home or at school. We will be ready to provide a safe, creative and joyful place to go to school, whether in person or digitally.
 
School will start on Sept. 2. And it will start in the safest format for staff and kids based on the best science we can get our hands on. Whatever this year looks like, we'll make it a great one! 

– Seabury's Admin Team

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Distance Learning. Online Learning. Homeschooling. What’s the Difference?

As schools have been required to move their programs from in person to virtual, they have used a number of tools to deliver educational programming to students. Seabury has referred to our at-home program as Distance Learning – Seabury Style because that best describes the program we are providing for our students during this time apart. While we are using online tools and students learn at home, there are some significant differences between online learning, homeschooling, and distance learning. Especially Distance Learning – Seabury Style.

Online learning is widely available. It is designed to deliver content, often in a step-by-step fashion. Students complete a placement test and begin a series of lessons designed to incrementally increase their knowledge and skills. Even in online programs where students have access to a teacher, the primary role of that teacher is to deliver content. Khan Academy, Duolingo and Beast Academy are great examples of online learning programs. Some of our teachers use online learning programs as part of our broader distance-learning program and find they work particularly well when teaching discrete, sequential skills. These programs typically do not provide opportunities for exploring broader multidisciplinary concepts or for collaboration, discussion or building relationships between teachers and students.  Expectations are generalized; programming is based on the progression and pace of typical students.  Even when there are opportunities to test out of skills and speed up the pace of learning, the steps still tend to be small and sequential.  While this can be helpful for some students, some of our students have found this step-by-step approach to be confining when they are able to take bigger leaps in their learning.

Distance learning also shares similarities with homeschooling, but it’s not the same. Homeschooling parents are responsible for seeking out curriculum materials, developing lessons, assessing student progress – for both creating and delivering the child’s educational program. In distance learning, Seabury’s teachers are doing that work. Parents provide the space, time and encouragement for learning to happen – ideally they act as coaches and cheerleaders for the learning process. The program itself, including daily lessons, group and individual gatherings, differentiation for individual needs, evaluation of student work, are provided by Seabury’s teachers. It’s a partnership. A number of our families have homeschooled at some point in their child’s life and have shared that there is a huge difference between helping their children access Seabury’s program and having to create their own programs for their children.

Distance learning, and particularly Distance Learning – Seabury Style, is relational. It is built on relationships between teachers and students, as well as among students. Distance learning is a more complete educational program than online learning. It is designed not just to cover content with one-size-fits-all packets or learning modules. Distance learning teachers design learning experiences for the particular interests, needs and abilities of specific groups of students at specific times.

Just as Seabury’s teachers tailor expectations to address an individual student’s academic needs at school, teachers pay attention to the whole child in distance learning and make adjustments daily. They determine who needs extra help, provide additional challenges for students who want more, and make adjustments for learning needs or family circumstances that require changes in expectations, assignments or timelines. Our specialists provide opportunities for students to engage with art, music and movement. Activities such as class meetings, individual meetings, virtual recess, middle school advisories and class clubs provide students with social opportunities, stress management, and support from adults and kids, in addition to those in their families. Middle school students start their day with a mindfulness activity to help them be centered and engaged. Preschool and kindergarten students have regular sharing times where they get to have the spotlight, and also listen to each other, just as they would in circle time at school.

Just like at school, our teachers evaluate students’ progress and readiness for new material not only through the work they turn in, but through their participation in discussions and individual and small group meetings. Parents and other family members can serve as facilitators and cheerleaders and leave the job of assessment to teachers, who help students decide when their work is good enough and it’s time to move on. Teachers are there to provide the support and encouragement needed for continued growth.

Doing school at home is hard work whether you are supporting your child with online learning, creating a homeschool program, or facilitating their participation in distance-learning. The past months have been a time of learning new routines, figuring out how to manage work and play in the same space, and finding new ways to engage with one another.

We’ve learned a lot during this time that has allowed us to make Distance Learning – Seabury Style even more responsive to the needs of our students and their families. We look forward to the day when we can be back together in person. Regardless of what is required of schools next year, we will be ready to provide Learning – Seabury Style, whether we are 6 feet apart or meeting from a greater distance.

– Head of School Sandi Wollum


Thursday, May 14, 2020

What We Know

Exactly two months ago today, I informed our administrative team, teachers, students, families and board that we would be closing our school buildings and moving to distance learning in order to help protect the health of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a Thursday, and I will never forget it. I saw both tears and excitement on our kids’ faces as I told them that the next day would be our last day at school, possibly for quite a while. There was excitement when I mentioned science might include counting the bugs in their backyard and that we would be part of the biggest community service project in history. There were tears at the thought of not seeing their teachers and friends for as long as this lasted.

Two months later, we have shifted to distance learning, had a successful online school auction, and have learned more than we could have imagined about being a community and doing school when we are physically separated.

As we approach the end of the school year, we have lots of questions about what school will look like next year for Seabury and for schools in general. We are working hard to plan protocols, strategize various scenarios, and ensure that all our plans maximize the health and safety of our students, families and staff.

After spending hours combing websites, consulting with other schools, talking with medical and public health experts and planning with our own team, I can tell you that there is much we don’t know.

But there ARE things that we DO know, things that are at the heart of Seabury and will continue to be whether we are at home or at school or a combination of the two.

We know our kids

With our small classes and child-centered program, one of the hallmarks of Seabury is that we are a place where your child is seen, celebrated and supported. After working remotely with our kids in their homes, we know even more about them. We have seen them in their pajamas and met their dogs and favorite stuffies. We have seen how they have managed the stresses of these past months and have been able to be part of their support system. 

Next year, whether we do school at school or school at home or some combination of the two, we will continue to build relationships with our students. We’ll get to know new students, build friendships, and we’ll help our kids connect with each other. We will make adjustments to each child’s program to support their learning, social-emotional and family needs. Because that’s what we do at Seabury. We have learned a great deal this year about how to support kids in making social connections even when we are at home, and we have plans to continue those connections through the summer. Regardless of how we do school next year, Seabury will be a place where kids will know they are seen, celebrated and supported.

We know how gifted kids learn and grow
We know that our students are ready to move faster but that not everyone needs to go equally fast in every subject all the time, so we need to adjust the pace for individuals. We know that our students think deeply and ask profound and interesting questions even at a young age, so we engage in inquiry learning and focus on complex, analytical and creative reasoning. We know that students need opportunities to be creative and  to take a different approach to a problem or a project. We know there are some times when there is only one right answer (2+2=4) but that there are lots of times when our students see better ways to solve problems or create projects than we could have imagined. 

When we shifted to distance learning, we built our at-home program with the same priorities as our at-school program – to challenge, inspire, and stretch the minds of our highly capable students. We found new ways to provide structure for those who struggle with executive function. Teachers set up personal meetings with their students to help tailor the program to individual needs and group meetings so students have a chance to collaborate and inspire each other. Teachers created rigorous, thought-provoking lessons, and also developed ways to support students’ social-emotional growth and health, such as providing virtual recess for elementary students and morning mindfulness for those in middle school. As we prepare for next year, we are incorporating all we learned this spring with all we know about our gifted learners to make sure that our program challenges, supports and inspires our students whether we are at home, at school or some combination.
We know our families 
Seabury has always valued collaboration with families. Volunteer hours are written into enrollment contracts because we know that when families are involved in the education of their children, their children do much better. As a small community of families raising kids who are growing and learning in unique ways – and who can be both a joy and a challenge to raise – we create space for families to learn more about how to support their children and to connect with each other. 

As we moved to distance learning, we have gotten to know our families even better. We have been so grateful for their support through the challenges and their honesty when things weren’t going smoothly. We have learned and grown together as a distance learning community, and we will take what we have learned to make sure that we provide families with the tools to support their children and stay connected as a community in the 2020-21 school year,  whether we are at home or at school. While our job is to teach our students, we know we can’t do that well without their families, and we will continue to be grateful for our partnership.



There is a lot we don’t know about next year. Will we be at school? We hope so! Will we wear masks? We might be. Will we do school at home? We're likely to be back and forth and we'll be ready for that. We have the tools and expertise to ensure that Seabury’s program meets the needs of our students wherever we are.

There are still many unknowns. But we promise that wherever we are, whether we wear masks or have more pajama days, we will be Seabury. And Seabury will be ready to provide the best in child-centered gifted education.



– Head of School Sandi Wollum