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Coping With Unbearable People, Places, and Situations

by Valorie King (vjking@erols.com)

What do the following situations have in common?

John snaps his pencils, every single one, throwing the pieces into the classroom trash can with an obvious sigh of relief.

Charlotte announces to her parents that girls aren't good at math and that they shouldn't expect her to continue with advanced math. Her parents are confused since Charlotte has loved math until recently when she received her first low test score.

Susan walks into the music room and picks a fight with her favorite teacher.

George sits by himself at lunch, lost in his own world, ignoring everyone and everything around him. In the classroom, George no longer volunteers and participates in group activities only when the teacher forces him to join the group.

Pam can't seem to make up her mind. At first, she loves everything about school -- teacher, classmates, schoolwork. Then, out of the clear blue, everything at school is "bad," there's nothing she likes about it. A week later, Pam has reversed herself again.

Brenda "forgets" her math test even though she knows it must be signed by her parents or she can't go on a happily anticipated field trip. When her parents ask her later about the test paper she is honestly confused and upset -- SHE DIDN'T KNOW SHE HAD IT.

Sam develops a "superiority complex" about his prowress in math eventhough everyone in class has heard Mrs. Smith criticize him for making careless addition errors.

Kevin is in the nurse's office for the third time this week doubled up in pain from a stomach ache. The nurse looks at the clock, 10:15 AM, time for spelling.

Jim stares at his arithmetic test -- mind completely blank. He turns it in without having finished a single problem. Yet, at home, Jim breezes through Algebra and clearly enjoys even the simple math required for his "extra" homework.

Each of these students has something in common. In most cases, their behavior will be misinterpreted by their teachers, parents, and classmates. Their behavior may be attributed to immaturity, lack of ability, or deliberate misbehavior. But, it's none of these. These students are coping with unbearable situations and people by unconsciously adapting to their environment. Instead of becoming anxious or depressed, these students are using ego mechanisms of defense to cope with unbearable situations. (Jim - blocking, Kevin - hypochondriasis, George - fantasy, Brenda - denial, John - displacement, Sue - acting-out, Sam - dissociation, Charlotte - reaction formation, Pam - splitting)

The mismatch between the gifted child's intellectual, social, and emotional growth and developmental needs can create the ego's need for defensive responses, i.e. the immature and maladaptive behaviors which teachers and parents find objectionable. Understanding the role of defense mechanisms in determining human behavior, specifically our children's behavior, can help us to understand why we must advocate for changes in the classroom and school environments. Leaving the gifted child to "mature" is the wrong solution in many cases. In others, advancing the gifted child creates more stress, not less. How are parents to know the difference?

The first step is to develop an understanding of defense mechanisms. Defenses are creative and healthy ways of adapting and responding to one's environment; the individual who cannot adapt becomes depressed, anxious, physically and/or mentally ill. Defenses are the unconscious mind "coming to the rescue" in an unbearable situation. The use of defenses is relatively involuntary -- an individual cannot normally choose to invoke or use a specific defense at a given point in time. By the same token, an individual cannot be "talked out of" or "reasoned with" about the use of defense mechanisms. Remember, it's the unconscious mind at work here!

The mind possesses an incredible ability to forget, distort, and modify both perceptions and memories of unpleasant situations, unpleasant feelings, unpleasant sensations. Some defense mechanisms change the person's external reality -- both the perception and memory of it. These types of defenses are seen in young children and in older individuals under extreme stress. Other defense mechanisms, seen in older children and adults operate by masking either feelings or ideas or both.

To the untrained observer the person using defense mechanisms may seem strange, peculiar, or even a bit incomprehensible. The observer usually tries to explain the person's behavior as conscious or deliberate. After all, how can anyone pick a fight without planning to do so? Or kick the cat? Or forget something as simple as 2 + 2? Those who are on the receiving end of some defenses find themselves irritated and annoyed yet the person using the defense mechanism is unaffected by it (e.g. the passive-aggressive student's "slowness" punishes the teacher with whom he's angry).

It is hard to accept that these individuals cannot modify their behavior. We poke, prod, chastize, and punish -- all to no effect. Defense mechanisms are not conscious. The child's behavior cannot be changed because he is not aware of the defense mechanism as it is being invoked. Fortunately, as one matures, gaining in both life experience and physical maturation of the central nervous system, one's defenses usually mature from less socially acceptable to more acceptable forms. In time, it is possible to become aware of the defense mechanisms that we habitually use -- at which point the defense mechanism no longer works for us. One of the paradoxes of defense mechanisms is that once we become aware that we are using a defense it no longer works for us. Defenses must remain unconscious in order for them to function.

The problem with defenses is that they often represent "second-best" solutions to our problems. In time and with additional maturation we can do better in our choices of ways to adapt and respond to unbearable situations and people. In the case of children, it is often in their best interests for reponsible adults to modify the environment or their own behavior so that the child is not continually presented with people and/or situations which are more stressful than the child can bear.


The role of defense mechanisms in determining adaptive behavior in an unbearable situation should be carefully considered before a child is denied acceleration or grade-skipping due to behavior which is judged by the teacher or school to be "immature." Changing the situation is usually more effective than attempting to force changes in a person's defense mechanisms. In the case of some defense mechanisms, maturation and/or interaction with peers (not the same as age-mates!) may be required in order for the individual to move from less mature to more mature coping methods; changing the situation may be even more important for these individuals since their attempts to cope are so maladaptive and irritating for those around them.


Problem Solving 101: Is My Child 'Ready' For Acceleration?

An Introduction To The Theories of Jean Piaget

by Valorie King (vjking@erols.com)

Parents considering a grade-skip or similar placement for their gifted child find themselves presented with a difficult question. Is my child ready for this? Ready, not for the intellectual challenge, but ready for the social and emotional challenges of being placed with older children. Many parents also find that their efforts to negotiate for a more appropriate learning situation for their child are frustrated by teachers and school staff who raise "developmental readiness" objections. The child's clearly compelling needs for more challenging academic work are not in dispute. It is the child's social and emotional development that becomes a sticking point. Without exposure to the predominant theories of "human growth and development" it is hard to understand, much less counter, these objections.

In educational psychology courses, future teachers are exposed to the major theories of how children develop and learn. These theories encompass the following:

    1) Cognitive Development (Jean Piaget)

    2) Learning Theory

       a) Classical Conditioning (Pavlov)
       b) Operant Conditioning (B. F. Skinner)

    3) Social Learning Theory (Albert Bandura)

Jean Piaget

Piaget's theories of cognitive functioning and development are probably the most widely taught and accepted in the field of education. His theories are used for everything from the assessment of intellectual development to reading readiness to scholastic aptitude to grade placement. Parents who are seeking a change in grade placement need to assess their child's current level of intellectual and cognitive functioning (ability to think) in terms of Piaget's 4 Stages of Cognitive Development.

The work of Jean Piaget has often been criticized for the narrowness of the subject population studied. Yet, his work has stood the test of time and has, for the most part, been verified in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of child development. Piaget stressed that experience plays a major role in the development and maturation of cognitive functioning. Piaget believed that the greater the richness, complexity, and diversity of experience and environment, in the school, at home, and elsewhere, the greater the likelihood that high levels of mental functioning will be achieved by the individual.

Piaget's Theory divides childhood into the following stages.

Sensorimotor (Birth to 2 years):

During this stage, children learn predominantly through physical experience and sensory input. They also develop the ability to think in symbols. Development of the concept of object permanence ("things still exist even when I can't see them") marks the transition from this stage to the next -- pre-operational thought.

Pre-Operational Thought (2 to 7 years):

Children use symbolic thought more extensively than previously. Thinking is on an intuitive level rather than based upon logical or deductive reasoning. Early in this stage, children do not have a good grasp of cause and effect. Magical thinking, the idea that because two things occur together in close time squence the first must have caused the second, is a characteristic type of reasoning during this stage. For example, thinking bad thoughts is believed to cause accidents (superstition) or thunder causes lightening (contrary to fact).

Animistic thinking occurs during this stage as well. The child tends to endow inanimate objects or events with lifelike attributes such as feelings and intentions. "The lightening tried to hit me." "My teddy-bear doesn't like being in the toybox."

Ego-centric thinking prevents the child from considering another's point of view or the full effect of the child's behavior upon others. The child is developmentally not ready for the concept of modifying his behavior for someone else, e.g. being quiet so that an older sibling can study.

At this stage, the child's sense of right and wrong is developed but the child is not yet able to deal with moral dilemmas, e.g. when asked who is more guilty, the person who breaks 10 dishes by accident or 1 dish on purpose, children in this stage will answer that the person breaking 10 dishes is "guiltier."

Concrete Operations (7 to 11 years)

Children in this stage of development operate and act upon things that are "concrete, real, and perceivable." They move from ego-centric thinking to operational thought -- the child is now able to see things from another's point of view or perspective. The major developmental task for children in this stage is to organize and order the things that they perceive around them in the real world. They develop the ability to draw logical conclusions from two or more premises or facts. In this stage, children develop an understanding of the principal of "conservation" -- that objects still retain the same mass or volume (or other characteristics) even though the shape or size may change. Children also develop understanding of the principal of "reversibility" -- the capacity to understand the relationship between things that can change from one state to another, e.g. water to ice and ice to water.

In this stage, children are "rule loving" and have a well developed sense of fairness. The developmental task for the child at this stage is to develop understanding that rules have exceptions while also developing a healthy respect for societal rules.

The most important sign that a child is still in the pre-operational stage of thinking is the lack of understanding of the principles of conservation and reversibility. Children who understand and can apply these principles have moved beyond pre-operational thought into the formal-operations stage of development.

Formal Operations (11 years through the end of adolescence)

This stage is characterized by the ability to think abstractly, to reason deductively, and to define concepts. The child's thinking operates in a formal, highly logical and systematic manner. The concepts of probability and permutations are grasped and utilized. Understanding of the world around him is developed through the use of hypotheses and hypothesis testing to explain observations, perceptions, and events.

Some individuals do not make the transition from concrete thinking (pre-operational thought) to abstract thinking (formal operations) despite having entered the "adolescent years." Depending upon individual experience and capacity, some individuals never make the transition to abstract thought and may remain in the pre-operational mode of thinking through out their lifespan.


Problem Solving 102: Know Thy Child

by Valorie King (vjking@erols.com)

How well do you know your child?

It's a show-stopper of a question. How well do you know your child. Do you know your child well enough to trust your own judgement? Do you know your child well enough to be able to evaluate the judgements made by teachers, principals, and other staff members at school?

When I talk with parents, whether it's in person, on the telephone, or via Internet, this one question seems to always be followed by an incredulous pause . . . "well, of course I know my child!" Followed by the unspoken reproach, "how could you ask me that?"

Before you can successfully advocate for your intellectually gifted child you need to make sure that you know enough about your child's abilities, strengths, relative weaknesses, physical, emotional, and social development that you can understand and, when necessary, counter, any statements made by teachers, principals, and other professionals. It's not enough to know that the research supports acceleration. It's not enough to have read all the books on gifted child education or parenting gifted children. You need to take the time to get to know your child -- inside and out.

As I sit here trying to wrap up this issue of MonTAGe, trying to write this, the last article, I find myself wondering if all of this "intellectual" information is going to do any good. I could have searched the TAGFAM archives and extracted twenty or thirty first hand examples of parents who went into meetings at school thinking they knew their child -- only to be blind-sided. Hit with a mountain of information and opinion regarding what's best for their child these parents had no choice but to retreat. Knowing in their hearts that their children's needs were not being met these parents felt guilty and alone and in despair.

I did search the archives today -- looking for the success stories. What I found was that the parents who succeeded in getting what they wanted had done their homework first. In addition to learning about gifted children and familiarizing themselves with the body of research these parents KNEW THEIR CHILD. It was impossible for the school to blind-side these parents. Some parents sought outside opinions from psychologists, medical doctors, and others who were both familiar with the child and who were educated in child development. Some parents only needed to spend time observing their child in the classroom, in the community, and at home. They had sufficient grounding in parenting skills and in child development that they could make reasonable decisions regarding their child's needs and current developmental status.

When the school staff tried to assign causality to the child's seemingly strange or peculiar behavior the successful parents refused to allow misguided or misinformed opinions to stand as fact. But first, these parents had to educate themselves so that they could tell the difference. Successful parents educated the school staff regarding the needs of the child -- the whole child. Successful parents recognized red-herrings and other distractions and countered with both their personal knowledge of their child's needs and research or other authoritative information which backed up their assertions.

It is not necessary to obtain a professional assessment, from a child psychologist or child psychiatrist. But, it helps. If you choose to have a professional assessment of your child is performed it will most likely include the entire biopsychosocial spectrum. Typical evaluation items include: 1) current problems or concerns (developmental or otherwise) 2) physical development & medical history/status 3) emotional maturity & development 4) social maturity & development 5) environment (school, family, community) 6) overall level of functioning (good, poor, etc.) 7) intellectual functioning a) intelligence b) achievement

For the most part, you the parent will be providing the information used in the assessment. Some of it will be obtained through tests such as the Stanford-Binet or WISC-III. Achievement testing may be done as part of the assessment or last year's results from school based testing may be used.

Whether you choose to do the assessment and analysis of your child's needs yourself or to have an outside professional evaluate your child is up to you. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. Obviously there are some types of assessment, e.g. IQ, where you're going to have to rely upon a professional to administer the test and give you his analysis of the results. The important part is that _you_, the parent, understand the big picture -- that you see the whole child -- not just the pieces that the teachers and principal may see.

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Copyright 1997 by Valorie King, All Rights Reserved
Last updated July 28, 1997 counter

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