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Mar 18

Intense kid? Ours, too

Like all people, gifted kids come in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of interests, talents, personalities, quirks, temperaments, strengths, and challenges. But when we look at the population as a whole, we find that in many ways, gifted people are INTENSE. Spend a little time at Seabury and you will see that our gifted kids and the gifted adults that make up our community share that Intensity.

Many parents of gifted kids describe seeing this quality in their children within moments of their birth. They seem more alert than other babies. They take in their surroundings in a way that is surprising and sometimes even a bit jarring. In their first weeks and months, parents may notice an intensity in how quickly they move through developmental milestones. In some cases, they sleep little and their awake hours are filled with deep exploring and observing – almost as if they were observing the world through a microscope and noticing things that the rest of us might be missing. As they grow, parents may notice that their children seem to feel things more deeply and experience the world more profoundly than other kids their age. They ask questions that others their age don’t ask – sometimes deep and difficult existential questions that seem impossible to answer – especially to the satisfaction of a young child who is developmentally looking for concrete answers to impossible questions.

Over the past 30 to 40 years, much has been written about the concept of over-excitabilities or “intensities” in the gifted population. The idea behind these over-excitabilities comes from the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychologist who developed the theory of positive disintegration, which describes how the human personality can develop over a lifetime. As part of his research, Dabrowski identified five over-excitabilities likely to be found in gifted individuals, who may have one or a combination of these traits:

Intellectual: An intensely active mind, constantly thinking, wondering, and asking questions. These are people whose brains are in high gear all the time. Those with intellectual intensity may have difficulty going to sleep at night because they can’t turn their brains off.

Psychomotor / Kinesthetic: An intense need to be physically active. These people have a hard time sitting still – they need to be on the move all the time. As kids, they may give up naps early and require lots of physical stimulation. These students may also have ADHD or may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. Finding a doctor who knows the difference is important.

Sensual: This intensity has to do with the senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Those with sensual OE seem to have senses that are in hyperdrive and as a result may be overwhelmed by beautiful sights or sounds. They might only be willing to wear soft cotton clothing or need the tags cut out of every shirt. Loud noises might be unbearable. These students may also have sensory processing disorder. Again, a doctor who knows the difference between an OE and a diagnosable condition is important.

Imaginational: This is more than just a good imagination. Those with imaginational OE have deep, complex, and vivid imaginations. As young children, their stuffed animals may seem to have real lives and stories. They may have invisible friends for much longer than other children. They may use their imaginary worlds to process difficult or confusing situations they experience the real world.

Emotional: These people feel deeply and profoundly. Young children with emotional OEs may find Disney movies too sad or scary. News events might be emotionally overwhelming to kids with this OE. People with emotional OEs are likely to be highly empathetic – sometimes to the point where their emotions become difficult to manage.  Young children with emotional OEs may find themselves distressed when they can intellectually understand things that they are not emotionally ready for.

Working with gifted children (and, frankly, working with their parents) requires an understanding of these intensities in order to support them and provide a safe environment where they can learn to manage their big feelings and intense thoughts.

At Seabury, we support the intensities of our children in both obvious and subtle ways. If you visit our classrooms, you will notice that kids can get up and move around more often than in traditional classrooms in order to support those with psychomotor OEs as well as those with ADHD and/or sensory needs who may need frequent movement in order to focus. We use class meetings, literature discussions and other tools to give kids a chance to express and work through their emotions, especially in times of stress or when their feelings get too big. We teach mindfulness and other strategies students can use to calm themselves when they become overwhelmed. We use social-emotional learning programs, including Social Thinking, to help kids learn to navigate their feelings and social situations. Our classrooms have places where kids can go when they need space to decompress – look for the classroom Quiet Corner or Zen Zone where you will find comfy pillows, sensory objects and other tools kids can use to calm and refocus themselves.

Supporting their OEs also happens in more subtle ways. The most important is that in our small classrooms, teachers get to know kids well and know what triggers them. They can use that knowledge when they make choices about topics for discussion or how to discuss an emergent issue that might make some curious and others emotionally overwhelmed. Teachers know who needs a quiet pull aside or a different way of doing a task. They make tools like headphones or wearing comfy clothes part of the norm so that kids can meet their needs without feeling isolated or different. We don’t have a school uniform.

For parents, understanding intensity can help them understand why parenting their gifted child can seem so overwhelming and challenging. It can give parents comfort to know that their child isn’t the only one who asks 10 million questions a day or needs to negotiate everything. It explains why they can’t have the news on in the car. It lets parents know they aren’t the only ones with kids who make it hard to find clothes that meet the “comfortable” test or kids who have a compulsive need to create.

Seabury’s program is built to support our gifted learners – not just by providing a challenging curriculum, but also by paying attention to and providing support for their intensities. It’s the reason so many students find a sense of at Seabury that they have never felt any place else. Even students who have been successful at other schools find that at Seabury they can let down their guard and truly be themselves. That sense of safety and acceptance is the reason Seabury kids can take academic risks and stretch themselves in so many ways.  It is the reason our alums tell us how self-confident they were when they left Seabury, and that because they understood both what they needed and were capable of, they were able to advocate for themselves in the schools, programs and jobs that followed their time at Seabury.

Sandi Wollum, Seabury head of school

Join Sandi for a webinar on Gifted Kids and Intensity. More information and registration HERE

Read more:

Intensities – Byrdseed blog

Davidson Institute – Emotional Intensities in Gifted Children

Seng Gifted – Overexcitability and the Gifted

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