Practicing What We Preach: Using Cognitive Flexibility in Understanding 2e

How often do we push, based on our biased perspective, for a 2e child to meet our agenda without really knowing what’s going on? Recognizing efforts and understanding underlying causes are the best practices for eliciting greatness from our 2e kids and peers.

Walking from Greenwich Village to Penn station as I left a 2e Education conference in New York City, ideas of dual differentiation, talent development, anxiety strategies, ADHD parenting, play therapy, patience and understanding whirled around in my head. My thoughts were abruptly interrupted by the honk, honk, honking of taxi cabs. I looked up and noticed that the car in front of the noisy taxis, the offender, the one everyone was honking at, was simply waiting for pedestrians to cross the street. It got me thinking, how often are we honk, honk, honking at our 2e learners to get them to do something when they have a sound reason for waiting? How often do we push, based on our biased perspective, for a 2e child to meet our agenda without really knowing what’s going on?

The cabs in the back of the line on 6th Avenue had no idea the car in front was waiting for pedestrians to cross safely. Those in the back couldn’t see. They just knew what they wanted from their perspective. A common lesson we want 2e children to learn is how to take other people’s perspectives into account. But over and over their own viewpoint is ignored or misunderstood. Adults and peers forget to take into account the 2e person’s viewpoint – because it is different than the norm. The result is frustration and alienation for the 2e person and negative perceptions for those around them.

Time and again I ponder with friends and colleagues why human nature is such that it takes many positive experiences or messages to replace negatives. Why do we as humans go to the negative immediately? The horn honkers were thinking – “Stop being distracted! Pay attention, I have some place to go. Hurry up!” Thankfully the front car had presence of mind. Likewise, as we berate, cajole and otherwise note all the things our kids aren’t doing, we forget to ask why, and we forget to notice and acknowledge their efforts and successes. 2e people (children and adults) often have a very good reason (according to them) for not doing something or for doing something a different way. Sure, there may be a misinterpretation of a social cue, there may be lagging skills of perseverance, cognitive inflexibility, or cognitive distortion, but rarely are these folks attempting to manipulate, be oppositional or defiant. They just need someone to respect them, help them feel heard, address their viewpoint and help them consider other perspectives.

Two ways to do this include building rapport through positive experiences and personal connection, and objectively considering their viewpoint and experience.

Building Rapport

If you’ve read my blogs before or worked with me, you know I am all about “personal connection.” I frequently say, “The A-1, number one thing you need for successful interactions with a 2e person, is personal connection.” The irony is that so often 2e people suffer from social skills challenges, yet they crave social interaction. Some extroverted 2e people seek out any feedback – negative or positive. Their actions are sometimes misinterpreted as “annoying,” “weird,” “embarrassing,” or “impulsive.” In order to counteract the negative trajectory, try finding positives early and often. Build the resilience of the 2e person in your life so they aren’t feeling so out of sync, so different, so wrong.

First, notice all the things the 2e person is doing right. If your child came into the kitchen ready for school only wearing underwear, you would immediately ask “Where is your shirt? Where are your pants? Where are your socks? Where are your shoes? Did you brush your teeth and wash your face?” You would call out every single thing the child didn’t do.

Instead, practice finding all the details that they do and let them know you noticed. Go on a positive fact-finding mission and literally list the tasks you notice your child completing.  For instance, “I see you took your lunch out of your backpack and put it on the counter.” “I notice you put your shoes in the closet.” “You’re sitting down and starting your homework.” “You shut the door when you came in.” “I notice you took your plate off the table.” At first it sounds funny and parents ask – “should we thank them for doing these things?” No. Believe it or not, that’s insulting. They know “at their age” they should be doing these things you are noticing. For whatever reason – they had a bad day, they are thinking deep and detailed thoughts, they’re frazzled from sensory overload – it’s harder for them to do these rote and seemingly easy tasks. Thanking them for it feels sarcastic. This is why the adage “hard things are easy, easy things are hard” applies to our 2e kids. Try it. Today. Notice what your kid does right. They will feel their efforts appreciated, respected, valued and understood.

In the article, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs, Review of General Psychology, 2001, Vol. 5, No. 4, 323-370), the authors observe that “apart from a few carefully crafted exceptions, negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information,”  and that “[d]evelopmental and clinical observations … suggest that single bad events are far stronger than even the strongest good ones.” Parents beat themselves up all the time often regretting saying something to their 2e child out of frustration. Teachers may not even realize the tone they set or the effect they have comparing 2e students to their neurotypical peers. All is not lost, however, finding positives, praising the process and recognizing effort go a long way to counteract negative feelings.

The bottom line is that we want to foster strong self-esteem for 2e kids and adults. They experience daily criticism – from themselves or others – about things they don’t do right. As recognized in The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio, (Zenger and Folkman, Harvard Business Review, 3/15/13), “even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.” In an ideal situation you’ve gotten to get to know your child, student, colleague or employee in a way that they feel understood. You notice their efforts and make them feel valued. You enjoy the different perspective and life experience for what it is – theirs, not yours. So when you do need something done your way, they are more open to take that risk, do that thing, or ask for help if they need it.

Objectively Considering their Viewpoint

One of my favorite moments at that conference in New York City was when I sat with a bunch of teachers listening to Dr. Susan Baum talk about best practices in the classroom. At one point she described a child identified with ADHD beginning to drift away and daydream. Dr. Baum challenged, “Why not ask him what he is thinking about?” This is a departure from brainstorming ways to make the child focus. Hold on a minute, let’s check in. Maybe he is having an incredible – and relevant – thought about what the teacher is talking about. Sure, maybe they’re off-topic but that means the mode of delivery is lacking, not that there is something wrong with the child. Dr. Baum taught that First you have to understanding that the ADHD brain sometimes does that – goes in its own direction thinking its own thoughts. Recognizing and appreciating that the ADHD brain goes to creative places is a good first step in reaching and teaching. Being interested in where that child’s thoughts might take you is yet another step. Patience. Respect. Understanding. Passion. All important for fostering relationships, raising and teaching the 2e profile.

When a negatively perceived event happens, pause, take a moment and run a soundtrack through your head. “Who is this person? What makes them happy and what is challenging for them?” Practice the cognitive flexibility we seek to teach 2e folks and think to yourself, “What else, besides the negative conclusion, could be going on here?”

Consider these examples:

  • The student who runs to the front of the line. Push away the thought that he is disregarding rules and behaving impulsively. What if he wants to hold the door open for everyone?
  • The employee who repeatedly says he’ll turn in that written report but doesn’t. Instead of thinking he’s impetuous, a bad employee, doesn’t care or isn’t professional, consider whether there’s a stumbling block to output in the way you’ve requested the report. Ask him how he best presents information. See if there is a way that he will be excited about getting you the information you need.
  • The child who won’t brush his teeth. Forget about whether or not he cares about hygiene or is insolent. Is there a sensory issue going on?
  • The student who seems unable to shift from recess to class time and seems incapable of sitting still. Don’t diagnose. Consider whether something distressing happens during recess. Contemplate whether the child learns better by moving and might focus better by sitting on a ball or pacing in the back of the room.

People are quick to jump to negative conclusions and assumptions particularly about outlier behavior and responses. Remember the cacophonic taxi cabs? Drivers made assumptions that the person driving the lead car was not paying attention, was slow, distracted or just not doing their job. Instead of pushing a 2e person to do something you want them to do, pause and consider why they aren’t doing it and see if they have a preferred way to get to the same end point. Recognizing efforts and understanding underlying causes are the best practices for eliciting greatness from our 2e kids and peers.

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Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

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