A client’s elementary school aged son came home the other day complaining that his teacher was sarcastic. He actually said he had a bad day and proceeded to describe behavior by his teacher that was sarcastic. For many kids, the teacher’s behavior would not have resonated to the level it did for this child. Whether the teacher used words or facial expressions, whether she made him feel badly about his efforts or those of a classmate, it affected him deeply. Gifted and twice exceptional children, who have highly sensitive empathy antennae, are hyper aware of social nuances happening all around them. Instead of momentary annoyance, they ingest, digest and ruminate on what they consider an affront. Two things have to happen to help in this situation; schools need to make classroom cultures of kindness and compassion a priority, and parents need to talk frankly with their children about their sensitive souls.
When clients ask me about schools, the type of school that could be a good fit for their twice exceptional child, I always say start with the culture. Schools may maintain they are experts in 2e or giftedness, but to truly be an appropriate fit for this type of student, the culture, how teachers and administrators show up, is really the number one priority on my list. Gifted and 2e students frequently carry existential concerns and emotional overexcitabilities around with them. In order for teachers to engage these learners, they need to provide a cushioned experience that includes caring and respectful responses to unexpected behaviors.
Our gifted and 2e students have highly honed radar to detect a conciliatory adult. They perceive disingenuousness from a mile away. To me it seems the verbal vacuum of genuine care and connection is growing wider. Why?
While the internet allows for global shrinkage, it also increases the distance between people face to face. We spend so much time virtually connecting that realizing the gravity and effect of words and expressions on people in our actual presence, is going away. Remember when email became the norm? We started reading and writing about the importance of taking tone into account when crafting the typed and texted word? We worried about how the other person would take our message or whether we needed to add context. Instead of ramping up and adding words to our texts and missives, ensuring that context was clear or even picking up the phone and calling someone when a message became too complex, we created shortcuts. We replace emotion with acronyms or bitmojis. When we rely on an “LOL” thrown in to neutralize sarcasm or snark, we take for granted the depth of human emotion. These workarounds bleed into the real world and how we speak and look at each other. An overall disregard of the importance of words, intonation and expression has infiltrated our syntax.
We need to address this phenomenon in the classroom and with our children. In our schools and classrooms we must require and expect kindness. Here are ten suggestions for encouraging humanity and empathy in classrooms as well as in homes:
- Never yell
- No sarcasm
- Don’t threaten
- Assume the child wants to do well
- If you wonder, confirm that what you said or what you expect is fully understood
- Give opportunities for students to express feelings fully and with words
- Remove ego from your interactions with students
- Give students the opportunity to take a break or explain what’s going on for them when there’s challenging behavior
- Make ‘personal connection’ your number one priority with each student
- Give yourself the same opportunities to notice, respect and attend to your own emotions
Parent clients share with me their frustration when their child’s emotions are ignored at school. Yelling in the classroom, threatening, reacting without fully understanding a situation; when these things happen, the stage is set for our empaths to wilt and wither. Whether directed at them or at others, gifted and 2e students freeze, and need direct intervention to be able to attend or initiate work after such an experience. For most of these students they don’t understand what is happening to them, why they have such a profound (and possibly physical) reaction or why it’s so hard to get back to work. This is where parents come in.
If you have a child who is an empath, emotionally overexcitable, one who seems “over-sensitive,” it’s important to speak to him about his nature and to focus on strengths. We don’t want to quell this child’s inclinations but we need him to know that not everyone is wired like he is, and he has to protect himself.
If he comes home dejected because of an interaction with peers or adults, first set the stage by sharing what you notice about his empathic tendency and why. You might say something like: “You know what I notice about you? You feel things deeply.” You might give an example here of something your child did that showed compassion. “For instance, I remember when you were little, and we were in the grocery store and a shopper dropped her grocery list. You noticed and ran up to her and handed it to her.” Or, “You’re the first to notice when our dog’s bowls are empty or when he needs to go outside.” Or, “When you come home from school you always ask me about my day, it shows me you care about me.” Or, “I remember the time you told me about some kids who weren’t being very nice to another child, and how much that upset you.”
Once you’ve set the stage by reminding him of incidents where he showed kindness and consideration, let him know his antennae are stronger than others’. At this stage you might tell him, “You know, these things about you that come naturally; noticing people’s needs, taking into account another person’s perspective, not everyone notices these things like you do. And even if they do, they might not act on what they notice. But you do.” Now we need to gently share how this might affect him. “Because you are able to see someone else’s needs so clearly and you are able to act on those needs, you might expect others to so the same.” Pause and let this sink in. He may not be cognizant of his difference or that he actually expects others to be like him. “For better or for worse, not everyone has these abilities. You may find yourself giving more than you are receiving at times and this can feel hurtful.”
Now that we’ve called it what it is, we have to help him identify strategies to counteract his disappointment or hurt. Just helping him become aware of his difference goes a long way in protecting him. “When you are in a situation where your feelings are hurt, or you experience disappointment that seems intense, remember you feel those feelings because you are able to attune so well to others’ feelings. This is a very good thing, but we need to figure out how to help you temper when you are affected negatively by others’ actions or inactions.” Then open it up and ask him what he thinks he can do. In the end you might make suggestions that include deep breathing, removing himself from the situation, crafting a response like “When you said/did that, it made me feel _______.” Suggesting that he note how he feels and to consciously wait twenty-four hours to respond is another excellent idea for helping our empaths keep their intensities in check. In twenty-four hours, he may feel less incensed and might have a more impactful conversation with the person who aggrieved him. Or he may decide to drop it all together because he recognizes it only affected him negatively.
In a day and age where more electronic connectivity is valued higher than in-person interactions, we have to set up our empath children for success. Helping to ensure their environments are infused with kindness and intentionality and then giving them perspective on their own wiring helps them navigate our world.