The Importance of Seeing the Forest Through Trees

Teaching our children to ask questions pertinent to their learning style empowers them to understand their own viewpoint and communicate their needs in a productive way.

Some people are detail oriented and others need to see the big picture in order to understand the world. Does it matter? I believe it does for at least two critical reasons: 1. For educators to better teach their 2e students and, 2. For parents to better communicate with their 2e children. As with many 2e characteristics, there is an intensity that comes with the need to know details or see the big picture. Having a parent or teacher who doesn’t appreciate this perspective can lead to power struggles and dysregulation. Neurotypical children may be able to swing between trees and forests, but 2e kids tend to be either tree or forest people. Understanding this perspective gives critical insight into how 2e students think, and therefore will have a direct effect on anxiety and behavior. Grasping how a 2e child or student views the world, allows parents and teachers to give meaningful context and help make learning stick.

How the Student Processes Information and Views the World

If we have a “forest person” – someone who needs to see the big picture in order to focus on the details, then we know we must start by giving them the overall general perspective of what we are trying to teach them. They seek meaning. They want a roadmap to understand where everything will end. Without the broad perspective giving this student the overarching picture of their learning, the child sees the information given to them in a vacuum. Having the whole picture allows them to attach meaning to individual pieces of information by connecting them.

A client’s son learning math one-on-one was struggling to focus. He asked questions that were relevant to future classes in the curriculum. When the tutor didn’t address those questions, the student’s behavior became silly and disruptive. Had this student been in a general classroom, he likely would have been disciplined and sent out of the classroom. Because they were in a one-on-one situation, and the teacher recognized the student’s need for the bigger picture, he answered questions relevant to several classes later in the syllabus. With a grasp on where the learning was going, the student became focused and able to engage at a fast pace. In this situation the student was not only able to recalibrate and focus on the session at hand but became what the teacher called “laser focused.”

Thinking about the complex information highways that are likely in this child’s brain in the form of white matter tracts, I think they require more on-ramps and off-ramps than typical brains – his highways cross over and make connections more frequently and in more locations. In order for this student’s brain to focus on the lesson at hand, he needed to connect the learning to future ideas. Not everyone thinks like this. In fact, most people don’t. While it’s a relatively easy fix in a one-on-one situation, it’s not such an easy fix in a classroom of neurotypical thinkers. Even though entertaining questions like these may cause delay in the beginning, giving a student the information necessary for him to focus goes a long way in eradicating disruption and deepens discussion.

Applying Big Picture Thinking to Situations Outside the Classroom

This same student was struggling in his tae kwon do class. He was at a high level and needed to learn fourteen “one-step,” combinations necessary to earn his next belt. The parents took their new understanding of their son’s forest through the trees thinking, and applied it to tae kwon do. They suggested that the tae kwon do master show the student all fourteen steps and then go back and start at the beginning. With this road map in mind, the student was able to settle down, learn all the steps, and earn the next belt in record time.

Approaching the world in these two different ways can also affect social interactions. If you are a big picture person and you (think) you know where a conversation is going, are you able to notice facial cues and body language? Even if you are, are you able to slow down and respond to them, or are you focused on where you think the conversation/discussion will end? If you are a trees person, do you hyper-focus on cues and possibly misinterpret intent? Approaching the world focused on the forest rather than the trees may make it more difficult to listen respectfully to someone who thinks or processes out loud.

Because this type of brain may see (or think it sees) the end of a conversation or how a situation plays out, it has a hard time paying attention to details like the other person’s experience in the conversation or social interaction. Rather than “reading the room” this neuro-diverse brain is focused on what’s next instead of being in the moment and present to what is happening in front of him. So rather than listening and responding in a conversational way, the big picture brain may react rather than respond. These are the same people – quick connectors – who find it laborious to sit in class with several other students. They wait for their peers to catch up. By then they have either acted out due to boredom or tuned out, so they miss information. In any event it’s a confusing, muddled mess of information that isn’t being processed to anyone’s satisfaction.

Now, take this brain and sit it down at your dinner table. If it sees (or thinks it sees) ten steps ahead, it doesn’t want to be bothered with the niceties of the here and now. It wants to get on with it, to end up where it sees you going, rather than fumbling through the conversation. So, we have to try and give the big picture and rein this brain in to be present. We might ask questions like “where do you see this conversation going?” “Why do you think we are talking about this?” “What’s the purpose of me asking you these questions?” We literally have to break down and give purpose to our conversations. This may help the differently wired brain in your home or school engage and become invested in what you are trying to convey.

The same applies to therapy. If your 2e child isn’t engaged in therapy, perhaps the therapist has to back up a couple of steps and help the child understand where they are going and the goals. Even better, if the therapist can help the child identify his own goals, the child will be more invested in the process of accomplishing them. Just as IEPs aim to elucidate goals and measurables, so should clinicians. Give the child or adult a road map. Identify goals and how you see him getting there will get there and involve the client in assessing whether you are headed in the direction you and he hoped.

Adjusting Perspective to Take into Account Trees and Forests

We have to strive to understand both the forest and the trees to interact successfully and afford respect to others. Pausing for a moment and considering how someone else thinks, particularly if it is a different approach than your own, will diffuse a lot of frustration and remove road blocks for otherwise difficult encounters or teaching moments. Teaching our children to ask questions pertinent to their learning style empowers them to understand their own viewpoint and communicate their needs in a productive way.

When we parent, teach or counsel differently wired[1] kids, we have to be on the look-out for clues into what strategies address their needs. We must be open to what allows them to relax and engage – or as I like to say – what settles the snow in their snow globes. This is particularly challenging when that modality is different than our own. So, if you are a tree person and your child or student is a forest person, you’ve got to get on board and help them with their perspective.

In an ironic sense, we need to see the forest through the trees in our own parenting and teaching styles. What do we want our 2e student to do and why? It’s easy to get caught up in the weeds – to focus on one thing (or behavior) at a time. We know it won’t work if we insist that “You can’t do this until you do that” or “You must do this in a particular order and in these three steps.” We have to embrace flexibility to match the needs of our 2e children, students, clients and selves. When you find yourself challenged communicating with your student or child, ask yourself if you are a tree or forest person and how the child comes to the world. Then attempt to repackage your message, your needs, your agenda, in a way that matches their perspective. Life is about balancing. With 2e students, step back and take in the big picture – make topics relatable and meaningful by giving context. Approach challenging situations in this manner, and you surely enhance growth in learning and relationships.

[1] “Differently wired” is a phrase coined by Debbie Reber of Tilt Parenting and is also the name of her book.

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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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