Emotional Intensity and High Stakes Testing

***WARNING – THIS IS A BIT RAMBLING***

Most of you know that in addition to being a gifted adult and working with parents and educators of gifted children, I am also the parent of two gifted children. This perspective – having children who are gifted while also being a educator in the field of giftedness – provides a perspective that has proven particularly helpful as I work with families. I am able to test out my ideas and strategies at home, in addition to talking with my own children about their giftedness and the things that are both easy and difficult for them. Things like high stakes testing.

Yes, it is a helpful perspective.

This has been particularly true over the last couple of weeks. In my school district, it is testing season. Students move from statewide assessments (thank you NCLB), to AP and IB testing, to finals. Can you say STRESSED?

The teachers have been wonderful, holding special “practice” testing sessions for the AP exams in the evenings and weekends. My oldest has participated in all of them. But, this is her first real experience with tests like the AP exam. And, being the crazy over-achiever that she is, she is not taking ONE AP exam…she is taking three. Even more next year.

Oh yes, it has been a very stressful few weeks.

She spent this last weekend studying like crazy – in study groups, with friends, and on her own.

Like most of her GT friends, she has a range of intensities she deals daily. Additionally, like most of her GT friends, she holds herself to a crazy standard. Most people think my husband and I have pushed her in this direction, insinuating that if she gets too overwhelmed it is somehow our fault, that our expectations are too high. Nothing can be farther from the truth. With her, we are always trying to tempter the expectations she has for herself with reasonableness…teaching her, rather than dictating to her, how to manage her high expectations with the realities of being intense. We have taught her about being balanced, stress reduction, taking breaks, and perspective. It is a never-ending job. And one we are only marginally successful at.

That said, I am proud of her. She has learned that the hives she is getting right now is related to her stress. She is learning to give herself breaks, learning that she studies better with certain friends than with others. She knows she needs sleep, and that she can, and has, overstudied for things.

She is learning balance.

At least, balance within the framework of an emotional intense being.

What I am most proud of, however, is that my 15 year old child understands that her intensity is normal for her. She is not afraid of it, she does not let it rule her, nor does she allow the intense nature of her emotions get too far out of line. Most days. She understands that her intensities push her to excel while simultaneously threatening her successes by exacerbating her stress. She embraces her intensities, while understanding it is kind of like embracing a sword.

I originally started this post with the intent of commenting on the realities of high-stakes tests on our intense kiddos. But, as I think about my daughter and her friends, think about their journey through high-stakes testing, AP and IB classes, and expectations that can spiral out of control, I am reminded by one truth – Intense kids are intense kids. Their intensities are their biggest asset, and their Achilles heel. But good or bad, relaxed or stressed, it is normal for them. So, rather than comment on the right or wrongs of high stakes testing, I offer this…

Help your children learn to balance their lives – help them embrace their intensities, while never losing sight of the potential pitfalls of being an intense being. Walk with them through the fire that is sometimes their lives. Do this and you will give them a gift that has no measure…

You will enable them to fully embrace what it means to be intense…

And what could be more amazing than that?

 

18 thoughts on “Emotional Intensity and High Stakes Testing

  1. Zannie

    I’m glad to hear your wisdom as my son is also intense. Your kids are farther ahead than mine, we are still dealing with Elementary School. Balance is a good thing to teach kids. I was so worried about pushing my sons perfectionism that we tried to downplay the importance of grades. Thus, he brought in mediocre grades. sigh. Nedless to say, we changed that but have established a balance. He still beats himself up mentally when he gets something wrong or gets a bad grade but we are trying to teach him perspective.
    In response to your statement that “intensitiy is their biggest asset”: As a gifted, intense adult I’m still trying to find a benefit to being intense. I don’t feel it has helped me at all. The perfectionism drives me nuts and emotional excitability and mood swings drive other people nuts! “Being intense is like embracing a sword”: I’ll agree with you there. Strangely, my son’s intensities and emotional challenges are so different than mine that sometimes I don’t know how to help him. When he freaks out and acts like an alien from another planet it’s hard for me to find some good in it. He gets so upset sometimes “for no reason”(of course there is a reason, he just can’t identify it). He’s said “I know, I’m weird”, and I don’t know what to say to him because….it’s really just not normal ( I know you all think I’m a bad parent but you haven’t seen his irrational freak outs). Since reading Emotional Intensity I’ve been able to tell him he’s not wierd, but his reaction is over the top. I am way over the top too, but I guess I’m able to hide my freak outs from people. I can compartmentalize them. I don’t really want to teach him that. I guess my question is…Is intensity only beneficial if it pushes you to excel or are there other benefits?

    1. Christine Fonseca

      Embracing the good qualities of intensity is very hard – and yes, even “seeing” those qualities is difficult. But for me, intensity does not only mean crazy mood swings, difficult to manage emotions and rigid thinking. It also means passion for life, deep feeling and deep thinking, and perseverance. It means having the inherent passion required to create new things – for me, it’s the creation of stories and connections. Or the drive to create new ways to reach students, educators and parents and help them find understanding, peace and balance with their intensities.
      Yes, it is hard being so intense at times. But for me, it is who I am. So, I have a choice – I can fight it and be miserable. Or I can embrace it and see what happens. I’ve chosen to embrace all that I am – the good and the stressful😉 Some won’t like me, finding my intense nature off-putting. And that it fine. I am who I am – I make no apologies for that.
      I personally believe everyone’s journey is really about cultivating their authentic selves and embracing that. For me, it means finding the positive aspects of my intensity.
      Best of luck with your journey and where ever it may lead you.

  2. Robin

    My daughter also calls herself “weird” for crying over “nothing.” I tell her that she is more sensitive and that someday she might be able to help other people who are sensitive with their feelings. Because someone who has Never felt upset truly cannot know how to help someone who is.

    1. Christine Fonseca

      Girl after my own heart. The other day I was frustrated and wound up “crying over nothing”; while it was a bit annoying, I will admit that I found myself laughing over my own strange intensities once I got a little distance.

  3. Robin

    I feel angry when people assume that I PUSHED my daughter and that is why she is such a perfectionist. Quite the opposite. However, I modeled perfectionism. For that I feel bad, but I can only work with what I’ve got, so I would TRY, as did my dad, loudly model myself COPING with or struggling against perfectionism.
    Nature-wise she is wired for focus. I saw it in her eyes at 6 months. When other baby eyes bounced around the room, mine would focus on a picture on a page.

    1. Christine Fonseca

      Yes, I model perfectionism too. But I also model coping skills, embracing ALL that I am, the good and the intense, as well as finding acceptance. Seems a pretty good trade off you know…

  4. My daughter’s school defused AP exams by making the class exams incredibly hard. A 50% on a class exam would get you a B. The class was a mix of profoundly gifted, gifted, and high achieving nongifted. The exams were geared to where no one aced them (but inevitably 1 or 2 would). They used the wide grade range to make sure everyone was challenged and to helps kids at all levels understand that one could store score well on a test while still leaving large numbers of questions unanswered or incorrectly answered. This mimics the actual exam since in AP Biology, for example, a 5 (the highest score) could be had with many questions still unanswered. Although I’m sure some crammed before the test, my daughter didn’t feel the need because that class was far worse than the real AP. You knew that if you made a B in the class, you were likely to score a 4. There was a stick side to this in that they didn’t want to murder any student’s grade. If a student scored a B- or lower for two weeks, they were dropped to honors.. My daughter would come home frequently telling us that she had flunked an exam. She hadn’t. It wasn’t until much later that I figured out this was empathy for her friends. She found it traumatic seeing friends and even acquaintances being met outside the classroom by the teacher with a revised schedule card dropping them from the class and placing them in the honors class instead. This was a private school 5 years ago so we were spared the other kinds of testing craziness.

    1. Christine Fonseca

      My daughter’s HS program is similar. Her AP classes truly ARE college level (not something I have been found to be true everywhere) and her teachers absolutely understand the intense nature of these kids. I have to say, I am quite proud of my daughter at this point – not for her grades or achievements, but for her coming to terms with who she is, embracing it, and finding her own strategies to manage the intense nature of “her”. I was no where near as balanced or mature at her age – not even close.

      1. You and your daughter were very fortunate. For my daughter the whole AP process meant nothing. It was just something that her school and her parents expected her to do and she accomplished that check box. The honors she received from it meant nothing. She never figured out what she was and where she was going. She never learned about giftedness until she was an adult (basically when I learned about it about a year and a half ago). As a result she is limbo, still trying to figure out who she is.

      2. Your daughter sounds very much like me – that was my personal experience with AP testing. I never figured out what I wanted to do either. Wondered around school, took every graduate entrance exam, and finished college at the age of 20 still clueless. I didn’t really “grow” into my mind, or my life for that matter, until my late thirties, early forties. Fortunately, my daughters are much wiser than I, and are so much more clear as to who they are – if that makes sense.

  5. tammyCA

    Today is a bad day…this school testing has made my daughter more stressed than ever and she has pulled out so much hair in the last month that she now looks like an old man…half bald half long hair in back…I’m so depressed…she is crying and fighting me not to go to school…I have never pushed her in grades…it is all her own internal thing (and the strict teacher)…I’m making the decision today to pull her out for the rest of this year…I don’t know what to do…I just want her emotionally/mentally healthy…we were referred to a pyschatrist end of this week…is my kid the only one who pulls her hair out due to stress? She is a great student, well-behaved in school, (except for crying over little stuff, which annoys the teachers, who call it immature)…it is at home that I get the “bad seed” treatment…it just hurts me that she is hurting inside for whatever it is that makes her this way…she cries, “you don’t understand what it is like for me!” …for a 9 yr old she sounds like a 45 yr. in a mid-life crisis! Why? I really don’t understand.

    1. Robin

      I feel so bad for you! =(
      My daughter is also really stressed this week with California Testing but it comes out as a tummy ache instead of hair-pulling. A daily tummy ache which I also had as a kid. My daughter has her tummy ache with tests and presentations and with little girl friendship issues.
      I was discussing with my daughter’s teacher whether to have my kid have a 504 plan for her anxiety. I had some high school (English) kids with these plans. (These were often gifted kids. One had hives during testing. I feel bad because I had assigned a major project which I think was part of the problem.) One student with anxiety issues was given extended time for her papers so she wouldn’t freak. Another got exempted from reading The Awakening, (probably because of the existential ennui of the main character, which usually prompted an existential ennui in me each year as well.) A 504 plan might be the thing to try if you return to regular school.
      Well, anyway, maybe you can try a special school. there are so many good programs popping up. Even free ones near me, such as the project based, go to school 3 days a week magnet near LAX. Whereabouts in Cal are you?

  6. Robin

    I just reread your post. Strict teachers suck for delicate children. Maybe a teacher switch. Perhaps demand it. by psychiatrists orders. I mean if the alternative is pulling out of school……..

  7. tammyCA

    I haven’t heard of a 504 plan…we live in the san fernando valley…are there schools like that out here? I honestly don’t think this teacher or many of them have a clue about overexciteabilities, etc. Heck, I’m just learning about it…I knew my girl was over-sensitive and melodramatic, but because of the trichtilomania now I am getting a clue. She also complains about the stomach aches at bedtime and in the morning, probably the times she is thinking about going to school. There are only 3 teachers teaching this grade and the other one who teaches the gifted was the one she had last year and she’s not much better (both teachers have had big confrontations by other parents…I’m a non-confrontational type)…it is really messed up & I don’t think the principal cares either, only about test scores/enrollment numbers…the other teacher is probably the “average” kids teacher…which makes me feel like heck, maybe she needs that and not all this pressure (they never get homework)…I also used to get major test anxiety all thru school years and was often sick with stomach aches/ibs…but, I don’t recall teachers being like what I am hearing in class (I volunteer & it sounds negative). I just wish it was the end of the school year already…my own anxiety and depression is kicking in bad ( I get counseling thru regional ctr due to having an autistic kid). At least, now I know we aren’t alone in all this gifted/intensity stuff…I still don’t believe I would be considered gifted from what I’ve been reading…I seem to have the whole overblown imagination/sensitivity thing going on…when I was a kid it was the absolute worst and I had no supportive mother or anyone to turn to…it’s a wonder I survived.

    1. Robin

      You could check with SENG and see if there is a local group there. There is one gifted magnet in the valley. OR Have you got money? Mirman is there! If you are willing to drive there are some other schools in Pasadena and a wonderful school in Santa Monica that I saw that Christine gave a talk at last year. How about a Montessori school where everyone works at their own pace?
      If you’re getting depressed, homeschooling is not the best option.
      Go to the principal, say your kid has this condition and you would like to start the process to create a 504 plan.
      Then buy your kid some nice hats.

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