Happy Children Learn

Why Accepting Intrinsic Motivation Is Essential to Educating Our Twice-Exceptional and Gifted Learners

By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach

Twice-exceptional and gifted (2e/gifted) children who struggle in school, whether it is academically or socially, often look like they do not want to learn. Adults are often confused until they understand how much a child’s intrinsic drive to learn is key to their success, both academically and socially. 

Elijah and Big Minds Unschool, A Micro-School’s Approach

Innovative schools for all ages that value intrinsic motivation are cropping up across the country. One such school is Big Minds Unschool, a K-8 micro-school in the San Francisco Bay Area for twice-exceptional (2e) learners. 

Elijah’s story of his first few months at Big Minds illustrates one way that intrinsic motivation can help a child who isn’t fitting into the regular education model. 

Elijah is a lively, creative 6-year-old boy whose mom placed him at Big Minds as a solution to his social withdrawal and escalating unhappiness at his previous school. One never knows how a new student will do in their new environment. Billy Bouzos, the school’s site director, sometimes grabs an acoustic guitar and walks the halls to see how everyone is doing. He and Elijah quickly bonded over their mutual love of music. Through their playing together casually in the hallways, Billy quickly realized that Elijah knew several AC/DC, Nirvana, and Lizzo songs flawlessly by heart and had an innate talent for their delivery and rhythm. 

Kat White, the music teacher at Big Minds, doesn’t have the expectation that anyone learns the same way she does. For some of her students who are more visual, she makes picture representations of guitar chords on paper for them to follow while they play. Some get to learn and play by ear if that is their strength. Others have the option of writing and reading the corresponding letter of a musical note rather than the symbol if that suits them. She then teaches more advanced techniques as they are ready. First and foremost, she begins by and building trust and forming a relationship. Kat reports that it took Elijah some time to warm up to her. She instinctively let Elijah take the lead in what he was intrinsically motivated to do. Over time she learned that Elijah had a “crazy memory for lyrics, sophisticated tastes, and is naturally able to sing in time and rhythm.” Were Kat in a more traditional music classroom, not only might she have not seen Elijah’s natural talents, she would not have the freedom to allow Elijah to learn as freely as needed. “If I were to try to teach him the guitar, or how to read traditional sheet music or anything he isn’t ready for, he would get discouraged…. The chords, the melody, he can learn by ear. If he decides to, it will be for a specific reason. Making him do so now would be way too tedious.”  

A few months after starting at Big Minds, Elijah expressed a strong desire to perform in the winter concert. He also had some nerves. By now Elijah had become more social and confident and was able to focus better in his group classes and with his peers. Performing one of his songs solo, in a more formal way with an audience was one of the next steps for Elijah’s social, intellectual, and creative growth. He had a strong motivation to do so, and because it was so extremely important to him, he was also very nervous and particular about it. Gifted and 2e individuals can be intensely driven, perfectionistic, and sensitive in ways that make it difficult, especially at a young age, to show their gifts outwardly in all conditions. Inwardly there are big nerves. It can feel like there is a lot at stake for the student. For the grown-ups supporting them, understanding what is going on internally can be where the work is. In Elijah’s previous school, the musical goal for Elijah was to learn to sing as part of a group. In other educational environments, the goal may have been learning to play the guitar. For Elijah, given his emotional growth in his new environment and the support he knew he had, performing solo was his goal.

This is intrinsic motivation. 

Although Kat usually accompanied children in the school’s concerts, since Billy had a special bond with Elijah, they decided that Elijah would have more success and calmer nerves if he were to accompany Elijah for the performance. This is an example of scaffolding. The teachers put into place supports that another student may not need, but for Elijah, were critical to his success. (For more on scaffolding, see this article.) As you will see, their knowledge of what was needed could only come out of their shared sensitivity, depth of knowledge, and empathy for their student. They were able to work together in a seamless and well-timed way to create the environment to allow Elijah’s strengths to come through. As Elijah grows, he will need less scaffolding. 

The school’s winter concert was, as usual, full of life and talent. When it was time for Elijah’s performance, the audience could notice a bit of nervousness in the air as the guitar, worn by Kat until now, was passed quickly to Billy. While the guitar strap was quite short, you could tell there was no time for adjustments. Elijah was either going to perform or decide not to, and whether it happened seemed to depend on a delicate balance of “it’s all cool,” with “you can do this,” with “yes, the conditions aren’t perfect, but this is so fun.” The guitar chords played and Elijah grabbed the mic. Out came the coolest, smoothest rendition of AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” He captivated the room as though he were a 40-year-old professional performer on a stage meant to entertain thousands. For the brief moments of the song, the audience seemed transported to another era. Elijah’s heart, soul, and talent came through like a beacon of light. 

Elijah was happy, excited and proud after his performance, and asked to do more. 

When a student’s deep area of passion isn’t able to progress in a timeline that is organic to that student, such as Elijah’s singing, all other areas academically and emotionally can be impacted. While there can be so many reasons why a certain educational model doesn’t suit a child, following the child’s intrinsic motivation to learn with skill, integrity and most importantly, fun, seems to lead us to the solutions needed.

Why Is Intrinsic Motivation So Important?

Just as most 2e/gifted kids will not eat something they do not choose (no matter how hard you bribe them!), many of us have found that they do not learn well if they cannot choose what, how, and when. They resist learning if it feels forced on them. This knowledge is often missing among those who subscribe to traditional schooling methods, and it is the reason that so many children are unhappy and failing in school. 

Our strong-willed children have a built-in protective mechanism that prevents them from willingly accepting learning methods and topics that are an inappropriate fit for them. This often leads to behavior problems when they refuse to turn in homework, sit still, or do rote exercises. 

Strong-willed or not, imposing inappropriate learning methods can result in a child with low self-esteem, severed relationships, depression, anger, and anxiety. They can look like they don’t care about learning anymore, even the subjects they once loved. For some students, this internal backlash doesn’t reveal itself until they are an adult. Some parents of 2e/gifted students find this to be true for themselves in hindsight as they learn about their own children. 

Heartfelt and sincere relationships are important. It takes an empathic teacher who can meet them where they are, especially when learning doesn’t follow the traditional trajectory. It also takes understanding parents to acknowledge that their child needs something different than the current learning environment. Once the adults in a 2e/gifted child’s life fully understand this, there is less nagging, anger, depression, and anxiety, and more learning, ease, freedom (for the parents and teachers too) eventually allowing children to re-experience achievements. 

For many of us new to gifted homeschooling and unschooling, educating a 2e/gifted child can take some time and a lot of trial-by-error. It’s often a rite of passage in the gifted homeschooling world, that the parent doing the homeschooling tries to recreate traditional school for the first year, until they finally understand how their child learns and what they need: to follow their child’s lead through discovering how they are intrinsically motivated and supporting those efforts. Gifted homeschooling parents often report a huge relief once they understand what learning looks like for their child, and find ways to allow the learning to happen. 

This acceptance is a huge challenge for parents. As the father of a twice-exceptional middle schooler said,

“It requires a lot of patience and faith. Parents often have conflicting emotions that make accepting their child’s needs very difficult. On the one hand, we can feel pride and excitement at our child’s precocious understanding and achievements. Simultaneously it can be excruciatingly painful to patiently wait for him to hit traditional developmental milestones on his own terms,–which can sometimes take months or years longer than is typical. And to confuse matters further, some children sometimes show up right in the middle of the bell curve and the parents question the accuracy of their perceptions and intuitions regarding their child’s needs.”  

Many child-led learning methods, such as micro-schools and gifted homeschooling, can have high withdrawal rates, as parents have a hard time trusting this unusual process.  Families try to return to traditional schooling, only to be reminded that it doesn’t work. I suspect this is largely in part due to a misunderstanding by the parents about what the child needs in order to learn. A huge misconception is that an alternative school, or homeschooling, is going to prepare the child to return to being more traditionally educated. The “coursework” needed for real learning to occur may not even look like learning to the more traditionally-minded adult. 2e/gifted children often reach developmental milestones at uncommon ages, while some may never reach typical milestones. Alternative curriculum focused on 2e/gifted learners will allow the child to find their own strengths and thrive in their unique way; which I believe is what we all ultimately want. Until a parent understands this, there will always be friction and difficulty, and worse, the child’s progress is undermined. For most parents, it takes a big leap of faith until, over time, (sometimes years) they see a change in their child, especially if there is school trauma for the child to heal. 

What about special needs and learning differences? 

After understanding and/or addressing any neurological issues, scaffolding can be used to address special learning needs. Scaffolding is a technique that sets into place supports that allow the child to learn, create, and progress from the level where they are. In the traditional school setting, students need to wait until they have addressed weaknesses before they can progress. The combination of working on the weaknesses while not being allowed to progress in areas of strength usually increases boredom and, even worse, stifles the real work the student is motivated to do. 

Take a child who has difficulty writing, but who has a strong interest in storytelling or journalism. Scaffolding might be allowing this child to dictate a story in order to give them space to explore their talent as a “writer” while supporting their challenge of not being able to “write” with pen and paper. Scaffolding usually doesn’t mean tutoring in things like reading, phonics, typing, drills, etc. like you would expect from a traditional teaching approach. Sometimes a 2e/gifted child is not motivated to learn to type or edit their grammar until way into high school when they realize they will not be taken seriously unless they do so, and are therefore intrinsically motivated to learn. It will take a non-judgmental adult to understand that this was not laziness on anyone’s part: the child simply wasn’t ready and didn’t see the point. Only once a child is ready to learn, any learning challenges will become evident. As a side note, but an important point, because 2e/gifted children’s brains are wired differently and development is asynchronous, sometimes they may look like they have a challenge when really their brain isn’t ready until a non-typically developmental age. Often 2e/gifted children pick up on things they are motivated to learn at lightning speed once they are ready. 

This can also happen to the student interested in subjects such as engineering or music, where finding ways to engage without lower math or learning to read music may need to be an option, at least for a while and for some, always. Translating the creative (science or art) to the linear (writing or even verbal), or vice versa, can be debilitating for some who are more creative to have to do before they are ready. Seemingly paradoxically, the child who does not prefer to “write” may go on to become a writer, the child who refuses to do repetitive math may go on to become a mathematician, and the shy child may actually become a gifted performer given the appropriate scaffolding.

These intensely creative and intellectually driven children are just that: fueled by their passions. For them, their education starts here and is the springboard for more growth. Most of us who have trusted this internal drive know that work ethic, grit, overcoming fears, and academics will surface only if they are allowed to surface – coming from this place between them and their teacher, not from any amount of external force, but from a place of mutual love: love for the material, love for each other, and love for their natural desire and drive to learn and grow. 

I believe that, by refusing to learn in a traditional way, our 2e/gifted children are leading the way in voicing something that is not working for most students, (gifted, special needs, or not). The world is changing and the gifts that our most resistant and quiet students have to offer may be the key to resolving many of today’s problems. Is our education system ready to listen? 

©2020 Teresa Currivan

Teresa Currivan lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. HeadshotcroppedShe’s a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, and parent coach at Help My Child Thrive Coaching LLC. She is the parent support specialist at Big Minds Unschool, a K-8 school for twice-exceptional children, and leads parent support groups there and in her private practice. In addition to parent coaching, she works with children, teens, and adults. Her specialties are giftedness and twice-exceptionality. Teresa has been published on sites such as Mother.ly and Filter Free Parents. She’s also a writer for GHF Newsletter and a blogger at Hoagies Gifted Education Page. You can find her articles on topics ranging from gifted testing, sensory disorders, appropriate diagnoses, and parenting the gifted on this website, https://helpmychildthrive.comFollow her on Facebook at  fb.me/TeresaCurrivanCoaching. 

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