Interview with Prof. James Webb (USA), for the first Gifted Awareness Week in Germany

James Webb

James T. Webb, Ph.D., the founder of SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted Children) has been recognized as one of the 25 most influential psychologists nationally on gifted education. He is lead author of five books and numerous articles about gifted children, has served on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Gifted Children, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. In 2011, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Arizona Association for Gifted Children and the Community Service Award from NAGC. Formerly Professor and Associate Dean at the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology, Dr. Webb is president of Great Potential Press, an award-winning publisher of books for parents and teachers of gifted children.

Interview with Prof. James Webb (USA), for the first Gifted Awareness Week in Germany

1- What is your message for the first gifted awareness week in Germany?

I am so pleased to hear of the Gifted Awareness Week in Germany! It will help focus attention on the particular needs of gifted and talented children and their families. Throughout so much of the world, the prevailing idea is that bright minds do not have any special needs, and that they will simply make it on their own. In so many places, bright minds are being required to go at a snail’s pace in their classrooms where the emphasis is on being like the rest of the children in order to be sociable and to fit in. At home, parents often find themselves puzzled by their child’s behaviors, and frustrated or even angry because their very bright, intense, and sensitive child is so strong-willed and seems to question everything. As a result, gifted children are often neglected, misunderstood, overlooked, and misdiagnosed as having behavioral problems.

In 2008, we began a similar effort through SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted) where we created National Parenting Gifted Children Week, and each year we continue to celebrate that week as a way to highlight particularly common issues faced by gifted and talented children, such as underachievement, advocacy, special issues for gifted boys and gifted girls, depression, etc. We encourage other groups in the United States to join us in this effort, and we applaud and encourage Germany for establishing Gifted Awareness Week. I hope that other countries will engage in similar efforts.

2- The Global Center for Gifted and Talented Children is organizing the first Gifted Awareness Week in Germany. Could you please tell us about the importance of the gifted education and development of potentials in a country?

I do not think that I am putting too fine a point on it when I say that the world is facing a dizzying array of problems—environmental concerns, economic woes, national protectionism, religious zealotry, terrorism, new diseases, etc. These problems are not going to be solved by our dullest minds. The world’s greatest resources are our brightest minds, and yet they are so often neglected and even punished for their idealism and for their non-traditional attempts to change the world. However, being bright is not enough; we must also cultivate courage and caring along with developing creativity, intelligence, and motivation. Otherwise, we run the risk of having bright minds who lose their idealism or lack the courage and motivation to engage in leadership behaviors with creative ideas that can truly make a difference. It is vital that educators and parents, as well as policy makers, understand the complexity, intensity, sensitivity, and idealism of gifted children and adults. Otherwise that country will not be able to nurture and develop its greatest asset.

3- Tell us about your research, your work, and your experience in Gifted Education, please.

My background and training is as a clinical psychologist and, like most mental health professionals, I received essentially no training about gifted children and their families. However, during the early years of my practice and teaching, I found myself beginning to notice patterns of behaviors and concerns in bright and creative children. Still, I did not make gifted children a focal point of my professional life until 1981 after a tragedy. A very bright 16-year-old computer whiz kid, who had entered college earlier than most, suddenly disappeared. After a nationwide search, he was found working at a low-level job in an oil field, and this clearly unhappy young man was brought back home to begin seeing a psychiatrist. Sadly, this young man committed suicide shortly after. His parents contacted me through a mutual friend, and they inquired as to whether there was some national center that focused on social, emotional, and family issues of gifted children to which donations might be directed in their son’s memory. I checked, but was unable to find such a place, and so we began the SENG program (Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted) at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where I was professor and associate dean.

The SENG program completely changed the direction of my professional work. I quickly realized that gifted children and their families were a neglected area of practice, and also that most psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and counselors had received no training in the special needs of gifted children. The SENG program began to work with parents and established the SENG Model Parent Group model that continues to provide support and discussion formats throughout the United States and in many other countries, including in Germany. We began to train psychologists and other mental health professionals in issues of misdiagnosis and dual diagnoses of gifted children and adults. So many children that we saw had incorrectly been labeled as ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder or OCD or Asperger’s Disorder or some other disorder, and many gifted children had learning disabilities that were overlooked because of their high abilities in other areas.

We also began to hold annual SENG conferences, and to do research and to write about our observations. Not surprisingly, we discovered that many of the traditional publication sources considered gifted children to be a small niche, and they were unwilling to publish books or sometimes even articles. As a result, we decided to create a small publishing company, now known as Great Potential Press, as a vehicle that would allow publication of books by various authors dealing particularly with social and emotional needs of gifted children and their families. Other publishers had produced books on meeting educational needs, but not on family, social, or personal needs of gifted children, and, of course, there is a need for all of these areas to be covered.

Even before retiring from Wright State University, I had begun speaking as widely as possible about the topics being covered by SENG. It has become a passion and a mission for me to try to reach as many people as possible in order to help them understand the educational, social, and emotional needs of gifted children. More recently, too, I find myself focusing on the special issues of gifted adults. I often tell people that giftedness is not something you outgrow when you reach adulthood; it continues, and it influences your life in many, many ways. Recently, I just completed a book titled Searching for Meaning: Bright Minds, Idealism, Disillusionment, and Hope, which focuses on so many issues, such as existential depression, that we see in gifted adolescents and adults – and sometimes in gifted children, too.

4- Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children is one of your topics. What can we do? What is your advice?

Regrettably, I find that I must tell parents that they cannot necessarily depend on health-care professionals to be knowledgeable and informed about gifted children. Instead, parents must first educate themselves, and then often they must educate the health-care professional or counselor. Gifted children, in addition to often being unusually intense and sensitive, seem to have a substantial number of unusual behaviors or quirks. For example, many, many parents tell me that they have to cut the tags out of the back of their children’s clothing, or that their child seems unusually sensitive to noises, or crowds, or lights, or odors. They tell me that their very bright child seems to be lacking in common sense (not knowing that judgment typically lags behind intellect). And some tell me that their child simply needs very little sleep, is extremely active, and is impatient with school and with friends. When the parents take such a child to a health-care professional, that professional will try to make sense of the unusual behaviors that are being described, and the most frequent way is to fit the behaviors into a diagnosis. This is how misdiagnosis most often occurs.

Of course, I would recommend that the parent (and hopefully also the professional) would read the book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, Depression, and other Disorders. However, prior to that, there are some guidelines that I would give to parents and professionals to help them clarify their thinking about the child. These guidelines are:

• Does the child’s development history indicate early milestones of precocious development?

• Are the behavior patterns typical ones for gifted children and adults?

• Are the problem behaviors found only in certain situations or contexts, rather than across most situations?

• Are the problematic behaviors reduced when the person is with other gifted persons or in intellectually supportive settings?

• Can the problematic behaviors be most easily explained as stemming from a gifted/creative person being in an inappropriate situation?

• Are the behaviors ones that really cause impairment in personal or social functioning, or are they quirks or idiosyncrasies that cause little impairment or discomfort?

Be aware also of the possibility of dual diagnoses, children who are often called 2e (twice-exceptional). Perhaps the most common of these is learning disabilities, which can easily be camouflaged by a child’s stronger abilities making it difficult to understand that the child is struggling in specific academic areas. What is not widely known is the phenomenon of asynchronous development. That is, as overall abilities increases beyond the Above Average range, there usually is a continuing broadening or span in various areas of ability. That is, a child may have abilities that are remarkably about average in some areas, but also have other areas that are only average or slightly above average. Unless a situation like this is identified, the child is at risk for low self-esteem and underachievement, as well as being puzzlement to parents and teachers. Also, too, parents, educators, and health-care professionals need to know that gifted children, particularly those who are highly gifted, are more likely to have allergies, asthma, and a phenomenon of temporary low-glucose during mid-morning and mid-afternoon that seriously affects their ability to concentrate and to relate to others until they are able to get a snack or a meal.

I am pleased to say, too, that SENG has undertaken the SENG Misdiagnosis Initiative to educate parents and professionals internationally about the issues of misdiagnosis and dual diagnoses of gifted children and adults. Internet discussion groups, continuing education programs, and seminars are sponsored by SENG, along with printed brochures that can be given to physicians and psychologists. For more information, see http://www.sengifted.org/programs/seng-misdiagnosis-initiative.

5- How can we support emotional needs of our talented kids best?

The best way that we can support the emotional needs of our talented children is by understanding and gently guiding and challenging them. Stephanie Tolan, in Guiding the Gifted Child, stated it very well when she said, "These children are like plants that need stakes to grow against, with gentle ties where neces¬sary to support their natural growth, instead of being rigidly espaliered to a stone wall in arti¬ficial designs someone else devised."

All too often we try to force our brightest minds to endure situations that we, as adults, would find intolerable. They are so often put into classes where the pace is geared for the slower ones, and they are prevented from working ahead. They are told that their questions are unwelcome because all of the children must have a chance to ask questions. They are told that their creative ideas are silly and impractical, and that their interests are strange ones that do not fit with the lesson plan. In short, we communicate to our gifted children that we would like them much more if they simply would stop showing gifted behaviors. Mediocrity, conformity, and fitting in have become more valued than innovation, excellence, and creativity.

The irony of this, of course, is how it is so at odds with how we treat gifted athletes. We want our gifted athletes to stand out. Gifted athletes are allowed and encouraged to develop their abilities in whatever areas of strength they seem to have. We provide, often at school expense, after-school and weekend experiences where they can be with other gifted athletes to challenge and develop themselves, and to sustain the excitement about improving. We adults often travel with them, sometimes over long distances, to interact with and compete against similar peers, and these interactions do not rely very much on age groupings, but rather on ability level. We deem our gifted athletes to be a source of pride for the school and the community. However, the situation is too often quite different for those children who are intellectually or creatively or artistically gifted – at least until they become adults.

Parents play a key role, both as supporters and as advocates, to help our gifted children survive and thrive. I strongly encourage educators to involve parents of gifted children in their local or regional conferences, and to establish parent resource libraries or lists of Internet resources that can be extremely helpful to these parents who so often feel alone and without support, while trying to successfully parent a child who is different from so many other children.

Again, congratulations on Germany’s Gifted Awareness Week. My best wishes to you for your continuing efforts.