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An Interview with Dr. Joanne Foster: Pressing Concerns and Questions of Parents of Gifted Learners

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Joanne, first of all, tell us a bit about yourself and your work. 

I’ve worked in the field of gifted education for over 30 years—as a teacher, specialist, consultant, program leader, university instructor, educational liaison, and community advocate. I give presentations at conferences, in schools, for boards of education, and at other venues, and I serve on advisory committees.

My Doctoral degree is in Human Development and Applied Psychology, and my Masters degree is in Special Education and Adaptive Instruction. Both were acquired from the University of Toronto. I am an award-winning author of several books. My areas of expertise include supporting and encouraging gifted learners, and helping all children build upon their intelligence, productivity, and creativity. My home base is Toronto.

2. It seems parents of gifted children have A LOT of questions and concerns about the education of their kids. What do you see as the MAIN ones?

Parents want to know how to provide the best possible learning opportunities for their kids, and they are looking for ways to ensure their children’s social and emotional well-being. Issues parents raise tend to revolve around these two concerns—in one way or another. On January 10th I will be doing a webinar for SENG—Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted – www.sengifted.og. (This online presentation is called a “SENGINAR.”) I focus on 8 questions that come to the fore again and again among parents.

  • How can I ensure that my child is healthy and happy?
  • How can I encourage my child to be more productive?
  • How can I help my child develop the abilities required to cope with challenges?
  • How can I ensure that my child receives an education that is suited to his/her abilities?
  • How can I nurture my child’s creativity?
  • How can I help my child build and maintain good relationships?
  • How can I help my child deal effectively with emotions?
  • How can I support my child in developing greater self-confidence?

And, in the course of the SENGINAR discussion, I share information about how to foster healthy minds and bodies; strengthen support mechanisms at home and school; promote meaningful learning; fortify social interactions; and more.

I encourage parents to think about their own children (and particular set of circumstances and contexts), while at the same time considering what they can build upon, what might need to to change, and what may require more attention.

3. While it is great to be gifted, is it not great to be happy? How do parents reconcile the two?

Your question includes two key words: gifted and happy.  Gifted learners may be happy (or not) in the same way that ANY child may be happy (or not), depending upon myriad factors. These factors might have to do with school-related issues, family harmony, sense of self, emotional literacy, friendships, expectations, past experiences, supports, and so on… So, for example, a child’s happiness may be affected by academic concerns, sibling discord, lack of self-confidence, difficulties dealing with emotions, friendship-related issues, changes, problems dealing with resilience—or other matters.

And, while no-one can “guarantee” a child’s happiness, parents have an important role to play in trying to promote it by offering guidance and reassurances, modeling healthy life balance (such as ensuring time for play, mindfulness, reflection, and exercise), helping kids feel validated in their emotions, and being available to listen.

Parents can help children and teens kids appreciate their giftedness by staying attuned to their actions, reactions, feelings, and behaviors as they a) establish and reach higher goals; b) invest effort; c) learn from setbacks; and, d) develop faith in their own abilities. Adults can demonstrate these attributes in their own actions and attitudes, and they can be anticipatory, reassuring, and watchful.

4. How “productive” should we expect these gifted kids to be? Should they be writing, drawing, painting, composing? Or enjoying childhood?

Kids can enjoy childhood AND be productive, too! They may be interested in “writing, drawing, painting, composing,” as you suggest—or dancing, playing an instrument, participating in sports, building forts, volunteering in the community, engaging in leadership pursuits, cooking, increasing their technological skill sets, learning a new language, or…. And, they should absolutely follow their passions, and strive to develop them. That is a form of productivity!

Parents and teachers should not focus solely on children’s academics. Kids need ample opportunities to fulfill their aspirations—that is, to engage in creative activities; to experiment, play, question, and make discoveries on their own terms; and to pursue what’s most relevant to them.

Productivity is fueled by motivation, and children (like adults) are motivated by what they perceive to be relevant and important. If something is intriguing, sparks the imagination, connects to a child’s goals or aspirations, or has a perceived personal value attached to it—then chances are it will be motivating.

So, what’s motivating? It might be challenge, choice, flexibility, fun, feelings of pride in personal progress, finding joy in learning and achieving… The possibilities will differ from one person to the next. And, as such, the nature of productivity (processes and outcomes) will also differ from one person to the next.

However, there are things parents can pay attention to in order to help kids become more productive. For example, parents can encourage accountability, helping children learn to work step by step, and to understand that sometimes there will be confusion, ambiguity, or risks along the way. Parents can demonstrate the power of effort, and help kids appreciate that there is satisfaction to be had from accomplishment, regardless of domain. And, parents can encourage children to address possible issues such as perfectionism or procrastination. (I’d like to invite people to read a previous interview I did with you, on helping children overcome procrastination, at http://www.educationviews.org/dr-joanne-foster-procrastinating-kids/)

5. What kinds of coping skills do these kids need? And are the schools providing these?

Sometimes gifted learners feel that they have to dazzle all the time—and this is just not realistic. A child may exhibit gifted or high-level abilities in one or more areas, but not in others. It can be daunting for a child to have to live up to very high standards, regardless of whether these are self-determined, or established by adults. Children who are unable to cope with setbacks or failure may require professional assistance.

Parents and teachers can help, however, by encouraging kids to reflect upon their feelings (including fears, anger, disappointment, and worry), and to explore attitudes, understandings, and assumptions about giftedness or other issues. Kids’ needs, desires, concerns, and interests are always changing, as are family and school situations. Schools can work proactively to help gifted learners to acquire self-acceptance, develop self-advocacy skills, question self-imposed barriers, and become familiar with the kinds of support mechanisms that are available to them.

Moreover, as I note on page 23 of my most recent book, Bust Your BUTS, it’s important for parents and teachers to help kids challenge their understandings of success. They don’t have to focus exclusively on LARGE or gifted-level accomplishments.

They’ll experience more successes—and greater confidence, too—if they’re broadminded about the nature of success.

6. Sense of self – is the child a gifted child first and foremost or a kid with potential?

The word “potential” is a powder keg. No-one can assume or predict what anyone’s potential might actually be. So it’s important to figure out what a child knows and is able to do at any given time, and then build from there. This means recognizing the child’s developmental and age-related readiness—by ensuring that expectations are fitting, fair, and realistic, and by honoring capabilities, areas of strength or weakness, interests, and temperament.

Parents and teachers can be instrumental in helping children develop determination, resilience, adaptability, tolerance, graciousness, forgiveness, and other means of coping with life’s many and inevitable ups and downs, so as to make each day “potentially” a good day, and each task “potentially” affirming and worthwhile.

Parents of gifted learners may also want to keep an eye out for issues relating to exceptionality from the norm, such as differentness leading to isolation, rejection, or bullying; misconceptions or uncertainty about what giftedness entails; and other possible concerns such as fear of failure or fear of success.

7. Let’s face it – we all have strengths and weaknesses. How do parents need to view their kids in this regard?

Whether it’s at home or in relation to a child’s schooling, parents have to pay close attention to what fits their particular child in a particular situation, setting appropriate expectations, and providing the kind of support and encouragement that is most beneficial.

Sometimes parents perceive a mismatch between a child’s needs as they relate to areas of strength and weakness, and the education they’re receiving.

Finding a suitable “fit” between a student and what a school system has on offer can be labor-intensive. An effective plan requires information-gathering, and thoughtful decision-making and collaborative effort on the part of many people—parents, teachers, administrators, consultants and, of course, the child.

Here are three tips:

1) Listen attentively to what kids say about their educational and other experiences. Find out what they’re learning, or enjoying, or finding challenging, or what they’re going to investigate further, and why.

 2) Stay connected with teachers. Parents who strengthen communication networks between home and school are better positioned to help their children succeed.

The best learner-learning match is a result of teamwork, respectful discourse, and mutually developed expectations.

 3) Consider the learning environment. Each has its own dynamic and mix of goals, courses, materials, advantages, and drawbacks. The “fit” between a child and learning opportunities is always in flux, and it should be monitored. Parents might have to consider renewed decision-making about placement options, including combining program elements, modifying or supplementing instruction, or adjusting challenge levels, as required.

And, sometimes things need to be shaken up a little. Parents should be prepared to advocate for—and alongside—their child if need be!

8. Do you have a web site where parents can get hold of your books and materials? 

Yes! I hope people will visit my website at www.joannefoster.ca. There is information there about my first two books “Being Smart about Gifted Education” and “Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids” (both co-authored with Dona Matthews), as well as my books on helping kids overcome procrastination – Not Now, Maybe Later” and “Bust Your BUTS.”

For those who would like additional information on topics referred to in this interview, please visit the resources page on my website, and be sure to check out the many related articles in my column, “Fostering Kids’ Success” at The Creativity Post (www.creativitypost.com).

9. What have I neglected to ask?

I think your questions were thought provoking, and we’ve covered a lot. Thank you, for enabling me to share information. I also appreciate being able to let people know about my work, books, and resources—and, too, the webinar for SENG (www.sengifted.org) wherein I discuss all of the above—and more! 



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