Skip to main content

Slice of Life: What Do Emotionally Intense Kids Need?

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Giftedness has an emotional as well as intellectual component. Intellectual complexity goes hand in hand with emotional depth. Just as gifted children’s thinking is more complex and has more depth than other children’s, so too are their emotions more complex and more intense. Feeling everything more deeply than others do can both be painful and frightening. Emotionally intense gifted people often feel abnormal. “There must be something wrong with me… maybe I’m crazy… nobody else seems to feel like this.” Emotionally intense gifted people often experience intense inner conflict, self-criticism, anxiety and feelings of inferiority.

If I'm doing my job as a teacher properly, I must be an expert behavior analyst. This is especially important when I have sensitive children in my classroom. I must notice the moment Joshua stops working or David holds his ears. In response, I make eye contact with Joshua, raising my eyebrows as punctuation, and point to his paper. His body jumps in recognition as he picks up his pencil. Next, I might blink the lights to get everyone to quiet down. Notice I don’t holler at the top of my lungs, “Are you kidding me?!” which is what I used to, well sometimes still do, at home with my own children. I’ve learned that my emotionally intense (EI) students have much to teach me about parenting. It can be exhausting being one step ahead of everyone, but it's much easier than managing unpredictable behavior.

Now when my eleven year old son blames me because his piano practicing is difficult, my first thought is, “What do EI kids need?” It’s sort of my version of “What Would Jesus Do?” In fact, I might make parenting  bracelets with WDEIKN. Instead of getting mad at his misplaced anger, I tell him to focus on one line of music for today. He considers this, then nods and continues practicing.

In the classroom on Monday mornings I nurse my coffee as kids file in. “Hey, the schedule is wrong, we aren’t doing poetry today,” Joshua tells me. He is the kid who makes sure I’m on top of the classroom events. He loves that I'm rarely on top of the movement of schedule cards. I make sure to say,  “Can you change the Friday cards to the Monday ones? I forgot to.” I remember to be literal and kind.

At home, I stick to the plan. I remind my own children no less than four times that they are buying lunch instead of bringing it. I also make sure they know about changes in plans. “Don’t forget I have a late meeting Wednesday. So Dad is picking you up.” My kids are calmer knowing what to expect.

One day last year we were making classroom family portraits. Family makeup is vastly different from what it used to be and I know this can be a sore spot for some, but worth the investigation. I continue attempting to stay one step ahead of my students psychologically. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that it was the tiny ways people moved and behaved that showed him who they were. I try to look for those tiny details before they get bigger, but sometimes I'm late in spotting them.

Cut to: Timothy lying in fetal position crying under his table. It’s tough being young and learning how our culture works. It’s much tougher for kids who are neurologically different. I sit next to him and whisper “Are you worried about how to put your dad in your portrait so your mom won't be angry? I would be sad too. Maybe we could divide the paper in half." He slowly gets to his feet willing to give it a try. I can't do this if I don't know each child well, so I must build good relationships early and regularly.

When my own children fall apart, I curse myself for not seeing it earlier. At home I try to employ an old Twelve Step mantra: HALT. How can I make sure my kids aren't Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired so they don't melt down. Just like at school, I don't always catch this in time, but when I do it's miraculous. When my eight year old daughter is crying over something that is not worthy of tears, I hand her a cheese stick because I realize she hasn't eaten for a while and the crying stops. Like. Literally. Stops.

This parenting strategy isn't simple to be sure––I am a yeller by nature. But when I use these gentle, clear strategies with my own children, I feel so much better about myself and the message they are getting.

Steve Silberman, author of the book NeuroTribes, says that neurological differences are “another way of being human.” Being human is different for everyone. My students are different from each other, so I try to help them function well together through a common set of posted rules. This helps them see that rules aren’t arbitrary. At home I have this arbitrary tendency, “No iPad for the week!” My children look stunned at this declaration and since I’ll never follow through on this, there is no consistency or value to the threat. Life at home can be unpredictable and there are some who will argue that it should be more relaxed at home, but it is possible to be more structured and predictable without being controlling or boring. Kids thrive under these conditions.


  1. "Being human is different for everyone." How easily we forget this. Kids all want to feel "normal," but there really isn't such a thing when you really stop to think about this. Oh how I wish I had the wisdom of these words while my son was in school. It would have made my parenting job much easier.

  2. What a wise and empathetic approach to social-emotional learning for EI/GT students! Coming from a special education background, this proves to me how alike "both ends of the bell curve" can be; I used similar methods in my resource room. Definitely sharing this article, especially with my GT teacher friends!

  3. Oh, I am a yeller by nature too! It is tricky for me to remember to speak calming so as not to exacerbate the situation instead of "fix" it. I have wind chimes in my room that I use to get everyone's attention. They remind me to take a few breaths while I am waiting and then speak to everyone calmly. I love what you are saying about noticing signs instead of just reacting.

  4. This is an amazing post, Kimberley. "Being human is different for everyone." Should be a tattoo or sign or something that we constantly see. This is the very hard and beautiful work of a teacher who is charged with so much. Learning is so complex. I love HALT, a simple but really effective first strategy for everyone. Thank you! I'm going to share with my staff.

  5. I like that you notice those tiny details, important in both parenting and teaching. That eating business is true in both too. Just ensuring that children get the food, or snack, they need helps a lot.

  6. Amen, amen, amen! I will be sharing this through FB and Twitter. Thank you so much for writing this!

  7. I love that story about the way you handled Timothy - wise and kind.

  8. Your post resonated with me so much as we are currently fostering two girls whose mother is battling drug addiction. Their make up and their needs are so different from my own children (all now grown) and I am learning new ways to parent every single day. I love your line, "Being human is different for everyone." Thank you so much for sharing.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

5 Ways to Help Gifted Kids Find Their Gifts

When I work with gifted kids, I'm amazed by their lack of understanding about what interests them. They know how to surf the net exhaustively for Youtube videos that make them laugh, but not what skills and practices further their interests.

Developing interests and passions is critical to these students. Many people out there tell me that this is not just for gifted kids, that their average developing child needs to know how to do this too. While of course I agree that this is true, I also think that typical academic, fine arts, and sports programs are available in most communities are enough to engage and motivate most kids. Not true of gifted children who become jaded, disinterested, and shut down quickly when a program doesn't meet their needs.
Most people think of gifted students as being prodigies who know exactly where their gifts lie. This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, I often question if some children who are identified as gifted will ever find thei…

Writing Short, Day 1

I've taken a new position. I'm now an editor and writer at a company called We Are Teachers. I do some article writing for them, but I also write very short pieces designed for emails or giveaways. I didn't think I'd like this kind of work, but I do! It brings me back to the importance of knowing how to write short. I've talked about this before, but here's the book I'm referencing:
And thank you, Roy Peter Clark, for soothing my guilt about writing specifically for the Tweet. In “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times,” this amazing writer praises Twitter’s 140-character limit as a tool for “intelligent cutting.”
So, as a way to get better at my new craft, I'm re-reading his book and actually doing the activities at the end of each chapter. The first: Practice writing plain sentences that contain a grace note, one interesting word that stands out. ___________________________________________
As did Proteus, I move forward into change. I figure, I …

DigiLit Sunday: Relationships

In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf..

On Sunday, I interviewed a woman named Julie Lindsay. She lives in Australia and started a company called Flat Connections. Her message to me was that Web 2.0 tools have changed the face of education. It brought the walls down so that we could all reach each other.

On  Monday, I read a book by Pernille Ripp, a teacher living in Wisconsin. In Reimagining Literacy through Global Connections, Ripp's message to me was to keep it simple when going global, the students just need to know they can connect and share who they are.

On Tuesday, I voxed Julieanne Harmatz. "Let's do this!" I said. "I've got a fourth grade, you've got a fifth. Mine is in Maine, yours is in California. Let's read together and share thoughts." She agreed.

On Wednesday, Julieanne emailed suggestions for three books she had multiple copies of. I book talked them to my students that afternoon.

On Thursday, I worked online with…