Beyond Academics: Discussion Groups…

Beyond Academics: Discussion Groups That Nurture Affective Growth in Gifted Students

by Terry Bradley

“Combining the areas of academic intelligence and emotional intelligence helps to create whole kids, not kids with holes.” – (author unknown)

Over the past eight years, I have had the pleasure of facilitating discussion groups, which focus on the affective aspects of giftedness, with gifted middle school and high school students. Discussion groups are simply that: groups where gifted kids get together to talk about issues they have in common and how life looks and feels through the lens of giftedness. Groups like this are facilitated by adult leaders who are knowledgeable about giftedness.

I want to guide you through a step-by-step process that will help you to successfully start discussion groups in your own school. You’ll also read comments from my previous and current students and their parents who helped guide and direct me in writing this article.

Certainly, the most crucial school-based support for gifted students is an appropriate educational fit that differentiates instruction for students’ abilities and needs. This promotes a student’s academic development. Also important are discussion groups as a school-based intervention for gifted students. Discussion groups promote a student’s affective development. If we truly want our students to become well balanced, we need to offer both appropriate academic opportunities for growth and social and emotional opportunities for growth.

Why do gifted students need their own discussion group? According to Linda Silverman, “Gifted people not only think differently, they feel differently too.” A discussion group with others who share similar characteristics such as intensity, sensitivity, heightened moral and ethical codes of behavior, and the ability to process feelings more thoroughly and deeply, allow the students the opportunity to express themselves as they truly are. If nurtured properly, a level of trust and respect surfaces which encourages the facilitation of purposeful self-exploration and meaningful discussions. Having a discussion with a grouping of gifted students allows for conversation that is at a different level of being and perceiving. Because gifted children think and feel differently, they benefit most from conversing with others who think and feel similarly.

Affective Education vs. Counseling
Affective development refers to all of the personal, social, and emotional aspects of learning. Affective education is one process by which affective development is nurtured. Some might ask, “Don’t you need to have counseling training in order to facilitate a discussion group with students?” The answer is quite simple: Discussion
groups fall under the category of “affective education,” not “counseling.” While there are some shared practices between the two, including concern with emotions and personal development, Silverman (1993) also notes some stark differences. Included in the differences are:

  • Affective education is oriented toward groups, while counseling is oriented toward individuals.
  • Affective education is usually directed by a teacher with no special training, while counseling groups are directed by an individual trained in counseling.
  • Affective education involves self-awareness and sharing of feelings with others, while counseling involves problem solving, making choices, conflict resolution, and deeper understanding of self.
  • Affective education is unrelated to therapy, while counseling is closely related to therapy.
  • Affective education helps students to clarify their own values or beliefs, while counseling helps to change students’ perceptions or methods of coping.

Generally, affective activities are less personal than counseling and deal with emotional issues in less depth. Sharing of feelings is optional in discussion groups. “Passing” on a question or topic is always respected. At times, just hearing others talk and express their feelings is a huge benefit for participants.
Because of the nature of discussion groups, where students share concerns, feelings, and other thoughts, there’s always a possibility that a deeper problem might be disclosed. If a student shares an issue of great concern or if someone discusses an action that might be harmful to themselves or others, it is the facilitator’s responsibility to alert a counselor or parent. Doing this is a shared responsibility of all who work with youth in a school setting. If an issue goes beyond the parameters of affective education and has become a situation that necessitates counseling, it is essential to share that information with a trained professional. Know your parameters.

Keep in mind that some students might already be seeing a therapist outside of school, and a discussion group can allow them the opportunity to enjoy an informal and fun discussion with peers, quite unlike the therapy sessions they might attend, and much unlike a meeting with a school counselor.

Here’s the bottom line as I see it: To not offer discussion groups because you might be “opening a can of worms” which creates a situation beyond your comfort level, is to turn your back on students in need. At the very least, a student will gain self- confidence, camaraderie, and acceptance in these groups. Many students will also profit from an unconditional relationship with an adult that is not based on academic or performance expectations. So, why deny students these benefits?

A student or two may also come on your radar as individuals who might need to be casually observed to make sure that they are looking and acting “well-adjusted” from week to week. A facilitator offers him/herself as a healthy connection that can help reduce risk factors that might be inherent in a child’s life. One student commented, “These groups are more like hanging out and having in depth discussions about all kinds of things.” Another said, “It provides all-around improvement for me as a person.”

Step by Step
It takes more than good intentions and a well-meaning attitude to get a discussion group up and running in your school. Figure (1) is a pyramid, which illustrates 10 steps in creating successful discussion groups that are supported by the students, their parents, the faculty, and the administration.

1.    Awareness of the Affective Needs of the Gifted: In order to be effective, a facilitator must be aware of the basic nature and needs of the gifted. Even the students know how important that is. A few students commented that a facilitator “must have experience working with gifted kids and have general background knowledge about giftedness.” One important reason is that it is necessary to understand that “normal” for gifted kids might look different than it does in the general population. Some helpful books about the social and emotional lives of the gifted are included at the end of this article.

2. Desire to Heighten Awareness in Others: A facilitator needs to believe that gifted children will truly benefit from this form of support. You must believe this before you can expect others to. You will have to be ready to explain why you believe this is so, to parents, administrators, and the students themselves. You must be convinced that the addition of an affective education component would balance out the education that the gifted students in your school are currently receiving. A senior who has had seven years of discussion group experience said, “This group is underestimated by gifted people. They don’t really see all the benefits.”

3.    Administrative Support: It’s imperative to get approval and backing from the administration. In my case, I looked at the School Improvement Team goals and noticed one was to “Enhance the GT program.” That was my foot in the door. Everyone’s “foothold” will be different, just look for one. Frequently, a school goal is to “Improve Relationships Among Students,” or “Increase Program Options for GT Students.” Another justification is to be offering a program just for gifted students. In most schools, Science Fair, Chess Club, Knowledge Bowl, History Day, Math Counts, etc. are programs for all kids. Might a school goal be to “Offer a Program Specifically For Gifted Students?”

Another reason for justifying a discussion group is that, even though gifted kids are highly capable, as a subgroup they are at risk for underachieving in school. According to an article in the 2008 Duke Gifted Letter, the number of gifted kids who drop out of high school is often estimated to be 20% or more (Duke Gifted Letter, Volume 8 (2).) Physical, emotional, social, and school reasons for underachievement are explained well in Whitney&Hirsch’s (2007) A Love For Learning: Motivation and the Gifted Child. Administrators might appreciate that some of the triggers for underachievement can be addressed and talked over in a discussion group before they become serious issues.

4.    Teacher Support: One way to get the support of the teachers is to give a brief summary of your intent at a faculty meeting. You can put a sheet of paper in their mailboxes, asking them to write down names of capable students who might benefit from such a group. Grades should not be a qualifier, as many gifted students are not motivated by grades, while at the same time, many non-gifted students are. A possibility is to ask teachers to focus on identifying the critical thinkers, those who ask probing questions, highly creative and imaginative students, leaders, and students who are “quirky” and those who stand apart from the rest. Another way to get student names for your gifted discussion group is to simply get the list of identified students in your school. Be aware that some gifted students will not be formally identified, so if your “qualifier” is a formal GT identification, some students who satisfy the “requirements” might not be eligible. For that reason, it’s best to be somewhat flexible.

I have found that meeting during lunchtime is the best use of school time. Often, elementary and middle school students have a half an hour for lunch and high school students have more. Since you will want your discussion groups to have at least 45 minutes a week together, you may find that you have to enlist the help of teachers to excuse these students for 15-20 minutes either at the beginning or the end of their class period, right around lunchtime. This extra 15-20 minutes, combined with a half hour lunch, will ensure that the students have quality time for discussions. Acquiring this generous allotment of class time is all the more reason it’s important to have the support and buy-in of the teachers.

5. Parent Support: Once you have a list of student names, it’s important to get the parents’ support before inviting the kids to the discussion group. This is more important in upper elementary and middle school than in high school, as high schoolers will make more of their own decisions anyway. A letter in the mail is more personal than an email. In the letter, explain who you are, give a brief explanation of the discussion group you are starting, and give examples of topics. It’s very important to invite parents to a meeting where you can answer their questions and meet them in person. Parents want to feel comfortable not only with the content you’ll be discussing with their children, but also with you. I’ve found it helpful to offer two different times for this informational meeting, one right after school and one in the evening. Chances are a larger portion of parents will be able to make one or the other.

A great byproduct of this meeting is that you can educate parents about giftedness, as well as support them as they work to better understand their gifted children. Your knowledge about giftedness, along with your informed support, will reassure them that this is highly beneficial for their children. By far the majority of parents are thrilled that their gifted children will be in a group that supports their social and emotional development. You’ll be forming a team. They will go home and talk with their child about coming to your discussion group.

6. Student Support: Now that the parents have endorsed the idea, it’s time to get the most important people to step up…. THE STUDENTS. Because, if they don’t show up, no matter what groundwork you have laid or how sincere your efforts, you have no group.

I have always given students a choice in joining a discussion group. My current students tell me “Voluntary discussion groups are better, otherwise it’s just like another required class.” And, “I come because it’s where I want to be, not because I have to be there.” If students attend because they have an interest and dedication to the group, they will be much more engaged and positive when they are there.

There are many ways to go about inviting students to the discussion group. With upper elementary and middle schoolers, it’s nice to hand them note cards or fun stationery with all the information handwritten. Or, giving the note cards to their teachers to hand to them is a nice way of showing students that their teachers are aware of, and supportive of, the group. With high school students, a flyer in the mail might be the way to go. Keep the information limited to who, what, when, and where. Your goal at the initial meeting is to have the students curious enough that they want to come check out what this discussion group is all about.

7.    Discussion Groups: Once the students have shown up, it’s vital to have an agenda that keeps them interested. I have found that starting with group- building activities is the best way to build a cohesive, interested group based on trust and respect. Some activities that I have found quite helpful are in Betts and Kircher’s (1999) Optimizing Ability: The Autonomous Learner. In particular, students really enjoy the Emotional Temperature activity. These are some student comments I’ve gotten about this activity:

•    “Putting a quantitative value on feelings is hard so this helps,”
•    “Doing this makes you think about your life and reflect.”
•    “It allows you to check in with your own feelings”
•    “You get to express how you’re feeling in a really simple way.”

In Delisle & Galbraith’s (2002) When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All The Answers, one of the popular activities is Everything Has Its Ups and Downs! Any activity or game that is fun and meaningful for the students are good for group building.

After I sense a certain level of group cohesion has been attained, I send around 3×5 cards and ask students to write down topics they would like to discuss in our group. Many students expressed “I like having a say in what we talk about.” Highly requested topics are: understanding giftedness, perfectionism, stress, friendships, sadness and depression, relationships, popularity and image, sensitivity, and introversion. One middle school student asked, “Can we talk about why I cry so much?” Whatever the students most request, is where you should start. One student happily explained, “This group is about US.” So, remember, keep this group student-centered and student-driven. The discussion group is not only about self-awareness, but also about understanding and appreciating other peoples’ feelings. One student said, “It’s interesting discussing what a particular topic reveals about a person. I read books about people, so I just generally like to know how other people think too.”

Depending on age and group dynamics, the interests and needs of each different group will vary. You can also make a checklist of a variety of possible topics and have each student check off topics of interest to them. Sometimes it helps for students to see a list of possible topics to select from, rather than to conjure up their own suggestions on the spot. A student commented that “Having a topic when we come in is good, but it’s nice that we don’t have to follow it if something comes up that seems more important to talk about at the time.” After a political election, a community tragedy, the end of a rigorous testing schedule, the week before a major holiday, a celebration, etc. the students appreciate flexibility and timeliness with topics. Sometimes the topic of the day is decided on the spot, such as when a student walks through the door and says, “Ahh! All my friends hate me, and I just failed a math test!” One student commented that, “I like that this group is flexible, the topics change, and we go with the flow.” I’ve included some books with possible ideas and topics for discussion groups in Figure ( ). Sometimes the students tell me that they don’t care what the topic is, they just like being there. Sometimes after reading an especially thought-provoking article I bring it in and we discuss that. It’s in the process of group discussion with others that think at similar abilities, that students become more insightful and more appreciative of other’s feelings.

Speaking of appreciation, students always appreciate food. One student commented, “Food is a draw for anybody between the ages of 13 and 27!” I make a point to always have treats. It helps to make the atmosphere that much more relaxed and fun. I also like to have a Game Day on the day before a major holiday. “Playing games is fun. It’s nice to kick back and have a good time.” Balancing serious discussion sessions with fun and relaxing sessions is a good way to keep the groups meaningful, engaging, and not too serious. The students will appreciate your flexibility and awareness of their interests as individuals.

I asked students what they felt was the ideal number to have in a discussion group, and how frequently groups should meet. They agreed that 6-10 people are best, with no fewer than 5 and no more than 12. They felt that they have “less focus with more people,” and that “With fewer than 12 people it’s more like a club.” As far as frequency, they felt that elementary and middle schoolers should meet twice a week if possible, but at least one time a week. They also remembered that in the lower grades it was particularly fun to have board games, personal interest quizzes, puzzles, and activities where I had them move around and where they could write on the board. Elementary and middle schoolers simply need more movement and activity. Over the years I have heard quite a few students say, “The only reason I wanted to come to school today was because we were meeting.” Comments like that make leading the Discussion Groups even more rewarding.

In high school, they still liked coming once a week during their freshman and sophomore years. Their junior and senior years get busier, however, and meeting once every other week has been best. The older the students get, the more your group time competes with their time spent with other friends, a boy/girl friend, clubs or activities, being able to drive off campus during free periods, fewer classes, spending less time in the building, etc. The most devoted group members will continue to be there as often as they can, but they need the flexibility of knowing they don’t have to be there if something else comes up.

Want to know what students want most in a in a group facilitator? They mentioned openness, a willingness to understand others’ points of view, a good listener, trust, knowledge of giftedness, adults who are not intimidated, a non-counselor approach, staying neutral, and allowing students to talk openly without judging.

8. Updates: When I first start a discussion group I email the parents and the administration after the session and give them a brief update about our topic of the day. I share some highlights of the day’s discussion, never mentioning names, and always speaking in generalities. Updates provide justification to the administration, and particulars for the curious parents. This email is also a good way to make suggestions to parents about what they might talk about at home to continue the conversation that was started at school. An email response I got back from a principal about our discussion one day said, “I wish I could have been in your group today when you were talking about stress. I could have used some stress management tips. It’s been a tough day.”

9. Ongoing Education: No matter how much we already know about giftedness, there is always more to be learned. I have found that with each new group of students, situations or conditions are brought to my attention that require a new level of knowledge and understanding. Some issues my students have talked with me about outside of our Group are: twice exceptionalities, 504’s, underachievement, expectations of others, worrying about their friend’s unhealthy decisions, parent’s divorce, relationship break ups, needing organizational help, financial concerns, college decisions, unsupportive parents, perfectionism, sexuality, etc. The more you know about a wide variety of topics that students are dealing with, the more you will be able to help support the students for who they are and, if needed, direct them to the attention of someone who can give them professional help. If it becomes necessary, you can always offer to go with a student to a school counselor and support them during the conversation.

How can you learn more and get more information about giftedness? Go to your state gifted conferences, join the local affiliate of your state gifted organization, read currently published books, magazines (like Understanding Our Gifted), articles, websites about giftedness like Crushing Tall Poppies or others, and get free online subscriptions to the SENG newsletter (www.sengifted.org/). There is an abundance of ways to grow in your knowledge of giftedness.

Discussion groups provide a bond that simply reassures a student that other people care. Students won’t come in to your discussion group wanting to unload their innermost feelings, but some may want to talk with you about both exciting things and worrisome things because you are an adult that they trust. What a wonderful service to be providing such a safe haven for gifted students in your building! Always keep in mind your parameters. Seek assistance if any concerns are unsettling enough to fall under the description of “counseling.”

10. Support and Understanding: As a result of attending to these steps, our discussion groups arrived at the point where there was heightened awareness not only within the school, but in the district, and beyond our district as well. Students have been invited to speak on a number of panels to talk about gifted discussion groups as a meaningful support in their school. I have been invited to train educators and mental health professionals in various districts to get their own groups up and running. And, I have recently co-authored a chapter called “Discussion Groups As A Component of Affective Curriculum for Gifted Students” in Social-Emotional Curriculum with Gifted and Talented Students (2008).

I feel confident in saying that when you and your students arrive at Step 10, the increased awareness in the benefits of discussion groups will be quite apparent in your students, with their parents, and within your school. Also apparent will be the confidence the students feel in their ability to reach out beyond themselves and become “educators” in the sense that they are enlightening others about the affective needs of gifted students.

Encouraging Feedback:
I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth in these students, as they have become more accepting and understanding of why they feel the way they do, and they have also become more appreciative and aware of others’ feelings.

Some revealing student comments:
•    “People understand me more here.”
•    “I made some lifelong friendships with people who accept me for who I
really am.”
•    “It validated ideas that I thought to be true of myself.”
•    “This is a safe zone, without anybody having to say it is.”
•    “It’s a chance for me to get together regularly with friends outside of my
normal social circle. It’s good to discuss the things that are different for us.”
•    “I never want to talk in any of my other classes but I want to talk in here.”
•    “The best thing for me about this discussion group is feeling comfortable
talking about giftedness with other gifted kids.”
•    “I like the way we find different ways to have people get to know each other.”
•    “It’s a level playing field when we come in so it’s non-competitive.”

Parent comments have been highly encouraging as well:
•    “You have no idea how much you have helped my daughter, and in doing
so, helped me.”
•    “My son is able to discharge a lot of his frustrations with life in this group.
It is enormously valuable.”
•    “This group has been such a great support for us. If only we had had this
years ago.”
•    “My son has always completely dug in his heels about participating in any
GT class. Now that he is going to Group, though, he is interested in
participating and it’s completely fabulous.”
•    I assume there are flashes of insight for students at most meetings, but far
deeper value is achieved over time.”

We need to put ourselves out there to give these students what they need in order to develop a sense of self and to live a purposeful life. Discussion groups give students the chance to explore self-discovery in a safe, trusting environment. “It’s easier to build children than to repair adults.” And that, in a nutshell, is why I so firmly believe in the value of discussion groups for gifted kids.

About the author:
Terry Bradley is the Gifted & Talented Advisor at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. She facilitates discussion groups with students and with parents. This article was written with guidance from, and with inspiration by, Terry’s former and current 6th to 12th grade students.