Interview with Paula from Rainforest Minds

I am really excited to have an interview with Paula from Rainforest Minds today.  I noticed her articles for gifted adults almost as soon as she started blogging and have been wanting to sit down and pick her brains over a coffee ever since – this interview is the closest that I have got to that so far.

Paula is a professional Counselor with more than  20 years in practice, she also holds a Masters in Education and was formally a gifted education specialist.  She specializes in working with gifted adults and youths and consulting with the parents of gifted children.  She has published a number of articles on giftedness issues and has also been an instructor in this area at the University of Oregon.

Paula uses the analogy of a rainforest to talk about giftedness, to explain its complexity and also to try to side-step some of the baggage that the term now often seems to carry.

You can read more about Paula and her counselling and speaking services at her main website.

I know that you are specialized in gifted education. Could you tell us about that background? What drew you to it originally and what has kept you interested?

My first career out of college was in education. I taught sixth grade science and language arts. A couple of my colleagues told me that my teaching style would work well with gifted children. I responded, “What’s a gifted child?” And so it began.

I started teaching gifted middle-schoolers in a pull-out program. We met in small groups for two and a half hours a week—a ridiculously short amount of time, but I loved it. The kids were so curious, enthusiastic, funny and sensitive. I designed the curriculum around their interests and was able to work with the same children all through their middle school years.

Then I decided to move to Oregon (another story!) and began teaching gifted children grades 1-5. I also started doing presentations for parents and teachers on the social-emotional needs of the gifted. It was very fulfilling work.

In my later 30’s, I was ready to leave the schooling system. I was pretty obsessed with everything “mental health” and realized that a counseling career would be a good fit. I got a Masters degree in counseling, worked in an agency for four years, then started a private practice. At that point, it occurred to me that I could specialize in counseling gifted adults and teens and consulting with parents of gifted children.

And here I am, 20+ years later. I feel such a deep connection to this population. I love their complexities, obsessions, intensities and sensitivities. And it’s such a privilege to participate in someone’s healing journey. The kinda-cheesy truth is that I’ve found my people and my purpose.

Parents with gifted children choose to homeschool them for a variety of reasons. What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of this choice?

I’ve seen too many gifted children suffer in the school system, particularly the highly and profoundly gifted. I know many wonderful teachers (some are in my family and some are my clients) but gifted children often don’t get their academic or social-emotional needs met in schools. If parents are able to homeschool, it can be the best option for these kids who might otherwise be repeatedly bored and bullied in school and blame themselves for not fitting in or not being “normal.” I’ve seen these painful experiences stay with them into adulthood.

In my opinion, there’s no question that children benefit from homeschooling. The problem that I see is that the parent doing the homeschooling may not be getting enough time away from the kids—time with adults, time to relax, time to nourish their partnership or time to develop their own intellectual or creative pursuits.

Socialization is often perceived as being a major issue in homeschooling generally. Is there anything in particular that parents of gifted homeschoolers should watch out for in this area?

I’m a firm believer that socialization in school is highly overrated. In fact, it can be quite damaging to some children. I think that as long as parents find other children, either through classes, music, sports, religion, clubs, camps, online and/or in neighborhoods, they can get the socialization they need. Making an extra effort to invite children to your home and also using adults or older children as mentors can also be ways to promote friendships.

Whilst there are lots of variations in homeschooling methods, it seems to me that at one end of the spectrum is recreating school at home and at the opposite end is radical unschooling. In your years of teaching gifted kids, what approach to learning did you find the most effective? Do you think that this can be replicated in a homeschooling environment?

There were definitely some methods that worked better than others.

I was most successful with independent projects based on their interests. (Researching topics and creating products that could be shared outside the classroom.) I remember we created a literary magazine, read and performed Shakespeare, wrote and recorded radio plays, and worked with tessellations and geometry, for example. This was years ago before the internet (was there a time before the internet?) so we didn’t have such a wealth of access to ideas and people all over the world. I definitely would encourage more globally oriented projects now.

The kids wanted to be self-directed and I provided support, guidance and got out of the way. It was also important that they had opportunities to problem solve together. At the time, there was a program called the Future Problem Solving Bowl. It was a chance to look at problems in the “real “ world and discuss solutions. It wasn’t a competition. (I tried to avoid those. I don’t think they serve a good purpose.) It gave my students a chance to learn from each other, too, and to build friendships.

I don’t know enough about radical unschooling to comment specifically on it. Certainly, all of what I’ve described can be done quite well in a homeschool environment.

If you could only give one piece of advice to parents homeschooling gifted children, what would it be?

Two pieces of advice!

Remember that you’ll need to set healthy boundaries, say ‘no’ when necessary, and avoid power struggles. Intensity, sensitivity and emotional excitabilties can be overwhelming for everyone. A couple of good resources for dealing with these challenges, along with the familiar books specifically on gifted children, are Raising your Spirited Child by Kurcinka and The Power of your Child’s Imagination by Reznick.

Take care of yourselves. Find ways to take time off, create a strong network of friends, understand your own giftedness, nourish your intellect and your creativity and get counseling if necessary. What you model and feel about yourself is what your children will learn and believe about themselves. Their sensitive-perceptive minds and hearts will inherit your unexamined family-of-origin dysfunctional patterns. Scary, right? Work it out so they don’t have to.

Do you blog? If you do, what is the address for that?

I’ve just started blogging about gifted adults. The address is: rainforestmind.wordpress.com.

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10 thoughts on “Interview with Paula from Rainforest Minds

  1. “Their sensitive-perceptive minds and hearts will inherit your unexamined family-of-origin dysfunctional patterns.” Wow, I don’t even know what to say, but yes, agreed and more wow. I am normally more literate than this, but it’s just such a powerful and terrifying truth.

    Having been given the “gifted” moniker at a young age, I am apposed to labeling children, even if it is positive. Having said that, I found this interview truly insightful. I’m glad to see someone with a background in education and social work speak on the damaging affects of school socialization. I think very few children “fit in”, we are not supposed to fit in. “Fitting in” is void of imagination, self discovery and creativity.

    I just sat down to give myself a time out after a battle of wills with my 2 highly spirited children. I’m now going to Amazon to check out your book recommendations. They came at an opportune time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked this a lot. Although I am completely happy with naming things so that we all know what we are talking about, I struggle a lot with the label ‘gifted.’ From a semantics point of view, I think it is just an awful term. I have done a fair bit of reading about gifted kids over the last year or so, and the most dangerous unanswered question I keep finding myself asking is ‘What happens to all the gifted adults?’
    Having reached adulthood I feel that many gifted kids must find that their mindset is frequently unrecognised, and is as often a hindrance as much as a help. Collectively, I imagine that gifted adults must be a fairly disappointed bunch, wondering why their gift doesn’t bring the success such a term implies. So much angst on a single word.
    Fascinating indeed, and encouraging also, to find someone who has a career answering just this question.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, it’s certainly tricky to work with gifted adults when there’s so much resistance and controversy over what makes a child gifted. When they grow into adults, it’s even more complicated! That said, the clients I see very clearly are dealing with difficulties that they don’t understand are the result of being gifted. (many of them were never identified in school or anywhere else–and they don’t see themselves as all that smart) High levels of sensitivities and empathy, perfectionism, and isolation, are a few of the challenges. (not to mention the pressures for success and the fears of failure) I could go on…. but I’ll control myself! Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Much of the excitement about gifted kids is akin to deciding that your unusually tall kid, since he is 6 foot tall at age 11, will surely be over 10 foot tall as an adult.

      The fact that this is clearly not the case for giftedness is borne out by every gifted person I’ve met; at age 30+ (or sooner) all were functionally equivalent to “garden variety very smart people”. They didn’t turn into dummies – but it would be hard to pick them out of a pool of people from the, say, top 2-5%.

      None of them decided to focus on chess, theoretical physics, pure maths or a few other narrow areas where prodigies generally rule, which might have something to do with it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You make some interesting points, Geoff. Brings up more questions than answers for me. How do we define prodigy vs. gifted? Is there a difference? How do we identify gifted adults if they aren’t high achievers? What is high achieving? Does a gifted person have to be eminent to be noticed or to count as gifted? Hm…I wonder. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Kathy Donchak and commented:
    This is one of the best descriptions of how kids want to be self-directed in their learning that I have seen. This is a great read for any parent considering homeschooling.

    Liked by 1 person

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