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At this time, two years ago, I was frantically trying to figure out why my kind and extroverted seven-year-old son was having incredible difficulty making friends.

I had spoken with his second-grade teacher, who was great at managing classmate dynamics; however, those efforts only provided a Band-aid at school. My son continued to be a target on the bus, with two players on his soccer team, and elsewhere.

Great intentions; poor results

Why counseling friendship groups don't always help (hint: undetected neurodiversity)

After talking about this with my son’s teacher and the school counselor, they suggested having him participate in a friendship group with three or four other second-grade boys. I hoped this social-skills training would help, of course, but my gut told me it wouldn’t change anything. Unfortunately, I was right.

In fact, shortly after that school year ended, another boy in the same Vacation Bible School group tried to punch my son in the face. (For me, that was the final straw.)

When you know more, you can do more

Now that I know my son is “differently wired,” I have a better understanding of why social situations are such a struggle for him. (A huge part of it is trying to “teaching in the leaves” before establishing a strong social root structure, says Social Thinking® founder Michelle Garcia Winner.)

This is really important for all school counselors and child therapists to understand – as well as the teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and pediatricians who recommend them.

Winner also points out that if the child also struggles with an issue, such as anxiety or depression, it will be almost impossible to make any social-skills progress.

Even once that’s addressed, though, I feel strongly that because these kids’ brains develop differently (and they, therefore, interpret and respond to input differently), any friendship group they’re part of should take that into account. They’re processing sights, sounds, school curriculum, social situations and more, through a very different lens. In fact, many are misdiagnosed with ADD, autism and other disorders because of it.

School counselors who understand the “gifted” and 2e student population

The Mind Matters podcast provides really great insights about how gifted and twice-exceptional children (I call them “kite kids”) view the world – and even counseling – differently.

For example, episode 43, focuses on the research and experiences of Jean Peterson and Susannah Wood, authors of Counseling Gifted Students: A Guide for School Counselors. As you listen to this episode, I’m sure you’ll have your own takeaways, but one comment that stood out to me was how great gifted and twice-exceptional kids are at hiding distress.

“We’re usually shocked when somebody dies by suicide or there’s some other tragedy – a school shooting or whatever,” said Dr. Peterson, professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. She added that, while those are extreme cases, in general, in many types of distress among gifted and 2e kids, a must-fix-it-myself mentality is present. “Several studies I did showed that,” she explained. “I would ask if they told anybody, and they would say, “No, I keep that to myself. It’s my problem to solve.”

This mindset often starts with how many comments they tend to get about how smart they are, how great they are at solving problems, and how much “potential” they have. Areas they tend to struggle with, such as executive function and social-emotional issues, are rarely mentioned.   

We’re usually shocked when somebody dies by suicide or there’s
some other tragedy – a school shooting or whatever.

Jean Peterson, professor emerita & former director of
school counselor preparation at Purdue University

Counseling constraints

To add to this situation, many school counselors have outrageous caseloads, explained Dr. Wood, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches both doctoral students and students who are pursuing master’s degrees in school counseling with an emphasis in gifted education.

“What usually takes the most time are the kids who are in crisis,” she explained. “That makes it hard to do a quality job with any group of students.”

Where to find the full episode

Episode 43 of the Mind Matters podcasts explains what school counselors should know about the distinct, but often unknown, social-emotional needs of high-ability students

If you’d like to hear more of what Drs. Peterson and Wood had to say about this topic, which is full of more insights like this, there are two ways to listen to the full episode:

  • the webpage for episode 43 of the Mind Matters podcast
  • common podcast sources and directories, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify and iHeartRadio (episode 43 aired Oct. 2, 2019)

For a deeper dive on the intersection of school counseling and high-ability students, read Dr. Peterson and Dr. Wood’s book Counseling Gifted Students: A Guide for School Counselors.