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The words ‘back to school’ can create either pure excitement or complete anxiety for parents, teachers and students alike. While many view it as a time to be social and learn something new, returning to class can present issues for students faced with learning disorders, conflict resolution problems, or boredom with what they already know. Experts weigh in on how to make each day productive and beneficial.

“Conflict is part of life that only grows as you age,” says Val Hubbard, school counselor at Central Christian School in Clayton. Children and teens may seem more conflicted than adults because they can get offended easily and don’t always have the skills to resolve issues, she notes. “They are more aware of conflict, but they can’t figure out how to communicate what they’re feeling,” Hubbard says.

Laura Drake, a second-grade teacher at Central Christian, says, “I see a lot of my students getting annoyed with each other over what seem like petty things—He’s poking me! He’s in my space! It seems like bickering, but they really are saying that they don’t understand each other emotionally.”

growing problems
“As children develop, their problems become more complex,” says Hayley Arnold, school counselor for the Ladue School District. “In kindergarten, a child may have difficulty sharing a toy. As children enter upper elementary school, hormones make it difficult for them to manage their emotions. They start craving peer approval. Middle school students desperately want to fit in with a peer group.”

Social media outlets offer a new way of relating to people that adults struggle with, too, says Erin Schulte, coordinator of counseling, guidance and character education for the Parkway School District. “Many experts say social media’s anonymity makes it easier to say something online than face to face,” she says. “And it amplifies conflicts because there may be a large audience.”

home school 
Children may base their views on conflict resolution on what they experience at home. “Some parents want their children to see how they work through mild disagreements, but many never argue in front of their children,” Hubbard says. “Children who have never seen an adult in a conflicting situation might freeze up when experiencing one themselves. They lack competence and understanding to get through it.”

But those who witness too many unresolved explosions at home also may be unequipped for life at school, Hubbard adds. “Children who are overly exposed to conflict that is not resolved in a healthy way can become very aggressive,” she notes.

part of the curriculum
“The goal is not to prevent conflicts, but to help children handle them appropriately,” Arnold says. “Conflict can be a favorable experience that develops relationships and creates positive change. An important part of learning is understanding that it is OK to have differences.”

Schulte says Parkway staff members are deeply devoted to character education. “We want our students to get to know each other,” she says. “It is a lot harder to talk badly about someone or fight with them if you’ve worked on a project together.” Hubbard adds, “We teach our children that they are individual parts of a collective unit. We want to create a safe environment where they can learn about differences in each other and respect boundaries.”

A teachable moment may arise when an issue does advance to the point of conflict, Drake says. “When I see kids struggling, I pull them aside to a private area so they can talk through it and try to understand each other.” More stern measures may be required when physical violence or bullying occurs, Schulte notes. “We are not going to put a victim in the same room as a bully. Discipline may need to come into play, but kids are human and make mistakes.”

asperger syndrome
Austrian pediatrician Dr. Hans Asperger published his landmark paper Autistic Psychopaths in Childhood in 1944, detailing his research on autistic symptoms. But it wasn’t until after his death in 1980 that his publications and ideas experienced a resurgence in the medical community. Since then, a range of diagnoses have been recognized as autism spectrum disorders, one named for him. While we now are well aware of Asperger syndrome, doctors still don’t know the cause of this disorder.

early signals
“Most of these kids are intelligent and actually gifted,” says Dr. Rolanda Maxim-Gott, a SLUCare pediatrician who is director of developmental pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and the Knights of Columbus Child Development Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. “Their early language development is normal, but after age 3, they don’t use language to interact with people. They can’t have conversations or develop friendships.”

Children with Asperger’s may fixate on a special interest. “They have a passion about a particular hobby, but when you take them away from that, they can’t do other activities in school,” Maxim-Gott says. “They don’t know how to function within the norms of daily living, which involves communication and socialization. And because they are so inflexible and anxious, they have a hard time getting jobs and transitioning into independent, adult life.”

was wissen wir?
“What do we know?” Dr. Asperger might ask. For one thing, his syndrome recently ceased to be classified as an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual  of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association.

“This is confusing for parents,” says David Kaufman, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist and director of Gateway Neuropsychology in Creve Coeur. “It used to be viewed as a disorder that was clearly different from autism. Children with Asperger’s would show a number of the same problems but not at the same degree of severity. Now it is viewed as being on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum.”

Little is known about causes, Maxim-Gott says. “We think babies have a genetic predisposition that is triggered by something in the environment before they are born,” she explains. “We know things are happening with brain function, but there is no clear-cut knowledge of what is going on.” Research, however, has turned up a clue. “Eye-tracking studies have found that babies between 6 and 12 months normally look at your eyes when you talk to them,” she says. “If they have autism, they tend to look at your mouth.”

While the number of children diagnosed with Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorders has been increasing for decades, some of that is attributed to greater awareness and screening. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places the rate of autism spectrum disorders at one in 68 live births. The incidence of Asperger’s may be one in 250, with a slightly higher number of boys diagnosed.

what to do
Many children occasionally exhibit some signs of Asperger’s, Kaufman says. “Parents should keep an eye out but have an open mind. Unusual patterns of speech or movement are normal to a certain degree. If a kid is really interested in one thing, it could be completely healthy.”

If there is cause to diagnose the disorder, there are a number of components to consider. “There often is a need for speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy to teach gestures, actions and writing—things that may not come naturally to the child,” Kaufman says. “They may need help developing social skills and learning how to be flexible when things don’t go their way. They have a great tendency to latch on to objects and routines.”

Asperger’s individuals also should be screened for other psychiatric diagnoses, Maxim-Gott says. “Many times they have a high risk for ADHD, anxiety and depression.” Ultimately, she says, “The goal is for us to identify a real strength in them, their gift. But we also work on their independence skills. They can be mainstreamed into regular education and be very successful.

gifted students
It’s only in fictional Lake Wobegon that “all the children are above average.” In the real world, even though most parents consider their children exceptional, only a few kids truly can be labeled as gifted.

the real test
According to the National Association for Gifted Children, “It is difficult to estimate the absolute number of gifted children because the calculation is dependent on the number of areas, or domains, being measured and the method used to identify gifted children.” It states that many consider gifted children to be those in the top 10 percent of ‘normal’ standards.

Parents who discover that they do, in fact, have a gifted child may be in for a surprise, says Susan Jesse, a teacher and executive director of the Gifted Resource Council. “A lot of parents have the misconception that it will be easy to raise a gifted child, but it can be very challenging.”

mom had me tested
Every child should be screened around age 4 at school or by a private screener, Jesse says. “The test looks at general mental ability, academic ability, creativity, reasoning and problem-solving ability.”

The first indications of giftedness may be conversational skills and wit, she notes. “The conversations gifted children have at a very young age are at an extremely high level. They understand humor well.”

A kid who is identified as gifted should be considered a special needs child, says Dennis O’Brien, a licensed clinical social worker and consultant for the Gifted Resource Council. Unfortunately, he notes, many public school districts don’t have gifted enrichment programs, or they serve very few gifted students.

“A number of studies say gifted children actually are an at-risk population for underachieving and dropping out,” O’Brien says. “One of the pitfalls is focusing more on perfectionism than academics. Kids don’t know how to keep hammering away when things don’t come easy.” Parents might unwittingly stifle gifted children by allowing them to concentrate solely on special interests and withdraw from peers. “Parents and teachers can maximize children’s potential by getting them outside the academic box,” he says. “Let them think creatively and take risks. Make them play team sports. We encourage parents to get kids doing activities where they won’t be the best, where they have to fail. Those are skills that are more important than IQ.”

Teachers are encouraged to consider gifted children’s quicker pace of learning to keep them interested. “Teachers should evaluate what they already know and let them learn something new,” Jesse says.

off screen
Many kids these days spend their time on various electronic devices, and gifted kids are not immune. “Parents might think it’s wonderful that their 3-year-old is on the computer, but various studies and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that is not healthy,” O’Brien says. “Parents need to be vigilant about screen time. Kids are at risk until the age of 21 because their brains are still forming.”

Gifted children may be at an even higher risk of getting lost in electronic devices, Jesse notes. “They have higher sensitivity, so once they are hooked, they want to get to the highest level possible.”

gifted kids tend to be:
Creative Humorous
Logical Leaders
Rapid learners
Abstract thinkers
Concerned about world issues
Challenged by difficult tasks
Different from peers
Emotionally intense

Source: Gifted Resource Council