by: Ginny Kochis - a Catholic wife and homeschool mom from Northern Virginia and an advocate for Christian families raising gifted and twice-exceptional children.
Faith formation is a vital aspect of a child’s growth and development. But just because we’re propagating the faith at home, in classrooms, and through youth and young adult programs, it doesn’t mean that what young people learn will translate into a life of faith.
Well, there’s free will, of course: our God-given ability to chose our ultimate path. There are a number of societal influences made all the more appealing by hard-to-answer (and hard-to-ask) moral questions. Additionally, there’s the very real specter of the evil one, who wants nothing more than to shake the faithful’s trust in God.
And whether we like it or not, these challenges consistently work to stand up, stand out, and shout a little louder than the voice of faith and reason.
Sin and secular humanism are enjoyable and easy, the world tells them. And in truth, the narrow way is hard.
For some of the kids we love and work with, the study of Scripture and Church teaching is enough to arm them for the obstacles laid out along the path. The communion of the faithful and the rituals and the sacraments of the Church prove sufficient enough counter to the human whispers of doubt, distrust, and despair. But owning the faith - coming to know, love, and serve the Lord through personal choice, not osmosis - is decidedly more difficult for young people whose brains are wired-differently: specifically, gifted and twice-exceptional kids.
While faith formation of any sort is is vital for the gifted and twice-exceptional (gifted with learning or developmental differences), this is a population that requires something more. They, themselves, are more: more intense, more focused, more curious, more likely to make ironclad snap judgments. Gifted and Twice-Exceptional kids are the type to ask the hard questions - and keep asking - until they get a satisfactory result.
Differently-wired children want empirical evidence.
They want everything to be fair and just.
They eschew hypocrisy whenever they perceive it.
They fixate on discrepancies between rules and real life.
Certainly to some extent, these qualities are gifts: good and necessary traits fashioned by a loving God. But because these children are still children, and because their precocity often makes us forget that fact, it is easy to fall back into a catechetical environment insufficient for their intellectual and spiritual development.
In order for gifted and twice-exceptional to develop lifelong faith in accordance with Church teaching, their faith formation requires a three-pronged approach:
Concrete, formative apologetics:
Why it matters:
Gifted kids have a strong thirst for knowledge. In matters of faith and morals, these children will ask complex questions and require deep, honest answers. While it’s true we must help them embrace faith as a virtue, fact-based, empirical answers to their questions provide a solid platform from which to take that leap.
What it means:
When you’re working with a gifted or exceptional child, be ready to take a deep dive into theological concepts. Answer honestly and with as much factual information as you can. If you don’t know the answer, invite the kiddo to research it with you. You’ll be surprised by the eagerness of his or her approach.
Role models who live the faith:
Why it matters:
A gifted child’s heightened sense of justice results in a low tolerance for perceived hypocrisy. The more often they discern a disconnect between what a person hears in Church and how they behave outside of it, the more likely they are to fall away.
What it means:
When you are forming a gifted or twice-exceptional child, you really do have to walk the walk. You’re in no way required to be perfect, but there has to be a clear and concerted effort to fully live Church teaching.
And when you mess up, you have to be open about why you were wrong.
A consistent faith life:
Why it matters:
Much like the perceived hypocrisy gifted children rail against, the differently-wired also have a hard time reconciling the separation between Church and state. Simply put, these kids notice when the rituals and teachings of the faith aren’t carried from Church into the home and society. If the lessons, attitudes, and beliefs of Christianity aren’t carried over on the home front (or within their circle of friends), there’s no impetus to pursue matters of faith on their own.
What it means:
Real faith formation happens in community, alongside friends and family. Even the most basic of liturgical living efforts will go a long way toward bridging cognitive dissonance that develops as a result of the discrepancy between Church and home.
In addition to the three components outlined above, further care must be taken with regards to the formation of twice-exceptional children. Comorbid diagnoses ranging from the neurological (dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc.) to the developmental (autism spectrum disorders, mood disorders, and sensory issues such as sensory processing disorder and ADHD) further compound the challenge of lifelong Christian formation for this vulnerable group. Specifically, twice-exceptional children may struggle with one or more of the following concerns, complicating a child’s ability to attend to instruction at Church, in classes, and at home:
Distractibility, where sustained attention in any given setting is spotty and relatively short
Sensory sensitivity, where sights, sounds, smells, and even the presence of other people can cause sensory overload and/or meltdowns
Impulse control, where inappropriate behaviors (speaking out, fidgeting, disregarding personal space) are common
Learning delays, where it is difficult to receive, process, and express information effectively
Anxiety, where a child may hyperfocus on potentially frightening topics
Perfectionism, scrupulosity, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, where a child may worry she cannot be forgiven or that she will never be good enough
Without prior awareness of the struggles gifted and twice-exceptional children encounter, faith formation will at best be a challenge for all involved. At worst (and, unfortunately, most often), formation and faith, in general, become a trivial pursuit reserved for the weak-minded; for those who lack critical thinking skills.
But the truth is, every human heart longs to know, love, and serve the Creator. How can it not desire unity with He who formed it in its mother’s womb? As parents, catechists, mentors, and role models, it’s imperative that we approach Christian formation for the gifted and twice-exceptional with fortitude, perseverance, and wisdom.
Their faith and intellect will change the world.
Ginny Kochis is a Catholic wife and homeschool mom from Northern Virginia. A former secondary educator and adjunct professor of English, Ginny is an advocate for Christian families raising gifted and twice-exceptional children. She believes God gives curious, creative, intense children the exact parents they need to thrive. You can connect with Ginny at her online home, Not So Formulaic.