Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Supporting musically talented children: Challenging social and emotional roadblocks to success

Musically talented children often face an uphill battle when trying to maintain enthusiasm for their studies. What typically starts with excitement and focused effort can end in boredom, apathy and disappointment. Several authors (e.g., Haroutounian, 2002; Parncutt & McPherson, 2002) have offered ideas for enhancing musical training and motivating young musicians. Yet, parents often question how to support and sustain their child’s passion when interest starts to wane.

Along with offering training that enriches their musical education, it is just as important to anticipate, challenge and eliminate social and emotional barriers to success. While the technical challenges and demands of music performance are an ever present reality, children need help navigating the emotional pressure and uncertainty they may experience at different stages of their progress.

Offering emotional support to musically talented children is often as critical as the music instruction itself. 

Some of the emotional roadblocks parents and teachers may need to address to support gifted young musicians include the following:

1.  Boredom – Repetitive practice, studies that fail to spark interest, and distraction can sap the drive and passion out of any aspiring young musician. Attention span varies depending on the child’s age, as younger musicians may need more breaks and shorter practice time, and adolescents may need an environment free from competing distractions, such as electronics, phones and other interruptions. Capturing their interest and engaging their creative spark is essential. Adolescents need a sense of purpose and understanding of the methodology to their practice (i.e.,”why am I doing this?”), and may quickly lose interest if they dislike, misunderstand or dispute why they need to practice in a certain manner. Some rudimentary understanding of music theory may help to spark their intellectual curiosity and help them stay motivated.

2.  Perfectionism – While music performance ultimately requires perfecting one’s repertoire, some gifted young musicians become preoccupied with achieving unrealistic results and develop exceptionally high standards for themselves. They become frustrated and self-critical if they fail to achieve their goals, and may allow a real or perceived setback to undermine their confidence and overall sense of well-being.  While a goal-oriented approach and dedication to one’s craft is admirable, it can be a curse for a child who buckles under pressure to succeed beyond what is reasonable. Perfectionism is a characteristic that has been frequently associated with giftedness, and as Silverman (1999) has noted, it can be a catalyst toward excellence and not necessarily a sign of emotional disturbance. However, musically talented children who are unable to strive for excellence without unrealistically rigid and harsh expectations, and who cannot modify these standards with the support of parents and teachers may need counseling to learn to challenge these beliefs.

3.  Performance anxiety –  These fears can include worries about being judged, freezing under pressure, making mistakes in public, forgetting a part when performing from memory, or being the center of attention. While a problem that often plagues even accomplished musicians, Kemp & Mills (2002) pointed out that performance anxiety affects young musicians as well. A variety of cognitive, mindfulness and imagery tools can be helpful. Green (1986) offers an excellent resource for challenging thoughts and behaviors that contribute to these fears. If performance anxiety interferes significantly, counseling also may be beneficial.

4.  Disappointment – All musicians eventually face rejection. Helping children handle disappointment requires significant effort from parents, as these children may lack the developmental tools for understanding how “unfair” the world can be. Gifted children, in particular, have an acute sense of what is fair and just, and may become outraged or disillusioned if they feel someone has been mistreated. Adolescents may give up their musical goals completely if disappointed, choosing to abandon their dreams rather than suffer another rejection. They also must grapple with feelings of envy when others surpass them, and may respond with anger, bitterness, or despair. Adults need to help children put their feelings into perspective and learn that they cannot control some of the unpredictable variables associated with success. However, they can focus on their own progress, learn what they can change so that they improve, and develop a plan that will allow them to reach their goals.

5.  Social isolation – Although many musically gifted children are introverted (Kemp & Mills, 2002), they may still suffer from the negative effects of social isolation. Focusing for hours on practice is a solitary activity that also may preclude participation in other extra-curricular or social activities. Performing in a band, choir or ensemble is enriching, but practice can be a lonely pursuit. Children who are not musically trained often do not understand how much dedication and practice is required, and may tease or cajole the young musician to stop practicing. Gifted young musicians need to be reminded of their goal, find meaning in their practice, and build in breaks where they have contact with others to alleviate feelings of isolation. Frequent participation in music ensembles can provide much needed relief from isolation, providing shared purpose and goals, a sense of unity with others, and an opportunity to meet friends with similar interests.

5.  Anxiety about career paths – Many adolescent musicians realistically question whether music is a viable career path. They are aware of the job market and the highly competitive struggle to find meaningful work. Parents and teachers can help them identify whether their talent and passion may be sufficient to sustain the challenge of pursuing a performance career, or if they are temperamentally suited to pursue another goal, such as music education, music technology, or music administration. Rather than dismissing their dream of a music career, providing realistic information about costs, salaries, job prospects, and lifestyle factors is important in guiding them to the right decision.

Offering emotional support to musically talented children is often as critical as the music instruction itself. Many potential careers have been thwarted by disillusionment and anxiety, and might have been salvaged with some clear support and guidance. It is not an easy challenge for parents or teachers of theses remarkable students, but must be considered an essential component to their success.

* An expanded version of this article is published in the National Association of Gifted Children Arts Newsletter, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Fall, 2013.


Green, B. (1986). The Inner Game of Music. New York: Doubleday.
Haroutounian, J. (2002). Kindling the Spark. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kemp, A. & Mills, J. (2002). Musical potential. In Parncutt, R., & McPherson, G. (Eds.) The Science and  Psychology of Performance, (Pp. 3-16). New York: Oxford University Press. 
Parncutt, R., & McPherson, G. (Eds.) The Science and  Psychology of Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.
Silverman, L. (1999). Perfectionism: The crucible of giftedness. Advanced Development, 8, 47-61. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Gifted education "lite": Helping your child adapt

When a child is identified for gifted services, parents usually feel relief. “Finally, my child will get the education he needs.” “Now she’ll be challenged and energized by learning.” But what many parents soon realize is that the much anticipated gifted program has gaping holes, glaring inadequacies and an array of watered-down services. It starts to look more like “gifted lite” than a bona fide educational plan.

It’s not that most schools don’t attempt to meet gifted children’s needs. It’s just that budgetary constraints, lack of training, or philosophical differences frequently place limits on what is offered. Sometimes gifted children receive no more than one hour a week of a pull-out program. Sometimes, they get a few extra assignments. Sometimes they are enlisted to tutor other children. These inadequate attempts at gifted education fail to address the full-time needs of children who are gifted all day long, not just for a few hours of enriched instruction.

Until the public school system offers more than a lukewarm attempt at meeting the needs of its gifted children, parents are left to advocate for their children. Many spend years meeting with teachers, administrators, and school board members, achieving only incremental success. Other parents pursue private school, cyber school, or home schooling. These outside alternatives may provide more enriched and individualized programs for gifted children, but might not be locally available, financially feasible, or even appropriate for a given child or family. Public school education offers a wealth of benefits private schools cannot provide (such as a greater selection of classes and extra-curricular activities, as well as sociocultural diversity), and an exodus of students from the school district does nothing to improve a system that taxpayers fund. (See a recent blog post about this on gifted parenting support.)

So, how can you help your child when your school’s best option looks a lot like gifted education “lite?” How do you prepare your child for an imperfect and sometimes disappointing classroom experience? How can you help your child adapt?

1.  Advocacy

First, let your child know that you will continue to advocate for the services she needs. Help her understand what it means to be gifted and explain why she may feel impatient or bored with some of her classes. Let her know that all of the children in her class deserve an appropriate education, not just the gifted kids.  With only one teacher, sometimes not everyone gets what they need. Let her know that you will continue to work with the school to see if they can offer more interesting material for her, if possible. Until then, she will have to adapt to the situation.

2.  Practice Assertive Skills  

Help your child learn to tactfully and appropriately assert himself. Teach him how to ask for more challenging school work in a manner that is most likely to work. Teachers respond best to children who are assertive, but not pushy, clingy or demanding. You could role play various situations with your child to help him learn what to say. Teach him to notice cues, so he can avoid interrupting the teacher at inconvenient times. Help him identify what he might want to say. For example, he may want to study a topic in greater depth, write a creative story about an area of interest, or tackle more challenging math problems. When he is detailed and specific, it saves the teacher time and effort, and increases the likelihood that he will receive material tailored to his interests.

3.  Banish Boredom

Teach your child creative ideas for enriching her learning experience. If she complains about feeling bored in class (and you have exhausted your options for obtaining enriched/accelerated alternatives), help her develop strategies for entertaining herself. For example, she could (silently) ask herself more in depth questions about the subject matter, invent a rhyme for what she is learning, or compose a musical tune to link together material she is reading. Helping your child learn how to manage feelings of boredom in class is a skill that will be a benefit to her in a variety of situations.

4.  Model Tolerance

Contain your anger as much as possible. You may certainly want to validate your child’s feelings and empathize with how bored he might feel. However, it will fuel your child’s frustration if you complain about the program’s inadequacies. Your reaction can serve as a model for how to be persistent with advocacy, but also respectful toward the individuals involved, and strategic in identifying what battles to pick. You can be a role model of patience, tolerance, and acceptance in the face of disappointment.

Many gifted children recognize that some classes, programs, and years in school are more engaging and challenging than others. They benefit from an understanding that this ebb and flow will continue throughout their time in school. Until public education is able to consistently support the needs of gifted children and adolescents, parents can help their children develop the skills, creativity and patience to learn as much as possible in an imperfect situation. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When children realize they are gifted

Maybe it happens when they realize that they can multiply and their classmates cannot even add. Maybe it’s when they figure out there’s no Santa or Tooth Fairy, long before their friends know. Maybe it’s when the same old games their friends are playing just seem silly and boring.

At some point, gifted children recognize that they are different from their peers. No one has to tell them. They realize it on their own. Often there is a defining moment when it first registers that they “get it” in ways others will never grasp. Frequently this realization is accompanied by pride and excitement, but sometimes by confusion or even guilt. “Hey, I thought my friends were just like me. Why don’t they see things the same way? What does it mean if I figure things out so quickly? Will it mean I’ll always be different?

Young children don’t understand what “gifted” means. But they do notice the fuss parents and teachers make about their abilities. When too much praise is offered, they may become confused. “I don’t get any reward for cleaning up my toys, but they make a big deal about something that comes so easily to me.” “Why is it so important that I can solve math problems the other kids can’t do? Does this make me better than them?”

Due to a lack of maturity, young children also may become bossy and impatient with peers who fail to perform at their ability level. Gifted children can start to believe that their intelligence is critical to their self-concept, and that performing poorly will disappoint those who love them. They may believe that their abilities are all that matter about them.

Most gifted children will not articulate their “aha” moment. Gifted adults sometimes recall their first awareness of being gifted. But young children have neither the words, nor the maturity to fully put it in perspective. Parents should be alert to signs that their child is comparing his or her abilities to those of others. Comments or questions regarding differences in skills, devaluing peers for being too “slow,” expressions of impatience and boredom, excessive boasting about accomplishments, and complaints about feeling misunderstood because of precocious interests all warrant discussion.

Parents need to help their gifted children understand what it means to be gifted, and that their abilities make them no more “special” than their friends. Rather than a confusing, ambivalent experience, a child's awareness of being gifted should be a positive awakening, and a threshold to endless possibilities. Parents are in an ideal position to provide the framework and guidance to help their child understand it. 

What were the defining moments when you realized you were gifted?