Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Get your gifted boy through middle school

Middle school - that time warp most of us would like to forget!

But if you have a gifted middle school boy, it is critical to stay attuned to the pitfalls and challenges that might derail his adjustment and safe passage into adolescence.

We know that many boys are not "built" for school - at least for those traditional classrooms where they are expected to sit still and be silent. They don't like school. They roughhouse, squirm in their seats, and want to play. They are typically less socially mature than girls and more likely to express negative emotions such as anger. They also are disciplined more often, are more frequently diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities, and are more likely to receive lower grades and drop out of school. Their organizational, verbal and attentional skills lag behind those of their female peers. While brain differences may account for some of these distinctions between the genders, it does not mean that their behaviors are abnormal or problematic - they just don't fit what is expected of them in most schools.

Gurian and Stevens have described how girls and boys learn differently. And while some teachers accommodate these differences, many also feel overwhelmed by "boy energy." Author Jessica Lahey described this dilemma in the classroom:
"While I love teaching boys, many of my colleagues do not, particularly during the hormone-soaked, energetic and distracted middle-and high-school years. Teachers and school administrators lament that boys are too fidgety, too hyperactive, too disruptive, derailing the educational process for everyone while sabotaging their own intellectual development.
Peek into most American classrooms and you will see desks in rows, teachers pleading with students to stay in their seats and refrain from talking to their neighbors. Marks for good behavior are rewarded to the students who are proficient at sitting still for long periods of time. Many boys do not have this skill." 

Why is middle school so difficult? 

Ideally, middle school should usher in a period of self-discovery, personal and academic growth, and identity formation, rather than a time that must be endured. But it is more typically a difficult phase for most students, who struggle with peer pressure, hormonal swings, and ambivalence about their newfound independence from family.

Most gifted middle school children face similar struggles, often compounded by gifted "traits," such as heightened sensitivity, introversion, a preoccupation with fairness and justice, overthinking, perfectionism, asynchronous development, and the emergence of existential depression. These may be coupled with a nagging sense of boredom and disconnection with school - both academically and socially. This perfect storm of personal, social and school-related distress can affect their identity, confidence, motivation, and how they will approach school in the future.

What happens for gifted boys in middle school?

Gifted boys often arrive at middle school with a mixed track record. Some boast a transcript filled with good grades (although this sometimes belies a history of coasting through school and never quite reaching their potential). Others sport a spotty record, marked by underachievement, inattention, boredom, and frustration. Some have endured social isolation or bullying because of their "differences." Still others may have felt relatively confident, but then struggle when confronted with middle school social pressure to "toughen up" and adapt to messages from a sexualized, hyper-masculinized culture.

What are some of the potential pitfalls gifted middle school boys face - and how can you help them?

1. Peer pressure

Gifted girls certainly struggle with peer pressure related to cultural norms and expectations. But gifted boys also feel pressure to adapt to societal views of masculinity and sexuality. Those gifted boys who lack social agility, athletic talent, or strong leadership skills are especially at risk for social isolation, rejection from peers, or bullying. Asynchronous development can complicate matters, particularly when a child is chronologically younger than his age peers due to full-grade acceleration. Those with "nerdy" interests - robotics, chess, science, classical music, theater - can be targets for bullying, or at the very least, exclusion from most social circles.

While some boys feel confident enough to weather these challenges, many mask their abilities, hide their less-than-popular interests, and "dumb themselves down" to fit in. They downplay any appearance of intellectual curiosity, hide their successes from peers, or may actually perform well beneath their abilities to prove that they are just like everyone else.

What you can do:

  • Help your gifted child find a group of like-minded peers, a niche he can belong to, and extra-curricular activities that ignite his passions and introduce him to others with similar interests. The more peers he finds who "get him," the stronger he will feel in the face of mounting pressure from the majority of students at school. 
  • If he is athletic, encourage involvement in sports. They are a great outlet, confidence-booster, and can offset some of the pressure and stereotyping about giftedness that he might encounter at school. 
  • Encourage participation in social activities, but don't force him to attend an event he is not prepared for and that might increase his anxiety, like a school dance. 
  • Provide guidance and suggestions for navigating social demands at school - when he is open to listening. 
  • Advocate for ability grouping or clustering at school, which will improve his in-class experience and allow him to spend time with like-minded peers who "get" his way of thinking.

2. Sensitivity

Gifted children may be emotionally excitable and experience heightened sensitivity.
Some gifted boys are highly sensitive to emotions, others' feelings, sensory input, conflicts, and injustices in the world around them. This sensitivity conflicts with society's template of the rough and tumble boy who can take his nicks and bruises.

The media, society and our culture are guilty of perpetuating these stereotypes. From an early age, boys are persuaded to emulate the strong, silent, rugged images portrayed in film, sports and video games. They learn that "real men" are risk-takers who challenge their bodies, are self-sufficient, never show fear, and don't back down from a fight. Warmth, kindness, creative and artistic expression,  and displays of emotion are unacceptable, and even viewed as effeminate. Mark Greene recently highlighted how empathetic and compassionate men are portrayed as "delicately aware" or "easily hurt." He pointed out that:

"We are very close to pathologizing emotional awareness in men... But emotionally distant men are a product of their environment, not a genetic inevitability. Why emotionally distant men get to be the baseline against which "sensitive men" are judged needs to be reexamined."

As a result of these pervasive messages, sensitive, gifted middle school boys not only learn to mask their intellectual abilities, but their sensitive, emotional nature as well. This "double life" as a tough guy, at a time when emotions, hormonal swings and identity formation are already in an upheaval, can create even more uncertainty and distress. Those who are unwilling or unable to hide their sensitivities resign themselves to potential ridicule and bullying. Sometimes introverted gifted boys are even mislabeled or misdiagnosed because of their social differences.

What you can do: 

  • Provide acceptance and normalize your son's sensitive nature. Help him recognize that although his feelings and reactions may differ from societal stereotypes or what seems to be the norm at school, point out that many boys feel the same way, but also mask their emotions.
  • Encourage him to stand up to peers when necessary, but also select friends who are accepting and supportive. 
  • Help him appreciate that his sensitivity is just one aspect of who he is, that it offers a window into greater understanding of himself and others, and that there are tools for managing these emotions when they get overwhelming.
  • Encourage healthy outlets for his sensitivity, such as creative expression or volunteer work to help those less fortunate. 
  • Support involvement in activities that bolster his strength, provide a healthy balance to his sensitivity, and support his burgeoning sense of masculinity. For example, participation in non-contact sports, involvement in healthy forms of competition such as the debate team, and taking on a leadership role with an extra-curricular activity are all character and strength-building activities.

3. Underachievement

Gifted children can lose their passion for learning, scale back their efforts, coast through school or give up completely at any stage in their academic career. But they seem most at risk for underachievement during middle school. And a much higher percentage of gifted underachievers are boys. While there are many identified triggers and causes of underachievement among the gifted, middle school often provides the perfect storm, as gifted boys conform to peer pressure, become more observant and critical of their education, and respond to an accumulation of apathy and disrespect for a school system that has ignored their needs for years. Some gifted boys who have coasted through elementary school with little effort may become frustrated with the increased academic demands of middle school, or might be surprised to struggle with some assignments for the first time. If they never learned study skills, or previously confronted and rebounded from failure, any academic difficulty may be perceived as an affront to their identity, and some may retreat completely rather than risk trying and failing.

What you can do: 

  • Recognize the signs of underachievement before they escalate. Boredom, apathy, complaints about wasting time at school, disrespect for teachers or the school, and disinterest in learning are clear signs. But it can be more subtle for some children, who are selective consumers (choosing to exert effort only for subjects they enjoy of with teachers they respect), or underachievers under-the-radar (seemingly successful students who are never challenged and fail to reach their potential). 
  • If there are family conflicts or personal traits your child exhibits (e.g., perfectionism) that are contributing to the inertia, these need to be addressed. 
  • Many of the triggers may be entrenched in the social and academic culture at school. You can help your child by encouraging him to find his passions, identify what is meaningful - even in a class he does not enjoy. Help him retain his intrinsic love of learning through involvement in extra-curricular activities that he enjoys. 
  • Advocate early and often. Addressing underachievement before it becomes a habitual pattern is the best strategy.  Gifted children learn best alongside like-minded peers and in an atmosphere where they can express their curiosity and creativity. While some parents opt for homeschooling or private education, public schools are the available choice for the majority of families. Advocate for acceleration, ability grouping, clustering or other accommodations that may spark his interest.

4. Identity formation and existential depression 

The middle school years hasten a burgeoning drive toward identity formation, often seen as a primary task of adolescence. While some young teens manage their new sense of self by readily adapting to social norms or identifying with pop idols, gifted children are often more discriminating (and some might say, cynical), and tend to question everything. They challenge their family's beliefs, the school culture, political and social norms, and even their own previous views. Many abandon their family's religious affiliations, and question life's meaning.

Along with this newfound independence and exploration of values, some gifted children become apathetic, disillusioned and plunge into an existential depression. James Webb has noted how gifted children's idealism and intellectual abilities predispose them to this awareness:
"The gifted become depressed particularly because their high intellect allows them to contemplate the cosmos and their very small place within it."
Gifted boys, in particular, may feel torn between an adherence to traditional male values and their sensitivity to the world around them. Any form of hypocrisy, unfairness, or deception is almost impossible for them to tolerate. When this occurs at school, they may feel despair, and lose all investment in participation.

What you can do:

  • Gifted boys may struggle in silence, particularly if they adhere to social norms regarding masculine expression of emotion. However, if you sense that your child is depressed, apathetic, or struggling to assert his sense of self in the face of peer pressure, encourage him to speak with you. 
  • If he is angry or distressed about what he perceives as inequity or hypocrisy at school, allow him to express his concerns - without minimizing or escalating his views (e.g., avoid comments, such as "yeah, those teachers are all incompetent."). Suggest healthy outlets for his anger, such as participation in volunteer activities.
  • If he feels isolated because he wants to retain his true identify and avoid conforming to social pressure, help him find niche or extra-curricular interests where he can spend time with like-minded peers. 
  • Let him know that you are there for him as he traverses this phase of exploration and discovery, and that sometimes, people feel depressed before they bounce back. If his depression persists, though, it is often essential to seek therapy with a licensed mental health professional.


Of course, parenting a middle school child can be stressful as well. Boys, in particular, tend to retreat, spend time in their rooms, and are reluctant to communicate about their thoughts and feelings. Boisterous, loving, expressive little boys turn into sullen young teens, and after the initial shock, parents are left to grieve this loss. But gifted boys - all boys - still need their parents' involvement, even when they are dismissive and try to push parents away. Keep a watchful eye, remain enthusiastic and involved, and provide your empathy and support when your son offers that rare opening for conversation. He doesn't want you to see his vulnerability, but will be grateful and feel comforted to know that you are always there for him. And get support for yourself when you need it. Family, friends, and even local gifted advocacy parent groups can be a great resource as you weather this challenging time along with your child.

The following are additional blog posts that target middle school and gifted students:

Caught in the middle: How to help gifted children survive the middle school years

Difficult passage: Gifted girls in middle school

Ability grouping works - and is essential in middle school and beyond

How school policy affects gifted children's friendships (and what you can do about it)

What was the best class your gifted child had in school?

When does therapy benefit gifted adolescents?

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Ages and Stages of Giftedness. To see more blogs in the hop, click  on:

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  1. Yes, I can definitely relate. My son is dragging his feet to get through the start of 7th grade, after having been a good student before this. He used to love school - now all he cares about are his friends and social media and video games. I hope this phase doesn't last long.

    1. Thanks for your comments. It can be a rough time - for children and parents. Get the support you need from family and friends, and hopefully this will resolve with time. Good luck.

  2. This explains what has been happening with my son lately. While in the 1st grade, he had a 5th grade score on his math assessment. Now, he’s in the 5th grade and he has lost interest in his work. It’s a struggle for his teachers to get him to complete his tasks and tests. I’m very afraid that he will not get back on track. He’s not doing well socially either. He is very sensitive and kind but he doesn’t have many friends. That only adds to his stress at school.
    I am desperately trying to help him regain his focus and continue on the path he started but it’s been difficult.