Thursday, March 1, 2018

What your gifted child won't learn from academics

What does your gifted child need to learn?

Certainly, gifted students benefit from a challenging education - the basics offered in most classrooms, but tailored to their unique intellectual needs. Engaging extra-curriculars that ignite passion and creativity are an added bonus, along with the self-regulation skills frequently overlooked in gifted children's education.

But what about "non-cognitive skills," sometimes referred to as "character" traits?

In "Why character can't be taught like the Pythagorean Theorem," author Paul Tough describes how teachers' attempts to instill "non-cognitive" skills, such as curiosity, "grit," self-control, and conscientiousness through traditional means often fail.

"...the teaching paradigm might be the wrong one to use when it comes to helping young people develop noncognitive strengths. Maybe you can't teach character the way you teach math.
Rather than consider noncognitive capacities as skills to be taught, I came to conclude, it's more accurate and useful to look at them as products of a child's environment."

Gifted children benefit from the same social-emotional, and non-cognitive skills as every other child. However, their heightened sensitivities, asynchrony, frequent outlier social status, and tendency to question everything complicate this task. They will scoff at rules or values that do not make sense, hide their insecurities, and may be hampered by their own tendencies toward overthinking, rigidity or existential depression.

While Tough suggests how schools can embed non-cognitive skills throughout the educational culture, parents need not (and should not) rely on schools for this to occur. Most of these skills can be taught at home. As a parent, you can offer the following guidance:

1. Tolerance

Gifted children are often compassionate toward those less fortunate. However, they may become impatient and frustrated when their peers cannot keep up with their lightening fast pace of learning. Young gifted children, in particular, may behave in an intolerant and critical manner toward their peers. "Why don't you get it?" "Why are you so slow?"

Your child will benefit from lessons about patience and tolerance starting from an early age. These include strategies for managing frustration, such as deep breathing exercises, attending to the present moment (e.g., mindfulness), imagining herself in her friend's situation, or even counting to ten. Praise your child when you notice her behaving in a tolerant and patient manner, so she knows how much you value this behavior.

2. Humility

Most gifted children are humble about their abilities, and may even doubt themselves. But with all of the praise they receive for their accomplishments and abilities, some can start to think that they might be "better" than others. Of course, this attitude often backfires later when they can't keep up, or lack the resilience to manage failure experiences, or feel like impostors. But initially, young gifted children may feel pride that their talents surpass those of their peers.

Continue to remind your child that he is fortunate to have a quick mind, talent, and creativity, but is no more responsible for possessing these strengths than the color of his eyes. How he directs his energy and behavior is what is under his control. Explain what it means to be gifted, and help your child put giftedness into perspective. Intellectual humility not only fosters a greater openness to others' opinions, but can relieve self-imposed pressure to be the best. Instead of focusing on his innate talents, show recognition for his hard work, self-directed behavior, intellectual or creative risk-taking, compassion and tolerance for others, and collaborative work with peers.

3. Endurance 

While some gifted students are driven, hard-working, and even perfectionistic, others are underachievers who coast through school or sometimes drop out. Since their needs are frequently overlooked in schools, they often learn to excel academically without much effort. As a result, they work well below their potential and have little experience with sustained effort and endurance. Once they are faced with a task that requires extended effort, whether academic, athletic or in the arts, many collapse under the weight of this expectation and give up.

Recently, many schools have embraced the concept of "grit" in an attempt to motivate students. But Angela Duckworth, who launched this concept, has noted the misappropriation and distortion of the term. She has stressed that grit combines both perseverance and passion; however, most schools only focus on perseverance - making grit synonymous with drudgery. Furthermore, meta-analytic research suggests that grit has little effect on improving performance. Perhaps this finding stems from studies of programs that focused exclusively on perseverance and ignored the importance of passion..

You can help your child learn to pace herself, set short-term goals along the way, appreciate the value of hard work, and raise the bar on what she expects for herself. But enduring, persevering and hanging in for the long haul require a level of passion and dedication, and discovering meaning in the task. The more you encourage your child to find intrinsic joy in learning, the more likely this passion will drive future efforts.

4. Social interactions

While some gifted children are socially mature and even excel as leaders, others struggle with asynchronous development that manifests as social immaturity. These children often are aware of their deficits, and may avoid social interactions, become shy and withdrawn, or develop rigid beliefs about whom to pursue as friends. Offering support and specific guidance to younger children may help them feel more confident, and improve their social skills. Gently pointing out behaviors that might be offensive is important, but praise them for their strengths and any improvements, as well.

Gifted teens also struggle. Some may try to fit in by "dumbing themselves down." Others wear their differences as a badge of honor and refuse to conform. Either way, they must learn to accept their giftedness and how they differ from many of their peers. They may feel like outliers, and may be atypical, but hiding and denying their uniqueness will feel inauthentic. Eventually, they will learn to assert who they are, even if this goes against prevailing norms. When they are open to your guidance, offer support and encouragement to help them weather these difficult years.

5. Managing boredom

Most students feel bored in school at some point. But gifted children feel bored a lot. Some parents try to address this dilemma by advocating for changes at school, finding  extra-curricular activities to engage their child's passions, or even choosing to homeschool. However, your child still benefits from strategies to manage his overly active mind. There will be times when he will feel bored, regardless of how stimulating the learning environment - and relying on his phone for entertainment should not be the fall-back solution. Encourage him to use his imagination, creativity, and ideas to engage his mind. Help him come up with a range of entertaining strategies, such as devising stories, songwriting, imagining what he might paint or build, or identifying what problem he plans to solve.

6. Conscientiousness

While some gifted children are driven, focused, and even perfectionistic,  others may be careless and disorganized. They can sustain tremendous focus if they are passionate about their interests, but exert little effort for what seems boring or trivial to them. As a result, many start to fail or at the very least, receive low grades in subjects that do not capture their interest.

Gifted teens who are idealistic, concerned with justice, and sometime self-righteous in their passion for sociopolitical change also may show disdain for social amenities, and refuse to behave in a socially appropriate or considerate manner. They may refrain from basic gestures of social kindness such as greetings and "thank you's," claiming these require acquiescence to false or superficial expectations of which they want no part.

Conscientiousness is a skill/trait that may need to be nurtured in some gifted teens who eschew the concept. Appealing to their logic, and pointing out how it will benefit their progress, facilitate achieving their goals or even help them advance their social justice agenda, may provide a rationale that motivates them. Similar to Duckworth's concept of grit, conscientiousness is one of the Big Five personality traits most highly associated with success in academics and career. Fostering this skill will help your child succeed, but she must first "buy in" to the belief that it is a valuable at all.

7. Confidence

Many gifted children are insecure. They doubt their abilities, feel like impostors, or experience guilt when they realize how they grasp concepts so much more easily than their friends. Those who have struggled to fit in or who have been bullied may feel socially anxious and retreat from activities with peers. Some become clinically depressed and anxious.

Popular confidence-building concepts have focused on resilience and academic risk-taking. Gifted children also benefit from reminders that they are so much more than their abilities and giftedness, that it is okay to fail, and that they will be loved regardless of their accomplishments. Identifying the underlying reasons for their low self-esteem and gently challenging assumptions that are perpetuating this can be helpful. Encouraging independence and self-sufficiency as much as possible is also important. Help your child recognize his "inner compass" - a sense of strength, intuition and self-awareness to help him navigate a variety of challenges.

Of course, all of the above skills can be - and must be - reinforced and nurtured through the schools and other interactive opportunities, as well, including extra-curricular activities, camps, team sports, volunteer groups, or clubs. These skills will not flourish in isolation and require interaction with peers and reinforcement from influential, caring adults. And school is an ideal setting for your child to try out and hone these skills every day. But as a parent, you set the foundation, share your values, and provide the support and encouragement your child needs. You know her best, and can offer the guidance she needs for the road ahead.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page blog hop on Beyond Academics. To read more blogs, click on:

Image may contain: text


  1. This is a great list of areas that gifted kids need to work on. I particularly identified with the social interaction struggle, which is foundational to so much of the rest, because as you note, extracurricular activities are such an important place to develop these skills! But I was too busy trying to hide from people who I thought didn't get me, and at times blatantly refusing to conform, in ways I now regret. I wish I had some good advice on how to fit in with the other kids, but that still eludes me; finding gifted friends is still the only thing I can think of for such kids.

    The conscientiousness segment also resonated with me, as I'm now a social activist, but some of my fellow activists sometimes -- despite obviously being very bright -- just don't know how not to alienate people. A line about catching flies with honey rather than vinegar comes to mind! This is something I'm going to be trying to teach through mentorship in the future.

    1. Jessie, Thanks for your helpful comments. You highlight many of the experiences gifted people go through and the wisdom you acquired along the way. Much appreciated.