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Why Gifted Children Fail and How to Prevent It

Judy Willis | Feb 15, 2016

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Expert: Judy Willis

Judy
Willis
Feb 15, 2016

While a great deal of emphasis is placed on helping students with low grades improve their academic performances, those who are considered gifted are often overlooked. Gifted children are accustomed to succeeding in their studies, but this doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes or struggle with their schoolwork, just like any other student. “Failure” for gifted children is not limited to failing grades alone. The brain registers failure when repeated efforts do not achieve the desired goal. Failure can be experienced when a straight “A” child begins to get frequent “A-” grades in a subject and, despite high effort, fails to regain the “A”. Mistakes in front of classmates are another form of failure for gifted students and this can have negative consequences, leading them to doubt their own intelligence. The key is to help gifted children deal with failure and thrive through challenges and teach them that effort and setbacks are part of the learning process.

Many gifted students do well in elementary school without the need to study as much as their classmates and they may lack the organization, prioritization, and planning skills that their friends learn and practice during those foundational years. As a result, they tend to suffer self-doubt, frustration, and eventually give up stymied because they never had the opportunity to develop the fundamentals ultimately needed in the upper grades. Here is some advice on how you can help boost your gifted child’s confidence and help her build the organizational and planning skillset that she will need for her continued success:

Build and nurture your gifted child’s resilience and perseverance. Many gifted children are not used to challenges, mistakes, and setbacks because they may not have previously experienced them. When the idea of failure does present itself, they may not be adequately prepared to handle it. This can cause gifted children to lose self-confidence, stop participation in class discussions, and avoid challenges of advanced homework or project options. These children can become so convinced of their lack of ability that they stop studying for exams and choose not to take the highest-level courses, despite ample intelligence to succeed. Here are some tips on how you can help your gifted child turn this mindset around:

Praise effort

Acknowledge your child’s effort rather than outcomes achieved easily, and encourage them to try new things and take risks of making mistakes. Remind her that she will inevitably make mistakes, and that’s alright, as she shouldn’t see them as failures, but rather opportunities to learn and grow. Tell her that there is always another chance to do well, and that all she can do is prepare, do her best and keep trying, and success will eventually follow.

Discuss the challenges faced by historical figures or innovative thinkers

 Give your child examples about the failures that lit the path of renowned iconic innovators on route to their own advances, discoveries and breakthroughs in knowledge, technology, arts and culture. This will show your child that mistakes can often be turned into opportunities and it can help prepare him to confront his own eventual mistakes and failures more effectively.

Model your mistakes

If children believe that making mistakes means they are not really gifted and hold themselves up to unrealistic standards, they will miss out on developing their creativity and discovering new ways to apply their knowledge. Provide opportunities for your child to sustain effort when faced with challenges and help her understand that asking for help can be the wiser choice, and not evidence of lesser intelligence. A good way to do this is to model the behavior you wish to see in your child. If you make mistakes, struggle with tax forms, or are frustrated by complex instructions for setting up a new computer system, let your child know how you are feeling and how you overcame the challenge.

Show your child that there is not one ‘right way’ for everything

 Mistake fear is reduced when children have opportunities to discover that there are alternative perspectives and ways to solve problems. Explore examples where same events are reported quite differently in history books from different eras, or a variety of news media, or how artists interpret the same scene or still life in very different, but equally valid ways. Encourage your child’s cognitive flexibility by encouraging him to find another way to sort buttons from a mixed bag, an alternative way of reaching the correct solution to a math problem or to create different endings for a story.

Help your child break down challenges

 It’s good for children to realize that “breaking them down” challenging questions, problems, or assignments into achievable segments can help them be successful in their studies. One way to do this is to save your broken clocks or safely handled appliances, and invite your child to tell you how the item works. If she doesn’t know or is unsure, encourage her to take it apart. Without giving her specific instructions, allow her to explore and she will be delighted to discover parts of the complex item she recognizes such as a spring, battery or gear.

Build skillsets so they are available when needed

Gifted children, who didn’t learn organization, planning, or prioritizing skills in elementary school, can build them with you. Challenge your child with inquiry and projects that hook his interests and that require using advance planning and ongoing adjustments during the course of reaching the goal. For example, when planning family vacations, home improvements, or deciding which car to purchase, engage your child in the decision. He will build skills of prioritizing, planning, and analyzing when he feels he can influence your decisions. If your child finds a side trip to a special theme park, hall of fame or boat adventure that can be added to the family’s vacation plans, let him evaluate the possibilities and practicalities, as the personal relevance of the task can help challenge and motivate him. His research and critical thinking skills will be enhanced as he seeks documentation, uses thoughtful estimation, makes comparisons, prioritizes and makes adjustments in budgeting and scheduling.

With help, your children won't deny or doubt their abilities when they confront setbacks, mistakes or difficult challenges. When children find ways to turn their boredom around, develop resilience to setbacks, take the risk of making mistakes and apply the effort to make revisions, they will be prepared to apply their gifts throughout life and to push boundaries with their creative problem-solving and game-changing innovations.

 

Judy Willis is the author of Inspiring Middle School Minds: Gifted, Creative, Talented.

Expert: Judy Willis

About the Author

Judy Willis
University of California, Santa Barbara

Dr. Judy Willis combined her 15 years as a board-certified practicing neurologist with ten subsequent years as a classroom teacher to become a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning. Dr. Willis has written seven books and more than 100 articles for professional journals applying neuroscience research to successful teaching strategies and travels nationally and internationally giving presentations, workshops, and consulting while continuing to write books and staff expert blogs for NBC News Education Nation, Edutopia, Psychology Today, and The Guardian.