Gifted kids are supposed to be good at school, right? Then why do so many of them do so badly?
When most people hear the word gifted they think of kids who love to learn, are good at school, are teacher’s pets. They have images of kids poring over stacks of textbooks or solving complex math equations at the blackboard (or smartboard nowadays!). What they don’t think of is the hours of struggle to complete basic homework, the frustration with long-form written answers that are now required in most math classes. These combined with social and emotional issues can make school a particularly difficult environment for our brightest youth.
Middle and high school in particular are known for their complex social issues. We can all recall the angst of what to wear or the nerves of an upcoming presentation in front of the whole class. For the gifted child, forming meaningful social connections and ‘performing’ in school can be especially fraught. The asynchronous development of giftedness can mean that a 6th grader is in an 8th grade math class but prefers playing Pokemon with the 4th graders. If they’re lucky they spend their days having their academic needs met but without any friends who share their interests. More often than not though, they spend their days bored by the material and ostracized by their peers. Imagine for yourself what that feels like: you have a job where your coworkers make fun of you or are doing things without you, AND you’re bored and not challenged by the work. For eight hours a day, five days a week. Children in this position are unlikely to be successful at school – there are simply too many factors working against them.
Finding their ‘person’ can be a literal life saver. Gifted people rarely need a cohort of friends; they tend to make meaningful connections with just one like minded person. Often that connection is made outside of school – a specialty club, library, park. Having someone who relates to them and enjoys the same things can be a life line to helping them feel normal and accepted.
Most gifted kids experience asynchronous development both socially and intellectually. They may score in the 99th percentile for math, but 75th for reading. Their talent may be in visual-spatial relationships but have trouble memorizing basic math facts. A common misconception is that if you are gifted, you’re ‘smart all over’. That perception can lead to certain expectations in the classroom that are unrealistic for most gifted kids. Parents will express their concerns that their child is bored and not being challenged, only to be met with below average tests in a different subject as justification that the child ‘can’t be gifted’ and therefore doesn’t need enrichment or differentiation. Years of this can wear down a child’s confidence and take away their strengths. They begin underachieving and tuning out in class. They can lose their love of learning and school becomes something to ‘get through’.
Homework is often a contributing factor to their dislike of school. Gifted children rarely need the amount of repetition that is common in school work. They understand and internalize the topic quickly and don’t need to do the dozens of problems to reinforce it. Handwriting is also a common frustration that can impact their willingness to do homework. Their brains work much faster than their hands can write, and the completed work rarely looks the way they think it should look. When looking at homework resistance, we also need to think about what the day has been like for a gifted child. They have spent the whole day bored, sitting, with few if any friends. When they get home they want to be DONE with school, not sit more and continue to work on the same stuff. Home is their safe zone where they can be themselves and pursue their own interests. It’s not wonder they fight homework and studying.
Perfectionism plays a large part in their school work as well. The expectation – theirs and others – is that they should ace everything, and easily. When faced with a difficult problem they often choose to not attempt it at all, rather than risk getting it wrong and being embarrassed. This is reinforced when teachers express surprise at a poor test score because ‘they’re so smart’. It is easier to not try at all, then to try and fail. I encourage my gifted students to fail every day; a common refrain in our class is ‘if you’re not failing, you’re not learning’. They may never be comfortable with it, but at least they can anticipate and understand their own reactions. At home, demonstrate failure vocally and frequently! Engage with them in new and challenging games or activities, talk about your own failures – large and small. These moments can carry into their school work and help them realize that there is no such thing as ‘perfect’.
Educating teachers on what giftedness actually looks like and making sure our kids are in the right learning environment can make all the difference. Bad habits are learned early and can be difficult to break. When meeting their needs, we also need to make sure we are looking at the whole gifted child: their social lives, homework, family dynamics, activities outside of school.
Gifted kids are rarely ‘smart all over’ and understanding that is the first step to getting the support and structure they need to succeed and thrive.