It’s a common story: Your child is Gifted & Talented and highly capable, but school doesn’t seem to be engaging their interest. The pace is slow and the subject matter too easy.
You want to keep them motivated and engaged in their learning. You are thinking that a gifted program might be the way to go.
But you have some doubts.
What if the workload is heavier?
What if your child feels weighed down by everyone’s expectations to “achieve their potential”?
Will they be too stressed out?
We don’t believe gifted programs are inevitably too stressful for kids. We think gifted kids can and should enjoy accelerated learning opportunities! Research shows that being challenged and setting ambitious goals leads to higher levels of success than setting easy goals (Locke et al. (1981)), so we encourage gifted kids to embrace the challenge!
There are lots of things that you as a parent can do to ensure that a gifted program is a positive learning adventure for your child.
Firstly, we should recognize that not all forms of stress are negative. According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, there are basically three types of stress:
- Positive stress- produces short-lived, normal stress responses that are a healthy part of development for children. These responses might be due to an impending test, for example, or the first day in a new school.
- Tolerable stress- produces responses that are also relatively short-lived, however, the stress is more intense, such that it activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree than positive stress. An example might be a child’s response to the loss of a beloved pet.
- Toxic stress- produces responses that might be prolonged, strong, and/or frequent, and occur without adult support. An example would be physical or emotional abuse.
Toxic stress is obviously negative, and can have detrimental effects on children’s brain development. This type of stress can occur from academic pressures as well, if children feel overwhelmed for a long period of time and their parents do not offer adequate support (for example criticizing their performance or ignoring their struggles).
Positive stress on the other hand is something we would encourage kids to experience! It causes them to grow and develop resilience.
Navigating educational stressors is important to ensure that we avoid exposing our children to toxic stress and allow them to take advantage of the good kinds of stress.
Here are 5 tips to ensure your child’s gifted program experience is fulfilling (rather than excessively stressful!)
1- Encourage your child to take ownership of their learning.
Let’s start with the most important recommendation.
Encouraging your child to take ownership of their learning encompasses two things: letting them have control (you passing over the baton) and developing their motivation to take that control and responsibility (them taking the baton).
Letting your child have choices and take ownership of their learning is probably the most impactful thing that you can do to alleviate academic stress and anxiety.
Dr. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson are strong supporters of letting children have more control over their lives. They write in their research-based book The Self Driven Child that “research has shown that a low sense of control is enormously stressful and that autonomy is the key to developing motivation… A healthy sense of control is related to virtually everything we want for our children, including physical and mental health, academic success, and happiness”.
Giving your child some control does not need to be scary- it doesn’t mean you let them do whatever they wish, whenever they wish!
It means in practice that you give them meaningful choices. For example, instead of saying “you are starting piano lessons next week”, you could ask “would you like to take piano lessons, or is there something else you would enjoy learning more?” When your child is allowed to make impactful choices, they tune in to their internal voice and drive.
Giving over some control means that you act as consultant and guide, rather than dictator. This is also called authoritative (rather than authoritarian) parenting.
Research has shown that when it comes to gifted kids, authoritative parenting is the best approach, since it promotes self-motivation and a sense of autonomy (Papadopoulos, 2021).
Authoritarian parenting, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on the gifted child’s well-being and mental health, which researchers say can keep the child from meeting their potential.
If you as a parent continually push and nag your child to complete their homework, or study for exams, you effectively create more stress for them and rob them of the chance to develop their own internal motivation for their studies.
If you determine all their extracurricular activities for them, they are not given the chance to explore and discover pursuits that they might truly love.
To achieve academic success and reach other goals, students need to be internally motivated. By taking personal responsibility for their learning and direction, students take back control, alleviate their stress and find the drive to set learning goals and accomplish great things.
We are big believers in students taking ownership of their learning: that is why it is one of the 5 core life skills gt.school teaches in our Life Skills Challenge!
2 – Help them set ambitious goals.
Taking ownership of learning means not only that children should be responsible for the direction of their learning, but that they should be the ones to set their own goals.
Helping your kids to set ambitious goals is recommended because 1) Setting goals is known to increase both performance and motivation for tasks and 2) Setting ambitious goals (rather than just any goals) actually works better than setting easy to reach goals.
Research shows that self-set goals can increase a person’s internal motivation and commitment to perform a task (Locke, 1996, Li, 2011).
Setting goals can therefore help kids enjoy the challenge of a gifted program by giving them the tools to believe in themselves!
Research also shows that ambitious goals work far better than easy or “try your best goals”. In fact, studies have shown that there is a linear relationship between goal difficulty and performance, as long as the individual has the ability to reach the goal.
In a review of 110 studies from 1968-1980, Locke et al. (1981) reported that 90% of studies found specific hard goals produced better performance than medium goals, easy “do your best” goals, or no goals at all. Figure 1 illustrates the linear relationship between goal difficulty and performance.
Adapted from “A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance” by E. Locke, Edwin, and G. Latham, 1991. The Academy of Management Review, 16.
So encourage your kids to dream big!
3- Teach daily study habits and time management.
Many gifted children find that they do not need to put much effort in to excel in ordinary classes at school. Other gifted children become bored and unmotivated in classes where they are not challenged, and may not put in much effort at all.
Unfortunately, this can breed bad study habits, such as procrastination, cramming, and poor work ethic. When these same children are truly challenged in a gifted program, they may feel stressed and overwhelmed if they do not have disciplined study habits.
Psychologist Dr. Matt Zakreski calls this experience The Performance Cliff. When gifted children who have never had to develop study skills (due to never having been properly challenged by regular school) enter high school, college or a gifted program, their performance may dive when they suddenly find that they are in need of proper study skills to manage the higher difficulty or workload of the curriculum.
Daily practice is fundamental to achievement, whether in sports, music, or academics. In gt.school’s Life Skills Challenge, we teach kids to think about the quantity, quality, and consistency of their studying or work efforts.
When gifted kids study consistently and deliberately (with the aim of improving their performance), positive habits form. Concepts are retained more easily due to the phenomenon of spaced repetition. And there is no further need for traumatic cramming sessions before a big test!
4 – Emphasize personalized learning.
Personalizing your child’s learning helps them to work at their own pace, giving them the control over their learning.
Personalized learning is a strategy where activities are tailored to each student’s strength, needs and knowledge. When students are given individualized attention and guidance they can not only learn faster, but they can achieve better results (Pane et al, 2015).
Learning that is personalized is fantastic because it enables active learning, relies on mastery learning techniques, gives students the freedom to work at their own pace, allows one-on-one rapid feedback, and encourages student ownership of learning!
The illustration from Edmentum below shows how personalized learning works.
Your child’s gifted program may implement personalized learning, but if not, there are still ways to ensure your child benefits from this strategy!
Personalized learning can be implemented in many ways- for example through teacher (or parent) assigned activities that vary by student, or through one-on-one sessions with a tutor. The use of technology can also support personalization.
At gt.school, we enable personalized learning through the use of adaptive learning apps.
Adaptive learning apps give personalized learning experiences to each student by adjusting the activities they present to a student based on the student’s initial knowledge and performance as they go through the app. In this way, they are able to create personalized learning paths, much in the way that a human tutor can.
5 – Prioritize community
Make sure your children have opportunities to relate to other children with similar interests. A sense of community is very important for student engagement and success.
It may seem counterintuitive to stress and time management to prioritize your child’s social life, however research shows that a sense of belonging and peer support are important for maintaining students’ mental health and well-being and helping to prevent student burnout (McBeath, Drysdale, and Bohn, 2018, Jacobs and Dodd, 2003).
Not only does social support reduce the impacts of stress, social relationships even have physical benefits! A person’s social network is directly connected to their physical health with people having fewer physical symptoms of illness, and lower blood pressure when they are a member of a social network than when they are isolated (Piferi and Lawler, 2006).
Social support can come from parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors. Students can form social connections not only with their peers at school, but with teammates while playing sports, or through online communities, like groups on Discord. There are numerous ways to ensure that your child has a fulfilled and supportive social network!
It is very possible to manage the rigors of a gifted program so that your gifted child feels inspired and challenged, not stressed and overwhelmed.
If you are looking for a gifted program that encourages student ownership of learning, teaches study skills, personalizes learning and builds social connections, check out gt.school!
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