March 3, 2017
Dr. Joanna Haase and Sharon Duncan
Some gifted children are simply not interested in academics. As a parent, it can be disillusioning to look at your child, who is capable of excelling in virtually any subject they choose, but lacks the motivation to perform in any subject at all. While there are many reasons, a gifted student may not thrive in an educational environment, in some cases, all the accommodations in the world, endless parent/teacher meetings, 504 plans, bribes, and threats, fail to make a difference. Frustrated and confused, parents and educators sometimes invest so much time and energy trying to find solutions to “school” problems, that they lose sight of the larger goal of raising the child into a capable adult.
Unfortunately, trying to force success at school can leave children not only ill-prepared for adulthood but at risk for mental health issues, substance abuse, and social isolation. While pretty much everyone can name a gifted high school/college drop-out who later went on to great achievements, very little time is spent understanding how these individuals were raised such that they grew into emotionally healthy, professionally thriving adults. So how do the parents of bright, capable, but seemingly unmotivated children help their children balance their passions with real-world practicality, learn the resiliency of working through non-preferred tasks, and develop a healthy sense of identity, despite their dislike of, or lackluster performance in school?
The first step is to acknowledge that this is not the “child’s problem”, but rather a social construct problem. Parents need to step back, re-think and manage their own expectations, fears, and past experiences with achievement and success or the lack thereof. This step is essential, because before we can support our children we need to be brutally honest about our own values and, frankly, our fears. When a child, comes into the world with a strong internal value system, grounded in personal experience rather than external accolades, we need to recognize that child is reflecting innate resiliency not resistance. Rather than attempt to mold this child to the norm, we need to respect, nurture and refine their rare gift. These are the children who cannot be bribed, who do things because they are the right thing to do rather than the thing that is expected, the children who learn what they choose to learn because they want to learn, not because they want approval. These children are the world’s change-makers, precisely because they eschew external yardsticks.
Once parents accept their child’s path may look different than they anticipated, they then need to help their children learn to balance their fabulous independent nature with the fact that they live in the real-world. Knowing schools and employers cannot be expected to accommodate every idiosyncrasy, parents have the difficult job of convincing these children that there are indeed things to consider beyond their own self-determination. One way to enter this dialog is to assist the child in outlining the costs and benefits of their choices, as well as the implications of their actions. Helping them map a real-world path to “THEIR” goals is an effective way to teach this lesson. An example of this is a child who was facing being pulled from an advanced math track, because he refused to turn in his homework even though it was easy for him. The child attended school where student “tracking” was set in stone, and if he did not continue in the higher track he would be ineligible for opportunities his parents knew he would likely need later in high school. This meant nothing to the child because high school was several years off and his older siblings had alerted him that the high school math teacher was not well liked. However, when the child learned that if he gave up his current track it would exclude him from participating in the 8th grade inter-district math competition, everything changed. While the adults and schools did not place value on the competition, the child did. Once this goal was discovered, and the path to achieving it was outlined, he was motivated to complete his homework. Success occurred because the child could see how his current actions impacted his own goals. It was not about getting on the right math track in high school, or how that would look for college applications, but rather about reaching a goal that was important to him, and understanding what he needed to do to achieve it. While this example ends with the child performing a non-preferred task because it stood in the way of him reaching a personal goal, just as often, such a convenient prerequisite does not exist. In those cases, if a goal important to the child cannot be determined, parents need to allow the natural consequences of non-performance to play out. It must be noted that some children, while not seeing the point of something themselves, may respond well to understanding why it is important either ethically or to a person who they care about or value.
While it is important these children learn how to “own” and navigate their independent nature, it is also true that as parents we sometimes need to protect them from outside influences that could suppress their nature in an unhealthy way. Protecting them from harmful expectations is different than coddling; though it may not appear so to the rest of the world. Again, parents must be brave in facing down traditional assumptions about their gifted children. An example of this was a highly-gifted child who was having a difficult time living up to the pressures and expectations in her school setting. Eventually she was expelled from elementary school because she was having tantrums from the pressure she felt to perform to the school’s high standards. Embracing her uniqueness, her parents chose to home-school and provided her multiple opportunities to be challenged academically, socially, emotionally and physically. Once the child was allowed to learn at her own pace, without the performance pressure put upon her because of how gifted she was, the unwanted behavior disappeared and two years later she was confidently completing high school and college level classes in person. What changed? The child shifted from being a failure at doing what was expected to being a success at being herself.
Students who spend their energy trying to please others or chasing the academic brass ring often find themselves feeling burnt-out and unfulfilled. Conversely, students who are driven by internal goals, whether those goals conform to educational expectations or not, are likely to grow into self-actualized adults as long as we honor and protect who they are as individuals. Through acceptance, love, and logic, we can help these rare and wonderful children learn to embrace their autonomy while understanding its implications in their life. Remember that just because they don’t care about the approval of others or grades, does not mean they don’t care at all. By capitalizing on their strong sense of inner self, we can focus our energy on nurturing and guiding them rather than trying to change them.
The mother of one of these incredibly independent self-directed gifted children once described her daughter’s first kindergarten parent-teacher conference. She noted the teacher took a deep breath and said “your daughter possesses all the traits she needs to become a fabulously successful adult, we just have to find a way to be able to get her through school first.”
Gifted Research and Outreach (GRO) is a 501.c.3 non-profit with a mission to promote a comprehensive and accurate understanding of giftedness through research and outreach. GRO is committed to:
- Researching the physiology of giftedness including brain anatomy, neurotransmitters, gastrointestinal sensitivities, genes, allergies, metabolism, microbiota, hormones and the nervous system
- Educating medical, psychological and teaching professionals about the physical and psychological impacts of giftedness
- Cultivating a national outreach campaign to correct myths and inspire social change so that the needs of gifted individuals may be openly discussed
About the Author
Dr. Haase and Sharon Duncan will be presenting on this topic at the 2017 SENG conference in Chicago as part of GRO’s outreach mission.
Joanna Haase, PhD, MFT, is a psychotherapist in Pasadena with more than 25 years of experience, who enjoys working with gifted individuals and their families. Dr. Haase specializes in eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Haase is the co-founder of California Gifted Network and Gifted Research and Outreach, and speaks across the country about giftedness.