When parents are asked what they wish for their children, the most common response is happiness. Being happy involves a number of factors. One of these factors is feeling competent. Individuals who feel competent are happier than those who do not feel competent. Children who feel competent appreciate their unique strengths and talents and embrace the world around them. These children have what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” They believe it is possible to develop their talents and become better with hard work. Specifically, they believe that they can get smarter if they persevere and work hard. As parents, we can encourage this attitude through our actions and words.
Recognizing Talent and Growth
Students’ beliefs about their competence are primarily influenced by their successes and failures in the past. Significant adults in children’s lives can increase students’ confidence by helping them recognize and celebrate past accomplishments. In this way, success breeds success. Helping students acknowledge past growth is an important contributor towards their future growth, but we must be careful how we recognize student achievements. The most important aspects of complimenting students are to help students recognize that the skills they possess were developed and because they were developed, they can develop more and higher level skills in the future. The feedback necessary to accomplish this attitude must contain 1) specific recognition of the existing talent or skill and 2) attribution of its development to effort on the part of the student. An example is “You did very well on this writing project. You've learned how to write descriptive sentences.” This gives students ownership for developing the skill. We use specific, rather than general, compliments because a general compliment such as “Good work” does not help students recognize what skill as well as a more specific comment such as “You have really developed the ability to provide supporting sentences for the topic sentence in your paragraphs.” Specific, developmental feedback allows students to better appraise their progress by letting them know two things: what specific skill they possess and that they developed it. Both components are necessary. Students will reflect on the comment and think, “Yes, I have learned to write a well-organized paragraph.”
Provide a Positive Role Model
Individuals who achieve at high levels understand that excellence requires effort and also involves setbacks on the way to success. In her work with gifted underachievers, Sylvia Rimm has found that young people need role models in their lives who demonstrate that overcoming obstacles and hard work result in positive outcomes. On the basis of case study research they conducted, Tom Hébert and Ric Olenchak found that a significant adult can dramatically influence an underachieving student’s motivation to achieve. Rimm suggests that all other treatments for underachievement dim in importance compared with strong identification with an achieving model. Many young people do not have an achieving role model with whom they can relate. Role models may be parents, but they can also be relatives, coaches, teachers, tutors, mentors, older students, and youth group leaders. Effective role models are seen as similar to the student they are influencing, are perceived by the student as nurturing to him or her, and are seen as having some autonomy and authority. In addition to these characteristics, Rimm has added they are open and willing to share their own real experiences, willing to give time, and have a sense of positive accomplishment. The key is having an appropriate model available who recognizes positive aspects in the student, shares his or her own satisfaction with work well done, and avoids a cycle of continually criticizing the student.
As previously stated, parents can be outstanding role models. However, if a parent is not serving that role for some reason, a role model might be introduced into a student’s life. Their role is to expose the student to someone who demonstrates that effort and hard work produce positive outcomes. This is someone who finds his or her work fulfilling. Students learn to imitate achievement-oriented behaviors when they have a respected other who models it for them. In my own case, such a role model entered my life 4 years after I graduated from high school when I began working at a small newspaper. The work ethic that Fred Roach, the owner of the newspaper, modeled is the reason I finally decided to attend college for the first time at age 26. It is probably the reason I ultimately earned a Ph.D. Fred’s role in my life in no way diminished the important roles that both of my parents held in my life; he simply modeled a work perspective that I had not previously encountered. After working side-by-side with him, I began adopting new organization skills and setting more challenging goals for myself.
Discussing the Problems and Joys of Work at Home
As parents, we serve as our children’s first and most frequent role model. There is some evidence that the way we view our daily work can be reflected in the way our children view school. When we arrive home, it is easy to share the frustrations of the day with our loved ones and not reflect on the positive outcomes as well. Statements such as “What a boring day”, “The stuff I’m asked to do isn’t important or worth doing”, and “Nobody appreciates what I do” can slip into our children’s statements and attitudes about school. While everyone is frustrated at work from time to time, we should not forget to share with our children the positive outcomes of our career. “I was very busy today, worked hard, and accomplished a lot.” “We had some setbacks, but we solved the problem.” “It has been slow going, but we finally triumphed.” “I’m feeling good about the difference I am making at work.”
Becoming Involved in Schools
As a former teacher, and now later as a parent, I can relate to both the difficulty of meeting children’s unique needs in my classroom and the frustration with an educational system that often choses to focus on children’s weaknesses and fails to recognize their strengths. My colleague Joe Renzulli once said that schools practice a deficit model; they find out what children cannot do and spend the year beating them over the head with it.
However, there are many dedicated educators who are interested in developing students’ strength, which can only be accomplished when every child has an opportunity to learn something new every day. In some cases, teachers simply are unaware that many gifted student already know the material they are teaching. Teacher also many be unaware of the unique learning needs of gifted students. We might share an article from this website or a web link with them. Most teacher education programs do not include information about gifted and talented children in their teacher training. My own university, which is internationally known for it graduate programs in gifted and its research in gifted education, does not required teacher candidates to complete a course in gifted education.
We should not be afraid to share information with our children’s teachers. Not all teachers will react positively, but some will. We should also share our children’s interests with their teachers. Knowing students’ interests helps teachers engage students. We can volunteer to assist at school (if we have the luxury of a work or life schedule that makes this possible). The more connected we are to the school, the more positive our children’s experiences will be.
We should avoid criticizing the school and teacher in front of our children. While we may be unhappy with our children’s educational environment and will need to advocate for them behind the scenes, sharing this information with children can empower them with excuses not to do well. “Mom and Dad don’t believe the stuff I am learning in school is important, and I don’t either.” If we want our children to be successful at school, we must send them a clear message that education and school are important.
Avoiding “est” Words
Learning and growing are lifelong activities, and children who develop a growth mindset are more likely to explore new venues and challenge themselves. It is unfair to burden children with labels such as the best, greatest, fastest, or smartest. We should expect our children to excel, however there is always room to grow and become better. Being the best leaves little room for improvement. Students who believe they are the best, greatest, or smartest have little reason to continue working hard. Productive individuals realize they always have room to improve and learn new things. Students who hear they are the best, greatest, or finest may be less likely to adopt a mastery learning mindset and may begin to believe there are ceilings to achievement and they have reached them. Therefore, we should avoid est words such as best, greatest, finest, prettiest, fastest, strongest, etc. when complementing students.
There are many factors that contribute to achievement, motivation being one critical aspect. Motivated students appear to exhibit three key perceptions. First and foremost, motivated students find value in their school experience. They enjoy what they are doing or believe what they are doing will produce beneficial outcomes. Second, they feel capable. They believe they have the skills to be successful. Third, they trust their environment and expect they can succeed in it. When students value the task or outcome and have positive perceptions of themselves and their opportunities for success, they implement self-regulation behaviors, set realistic expectations, and apply appropriate strategies for academic success. As parents, we need to support achievement and understand that our children, like all of us, are works in progress.
Del Siegle is head of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut. He is author of The Underachieving Gifted Child: Recognizing, Understanding, & Reversing Underachievement.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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