Parenting for High Potential
This article by Del Siegle outlines strategies that parents can use to encourage their gifted children to succeed. The article argues support and encouragement go a long way in validating a child and giving them the desire to achieve their fullest potential. The author also offers a handful of additional resources for parents.
"As parents there are two lasting and important gifts we can give our children, one is roots and the other is wings."
— Hodding Carter
"Where are your reindeer? What do you feed them? Do they like alfalfa? Can we see them when you're finished here?" Three gifted brothers, ages three, five, and six interrogated Santa with a myriad of questions at the annual Christmas "photos with Santa promotion." In the process they exhibited common characteristics associated with early giftedness: advanced vocabulary, curiosity, and logical reasoning. However, once they started school their academic achievement patterns differed significantly from each other. The middle child loved school, graduated from high school at the top of his class and attended an Ivy League university and law school. The eldest hated elementary and high school, but became enthralled with engineering at college, and earned a Master's degree. The youngest was apathetic about elementary and high school and left college after a couple years.
Why do some gifted and talented children succeed academically, while others fail? Why are some willing to tackle new challenges, while others seem insecure or uninterested? Are there strategies we can implement that promote an achievement-orientation attitude with our children? While there are many factors that contribute to achievement, children who are achievement-oriented exhibit four key traits. First, and foremost, they believe that they have the ability to perform well. Second, they expect that they can succeed. Third, they value and enjoy what they are doing or believe that what they are doing will produce beneficial outcomes for them. Finally, they implement self-regulating strategies to set realistic expectations and implement appropriate strategies to successfully complete their goals. Some of these factors may be stronger than others, but overall, achievement-oriented individuals display a combination of all four traits.
1. Belief in One's Abilities
Children develop confidence in many ways, and those who are confident about their skills are more likely to engage in a variety of activities. The perceptions children have about their skills influence the types of activities they select, how much they challenge themselves at those activities, and the persistence they exhibit once they are involved in the activities. This is true for activities ranging from participation in sports and music to school achievement.
Help children in recognizing their growth and progress. How do children develop confidence? Researchers in the field of educational psychology use the term self-efficacy when they discuss how confident individuals are about engaging in different activities. Children's beliefs about how well they can perform are first, and foremost, influenced by how well they have performed in the past. We can increase our children's confidence by helping them recognize past accomplishments. Success breeds success. Helping children acknowledge their past growth is an important contributor towards their future growth. While this may sound simplistic, people of all ages often fail to recognize their successes and fail to realize their progress.
As a child, we may remember our parents reserving a special spot in our home to mark our height each year. We may be repeating the activity with our children. As a child I loved to observe how much taller I was becoming. Just as with the height chart, we can also help our children recognize other forms of growth and development.
Consider videotaping them as they are engaged in various activities. We can periodically review the recordings and help them recognize how much they have improved. The progress from the first to the second year of piano lessons is monumental, yet without a comparison, children can tire of piano lessons because they don't believe they are making progress. For decades music teachers have understood this principle and awarded gold stars to acknowledge mastery of music pieces. Keep samples of previous academic work. Show them samples of earlier work and help them evaluate their growth and improvement. Children are amazed at how easy their earlier work now appears and how much better they are now able to perform.
Encourage them to compete with themselves. This can be accomplished by charting their own progress. This might include a running list of words they know how to spell or skills that they have mastered. Part of the popularity of martial arts programs is the advancement through the various colors of belts. Receiving the next color belt confirms that one has been successful in the past and builds confidence towards future progress.
Provide confidence-building feedback. The way we compliment children also has an impact on how successfully they perceive themselves. It is important to be specific with comments. A general compliment such as "Good game" doesn't carry the weight of something more specific such as "You did a nice job of shooting free throws tonight." The latter provides more information about what has been performed well. Children will reflect on the comment and think, "Yes, I am good at shooting free throws." They are able to better think about their progress when feedback is specific. Of course, compliments must be genuine and earned. Complimenting children for tasks that they did not perform well or by which they did not feel challenged can be counterproductive and diminish their trust of our judgment.
Include recognition of their talent in your compliments. Females often attribute their successes to hard work rather than ability. While effort is important for success, young people must also believe that they have the skills to success. For example, gifted girls need to recognize that they can be good at math. They need to hear from caring adults that they are good at specific math skills. They, like all children, need to believe that they succeed because they have the skills and put forth effort, and that their failures may be attributed to lack of effort.
Provide achievement-oriented models. Children also develop confidence through observing others. The most powerful models are other children. For peers to be effective models, young people must believe that they are similar to the model. Observing an outstanding student in a class succeed does very little to increase the confidence of other students. "Sure she can do it. It's easy for her. She's smart," is probably running through their heads. Observing someone less skilled or similarly skilled succeed can have a positive effect. "Wow! If he can do it, I can do it." If young people believe they are as skilled as their peers, then seeing their friends succeed will increase their own confidence. If they don't feel as qualified, we're likely to hear, "I'm not as good at that."
The youngest child in our opening example exhibited limited confidence in his ability to do well in school. Because his interests were different from his middle brother, who earned excellent grades, and were more in alignment with the oldest child, he identified academically more with the oldest brother. While his parents tried to encourage him by telling him that he was as smart as his middle brother, their encouragement fell on deaf ears. He didn't relate to other attributes of his middle brother, why should he relate to him academically? The middle brother was not an effective role model. The parents would have been better served by finding appropriate peer models with whom the young man could relate. We also serve as role models. Children's attitudes about school sometimes mimic their parents' attitudes about their jobs. We can share with our children challenging assignments at work that we have mastered. Children need to equate effort with reward. We need to share with them that our successes are built on effort. Struggling models are more effective than models that appear to easily glide through tasks. Children learn valuable lessons when they observe perseverance followed by success.
Expose your children to achieving individuals with whom they can relate. They might be relatives, coaches, teachers, scout leaders, or church or synagogue leaders. Share difficult experiences that you have overcome, to model that efforts pay off with rewards. Discuss positive aspects of your work.
2. Expectations for Success
Children who view their environment as friendly and one that will provide positive outcomes are more likely to demonstrate achievement-oriented behavior. It is not enough to be confident that they have certain skills; they must expect that they will succeed if they put forth effort. Phrases such as "My teacher doesn't like me" or "I can't learn this way" are strong indicators that they do not view their learning environment as friendly. In other words, they don't believe that they can succeed even if they try. Discuss with your children the obstacles that they believe are keeping them from doing well and what options exist for them.
Share options for change with them. When faced with an unfriendly environment, three options present themselves: modifying one's behavior to be successful in that environment, changing the environment, or abandoning the situation. Gifted children who underachieve in school often fail to select options that maximize their likelihood for success. Instead, they cling tenaciously to a strategy that has served them well in the past or in a different situation. Some of the descriptors of giftedness such as perseverant, analytical, or principled become problematic at school. We need to teach our children when it is important "to stand their ground," when compromise might better serve their interests, or when ignoring the situation is the best course of action.
Avoid letting your children use their environment as an excuse. At times, young people may attribute their failures to their environment rather than to themselves. When this occurs, a technique such as active listening, where you rephrase what they are saying, can unravel children's concerns.
3. Enjoyment of an Activity or Valuing an Outcome
Valuing the task at hand is another important factor. Young people believe that they have the skills to participate in an activity. They may also feel that they could succeed at the activity if they tried. However, they may not feel that the activity is important. Role models are also very important in this area. If someone with whom your child identifies values a given task, your child probably will value the task as well. Parents who value reading often produce children who love to read.
When children value or enjoy an activity, they are intrinsically motivated to do well. Extrinsic motivation is also a powerful force. While they may not enjoy an activity, they may value a later reward or outcome it produces. Goals can play a key role in valuing later outcomes.
When the middle child in our earlier example was in elementary school, he set a goal of attending an Ivy League university if he did well. While he may not have been interested in every topic presented in school, he valued the long-term outcome of possibly being accepted at an Ivy League school.
The youngest brother did not value the outcome of school. He intended to manage the family farm, and he failed to see a relationship between school and his career choice. He might have valued school more if his parents had shared how the skills he was acquiring in school would enhance his chosen career.
Valuing a long-term outcome also became important for the oldest brother. From an early age he was fascinated with tractors. During his elementary and high school years, he did not see any relationship between his interest and school. During his sophomore year of college he became interested in designing tractors. He changed his major to engineering and went on to earn a Masters degree. Today he is a design engineer for a major tractor manufacturer.
Encourage and promote your children's interests and passions. Help your children see beyond the immediate activity to the long-term outcomes. A school assignment may seem unimportant, but acceptance into a prestigious university or a lucrative college scholarship may be outcomes that they value and are willing to strive toward.
Help your children set short and long-term goals. Small, short-term goals work better for younger children. It is essential that the goals are meaningful to your children. Talk with your children about possible goals. Remember, goals that you value may have little meaning to them.
4. Self-Regulating Strategies
The factors of self-confidence, believing the situation is conducive to succeeding, and valuing outcomes of the activity are critical to being motivated. But being motivated is not sufficient.
Assuming that children have the skills to do well and are motivated, they must also become engaged and self-regulated. Children may believe that they can do well in mathematics. They may like their school and teachers, and feel that math is important, but still not follow through and do the math. There may be several reasons for this. Perhaps they lack the necessary study skills to complete the assignment. Because gifted children traditionally progress through the early years of school without being challenged, they sometimes fail to develop the study skills that other children master. At an early age, good memory and fast processing skills can compensate for note taking and other study skills. They learn the material easily and fail to develop basic study skills, such as note taking, outlining, or identifying main points.
If your children are not being academically challenged, encourage them to go beyond what is expected of them. This might include supplementing assignments with more challenging and interesting material. You may wish to discuss the level of challenge they are receiving from their teachers. Discuss with their teachers what study skills are needed to succeed in their classes. A word of caution: teaching study skills to gifted and talented students when they don't need them is counterproductive.
Another aspect of self-regulation is setting personal standards. Some children may feel that what they are doing is "good enough." Gifted children may use this cover to hide their need for perfectionism. In a society where Wall Street advertising firms spend millions of dollars bombarding consumers with ads to convince them that perfectionism is attainable with the "right" product, there is little wonder that perfectionism has become a problem with young people. The gifted are more vulnerable because they, more than any other group, approximate perfection to a higher degree, are more often rewarded for it through their accomplishments, and often come to believe perfection is possible.
Encourage your children to be pursuers of excellence, rather than perfection. Model acceptance of your own mistakes while striving for excellence. Gifted students should not be expected, or expect, to complete every task, in every area, with 100% accuracy.
Help them map out tasks. This serves two functions. First, it minimizes the unknown. Young people are often reluctant to begin a task because they are unsure how to begin. Second, it develops a mindset that the task is doable. Through planning, children can visual a task coming to fruition.
Help your children set realistic expectations. This involves setting goals that are difficult enough to be challenging and attainable, yet not so difficult as to be unachievable and discouraging. Learning occurs best when the new material cannot be mastered without assistance, but can be mastered with minor direction from someone more knowledgeable. Much that motivates children is still a mystery. The suggestions presented in this article provide insights into some parenting strategies that promote achievement orientation in children. We need to support our children and to encourage them to pursue their interests and passions. If we help our children to recognize that they have the skills to perform well, trust that their environments will encourage their productivity, accept what they are doing serves a purpose, and set realistic expectations for themselves, they will lead productive and fulfilling lives.
For additional information consult:
Adderholdt-Elliott, M. Perfectionism: What's Bad About Being Too Good. (1999). Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit. ISBN: 1575420627.
Alderman, M. K. Motivation for Achievement: Possibilities for Teaching and Learning (1999). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum, ISBN: 0805830774.
Rimm, S. B. Dr. Sylvia Rimm's Smart Parenting: How to Parent So Children Will Learn. (1997). New York: Crown, ISBN: 06098012 IX.
Dr. Del Siegle is a professor in residence at the University of Connecticut where his research focuses on attitudes that influence achievement.