Are you parenting a gifted child who struggles with motivation? Here are 5 reasons why that happens, and 5 ways to help her cope.
Kate loved writing, and she was good at it, too. Stories would flow from her fingertips like water, intricate plots and sophisticated characters leaping off the page. But Kate was in my survey course – a standard, high school English class. We were reading and analyzing literature, not writing it, and Kate was wholly uninterested.
I worked all year to reach her, but by April I’d all but given up. There had been after-school sessions, parent-teacher conferences, and multiple opportunities to turn in late work.
The girl who should have been my strongest student was barely scraping by with a C. That is until we got to poetry, and Kate’s heavy form grew wings.
Kate had a habit of drawing dragons.
They lounged on her binders, danced across class notes, and lurked atop homework like cats bathing in the sun. The day we did Photograffiti, Kate finally had license to be herself. Rather than struggle to analyze a staid piece of literature, Kate filled every inch of her guitar case with wings, scales, tales, and words. Her classmates and I gathered around, transfixed.
All the beauty and wisdom she’d held back that year poured out onto that plastic surface.
Kate was a girl transformed, and I was a teacher changed.
Prior to Kate’s appearance in my classroom, I had a stereotypical perception of what it meant to be gifted. I had classrooms full of gifted students, I thought: hard working achievers who were eager to succeed.
I thought the gifted kids were the ones who never missed an assignment, never struggled with concepts or tasks. There were supposed to be the perfect students.
Smart kids who struggled were just lazy.
Fortunately, Kate appeared in my classroom a few years before my own poppies were born. I live in a house with three absent-minded professors: their rooms are a mess, their chores are undone, and their assignments for our homeschool co-op are largely ignored. Thanks to Kate’s ability to open my eyes, I’ve discovered lackluster motivation and incomplete follow through aren’t a symptom of poor behavior or attitude.
Here are 5 reasons your gifted child isn’t motivated, and 5 ways to cope
The Struggle: Perfectionism
For many gifted kids, the fear of failure is stultifying. Rather than risk doing a task incorrectly, some children will eschew it altogether. My six-year-old is like this, and it’s led to many a frustrating conflict. I know she’s more than capable; she’s convinced it won’t be right.
The Solution: Perseverance
Carol Dweck’s growth mindset has taken off like gangbusters, and it’s easy to see why. Her theory espouses that mistakes move us forward, that struggle and challenge are a pathway to success. To help your child develop a spirit of perseverance, seek out examples of mistakes that turned out well. Read about historical figures who persevered in spite of great odds. Discuss favorite characters from books or movies whose missteps are a springboard for success. Recognizing the power in failure can go a long way toward liberation from the chains of perfection.
The Struggle: Temperament
Hippocrates had his own version of the Myers-Briggs. He referred to it as the temperaments, four personality types which can dictate a person’s passions and behaviors. I have three of the four: a sanguine (happy-go-lucky); a choleric (headstrong and independent); and a melancholic (sensitive and analytical). The fourth personality type, the phlegmatic, prefers to go with the flow and avoid conflict as much as possible.
It’s easy to see why different temperaments might struggle with motivation and completion of tasks. Sanguines won’t be interested in activities that aren’t enjoyable; cholerics will chafe at being told what to do. Melancholics might worry about doing something wrong, while phlegmatics get caught in the inertia of habit.
The Solution: Ownership
Children are more invested in tasks they choose. Sit down with your child and ask how they want to help around the house, or find out which types of activities excite them. In my house, my six-year-old loves to clean the sink; her older sister likes to cook. Those tasks fall to them, not me, and they’re much more likely to do them because it’s something to enjoy.
The great caveat to this is the specter of real life. Our kids must learn to accept and follow through on tasks they find uninspiring. But I find that starting with jobs they do like builds a healthy respect for the value of work. As they get older, they are better able to recognize the benefit of more distasteful efforts.
The Struggle: Intense Focus
My oldest has always exhibited a strong capacity for concentration. As a toddler she sat at the table for hours, occupying herself with playdoh, crayons, and the occasional audiobook. While this sort of attention has its advantages, it has definite downsides, too:
Getting dressed isn’t nearly as fascinating as the social habits of komodo dragons.
Hair brushing is underrated when there are Lego biomes to build.
Messy rooms require substantially less attention than polluted watersheds and creeks.
Just getting my child to brush her hair in the morning is a struggle, especially when she’s fixated on a certain topic.
The Solution: Clear, Visual Directions
With all the information processing that takes place in a gifted brain, a laundry list of tasks and expectations isn’t going to sink in. To avoid overload and avoidance, offer clear, specific directions one at a time, perhaps in a visual format.
The Struggle: Asynchronous Development
With their capacity for deep understanding and precocious personalities, gifted kids can seem a lot older than they are. But where some aspects of their development leap forward in giant bounds, other aspects lag conspicuously behind. My fourth grader read The Hobbit in kindergarten, but she still hasn’t figured out how to tie her own shoes. Sometimes the easiest tasks seem insurmountable when asynchronous development comes into play.
The Solution: Practice
Educational expert Harry Wong encourages first-year teachers to practice classroom procedures during the first few days of school. Applying this concept in a home environment seems off-putting at first, but when you consider the reality of asynchronous development, helping a child practice new behaviors makes a lot of sense. Break down the steps involved in a task and take time teaching your child how to do it. Even something as simple as packing a bookbag is worth practicing, especially if organizational skills aren’t up to par.
The Struggle: Twice Exceptionality
Many gifted kids are twice exceptional. Their abilities come hand in hand with a developmental or learning disability, such as an Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, or dyslexia. Not only do these challenges inhibit access to a child’s academics, they also have a tendency to impact executive functioning as well.
The Solution: Coping Mechanisms
If you’re raising a 2E, you probably have some coping mechanisms in place. Apply the same techniques used in your child’s academic environment to her home life. For my sensory kids, this means a heavy dose of physical exercise. The exertion helps my children order themselves and find their place in space. Try experimenting with what works in one setting until you find something that works in another.
I’m not proud of the length of time it took me to recognize what was going on with Kate.
When I think about how much grief I could have saved her, my heart skips a few heavy beats. Rather than continue to force an incompatible strategy on a brilliant mind, I should have identified her challenges and adapted to them accordingly. My preconceived ideas kept me from recognizing the value in her inherent skills.
We can’t let our perceptions of gifted dictate what we think of a child’s gifts. Rather, we must learn to accept and meet them where they are, so their talents and gifts will shine.
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