Each month, we ask you to give us your toughest questions about raising a gifted child. Our resident gifted expert and CTD Director, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, offers her insight. This month: How to help a gifted high school student overcome anxiety issues and stay motivated.
Q: My high-school aged daughter is often overly anxious about her performance in her academic classes. A bad grade (for her) on a test, a forgotten assignment, or similar things will send her into a tailspin of fear of failure. Yet, she also has a tendancy to want to coast through “easy” classes that she doesn’t feel are important. How do I find the balance between allievating some of the pressure for success she places on herself, and instilling a solid work ethic? Thanks! -Kristie B.
A: It is not unusual for gifted students to have very strong reactions to perceived “failures” such as a disappointing grade. Many gifted students have received accolades for their exemplary performances and achievements from adults over the course of their school careers and for them, getting high grades and test scores are the norm and what they believe is expected of them. The pressure that some students may feel to reach always reach a high standard of performance can be psychologically and emotionally wearing and potentially debilitating. A couple of suggestions.
I recommend that you and your daughter read the book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck. You may have read about this topic in the popular press already. The book is an easy read and appropriate for parents, teachers and also adolescents. This will help you and your daughter understand the underlying beliefs that often are behind a fear of failure–specifically, the belief that failure means you are not as smart as you thought. The book makes the argument for acquiring a growth mindset, one that views “failure” as a valuable learning experience. Dweck discusses some of the messages that adults can inadvertently and with the best of intentions, give to children that can undermine their self-confidence and their willingness to take intellectual risks and pursue challenging courses.
Another good resource is the book, Letting Go of Perfect. Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids, by Jill Adelson and Hope Wilson. This book is available from Prufrock Press. Another great book is Peak Performance for Smart Kids. 7 Habits of Top Performers, by Maureen Neihart, also available from Prufrock Press. This book focuses on helping kids acquire mental habits and performance strategies to cope with stress, anxiety and challenge. Neihart suggests actively coaching gifted students to learn relaxation strategies, to set appropriate goals, to deal with negative emotions, and acquire optimistic and hopeful attitudes and perspectives.
I would also suggest talking to your daughter and reassuring her that less than perfect performance is acceptable to you. Emphasize that you would rather see her opt for challenging courses and assignments and earn lower grades than take easy courses and get high grades. Tell her that you are more concerned with the effort she expends than the outcome. When she does experience a disappointing grade, ask her how much she learned, whether she gave it her best effort, and what she might do differently in the future. You might want to talk to her about times in your or her life when effort and persistence paid off or times when you were less than successful but learned a great deal. Many students are helped by reading biographies or autobiographies about gifted individuals. These illustrate that most eminent and gifted individuals had as many so called “failures” and “set-backs” as successes, and that their most distinguishing characteristic was their perseverance.
As adults, we know that motivation, persistence, resilience, and positive coping strategies are just as or more important to success and happiness than high grades, test scores or other achievements. We must place as much importance on helping our children develop these as we do on finding the right school or program for them.
Do you have your own question for Paula? Let us know in the comments section below, or on Facebook, and watch this space next month for Paula’s replies!